Heroes of the Storm has an esports problem

(Image: Blizzard)
(Blizzard Entertainment)

Heroes of the Storm is a surprisingly easy game to learn. Blizzard’s friendly MOBA cranks team fighting up to 10 and dials farming down to about 3, all within a wonderful crossover universe that draws from the company’s other successful franchises. The height requirement for Heroes of the Storm is considerably shorter than the other roller coasters at the esports amusement park. You don’t even have to last hit the minions.

This should have been a home run, right?

According to Blizzard, it is. Though they haven’t broken out specific numbers, a recent tweet by game director Dustin Browder indicates that the metrics for Heroes of the Storm are great.

But plenty of players and cool design don’t magically turn a game into an esports success. At the time of this writing, fewer than 2,000 people are watching Heroes of the Storm on Twitch. This is the grim reality nearly a year after release: Heroes of the Storm is not catching on as an esport.

(Blizzard Entertainment)
(Blizzard Entertainment)

A rough start

Like most online games, Heroes was playable during its development. That’s usually a good thing — it helps foster a community — but it initially felt pretty clunky. The skeletal ranking system left me (and many competitive players) with no incentive to continue playing. Though Blizzard is typically known for delivering incredibly polished games, Heroes was a little rickety from the start, and the hype surrounding it led to many people grabbing keys, trying it for themselves, and bailing out.

A small community with a big voice and a reputation for vehemently demanding changes took to social media and the Heroes subreddit with their concerns. Blizzard responded well; as they refined the game and updated its UI and matchmatching, it was clear that player feedback was playing a major role. But giving in to the demands of players has created a community that feels somewhat entitled. This attitude hasn’t helped Heroes find the broader audience it’s desperately hoping to connect with, but it’s a very small piece of a much larger problem.

Lack of extended support

Considering how oversaturated the MOBA market has become, Heroes still feels a bit malnourished. So it falls on the shoulders of the publisher to support its most passionate players: the professionals. Unfortunately, Blizzard hasn’t done a great job of that.

The money was slow to roll in; initially, the only tournaments in the U.S. were played weekly, with a small $100 pot going to the winner. A few bigger prizes popped up sporadically, but Blizzard provided no assistance to the competitive scene prior to release, even going so far as to remove custom games at one point, forcing pro teams to queue up Quickmatchs at the exact same time in the hopes of luckily catching each other on the servers.

It eventually got better. Big name orgs like Dignitas, Team Liquid, Cloud9, and Na’vi entered the space, encouraging smaller organizations to pick up teams as well. They were betting on the future, and when Blizzard announced their plans for the Global Circuit at Blizzcon 2015, the community breathed a heavy sigh of relief. The wait was over.

Except we’re all still waiting for Heroes to really take off. We are now nearly halfway through the Global Circuit, and the numbers for the biggest Heroes of the Storm events still hover abysmally between 10k-50k concurrent viewers. For an esport trying to compete with Dota 2 and League of Legends, that won’t do.

That’s not to say Blizzard isn’t trying. For the Global Circuit, they pumped $4 million into the professional ecosystem. This is both exciting and disconcerting: it’s a ton of cash, sure, but there are simply no third-party tournaments to speak of. There’s been just enough money flowing through to retain some talented players, but it’s not flourishing.

Heroes of the Dorm is certainly a step in the right direction. Even though some pros feel slighted that collegiate players seemingly get more promotion, Blizzard is at least making big moves and trying new things. While the gameplay is hardly top tier (the number of missed skillshots in teamfights can be cringeworthy), it’s a start.

But what about the rest of this year? There’s next to no awareness that a competitive scene even exists. If you want to follow pro teams, there is nothing in the game itself outside of the occasional post in the Battle.net client. The only esports-related items in Heroes are branded mounts awarded to Cloud9 and MVP Black for winning their respective championships. That’s it. I’m grateful we have those mounts, but it’s not enough to shed light on the teams and players that work tirelessly day in and day out to compete. There are no in-game stickers like CS:GO, no compendiums or in-client spectating like Dota, and no avatars or wards related to teams like you’d find in League. Compared to these established titles, Heroes just can’t keep up.

The spectator problem

Disregard the fumbled launch, the off-putting community attitude, the isolated esports program, and the general lack of awareness that an esports scene even exists, and Heroes still has an uphill climb thanks to its confusing, unfriendly spectator mode.

The game is simply indigestible for a new audience. There is no easy way to display what every talent does or explain the mechanics of each map. Instead, casters highlight the biggest factors affecting each game to a new crowd. I still believe this is the best approach, but it comes off as a half-baked lesson plan for new pupils who are struggling to keep up or care. After the novelty of playing a Blizzard MOBA has worn off, so does interest in following the pro scene.

Unfortunately, solving the spectator problem isn’t as simple as, say, minimizing the amount of onscreen clutter, as my colleague Travis recently suggested for League of Legends.

The perfect Heroes UI should, first and foremost, give clear indication of which team is winning; currently the only way to figure this out is to stare at the levels on the top bar. The importance of reaching talent tiers 1, 4, 7, 10, 13, 16, and 20 is also key. Informed fans know that the outcome of every fight is dependent on teams arriving at these milestones efficiently. Without this info easily accessible to the viewer, casters are forced to constantly call it out. Add on map mechanics and hero abilities and you wind up with casters having to spend too much time explaining the rules, stealing precious airtime from more insightful discussions. The UI should explain Heroes and its components at a glance; otherwise, the presentation gets stuck in a Groundhog’s Day cycle of having to reintroduce the game and its myriad nuances at every turn.

This underlying problem won’t be solved overnight. But over time, tweaking the way info is displayed will make the game more appealing and understandable for a viewer that stumbles upon a Heroes stream.

There is still hope

Can it be fixed? Can Heroes really compete with the big boys of esports?

Yes, and the solution is pretty simple: Blizzard needs to support the Heroes pro scene on the same level as other developers.

More in-game items related to esports is a start, but the game needs a dedicated community page, an in-game tab housing popular streams, featured tournaments, leaderboards, video content, recent results, in-depth analysis, and developer interviews. All of this information is out there, but it requires the sort of digging that a more casual player won’t do.

Esports in-game is the answer. This is the divine intervention Heroes of the Storm needs and deserves. Esports recognition increases viewership, and that leads to a more vibrant scene as a whole.

There are so many missed opportunities here, particularly when it comes to supporting the teams and players that draw viewers. The top teams in the world still average less than $1,000 a month in salary. Unless you are top two in a region, there is little incentive to play competitively. And you can’t blame the organizations for paying players so little in a game that no one watches.

So help them watch. Improve the spectator experience. Bridge the gap between pro and casual players with in-game tools. As a fan, I want to see Heroes succeed, but big changes are needed if the game wants to compete.

Dylan Walker is on Twitter @dyluuxx