The battle of Ruinberg has turned into a blood bath. Six Allied tanks lay twisted in smoking ruin; their vanquished captains outgunned and outmanoeuvred at every turn. Like a pack of ravenous wolves, the enemy units descend on the sole survivor. There is nowhere to run. No chance of reinforcements. In an inferno of exploding tank shells, the remaining VIII is swiftly torn to pieces. If war is hell, then this must surely be the Ninth Circle.
Such is the fate that befell eLevate Black at this year’s World Of Tanks Grand Finals. It was a sad and slightly ignoble end to one of the biggest comebacks in Wargaming.net League’s history. After a shaky start to the season, the crack US outfit blitzed its way into the final group stage, only to be eliminated at the penultimate hurdle. We asked the team to debrief us on their war-torn journey.
We’re standing outside the EXPO XXI centre in Warsaw, Poland on Day One of the WoT Grand Finals. The atmosphere can only be described as electric, with more than 6000 boisterous fans jostling for plum seats in the main arena. Adding to the buzz are a pair of authentic WW2 tanks that have been painstakingly transported for the occasion.
It is here that we first meet eLevate Black’s team leader Jonathan “zoidbergenstein” Pickard. In just a few hours’ time, his squad will take to the stage for their first match of the tournament. The training, the hard-fought victories, the highs and the lows: it’s all been building to this moment.
“We’re feeling very strong coming into this tournament. Our confidence levels are high, our strats are where they need to be and our execution is there,” Jonathan boasts to the supporting nod of his handler. “I’m just excited to see what we can do against the rest of the world.”
The road to the 2015 Grand Finals has been a bumpy one for team eLevate. At the beginning of the year, it underwent a merger with another US team in a bid to strengthen its core roster of players. The transition proved to be problematic, with the newly-christened “eLevate Black” losing its first three games of the season. Clearly, something wasn't working.
After an emergency strategy meeting, the team hit back with a vengeance and ultimately took out the North American championship. This elevated their ranking to seventh in the world and guaranteed them a spot in the grand finals. The hard work had finally paid off (with ‘work’ being the operative word.)
“In terms of training, I can’t even give you hours per day. All I know is it’s a lot. Apart from the battles we play, we also spend a great deal of time discussing strategies and reviewing videos of other teams," Jonathan said.
“The thing some people don’t get about pro gaming is the huge commitment involved. Sometimes a friend will invite me somewhere and be like “oh, you’re choosing a video game over me!” But when it’s prime time for streaming you don’t really have a choice; it really is a full-time job.”
As full-time jobs go, Wargaming.net League is not without its perks. The total prize pool for this year’s event is $300,000 and things are poised to get much bigger. In 2014, Wargaming.net’s eSports arm was valued at a cool $194 million. According to the company’s bean counters, this is set to nearly triple by 2017.
In addition to instant cash rewards, the winning teams can also expect to pick up lucrative sponsorship contracts which is where the real money lies. But first you need to kill your rivals.
If eLevate Black could be said to have a nemesis at the 2015 Grand Finals, it would have to be Virtus.PRO. The pro Russian team were the runners-up at last year’s grand final and have dominated every European tournament in the last year. They've also got the better of eLevate Black in past clashes.
“Virtus.PRO is definitely a team we have our eye on. We played them at Rumble In The West where we were beaten. So having a chance to come back and show them how much we’ve improved since then is something we’re all very excited about.”
Despite his high hopes, Jonathan is aware that defeat is a distinct possibility – and like any good general, he needs to be there for his troops.
“World Of Tanks is a game that punishes mistakes. We don’t plan to get knocked out early, but it happens. In that scenario, the first thing we’ll do is sit down and reaffirm ourselves as a team. We’ll break down what we did correctly, what we didn’t do and how we can stop teams beating us the same way next year.
“In eSports, you can do really well one season and really bad the next, so you’ve got to roll with the punches and always work as hard as you can to keep getting better.”
Unfortunately for eLevate Black, Jonathan’s words proved to be prophetic – not only were they eliminated in the first stage of the finals, but it came at the hands of Virtus.PRO. Despite some fairly close rounds, the match ended with a disappointing score of 5 to 1. It was, in short, a massacre. (You can watch the full replay here.)
We caught up with a few battered members of eLevate Black the day after they were knocked out of the competition. (A despondent Jonathan was AWOL.) According to star player Derek “GeForcer” Gee, their defeat wasn’t attributable to a particular strategy or individual player: rather, they just weren't fast enough and were subsequently outclassed on the day.
“It was a rough match. Virtus.PRO outplayed us. I think one-on-one we did okay but they seemed to know what we were doing before we did it. This meant they were able to counter our strats and get some free shots.
“They rotated quicker and their tactics were more advanced than ours. Unfortunately we just didn’t play our best when it mattered.”
Defiant in defeat, eLevate Black is already formulating a battle plan for next year’s WGL grand finals. First on the agenda is season six of the North American championships, which the team is looking to take out for the second year in row.
“We might take off a week or two but then it’s straight back into it. We’ll be focusing 100 per cent on retaining our WGLA title. So our commitment is going to be as strong as ever.”
As the old adage goes, what doesn’t kill you makes you smarter. In professional gaming, you can even learn from your own death.
Kotaku attended the World Of Tanks Grand Finals as a guest of Wargaming.net