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WarCraft III: From Pastime to the World of eSports

2008/12/29

BlizzCon 2008 proved to be the most enthusiastic convention Blizzard Entertainment has presented to date, showcasing new materials from three of its landmark games—StarCraft, Diablo, and World of WarCraft—that have established the company as a force to be reckoned with both in the gaming industry and culture. The success of Blizzard’s original creations is evidenced when fans jam-packed the Anaheim Convention’s halls to witness their favorite games be played out by professional players, people who have excelled at them to the point that they have made careers out of playing those games. For many people, seeing the prestige associated with this contest of computer gaming skill, known as eSports, for the first time can be quite mind-boggling. One may be inundated by the flashing lights, large screens, cameras, and rocking sound from all around, thus assuming that the source of the eSport attraction is the now household name World of Warcraft, better known as WoW. Though that ever popular game has its share of competitive players and spectators, Warcraft III (WC3) is the strategy game that has been rocking the competitive gaming scene for years before 11 billion people rolled their first characters in Blizzard’s virtual second life. Clearly, the gaming experience no longer consists of an isolated experience between the player and the game, and eSports is proof of that. In today’s era, online connectivity has revolutionized the gaming experience: many games nowadays can have real life consequences. In examining the computer game itself, one can better understand how the personal experience of WC3 shifted to one beyond the game in the culture of electronic sports.

WarCraft III: Reign of Chaos takes place in the world of Azeroth. Released on July 3, 2002, Reign of Chaos is the third installment to the expansive Warcraft universe. Following WarCraft: Orcs & Humans, WC3’s storyline is one of Blizzard’s most ambitious yet: valorous heroes unite to combat the colossal evil, the Burning Legion. Portraying the rise and fall of heroes and villains, this epic weaves tales of domination, corruption, betrayal, sacrifice, love, and redemption. This game not only set in motion the RPG adventures that would continue on in Blizzard’s next success story, The World of Warcraft, but was the first to captivate the imaginations of many gamers.

Divided into five acts, each campaign tells the story from the point of view of the Orcish horde, the Human Alliance, the Undead Scourge, and the Night Elf Sentinels. In doing so, WC3 relies on the RPG element of storytelling to deliver the RTS experience in the single player mode. Each campaign consists of a continuous series of quests that develop the plot, as well as optional side quests that can be found in hidden areas, which give players some leeway to veer away from the main objective. As a game of progression, gamers must complete the overall objective in each level before advancing to the next stage; however, the variety of units that are available to players allow them to complete the objectives using different combinations of units each time. In utilizing the new 3D engine, WC3’s exposition and plot developments are told entirely through cutscenes and cinematics, which culminate into an impressive overarching storyline.

By playing through the campaigns, players learn the strengths and weaknesses of each race. Orcs have the most offensive units in the entire game, but they are also the slowest. The phrase “jack of all trades, master of none” fittingly describes the humans; they are known for being the most well-rounded race as they have capable offense and defense. Undead appears to be the strongest race in terms of its offensive and defensive capabilities, but they are limited to building and expanding upon blight. Night Elves rely heavily on their units to deal damage even though they are fairly fragile. As players gain more experience in playing each race, they will also gain more in-depth knowledge of the abilities of each unit. Understanding each race’s strengths and weaknesses is paramount to achieving victory in every mission.

Spearheading the actions of every army are the Hero units. Bringing dynamics into the game, heroes are summoned from the altar and gain experience points from killing creeps located around the map, a tactic known as “creeping.” They can be equipped with spells and items that can boost their own stats, as well as items that can be used in the heat of battle. In multiplayer modes, the ability to choose the correct spells and items to arm the heroes with contribute to the success of every battle. The release of the expansion pack, WarCaft III: The Frozen Throne, introduced neutral units that could be hired from taverns, thus adding to the number of heroes players can choose from. The relationship between the commanders and the battalions emphasizes on the importance of utilizing the most effective combination of units to execute specific tactics and strategies.

Although managing the economy plays a crucial part to the game, the mechanics of WC3 seem to encourage players to focus more on their micromanagement than on their macro. The combination of the lowered food count and upkeep system keeps armies smaller than those in StarCraft, which, once again, plays upon the importance of players’ abilities to care for their units. Also the option to utilize custom keys, the implementation of squad formations, and the ability to exploit the terrain for advantages give players more control over their miniature brigades.

WC3 became one of the most accomplished video games with Reign of Chaos and The Frozen Throne. The memorable storyline and illustrious cast of characters certainly contribute to the popularity of the game. In addition to the gameplay, aesthetics such as the majestic score, sound effects, the not infrequent humorous sound bytes of the units, and the stylized graphics create an immersive campaign experience that fully captures the player. Yet, a large portion of the game’s success is due to its competitive aspects.

The Custom Game option built into the single player mode adds replay value to the entire game. Strategies adopted by the designers to implement player-organized criticality in the game are most evident here. Through a number of choices, players can tailor custom games to their preferences: they can choose from a variety of innate or downloaded maps to play on, they can set the number of A.I. that will play in the game, the computer’s difficulty level can be set accordingly, players can choose which race to play with and which to play against, and there is the option to choose what colors their armies will don. Saving and watching replays do not only have entertainment value, but can also serve to help gamers learn from their mistakes and further hone their own strategies.

When playing against the computer A.I. no longer satisfies gamers, they could log onto Battle.net, Blizzard’s free multiplayer network, to contend against live players; in doing so, a plethora of emergence play elements can be seen in WC3’s multiplayer mode. Through an anonymous matchmaking system, gamers can play solo, team, arranged team, and free-for-all matches, all of which are skirmish templates forged by StarCraft. With every win, players earn experience points and gain levels, as hero units do. In accumulating enough wins, they can also choose different icons to be associated with their online names; this serves as an achievement not unlike those unlocked in Xbox 360 games, which gives players a sense of recognition and ownership in the online world. Furthermore, to add to the recognition and ownership aspects of the gameplay, player profiles detail the stats of their online games. Blizzard also provides regularly scheduled ladders year-round in which top regional players get invited to compete in the invitational ladder. With the World Editor, the modding community has created a host of custom maps for people to play online, such as my all-time favorite, Tower Defense, and Defense of the Ancients (DOTA), which is now an eSports game in many tournaments worldwide. The ways to enjoy the game seem boundless: if the game does not inspire one to contribute to the community via modding or hosting tournaments, then one can simply enjoy playing the various aspects of game. Talk about replay value.

One of the reasons why WC3 has a longstanding history in the casual and professional gaming worlds is due to Blizzard’s continual dedication and support of the game. Through patches, updates, bug fixes, the release of new content, cheat detection, and banning accounts that use hacks, Blizzard’s system support can be said to be pretty impressive. Games that do not function properly and do no have substantial system support after their releases will flop. For that, we can simply look to Flagship Studios’ MMORPG Hellgate: London, a once highly anticipated game that was released on October 2007 and will be completely shut down by January 31, 2009. By providing a clean and functional gaming environment that is mostly free of bugs and hacks, people can enjoy the game frustration-free. Blizzard’s system support accounts for WC3’s lifespan, which is now six years plus and counting.

In fostering a competitive environment within the game and through Battle.net, in addition to continually assuring the functionality of the game, Blizzard effectively sowed the seeds that would enable WC3 to become one of the mainstay games in electronic sports.

Inevitably, people with higher skill levels will search for better challenges: playing in dedicated clans/teams and participating in tournaments offer experiences and thrills quite unlike those in casual gaming. In 2004, I had the opportunity to compete in the Cyberathlete Amateur League with my clan for Counter-Strike 1.6. I found it to be an environment that is conducive to more serious players: people can practice and coordinate strategies, get constructive criticism and feedback on their own skills, play with other skilled gamers, and play in an environment that is mostly free from hackers and their ilk. Whether the game is CS or WC3, the attractions to playing in more “serious” environments are undeniable. GG Client (GGC), International Cyber Cup (iCCup), and offline LAN tournaments offer several ways for people to play and compete. Those who are the cream of the crop can sign contracts with prominent gaming teams such as mousesports, FNATIC, nGize, and MeetYourMakers, among many others. Professional gamers can attend various events such as the Electronic Sports World Cup, Electronic Sports League, and World Cyber Games. Blizzard itself hosts the Blizzard Worldwide Invitational and BlizzCon tournaments. Where there are players and a fan base, there will also be commercialism through organizations and sponsorships to support tournaments, pro-players, teams and other events. All in all, there are many attractions and reasons why some would prefer to go beyond playing the game casually.

Where there are players, there will also be an audience. WC3 has spectator appeal, a quality that makes it a solid eSports title. Watching a 1v1 game is not particularly difficult to comprehend—for newbie spectators, the scenario can be reduced to good-guy-versus-bad-guy. But with the help of professional commentators and shoutcasters in today’s age of eSports, the audience can understand more of what is going on in a game. Like other eSports titles, balance contributes not only to the game’s functionality, but also to the spectators’ enjoyment. Essentially, balance allows for an arsenal of strategies for players to choose from and still provide room for player creativity and innovation—there is always a counter-strategy to a strategy one way or another. In this sense, rare is the game that does not generate excitement among the audience. Add to that the fact that games can generally last between 15 to 30 minutes, then WC3 becomes an appealing and convenient game for people to watch.

WC3 would not have the momentum that it does today as an eSport without its massive community. With community come hubs of communication between developers, enthusiasts, casual, amateurs, and professional players alike. Developers can keep in touch with the community, which is extremely important when it comes to electronic sports. Forums such as those provided by WCReplays.com and GosuGamers.net provide a place for enthusiasts to come together and share their passions for a common game. People can discuss news regarding professional players, teams, and broadcasted games; they are also places where people can listen to audio commentaries and shoutcasts, place bets on games, craft strategies and tactics, join clans and recruit members, organize tournaments, or just socialize. Electronic sports gaming team sites, such as MeetYourMakers and SK Gaming, offer fast and up-to-date information on insider news, tournament coverage, and general scene news. A number of sites like Replays.net allow users to download VODs, while others like Garena TV, Waaagh!TV, and GOMTV provide live streaming for tournaments and events. These various forums and sites perpetuate WC3’s longevity as a video game and as an eSport worldwide. People can not only come together and share their own experiences with playing the game, but also take part in the culture of WC3 as an eSport, as some do with basketball and football. So long as the community exists, the game’s lifespan should not die out.

In the past several months, the issue of whether or not WC3 is leaning on its last leg as an eSports game has been hotly debated. Much of the debate occurred after a string of prominent teams began to “restructure” their rosters due to sponsor issues and withdraw from participating in team leagues. The Dutch-based electronic sports organization known as Serious Gaming announced in November that it will no longer participate in any team leagues. Team Manager Zerter explains, “We will not disband but focus solely on the solo results of our players.” As if following Serious Gaming’s lead, the team mTw.AMD also decided to withdraw from team leagues and “focus on solo events in the future.” Such news reports among others spurred the question of the end of WC3 teams.

Yet, the year 2008 marked a new era for WC3 in the world of electronic sports. Popular pro-players achieved megastar statuses, such as the Human player, Sky, from World Elite, MeetYourMaker’s Night elf player, Moon, and its Orc player, Grubby. The prize pools for tournaments in general have grown incredibly and pro-players’ earnings have been steadily increasing. SK Gaming’s Korean Orc player, Lyn, has earned over $100,000 this year (Reis). The fan bases for pro-players and eSports games also appear to have grown: unlike the BlizzCon tournaments for WarCraft III and StarCraft in 2007, the RTS tournament area was actually crowded this year throughout the event, proving that the surge of Blizzard’s popularity is not completely due to WoW. The interest in WC3 as an eSport may also be starting to move towards the mainstream. Beyond the Game (2008) is a documentary that explores the world of professional cyber games as well as the lives of several distinguished professional WC3 players. Produced by award winning director Jos de Putter, the film made its world premier at the International Documentary Film festival in Amsterdam last November. The fact that a documentary was made on such subjects demonstrates a curiosity and a degree of acceptance of the culture from others beyond the gaming world itself.

The spirit of competition is innate in the game, whether gamers play against the A.I. or with one another, or enjoy watching others play. WC3’s original storyline captured the imaginations of many people, paving the way for the now world renown phenomenon known as The World of Warcraft. Blizzard’s continual dedication to WC3 from the moment of its inception allowed it to revolutionize the gaming culture. The community and fan base has only grown since the game’s release. Tournaments and events now exist for players with skills ranging from casual to professional levels and the traditions of eSports continue to develop. Whether or not the trends of downsizing teams, sponsor issues, or the coming of StarCraft 2 will negatively impact WC3’s future is still yet to be seen. However, I have no doubt that the game will continue to evolve as an electronic sport in spite of the recent changes in the world of Warcraft (not that one). Where there is money, community, and love for the game, there is much that is still possible. And if the general trend of gaming moving towards the mainstream continues, there is a hopeful chance that WC3 as a game, as an eSport, and as a culture will continue to evolve.

© Stephanie Wong 2008

Bibliography

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