World of Warcraft Student Art Contest Roundtable

Our Blizzard Cast of Characters

Chris Robinson: Senior Art Director, World of Warcraft
Jeff Parrott: Art Manager, World of Warcraft
Ariel Fain: 3D Artist, World of Warcraft
Peter K. Lee: 3D Artist, World of Warcraft
Janine Tedford: Associate Manager, University Relations

Back in November 2011, Blizzard announced the first ever Blizzard Student Art Contest. In partnership with the University Relations team, the World of Warcraft art team challenged students to submit a “3D modeled and textured set piece, fit for use in World of Warcraft.”

Enter This Year’s Contest Now

With the contest now in its 7th year, we checked in with the team and past winners to discover how it all began, learn about what’s new for this year, and hear why students should consider entering.

Start at the Start

Chris Robinson (Sr. Art Director, World of Warcraft): The Student Art Contest was born out of our desire to help students learn the Blizzard art style and better prepare them for professional life after school. This was when schools were starting to focus more on the next-gen pipeline and less in hand-painted texturing and low-poly modeling, which are the essence of World of Warcraft’s art style. With that shift, we started to talk about what an art competition at a university level might look like. Our intent was to plant seeds that might hopefully lead students to want to work in this style as a career.

Before the contest started, we found that students who love the WoW style and hand-painted texturing were doing a lot of learning in their free time, seeking out members of our art team for tips and tricks on creating in this style. Those same conversations carried over once the contest started, but those students were applying everything to a piece that was going to be seen directly by Blizzard artists.

Well met!

Ariel Fain (3D Artist, World of Warcraft, and 2012 Contest Winner): I was fortunate to know Jessica Dinh, who was in the same year as me at LCAD [Laguna College of Art + Design]. She was one of the Student Art Contest grand prize winners the year before, so I got to hear all about it! When the contest opened again, I saw they’d added a character design category, so decided I had to enter. The game informed my art all the time; I remember when Mists of Pandaria came out we were all taking screenshots of our favorite pieces and studying them, trying to figure them out. The style is so charming and beautiful. I fell in love with WoW’s hand-painted textures and I started to gear my portfolio toward that style. Blizzard seemed far away at that point. It was a long-term goal; I was sure I was going to have to work my way up before getting a shot at a AAA studio. The Student Art Contest changed that!

Peter K. Lee (3D Artist, World of Warcraft, and 2011 Contest Winner): I heard about the contest from an instructor at Academy of Art. This was going to be my first contest submission ever, but I wanted to show my passion and come up with something good. This was exciting to me because I had been a Blizzard fan since 5th grade, when I started playing the original Warcraft. My hobby back then was rereading and drawing everything from the manual! I didn’t know it at the time, but copying that art style would help me so many years later as an artist.  

And so it begins!

Ariel: In the beginning, I struggled with what to submit. Do I stick to the latest expansion? How do I decide on a theme? What does the team at Blizzard want to see? Finally, one of my character sketches felt right, so that’s what I went with. I took a couple weeks over the winter break to complete it, working on it every single day.

Peter: My goal was to make not only a beautiful piece, but something that players could really interact and engage with. The idea to make a carousel came during my commute one day. I couldn’t remember ever seeing one in WoW. That’s when I knew what I had to do!

Stop: Collaborate and Listen

Ariel: The fun part for me was the process of getting feedback from my group of friends. I would ask them what I was missing, whether everything looked and felt like it was from the Warcraft universe…stuff like that. I got tons of constructive criticism, and they helped me out a lot.

Peter: Between all the discussions I had with my friends and my professors, I almost felt like a game developer. I would present a concept, my friends would give me feedback, and I would go back to work on it, then come back for another review. I‘d never made game environments before, so I asked one of my instructors for advice. She sent me lots of tutorial links and gave me feedback on things like making foliage and props. She helped me understand the basic pipeline of game art. It turns out that this process of tweaking and polishing and finding something that everyone would love and want to play with is very similar to how art teams work at Blizzard.

Jeff Parrott (Art Manager, World of Warcraft): It definitely helps to have that trusted network to tap into. It’s how games are made at Blizzard. Everyone is working together, jamming, trying to make each thing better.

As important as it is to have a network of other students and professors to give you feedback, don’t forget about what we call the “civilian test.” Show your project to grandma, mom, your aunt or uncle, whoever—someone who doesn’t know anything about video game art, or video games in general. If you show someone a door and they say, “Nice window,” you know you’ve got some adjustments to make. They don’t know how it’s made; it will either look to them like what it’s supposed to be, or it won’t.

Artist, Expose Thyself!

Ariel: I think it’s okay to be introverted with your personal work—I still am—but school projects and contests are where you need to put yourself and your art out there. It’s so important if you want to be a professional artist to be comfortable sharing your work and learning to iterate based on feedback. If you’re graduating soon and don’t have a clear path, getting your name and work seen within the industry can also lead to opportunities down the road.

Jeff: Working in the video game industry as an artist, you’re going put yourself out there. Millions of people will be playing the games and seeing the art you make. As a student, you need to start getting used to it. The Student Art Contest is a great avenue for that. By entering, you’ll have the Senior Art Director, Art Managers, and Lead Artists all looking at your work—and even if you don’t win, it may help you down the road when applying. We’ve found numerous artists on our team through the contest—both winners and runners up who had outstanding submissions.

Chris: Even though you may be creating a submission for a WoW-related art contest, the Blizzard style and our general approach to making artwork is fairly consistent across all our teams. So while you may not win the contest or create an asset for the game you would want to work on as a career, you might grab our attention.

On Winning

Ariel: I submitted the very last day of the contest, and about a month later, I got the call that I had won. I couldn’t believe it after I’d hung up. I was sure misheard! I was beyond surprised, as I had zero expectation of winning anything; I was doing it more as a learning experience and to add to my body of work. I got to visit campus and I ended up spending a couple hours with the Senior Character Art team reviewing my portfolio. I learned tons from them—they pointed out things I didn’t realize I was doing—redundancies throughout my character designs and stuff like that.

Peter: I never thought I’d win anything; my only hope was maybe they’d give me some feedback on how to improve. A couple months later, I got the call and felt so many emotions! In a way, it feels like everything from that point forward has been a dream. I got to visit the campus, spend time with the team, and meet some of my childhood heroes—people who created the worlds I lived in. I was so excited to see how they did it. I was nervous and anxious, and was scared I was being too quiet, but they were very welcoming. At the end of my visit, Janine from University Relations offered me a summer internship. I couldn’t sign fast enough! Just let me in, let’s get to work!   

An Oh, How the Internships Rolled In

Ariel: A month or so after winning, I got the call asking me if I wanted to intern as a 3D Character Artist with the WoW art team over the summer. I said yes, of course! I expected to start off with small tasks, so I was surprised by how quickly the team threw me into their world. My very first project was designing classic orc weapons for Warlords of Dreanor. All the artists on the character team do their own concepting, so suddenly, I found myself working as a concept artist! Everything I made was put in the game and they’re still using them today—how cool is that? They treated me like I was a fellow employee and member of their team. They had confidence in me to do the job, and were always there to support me and jam on ideas with me. Your team always has your back at Blizzard. It’s incredible. As my internship was winding down, I got an offer to join the team full-time as a 3D character artist, and I’m still here, after almost five years!

Peter: During my last week as an intern, Eric Browning, who was Lead Prop Artist at the time, let me know my last project was going to be building out my carousel. It was a very meaningful moment for me. A few months later, he sent me a screenshot of what it looked like in-game, and I couldn’t believe it. My dream had just come true, and that feeling is hard to describe. Lots of emotions!

Jeff: Artists at Blizzard get a lot of creative ownership. They’re encouraged to take tasks from concept to completion. We think it’s important to know the greater process—they’re not just making art in a vacuum. It’s really cool to see our artists enjoy that level of freedom and ownership.

Janine Tedford (Associate Manager, University Relations): While winning or being a runner-up doesn’t guarantee you an internship, it sure doesn’t hurt your chances! Even if the timing isn’t right for an internship offer, it doesn’t mean an opportunity won’t present itself later. We’ve hired several past winners and runners-up years after they participated in the contest. Students can also potentially use their submission as part of a senior project, as well as in their portfolio for submissions to other studios and programs. Furthermore, the art leaders judging the contest also have access to Blizzard as a whole—you never know if there’s a better fit on a different art team. It’s just a great way all-around of getting on our radar.

There & Back Again: Impact & Advice

Ariel: Winning the character contest changed everything for me professionally. People tell you that finding work as a 3D Character Artist right out of school is almost impossible. Even as a senior I was wondering if I might need to create a second portfolio and try to get “in” doing environments or props. The contest helped my work get noticed by the right people and gave me an opportunity to do exactly what I wanted to do in game art. It was an amazing head start.

Peter: Winning was obviously a huge help for me, but the most important thing was getting noticed by the Blizzard art team. I wouldn’t have won if I hadn’t sought feedback along the way. It’s easy to make beautiful art pieces, but try to think about how players will interact with it in the game. Aim to make something that’s more than just pretty. Participating in the Student Art Contest acted as a sort of bridge between doing student-level and professional-level art. The rules and process they set up teach you a lot if you approach it with that mindset. It’s not going to be easy, but it‘ll be worth it.

Chris: One thing I want students to keep in mind is that that we don’t care how you create what you create. Don’t get too tied up in your tools. Obviously, it needs to be 3D and fit in with our guidelines, but if you wanted to use PhotoShop and 3D Max—or even some 3D program your uncle hacked together—we don’t care. Don’t think of this as a barrier to entry. We can teach tools, but we can’t teach talent. Use whatever methodology you can to get your art across the finish line, that’s what matters most.

Jeff: Any project that you do—any deliberate practice as a student—is going to directly improve you and your portfolio. Your first project isn’t going to be as good as your second project. Your tenth project is going to be better still. Your eye will improve, and your workflow will get faster and smoother. We always say don’t worry about speed at first, worry about quality.  

Chris: Totally agree, time can be a huge factor! Say you’re working on a scene with a house and the surrounding environment, and it ends up being a lot to bite off in the time you have. Instead of getting all your assets polished to 60% just to get it finished, block everything out and hone in on one thing and be like “Hey, I didn’t get to finish the whole thing, but if I had, this is the level of fidelity I would have ended up with in the entire scene.” Maybe you just model and flat-texture the grass, but the house is what you’re fired up about—focus on that part and turn in a killer Warcraft-style house.

On Tools & Networking 

Jeff: I think it’s easier than ever for student artists right now, in terms of networking and tools. You can be in a remote part of the world and as long as you have the internet, you can be part of a larger art community. I think places like ArtStation are fantastic for showcasing your work. I started same as everyone else, posting my work and being a part of the community. A lot of people on the WoW art team treat ArtStation’s trending page the way our parents used to read the newspaper over coffee every morning. Students should look to take advantage of ArtStation’s custom portfolios to collect tailored bodies of work specific to any game or company. You want to be sure your portfolio shows that you’re passionate about the projects and the companies you’re applying to. I think Twitter is great, too. It’s immediate and efficient—“Here’s some art I did,” tweet it out, boom. There’s also some great, killer stuff in the #gameart hashtag, which I check out often.  

New for 2017 – Categories, Cintiq’s, etc.

Jeff: In the past, we’ve had 3D Character and 3D Environment contests, and this year, we’ve added Visual Effects and Character Animation. Since we added new categories, we decided it was time to add new prizes, as well. In addition to visiting Blizzard campus, you’ll get a sketchbook with a sketch from an artist, a two-hour mentorship, and a T-shirt. The big prize, though, is a Cintiq 22HD! In my student days, that would’ve been like winning a car—probably better than a car, because I could bike to school.  

Chris: Given the quantity and quality of entries we’ve seen over the years in the character, texture, and modelling categories, it made sense to add some new ones. We see it as a natural extension of our original intent with this contest: to provide an avenue to learn skills that may not be emphasized in art schools right now. A lot of students aren’t aware of the opportunities that exist within FX art in games when they first get into school. Our hope is to raise awareness at the colligate level that something like FX art is a real career path you can follow. We also try to hammer that home during the campus visits and in the talks that our art leaders give throughout the year. Our hope is to see an increase in interest from students to make it their focus while they’re in school.

Living that Blizzard Art Life

Jeff: Before I worked here, my assumption was that Blizzard would be corporate and buttoned-up. I imagined a very strict atmosphere, with rigid workflows and ultra-competitiveness across all the teams. What I’ve found since joining has kind of blown my mind a little bit. Everyone is super friendly, outgoing, and helpful across the entire company. Our art team isn’t competitive, it’s collaborative. Artists at Blizzard want to improve and get better at their job. Specific to the WoW art team, we have an amazing culture. It almost feels like being in art school. Internally, we even have an art gallery and hold art shows. We have teams get together and do sketch groups. It’s not what I expected, but it’s been a pleasant surprise.

Chris: Blizzard isn’t a cutthroat, competitive environment of artists trying to one-up each other. It’s a community-driven environment, and all the artists here are super interested in bettering themselves and improving the games we work on. When I came here 10 years ago, I realized that everything that goes into the game is a group effort. We actively want to help each other. Folks tend to stay here because there isn’t a day that you don’t feel you’re going to learn from one of the incredible people working around you.

Final Thoughts

Chris: I encourage students to feel a personal responsibility to their education and not expect their schools to teach them everything they need to know. Your academic career is in your hands. By putting such stringent guidelines around our contest entries, the hope is that everything we’re asking a student to do is what you’d be expected to know to hit the ground running as a professional in the industry. If our guidelines introduce something foreign to you, it’s a great opportunity to tap into the ArtStation community and ask those questions—and to learn what questions to even ask.  

Jeff: We don’t just look for artists who can execute a task; we look for artists who have an artistic vision and can work with others to help shape that vision. Storytelling is also huge; we want people who can create something that feels alive, part of a larger world.  

Chris: We want to hire artists who are excited. We feed off that passion. We encourage you to think about why you want to do this for a living. Giving me a generic answer when I ask why you want to be a game artist, like, “I don’t know, I love to watch anime and play video games” isn’t enough. What does that really tell me? We all like to watch anime and play video games! But if you can plug me into what made you fall in love with art in the first place and what keeps you spending all your free time working on these things for your own pleasure, then you’re communicating something real that I can relate to and understand.

It sucks when I hear artists come up to me at BlizzCon or at schools we visit and say, “Man, I’d love to work at Blizzard but I know I’m never going to be good enough.” How do you know? One of the worst things about being an artist is that you’re your own worst critic. None of us like our own work! That mentality—that you’ll never be good enough to work here—needs to go. This brings us full circle back to why we created the contest in the first place: getting into schools to have these conversations and present our community, our culture, and our environment, so that we could help combat that way of thinking and replace it with, “I may not be good enough yet, but maybe I’m good enough to at least get my foot in the door and train with this team…”

Jeff: Well said. I really hope students don’t look at the finished artwork and think that working at Blizzard is beyond their reach. You can do it, and it can start with the Student Art Contest.


Ready to Art?

Ready to take advantage of winter break and put a submission together?

Blizzard Entertainment is proud to present the 7th Annual Blizzard Student Art Contest! We’re calling on college and university students to submit original artwork or animations that would be a great fit for World of Warcraft.

Show us something we’ve never seen before that fits within World of Warcraft. You can see previous winning submissions here.

Online submission forms are available on our contests page and we’ll be accepting entries until January 28, 2018 at 11:59 p.m. PST.

Prizes

Four Grand Prize winners from each category will be chosen by the World of Warcraft art team, and will receive the following:

  • A tour of Blizzard Entertainment’s headquarters in Irvine, CA
  • A two-hour face-to-face mentorship session with a senior Blizzard artist
  • A one-year subscription to World of Warcraft
  • A Blizzard Entertainment notebook (featuring an original sketch by a Blizzard Artist)
  • A Blizzard T-shirt
  • One (1) Wacom Cintiq 22HD

See all the contest rules and learn more about student programs on the Blizzard careers page.

Good luck to all!


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