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From Our Tank Correspondent, Part 1: Cats And Hats

Tanks, Like Angry Houses

We sent Brendan to the World Of Tanks convention in Russia. This is his report.

They sent me to Russia this time. They sent me. To Russia. I’m standing in the middle of Moscow because the call went out for people who would like to see some tanks. And being something of an expert in this field, the Hive Mind saw fit to put my name down on the passenger list. I’m here to cover Ural Steel, an international World of Tanks tournament with a total prize pool of $77,000. Before my trip I took the time to learn the Russian for numbers one, two, three, four and five, along with the word “koshka” which means “cat”. It’s probably indicative of my trip that the only extra things I will have learned by the time I leave are the phrases “fuck yes!”, “go fuck yourself” and “sorry”. But right now the sum of my usefulness in this city remains the ability to walk into a shop and demand anything ranging from one to five felines.

Some background. The Ural Steel is a competition in its infancy. Other officially endorsed cups have been raging among World of Tanks players for a while but this is The Big One, even if it’s only in its second year. Qualifying rounds have been and gone. Now the best fifteen teams from around the world have been invited to Russia to shoot frantically at each other in a grand sports hall usually dedicated to Moscow’s basketball team. The first place winner will gain a prize in the region of $35,000 as well as all that tanky, tanky prestige. Mmmmm. Second and third place winners get $21,000 and $14,000 respectively. For a full run down of the rules, go somewhere else. I don’t understand rules.

Of course, no Wargaming event would be complete without a trip to at least one tank museum. The day before the tournament proper (which is fully covered in part two), both the teams and the press are piled into buses and taken to Kubinka, a small town outside Moscow, where we are greeted by the world’s biggest collection of armoured vehicles (with the exception of tank collections held by, you know, actual armies). The museum is a sprawl of weedy grassland and grey hanger bays, each containing probably two-dozen to three-dozen tanks or armoured cars. A lot of the trees all have white paint on them for about five feet of their trunk. But this is just another mystery to be solved (again, see part two).

From the entrance I take a dander and discover a pack of wild children and warfare enthusiasts swamping a tank in the open, scrambling all over it like so many frantic freedom fighters. In the distance I can hear music. A mixture of hardy accordions and a man singing with military bravado. Some deep-voiced commissar belting out jingo-pop circa 1944. I follow the music to a new set of hangers, where I spot in the distance a frighteningly lengthy tank on train tracks. It has three main guns and seems impenetrable. More of a fortress than a vehicle, it looks like a submarine that has crawled out of the sea and grown wheels. The day they add this monster to World of Tanks will be a happy day indeed. I shudder and continue to follow the patriotic swell of music.

I pass by a souvenir stand. There is a Chinese correspondent who is there to follow the three Asian teams that have made it to the final. He buys a sheepskin hat with a communist emblem on it, an old replica of war generals’ winter gear. He will wear this hat for the rest of the trip.

Finally I discover the source of the music. An old-fashioned loudspeaker attached to a standalone white building. I walk around to the front and meet a rotund women looking miserable and smoking a cigarette. This is not unusual. Everyone in Russia smokes and nobody ever looks like they enjoy it.

“Davaj,” she says. Then repeats herself in English when I stand there looking helpless. “Come.”

She steps in one of the two doors to the building. As I go to follow she closes it behind her and wanders off. This is perplexing. I try the other door. Inside is a tuck shop. Sort of like the kind you used to get in schools, except with three brands of beer to choose from. I am happy. If I have to spend one more minute stuck inside this absurdist Soviet-era mural without a drink in my hand, I swear I am going to hijack one of these tanks and use it to run over every white-painted tree I can see.

Did you know: The Cossacks, a paramilitary force infamous for fighting against the Bolsheviks in pre-Soviet Russia, are seeing a revival in Moscow. Uniformed men with the power to confiscate alcohol from underage drinkers and stop crimes in progress, they are most comparable to Community Support Officers in Britain. Except, according to reports, a little bit more racist.

After a lunch consisting of authentic WWII rations made from an old Soviet army recipe (ingredients: oats, unspecified poultry, something else) we are led to a field, where a functioning tank is waiting to give us a demonstration. It rolls around for a bit and people are cheekily allowed to ride on its back. After this, it’s time to go back to the hotel. Tomorrow is the big day. I expect everyone to be in the hotel bar, blowing all their rubles on vodka and veal stroganoff. But almost every team is somewhere else, preparing or getting a good night’s rest. The few teams that are in the bar are huddled around laptops, discussing strategy and tank line-ups. They look at me with suspicion when I try to grab a glance at their computer screens.

Embedded in one of the US teams is a British journalist called Luke, who is an e-sports caster and an old hand at World of Tanks. He talks at approximately 100 ‘wow’s per hour and spent the whole flight to Moscow speaking to one of the American team members about the strengths and weaknesses of the T-34, T-62-A and a billion other T-something-somethings. Hearing them was like listening to a conversation held completely in Hexadecimal and it was both fascinating and a wholly frightening experience. As a lover of games I ought not to be surprised that the depth of conversation you can have about World of Tanks turns out to be as Mariana-Trench-deep as any conversation about football or rugby.

And especially now, the day before the finals, there is a sense of enthusiasm to discussions between the ‘tankers’ left in the bar that could easily convert someone’s opinion of e-sports. Most video game fans will respond to the concept of e-sports with a distant but tolerant “sure, why not?” Show them the spirit and earnestness of these guys and that response would likely become a more supportive “yes, of course.”

Outside on the patio, I discover the Wargaming crew and a cadre of foreign journos taking things somewhat less seriously. The combined forces of vodka, whiskey and tequila have occupied the table, forming a little skyline of half-drunk bottles. The night continues. No tanks are mentioned.

Did you know: In Belarus, where President Alexander Lukashenko has been in power for the past 18 years, they have a saying which, roughly translated, means: ‘Only a sharpshooter can save our country.’

I wake up wearing a hangover and, soon enough, a shirt. I can do this now. No more fucking about. Engage journo mode.

I reach the stadium, a buzzing b-ball court with a huge WoT set-up installed. Two rows of computers sit distantly from one another, like in some Cold War stand-off. For the purpose of context and illustration, a huge model tank sits behind one of these tables. As the opening ceremony begins, the press seats are full of laptops and mobile phones. People tweeting and filing copy. My phone won’t connect to the wireless but I won’t let this stop me. I get out my notebook. I will liveblog this monstrosity, even if it means I have to do it on paper.

But you’ll have to wait to see that. First, we are taken into a press conference where, for some reason, people have genuine questions to ask.

We are led to a room with snacks and whiskey. Every press member is given a red sheepskin hat to wear. I try it on but it isn’t my style. The Chinese correspondent from yesterday becomes torn. He takes off the hat he bought at Kubinka the day before and looks at both the old and new. After a moment he puts on the red one. Then he places the Kubinka hat on top. He squeezes them on tight so they don’t fall, now wearing two hats in a stack. He remains like this for the rest of the day.

Two hats.

I knew you would approve.

The press conference begins. Andrew Yarantsau, VP of Global Operations for Wargaming, is here to talk about World of Tanks.

He is asked if they intend to fuse the universes of World of Tanks, World of Warplanes and World of Battleships in a way similar to EVE: Online and Dust 514.

“At the moment, all the games are developing as separate projects because the gameplay on Warplanes is different from Tanks gameplay and different from Battleships gameplay as well. It’s really hard. All online games find it hard to balance those kind of vehicles. For example, World War II was won because the Allies and Soviet Union achieved global domination of the sky. That’s it. If you have the sky, you can win the whole battle. I think it explains why we wouldn’t want to have a ‘World of Warfare’ where all three types of vehicle can fight each other. That’s almost impossible. Because you could hit any target from the airplane and just run away. But this idea is still circling in the company all the time and we have huge plans at the moment. Probably some [crossover] elements we will see.”

Cheering can be heard from the stadium. Someone is being blown up or something. Any more questions?

Yarantsau is asked what Wargaming is doing to appeal to the Asian market.

“We have many nice features to develop. For example we are working right now on the Chinese tank tree because we want to achieve more on the Chinese market. On the other hand we have to develop ‘observer mode’ [for e-sports purposes]. We would like to choose both but you can’t ask developer teams to develop everything at one time, they go step by step, task by task. For observer mode it requires a lot of improvements to the technology.”

The Chinese correspondent adjusts his hats and takes some notes.

Did you know: Many of the ‘authentic’ Cold War souvenirs sold in Russia are mass manufactured in Chinese factories before being shipped over to supply sellers in tourist destinations.

Finally, Yarantsau is asked if there any plans for consoles, to which he replies that so long as Sony and Microsoft make it slow and difficult to apply frequent patches to a game, they will stay clear of consoles.

“The console market is very nice and attractive, right, because there are really no MMOs and the user base is quite huge. Millions of players without MMOs, it’s a nice piece to have. In MMOs it’s very important to have a fast reaction time to something. But if you’re going to a big company like Sony or Microsoft, the approval time for [updates] is always so, so long. So you can’t change the game immediately. Wargaming is not a unique company in making mistakes. Everybody is making mistakes. Sometimes you balance the vehicles... inappropriately and you have to listen to feedback from the community and if you see pressure from the player side then you have to fix that problem immediately. Otherwise, they will leave.”

But he adds that if that problem is ever removed, Wargaming will “be there.”

“If big companies like Microsoft and Sony can ease the life of developers with this, then no problem – we will be there. But so far the politics and technology is slightly different. If it changes we will be there, of course. It’s a very good market, many players are connected on consoles but, yes, there are some obstacles.”

Press conference ends. The attendants manning the snack tables are quickly overwhelmed. Then we make our way back to the stands to watch the last of the group stages before the semi-finals begin. The Ural Steel tournament is under way and the most exciting part of the trip is yet to come.

Tanks. I am ready for you.

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