HotS Esports in 2017: Compromises

Tempest win the Heroes of the Storm Global Championship at DreamHack Summer

Photo Credit: DreamHack

Written by Thigan

Blizzard is showing where the esports future of Heroes of the Storm is headed. To analyze those changes, we have to understand first the current state of Heroes of the Storm esports.

An Overview of Last Year’s Progress

It is no secret that viewership in HotS hasn’t grown; it has been dropping since early this year. Regardless the schedule, tournament structure, production value, teams in competition, metas—there are multiple reasons—the viewership is lower.

Skill-wise, Europe has found stability around the level that Dignitas set during the Spring Season early this year, with mYinsanity (now Misfits) peaking during Summer and then regressing during Fall as the biggest variable there. China seems to be at a weaker point; the talent was scarce during HGC Spring, but China still placed two teams in the top 4 of the Global Championship. Afterwards, during the Spring Gold Series, they fought against MVP Black and influenced the style of the Korean powerhouse. However, the departure of talented players during the Summer Gold Series playoffs manifested in shot calling errors, underwhelming drafts, and individual mistakes. North America is the region that has regressed the most: weaker and unstable teams that lack discipline and innovation, talent scattered, and lack of synergy—low level of execution overall. This region gave us the BlizzCon 2015 Champion but lost to a minor region during HGC Summer and became the only major region to miss playoffs. Afterward that, the best teams had roster changes that prevented them from securing a place at BlizzCon 2016.

Korea is a puzzle. Despite low population on the server, a negative reputation for the game, and lots of talent moving to Overwatch, MVP Miracle and L5 still emerged alongside Tempest (now Tempo Storm) and MVP Black—clearly the best region in the world. This region deserves its own place in terms of talent; Without the support they have in SC2 and LoL or the obscene competition of a populated ladder, they still are the best at the game. It is a testament to the culture of the hardcore fans, professional players, and coaches.

In terms of production value, there has been a general improvement in the West. China is stable but perhaps has had more hiccups in production compared to last season. Korea is still the best at production by a large margin—a margin even bigger than in-game skill. However, you can see how they are saving money here and there.

In short: Viewership is dropping, skill is not improving globally, but production is better.

Currently Blizzard pays for everything:

  1. Prize pools
  2. Production
  3. Travel expenses

With the current results, it sounds reasonable to reduce the spending. However, it is important to change these tendencies from negatives to positives. So this is the old question: How do you improve the results with less money?

An Online League and its Compromises

“Most significantly, in North America, Europe, China, and Korea we’ll be shifting to a uniform online league format. As a result, the players on the top eight teams in each region will be contracted and guaranteed both compensation and regular competition.”

Production standards may be lowered

First compromise: players win a salary, but in exchange China and Korea have to give up some of their current advantages.

  • They live in the same city already, so they can LAN with ease
  • Tournament organizers have a place set up for LAN tournaments
  • LAN has more prestige
  • Production elements like interviews, booths, audience will be gone

The biggest losers are the two tournament organizers in China (NetEase) and Korea (OGN). They get paid by Blizzard, but they money has to be cut somewhere if they want to pay to the players and keep tournaments going. Even if many elements of the productions disappear, many expenses still exist that Blizzard has to cover.

The stage for NetEase's Gold Series Heroes League

“You can look forward to more consistency not only in your favorite rosters, but also in the scheduling, casting, and quality of broadcasts all-year round.”

Second compromise: the superior OGN production will be diluted to the level that online production provides and the standard that Blizzard enforces. In exchange, regular schedules and the familiar faces of casters and team names will help to stabilize viewership. Heroes of the Storm viewers will become accustomed to the production. I hope that this brings global statistics for the leagues; in case they don’t provide them themselves (I hope they do), they should at least procure the replays and YouTube VoDs for the four leagues.

The East and West may become disconnected

The next part to be worried about is the possible absence of a Western face in the Eastern scene and vice versa. There may not be English casting for the Korean League, and hope for English casting in the Chinese scene will be gone. This is pure speculation, but if this happens, I ask for a protocol to get clean feeds for translated casting.

“On their journey to the HGC finals, teams playing at the highest level will have opportunities to compete at three international events including a global tournament.”

@BlizzMilkFat on Beyond the Nexus: “There is going to be a clash that involves North America, Europe, Latin America and ANZ, and there are also going to be clashes that involve Korea, China, Taiwan and Southeast Asia. This will give us an opportunity to figure out who is the Best in the West and the Beast in the East. So when going into more of the global kinds of tournaments, we are going to actually have more stories to tell and more of juicy drama.”

Third compromise: the East is gone from the West. There are two possible ways to interpret this. First, that there are going to be more international tournaments in 2017 than in 2016; this could be local leagues that feed into international tournaments that then feed into the global tournament in a cycle that repeats more than once per year (just like right now, there are three seasons). The other possible (and more likely) interpretation is grimmer—that the three international events will be:

  1. East Clash
  2. West Clash
  3. BlizzCon (Global)

This makes sense when Blizzard mentions two waves of relegation per year, which seem to point toward two seasons from the three that we had in 2016.

Assuming the latter pessimistic view, the compromise is big: less people will be traveling to each tournament—less casters, less players, etc. It reduces expenses, but retains three international tournaments. The advantage is that the rivalry of Europe versus North America would have a cherry on top—at the end of the Western tournament, one of them will be Champion. This is good for marketing but bad for competition.

The analyst desk at ESL GamesCom 2016

Photo Credit: ESL

There are two dangerous elements. First, when you narrow the view to West and East only, you reduce the value of the West for Easterners and the other way around. For hardcore fans, this could mean the dismissal of English casts for Eastern leagues and possibly even Eastern regionals. For reference, if Spring or Summer used this format, the Eastern Clash would be the tournament with the highest level of Heroes of the Storm; not having English casters for this event would be a travesty for anybody who cares about high level Heroes of the Storm and happen to be in the West. We would have to wait one year to watch Korean and Chinese teams in English.

The second problem is that it perpetuates the idea that Asia is in their ethereal world of superior video gamers that is unreachable for Westerners. A better approach would be a rotation, with two regionals per round. You then change which teams go to each regional, something similar to what the NFL does with their divisions.

  • Round 1
    1. NA vs EU
    2. CN vs KR
  • Round 2
    1. NA vs CN
    2. EU vs KR
  • Round 3
    1. NA vs KR
    2. EU vs CN
  • Repeat

These three rounds may not happen in a single year—perhaps is a three-year cycle (it depends on economics)—but it is an improvement over a system that always splits the world into “East” and “West”.

The gap between top and bottom ends of competition may widen

@BlizzMilkFat: “So we are trying to level up every aspect of our program for next year, and the reason why we are trying to guarantee this regular compensation is because we are going to ask a lot more from our players. We are going to be tripling the amount of content that we are going to be producing for our fans for Heroes esports.”

“Twice a year, after proving themselves in a series of weekly open tournaments with prize pools, the two best teams from the Open Division will get to pit their skills against those of struggling pro teams, whose spots in the top tier of the HGC are on the line.”

Next compromise, mobility. Top players will have more stability; in exchange, the bottom of the professional end will fight twice a year for survival. It’s like having a six month performance review at your job, but instead of looking for areas of opportunity to grow, those that fail lose their job. This is better than current system—I wouldn’t call it a compromise. What changes are the rules to move between to these teams.

Murloc Geniuses after their win at the Heroes of the Storm NA Regional at PAX

Photo Credit: ESL

The North American scene is known for their constant roster changes, but this cannot continue with a league format; the freedom to move from a team to another team searching for a better opportunities will be reduced. What happens when two teams want to trade players or if any team wants a player from the Open Division? What would the regulations be for players kicked from a professional team that want to play on an amateur team? Players will have to accept those—at the moment unknown—regulations in order to participate in the HGC.

Tying up loose ends

As a last comment, these two quotes have elements that puzzle me:

@BlizzMilkFat: “So we are trying to level up every aspect of our program for next year…”

This probably means that there is going to be the same Global Championship as 2016 plus some International Tournaments. Maybe it’s a political phrase without substance. In any case, this article rejects this idea that Blizzard will just add more—compromises are giving up something to gain more.

@BlizzMilkFat: “We are going to be tripling the amount of content…”

This is another sign that the most optimistic view of international tournaments could be true.

To move forward, Blizzard has to make compromises. When the time passes, we’ll compare the state of the esports scene again, and Blizzard and the fans will make their final conclusions then.

This is a guest article written by Thigan. He is a well-known redditor who often brings up discussion-worthy topics and provides valuable insight into Heroes of the Storm.

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