The Rise of Gwent as an Esport

I have to admit, I'm not the world's biggest fan of collectible card games, and when an NPC in an RPG asks me if I would like to play a hand of Caravan or Gwent, I politely but firmly refuse and never talk to them again. As such, I was caught off guard when it turned out that people liked The Witcher 3's Gwent so much, it became its own standalone game. And according to this GameIndustry.biz article, it turns out that I didn't know the half of it.

Apart from an upcoming single-player campaign, CD Projekt's take on a collectible card game can now be considered an esport. The official Gwent Masters tournament has events planned up to 2019 and an impressive initial prize pool of $850,000. And if you would like to know more about CD Projekt's unique approach to building an esport, here's a bit of what their esports lead RafaƂ Jaki has to say about it:

"We already proved we're treating Gwent Masters seriously by laying out a solid plan for the series for many months to come," he tells GamesIndustry.biz. "Much like with Gwent itself, it's something the players wanted and we want to support the community. That's why we organized the first Gwent Challenger in May - as a means of giving the community-powered competitive scene a chance to participate in an official Gwent tournament.

"From there, following a very positive reception and strong signals that the community wants more, we started working on Gwent Masters. My hope is that players do feel that this was not some calculated decision that's based on a spreadsheet, but something truly authentic and from the heart."

CD Projekt is confident that there is more than enough demand amongst the game's fanbase to stage almost two years' worth of tournaments - thanks in no small part to the "simple, but not simplistic" appeal of Gwent itself.

"Players could jump into a game in-between quests without knowing anything about it or card games in general and just figure it out as they went," Jaki explains. "As they collected more and more cards and built up your deck, you'd start to see there's more to the game, but it was never overwhelming."

Similarly, Jaki describes CD Projekt's esports plans as "ambitious but not over the top" - if only because the firm is determined not to rely on any other organisations already established in the sector. But surely this is an expensive endeavour for a development studio?

"We wanted to run the events mostly ourselves, which meant a lot of learning along the way," he says. "We knew it was going to be a challenge, but we like challenges. As for [the costs] running the series, I'm pretty sure that by the time the current Gwent Masters series ends, the actual number will end up being higher than the one we've started out with."

Of course, CD Projekt Red is more than just a development studio. Over the years the firm has handled localisation, publishing and distribution, and runs popular digital retailer GOG.com - but even with this extensive expertise, breaking into esports takes the team into new territory. As such, the firm is working hard to up-skill its staff and draw on the transferable experience it already has from taken Gwent and the Witcher games on the road.

"We've got quite a lot experience in running events around the world: E3, gamescom, Brasil Game Show, PAX, Igromir - to name a few," says Jaki. "Of course, we are still learning when it comes to areas that are uniquely related to esports. We have a new position of a esports manager to inject experience to our organization, we are also working with contractors that have done these kinds of things many times before for a variety of games. Our main goal is to build this expertise in-house, so we can maintain quality and consistency throughout the series."

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Most importantly, he's keen to assure fans that - despite keeping everything in-house - efforts put into Gwent Masters will not impact ongoing development for Gwent or the elusive Cyberpunk 2077.

"Of course, doing custom LAN builds or Pro Ladder maintenance will always require involvement from the development team," he admits, "but never so much as to interfere with game development. When creating Gwent Masters, one of the goals was to make sure the game always comes first."

The Pro Ladder season kicks off in November, followed by a second Open tournament later that month and the second Challenger tournament in December, both hosted in Poland. 2018 will see CD Projekt take the competition to the US, China and Japan before the World Masters finale is held in January 2019.