The Heroes of the Dorm tournament came to a climactic finale Sunday night on ESPN2 with a final series between CAL Berkeley and Arizona State University. The impressive best-of-five series went the full five games and featured a close-fought finish. But when the Core fell, it was Berkeley that emerged victorious.
After sweeping their opponent Illinois Urbana-Champaign in the Heroic Four, it appeared as though Berkeley could easily do the same in the final - especially since Arizona State only won their Heroic Four matchup against Boston College by a 2-1 margin and looked shaky in the early games.
But the championship series did not disappoint. It pit the superior team-fighting expertise and eSports experience of Berkeley against the strong team compositions and solid map control of Arizona State.
The last game of the series, played on the Dragon Shire map, was frantic. A decision by Arizona to use their hearthstones in the bush near the enemy side’s bruiser camp cost them the game. Half the team was killed and they were unable to recover. A Dragon Knight capture for Berkeley sealed the deal moments later as, just over 22 minutes into the game, they made their final push to the Core.
As Berkeley were declared the victors and the confetti fell from the heavens, the tournament itself came to an end. But the significance of the tournament for the Heroes of the Storm community and eSports as a whole is far more enduring.
So, what did we learn?
Blizzard and their subsidiary TeSPA are capable of great production values
I’ll admit that I was afraid of what Sunday’s broadcast would look like. The previous ones were good enough for those already familiar with the game or with eSports generally, sure.
But ESPN2 is a whole different beast, and when you’re trying to grow your audience through a major television event, you can’t rely on “good enough.” The viewer’s first impression is really important, and if that impression is a bunch of unintelligible jargon followed by ten health bars moving erratically around a map, you will deter a lot of the uninitiated.
Thankfully, they did their best to cater to existing fans and casual viewers alike, and it seems to have worked. There was explanation, but not so much that it would bore dedicated fans. There was analysis, but not so in-depth that it would deter casual viewers.
And while no one expects that a viewer completely new to eSports would walk away from the broadcast an expert, I think that Blizzard and the Texas e-Sports Association (TeSPA) found the happy medium that made it watchable across a wide audience.
I’m surprised, even though I shouldn’t be. Blizzard has been bringing games to the masses for some time now, and this is just the latest installment.
The tournament needed hero bans during the drafting process
The entire tournament, including the group stage, did not utilize hero bans. This meant that the only way for a team to deny their opponent the use of a hero was to select that hero themselves. This is not a good value proposition if the hero the team wants to take off the table is not one they themselves are comfortable playing.
Early in the tournament, it was argued that bans would be inappropriate given the game’s relatively small hero pool (at least when compared to Dota 2 or League of Legends). But the result of not having bans was that we saw a few heroes in basically every game: Valla, Jaina, E.T.C. and Diablo among them. It is tedious and makes for less variety: I heard Manuel “Grubby” Schenkhuizen say “Jaina” more times than I can count.
The other side-effect was that teams had to make tough choices when facing a team with a predictable team composition. Against teams that ran an Illidan comp, the choice was to either pick Illidan first (if possible), counter-pick using heroes like Brightwing and Tassadar, or just play your own comp. Having bans would mean that teams would, by necessity, require a “plan B.” If your opponent denies you the keystone to your usual comp, you need some other option.
The ESL Major League uses a ban system for Heroes of the Storm, and it works. I’m hoping that the next time we see a major Blizzard-sponsored tournament like this, there will be one ban per side.
Bans are a double-edged sword, though. There were some teams in the tournament that utilized heroes that weren’t often picked, and it became a trademark for them. These teams would likely be banned out of that hero, because it forces that player onto another hero with whom they are likely less comfortable. So while it would likely reduce the frequency we see the most common heroes, it could also punish teams who try to regularly play underutilized heroes, such as the Lost Vikings.
The tournament structure needed to be clearly defined in advance
The group stage of the tournament was the subject of some controversy as both the matchmaking system in the Swiss tournament system and the tiebreaker scores came under fire from participants.
The former was due to the fact that, under what is generally understood to be a Swiss system, a team should be matched up against another team that has an identical tournament record whenever possible.
Over on Reddit, a post by user echuchee illustrated the fact that some teams played games against opponents with vastly different records despite the fact that better matches were available in that round. TeSPA hasn’t responded publicly to these allegations, though an article by Rob Zacny at PCGamesN says that a TeSPA administrator named Logan Fishel admitted in a Skype conversation that the matchups were incorrect while doubting if it would have made a difference in the results.
But TeSPA did respond publicly to the issue of how tiebreakers worked in the group stage. In short, the top four teams in each of the 16 groups advanced to the round of 64. But as you might imagine, there were a few groups where there were ties among the top four teams in terms of match score.
Again, echuchee posted on the Heroes of the Dorm Reddit about the issue. He stated that the TeSPA webpage said that the tiebreaker was match score, then game score, then tiebreak score and provided an archived screenshot as proof. TeSPA said this “verbiage” on the website was an error and amended their rules to clarify that tiebreak score was used, and game score was not - but this happened after the end of the group stage.
I reached out to both Blizzard and TeSPA to get their side of the story, but never received a reply.
College students love free stuff
Almost 900 teams signed up for the event, but many no-showed during the group stage. The likely culprit? The fact that the entire team was offered access to the beta, completely free of charge.
It’s true that if you want a key to Heroes of the Storm, it’s usually easy enough to find one online. But this was one more way to get them, and it looks like more than a few teams availed themselves of the opportunity.
This isn’t likely to be an issue in the future, as the game’s release date is set for June 2, 2015.
But the impact this had on the group stage of this tournament may have been substantial, as a team’s tiebreaker score suffered as a result of “winning” against a no-show.
There’s an appetite for eSports on North American television
When the Heroic Four bracket ended and the broadcast flipped to ESPN2 for the final match, there was initially some incredible backlash on Twitter from viewers. Those used to seeing soccer or poker tournaments on ESPN2 were highly offended by the presence of a — gasp — video game.
This initial batch of negativity was later replaced by wonder as many people found themselves drawn to the action, despite knowing little about the game. We got tweets from sports personalities who would never be near this kind of game, including an earth-shattering tweet from former basketball phenom and current internet darling Bill Walton.
We got “GOING HAM ON THE CORE.”
It’s true that the viewership stats for the broadcast have not been released yet. And given some of the other events on during the time slot, it’s possible they aren’t even that great. But grabbing a decent slot on ESPN2 seems to have done more to publicize the game and eSports generally than the bevy of special interest articles we’ve seen in mainstream publications. This could go a long way towards seeing more of it on TV.
And for eSports, a more widespread acceptance and interest is ultimately the long-term goal. The die-hard fan was aware of its existence. But for one magically crazy evening, the average viewer at home was, too.
Josh Bury is a freelance journalist with a passion for Heroes of the Storm, Basketball and other nerdy activities. You can follow him on Twitter.