Heroes of the Storm isn’t dead. But it isn’t alive, either. Blizzard Entertainment’s announcement this week that it was ending Heroes esports entirely, shifting developers off the game, and “changing the cadence” of updates effectively stated that the game was shifting away from active development. The maudlin tone of the piece, even though it said the game was continuing development, made it fairly clear: Blizzard will support Heroes as it is for a while, but it’s halting its attempts to make it a hit.
There are several clues in that direction in the open letter. First, when it says it’s changing the cadence of hero releases, it’s worth noting that it’s been six weeks since Heroes’ last new addition, Orphea, with nothing new on the horizon — that’s the longest it’s been between new hero releases since early in its beta. Moreover, while the letter promises new content, it specifically doesn’t mention new maps — the thing that has separated Heroes from its competitors.
But it’s the end of esports, with the canceling of the Heroes of the Storm Global Championship (HGC), that really indicates the Blizzard has surrendered to the market. To be sure: the HGC was never especially popular. I watched most of it last year, and despite an increasingly high quality both of the production and the competitive matches (this is amazing!), it usually hovered around 20,000-to-30,000 Twitch viewers, and I’m not sure, even in the biggest of matches, that it ever cracked 50,000. That’s not good.
That lack of esports success reveals the core tensions at the heart of HOTS, and the thing that probably doomed it: as a game, it was never able to remedy the difference between casual and competitive play. It bet heavily on being the MOBA for casual players while also trying to develop a competitive playerbase and an esports league of the sort that Blizzard games have been known for.
How Blizzard games work
Blizzard had good reason to believe that it could hit both the casual and competitive market: that’s what its history says it’s good at. Blizzard, as a company, is rarely directly innovative in its games. Instead, it has achieved monumental success by moving into existing genres with games that are more accessible and more polished. Warcraft and Starcraft muscled in over early real-time strategy games by having the better interface (left-click selects and right-click moves!) in-game, but also making it much, much easier to connect to other players online.
This is something that’s been a success for Blizzard over and over. Diablo’s ease of use and superb graphics and music blasted roguelikes into the mainstream. World of Warcraft’s appeal came from how streamlined it felt compared to the chaotic original massively multiplayer RPGs, as well as the aesthetic appeal of the, well, world of Warcraft. And more recently, of course, both Hearthstone and Overwatch have wildly exceeded expectations for digital card games and team shooters.
What’s essential to all these games’ success, however, is that they also successfully converted casual players into players who cared about the depth of the game. Whether it be competitive Starcraft players, WOW raid tanks or role-playing guilds, or grinding for gems in Diablo II, the history of Blizzard and its players is one of curious players being developed into diehard fans.
Where Heroes succeeded … and failed
At a technical level, Heroes of the Storm fits this model. Yes, it’s built on MOBAs like the original Defense of the Ancients, with multiple lanes, heroes with a limited set of skills, and the demand for teamwork. But HOTS simplified this in that Blizzard way, eliminating the traditional MOBA annoyance of last-hitting minions, streamlining team leveling, and having creative maps that channeled players into objectives so that they always knew what they should be doing. So far, so good.
But Blizzard was always unable to take that next step of casual players learning the depths of the game — and largely due to its own mistakes, which can be seen in how Heroes esports never caught on.
The core problem with Heroes of the Storm came from its default game mode: Quick Match. The idea of Heroes, embodied in Quick Match, was that you could pick any combination of characters, jump into a game, and it would be fun. This was both a core design philosophy and how it pushed players to play. The matchmaking would make what it believed were fair teams based on Blizzard’s class system of Assassin-Support-Warrior-Specialist.
The problem with that was that, at higher levels, the game stopped being played that way. Blizzard was extremely wary of defining a “meta” for Heroes of the Storm — because they wanted it to seem casual — but in any kind of competitive game that doesn’t have an official meta, one will grow up without it, and in this case, it did without Blizzard ever being able to grapple with it.
Solo laning for (no) profit
Here’s a key example: the solo laner. At pro and high levels of competitive play, an extremely specific role, the solo, evolved. This player would usually work on the top lane of a map, making sure that the team gathered experience, and popping into fights in order to gain the advantage of surprise. Several of the pro scene’s top players, like Dignitas’ “Wubby” and Tempo Storm’s “Glaurung” played this role.
The evolution of the solo lane role led to characters with survivability against ambushes, which meant, for most of last year, that it was primarily filled by the unofficial category of “bruisers” — melee characters either with enough hit points or self-healing to get out of tough spots, and doing enough damage to swing late-game team fights. This meant Warrior characters like Dehaka or Arthas, or Assassins like Thrall or Malthael. You can start to see the problem arising just in that description: How on earth would a new player know that there’s a specific role that multiple characters from multiple different classes can play?
It gets worse. The characters ho are treated as being the best solo laners for new players to try are usually in the Specialist class, who are designed to push lanes as much as they can. So the game not only doesn’t show players the “right” way to play, it actively pushes them in a different direction.
But that’s not even the wrong direction! At most levels of play, those lane-pushing specialists like Azmodan and Sylvanas? They’re actually great! It’s just that at the pro level, coordination and fast movement meant that those characters were effectively useless, because they were so easy to seek and destroy. But for general use, they’re almost overpowered. And in Quick Match? Unless you randomly got a counterpart to one of those specialists, it’s possible you’d just straight up lose the game based on a bad random composition.
So what ended up happening, throughout all of Heroes of the Storm’s existence, is that the pros, by and large, played an extremely different game from general use in Quick Match, and a game that was still pretty damn different from competitive players. Blizzard’s halting attempt to acknowledge this? This summer, a few blog posts framed through the lens of the pros, and an oft-promised, never-delivered reclassification system for its heroes.
Thus the problems persisted. Most players would get stuck in Quick Match and never check out the depth of the draft modes. Or if they did, the communication of how to play a ranked mode well wasn’t in the game. And esports, which can often be used to bridge that gap, never filled that role in Heroes.
The end of esports, the end of Heroes
Heroes of the Storm, in part because it was so wary of setting a meta, never came anywhere near succeeding at aligning conventional play with high-level play. And this meant there was both always a severely limited ceiling for Heroes esports, but also that players wanting to get better by watching the pros would have limited ability to do that.
And this pulled out one of the three pillars that competitive games usually need to achieve lasting success. A strong casual presence was something Heroes always had; a basic competitive scene was in increasingly good shape over time as the game adapted after its big HOTS 2.0 launch. But an esports scene that would feed back into both of those things, like League of Legends and Dota 2 possess? That gets players hyped to learn more, and that focuses media attention back on the game to get new players? This pillar never existed sufficiently well, despite all the noble attempts to get it in place.
Without it, it seems clear that Blizzard has given up on expecting Heroes of the Storm to ever be more than it is. And they’re probably correct to do so — it’s been almost five years since the beta started. It’s just hard not to see where the potential got wasted.