Shanghai taxis are better than a cup of coffee—or ten. My cab zips through downtown streets over painted lines that apparently mean nothing here, passing just inches from cars and pedestrians, and honking for both excellent and seemingly no-good reasons every few seconds. You just have to put your head down and hope for the best, and that act of blocking the world out and praying the next second won’t be your last is possibly what the World of Warcraft Arena and StarCraft II players will be feeling every moment they’re onstage this weekend. One misclick, one error in countering their opponent, or one second of hesitation could end it and send them packing. Today marks the opening of the 2012 Battle.net World Championship, and as long as I can survive this cab ride I’ll see the two game’s global champions crowned within the next 48 hours.
The doors at the Shanghai Expo Mart are still closed. It’s an unassuming cube of a building, but the inside has been transformed into an entertainment spectacle. The event staff and crews put the finishing touches on what have been months of planning to prepare the sold-out venue for the weekend’s epic eSports battles. I’ve been to all six BlizzCons, as well as the Worldwide Invitational in Paris, and while the Battle.net World Championship will house essentially the same genus of eSports event, it’s easy to tell even before it begins that this year will be a particularly special beast. Combining the fact that it’s being held in Shanghai in front of a large and passionate audience, with the StarCraft II World Championship Series’ global “Home to Hero” grassroots tournament structure and the tried-and-true World of Warcraft Arena invitational—not to mention big payouts for the winners—and I already know everyone here and watching from home is in for a unique experience.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to catch a few of today’s StarCraft II matchups (Group E lolwut!?), but I’m here for World of Warcraft, and there’s just going to be too much nonstop Arena action for me to tear myself away. But that’s what VODs are for, right? Ten WoW teams are competing – two from each region – in a best-of-three round robin where every team plays every other team until we’re down to a final four. Then it’s on to a double -elimination best-of-five where two wins will take a team to the finals, and two losses will see them exiting stage left. The final two teams will face off near the end of the second day, and of course only one will take the title of 2012 World of Warcraft Arena Global Champion and the $105,000 grand prize.
The hall is packed. Mike (Morhaime) takes the stage to kick off the event, giving me some very familiar BlizzCon nerd chills; the Arena teams are introduced; and the flag ceremony commences for the StarCraft II players. I get a bit geeky standing just feet away from the procession and cheering for North American teams and players as the Chinese crowd also plays home-turf favorites. We’re off and running. While the first Arena match is played offstage, the Chinese super-guilds Stars and Supreme Quicksand take to the three Challenge Mode races. I’m hurriedly whisked away to a booth to answer questions (through translations) on just about everything Blizzard-game-related before I can catch either. For some reason they call me Uncle B. in China. I’m struck by how players here seem to ask just about the same questions as they do back home.
I manage to wrap up my first Q&A session and head backstage into a whirlwind of people. The World of Warcraft matches hit a few different snags early in the day, causing an explosion of activity as people work to resolve them, but things smooth out and begin to hit a stride in the afternoon. Not being able to catch any of the English casting, as it’s not broadcast to the hall, makes following the matches a bit tougher, but certainly the big takeaway for the day was the stunningly near-perfect record Team Evil Geniuses was able to pull off. Early on they faced the double-Shaman comp of the double-German EU team, I’m Just Being Honest, and despite a tough set of games against the Grounding Totem-happy trio, EG was able to pull off a 2-0 victory that set them on a steamroller momentum throughout the day. At the end they had only lost a single game, boasting a perfect match score. While they lead the Western pack heading into Day 2, they aren’t alone, as the mostly Canadian North American team Bring It, and Europe teams I’m Just Being Honest and Yaspresents show extremely healthy win counts. The Chinese and Taiwanese teams have taken a beating on this first day, and Korean team Delirium Termans completely forfeited the tournament after just a few lost matches. Korean team LG-IM is currently in a strong second place, but the Western teams could easily close the gap with their remaining games. Regardless of the specific placement outcome, we’re likely to see some despondent Chinese attendees tomorrow picking foreign favorites as their home teams sit in the crowd watching the matches with them.
With that the first day of the Battle.net World Championship comes to a close, but it’s still early for a city where the night life doesn’t start winding down until four in the morning. The triumphant will hopefully be wise and call it early, while disappointment will almost certainly have a long and blurry night ahead—and those of us not competing are probably somewhere in-between. Who will take the title tomorrow? Can anyone stop EG? Will LG-IM hold on to their strong second spot? Or will it come down to a reprise of the regional finals as brother battles brother? Let me know what you think in the comments below, and join me tomorrow night at 5:30 PM PST as the stream clicks live and we can find out together.