Let's not write Heroes' eulogy just yet

by Josh Bury Jun 2 2016
Thumbnail image courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment

It's been a day of hot takes.

Spurred on by a disheartening interview with MVP Black's coach Kim where he discusses the possibility that the current World Champions will stop playing Heroes, opinions have flooded in about the future of the game's competitive scene. HotS esports is dying, some said. Others claimed it was "in crisis," a failure, or some similarly vague critique. Even esports writers who don't follow the scene felt the need to weigh in — often gleefully — on Twitter.

The reality, of course, is that Heroes of Storm's esports scene is only a failure if the goal was to beat League of Legends or Dota 2 within a year of launch. It wasn't. Given the hold these other games already have over the MOBA ecosystem, and Blizzard's unfamiliarity with developing and promoting a game in that genre, that could never have been more than a best-case scenario.

That's not to say the game is without issues. The competitive scene is marred by recurring problems that need to be addressed. But rather than simply declaring the premature demise of a unique, approachable and yet deeply strategic game, let's look at these specific issues rationally.

Support the players

Kim's point that the game lacks third-party tournaments is valid — and it's also a phenomenon created at least in part by the way that Blizzard's official tournaments are announced.

This summer in the West, we've seen the worst of it: multiple premier tournaments have been announced less than a week before the first qualifier, balance patches have hit less than two days before the start of tournaments, and organizers (whether ESL or DreamHack) haven't been able to clarify rulesets and deadlines in a timely, coherent manner.

The way events are organized and communicated to teams and viewers needs to change if third-party tournament sponsors are expected to play a part in the competitive scene. If you had money that you wanted to spend holding an event as a third-party organizer, how would you even know when to schedule it? You absolutely, 100 percent cannot conflict with an official Blizzard event, but you don't know when they are, and by the time you do, it's usually too late to set something up.

Having a clear schedule well in advance of the actual event will also help viewership, which improves the prospects for tournament organizers and sponsors.

Help fans help you

Kim's proposal of crowdfunding global championships has a lot of value. The risk is that the initial crowdfunding result will be less than stellar, but that's a risk worth taking. Seeing buy-in from fans has the potential to foster confidence in tournament organizers and sponsors; it also builds hype at the viewer level and gives players access to bigger prize pools.

Blizzard already dipped their toe into this model, with a portion of the MVP Black Nexagon proceeds going directly to the team, but it's nowhere near the kind of involvement that Valve offers fans of Dota 2.

If crowdfunded prize pools do make an appearance in Heroes, they still won't beat the prize pool at Dota 2's International this year. But again, if beating Dota and League of Legends is the only metric that matters, then you're going to be consistently disappointed here — especially only one year into the game's release.

Bring in more viewers

One of the biggest complaints that fans of MOBAs have is the time commitment it takes to follow tournaments. A game as fast as Heroes has the potential to blaze an entirely new trail, completing brackets in an afternoon instead of a weekend. Instead, compared to other MOBAs, we're left with the same amount of commentary between games, with half the actual in-game time.

It's not all bad. The casting and analysis talent that has been cultivated in NA and EU is strong and entertaining. But there's only so much to say after the game is done, and many viewers would sooner get back to the action.

Meanwhile, production delays are as rampant in HotS as in every other MOBA, and there's no quicker way to lose viewers than not being able to actually watch games. The worst of these was the audio-related issue that delayed a series at BlizzCon by three hours, a delay that saw even the staunchest Heroes fans and even members of the press wander off to seek a spot in the line for the Overwatch demo.

James "Kaelaris" Carrol and Manuel "Grubby" Schenkhuizen filled the time as best they could, and Blizzard even used the delay to announce their plans for the global championship circuit. Technical issues happen. But for the biggest Heroes tournament yet — and for all the ones going forward — there needs to be some backup plan.

Another barrier to viewership is the lack of any sort of in-game spectating, and the clumsiness of the existing overlay on stream. Iteration is one way to improve the UI, but we haven't seen much movement on this front.

Both of those issues could be alleviated with a complete rebuild of the game engine. While Blizzard has never confirmed that such a thing is even being considered, it seems like the StarCraft 2 engine is holding back the game's development — both for casual players and fans of the esports scene.

What Kim didn't say

Some people are acting like MVP Black is already gone, but Kim didn't guarantee that the team would be leaving — just that, based on the current situation, they are considering it.

Blizzard just announced the format for the Fall Championship, but it wouldn't be surprising for them to announce their esports plans for 2017 at BlizzCon. That could easily point to a shift in direction for next year's competitive landscape.

The calls for a league-style system worldwide for Heroes seem to forget the troubles that such a system caused in North America and Europe when it existed as ESL Major League. The infrastructure in Korea and China is more suitable for this kind of arrangement, but in the West teams constantly disbanded, causing a big gap in competition as teams collected their points from DQ'd opponents.

A guaranteed minimum salary arrangement alongside a league format might help with stability in the West, but a league is far from the only option. Having specific and clear offseasons would be enough to encourage third-party involvement.

Be reasonable

If Blizzard decided to double the prize pool for Fall, it wouldn't fix these issues. It might convince MVP Black to stay, but whether or not that happens, there are more imminent threats to the game than prizes (or lack thereof).

Yet even if MVP goes, this isn't a death knell for the game. The HotS esports community doesn't necessarily need to expand endlessly. Growth should focus on being healthy and not get bogged down in the constant shouting that the game has to beat Dota 2 or League of Legends.

The game won't do that and it doesn't need to do that. It needs to deal with the current issues and then forge a path of its own. Whatever direction it does take, reports of its death have, as usual, been greatly exaggerated.

Josh "Gauntlet" Bury wants to be there to give you a helping Divine Palm when you need it. You can find him on Twitter.