Rated battlegrounds have been getting some bad press lately: Gevlon advises you to quickly throw the match whenever you encounter a far superior opponent - which will happen a lot due to various problems with the matchmaking system - and Cynwise bristles at upcoming patch changes that are clearly meant to push people into rated battlegrounds instead of arena. I'm not here to argue either of these points, but I did feel like simply writing a positive post about rated battlegrounds, because I feel that - regardless of their faults - their mere existence has been a truly enriching addition to my WoW play.
I've said before that I'm a PvE player to the core. Out of the over three hundred posts on this blog, this is only the tenth one that carries the PvP tag. Overall my preferences haven't changed, but rated battlegrounds have shown me that PvP actually has a lot more to offer me than I thought it had.
I used to say that I prefer cooperation over competition, and I do, but just like PvE has competitive aspects (topping the damage metres, beating other guilds to a boss kill), PvP requires cooperation, namely between you and your team mates. The problem is that I rarely got to see any of the latter.
We like to moan about how the dungeon finder ruined WoW's community, but compared to the PvPers, us dungeon runners still have it made. PvP has been based on a dungeon finder model since freaking vanilla! I don't know what battlegrounds were like during the year or so during which they were same-server only, but ever since I first set foot into one myself in late vanilla, they've been cross-realm, meaning that you get thrown in with a bunch of random strangers who actually have very little interest in cooperating with you. In many ways that is actually worse than the dungeon finder because in a dungeon there's usually (most of the time anyway) at least some kind of agreement about the distribution of roles. Battlegrounds don't have even that, so if you queue up with the intention of being the flag carrier in Warsong Gulch or personally guarding the lumber mill in Arathi Basin, you might end up with a team that has a completely different idea of how the game should go.
Accordingly, random battlegrounds have had a reputation for being cesspits of stupidity and rude behaviour for as long as I can remember. Their only saving grace was that it was the same for both factions, so it was at least a fair fight, and that each match had a timer and would eventually end one way or the other regardless of how badly people were playing. (Or at least that's how it works these days. Anyone remember Warsong Gulch before timers? There's a reason I always hated that place.)
And the biggest bummer? There were no alternatives. In PvE, you can avoid the dungeon finder for the most part and just go raid with your friends instead. However, there was nothing comparable for PvP. Pre-mades existed of course, but they weren't actually supported by the game. There was no reward for playing with a fixed team other than getting to roflstomp a bunch of hapless opponents that were thrown together at random, and just like ganking lowbies that kind of thing never held any lasting appeal to me. Blizzard even tried to actively discourage queueing up in larger groups, and people had to make addons in an attempt to circumvent the developers' restrictions. WoW PvP was not designed as a game that encouraged camaraderie.
But then came arenas. And while I'm still not a huge fan of them, they certainly showed me for the first time that there was real fun to be had in pvping as a team. What with mostly playing healers, I already knew the rush of saving another player from the brink of death, but in arena I finally got to experience someone else doing the same thing for me. It was intense! More intense than most things I had done in PvE actually.
If you think about it, most PvE encounters are more about being a cog in a well-oiled machine than they are about actually interacting with other people. You'll have to agree on a basic battle plan of course, but spontaneous reactions to other players' actions are comparatively rare, such as when someone dies and needs to get a combat res. The encounters themselves are rarely about paying attention to the other players. One of my favourites in this regard has always been Lady Vashj's phase two. If you've never had the chance to do this fight, what happens is that she becomes immune to damage and in order to remove her shield you basically have to "play ball" with an item called tainted core that drops off certain elemental adds and roots you to the spot if you pick it up. I'm sure many people hated that mechanic, but personally I loved the hell out of it because it actually meant people had to pay attention to and react to each other instead of just the boss. Unfortunately, boss mechanics like that remain rare to this day.
In some way I'm still not sure why I actually don't like arenas more. I think that in some ways, they are simply too intense for me. I get really into the bonding experience they provide, but with how many people do you really want to be that close, week after week? I've only really played a significant amount of arena with one guy over the years, and we've been friends for years. We never had a problem chatting away about different things in-between matches, or not getting mad at each other if either of us messed up. I don't have the same faith in things working as well with someone who's only a loose acquaintance however, and how much of your time do you want to devote to private time with loose acquaintances anyway? So whenever my friend loses interest in the game, I lose interest in arena.
Also, if I'm being honest I always found arena a bit difficult myself. Players like to complain about the difficulty of raiding sometimes, but personally I've found that even a fairly low-ranked arena match tends to have much higher twitch requirements than a moderately difficult raid. In addition, optimisation requirements can get quite harsh in smaller groups, and it's easy to start feeling like you stand no chance simply because you're playing the "wrong" class. I hear that many people like to play arena casually but to me the mere idea is hard to fathom, considering the sheer amount of time you can end up spending with just a single person in a regular 2v2, and how much harsher the requirements for progression are compared to small group PvE content.
Now, after all this rambling... enter rated battlegrounds, and I finally have something that combines some of the best elements of PvE raiding and PvP in general into a fun new mix for me; so I get to enjoy the interactive nature of team PvP, but in a large group. In many ways, this has only worked to highlight for me just why I prefer playing WoW in larger groups.
For one thing, it creates a nice group atmosphere, where you can be social and have fun while still maintaining a certain distance. Since your enjoyment doesn't depend on the company of a single person, one player quitting the game doesn't necessarily ruin the whole activity for you, like it happened to me with arena. It also feels more justifiable to set aside a specific time to play together, as coordinating the schedules of so many people is hard enough as it is, and it carries none of the awkwardness of, "Oh god, why am I reserving time to play with this one guy I hardly know every single week?"
Also, larger numbers add complexity to a point where individual min-maxing and optimal play becomes less important because it doesn't make as much of a difference. If you lose a 2v2 arena match, it's got to be the fault of at least one of you somehow, whether you're playing the wrong spec, didn't hit your cooldown in time or attacked the wrong target, and the only way to get better is for one of you to up your individual performance. In a larger group things aren't as clear-cut a lot of the time, and while you obviously still want to work on improving yourself at all times, you don't have to feel as if every single loss is potentially your fault because you don't have enough resilience yet.
And that's why I'm grateful that Blizzard introduced rated battlegrounds. I think it's kind of bizarre that they are basically doing the opposite in PvP of what they've been doing in PvE, where raid sizes keep shrinking and the devs keep thinking of new ways to emulate group play without actually requiring any social interaction (dungeon finder, elite quests with NPC helpers etc.), whereas random battlegrounds become less and less important as Blizzard tries to encourage players to play nice with others in order to get better rewards.
If you're a PvE player who's disillusioned with the way group content is going, I'd recommend giving rated battlegrounds a try. You might be surprised by the experience. (Assuming that the matchmaking actually improves in the next patch, because I agree that just getting beaten into the ground by superior teams over and over again is not very fun.)