NCsoft-owned ArenaNet, creator of the free-to-play Guild Wars massively multiplayer online (MMO) franchise, is doubling down on eSports. Through its partnership with ESL, the game maker will host a $200,000 Guild Wars 2 World Championship on September 17 at ESL Studios in Burbank, CA.
But first up is the June 25 Guild Wars 2 Pro League Season 2 Finals, which is the culmination of seven weeks of competition with 16 teams from Europe and North America. Representing Europe in this Saturday’s event is Season 1 champions Rank Fifty Five Dragons and The Civilized Gentlemen. Astral Authority and Team PZ will represent North America in the finals. These four teams will compete for $100,000 at the ESL Studios in front of a live studio audience and on Twitch.
Joshua Davis, associate global brand manager at ArenaNet, talks to [a]listdaily about the expanding Guild Wars 2 eSports business.
What has eSports opened up for Guild Wars 2, which wasn’t created originally for competitive play?
PAX 2013 was our first foray into eSports. There was a $100,000 tournament for Guild Wars Factions back in the day before eSports took off.
We’ve had a very active competitive player base for a long time, and they’ve been asking us to scale this up. We’ve done the Cups in 2014 through ESL and then tournament standalone mini-major events. We’re constantly engaged with our player base to make sure there’s something to aspire towards. We’ve recently increased playing time for player vs. player combat, for example. ESports is interesting in that you can accomplish a lot of things with one swoop.
How has the ESL Pro League evolved?
We’ve learned so many lessons about how you treat and work with players, and how you balance the gameplay experience. It’s been nice to have ESL as a partner and a guiding light through the whole process.
The Cups we held in the past were casual tournaments with small prize pools. The World Tournament was more strict with regions and larger prize pools and more structure. But they were more sporadically placed. For competitive players, not having big beats to look forward to was detrimental. With Pro League, we were able to lay out a calendar for the entire year, so they know what to expect for competitive play.
What’s the breakdown for the World Championship?
There are eight teams per region in North America and the EU that compete for seven weeks. The top teams go to the Pro League Season Finals June 25 for Season 2.
How will the world championship work?
The world championship will be scaled down to six teams (three from North America and three from the EU) and feature the largest prize pool in Guild Wars 2 history—$200,000 for a single day event. The six teams will be decided through qualifier on August 6-7.
Why are you opting for a smaller studio instead of a large arena?
We’ll have fans inside the ESL Burbank studio. The main thing is making sure the venue scales to where you’re at. Certain games are booking Madison Square Garden, but we’re not there right now.
The one thing we gain in-studio is increased production value. We were fighting for space at Gamescom with other games at previous eSports events. Our competition will be as top quality as it can be.
Will you add more teams in the future?
There are more teams who could compete through the Challenger Series, but we’re comfortable with eight teams per region now.
How has the Twitch audience grown since Guild Wars 2 eSports was introduced?
We’re happy with our Twitch viewership. We weren’t expecting Dota 2 or League of Legends numbers. ESports is a slow growth endeavor, and it all comes down to consistency.
What’s the challenge of breaking into the eSports arena?
Ever year, new games get launched in the market and have varying degrees of success. MMOs in eSports are very rare. Blizzard has its World of Warcraft annual tournament, but there’s not a lot going on. One opportunity in eSports is presenting new genres and types of play. Clash Royale and Vainglory on mobile is another new area.
How has making Guild Wars 2 free-to-play impacted eSports?
We’ve attracted a lot of new users across the entire game. Play-for-free isn’t only about competitive gameplay; it’s about getting people to jump in regardless. We saw a huge spike initially. Player vs. player in Guild Wars 2 has a low barrier to entry. Once you join, you have all equipment and max level, and there’s no grinding for power. It works out really well.
How has eSports attracted new players to Guild Wars 2?
With MMOs, we can use the eSports initiative without worrying about the core game. We have a lot of features in Guild Wars 2, including raids, open world, a living world, and world vs. world. The Pro League lets us prioritize player vs. player. We can forget all the other elements and focus on combat. We’ve done some test campaigns around promoting player vs. player as a stand-alone game. It’s nice to talk about all these different gameplay components with players.
How has the game evolved since launch?
We work with the development team to prioritize the elements of player vs. player. Over the past six months, we’ve improved the visuals of the game to make it easier to follow combat, watch a game, and understand what’s going on. The Heart of Thorns expansion introduced the League System, an in-game progression for player vs. player that starts at Amber and goes through a Legendary division. This helped us increase the competitiveness through tangible goals. Players are taking it more seriously, and there’s been a shift to the right in skill level. On a professional level, it’s been an interesting problem balancing the game to make sure we move gameplay in the right direction, as players are always trying to one-up things. We’re constantly staying on top of things.
What are the marketing benefits of eSports?
Having tournaments adds visibility to our game. Occasionally, we’ll be on front page of Twitch. Having new fans research the game and maybe go into the game is a benefit. Most games on Twitch are competitive-skewed. A couple of games aren’t, but MMOs usually don’t have a large audience on Twitch.
What type of infrastructure is there for teams to compete in Guild Wars 2 today?
We’ve taken more of an organic approach. We don’t want to solicit ourselves to them. We had our first pro team come in three or four months ago, Astral Authority, and they’re sponsoring a team, The Abjured. We decided to let them come into the game when it was the right spot. It’s cool to see a team come in based on a competitive initiative this year.
What are your plans for Season 3?
We haven’t made decisions on next year yet. There are still two major beats this year we need to get through.
What role does Asia play for Guild Wars 2 eSports?
KongZhong handles all operational stuff in Asia. They opted out this year. They manage their own region. We’re not officially launched in Korea, in that we don’t support their language. This year we did open up our competition worldwide. We even have players from Antarctica competing. We have a number of players on teams in North America from Brazil and on EU teams from Thailand and Korea.