The humble beginnings of World of Warcraft esports

This is the first instalment of a three-part series that explores the past, the present, and the future of World of Warcraft esports.

Released in 2004, World of Warcraft has gone from the bedroom fantasy of Warcraft III fans – living out their dreams in the expanse of Azeroth – to becoming a worldwide phenomenon that has stood the test of time as the most popular massively multiplayer online game in the world.

In 2019, World of Warcraft is still the king of the MMO scene. Having fended off countless attempts to claim its throne, it has held strong and soldiered on. While it hasn’t always been smooth sailing, and the game is certainly not as it was during the height of its fame, it continues to maintain substantial cultural relevance.

When it comes to esports, 2019 may well be one of the most important years in the history of the game. With World of Warcraft now enjoying its 15th year, its competitive scene continues to grow. With improving prize pools funded by the community, the future looks bright.

That’s where this series of articles comes in. We’ll take a look at the three key aspects of the title’s esports efforts: the past, the present, and the future, and what it all means.

The foundation of something great, forged on a battlefield of blood

The original loading screen for Warsong Gulch. Image credit: World of Warcraft

One thing that’s important to note about World of Warcraft is that when it launched back in 2004, it lacked a true ‘player vs. player’ aspect. Sure, players could kill each other – and they frequently did – but it was largely just to be annoying or to make their own fun.

The actual idea of PvP would not come to World of Warcraft until patch 1.4, nearly six months after the game’s US release, when Blizzard added a PvP Honour System. Sure, Blizzard added the Gurubashi Arena in December 2004’s patch 1.2 which gave players a reason to participate in PvP, but the introduction of an actual ranked system gave players something to look forward to. Thankfully for PvP players, the wait for the next addition was short-lived.

Patch 1.5’s introduction of Battlegrounds gave fans not only a reason to fight, but also a place to do it too. Players in groups of 10 for Warsong Gulch (Capture the Flag) and 40 for Alterac Valley (a large scale PvP/PvE hybrid) would do battle against the opposition faction. At the end of each week, players would earn a rank based on the number of honour points they’d accrued in comparison to other members of their faction, with the highest ranks obtaining specific PvP armour, mounts, and weapons.

It would take another year and an expansion later until the foundations of World of Warcraft esports started to take shape. In patch 2.0.1, Arena battles would be added to the game alongside seasons and a revamped honour system. The arena saw groups of two, three, or five (with three vs. three becoming the competitive standard) do battle on a much smaller battlefield with an MMR system and team registration. Teams could pick a name and logo and fight against other teams, gaining ranks and unique items. Over the course of the following years, Blizzard would keep adding new seasons and new arenas to the game. In 2007, things started to change and Blizzard finally brought esports to World of Warcraft.

The beginning of a 12-year story
Live stage from the first World of Warcraft esports event at BlizzCon 2007. Image credit: Blizzard

In 2007, Blizzard embraced esports at its annual fan expo, BlizzCon, in the form of three vs. three arena. This started a trend that has continued ever since, with Blizzard adding more events over multiple days – including events in the build-up to BlizzCon. The expo became the final event in the World of Warcraft esports calendar, as it had for Warcraft III and StarCraft. During 2007’s BlizzCon, Blizzard put $40,000 (£32,000) up for the finalist, and the competition in the end was won by MoB Turtle Beach.

Blizzard would also go on to run a number of events across the globe, including the now-defunct Worldwide Invitational events – which saw World of Warcraft esports feature at the Paris event in 2008. At the event, Blizzard put on a host of professional and casual tournaments for attendees. Blizzard has also worked with ESL over the years, with the event organiser helping Blizzard with European events. To do this, it continues to assist Blizzard with events in Australia.

Blizzard always seemed to have esports be a secondary part of World of Warcraft. It was something that existed but always felt like it was disconnected from the core game, a sideshow of sorts at BlizzCon for those who truly loved that aspect of the game. As esports’ popularity has grown over the years, World of Warcraft’s competitive scenes has stepped up and the prize pools and support have increased to match. It would take until 2017-2018 for the scene to really start picking up steam in the wider community, and when 2019 rolled around Blizzard would finally connect its esports efforts to its in-game players‘.

When Blizzard tried something different
BlizzCon 2011 saw the return of a classic WoW boss – image credit Bamahut – Wowhead

During the period of 2010-2013, Blizzard would do something a little different when it came to BlizzCon. 2010 brought the first attempt to bring the raid experience to BlizzCon as Blizzard brought #1 guild Paragon on stage to fight against a number of bosses from past raids. The series of boss waves took place outside the Horde city of Orgrimmar, with a live audience cheering them on alongside a team providing a running commentary on events. It was an interesting idea and one that Blizzard would return to the following year in a more refined and competitive format.

2011 saw what was truly our first glimpse at the Race to World First, we just didn’t know it at the time. Two guilds – Blood Legion and Vodka – would go head-to-head on stage in a race to finish the Firelands 25-man raid first. Blizzard would repeat the event in 2013 where Method would take on Midwinter. The above clip shows the start of something different in World of Warcraft esports, but it wasn’t to be. Blizzard would not bring the format back at subsequent BlizzCon iterations.

At this time competitive raiding was left to the community to enjoy on the forums, with Reddit users constantly refreshing guild ranking sites or waiting for in-game announcements to find out who had killed the boss first. In 2017, however, Blizzard would later revive the format.

Blizzard constructs the second pillar of World of Warcraft esports

The 2018 MDI final – image credit Blizzard

Welcome to the Mythic Dungeon Invitational (MDI), World of Warcraft esports’ second pillar. With the release of World of Warcraft: Legion, Blizzard changed one of the staples of WoW: the dungeon system received a new mode. These more challenging versions would see players acquiring keys to make the dungeon more difficult, with ‘affixes’ (see: debuffs) being applied as players took their key past certain thresholds, with a maximum of four affixes active once you reach level 10.

Players would race to finish the objectives before a timer expired and be awarded loot based on speed, with teams who complete the keystone in time receiving a new key for another dungeon at a higher level. These affixes would add a range of things, from increasing the density of mobs in a pack, spawning pools of healing blood when an enemy was killed to ones that caused mobs to enrage when hitting 20 percent HP. 

In 2017 and 2018, Blizzard brought the MDI to BlizzCon. The best teams from Europe, China, Asia-Pacific, and the Americas would head to BlizzCon to battle on stage to become the MDI champions. Both on-stage teams would fight through the same dungeon with the same affix combination, using whatever five-man composition they wished (with rules applied to changes post-game). The winner was the team who killed the last boss & achieve a 100 percent clear completion percentage, awarded for killing a certain number of non-boss mobs in a dungeon. MDI was focused less on the PvP side of esports, rather occupying the ‘games done quick’ or ‘speedrunning’ aspect of other titles. While MDI was not for everyone, it always felt like a more natural fit for World of Warcraft, a game that at its core is a PvE experience.

In 2019, the MDI would change name to the Mythic Dungeon International, and as the event headed into World of Warcraft’s new expansion – Battle for Azeroth – it gained a seasonal format like the WoW Arena Championship (AWC) with a BlizzCon final finishing off the season.

We’d also be remiss not to mention the community-run Mythic+ Keystone Masters events started by Cirranor, the MDI 2018 champion and member of Excel Esports’ former arena team Kjell’s Angels (later to be renamed exceL Angels). Cirranor was also joined by Shine as an Executive Producer and Method Darrie as an Assistant Producer. The Keystone Masters continues to take place to this day and we’ll touch on it more in our second article in the series.

In summary

With a game that’s 15 years old, you have to keep it brief when looking back at its history. We’ve simplified a lot of what happened and condensed it, not mentioning some of the esports and streaming personalities World of Warcraft esports has produced over the years, from Sodapoppin to Rekful. The game’s competitive past has definitely influenced its present and, with 2019 being its most significant esports year to date, we’d also wager that it will continue to grow in the future.

In our next article, we’ll look at World of Warcraft’s current climate in esports and the four pillars that it sits upon. We’ll look at what changes Blizzard made in 2019, how Method and Red Bull added a new pillar, and how the community has created its own scene out of an often-forgotten aspect of the title.

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