Poland is a country stuck between two worlds. Visibly affected by a century of conflict, yet also a fully-functional country on 21st-century Earth, it’s a place where glittering skyscrapers and Hashtag-Brands butt up against Soviet mass housing projects and ancient agricultural infrastructure. There’s a cold pragmatism to Poland that clearly gets things done, but maybe not in the most user-friendly way possible. And strangely enough, that’s also visible in its e-sports.
I went to the world championships of World of Tanks in Warsaw at the start of the month, and despite going in skeptical of e-sports in general, I found watching the games to be highly entertaining, enhanced by an electric stadium atmosphere. But I also found that those entertaining matches were marred by problems with personality and tone, and as such I found it hard to fully get into the tournament as an event.
Look: I’m totally not the target demographic for World of Tanks. It appeals to a very specific brand of nerdery: the cross-section of military hardware enthusiasm and competitive online gaming. That’s why it’s so popular in Europe and Russia, which obviously have historical connections to tank warfare. I’m into gaming, obviously, and even dabble in competitive gaming, but I find it difficult to connect with vehicular games, especially those involving something as physically alienating as tanks. I went into the tournament thinking the game was overly slow, ponderous, and niche. That said, after watching two days of professional competition, I not only warmed to World of Tanks - I actually think it’s a terrific e-sport.
There’s a capture mechanic in the mode used in professional World of Tanks play, but it rarely comes into play. When it does, it’s almost disappointing – more often, matches are won simply by blowing the other team to smithereens. My initial skepticism at the game’s pacing proved correct, but the slower, tanky pace is actually a boon for spectators. Watching World of Tanks is like watching a tactical shooter in slow motion. Less impenetrable than other e-sports like Dota 2, and shorn of the twitchy reactions of Counter-Strike or Team Fortress 2, the teamwork and tactics come to the fore. It’s thrilling to witness teams coordinating pincer movements, jinking up and down hills to avoid detection, or pull off daring Hail Mary manoeuvres.
Wargaming went to great lengths to make the game accessible to spectators. The stage was festooned with giant LED panels bearing identifiers, live statistics, and more, and custom graphics had been set up on the streaming screen to communicate what was going on clearer than the complex in-game UI did. I, as a filthy casul [sic], could follow the game as well as anybody.
Though the first day of the championships was marked by a dearth of attendees and a muted atmosphere, the second day - on which the marquee matches took place, and which took place on a Saturday - sported the kind of in-arena electricity you hope for in e-sports events. Noise-makers popped, electronic LED wristbands rippled in red and blue, commentators hyped up the crowd, and the arena literally heated up. It helped that the matches themselves escalated in suspense and excitement. The final - which rematched last year’s finalists Hellraisers and Natus Vincere - was the kind of incredible game that makes sports bars erupt with noise, and Torwar Hall did much the same thing. And reaching a 6-6 tie in a first-to-seven final, with wins alternating between teams, was only the beginning.
A great thing about video games - and as it turns out, e-sports as well - is their capacity, through mechanics intentional and otherwise, for generating weird, memorable, and irreproducible scenarios. That’s exactly what happened in the very final match of the tournament: just as the players had been whittled down to three, with Hellraisers on the way to a win, Hellraisers player Applewow’s tank got stuck on the side of a cliff, unable to manoeuvre or escape. It then became a game of cat and mouse between the other two players, after which point Na’Vi essentially won by default, with Applewow unable to retaliate. It was a great example of physics quirks providing a second meta-layer of entertainment beyond the gameplay itself.
But as much fun as the games were to spectate, the Grand Finals were marred by a pretty substantial image problem. Leading up to the championships, all signs pointed towards this multimillion-dollar event being suitably explosive for something that revolves around tanks. But despite the thundering, unbalanced bass, the dazzling red and blue lighting effects, and the intense caster commentary, the tone of the tournament often resembled awkward school presentations more than professional performance. These problems seriously impacted the competition’s credibility, and could easily be fixed.
It started with the teams. Mostly made up of pasty youths (some even under 18, which made the after-party’s age-restricted nature something of a mockery), the competitors were introduced with videos mostly comprised of slow-motion shots of team members crossing and uncrossing their arms. Their attempts at badassery were undercut by, in many cases, looking about twelve years old, or simply lacking the charisma to fill the limelight into which they were thrust. It was a great tournament for awkward screen personas, and a terrible one for memorable personalities.
I don’t need e-sports to imitate pro wrestling or anything like that. But the push to appear professional and serious inevitably ends up in unintentional hilarity. A killer team name doesn’t really give the team any personality when they’re unable to express themselves outside of rote “we’ve been training really hard” platitudes. One kid played in a funny green hat; that one piece of identity instantly made him the most watchable player in the competition. But even then, there was little sense of who the players were; how their team dynamic or personalities were reflected in their play style. I want to know who was World of Tanks’ Michael Jordan; its Babe Ruth; its Pele. Hell, I’d even settle for an O.J. Simpson.
The awkwardness was only exacerbated by the phalanx of miniskirted and apparently undirected women posed at the rear of the stage, performing the role of nothing more than completely static stage scenery. In a tournament where every team member and every commentator bar one was male, the only women on stage were purely there as eye candy, serving no actual function in the proceedings. Onstage, they literally stood still while announcements were made; offstage, they were shuffled into a somewhat creepy photo shoot where fans (all men) could get their picture taken with them. Granted, World of Tanks could well be the most male-oriented e-sport there is, but it’s still conspicuously retrograde. In a post-Microsoft-at-GDC world, it clangs. It makes the event seem juvenile, rather than professional.
It’s not even just a problem of sexism. Wargaming CEO Victor Kislyi told me the event was all about “putting on a show,” before reeling off a host of excuses for what is really only the latest instance of his company using women as stage props. But even taking his explanation at his word, in show business, all the sound and lights in the world don’t matter worth a damn if the personalities aren’t there on stage. Wargaming went for the grandiose and expensive, rather than the compelling. People are compelling. Even though it’s a gaming event, we’re there to see people playing those games - not mindless drones, and certainly not stage-fillers who might as well have been cardboard cutouts.
E-sports is an entertainment medium above all else. It’s a spectator sport, and one with great potential. But if Wargaming wants World of Tanks to break out of its core European and Asian fan base, it’s going to have to move away from the self-aggrandising and embrace the quirk that seems desperate to bust out from captivity.
Andrew attended the World of Tanks Grand Finals courtesy of Wargaming.