How the WGL APAC Finals got three Aussies talking about World of Tanks instead of AFL

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Korea has an actual Esports Stadium, and I found myself sitting inside of it last weekend. The entire time, hundreds of screaming fans were surrounding me, chanting in Korean. Or maybe in Japanese. Or Chinese. I had no idea what anyone in the crowd was saying, but I could understand why they were excited. Take my favourite example: at one stage of the event, presented on the giant screen at the stadium, two tanks were circling one another, clockwise, around a crumbling building.

Both were trying to blow the shit out of the other.

For a solid minute, the tanks sped around the building, playing a deadly game of tank-duck-goose. Numerous times, the trailing tank was able to line its sights on the one ahead. Each time, that tank was just a little too slow, either sending a shot at its opponent after it’d turned the corner, or aiming just a tad too much to the left, instead blowing a chunk out of the building separating the pair.

The lead tank managed to put some space between its attacker, who I assume slowed down to reload. After realising there weren’t shots tailing it, the lead tank stopped. Then decided to circle the building counter-clockwise.

The crowd went ballistic as the hunted became the hunter, catching the first tank unaware and sending a shot right into its turret. The tank exploded in a shower of fire before it could get a counter shot off, loaded or not.

The Koreans, Japanese, Chinese and probably more — I have it on good authority there was at least one Canadian present (hi!) — erupted in a large cheer. Well, maybe not so much the Chinese — that was RefornGaming’s last tank on the map for that set, so the Japanese Caren Tiger notched up a win with the ballsy manoeuvre.

Life was good last weekend.

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Now, don’t for a second that the Wargaming.net League Asia Pacific 2015 Season I Finals were about race, even if the event was made up of a Korean team, two Chinese teams and one Japanese team. Apart from a bit of discussion in a team interview that our translator was told to leave out (and I’m asking a Chinese friend to listen to it ASAP), the four teams vying for top spot were doing it for simply that: to be number one. And, as winning bunch asserted, to prepare themselves to prove the same thing to the teams that emerge victorious from North America, Europe and around the world.

Okay. So maybe it’s a little about race.

Three Australians – well, two and a Canadian-Australian (again, hi!) – made the trip over to Seoul to see the finals, and I’m not ashamed to admit we worked up a bit of a reputation with the rest of the Asian press also in attendance.

We were the ones who never shut up. The Aussies who didn’t mind a beer after the games. The ones who never shut up. The three who slept in rather than hitting up world-famous markets one morning.

The ones who never shut up.

What were we talking about for a large majority of the time? Footy. Of course. One of our crew was a Carlton fan, the other a Melbourne supporter. Those two – and as a North Melbourne fan, I feel the need to add the word ‘woeful’ – teams were playing each other over the weekend. Coincidentally, at the same time as the WGL Season I Grand Final. While the other press were talking about KONGDOO captain Cowthief’s sunglasses or what they thought of EL Gaming favourite Reflection’s latest tactics, the three of us were debating which failing team would pull out a win.

It took about three sets in the first match later that day to get us talking about World of Tanks like we did the AFL. None of us had really watched or played a lot of Wargaming’s free-to-play title, but it was damn hard not to get wrapped up in it all. We left the stadium immediately offering theories as to why Caren Tiger looked like they’d fallen asleep in their bout with KONGDOO just before.

As I sat and discussed Wargaming’s Esports endeavours with Deputy Head of Global Esports, Alexey Kuznetzov, he seemed pleased. It wasn’t too long ago that World of Tanks was a different game to watch altogether; long matches with tanks camping out and waiting for the kill might better reflect a real-life battle, but sure makes for boring streaming. Acting on fan – and player – feedback, Kuznetzov explained that sweeping changes were made to correct this.

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Teams were made to alternate between offense and defense, sticking with one side for two sets and then swapping over. With a five minute time limit, the attacking team either has to defeat all enemy tanks or takeover a capture point with multiple tanks. Games no longer consist of an entire team camping inside of a row of bushes. Battles are now fast and furious, with some matches offering up a row of tanks on the high ground landing almost-impossible shots across a lake and into a valley onto an unsuspecting team below. Other matches feature both teams just barreling down on one another on an open map like Steppes to engage in shell-flying mayhem.

Needless to say, those changes worked. It’s damn entertaining.

Wargaming hadn’t stopped there, now offering up salaries to last Season’s Gold Tier teams. The salaries aren’t sponsorships, but rather, a delivery of hard-earned cash. Kuznetzov explained that salaries were offered for a multitude of reasons. As World of Tanks is relatively new on the Esports scene, the money was meant to turn amateur teams into pro ones.

The money can help buy new gear, or let teams go part-time at their day jobs in order to get more practice in. The salaries aren’t meant to pay all the bills, but alongside assistance from Wargaming’s marketing departments, the grand plan is that teams will start to market themselves to fans at the same time they build their skills. To build a solid, marketable, fan-favourite team that will attract big, cash-filled sponsors.

Since salaries haven’t been around long, it’s a little too early to tell if they’re working as expected. But Kuznetzov looked pleased with what had been happening so far.

To me, it looked like everything was going to plan. RefornGaming, newest to the mix, was billed as a skilled unknown. KONGDOO, the hometown team, had recently picked up one of those cash-cow sponsorships and was looking to defend wins in the last three Season Finals. EL Gaming, considered the team to beat, was hungry for a win after consecutive second place Season Final finishes. Each team had its superstars as well, with fans gravitating towards the aforementioned Cowthief and Reflection. Watching the WGL APAC Finals over the weekend was like watching the WWE — there was action during games, of course, but draaaaaaaaama between them as well.

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As the first of two nights wrapped up, we almost completely stopped talking about AFL. We still were the ones who never shut up… but now, it was about how Reforn managed to give EL Gaming a surprising run for their money, or how Caren Tiger’s Opelisk seemed fairly overrated — ‘cause from what we saw, he wasn’t much of a shot. The three of us agreed EL Gaming versus KONGDOO the next evening would be an exciting spectacle.

It wasn’t a flash in the pain, either; the next day, we filed out of the arena to discuss how rattled Cowthief appeared before the match, and how he overcompensated for that with boasts he wasn’t even remotely able to live up to. We observed that EL Gaming seemed adaptive and fresh, even going as far to discuss their tactics and positioning. We lamented at how KONGDOO frustrated not only our trio, but most of the supporters in attendance — in the end, they simply wouldn’t deviate from their set plans and that lack of flexibility cost them dearly.

Oh, and during those finals? We didn’t even end up watching a sneaky Carlton, Melbourne AFL stream on the side as originally planned. Even when EL Gaming utterly streamrolled KONGDOO and most agreed they’d do it in a clean sweep.

They didn’t, by the way — KONGDOO managed to get one set in order to save a little face. The match ended with a decisive 7-1 victory to EL Gaming.

Australia doesn’t really have a World of Tanks team like the ones we watched over the weekend, but we do have some strong competitors on different teams. Our stars mostly lie in Team Efficiency, a top-10 team on the Asian server. Still, the prospect of Aussies in Gold Tier teams or going as far to compete in a Season Final seem slim. I personally think ping has a great deal to do with that; we luddite Aussies throw up Speedtest stats that would make our Asian counterparts roll on the floor in laughter.

Kuznetzov wouldn’t commit to the promise of local servers down under, but didn’t rule them out either. His answer to that question — and to many others that day — seemed to revolve around the notion that Wargaming is keen to listen to its players and fans and provide them with exactly what they want. That could mean servers, or even competitive play on Xbox One now that the game’s been released there. On that last one, though, Kuznetzov was careful to point out he’d remove the ‘Esports’ moniker for that last one. It’s hard to beat a keyboard and mouse, he chuckled.

If Aussies won’t make great World of Tanks competitive players, we can at least be spectators. Now, after four great match-ups in Seoul, that’s what I plan to do. And I’ve downloaded World of Tanks on my Xbox One just in case someone wants to make a run at leaderboards with me anytime soon.

World of Tanks is a free-to-play title available on Xbox One, Xbox 360 and Windows PC.

Stevivor was flown to Seoul, South Korea to watch the Wargaming.net League APAC 2015 Season I Finals.

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