Heroes of the Storm is evolving as an esport.
Blizzard’s new Heroes Global Championship (HGC) league starts this weekend. It’s a new format for competitive play for Heroes of the Storm, the developer’s multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) title. The genre is one of the most popular in the growing esports market, and Blizzard has put a lot of focus on creating and promoting esports events for its releases. You can find the full schedule here.
GamesBeat interviewed Sam Braithwaite, Heroes of the Storm’s esports lead. We talked about the HGC, how Heroes of the Storm’s esports business has evolved, and how it’ll bring in new fans by focusing on its players.
GamesBeat: How has Heroes of the Storm’s esports scene changed recently?
Sam Braithwaite: Over the course of 2016, we learned quite a few lessons. One big thing that Heroes struggled with was consistency. You could never find Heroes in the same stream or on one website that gives you all the information for what’s happening across the globe. It was very difficult to follow. We decided to step back and readdress what our scene looks like and what we want to accomplish.
With that, we launched HGC. It’s an A-team league that runs in North America, Europe, China, and Korea that all runs simultaneously in a double round robin league format. All of our teams are guaranteed to earn at least $100,000 as minimum compensation for participation if they participate the entire year. It’s about creating that stability, creating regular content for people to tune in on and providing the stability for not only rosters but the entire scene and where you get information, how you get information, how you digest it.
GamesBeat: Have you done much direct player compensation in the past?
Braithwaite: No, we’ve never done it before. This is a first for us. We’re proud of it, and we’re excited about it. We felt like, in order for Heroes to grow, we needed to let our players have the peace of mind — this is a career, a long-term investment. You don’t need another job. You can play Heroes full time. We want that for all of our players. We’re excited that we were able to do that.
GamesBeat: It seems like all of Blizzard’s esports games have been going through a lot of changes. Is this part of an internal plan?
Braithwaite: We’ve definitely made some changes. The biggest is just building our team. In the past year, we’ve hired so many people on the esports team across all the different franchises. We’re giving a lot of opportunities to think and plan ahead. With that, you start to see more of these intricate leagues and formats emerging across all of our franchises because we as Blizzard are taking esports seriously. It’s coming from the top down, and it’s something that the entire company feels. You’re not alone. Internally, we’re all feeling a big shift, that we as Blizzard support esports.
GamesBeat: Your game is constantly adding new characters, and each time you do this, does it shake up the game so much that it throws players a bit, trying to learn new characters and the counters for them? Or is it not that big an adjustment?
Braithwaite: The ideal situation is that a new character, a new hero on the roster doesn’t actually shake up the competitive scene. If one single hero can completely shift the meta, there’s something wrong with that hero. The real thing that we need to look at is, over the course of a few months, when several heroes are added, as well as several reworks, how does that shift the meta? When you look at overall sweeping armor changes or different heroics or talents in a warrior pool, we might start seeing a warrior-heavy meta. But I don’t think one particular hero can necessarily shake up the meta. But just in case — there are those chances, where a hero comes out that’s incredibly strong.
One thing we’re doing with HGC that we’ve never done before is a tournament realm. Moving forward, we’ll be able to identify and choose which patch we want to play on. With that, we’re always going to be two to four weeks behind the regular release schedule. There are huge heroes coming out that impact the game in a big way, but our professional players will have several weeks to adapt to those changes before they’re placed in a tournament environment.
GamesBeat: In the past, you’ve done TV events like Heroes of the Dorm. Is this new venture going to be more focused on streaming?
Braithwaite: We’re doing Heroes of the Dorm again this year. We’re really excited about it. But for Heroes and HGC, we’re not really looking for TV right now. We do have our broadcast partners that we’ll be pushing toward this year, Facebook and Twitch. I don’t see us being on TV for HGC this year, though.
GamesBeat: What kind of fans are you trying to draw to competitive Heroes? Are you aiming more at Blizzard fans or MOBA fans?
Braithwaite: First and foremost, when we’re creating esports content, we’re creating it for our current active players. Esports isn’t exactly a service to them, but it’s auxiliary content for our users to digest. When they’re not playing the game, we want them to be watching the game, to be thinking about the game, to be taking it to the next level. That’s what HGC is for, as a companion to our current active players. Obviously, when it comes to big moments, high highs, offline events, we’ll be targeting other MOBA players, as well as the entire Blizzard community. But overall, HGC is targeted for current Heroes of the Storm players.
GamesBeat: The MOBA field was already competitive when you entered with Heroes. Do you think you’ve been able to carve out a place for yourselves in that market?
Braithwaite: Absolutely. We’re continuing to find our place in the market as well. We’re starting to hit our stride with Heroes as a game to where we can all sit back and say that the game people see today is something we’re proud of, that we think has a spot in the MOBA marketplace. Heroes has several things that really define what it is and make it unique. Having multiple battlegrounds, having talents, everybody leveling up simultaneously — without that burden of having to last-hit and argue over that with your teammates. It really does propel Heroes to different heights.
GamesBeat: What are your goals with esports here? Is it focused on building a stable league, on just drawing a lot of viewers?
Braithwaite: It’s a little bit of both. HGC is built as a foundation to provide stability for the Heroes esports community. Not only do we want to provide stability with our favorite rosters, but we also want to give viewers the experience — three days a week, 16 hours a day, I can tune in to this specific channel and watch the best of the best when it comes to Heroes of the Storm. Not only that, but they’ll be able to choose their favorite teams and players. Today, just about an hour and a half ago, our new HGC website went live, and with that, the entire schedule from now until June was released. If you follow a favorite team or player, you know every single match they’re playing in. You’ll be able to set your calendar right now for matches in May.
That’s also something that’s unheard of in the esports world, something we wanted to work hard toward: giving every person all the information that they want. And not only that — another goal of the HGC is to bring a global program to life. If you go to our website, it’s not just an NA/EU, Western-focused website. Everything is broken down for North America, Europe, China, and Korea. You can get all the VODs, all the schedules, all the standings, anything and everything you could want about all the regions. That’s all in one central location.
Stability and consistency is our main goal for the program, but also, we’re going to be trying to dive in this year into creating and building superstars and personalities within the Heroes scene. I’ll admit that with Heroes, it’s more difficult compared to other MOBAs to really have those standout performances. It’s going to be up to us as Blizzard and the HGC and our players to bring these superstars in front of the fans.
GamesBeat: How do you plan to do that, build the players into stars?
Braithwaite: We’ll be doing more interviews and providing more background info, but we’ll be driving it through stats. While watching the game, there are those immediate carry performances in Heroes, which is what we want, but there are also statistics that can help build superstars and figure out who’s the best at a certain character in the league. Who’s the best in NA at this role? Who’s the best in EU at this role? Who’s the best with this character? What are teams’ and players’ battleground win percentages? If we dive into the statistics and show why these guys are great, the rest can follow.
GamesBeat: What kind of prize pool are players competing for?
Braithwaite: That’s one thing that we wanted to not focus on this year, the prize pool. A lot of the money for HGC, which is over $4 million on the year, is straight into that guaranteed compensation. Our offline events are meant to be looked at as a bonus for being the top performer in a region. But we’re hoping that the guaranteed compensation is what will ultimately bring stability to the scene. We still haven’t announced our BlizzCon prize pool yet. That will come at a later date. But overall, our tier three online events will be a $100,000 prize pool. Tier two will be $250,000. The remaining is to be announced.
GamesBeat: Is there any worry that, since players have so much guaranteed money, that might stifle competition a bit?
Braithwaite: No, I think it’ll be the opposite. I think it’s going to breed competition. Teams will want to stay in that position. Up until now, it’s only been really important for the top two to three teams in the region. Those two to three teams make a decent amount of money. But teams four through eight don’t really see a piece of it at all. What I think is going to happen is that those spots will be so coveted because of the guaranteed compensation that people are going to want to fight for them. The bottom two do get relegated twice a year.
GamesBeat: I imagine that along with the guaranteed money, there might be more restrictions on these players. Do you limit other games they can play competitively or other leagues they can appear in?
Braithwaite: We do expect another level of professionalism from our players. It doesn’t necessarily come with restricting from doing other things. We’re not going to stop them from streaming whatever game they want to play or do what they want to do. But we do have heavier restrictions on roster locks and how they treat referees and sportsmanship. We have a lot more rules on tardiness, showing up on time. We’re investing a lot of money into HGC and into these players. With that, there’s an added level of responsibility. There’s no more delaying matches because players don’t show up on time. That’s something that can’t exist in the HGC.
GamesBeat: Has that been a difficult transition? Esports started out as a kind of Wild West. Is part of your job teaching players how to be more professional?
Braithwaite: It’s actually not that difficult. We just recently had our players summit, where we flew out all the teams and players from North America and Europe to Blizzard HQ and [spent] three days with them, doing all the things that you’re talking about. We gave them media and interview training. We had them sit down with our balance team. We talked about rules and payments and everything that they would need to know about the HGC. We also gave them a lot of swag, of course.
One thing we realized is that these guys are ready for the game to level up. They want it to level up. They don’t mind any of the added professionalism because they ultimately know that the more people treat HGC professionally, the more money will ultimately end up in their pockets. The bigger HGC gets, the bigger they’ll be. That’s one thing that I wanted to echo in that players summit. This is their league, the players’ league. They voted for the map pool. They voted on official rules and some of the other behind-the-scenes things we’re going to be doing. We want the players to feel like this is their league. We’ll be empowering them to do that.
GamesBeat: Is it possible for any player to aspire to the HGC?
Braithwaite: With the HGC we also launched something called the Open Division. That’s meant to bridge the gap between Hero League and competitive play. We want people who enjoy the game, who are really good at the game, to think, “Hey, I want to be in the HGC. How do I get there?” That path is easy. You go to the Open Division. We recently partnered up with GosuGamers, which will be hosting weekly cups in their Heroes of the Storm section where there’s cash and points up for grabs. At the end of a 14-week period, we’ll take the top 16 teams. Those teams compete in a playoff, and the top two teams from the Open Division fight against the bottom two teams in the pro league to find out who’ll be the next two teams in the HGC for the end of the year. We really do believe that HGC is the full experience.
Whether it’s the Open Division, whether it’s the pro league, whether it’s our website, we really are trying to create this one-stop shop where it’s a complete ecosystem, and we support every aspect of it. That’s the closing thing. HGC is bringing a lot of attention to the game and to esports generally. There are still opportunities to compete and opportunities to be in the HGC. The path is clear, and it’s easier than ever. Grab your friends, sign up, and play.