Is North America a better region than Europe? Are they just different?
The time for these questions has passed. Both China and Korea asserted their dominance over the West in Seoul last weekend. The result was an all-Asia top four, and two Western regions now looking for answers.
Against a backdrop that saw teams mixing and mingling different regional styles — both in the draft and in-game — a new regional hierarchy emerged, in what can only be described as a reckoning for the West, one that will shape the future of the competitive Heroes scene in ways we've yet to imagine.
More than the sum of five players
The new world champions MVP Black may have some of the most dangerous players on the planet, but their success is about more than individual skill. While other rosters have formed, risen and collapsed, MVP — starting initially with a 10-player roster which later split into two teams — has retained a mostly stable lineup for an entire calendar year.
The sticking together part of that equation is something that North America and Europe have not fully embraced. Right now both regions are too open-ended, too focused on getting some immediate results by shuffling good players in and out.
MVP Black has made one roster change in its lifetime: dropping Jin "Lockdown" Jae Hu — who wanted to play with his brother, Jin "Hide" Gyeong Hwan — in favor of Lee "oreoman" Jae Won, now using the name Rich.
Rich is arguably the best individual player in the world, but after last weekend he is indisputably the best melee player in Heroes right now. His Thrall, Zeratul and even Kerrigan were on full display. He ended some fights before they really began, by erasing an enemy ranged player or initiating with a Kerrigan combo that hit multiple targets. He thrives in one-on-one situations and he wins them.
Indeed, MVP is not shy on individual talent. Tae Jun "merryday" Yi has shown incredible support play with clutch heroics and cleanses that his teammates know they can rely on, time and time again. Jung Hyuk "Sake" Lee is both the leader of the team and a remarkable ranged player, one who can single-handedly turn fights around with the burst capabilities of Li-Ming.
Ji Hoon "Sign" Yoon, meanwhile, has to be considered one of the world's best warrior players, comfortable on strong meta picks like Muradin, ETC, Diablo and Stitches or on less-common heroes like Leoric. Won Ho "KyoCha" Jeong takes a lot of heat for being the weakest individual player on this team, but his deep hero pool helps MVP by making them even harder to ban out.
But it's not just MVP's individual talent that counts. It's the level of cohesion they show in their play, unprecedented in competitive Heroes globally. Considering how HotS differs from other games in its genre — the lack of hyper-carries, the emphasis on teamfights and tightly coordinated rotations — it's not surprising that a team that has worked to cultivate chemistry has such a commanding advantage.
That chemistry takes a lot longer to develop than Western teams are spending together, on average. In the wake of Seoul, we'll no doubt see another roster shuffle, as teams try desperately to plug the gaps in their play.
It's worth remembering that MVP Black failed to qualify for BlizzCon after they lost to Team DK (now Team No Limit) due to some rough drafting. In North America or Europe, that would almost certainly have been a death sentence for that team's roster: changes would be demanded, new players would be brought in from other collapsing rosters, and the cycle would resume. MVP instead stuck together, and went on to prove that they are the strongest team in the world.
Building a stronger Western scene
It's a refrain heard over and over in the Western competitive scene: some NA and EU pros just don't want to play Hero League.
The ladder doesn't do a good job of reconstructing a competitive environment. It's tiring. It's toxic. It's easy to see their point.
But outside of actual competition and scheduled scrims, it's the only real way for individuals to develop their mechanics at the moment. With so few active, high-level teams on the servers, Team League is basically non-competitive. It would be great if Hero League was better — and Blizzard has confirmed they are working on it — but we're forced to work with what we have.
Haejoon "Wiz" Lee, a Korean player who played for Stellar Lotus and has tried to transfer to the North American region, spent some time with Team Naventic as a coach during the Spring Global Championship. His assessment of the situation may not be nuanced — it's limited to 140 characters after all — but it's pointed:
Wiz goes on to argue that Hero League is an important part of a holistic practice regimen. Korean teams aren't logging on for four hours of scrims and then logging off until the next evening. And Wiz should know about effort: he was at the top of the pre-season Hero League leaderboards for NA in December and February.
Korea and China have more opportunities for consistent competition through the league-based qualifier systems: Gold Series Heroes League for China and Super League for Korea. One option for NA is to bring back a similar league system. Longtime fans will remember the now-defunct ESL Major League, which featured weekly matchups between teams in both NA and EU.
ESL Major League had some issues, to be sure; NA Season 3 saw the league expand to 12 teams, but then four of those ending up taking a forfeit due to roster changes or simply failing to show up to matches before the season's half-way point.
But Major League was not without its successes. It offered viewers some competition during the week, which is now mostly relegated to smaller weekly tournaments where a fraction of the matches are streamed and it's more difficult for viewers to follow storylines. It also saw some high-level competition, including the infamous Cloud9 reverse sweep against Tempo Storm. After that finish, C9 seized control of NA and rode a wave of momentum into the 2015 World Championship.
Another great benefit of a league system is that lower-tier teams will have the opportunity to play against stronger teams and hone their skills. Although the matchups might not be the most exciting, weaker teams that wouldn't normally get the opportunity to scrim top squads could get valuable experience.
It's hard to deny that, even if Korea doesn't necessarily have more prize money, they have a more established esports culture. That doesn't mean NA and EU can't compete, but the results at Seoul may necessitate a shift in both mindset and process.
Both regions are up to the challenge. It's time to get to work.
China: Closer than expected, and a blast to watch
China's second-place team, EDward Gaming, surprised everyone at Seoul by looking even scarier than first-place eStar Gaming. This might be partly because eStar used Xu "Savage" Jialong as a substitute for Sun "xiaOt" Liwei, who wasn't able to attend the event.
Fans shouldn't take much away from EDG after their 0-3 Grand Finals loss to MVP Black. They put up a very close Game 1 against MVP, though their pocket strategy in Game 2, revolving around Sgt. Hammer's late-game Orbital BFG and Lt. Morales' Medivac, proved ineffective.
Viewers who weren't already fans of the Chinese scene may have developed a taste for the region's style of play. Both EDG and eStar made a grand display of the infamous "Chinese Bush Meta," constantly hiding in the dark places on the map with murder in their hearts.
China's strength as a region will probably still be disputed, given their results against Korea. But their abilities were put to good use against the Western regions, with EDG going 4-1 against EU and NA teams and eStar going 4-0.
What's less likely to be debated is that Chinese play is explosive and fun to watch. Though there are still substantial barriers to entry — a lack of English casting, difficult time zones and slow and buggy streams among them — you can expect more Western fans to follow China as a result.
Josh "Gauntlet" Bury is attempting to build the Canadian Bush Meta. You can find him on Twitter.