Warcraft expansion dramatically changes Arena competition

Method Orange face off against Making a Movie in the early stages of the World of Warcraft Arena World Championship in Burbank, California. A huge game expansion this year has drastically changed the way the game is competed. Carlton Beener for Blizzard Entertainment

BURBANK, California - As the Battle for Azeroth rages in World of Warcraft servers around the world, a similar battle is underway in Warcraft's esports realm.

World of Warcraft Esports Product Manager Jeramy McIntyre has seen it unfold over the past month and a half, through regional play all the way up to this weekend's World of Warcraft Arena World Championship at BlizzCon in Anaheim, California. Every two years, a Warcraft expansion comes along and dramatically changes the way the game's esport is played.

"There are a few things that are certain in life," McIntyre said Monday at Blizzard Arena during the tournament's opening stage. "The fact that WoW will change is one of them."

The game, for pros and casual players alike, has changed dramatically in the last couple months. New storylines have emerged, as have new strategies in the Arena mode. Despite testing and theorycrafting in the expansion's beta for six months, pro players are still catching up.

"Each one of these content releases influences the game, and that influences how our players react and how the meta evolves," McIntyre said. "Then you had the monolithic shifts that occurred between Legion and Battle for Azeroth where things like gear now actually has an effect inside of the Arena where in Legion, it did not at all. That opens up a completely new vector of meta."

The changes stretch beyond the game itself, though. Since the Legion expansion in 2016, Blizzard's approach to Warcraft esports has changed quite a bit, too.

That includes growth of the Arena World Championship tournament field from eight to 12. Latin America and the Asia-Pacific region entered the fray at BlizzCon for the first time in 2017, and although North America and Europe remain the favorites for the Arena title, Latin American team Unitas won its opening match in the tourney this year, and Chinese team Pen and Paper became the first Chinese team to win a series in the tournament in the past five years.

The prize pool for the tournament has beefed up, too, with $280,000 on the line at the Anaheim Convention Center this weekend.

"For Blizzard to just give us the opportunity to compete in these tournaments last year ... it's amazing," Unitas player Sebastian "Hozitojones" Toriello said after his team's 3-2 victory against North America's Super Frogs. "Latin America having this opportunity, people from Lat-Am are going crazy about these tournaments. They're trying to find people to play with and be competitive because in other years, they didn't care about it too much. We didn't have the opportunity to qualify for this, and that's the main goal for every WoW player, I think: To be in this tournament."

Competition in the region has improved, Hozitojones said. He competed at BlizzCon in 2017, and in the past year, his domestic matches have felt a bit tougher, his opponents' preparation a bit better. After a 3-0 loss to Method Black, the No. 1 team out of Europe, on Monday, his squad will face ORDER, the Asia-Pacific representative at BlizzCon.

ORDER's Nicholas "Fresh" Berton got his first international LAN appearance on Monday in his team's 3-0 loss to Tempo Storm. In that matchup, Fresh faced off against Arena luminaries he's admired from afar: Simon "Boetar" Heinks, Niki "Niksi" Hietala, James "Jaime" McKeever and Alexander "Alec" Sheldrick. He shook off the pre-match jitters with some push-ups and a couple deep breaths.

"It's intimidating, but it's really invigorating, and it makes me super excited," Fresh said. "This is my first chance to really face some of these big titans, and I was super excited going on-stage, and I was super excited going into every single game. Getting another opportunity -- I can't wait, really."

Both Fresh and Hozitojones said the level of competition at these international events helps elevate their play when they get back to their regions. "Win or lose, we come back 50 to 100 times the players we were before," Fresh said -- an exaggeration, perhaps, but one that speaks to how much the smaller regions appreciate the opportunity on the big stage at Blizzard Arena and the bigger one in Anaheim.

Interest is at an all-time high, too, McIntyre said, thanks in part to the latest expansion and his team's increased investment in creating content around Arena. The priority all around Blizzard esports, from Overwatch to Hearthstone to World of Warcraft, seems to be improving storytelling and helping fans invest in players.

It's a common refrain from people like McIntyre, who has watched that extra work pay dividends this year.

"The expansion cycle definitely helps and lifts WoW viewership. What's super interesting, though, is this year, the vast majority of the content we produced was actually not in Battle for Azeroth, and the WoW program and the WoW viewership grew very healthily this year," he said. "Anyone that was just watching the Twitch number can see it's very, very strong in what, in theory, should have been the weakest time.

"We're seeing a real interest, a perpetual interest and perpetual growth, over several years, and I think that's why you still keep on seeing us expand."