It’s going to be a big year for Heroes of the Storm. The Blizzard MOBA, which throws together characters from across the developer’s gaming worlds and pits them against each other, has rumbled on respectably for the last couple of years.
The team-focused and objective-based spin on the highly strategic multiplayer mega-genre hasn’t exploded in popularity in the same way everyone has come to expect from a Blizzard release, but regular content updates have kept a passionate fanbase happily farming and ganking away.
Now, Heroes of the Storm is in the midst of its most significant update yet, so momentous it has been deemed deserving of the moniker ‘Heroes 2.0’. With a new map, new heroes, reworked player rewards and a refined progression system, it has given the game a fresh injection of excitement. A tie-in campaign with hit shooter Overwatch has also turned the heads of players who would never have considered dipping into the MOBA before.
Meanwhile, Heroes of the Storm approaches an important milestone in its competitive scene too. The Heroes of the Storm Global Championship (HGC) is about to reach the midway point of its inaugural season. After 10 weeks of regular league play, the top 12 teams from around the world will battle it out for a US$80,000 grand prize at the Mid-Season Brawl. While those less fortunate will have to fight for their spot in the league against up-and-coming teams in the Crucible, or face relegation.
Building regular structured league play around the game has been an exhausting yet rewarding experiment for Blizzard – it’s unlike anything they’ve done before throughout their extensive history in eSports. It’s something that Heroes of the Storm eSports Franchise Lead, Sam Braithwaite, has helped guide.
“I think overall we’re very happy with what we’ve accomplished so far,” he enthuses. “We’ve just launched three and half months ago and seeing where we are now we’re very happy… Now that we have the play-offs coming up, the Crucible coming up, the Mid-Season Brawl coming up; they’re all these really key moments and I think that we’re doing really well going into those. I’m excited to see how that momentum carries us through.”
It’s tough carving out a path for yourself in a competitive eSports environment, especially as a new title that shirks many traditional MOBA conventions for some wilder, quirky ideas. For Braithwaite, to help the audience keep up with what’s going on, it’s about ensuring fans have all the information they need within reach, and at a wider level, placing an emphasis on storytelling and creating narratives that keep viewers invested in the ongoing competition. It’s proving to be a challenge, especially in these early stages of growth, but they’re finding solutions to their unique problems.
“Heroes, compared to other MOBAs, is very team-focused,” explains Braithwaite. “It’s hard to have the superstar players like you do in other games. You won’t often hear about a Faker or an Arteezy of Heroes because it is very much a whole team executing. So, for us, stories and looking at icons is something that’s very important – it’s something that people latch onto and people follow.
“Now that we have HGC running in NA, EU, China and Korea every single weekend, we’re not only training viewer habits but we’re building up these stories and we’re getting people to care about teams or players that they didn’t necessarily before. Heading into the Mid-Season Brawl, that’s like the zenith of all of it… viewers all coming together to watch how their teams face off in this international pool. So, I’m really optimistic, I think we have a good thing going.”
While the Heroes of the Storm 2.0 update isn’t specifically focused on the game’s eSports scene, it does introduce new elements that will undoubtedly impact and reshape its competitive environment. The first is a new battleground: Hanamura. An adaptation of Overwatch’s Escort game mode, in this Heroes of the Storm variant, players must guide payloads to their destinations across the map in order to fire missiles that deal damage to the opposing team’s core.
It is, like a lot of ideas in Heroes of the Storm, a massive deviation from what many would consider MOBA norms. The map secures each team’s core behind an impenetrable barrier and the only way to damage it is from escorting payloads. The first team to secure seven hits wins the map, although the process can be sped up by destroying your opponent’s structures or defeating a powerful neutral mob in the centre of the map to gain additional shots. With unique objectives on each map, the challenges become two-fold: for Blizzard they must find a way to communicate all this disparate information to the viewer. And for the pro players, they must be prepared to come up with a plan for each different map.
“I think that one of things that makes Heroes really unique and makes it really fun is that, that’s something that we have to worry about. Other players in other MOBAs have one isometric map and you master that, but in Heroes you have to have unique strategies on each battleground, so you really have to alter not only your draft and your play style, but your normal habits as a team. You might really shine on specific battlegrounds and you might falter on some, and that’s something that your opponent needs to consider and think about. That level of strategy and depth doesn’t appear in other MOBA games.”
Battlegrounds like Hanamura, and the similarly-themed Towers of Doom, is just one of the multitude of ways Heroes of the Storm adds its unique twist to the MOBA formula – though these changes do come with their fair share of sceptics. At first, even Braithwaite was concerned about the anticlimactic nature of these map types that do not allow teams to push core directly, but was quickly converted to the idea and is intrigued to see how pro players adapt to the new strategic challenges on Hanamura. There’s far more for them to get to grips with immediately, however, as Heroes 2.0 has also brought two new characters to the game from the Overwatch universe: Genji and D.Va.
As with most MOBAs, Genji has been held back for a few weeks from tournament play so pros can take time to learn the new hero and devise new strategies. This weekend, though, he and his dragonblade will be unleashed upon the Nexus and Braithwaite is excited to see how players will take to the highly mobile and high-skill character.
“Genji’s exciting! It’s good to have characters like that: playmaking heroes. It’s one of those heroes where, if you do something spectacular, people can see it and they can recognise it. That’s what makes eSports and sports great is that characters like Genji make it possible for us to sit there and be like: ‘That was unreal. That guy is a god!’ That makes me want to watch because I want to see things that are physically not possible for me to do.”
The agile ninja will soon be joined by D.Va, although she has only just arrived on the game’s Public Test Realm and won’t be seen in the HGC for some time. Still, as a uniquely positioned warrior with the ability to reduce damage taken with her Defense Matrix, scatter foes with her mech’s Self Destruct power and pepper enemies with pistol fire in the more vulnerable Pilot Mode, Braithwaite has some early thoughts on how she might see play.
“I think it’s going to be nice to have different tanks that offer a different set of functions. I’m really excited to see how her Self Destruct and her zoning mechanisms work on a lot of point capture places like Sky Temple and Dragon Shire.”
Before D.Va boosts her way into the roster, all eyes with an interest in Heroes of the Storm’s eSports future will look to the Crucible and Mid-Season Brawl. “The top tier is so close right now and they make for such amazing games, I think that right there is the main story we’re trying to sell.”
Recent results and the current standings show how accurate Braithwaite is, most notably in EU where the top three teams are separated by a single win. So, with the prospect of a stellar finals in the HGC and the momentum of 2.0 propelling the game forward further still, Heroes of the Storm eSports has massive potential in its future. Will the bold experimentation pay off? We’ll have to wait and see.