World of Warcraft esports in 2021: Does it have a future?

Seventeen years after its release, World of Warcraft is still one of the most popular massive-multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) in the world.

However, World of Warcraft esports is still relatively small compared to other popular games. On top of that, it seems that WoW has faced a lot of criticism recently. The latest addition to the storyline wasn’t received well (just take a look at the comments on the trailer) and the World of Warcraft forums are full of player complaints.

World of Warcraft esports
Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment

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Then there’s the news of the lawsuit filed against the game’s developer, Activision Blizzard, by the California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH). This ongoing lawsuit, filed on July 20th 2021, includes numerous allegations of harassment, gender-based discrimination and inequality. The stories that have emerged so far are troubling, to say the very least.

A piece published by the Washington Post on August 9th 2021 includes a comprehensive report of this. The response has also impacted World of Warcraft directly, and this has perhaps exacerbated talk of a ‘WoW Exodus‘ in the midst of the rise of Final Fantasy XIV.

How is all this impacting future plans for World of Warcraft esports? Seventeen years after its release, can WoW still become a major esport?

A short history of World of Warcraft esports

World of Warcraft esports
Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment

Although World of Warcraft initially launched with hardly any PvP elements, Blizzard Entertainment was quick to add a PvP Honour system the first being Battlegrounds, and then the Arena. Although Battlegrounds allowed player teams to fight each other, it was the introduction of the Arena that paved the way towards a serious competitive WoW system. As the name suggests, the Arena sends player teams to a separate combat area, where they would fight each other two vs two, three vs three, or five vs five.

In the years that followed, the Arena system kept expanding with new maps, the introduction of leaderboards, and separate seasons. The biggest competitive World of Warcraft expansion arrived in 2017 with the introduction of the Mythic Dungeon Invitational tournament (later changed to Mythic Dungeon International). 

This new branch of World of Warcraft esports is different from the Arena. It’s about ‘player versus environment (PvE)’ combat instead of player versus player battles. As a result, teams have to work together and make tactical decisions to clear a dungeon within the time limit.

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The current state of World of Warcraft esports

World of Warcraft esports
Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment

So, how is World of Warcraft esports doing in 2021? At the beginning of this year, Blizzard Entertainment started its 14th Arena World Championship event, which concluded its first season in May. The event returned for its second season on July 31st.  

Likewise, the Mythic Dungeon International tournament concluded the first season of its 5th edition in May, and will return for the second season in September.

Although AWC and MDI return every year, it doesn’t look like viewership has increased much. 

Peak viewership for most of the individual matches ranges between 20,000 and 40,000, with the recent AWC Season 1 Finals peaking just below 20,000 (USA) and 14,000 (EU) viewers according to Esports Charts. These numbers are similar to or even below the peak viewership in previous years. This also means that World of Warcraft esports ranks far below games like League of Legends or Fortnite.

The difference between WoW esports and the more popular games is further emphasised by the current World of Warcraft prize pools. Although the $900,000 Arena World Championship prize pool (which roughly translates to £650,000 ) seems substantial, it’s not that high compared to tier-one esports that award millions of dollars. A $900,000 prize pool for a full year of Arena esports means that the winning teams can look at a few tens of thousands of dollars at most.

Identifying the obstacles to World of Warcraft esports

World of Warcraft esports
Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment

Thanks to the yearly tournaments and relatively stable viewership, we can conclude that World of Warcraft has an established esports scene. However, it’s nowhere near the biggest esports games in terms of viewership and prize pools yet, and it doesn’t look like that’s about to change. The question remains: why does a game with millions of active players not develop a larger esports scene?

If you do a bit of digging on WoW forums and follow WoW news, you’ll find two returning issues: many casual players express their dissatisfaction with the game, and few of them are watching World of Warcraft esports. The first issue is harmful to WoW esports, as more dissatisfaction means less interest for tournaments. The second issue touches on the nature of WoW.

Declining World of Warcraft popularity

World of Warcraft esports
Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment

Although World of Warcraft seems to have recovered from a major decline in player count in the past few months (according to data from MMO Population), the title faces a lot of criticism from its players. The reasons range from disliking updates to being disappointed with the storylines.

Meanwhile, as seen on SteamDB, Final Fantasy XIV has recently experienced a massive increase in players, making it a serious contender for the title of most popular MMORPG.

On top of all that, Blizzard Entertainment’s lawsuit from the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing has seemingly impacted the game as well. Many streamers, including popular WoW player Asmongold, have spoken out against the developer and organiser of the biggest WoW esports tournaments. As a result, the company is losing credibility among its players.

World of Warcraft is still an immensely popular game. But the game-related criticism, developer scandals, and the increased competition do not bode well for its future popularity. It’s highly unlikely that WoW esports will see any major growth if the game itself starts losing players.

World of Warcraft esports and the combat problem

World of Warcraft esports
Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment

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Even if World of Warcraft sees a massive increase in player count, that still doesn’t guarantee that WoW esports will become more popular. 

The main reason is the nature of the game: World of Warcraft is an MMORPG, and therefore is not specifically designed for esports. This has several implications: first, many WoW players are in it for the role-playing, the lore, and the high-fantasy scenery; not for the competition. Just compare the normal WoW Twitter account to the WoW Esports Twitter account. That’s 1.6m followers versus 20,000 followers respectively.

Naturally, Blizzard can’t afford to prioritise esports over content for casual players. The business tries to keep everyone happy by attempting to balance PvE and PvP, but it’s difficult to do so. If a gameplay element doesn’t work well for competitive play (i.e. the balance between classes or a specific skill), you often can’t change it without negatively impacting other aspects of the game.

Nevertheless, let’s assume that World of Warcraft becomes even more popular and its competitive gameplay is perfectly balanced. WoW esports still faces a problem that hasn’t been touched upon yet: it’s not an easy esport to watch. This is by no means an underappreciation of professional WoW players’ skills. In fact, it takes a very high skill level to compete in WoW, but that’s exactly the problem: there are so many classes, skills, and other gameplay elements that it takes a lot of WoW combat knowledge to understand what’s going on. It’s just not the most accessible esport for casual players.

Is there a future for World of Warcraft esports?

World of Warcraft esports
Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment

There is some good news for WoW esports enthusiasts: one look at its history shows that the World of Warcraft esports scene is a steady one. Even if the game is losing players, the core esports fans may stay.  

Regarding growth though, it looks like World of Warcraft esports faces too many issues to reach a major breakthrough anytime soon. Even if there weren’t any lawsuits against the organiser and if there wasn’t a new MMORPG in town, WoW esports would still be held back by the fact that its player base isn’t satisfied with the game.

The obvious way to grow World of Warcraft esports is by reaching new players, but as it has been established, WoW esports isn’t the most accessible esports game. It would have to gain quite a bit of popularity to find enough players willing to study the combat. For that to happen, WoW needs to gain back favour.

That moment seems far away right now, but who knows; the game has had its ups and downs before. A change of direction and a brilliant take on the Sylvanas Windrunner storyline could still change the future of World of Warcraft esports for the better.

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