Gaijin Entertainment is offering something that rival Wargaming cannot to eSports fans – a World War II experience that combines ground and air combat with War Thunder. Thunder League is in full swing with the top eight teams battling on land and in the air, in the same match.

The total cash prize purse is $56,000 and continues to grow thanks to player contributions through in-game micro-transactions. Anton Yudintsev, CEO of Gaijin Entertainment, explains his company’s plans for eSports in this exclusive interview.

Why did you decide to enter the eSports arena with War Thunder?

War Thunder has always possessed strong eSports potential. We began analyzing other eSports leagues and eventually created our own based what we learned. It took us some time to create regulations for Thunder League. Gladiators system for aircraft tournaments were great, but with the addition of ground forces to War Thunder, we had to rework the regulations and make them fit combined battles, meaning battles would take place in the air as well as on the ground. Total warfare. Combined total warfare provides many interesting tactical opportunities for teams. In addition, it creates better visual streams for fans.

What types of modifications did you need to make to the game to accommodate eSports competition? 

We have not made any specific modifications for Thunder League because War Thunder itself provided us with everything we need. War Thunder is a competitive game to begin with. Whether on PS4, PC or in VR, War Thunder players can easily set up a custom battle in the game, managing almost all the conditions: number of players to a team, vehicles they can use, game mode and even weather. As we prepared to launch Thunder League, we added an auto-tournament mode to last year to show the players what eSports could look like, allowing them to form teams and prepare them for upcoming championships.

What’s the structure for the league and how is it broken up across regions? 

Thunder League is not just a one-more tournament, but an ecosystem created around a series of international championships in order to engage more players with eSports and let them become a part of League. The structure of the championship started with a number of test regional tournaments. The best teams from each region entered the first Thunder League championship. We have analyzed the results, chosen the best teams from all over the world and invited them to take part in this championship. The world’s 10 best War Thunder teams, comprised of ground forces and air forces, representing Europe, North America, Russia, and CIS are now competing in Thunder League.

How are you using fan-funded prizing for this league?

Players set the prize fund. They can purchase Thunder League dog tags, which let them join different activities and get exclusive League items and unique vehicles. Twenty-five percent of the revenue from the purchase of dog tags contributes to the overall prize fund. Each time the prize fund reaches a next prize stage ($10,000, $15,000 and upward) players unlock more opportunities to win prizes, rare items, and vehicles.

The championship started with a $5,000 prize fund and now it is over $56,000 now. Players have already unlocked new game modes, received decals, boosters and special three-color aerobatic smoke. The $50,000 stage provided fans with a Panther T-V and Messerschmitt BF 1 09-E7/U2.

What have you been able to learn from Wargaming, Riot, and others in the eSports arena that you have applied to this endeavor?

We wanted to ensure eSports was right for War Thunder and that we created events that were target right for our players. We did not want to emulate others. We analyzed different eSports events in order to understand what works best for War Thunder. We then formulated our League system, taking into account what players enjoy most about War Thunder and how best to operate in the War Thunder ecosystem. We wanted to create something familiar, yet unique to War Thunder.

What impact have you seen the Thunder League have on engagement with your audience? 

Players enjoy the competition of Thunder League. They have participated in all the activities and events. Thunder League has increased engagement. We have seen many first time eSport players participate in Thunder League. In Thunder League’s very beginning, many joined in order to earn unique vehicles, but the competitive and fun nature of Thunder League has increased their engagement. They are starting checking the news and updates, share information with other players, consuming streams, earning more vehicles. ESports is not just a competitive event, but also a new gaming culture.

How popular is eSports in North America for Thunder League?

Thunder League is very popular among our players in North America. We had one team – Cube – from the USA in the international championship and we have seen great support from US players. Cube received a lot of support from North American War Thunder players. Streams of their matches had many viewers, even those that took place in the evening European time, which is early morning in the US. To celebrate the strong response from US players, we created an exclusive Thunder League item for them – Miss America camouflage for Mustangs.

How much learning and experimenting is going on with this first eSports endeavor?

The first season of the League is an experiment for us. We have been testing and analyzing everything, repeatedly to ensure amazing experiences for anyone who wants to participate. The most important thing is the feedback we receive and then implementing against it. Our ongoing analyzing tied in with player feedback will ensure that future seasons will be even better. For example, next season we want to make League activities universal, so more players can take part in it, no matter what level they have and what vehicles they prefer.

What are your longer-term eSports goals?

We want to make Thunder League a regular event, involve more players, and transform it into an essential part of the War Thunder experience, so every new player has the opportunity and ability to become an eSports star.