Wargaming has expanded the culmination of its two-part 2017 World of Tanks esports season to include seven days of Wargaming.net League (WGL) competition in Moscow. After holding the past three Grand Finals in Warsaw, Poland, Wargaming is moving its pinnacle event to Russia—which also happens to be the home country for the studio and the largest World of Tanks player community.
Chris Karlewicz, a former professional World of Tanks player who now heads up North American esports at Wargaming, told AListDaily that this change of venue to Moscow was to see what a major event would look like in a place with a population that’s 10 times that of Warsaw in front of the largest World of Tanks fan base on the planet. Over course of seven days, 12 teams will compete in group stages on May 23 and 24 at an offsite Moscow location before the quarterfinals, semifinals and finals move to the 12,000-seat VTB Ice Palace, which will be turning into a World of Tanks battlefield. Up for grabs is $300,000 in prize money.
“The Russian audience has millions of more players than we do in the US,” Karlewicz said. “This will be a good event for World of Tanks in general, and for WGL.”
With ESL as Wargaming’s production partner, the Grand Finals has grown over the years in Warsaw from a 750-seat movie theater to a 4,000-seat Civic Center, to a 10,000-seat arena last year. Wargaming is planning for a massive live audience by setting up a JumboTron in the parking lot outside the VTB Ice Palace to accommodate fans. There will also be real tanks stationed around the arena, which has become a tradition for the event.
Facebook and Russian telecom company Rostelecom are the two primary sponsors of this year’s Grand Finals, marking an expansion into non-endemic companies. Facebook Live will livestream the Grand Finals for the first time. There will be a dozen teams competing in the event, including Oops The Tough Giraffes (EU), DiNG (EU), eClipse (NA), Team Efficiency (APAC), Natus Vincere G2A (CIS), Kazna Kru (EU), EL Gaming (APAC), YaTo Gaming (China), Not So Serious (CIS), Tornado Energy (CIS), Brain Storm (CIS) and Elevate (NA). Karlewicz said these teams are attracting many brands, noting that some team shirts are completely full on the back with sponsors eager to target this hardcore PC gaming crowd.
Wargaming’s free-to-play game has over 150 million registered players across the globe. That fanbase turned the game, which wasn’t originally designed for esports, into a competitive game organically. “We have an interesting storyline because we didn’t come out of the gate saying, ‘let’s be an esport and fill stadiums,’” Karlewicz said. “We have a viral, sticky audience that loves what we’re doing, and this year we’ve seen new fans come over to watch WGL.”
Wargaming has been targeting the US audience with humorous television commercials, including a Super Bowl spot this year, as well as digital spots. Karlewicz said that’s helped attract new eyeballs to the game, as well as esports.
“On a whole, World of Tanks was getting the word out, and more people were finding out about the game and the esports side,” Karlewicz said. That’s also happening across the EU and CAS regions, where an audience outside of the diehard “tankers” are watching livestreams.
“We have a better understanding of how to present the league in a way that’s geared toward outsider views instead of just catering to the homegrown guys,” he continued. “We’re using Facebook Live, outside media and more social media to grow the fanbase.” During the Moscow event, viewers at home can participate in social media contests and streams, winning prizes and gifts from Wargaming and its partners.
Karlewicz said another key driver in esports engagement has been the WGL Fantasy League. For the North American audience, there’s a dedicated site designed for deep engagement. “While all of the regions have their own Fantasy Leagues, ours has a lot of stats and metadata that has built up a community of fans that play and chat and win lots of prizes,” Karlewicz said. Those prizes have ranged from in-game currency and skins, to Need for Seat World of Tanks gaming chairs, to trips to the Grand Finals.
Wargaming also changed up the rules for competitive play and added a new Attack/Defense mode that has forced players to move around. “Matches are no longer 14 guys staring at each other,” Karlewicz said. “They’re more entertaining to watch because players will flip over tanks and use them as barricades and change up their tactics and strategies.”
Those who attend the event will find more direct engagement with players than in the past with scheduled autograph sessions and Q&As. There will also be virtual reality demos for attendees to be on the battlefield during World of Tanks combat. Karlewicz said the addition of emblems in the game to represent the league opens the door for teams to have stickers in the game in the future. Wargaming headquarters is working on this initiative on a multi-level and multi-region scope. Valve, ESL and pro teams have all profited from the sale of in-game stickers in CS:GO through esports events over the years, so the groundwork for success is there.