For the competitive side of World of Warcraft, one of the longest running and most successful online role-playing and community-driven experiences in the videogame history, translating that to something engaging for esports audiences draws directly on connection.
“World of Warcraft is incredibly a special game. There are relationships and marriages and families built through WoW,” Jeramy McIntyre, Product Manager, World of Warcraft Esport tells me. “It inherently triggers passion in the people that have played and the people that have dedicated their lives. One of the charges that I've humbly accepted by taking this role is to acknowledge those individuals that have dedicated their blood, their sweat, their tears to be at that top-level. It's our job to tell their stories and make sure that other people can see how truly amazing these players are, the level of skill that they have, and what they bring to these competitions.”
“These players are human, so let's talk about their stories,” Jeramy continues. “What was the last time they were in this Arena facing this team? In traditional sports, that's where the true narrative comes and that's where the true story happens.” World of Warcraft Arena, the team-based competitive side to WoW is currently in its eleventh year - and showing no signs of slowing down. In recent years there have been some major milestones that have seen the popularity and presence of the World of Warcraft Arena World Championship grow. Just this past weekend, Sydney held the Asia-Pacific Regional Finals and saw world-class competitive play from various teams within the region – including Australia. Which is all part of a larger picture. “One of the biggest things that I think we're missing within the regions is the idea of there's this consistent opportunity for the players to demonstrate skill,” Jeramy adds. “That consistently increases player skill over time, as we bring more competition at more regular intervals, the people are practising more. The level of play increases. And that’s what's happening this year in the APAC region.”
From a pure mechanics perspective, over the years the initial 5v5 Arena setup gradually changed to the more robust 3v3. But, by focusing on the stories being told, on adding that feeling of narrative to competition – this has also led to several fundamental shifts in the way WoW Arena is broadcast and presented to viewers. “We took a philosophical stance of trying to only populate the most important information at the top,” Jeramy explains. “So, with Arena’s current UI there is less clutter. We tried to scale everything down to just the major cool-downs, because that's really the subtle narrative that occurs within an Arena match.” An approach that isn’t uncommon in esports, to present just the key information, but still leads to the question of a perceived barrier for entry - from regular WoW players unaware of Arena to those that might be unfamiliar with how competitive Warcraft might work.
“I think that the industry as a whole is tackling this burden,” Jeramy responds. “Being able to bring this digital medium to a mass audience, an audience that is larger than the actual players of those communities. I think that’s one of the biggest hurdles that people are continually tackling and investing in ways to improve. Being able to leverage whatever we are visually displaying on the screen to help build stories and narrative and making sure that we're trying to highlight the key moments in the game.”
On the presentation side of things, thanks to the full-3D visuals found in World of Warcraft, utilising the observer to become a cinematic director of sorts – is also something that Jeramy feels bring the esports side more in line with the cinematically rich in-game story content. “As an observer, you are effectively a jib operator,” Jeramy explains. “You can move in a 3D space, you can zoom in, you can zoom out, you can show any angle you want. So for us it's using a lot of those kinds of cinematic philosophies, which is, stuff like you should be moving ten times slower than you think you need to be. And really, really trying to pan and, and keep things in the frame.”
One of the most interesting developments in WoW esports in recent years has been the arrival of the MDI – or Mythic Dungeon Invitational, where players essentially compete to complete dungeons in record time. “Diversity is inherent to what WoW is as a game that we [on the] esports side saw as a challenge. Because no matter what you're going ostracise some of your player base because not everyone plays the game the same way,” Jeramy adds. “When we sat down a few years ago and thought, ‘Okay, what if we tried to diversify the WoW esports portfolio, what would it look like?’ For us, we really wanted to try to rally around one of the game features that had a lot of traction within the player base. Dungeons are something you do from a very low level in World of Warcraft, and you continue to complete dungeons throughout the game and with every new expansion, there's new ones. They’re a core component to World of Warcraft.”
The core concept behind the Mythic Dungeon Invitational is quite unlike anything one would normally associate with competitive esports, a phenomenon more akin to the world of speed-runs, where players with exceptional skill draw audiences based on how fast they can complete a game or level. “Games Done Quick was probably the closest organisation that had this digital-race kind of phenomenon. But even those, they weren't heads up. It wasn't best to two, three or any kind of tournament format,” Jeramy explains. “We consciously began to create content around dungeons and tried to learn how to display a race, tell that story and what information to display. Over the last couple of years, every time we've done something for MDI, we’re changing or tweaking the interface or how we're telling the story or a better way of showing the objectives.”
For the team at Blizzard the Mythic Dungeon Invitational was created in part to create something more for the World of Warcraft community, something that they might find a direct connection with their own personal experiences playing the game. “We totally saw that there was potential,” Jeramy continues. “One of the things that we are trying to get better at is trying to make it scalable and to allow it to actually be easier to run. Right now, it's so new and no one's done it before. There's a lot of heavy lifting that goes into making the MDI happen and so as we continue to grow the programme, we're really trying to tackle everything from scalability to watch-ability. How do we do enable cross-region to play, which is something we can do with dungeons that you can't do with PVP because of input lag and server latency.”
With the recent release of Battle for Azeroth, the seventh expansion that introduces new locations, classes, quests, and more to the experience – this also feeds into the competitive side. And speaks to the fact that players are almost required to adapt and grow and evolve alongside the game. “Since WoW is a game that is continually updated, adaptability is a huge and key component to what I think makes players professional,” Jeramy says. “Recently we’ve embraced the fact that WoW is a game that changes. A new expansion also dramatically changes the meta. At the North American and European tournaments that we held online recently, there was a very interesting meta that was kind of forming between some of the trinkets that were made for PvP tanks that had a huge impact on how that tournament played out. A few days later, we actually ended up hot fixing those to kind of bring them in line.”
For a game with a vast a scope as WoW, with a seemingly infinite number of class, item, and skill variations – not to mention team compositions – Blizzard is aware of the fact that balancing is a process that continues alongside competition. “Stuff like that is always going to happen after an expansion [release],” Jeramy confirms. “The game is so robust and so deep that even though we could spend hundreds and hundreds of hours testing, when you still put the game in the hands of players who dedicate so much time and who are the very, very best at the game - they will always find those unique and strange things. But that's also good because that helps us make sure that we are shaping the game, how we want it and how the rest of the players in the entire ecosystem engage with it.”
“We are very integrated with the design team of Team 2,” Jeramy adds. “So for Arena, the lead designer for PvP and class design, they’re in a weekly meeting with us where we talk about how things are going, what hot fixes have come through, what's coming up on the next patch. They have a hand in how we design our programmes and what we're trying to accomplish in the years to come. It's a very integrative and collaborative environment.”
This article is Proudly Sponsored by McDonalds, the Official Sponsor of WOW Arena in Australia.