World of Warcraft has enjoyed a blitz of publicity in recent months after emerging as a surprise challenger to Fortnite at the top of the Twitch charts. Some of the world’s most famous streamers have abandoned the wildly popular battle royale title in favor of Blizzard’s 15-year-old MMO classic.

The news must have sparked consternation at the Epic Games headquarters. Fortnite has been a license to print money for Epic since its launch – in 2018 it generated a record-breaking $2.5 billion for the firm – and shareholders are terrified of its popularity waning.

Epic would kill for its flagship title to enjoy the sort of longevity that WoW boasts, so it has turned to the flourishing esports sector. It hit headlines around the world this year by stumping up $100 million in prize money for various competitive Fortnite tournaments. That has helped it hang onto many gamers, as they are lured back to the game by the potential to make $3 million in a single day’s work.

No Need to Invest in Esports?

Warcraft fans would kill for the chance to make life-changing sums by simply playing WoW, but sadly Blizzard has not really bought into the esports scene. You could argue that it does not really need to – Epic Games’ move smacks of desperation, whereas Blizzard knows that it has cultivated a large and passionate community around WoW and it does not need to throw money at a competitive gaming scene in order to buy longevity.

Yet it would be nice to see it channel a bit more cash into competitive WoW tournaments. Blizzard has made more than $11 billion from the Warcraft series, which makes it one of the most lucrative video game franchises ever made. Only Mario, Call of Duty, Pac-Man and Street Fighter can compete with that.

Yet the largest prize pool of all time for a WoW tournament was just $330,000. By contrast, the Fortnite World Cup carried a prize pool of $30 million and The International – the leading Dota 2 event of the year – had record-breaking prize money of $34.3 million in 2019.

Reasons to be Cheerful

Yet there are reasons to be optimistic about the prospect of a competitive WoW scene flourishing in the years ahead. Blizzard has seen its magnificent FPS game, Overwatch, go from strength to strength over the past few years as a result of its success in the world of esports. It appears to be coming around to the idea that a thriving esports scene can benefit its games, and prize money for WoW has been steadily climbing.

The WoW tournament at BlizzCon 2016 had prize money of $250,000 and that increased to $280,000 in 2017 and 2018 before climbing again to $330,000 this year.

It is also worth noting that Hearthstone has become one of the world’s biggest esports in recent years. Blizzard itself led the way by forking out a cool $1 million for the Hearthstone tournament at BlizzCon 2016, and this year’s Hearthstone World Championship also carried a $1 million prize pool. Check out Unikrn's esports wagering markets and you will see all sorts of big Hearthstone events taking place.

Another Blizzard series, StarCraft, is one of the most important titles in the history of competitive gaming. StarCraft II remains one of the top five most lucrative esports of all time and it has become a national pastime in Korea. Without ever doing much to place itself at the center of the competitive gaming sector, Blizzard holds the sort of position within esports that the likes of Epic could only dream of.

Reasons to be Fearful

However, any Warcraft fans hoping to see WoW really take off as an esport in the years ahead should temper their optimism. Blizzard invested heavily in an esports scene for Heroes of the Storm after unveiling it in 2015. HotS featured characters from across the firm’s franchises, but the majority came from the Warcraft universe.

The idea was to rival League of Legends and Dota 2 – the two most popular esports in the world – and it knew it needed to fund tournaments in order to make it a success. Within the space of a couple of years, pro Heroes of the Storm tournaments had received $18 million in prize money. Teams formed, and players developed livelihoods based around the game after devoting themselves to mastering it.

Then out of nowhere Blizzard pulled the plug on the scene. It shrunk the development team and cancelled its big esports events, leaving pro gamers in the lurch. HotS never quite managed to rival LoL and Dota 2, nor did it find an audience comparable to the likes of Warcraft, StarCraft and Overwatch, and that might be why Blizzard canned it. Yet it does suggest scepticism on the firm’s behalf regarding the potential of the esports sector.

An Exhilarating Scene

As it stands, just four players have earned more than $100,000 by playing WoW. Compare that to Dota 2, where 221 players have made more than $100,000 and 63 players have earned more than $1 million. The highest earning WoW player of all time is Swapxy, who has made $177,000 over a five-year period. That works out at $35,000 per year, which is a reasonable salary, but nothing too exciting.

Warcraft III players have enjoyed a more lucrative time of it: 12 players have earned more than $100,000 and the most successful, South Korean star Moon, has made $554,000. However, his best year came in 2007 and sometimes he will go a whole year without earning more than $10,000. The richest Warcraft III tournament was held more than four years ago and the prize money was just $100,000.

Of course there is more to it than money. Competitive WoW is an exhilarating scene, replete with passion, pride and fantastic clashes, like Guild Master of Limit’s showdown with London's Red Bull Gaming Sphere. Yet players need to be paid well for a thriving pro scene to emerge, and right now that is not happening.

Blizzard has acknowledged that it has more to do in this arena. It has certainly upgraded WoW esports this year, and fans will hope it remains on a quiet upward curve going forward. Twitch Rivals is also getting in on the action, breaking new ground by hosting an event for World of Warcraft Classic.

Popular streamers like Asmongold and Esfand were part of its $10,000 Capture the Flag Challenge, and it is great to see independent events like that launching. It is unlikely that Warcraft will ever give Dota 2 or LoL a run for their money in the esports sphere, but it has the potential to enjoy reasonable growth in the years ahead.
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