Rez, plz - The role of MMOs in esports

Courtesy Blizzard

Just because a game is competitive and popular doesn't mean that it makes a good esport. Look at massively multiplayer online role-playing games. MMORPGs thrive on multiplayer -- it's right there in the name -- and financially, they're a multibillion-dollar industry. Yet as far as esports are concerned, MMORPGs are little more than a footnote. They might be fun to play, but they're not always fun to watch.

That's a problem. After all, an esport lives and dies by its viewers. According to a study published by SuperData Research, about 80 percent of esports earnings come from advertisements, sponsorships and ticket sales. If a game doesn't appeal to spectators, the audience will tune out. If nobody is watching, nobody gets paid.

MMORPGs' lack of esports success doesn't come from a lack of trying. Take World of Warcraft, for example. Blizzard Entertainment has a great record with esports -- it publishes StarCraft II, Hearthstone, and Heroes of the Storm -- but its attempts to turn its MMO juggernaut into an esports contender have fallen flat time and time again.

The old vanguard

See, World of Warcraft was designed as a cooperative game, not a competitive one. WoW debuted in 2004, but Blizzard didn't add player-versus-player arenas to the game until 2007. At first, arena matches were extremely popular with both viewers and competitors, and World of Warcraft tournaments sprung up all over the world.

It didn't last. Blizzard's developers ran into problems balancing the player-versus-player combat, alienating non-competitive Warcraft players, while making competitions feel unfair. In 2010, the biggest third-party tournament organizer, Major League Gaming, dropped World of Warcraft from its lineup, citing issues with the game's spectating software.

That's not to say that there isn't an audience for competitive World of Warcraft. On Twitch, thousands of viewers tune in to watch players like Jackson "Bajheera" Bliton, winner of Blizzard's 2014 Best World of Warcraft PvP Streamer award. Currently, Bliton has over 250,000 followers and close to 18 million views, most of which came from broadcasting Warcraft's player-versus-player content.

World of Warcraft is a popular game on Twitch, but it only gets a small fraction of the viewers who watch esports-friendly titles like League of Legends and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. Bliton offered some thoughts on why.

For one, players who watch World of Warcraft streams aren't necessarily interested in the matches themselves; instead, they want to see how high-level players operate in order to improve their own games.

In addition, Bliton says, World of Warcraft's cooperation-first game design, which splits characters into a "holy trinity" of classes (tank, healer and DPS), "can be too complicated for someone who is unfamiliar with the game to fully understand." Most esports have a team-based element, but in World of Warcraft, inter-team dynamics are so important that it can be hard to follow the action. There's also an issue with Warcraft's user interface. According to Bliton, World of Warcraft characters' health bars go up and down so quickly that it's difficult for the average viewer to tell if a particular play is important, making it challenging to identify which side is actually winning.

Blizzard still holds an annual arena competition with a $250,000 prize pool, but otherwise, arena's days as a viable esports competition seem pretty much over. The company knows it, too. In 2009, World of Warcraft lead designer Rob Pardo called arenas World of Warcraft's "biggest mistake." Recently, CEO Mike Morhaime reaffirmed Blizzard's commitment to esports, yet didn't list World of Warcraft among the company's esports-friendly games.

The failure of the biggest and most famous MMORPG to gain traction in the esports scene makes things difficult for other MMO developers. If a game with World of Warcraft's reputation can't cut it, what hope do other games have?

The new challengers

Korean publisher NCSoft is eager to find out. While NCSoft's Blade and Soul came out in Korea in 2012, it didn't arrive on Western shores until last month. Since then, it's racked up over two million players in North America and Europe, thanks primarily to its esports-ready player-versus-player combat.

Last fall, NCSoft held a successful $35,000 Blade and Soul tournament in Korea; this year, the company will invite competitors from Europe and North America to participate as well. In the meantime, Western Blade and Soul players are hosting community tournaments in order to keep their skills sharp. So far, the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

According to NCSoft brand manager Julianne Harty, there's a good reason why Blade and Soul is succeeding where other MMORPGs have failed. "Any sport-related activity needs to be easy to pick up but difficult to master, and your proficiency in the sport should not be reliant upon the type of equipment that you use," she saidl. In most MMORPGs, combat is driven by gear and statistics. In Blade and Soul, it's reflex and strategy-based, more like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat than a traditional role-playing game.

"This means that being competitive [in Blade and Soul] requires skill and knowledge," Harty said. "It becomes entirely about the player themselves rather than the choice of class or the equipment of the character." Statistically, every player has an equal chance at winning, meaning that competitions come down to talent alone. That's less mechanical, and far more exciting.

ArenaNet, the company behind Guild Wars 2, has a similar philosophy. Guild Wars 2 associate game director John Corpening said, "When we set out to bring Guild Wars 2 into [esports], we decided to focus first on making it a sport. It had to be something where player skill made a difference."

Like Blade and Soul, Guild Wars 2 equalizes players' stats. Equipment doesn't give competitors advantages, and every class is self-reliant. Character builds are extremely flexible, allowing players to customize their characters to their own play styles, but Guild Wars' combat is fairly simple. Many MMORPGs load characters down with skills and abilities. In Guild Wars 2, players only have a few options. That makes PvP less about memorization, and more about using skills correctly.

In some ways, Guild Wars 2's PvP is even more accessible than Blade and Soul. In Blade and Soul, players won't have all the skills they need to be real contenders until they reach the highest levels of the player-versus-environment game. In Guild Wars 2, everything a player needs for PvP is unlocked from the very beginning. Simply download the Guild Wars 2 client, log in with a free account, and you're ready to play.

All of these features were present when Guild Wars 2 launched in 2012, and unlike World of Warcraft, Guild Wars 2's esports fandom grew organically. For the first two years of the game's lifespan, Guild Wars 2's competitive scene was made up entirely of community-run tournaments, complete with fan-funded prize pools.

As a result, there was already a fandom in place when ArenaNet started promoting Guild Wars 2 as an esports title. That patience has paid off.

Since ArenaNet started hosting official tournaments, the number of people playing competitive Guild Wars 2 has more than doubled, and PvP is currently the game's fastest-growing segment. The launch of ArenaNet and ESL's Guild Wars 2 Pro League (a quarterly competition with a $100,000 prize pool) should accelerate that expansion. During the Pro League's first season, which ended in late February, players spent twice as much time as in PvP combat. Season 2 just started, and so far, the amount of time that players are spending in the game is at an all-time high.

It helps that both Blade and Soul and Guild Wars 2 are easy to watch. In Guild Wars 2, the low number of skills and the equalized statistics keep things simple for viewers. In Blade and Soul, the user interface actually tells the match's entire story. "Many of the skills and animations are visually exciting," Harty said. "You can see a character knock down another, climb atop their prone body and smash their face with a handful of punches before jumping off." Blade and Soul's PvP matches unfold like a 1970s kung-fu flick, and viewers don't need to know much about Blade and Soul to know that when an attack hurts.

Rez, plz

World of Warcraft isn't done just yet, however. Olivia Grace, World of Warcraft's esports manager, acknowledges that Warcraft and its ilk haven't always handled spectating well, but promises that things are getting better.

"We're constantly looking at ways to make arena easier to follow and more fun to watch," Grace says. "We've shifted slightly away from the green-versus-gold team colors, which didn't broadcast too well, and added indicators underneath the characters' feet to show which team they're part of."

In addition, World of Warcraft's last expansion added "Spectated Wargames," which made broadcasting arena matches easier for third-party organizers. Previously, accounts needed a special setting to watch matches, and tournaments were held on special servers. Now, anyone can set up their own games on the fly, and can "film" the action using a special in-game camera.

Despite the history, Blizzard still stands by arenas, but it's also looking into alternatives, too.

"One big opportunity for us is to expand World of Warcraft esports to include some of the other activities the game offers," Grace says. "In 2015, we started experimenting with some different kinds of competition in partnership with some third-party tournament organizers."

A few weeks ago, Blizzard broadcast a series of timed races, in which teams of players from the United States and Europe went head-to-head in a sprint through in-game dungeons. It was a different type of competition for Blizzard, and one that was substantially more accessible than traditional arena contests. The races embraced the team-based dungeon-crawling that made World of Warcraft famous, and yet didn't require any special knowledge to understand. A race is a race. It's easy to tell who's winning, and who's falling behind.

Dungeon races might not make it into World of Warcraft's next expansion. "There's a lot in Azeroth that could form the basis of a fun esport," Grace says. "The tricky part is figuring out which to focus our energy on first."

Still, the experiment represents a new and encouraging attitude from Blizzard: Instead of bolting on features to make Warcraft more like existing esports, developers are figuring out what the game already does well, and then building an esport out of that.

That approach is paying off for NCSoft and ArenaNet, and there's no reason to think that it won't work for Blizzard and World of Warcraft as well -- as long as esports viewers give World of Warcraft a chance. Ultimately, Blizzard's biggest hurdle might not be a design problem, but a public relations one: esports need viewers, and with competition like Blade and Soul and Guild Wars 2, World of Warcraft can't afford to alienate fans again.