The World of Tanks had always been a foreign one to me. It was a game that mystified me on two levels. The first stemmed from its success as a free-to-play tanks game. Gameplay places a player in control of an armored vehicle from a first- or third-person view. Multiple game modes are available, with players able to group up with others for a variety of team fight modes. Driving and shooting a tank is fairly straightforward, but the bulk of the gameplay strategy comes from positioning, map and terrain awareness, and knowing the best spots to target on an enemy tank. At first glance, it was standard artillery warfare gameplay.
Outside of the game, I frequently came across large-scale, well-produced World of Tanks events for the public and media. I repeatedly heard about the game's popularity, read about how it topped various worldwide free-to-play lists, driven by the large size of its active player base. How the revenue it generated was among the top five free-to-play PC games in the world.
As if the game's placement on these charts wasn't proof enough of its success, Wargaming CEO Victor Kislyi is one of the three gaming executives to be inducted into the industry's billionaire club, sharing company with Gabe Newell and Markus "Notch" Persson. Think about that for a moment. Kislyi is part of a club whose only other company is the co-founder of Valve (and one of the key people responsible for digital-distribution platform Steam) and the creator of Minecraft, the best-selling PC game of all time.
And yet, when I reached out from within my inner circle of gaming friends to other, outer gaming communities, I didn't come across a single active, dedicated World of Tanks player. Most gamers I quizzed had never even been exposed to the title. While the game is supposed to have an expansive, active player base, it seemed that the people actually playing it eluded me no matter where I went.
The second manner in which World of Tanks confounded me came from the size of its competitive events. Over the years, I've followed the e-sports scenes for multiple games: StarCraft 2, Dota 2, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and the fighting-game scene, to name a few. I played all these games and understood their popularity -- and the ways in which they appeal to a spectator. The effects of these e-sports scenes would often cross paths in coverage or be represented at the same major events. For example, even if I didn't follow League of Legends very closely all the time, I'd hear about the game's major competitive events, or when something controversial was making waves on the internet. News trickled into sight via my social media feeds, through online communities I was a part of, or was highly visible in the websites that I frequented.
However, World of Tanks existed in its own, seemingly separate space. Sure, some major e-sports organizations established teams in the Tanks scene, lending the familiarity of their brand to the landscape. But outside of that, news never crossed over into the feed of other competitive games I followed. I never heard about the results of competitive events for World of Tanks, nor about teams that were making the big plays. I couldn't fathom why. How could an entire e-sport with a community this size, with a scene so established, and financial backing so solid, always evade my notice? How did I not already know who the major teams, tournaments, and players were, when I was easily exposed to all this information in other e-sports games?
Understanding of World of Tanks as a game, and as a competitive e-sport, would dawn on me much later --after I touched upon the history and culture of two very different countries, immersed myself into the game's real-life e-sports audience, and conversed at length with Wargaming staff in different departments from around the world.
Looking at the game sans its competitive element, let's examine World of Tanks' base audience. To begin with, the game's community is very skewed in its gender breakdown. In the time I spent interviewing players and developers and observing its audience at community events, the game's male-dominated player base became obvious. Even when compared to my own experiences in other popular gaming communities, World of Tanks' audience was very, very, noticeably one-sided in its gender balance. This was not accidental.
Speaking to me in an interview, Wargaming CEO Victor Kislyi himself was up front about the audience World of Tanks has intentionally captured.
"The game was targeted to a slightly older male audience," he said. "Older guys, who usually have a family, work, and [have] an extra couple of dollars in their pocket for their favorite game but don't have that much time. Plus it's a little slower than your typical shooter or Dota-style game. So you don't have to be clicking 70 times per second to be good at World of Tanks. It's slower, it's...OK, manly. It's historic, it's metal, it's scary in a good sense, and it's photorealistic. There aren't many photorealistic, really cinematic-looking games in e-sports. Most of them are cartoonish."
Is he interested in shifting the game's gender disparity?
"Not necessarily. I think there's very little we can do to make photorealistic tanks appealing to females," he answered frankly.
When I brought up the question of the game's demographic to Deon Pek, head of customer relations at Wargaming for Asia, he, too, spoke frankly of the heavily male-dominated player base in the region.
"Previously we saw, like, 99.9 percent male players," Pek said, "But now I think because of e-sports, we're starting to see more females. I wouldn't say it's growing a huge amount, but during tournaments in Asia, you'll see female fans and such."
It was interesting to hear Pek's insinuation that World of Tanks' e-sports scene was encouraging growth among its female demographic, especially in light of my experience watching the game's global Grand Finals in Warsaw, Poland. The event saw 12 of the best World of Tanks teams in the world compete on the biggest stage, having fought their way to the top in their respective regions: Asia-Pacific, CIS, Europe, North America, China, supplemented by two chosen Wild Card teams.
Wargaming and e-sports company ESL hosted the Grand Final in Warsaw's Torwar Hall, a venue with a capacity that exceeds 5,000. I found myself among them, in a stadium environment that brimmed with an energy not unlike that of a major sporting event. Families with children and couples were present in the crowd, though my observations did confirm Pek and Kislyi's comments -- men far outnumbered women, and the average age was above that of the usual group of young adults I was accustomed to seeing at e-sports events.
It would appear that Wargaming was well aware of its audience, employing attractive young women to pose silently on stage during the Grand finals. Wearing nice dresses in World of Tanks' blue or red team colors, the women stood in place and smiled for the audience and live broadcast. That was as far as their role went, and it spoke volumes to Wargaming's awareness of its audience -- and how the company encouraged the direction of its growth.
Despite this, female presence wasn't completely absent from the event. Shoutcaster Lauren "Pansy" Scott provided commentary throughout, and she was well-versed in the game, with more than three years of providing professional shoutcasting in the World of Tanks scene under her belt.
"It's strange, isn't it?" she responded when I voiced my observations on the game's player base. "I think this comes up in every game, though. That is, how do you tap into the female market? But Wargaming seems to have found another market that's not just the normal 15-to-25 [audience]. Generally, what you see in [World of Tanks] is...older, I guess, from 25 and up. People with disposable incomes [that] maybe have more of a family life. I think the demographic is very unique to this game"
Scott said that despite the game's gender disparity, she hasn't felt pushed away by the community.
"I've got to say that personally, Wargaming has always been very welcoming to me in casting," she said. "There aren't that many other female casters, from what I understand. I think there are a couple...but it's few and far between."
Veteran World of Tanks caster Luke "Dorjan" Kneller pegs the demographic at the more senior end of the spectrum. "It's old," he told me. "A much larger population of elderly people play it. I don't want to say super-old, but up to 50, 60-plus can actually be playing this game. It's a much slower game, it's not based on twitch reactions as much, and it's a much more steadily paced game."
The game's pace plays strongly into its competitive scene, the format of which pits teams of seven players against one another. In a reflection of the game's key demographic, the age of competitors ranged from teenagers to men in their mid-30s. The 2016 competition format featured maps containing capture points and rounds that lasted no longer than 10 minutes. It was surprising how quickly each round concluded, and the grand final saw two teams face off against each other in a best-of-nine format.
While watching all these competitive matches take place live, it dawned on me that World of Tanks is truly a game that benefits a team that works together. The gameplay formula minimized "hero" moments, where a single player could singlehandedly secure victory for his team. Players worked strategically as a cohesive unit. Because tanks weren't able to travel over the large maps quickly without overexposing themselves, positioning was crucial to a team's strategy. Despite the game's steady pace, matches could still be quick to sway in either team's favor. This resulted in an emphasis on team tactics over individual skill. Because the spectator camera provided an overall view of what was happening on the battlefield, it was easy to keep up with the action, even with 14 participants playing at once.
Despite my own skill being nowhere near that of the professional players, it was easy to get swept up in the excitement of those matches. Teams executed bold strategies that required hiding tanks behind hills. Matches came down to the wire, with seconds left to secure a capture point. These competitive matches were far from the lumbering, drawn-out tank battles I'd expected.
"It's these sort of things that I think World of Tanks really highlights more than any other game," Scott described in the lead-up to the Grand Finals. "You can't just win on your own. You really do need everyone on the same page, and you see some brilliant strategies."
"It's the preparation that goes into these tactics. In the spectator client, you can see everything; you get a full picture of what's going on. But to really understand how brilliant these teams are, you need to play from their perspective, and you get the idea of how damn good they are -- it's unreal. For me, there's a lot of very small nuances that set World of Tanks apart, and a lot of it comes to the forefront at events like this."
The World of Tanks 2016 Grand Finals saw teams Navi and Hellraisers go head-to-head in a nail-baiting series of matches. Both teams are a part of professional e-sports organizations formed in Ukraine. Since the game's early days, the competitive World of Tanks scene has been heavily dominated by Eastern European countries. Of the teams that made it into the top eight placements of the tournament, six were from Eastern Europe.
The game's popularity in the region can perhaps be partially attributed to its first launch in Russia. Wargaming is headquartered in Cyprus and was first formed in Belarus. World of Tanks was first released in Russia in 2010. A North American release followed in 2011. That year, Wargaming announced that it had reached 3 million registrations for World of Tanks, and that two-thirds of that was from the Russian server.
Evidently, World of Tanks resonates with certain regions much more than others. The game has been designed with what Kislyi has described as "photorealistic" accuracy. The tanks themselves are the stars of the game, re-creations of real-life machines designed for use in war. And, in turn, their in-game counterparts are designed to draw in a specific audience.
This point was driven home when I visited a war museum in Warsaw. It was daunting walking among the hulking, powerful metal machines. Despite the fact that they had long since been retired, the tanks were still impressive. It was my first exposure to real-life tanks. I grew up in Australia, where tank warfare was hardly mentioned in history class and had little influence in the country's timeline. By contrast, the machines played a critical role in Europe's history, as I learned in the museum that day.
Similarly, when I visited the museum in the War Memorial of Korea, the English-speaking tour guide mentioned tanks as the major force behind a key turning point of the Korean War. The guide explained that North Korea received multiple tanks from Russia, which turned the tide of battle in their favor. South Korea, on the other hand, didn't possess any tanks, and they were quickly driven back by the enemy's numerous machines.
Even though tanks have had a large impact in historical battles around the world, I felt the vast differences in World of Tanks' player base between regions. While I encountered enthusiastic fans in attendance at the Asia-Pacific region finals in South Korea, their numbers paled in comparison to the audience I witnessed at the World of Tanks global Grand Finals in Warsaw. There, hundreds of fans had cheered their favorite teams loudly and waved large national flags in the audience. Outside the venue entrance, a full-sized tank was parked for display. I saw attendees climb on it and pose happily to take photos. One group of men even yelled loudly while posing in front of the machine for a photo, fists raised to the air. To these people, the tank's presence was something worth commemorating in pictures.
"The history is also quite important. In some regions, tanks were popular and the kids were playing with tank toys from childhood," World of Tanks head of offline competitive gaming Alexey Kuznetsov told me. Like the other Wargaming staff I'd spoken to, he described a large portion of the game's demographic as within the 16-to-35 age bracket -- with more players leaning towards an "older audience." However, he also noted that some of these players had perhaps transitioned to the game after playing with tank toys as children. It's a simple analogy, but it made sense.
"The tanks themselves [bring new players in]," he said. "It's like the great machine, it's very heavy. What brings people to buy cars? It's a similar thing."
Despite hailing from a different region, that sentiment was echoed by North American professional player Ian "Masterpupil" Taylor. I sat down with him at the World of Tanks Grand Finals in Warsaw.
"I first saw the game's ad [online] and clicked on it because it had World War II tanks," he said. "I love history, [and] being able to play tanks [in a game] that were made to be used in war was just so interesting to me." For Taylor, World of Tanks was his first real "strategic war game."
"The Russians love it because of their love for armored divisions." added his teammate and captain, John "TigersLovePepper" Caljouw.
Despite the game's vast audience, Kislyi revealed that the majority of players never spend money on World of Tanks. Speaking about users who did choose to invest their real-world cash, Kislyi was frank: "It varies from region to region, but 75 percent of people never ever pay us anything. We still love them." However, he was adamant that players who spend money don't have a significant advantage over those who choose not to pay.
"We don't have anything that you can buy and have an advantage with in the game," he said. "That's why we call it 'free-to-win.' Most of our sales go through items that speed up your general progress. It's pretty much exchanging time for money."
Real-world cash can be used to buy in-game gold, which can then be spent on research to unlock new tanks, earn experience faster, or purchase consumable items like shells. However, players can still unlock the same tanks by playing the game, albeit by spending a little more time than if they'd chosen to pay.
Even so, the large majority of the professional players I quizzed spoke candidly about how much money they'd invested into World of Tanks. Almost all of them had started off by putting money in the game -- values ranged from $20 to "hundreds." However, all players agreed that investing real-world currency isn't crucial to becoming good at the game, although it certainly helps by speeding up the leveling process -- which, in turn, unlocks access to stronger tanks. It would make sense that the option to pay to speed up the leveling process would be lucrative to a demographic that doesn't have a lot of free time but does have a little extra money to spend on the game.
Wargaming's audience targeting has evidently been crafted with a laser focus, and it's seemingly paid off with World of Tanks' phenomenal success. It favors teamwork over individual skill, and it's armed with photorealistic tanks that have appeal not just for their visual aesthetic, but also for their ability to resonate with cultures whose histories have seen strong influence from tank warfare. The game's success sees it continue to receive updates, and Wargaming has even expanded its reach via other platforms, such as comics and anime.
Seeing the cultural relevance of the game combined with the appeal of its gameplay has unravelled some of the mysteries that World of Tanks presented to me. It is a game whose success consists of very specific parts. The understanding of its cultural relevance dawned on me when as I read about war histories presented in very different war museums. It came to me as the noise of a shouting audience washed over me at competitive events. It became clearer every time I spoke to a player or caster from the scene. The World of Tanks audience may be a niche one, but Wargaming's focus has made it work. Coupled with the growing size of the game's competitive scope, I do believe the World of Tanks machine will rumble onward for many more years to come.