Okay, fine, brain: we’ll do this.
So, last Monday, you might recall (although you probably don’t) that I reported on a new type of eSport World of Warcraft developer Blizzard is trying to make it’s aforementioned MMORPG (and the whole reason Blizzard is still around, let’s be honest) competitively viable in the world of eSports. Called “The Mythic Dungeon Invitational”, it invites players to challenge the game’s most brutal dungeons and submit their scores, with the top 8 teams in each region being invited to a one-day extravaganza where they compete head-to-head in elimination matches.
And the idea excited me. Not because I’m a fan of World of Warcraft, or believe it has any chance of being a real eSport. Trust me, as someone who used to play the damn game, it can be boring as all heck to watch, even if you know what’s going on… and confusing as a mofo if you don’t. A game where half the screen is filled up with particle effects and floating numbers doesn’t make for great viewing material, especially not with the camera WoW employs. Maybe limiting the action to 5 people will be enough to fix that, but… who knows, that’s just speculating.
What really got my attention was the idea of taking eSports to the world of PvE, otherwise known as Player vs Environment, otherwise known as “almost every actual game in video games”.
It’s interesting I use that word “taking”, as if that’s not where eSports first began. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems so easy to forget that the real root of “competitive gaming” has always been at the ol’ Arcade, where people would battle for a spot on the old leaderboard for each individual game. There were even proper “high score tournaments” of games like Pac-Man well before people started competing against each other in Street Fighter 2 or Quake. Heck, famous eSport recluse Nintendo even pioneered many of these events from the 1990 Nintendo World Championship.
Heck, those gold plated cartages are worth more than the prize money you got for winning in one of the three categories.
eSports has since then divulged quite dramatically from that course, favoring highly competitive and strategic games like Halo, DOTA, and of course, good ol’ fashioned Starcraft. And it’s not hard to see why that was a logical move to make: not only does a PvP game more closely resemble traditional sports, but it’s also a more dynamic experience. Speedrunners will tell you that any game fair enough to not use any RNG can be broken and optimized, and while there’s certainly merit to the idea of competitive speedrunning, it might not be a diverse enough experience to draw any but the most dedicated fans, as everyone in those communities have already figured out the most optimized way to do things and there isn’t much room for variation or experimentation in a competitive setting.
Seriously, you watch people competitively speedun through Super Mario 64 or Super Metroid, it’s basically just watching the same thing until someone screws up. It’s tense until that first big mistake, afterwards it’s just sort of… follow the leader.
But back on topic, I’m not saying I don’t get why PvP has been the home of eSports for so long. It’s got so much going for it. But PvE has something unique to it too, something I feel like most games lose in the PvP element that so often becomes the focus of these eSports events.
For one, I think that PvE eSports events are probably more accessible to the common user. I know I just complained that World of Warcraft sort of lacks that “viewability” aspect, but let’s talk more generally: what do all eSports athletes have that most every other player doesn’t have?
Context. If you pop in League, there’s no option to pit your skills against the highest-ranked players in the world: and that’s fine, it’s a waste of their time and yours to get crushed over and over again by Koreans who will literally always be better than you. But it also means you never get to really contextualize the difficulty of the environment these players are playing in, and so you lose some perspective on the sheer skill on display.
So let’s compare it to a normal sport, like, say, football: you watch a Football player sprint across the field for two, three hours in a row, and you might scoff and say “pffft, that’s nothing”. But if you try to emulate this kind of feat in a nearby parking lot, you’ll probably get winded in a few minutes: helping you understand and admire the kind of physical ability these players have to perform at that level. But in most eSports, that kind of context doesn’t exist, since it’s all digital. In League of Legends, for example, you can watch a play go wrong and think “pfft, I could do that better”… but if you actually start playing, you’ll never get to pit yourself against the same level of people who thwarted the play in the first place.
Running is universal. But in competitive gaming, there will always be elements that athletes contend with that you simply can’t measure or emulate. Unless, of course, it’s a PvE thing.
Yeah, you have to work your way up to being able to do these Mythic Keystone dungeons, but, any player can. And even if you can’t, the penalties these keystones inflict on players, ranging from “increasing enemy health” to “executing weak players”, can be seen and understood by anyone who’s run those dungeons and understands how they impact play. The same applies for, say, Pac-Man Tournament Edition: anyone can pop that game in and give it a whirl, which means you can better understand exactly how talented and adaptable the top players are. PvP might be able to give that to you in a limited degree (noticeably with Starcraft, where the level of micromanagement and multitasking is nothing short of mind blowing) but it still makes watching it seem less impressive.
Secondly, PvE has a different vibe than PvP. Don’t get me wrong, I love the rivalries and drama that can happen in a PvP environment, and PvE is unlikely to produce legendary names that are spoken of frequently within the community, but PvE offers something else: a more cooperative, “game show” like feel where teams aren’t pitted against each other directly, but rather, face the same challenge and let their dynamic and teamwork show how they adapt and overcome the same obstacles.
Let’s be clear: PvP in gaming is innately a toxic environment. Some games do it better than others, that is true, but as long as players are butting heads in an effort to reach the same goal of victory, there’s going to be salt, toxicity, and rage. PvE has all of those things, too, but for these well-oiled teams that will be competing with each other? It’ll all be directed at the game itself, not this “enemy team”. Lesser teams will blame their own teammates when things go wrong, of course: I’ve seen that way more often than any rage being directed at the enemy team. But it still reduces the targets, and gives the professionals a platform to show off just what real cooperation can do. There’s no blaming a loss on the enemy being better than you in PvE: it’s all up to you, it’s if you’re good enough to meet its challenges.
Plus, at least as far as World of Warcraft goes, since the party stays together the whole time, if one person starts to slag off the others can usually compensate, typically through exceptional agro juggling. It’s possible these Mythic Keystone dungeons are so difficult there’s literally zero room for mistakes, in which case this issue just might be amplified, but assuming there’s even a little wiggle room I think most teams will be fine.
And finally, I think it’s really cool in that the metrics of the contest have changed. Now, it’s not two teams comparing their mastery of the mechanics and understanding of the systems to see who does it better: in PvE eSports, it’s more like the creators of the game have challenged the community with a unique puzzle. “This is technically beatable but we’ve made it especially hard to do that. Who wants a go?” I find that kind of challenge to be very compelling, and a whole different ball game from what we usually see.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I know there’s no way that this kind of thing will ever become popular enough in eSports to become mainstream. It’s just… not the same, for better and for worse. Still, while I’ve never watched someone play a Dungeon in World of Warcraft before, I think I just might check out one or two of those streams, when the championship happens. The game’s undergone a lot of changes since I last played, of course, but if the fundamentals remain the same… well… I just might get excited seeing all those particle effects and numbers overwhelming the screen.
We’ll have to see how it goes.