The IS-7 thunders over the rubble of a ruined cottage just as a T110E5 comes crashing through the trees. They simultaneously fire on the Spahpanzer Ru 251, which is rocked by explosions but manages to hang on. As the attackers reload, the Ru 251 wheels backward, searching for cover. But an SU-152 is waiting to deliver the kill shot. In a fiery blast, the Ru 251 ceases to exist.
That’s a lot of twisted metal carnage, but Angela Abshier, director of resort marketing at the Downtown Grand, isn’t frantic about the destruction. She’s not even worried about turning around the Fremont Room for the wedding scheduled later that week. All of this destruction is virtual, part of a paroxysm of digital combat that will culminate in crowning a new champion of Wargaming.Net League North America, or WGLNA.
Cyprus-based Wargaming offers four main games: World of Tanks, World of Warships, World of Warplanes and Master of Orion. The mayhem at the Downtown Grand is confined to World of Tanks, a massive multiplayer online game that, as the name suggests, pits teams of tankers against each other. Players select which one of more than 350 historical tanks they will use, then square off. The game is free to play, but players can buy add-ons to augment their experience.
As with many digital diversions, it’s a small leap from game to sport. WGLNA is the North American division of World of Tanks’ eSports division. The regions are further divided into Open, Bronze, Silver and Gold leagues. Teams advance toward Gold by winning and are relegated downward when they lose. The 12 teams in the Gold League play each other during a three-month season, after which the top six teams advance to the playoffs. The top two teams earn byes, with the other four competing for the right to challenge them at the finals.
The Downtown Grand itself has committed to gaming, having launched an eSports lounge that hosts weekly “fight nights” and inked additional competitions.
There was big money at stake: The championship contested at the Downtown Grand—the victor claimed a $75,000 prize in addition to a slot representing North America in the Wargaming Global Grand Finals in Warsaw this April.
Before reaching Warsaw, Poland, where last season’s finals attracted an overflow crowd that necessitated screens be set up outside the stadium after it reached capacity, there is Las Vegas. Chris Karlewicz, commissioner of WGLNA, says that Las Vegas is a natural fit for this continent’s marquee event.
“We realized we had a common goal and a possibility to host a great event,” he says of the company and Downtown Grand chairman Seth Schorr. Both the hotel itself and Downtown’s revitalization played into the WGLNA’s decision to host this year’s event here.
A few hundred spectators and a block of 150 rooms may not seem particularly notable in comparison to the 50,000 importers, distributors and manufacturers in town for ASD Market Week at the Las Vegas Convention Center this week. But the giant Las Vegas convention machine started just as humbly, with groups measured in the dozens and hundreds.
eSports tourism may grow into a prime market for Las Vegas, which can leverage its existing infrastructure to offer leagues an accessible, affordable place to stage events with global audiences. That is why a dedicated eSports arena may be on its way to Las Vegas.
The Downtown Grand itself has committed to gaming, having launched an eSports lounge that hosts weekly “fight nights” and inked additional competitions, including the opening event for the 2016 Madden Community Championship March 4-5.
There’s an immediate economic lift from the event’s local spending, but the ultimate impact goes beyond that. The finals also got the Las Vegas brand name in front of an audience that is passionate about playing. Games are streamed on BattleViewer.com, and, even for the relatively uninitiated, are surprisingly engaging. With play-by-play and color commentary accompanying the battle feeds, the quick-paced matches are entertaining even if you are not an avid player. With a base of 110 million registered users, World of Tanks is a prime venue for advertising Las Vegas to a new generation.
They might not be traditional Vegas customers, but someone who is that dedicated to their recreation will surely find ways to spend money here. And with so much recent soul searching about how to better appeal to the younger visitors who are coming to Las Vegas in increasing numbers, taking a chance on eSports is a logical development.
David G. Schwartz is the director of UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research.