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Thursday, January 03, 2008

Blood Sport: Arena nostalgia

Every Thursday, V'Ming - who thinks that gnome warlocks are travesties of nature and need to be KOSed - shares thoughts and ideas on becoming deadlier at the Arenas. He also dabbles in the dark arts in Blood Pact.

Keeping in the theme of my Warlock column, let's take a look back at one of the most important additions introduced in 2007 with The Burning Crusade - Arena PvP.

You can say that Arena PvP is a mini-game of sorts, tied to the main game via gear, and vanity tokens (titles, mount). WoW gear is, in itself, a progression system - particularly for endgame players who don't have new levels or abilities to look forward to. Arena gear is desirable, in both performance and appearance, being recolored versions of top tier gear from PvE. So good that even the most dedicated PvE raiders are dipping into Arenas to gain access to "easy" upgrades.

If "welfare epics" is the theme of 2007, then Arena PvP is one of main ways that they are dispensed. Never have there been more toons running around with purples than 2007, and this is a casual-friendly trend that WoW and other MMOs have been moving with.

In the beginning ...

The arenas were made available on Dec 8, 2006 after the stormy "Before the Storm" patch, but the competitive ladder system didn't kick in until Feb 15. This time gave eager gladiators the chance to engage in unrated skirmishes, to gain familiarity with the two maps: Ring of Trials and Circle of Blood. The third map - Ruins of Lordaeron - was added later in May.

Blizzard also announced a global 5v5 Arena tournament on Feb 13, where teams would vie for the title of "bestest 5v5 team in the whole wide world". This truly added more excitement and buzz to Season 1. In March, two teams - ZERG IT DOWN and Power Trip almost simultaneously went professional. The prospect of Arena PvP evolving into an established e-sport became very real.

The tournament saga

The World Series of Video Games (WSVG) included 3v3 Arena PvP in its line of competitive games in April. Team Pandemic, the same people from Power Trip, took home the top prize of $12,000 at WSVG China in early May. The team was playing a Warrior, Mage and Paladin combo then.

The initial tournament buzz gradually became replaced by concerns about Arena PvP's viability as an e-sport. While it could be entertaining to watch matches, the tournaments didn't really make the game accessible to spectators. Most matches were too fast and chaotic to be meaningful to anyone but the most knowledgeable players. This problem was exacerbated by poor commentators who didn't seem to know the game.

The May regionals in San Diego were also marred by a rash of disqualifications by Blizzard when they found that participants weren't playing with their own accounts. Many top teams were crushed or disabled by these disqualifications, and spectator interest waned as they knew that it wasn't truly a contest of the best.

In the meantime, the WSVG 3v3 tournaments were proceeding well, showcasing the best teams in Louisville, Dallas and Toronto. WSVG seemed a paragon of success, with appearances on CBS and its president expressing optimism. Until it decided to shut its doors and cancel all future events on Sep 12, about a month before the Los Angeles event. The shutdown might have been financially driven but WoW's progress into the e-sport arena certainly suffered a setback.

Blizzard's own 5v5 tournament concluded at the Blizzcon in August, and there's been no news of follow-up events since Oct 2007.

While Arena game play is suited for tournament-level competition, Blizzard needs to work on the spectator aspect for it to be more widely accepted as an e-sport. People must be given the opportunity to understand the drama and tension in matches to want to watch them. The action should also be made more available, with perhaps an easily accessible tournament server, and multiple ways to watch the action: first-person, over-shoulder, aerials, replays.

Seasons and shenanigans

The Arena ladder system became the first quantifiable way in WoW to identify the best PvPers. Unfortunately it was also abused with players buying spots on highly ranked teams to gain quick(er) access to Arena gear rewards.

Near the end of Season 1, more abuses surfaced. This included top teams selling spots so that lower ranked players can get the Armored Netherdrake mount and an easy "Gladiator" title. Season 2 kicked off on Jun 19, with a new and better set of rewards.

Season 2 came to a close on Nov 26, and Season 3 kicked in with another set of gear. To prevent players just putting in time (and no skill) to gain rewards, Blizzard put in a rating requirement of 1850 and 2000 for weapons and shoulders respectively. Shenanigans at the end of Season 1 happened again with Season 2, this time with teams manipulating the ladder to secure top spots. Blizzard responded recently by slapping a team rating requirement, in addition to personal rating.

Arena concerns

Concerns were expressed by the community: Arena PvP was "giving away" gear comparable to that from top-end raids. WoW has swung from "raid or die in PvP" pre-BC to PvP gear holding its own in PvE. Players who were not necessarily good at PvP were rewarded by the Arena system simply for participating.

To these concerns, Drysc replied, "You're not actually concerned that someone else is getting something easier than you, because you would go do it and wouldn't look back. You're either unable or unwilling to switch to what you perceive is the easier route, and want what you're invested in or willing to do made easier based on what you perceive matches the effort invested in the other."

The Arena system also revealed class imbalances. Certain classes do extremely well, while others struggle to compete, looking at class representation in the various brackets. Blizzard is widely criticized for not responding to these imbalances quickly enough, although many changes in recent patches - particularly for hunters - are obviously Arena-driven.

2007 is certainly an eventful year for Arena PvP - from the rocky tournament road to the perennial PvE-PvP antagonism. What do you think was the most important development for Arena PvP? What are its chances of truly becoming an e-sport in 2008? Which class needs the most help in Arenas?

These are the latest numbers from games in the last week of 2007:

It's gratifying to see hunters maintaining their greater than 5% representation in 5v5 for the third week. Warlocks are curiously absent from the top 100 teams, both in terms of proportion and absolute numbers relative to previous weeks.

According to this page, these are the most popular team combos for high-ranked teams:

Warrior-Paladin-Priest-Shaman-Mage 15%
Warrior-Paladin-Priest-Shaman-Warlock 13.9%
Warrior-Paladin-Priest-Hunter-Warlock 7.7%

Rogue-Priest-Mage 19.4%
Warrior-Druid-Warlock 6.1%
Rogue-Druid-Warlock 5.6%

Warrior-Druid 25.3%
Rogue-Priest 13.7%
Warlock-Druid 9.1%


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