URAL Steel 2012: A Strange And Wonderful Journey Into The World of Tanks
Mark makes his way to Russia for Wargaming.net's second stab at eSports with URAL Steel 2012, the world championship final for World of Tanks.
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If Wargaming Did Olympic Opening Ceremonies…
A good opening ceremony can turn a resistant, skeptical crowd into a screaming mass of fans, all eager to witness the soaring highs and lows of a great sporting event. Or, in the case of World of Tanks, be utterly bewildering.
We were sat in the press box out towards the front of the stage, surrounded by the crowds that had been pouring into the arena since the early hours of the morning. Film crews were setting up in front of us, pointing cameras towards the long pair of desks and glowing monitors that dominated the stage. Between them was a large, white projector screen, from underneath which emerged a pair of small children pushing wooden tanks along the floor. A globe with "the 50s" scrawled across it flashed up, accompanied by a slowly rising orchestral score, which was swiftly followed by "the 80s" and another pair of children, this time sporting outlandish plastic tanks that they gingerly rolled out in front of them.
Then came "the 90s" and yet another pair of children, this time poorly feigning enthusiasm for a remote-controlled tank they could barely control. And then, the finale; a final, lonely child emerged, bathed in a spotlight, who took a solitary seat at the center of the stage and unfolded a laptop. Tanks exploded on the screen above, the music rose, and the MC screamed the crowd into a vicious frenzy, and all for this strange endorsement of the anti-social loner.
"The MC screamed the crowd into a vicious frenzy, and all for this strange endorsement of the anti-social loner."
Soon the arena was filled with sounds of gunshots and explosions emanating from a dramatic URAL Steel 2012 trailer. Girls bearing flags from each of the participating teams paraded across the stage, followed by the teams themselves, who were introduced one-by-one to a pulsing Euro-trance beat. The MC, who had whipped himself into wild, bleary-eyed form of madness, was hurling gestures at the crowd thick and fast, eliciting cheers for the Russian president of e-sports and a man representing Uralvagonzavod, which I later discovered is the largest battle tank manufacturer in the world.
And then, silence.
Slowly the teams make their way to the desks, and begin setting up their arsenal of tanks for the round ahead. Some players sit conferring with teammates, while others stare straight ahead, oblivious to the murmur of the crowd and the constant flash of cameras around them. Like the qualifiers, the matches are tense to the point of agony. Ten-minutes of reconnaissance and build up play are followed by a scrappy, panicked firefight as one player takes the plunge and drives out into the line of fire. The chaos continues, with tanks jerking across the screen to avoid enemy fire, before going up in a ball of flames after one risky move too many.
The crowd remain largely silent throughout each match, each of them following the action with a intense, wide-eyed stare. But it's difficult to see how they're doing so; there's no large, easily visible scoreboard to speak of, nor is the sparse commentary lively enough to hold attention. Even the spectator mode is a hack-job, with an extra tank killed off at the beginning of the game in order to broadcast its free-roaming death view to the arena.
"Women, scantily clad, parade themselves in front of the audience, gyrating their hips to some god-awful techno-drivel."
And yet, despite the rough edges, watching a group of people so skilled, and so dedicated to a game is strangely compelling. There are matches where teams go in, guns blazing, while others are drawn-out strategic affairs with clever tactics and sneaky attacks, and all provide a sense of accomplishment, elation, and disappointment that's so important to a sporting event.
But then, there are intervals, and the strangeness returns. Women, scantily clad, parade themselves in front of the audience, gyrating their hips to some god-awful techno-drivel. Another match. Then a pair of soldiers, armed with virtuosic accordion skills jam to more techno-beats, their swift fingers creating a terrifying hybrid of trance and folk. Another match. And then a dance troupe, pumping fists and grabbing groins to the most gangster of gangster rap take the stage and perform an eye-popping set of twists and leans.
No doubt there's an element of culture shock at work, but it's hard to imagine such insanity playing such a large part in any other eSports event. And even after the final--a whitewash 3-0 victory to Russian team The RED: Rush Unity against fellow countrymen RED-Z GRA--the blasting confetti cannons and stilted prize presentations were an awkward end to a tournament that never quite felt like the professional gaming event it sought so hard to be.
The potential is certainly there, though--whether or not Wargaming.net can land on the right side of charming and mad eccentricity remains to be seen.
A Brief Introduction To World of Tanks
Somewhere beneath this mass of jumbled cables, half-eaten bags of crisps, and energy drinks lies a basketball court--not that I noticed at first glace. The baskets, once part of Russia's premier basketball club, are raised up, high and out of sight; the smell of burnt rubber and gym socks replaced with an oddly comforting mixture of freshly fried electronics, and sweaty anticipation. No, this isn't an ordinary sporting event, at least, not one that involves the sort of physical activity usually required to attract a thousand ticketed fans to a desolate, concrete slab in downtown Moscow. This is URAL Steel 2012, a gathering of the greatest tactical gaming minds from around the globe, all competing for slice of $77,000 and a shot at being the all time greatest, World of Tanks champion.
The reality of the situation is far less grand. Inside, the basketball court is filled with combatants from all over the globe, each hunkered down along banks of desks equipped with gently whirring computers and microphone-equipped headsets. The teams, seven people on each, sit largely in silence, their faces bathed in an eerie blue glow cast by the monitors placed mere inches away from their faces. Tech guys swarm under desks, tugging at lengths of cable, while referees parade the room, curiously glancing at each team before furiously scribbling away on their clipboards.
Each of the desks is emblazoned with a team name, which is scrawled onto a piece of A4 paper with thick, black marker and stuck at the head of the table. Most of the names are entirely nonsensical, or--at the very least--completely unpronounceable: Virtus.Pro ACES, RED-Z:GRA, Pqlp, New Star Team 1, The RED: Rush Unity, OM - Whitebeard. Inventive? Perhaps. But catchy? Lord no. They'll need to do better if this thing ever goes mainstream.
"The round had lasted just six minutes, but--even as a simple observer--it felt like an eternity."
The silence is broken by a roar from at the far end of the room. There, one of the Korean teams is on the verge of winning a match. Their coach, a large, surly man with a Drill Sergeant complex hovers around them, whispering pointers to some, and barking orders to others. I gaze over at a monitor to see a group of tanks taking cover behind a mountain, out of the opposition's line of sight. A solitary tank is sent out onto the battlefield, gently luring the enemy towards it. And just like that, as the unsuspecting enemy tanks creep towards the mountain, they circle, and they pounce, and they destroy.
The team leaps up in a flurry of high-fives, brisk hugs, and shattered tension. The round had lasted just six minutes, but--even as a simple observer--it felt like an eternity. That moment was as tense, as dramatic, and as exciting as I could have hoped for, and far more appealing than watching a group of bespeckled, red-eyed teenagers hunkered round a set of keyboards would suggest. And this was just a qualifying round. The real action, and indeed the true insanity wouldn't begin until the arena was filled, the spotlights were on, and two soldiers, armed with accordions and backed by a pulsing techno beat were greeted with rapturous applause.
Kubinka, Tanks, And The Wartime Joyride
And yet, just twenty-four hours earlier, I already believed that I'd not only witnessed true insanity, but that I'd also played a strange, integral part in it. We had set out on a hellish journey through the heart of Moscow, and out to its high-rise infested outskirts; the competing teams were crammed onto a bus away from the prying of eyes of the journalists, who were tightly squeezed onto another. Our destination was Kubinka Tank Museum, one of the largest in the world, and a highly prized tourist attraction. But there was little talk of tanks along the way. An evening of vodka and regret had rendered most of the bus reticent to spark up a conversation, leaving me to stare out of the window at a string of strange highway adverts, most of which featured large men with large beards holding even larger guns.
It was three hours before we reached the museum, during which time the bus had become a breeding ground for bad smells and weak bladders. We piled off it, eager to stretch our legs and find relief as quickly and as painlessly as possible. The competing teams had already been there for some time, and were milling around a group of tanks as we wandered through the black iron gates at the entrance. The Americans, by far the most rambunctious of the group, were lapping up the atmosphere, taking photos and pointing out just how big and impressive the guns attached to the tanks were. They were in high spirits, despite being the weakest team in the competition--no one expected them to get past the qualifiers, let alone win.
"It was three hours before we reached the museum, during which time the bus had become a breeding ground for bad smells and weak bladders."
Still, the same could be said for most of teams there. The Russians were by far and away the favourites and--judging by the looks on their faces--the most nonchalant about being surrounded by hundreds of soul-destroying, killing machines. Neither, it must be said, were the many children visiting the museum, who were weirdly at home climbing and crawling over tanks like they were giant, military-grade jungle gyms. We quickly wandered past them and through the long, grey warehouses of the museum, eyeing up tanks from practically every military conflict in history, and watching the teams laughing and taking photos in front of them.
Past the warehouses lay a gift shop--or rather, a shack--which sold all sorts of weird military paraphernalia. The toy tanks and soviet fridge magnets seemed innocent enough, but something told me that the "I Love AK47s" t-shirt might have been a step too far. The teams were eating it up, though. One enterprising member of the Korean team bought a ushanka, which he then refused to take off--yes even indoors--for the remainder of the trip. His teammates, who looked less than impressed with his new hat, were sat nearby on some wooden picnic tables, eating what looked like the remains of a week-old Sunday lunch, and washing it down with several cans of domestic lager. It later transpired the remains were actually "authentic" WWII rations made to an old Soviet army recipe, a fact that didn't make them the slightest bit more appealing.
But the surrealism of the situation didn't truly hit home until we were led to a nearby field. There, after several large helpings of vodka, we were treated to the eye-opening sight of a tank ploughing its way around the field in endless laps for our amusement. It was oddly impressive, most likely due to the toxic mix of alcohol and war rations working their way through our bodies. Still, there was little that could prepare us for the sight of a group of journalists who fearlessly leapt atop the tank and went for a wartime-esque joyride around the field, punching their air with their fists as they rode, before turning a pale shade of white as they hung on for dear life over bumps on the muddy circuit.
"Something told me that the 'I Love AK47s' t-shirt might have been a step too far."
By the time the tank had stopped rolling, the competing teams had already left to prepare for the tournament. And when we arrived back at the hotel a few hours later--after an excruciating visit to a museum bathroom comprised of large holes in the ground--they were already huddled around tables in the lobby and in the bar, discussing strategies and working on their game-faces for the tournament.
They looked eager. They looked ready. Eight hours of tense, non-stop, tank-filled battles awaited. And nothing, not even a lunch of war rations and a peek into the horrors of history was going to stop them.'