World of Warcraft is broken as an esport—but Blizzard can still fix it
As an esport, World of Warcraft is the worst. Don’t get me wrong, the game itself, in its massive totality, is extremely enjoyable. The various competitive modes—ranging from large-scale battles to small, squad-base skirmishes—are fun as well. But in order to enjoy watching it as an esport, viewers have to understand every detail about the game. For many, that just isn’t possible.
People can watch other esports and easily figure out which team is in the lead—this team took over a bombsite, that one killed more players, this one has a much bigger army. And then, as the viewer learns more about the game, they can begin to appreciate the finer details: creep control, pop flashes, baits, trades.
Watching Arena almost always turns into staring at health bars.
World of Warcraft, however, differs quite a bit. The basic pro competitive mode is simply called Arena, and features a three-on-three match between opposing teams in a relatively tiny battlefield. Because the game has 11 classes for players to choose from, and because each class has several dozen abilities, there’s an infinite number of things going on throughout a given match. Just imagine if a football team had several thousand plays to choose from.
Esports coverage, then, focuses on the few things that are clear. In WoW Arena, there are two set rules. When you run out of health, you die, and if your team has a member die first, you almost always lose. This causes coverage to almost exclusively focus on the health pool of the six players. Take a look for yourself.
The action on the screen is a mess of graphics and bloom effects. Indecipherable icons litter the sides of the screen, and occasional casting bars show up to indicate that a spell is being cast. But the only way to really track the game’s progress is in the six large bars bordering the action. The only thing that seems to matter in the game is whether a player dies or not. As such, watching Arena almost always turns into staring at health bars.
Sometimes, there’s moments that add drama, like when a player almost dies and gets saved. But it takes an awful lot of understanding to really know that the drama even exists. A Frost Mage, for example, may get low on health, but players in the know are aware that such a player has two “ice blocks” available in every match, which grants full immunity for a period of time.
WoW esports also has another problem. While many people play the game, only a small subset compete in the Arena. Some don’t even participate in any competitive modes, instead focusing on raiding dungeons and completing quests. Because these players don’t know the intricacies of playing Arena first-hand, even they have problems following—or even caring—about the game as an esport.
What makes a good esport? What makes it fun to watch? I’d argue that key components of a successful esport are high level of skill, teamwork, and moments of success. It is more than just the victory—more than just killing every player on the other team. Was a tower crushed? Bombsite taken? Object stolen? These small pieces draw viewers into the game and build onto themselves until the viewer can see the big picture.
WoW Arena is lacking in all those small details. Really, it’s just a highly skilled team deathmatch. And unfortunately, the skill in WoW is practically invisible to the everyday viewer.
In order to display that skill, WoW as an esport needs more. What immediately comes to mind are all the things that successful esports have and that Arena lacks—objectives. In fact, the obvious elements it's missing are ones that are present in WoW's other competitive modes.
Take Arathi Basin’s resource nodes, for example, which could easily be converted into a smaller version for an Arena map. Strand of the Ancients has an attack and defend mechanic that could create lots of dramatic moments in a match. Eye of the Storm blends capture points and flags. There’s no reason any battleground mechanic couldn’t be converted into an a smaller game type to be featured as an esport.
When viewers watch players fight over those strategic elements, teamwork and the skill will be displayed more clearly, and it will also create more drama than health bars.
If the average player has a hard time keeping up, what chance does a random viewer have?
For fans, perhaps the most disheartening thing about all of this is that Heroes of the Storm, Blizzard’s five-on-five hero brawler, has many varied strategic objectives across its many maps. Both it and Arena are now being pushed as esports, but Heroes is much more popular. Why didn’t WoW as an esport get the same approach?
The bottom line is that without change, WoW’s Arena mode is doomed to fall behind even other Blizzard titles. And while other parts of the game, like raids and large-scale PVP, are constantly changing, Arena seems very much stuck in the past—it’s still just a deathmatch. It’s a point of embarrassment that WoW, with an 11-year history and more than 5 million active subscribers, can’t beat out brand new titles when it comes to esports.
It’s time for Blizzard to make the tough decision it's faced since first attempting to turn its flagship title into an esport. The developer needs to either give WoW an esport worthy of inclusion in the game, or give up entirely. It can't continue to be a niche game that only a subset of its player base even understands. It all comes down to creating an esport, not simply a game, and while Blizzard has shown great proficiency at both, WoW’s Arena is ultimately failing at being either.
Image via Blizzard