Missouri man takes 3rd place in 'World of Warcraft' competition

John Ludwig

Paul Coats of Maryville, Mo., knows what it's like to be at the top of his game. His game of choice is the computer video game "World of Warcraft" (which is referred to as WoW by most gamers).

The most popular online video game in history, "World of Warcraft" boasts more than 8.5 million subscribers who play the game around the world. This last weekend, Warcraft players competed in California at Blizzcon — a massive computer and gaming event organized by the video game company Blizzard, the makers of Warcraft — for the world championship tournament.

Coats and four of his friends placed third in the world for the 5v5 arena competition.

During regular play, Warcraft offers its players the chance to escape from the everyday humdrum of life and enter into a world of Tolkien-esque fantasy. A world where elves, dwarves, goblins and the walking undead travel to unknown lands and adventure through dark dungeons and time-lost caverns.

And at the highest levels in the game, players have the opportunity to form a team and compete in the arena, where players fight to the death and the last team standing wins.

Warcraft has three modes of arena play: 2v2, 3v3 and the 5v5 rankings. In 2v2, teams of two players compete against other two-man teams, 3v3 is three against three and so on. It's in the fast and frantic 5v5 arena battle, where 10 characters fight for supremacy, that Coats and his friends found their niche in Warcraft.

The more they played, the more they climbed through the ranks, until one day near the end of April they received e-mails from Blizzard informing them they had placed in the first season qualifiers.

"We placed second overall in the qualifiers," Coats said. "Then the top eight in that ladder got invited to San Diego. So I was ecstatic."

About a month later, Coats received e-tickets through his e-mail and was flown to the West Coast, all expenses paid, where his team placed first in the next bracket of tournament competition, the American Regional Finals. That win came with a $3,000 purse for the team.

"After that, that just got the ball rolling," Coats said. "Of course, none of us really thought this would ever happen. It all happened really fast. It's just kind of a big storm that caught us up."

Then at the world championship in California, Coats' team, "THE HUKHUKHUKHUKHUKS," (the name is an inside gaming joke: it's funny to gamers, really) placed third overall. Their winning team consisted of a warrior, paladin, shaman, priest and a warlock — each character class has different special abilities.

Coats plays as the paladin Valsing on the Illidan server as part of the Rampage Battlegroup and a member of the guild Team Ice.

At the world championships, Coats and his team comprised one of three American teams. Other countries represented in the championship tournament in California included South Korea, the United Kingdom, Finland and Sweden.

At the end of the arena season, Coats' team had played 510 games with a 429-81 record, giving them an 84 percent win ratio.

Right before the San Diego competition, Coats and his five-man team were sponsored by Team EG, a professional gaming organization in America. That sponsorship has provided the team with funds to pay for travel expenses so they can compete in the World Series of Video Games, which is much like the World Series in Major League Baseball.

Coats and his teammates have been playing Warcraft together for about a year and a half but had never met. This might sound strange to some, but with more than 8.5 million subscribers to Warcraft, players get used to gaming with other players from every corner of the globe.

At last week's Blizzcon tournament, Coats and his teammates all met each other in real life for the first time. While Coats has played Warcraft since the game first came out in November 2004, he never dreamed that one day he would have a professional sponsor to play video games, which is exactly what has happened for him and his team.

"I've been getting all this gaming equipment sent out to me," Coats said.

Coats said he's "really happy" with the third place win his team pulled in for the world championship 5v5 arena fighting last weekend, but that's far from the end of his video game tale.

Now, with professional sponsors, Coats and his Warcraft arena team members (they renamed their team to "Team EG" as part of the sponsorship deal) will be flown around the world to compete in the World Series of Video Games.

The next stop is only weeks away, beginning Aug. 24, where Coats and Team EG will fly to Toronto, Canada, to compete for their portion of a $30,000 prize. In October they'll fly to Los Angeles for another $30,000-purse competition, then to London where another $30,000 is up for grabs.

"It's pretty cool," Coats said. "I never thought it would come to this. At this point, we're just doing everything we can to practice for these events. We have to do our best and spend as much time as possible to stay up to date with strategies and things that are happening in arena."

And if Team EG stays sharp and on top of their game, Coats and his friends will have a chance to play in the December finals which will take place in Dreamhack, Sweden, where they'll compete for more than $75,000 in cash and prizes.

Who said playing video games doesn't pay?

Most days, Coats works in the bakery department at the local Hy-Vee grocery store; but at night, this 25-year-old man is one of the highest ranked World of Warcraft arena tournament players in the world, out of more than 8.5 million players.

One day he might be handing someone a fresh-baked loaf of sourdough bread, the next day he's packing his bags and flying around the country and the globe as a member of Team EG, competing in the most intense video game competitions in the world.

"It all happens really fast," Coats said. "I'm not sure I've gotten to the point where I'm not in shock to being invited to all these tournaments. "It's just all a lot of fun, and I just think it's really cool to travel all over the country to do it."