Esports is a growth industry, but I think it faces a large problem that is simple to understand in many ways – what is happening on-screen is often hard to understand for a layperson.
Football has rules, but generally, the flow of the game is easy enough to understand. Same goes for most mainstream commercial athletics. The more obscure and difficult the ruleset, the more niche the audience. Crossfit is done competitively (because Crossfit has to be the most insufferable thing in fitness) and the way it works as a sport is arcane and somewhat difficult to really get into watching.
WoW eSports has this fundamental problem at every level of play. Arena is difficult to watch without a full-on understanding of team comps, interrupts, line of sight, and the basic mechanics of each spec on screen. If you play at least one of the specs on screen, you can probably struggle through it and get something out of it, but it is a difficult hurdle to overcome. Mythic world first raiding involves complex levels of planning, log analysis, pull details and observance of all manner of bizarre gameplay. If you raid, that can generally work, but it is difficult to fully get into. There is one thing that helps Mythic world first raiding – the vast majority of the WoW playerbase will only ever see a Mythic raid fight done at correct level, item level, and group size/composition via this manner of content.
Then that leaves the MDI.
The MDI is, in theory, a good way to bring eSports to the WoW masses. A minority of the playerbase of WoW raids, but nearly everyone has done a dungeon at least once. There are outliers (I’m sure at least one of them will comment here eventually!) but it does, in theory, make a mode of eSports that everyone who plays WoW can comprehend on some level and have an intuitive understanding of.
In practice…maybe not.
I watched a good chunk of the Shadowlands Season 1 MDI this last weekend, as I mentioned in my post detailing my new PC build. It was amusing, to a point, but I am in the target demographic for the MDI quite neatly – I’ve played every spec at a reasonable level, done dungeons, run Mythic Plus at least a couple of times a week and with mid-range keys, and a lot of the Shadowlands flavor of the month specs are ones I play – Vengeance Demon Hunter, Disc Priest, Holy Paladin for some rare dungeons, or they’re at least ones I understand and have played a reasonable amount of before.
However, I think that the MDI has that serious hurdle of understanding to overcome, and it has other challenges that often come up to say hello.
Firstly, while I think there is a good mix of personalities on the broadcast team for the MDI (and most of Blizzard’s WoW eSports, for that matter), they often don’t do a good job at pulling an audience into the game. They’ll use terms you’d only understand if you play, and even in some cases, ones that only really make sense if you play at a high level. I heard “meld it off” so many times over the two days I watched that it was making me sort of angry, because it doesn’t make any effort to explain to players who don’t keep up with the game overeagerly, who don’t play Night Elf (the “meld” in question is Shadowmeld the racial), or who have done this level of Mythic Plus play. They made little effort, if any, to explain mob mechanics or why certain choices might be made. There is an assumption of interest in WoW baked into everything about the MDI – assumptions that you know about threat, what kiting is, the holy trinity roles, classes, Covenants, etc – and because of that, if you are new to the game, not playing the game, or a lapsed fan, it is extremely hard to really get into.
Secondly, the race often comes down to a lot of little moments where mistakes are made, but post-game analysis often does a poor job of noting how that happened and explaining it to the viewer. Again, there is a baked-in assumption that you must play WoW if you’re watching this, so therefore, no need to actually contextualize anything. In some cases, it boils down even more simply – the commentators haven’t noted why certain things happen or shared any understanding of why, so they simply show a replay with small bits of narrativizing and leave it alone past that point. They’ll say that a team was nickel and dimed somewhere along the way for a few seconds at each crucial juncture, but not explain why that happened or how they know that is the case.
Thirdly, it’s clear that the MDI team doesn’t even fully have their heads wrapped around the meta of the current Mythic Dungeon scene. This would be fine if we got player interviews, pretaped segments, or explainers of why certain choices might be made – I don’t need the commentary and on-air talent to actually know why a Covenant choice might be made a certain way if they can throw to an interview with the player and have them explain their own choice. Sure, I get why Blizzard might be antsy about open mics at eSports events, but you don’t have to do that live – you can just have them explain the choices they made, edit it to a coherent statement with little fluff, and present it. They also talked a lot about how the routes being picked by the players in the MDI aren’t really things you would want to try on live servers, but again – why is that? Why would I not want to use a world championship winning dungeon route, provided that I can learn and grasp the fundamentals behind the choices made? If you want to tell me it is excessively difficult, that’s fine – explain why that is, narrate the choice and why the team on-screen would then make it, how does their composition affect it, etc – you can make it work and make a player come away feeling like they learned something!
Fourthly, the MDI points out a lot of problems in the current metagame aspect of WoW, the state of readiness or lack thereof of many dungeons, and the annoyance mechanics designed specifically for this player set. For example, the Mists of Tirna Scithe maze segment is supposed to be a fixed route in the MDI. You still have to do the puzzle to find which one, but two teams facing off against each other should not be stuck in a time disadvantage due to RNG. This didn’t always work and a lot of Mists runs on the MDI had to be stopped and redone mid-run because the maze was randomized instead. Meanwhile, the angels in Spires of Ascension were a hot topic, because many groups identified points where you could skip trash (thus not triggering an angel ferry) but then jump across, and provided you made it halfway, you still go ahead. On the other hand, Echo lost nearly a full 30 seconds in the finals of the tournament because their tank clicked the angel after landing, pulling them back across the way and forcing the team to wait. (editorialization time – good, fuck Echo, their players seem to be a lot of the worst elements of Method and I personally am glad they lost). The MDI also overuses seeming abuses of game mechanics – things like “snapping” mobs out of their original rooms and making them teleport to the tank, or using Shadowmelds to avoid dealing with the Manifestations of Pride from the Prideful affix.
There is a bigger problem, however, and it involves Blizzard themselves.
The MDI is a Blizzard production, however, it ultimately unfolds however it will unfold and then Blizzard makes adjustments afterwards based on what they see.
This week, there was a pretty large round of hotfix nerfs to dungeons, but they also nerfed some of the MDI mechanics. You can no longer stealth away from Prideful mobs, because they see through it as of this reset, and they made a target cap for the AoE item abilities in Necrotic Wake. Everything else is nerfs, by either lowering health of mobs, lowering damage dealt, or modifying ability timing to adjust difficulty downwards. This isn’t necessarily the first time Blizzard would have seen these problems, either – Necrotic Wake, Plaguefall, and Sanguine Depths were all hit hard by the nerf bat and these were all dungeons my guildies would attempt to avoid. Hell, my awful tanking experiences were in two out of those three!
But it does lead to a player perception, and seemingly a correct one in this case – when presented with gobs of players dodging the dungeons like the plague(fall), they ignore or offer small tweaks. When the MDI reveals overtuned difficulty and pro-players struggling, tweaks come within 48 hours of the end of the tournament. I don’t have any inside track on how much feedback Blizzard has received or not received on given dungeons, but I can safely say that the behavior with regards to these nerfs creates a perception and allows people who spend a lot of time wrongly claiming that modern WoW is tuned and made exclusively for the elite players to have a single undisputable example to point to in order to justify their other, less-substantiated viewpoints. This also aligns with how things unfold during the Mythic world first race – while Mythic boss tuning is often poorly managed because of the lack of strong testing, it can still create a perception among players that Blizzard caters to these people, when in truth, a lot of the raid tuning at that level is done because there just wasn’t enough time allocated to testing and there is also a desire to keep surprises for the end bosses and extra phases.
Blizzard also has a spotlight shone on iffy class balance and Covenant balance via these types of events. The MDI was dominated by Vengeance Demon Hunter tanks, Discipline Priest healers, and a mix of DPS that almost always had a Fire Mage along with some combination of Windwalker Monk, Rogue (specwise I don’t know and I never heard a commentator call out the specs when I saw a Rogue on-screen), Unholy Death Knight, Hunters (again, not sure of spec), and Balance Druids. There was also one team that ran a Guardian Druid tank for Halls of Atonement only, which was interesting and the commentary did a great job there of explaining why that was (a legendary choice for Guardian makes their Thrash AoE ability generate a damage absorption shield, making them incredibly sturdy in scenarios where you can hit a lot of targets and bank the absorb effect).
Covenants were less well discussed, but it was easy to see – tons and tons of Kyrian players, all the Fire Mages I saw were Night Fae, I think only the DKs ever went Necrolord, and there were sprinklings of Venthyr players here and there, mostly when the dungeon was in Revendreth and required a Venthyr for skip or shortcut mechanics.
For many of us, we spent weeks, if not months, discussing how Covenant balance seemed to be awry in beta, and while Blizzard still hasn’t said much of anything publicly about how that balance is perceived by the team now, I’d argue the MDI shines a light on a sort of global issue – Necrolords are rare, while the other covenants see some rep, but Night Fae and Kyrian seem to be most present.
Class balance is another big bugbear that I think MDI highlights particularly harshly. Imagine if you play a warrior right now, and watched all weekend to see zero warriors. Imagine being any healer but Disc Priest or the one Holy Paladin that was running loose in (I think?) Sanguine Depths. Any tank but a Vengeance DH. It has to suck to see people basically say your class is invalid in this mode of play at the highest levels, and here’s the kicker – I challenge the idea that players should or even do min-max over 1% play increases knowingly, as most players play what they want, some simming upgrades and things like talent or Covenant choice, and that’s that, but at the same time, the meta of these types of things leaks to the live servers and becomes toxic. If you try to pug a Mythic Plus in the coming weeks as anything other than the specs seen in the MDI, I imagine you’ll come to hate this metagaming. You like Druid healing for pugs? Tough shit, but if you can play Balance and have Night Fae as your Covenant, you can come along. The worst pugs lack the awareness to do this with a conscious mind, so they tend to do so unconsciously – making choices for who to bring and how to play based on what they saw in the MDI, with the poor explanations behind those choices being the only things they’ll parrot to the players they turn away. Yikes.
Lastly, I can’t stop this post without mentioning that the player environment is awful for these too. The players are in larger teams than most of WoW’s organized eSports PvP play, but not much larger. Despite this, they get no individual interviews, little time to discuss or explain their play, and they often have to spend hours upon hours running practice routes, tuning their play, qualifying for the MDI, and then playing in the MDI for one of the most paltry winner’s purses in all of eSports. One of the pros, according to a video by Preach I watched, announced after this weekend that he’s leaving the MDI to play Path of Exile competitively. This was bad and funny to me because I didn’t even know PoE had competitive play, and I have played a non-zero amount of it (I met the developers at PAX West years ago and played one of the earliest builds of the game but now I’m just bragging).
Ultimately, the MDI is something I find a weird sort of dichotomy in. I actually enjoyed watching it more than I would have expected to and I got sort of weirdly hyped by it in the end, like it made me want to practice Disc Priest healing on live more to see if I could pull off some of the crazy levels of performance I saw in the MDI, and the same goes for my Vengeance DH play. On the other hand, like much of WoW eSports, I was frustrated with how obscure the presentation was, how little light the commentators shed on the proceedings, how much they expected me to already know and be familiar with, and how little I felt like I actually learned by watching. I felt like I got more out of watching the cast bars for the Disc Priests than I ever got from the supposed analysis happening, and one of the analysts was AutomaticJak, who mains Disc Priest, for fuck’s sake! I could see how someone outside of the game could get swept up in watching it just because it has moments that seem really interesting, but it also affirms that the most interest I ever see in eSports outside of LoL or Overwatch League is passerby at Blizzcon getting sucked in to an eSports final just by how hyped and loud the crowd is – and while the current format is completely understandable due to COVID, it also loses something for it.
If Blizzard wants to keep this format alive, they need to come out of the gate with better class, spec, role, dungeon, borrowed power, and talent balancing, and they need to make sure that the players have a material incentive for playing, because otherwise, the format might die. And right now, I’m not sure that would be an earned ending, issues mentioned above notwithstanding.