I am aware that this post may seem pessimistic or even negative to some, but that's not my intention as I am hopeful for 2018. I think HGC 2017 was a big step up on 2016 and hope for a continued improvement.
However, I do think that, if things are not done well, this may be the last year where Heroes is supported by Blizzard as well as it is, in both time and money. Please note this article is primarily about Heroes esports and does not delve into other ideas about Heroes as a game.
A Retrospective on 2017
2017 saw the introduction of the new HGC league structure promising weekly high-level games and importantly regular structured content. Whilst the number of offline tournaments was reduced with EU and NA regionals removed, the promise of more regular content was to replace that. Importantly, a salary was to be paid to players in HGC, guaranteeing a stable income for players that stayed in the HGC, taking away their reliance on good finishes at tournaments.
It was a change that many were positive about, myself included. To play Heroes professionally was a big gamble if you were outside of the top four teams in a region. The money for finishing outside of the top four in a regional was relatively small and meant you were unlikely to go to BlizzCon.
I think it is fair to say that if you were not in one of the top teams in your region you weren’t going to make a living playing Heroes, unless you had a very generous and understanding sponsor which tended to be associated with the top teams. Hence the 2017 HGC structure professionalised Heroes esports as it meant that people could afford to play and practice full time.
This seemed to have immediate results as the standard of games and teams improved markedly. Whereas previously there was a significant difference between the top EU and NA teams, the gap closed. Teams such as Team 8 and Zealots came from ‘nowhere’ to be top teams and other established top teams such as Gale Force Esports and Team Liquid fell off as other teams caught up to them.
Whilst there were still stomps in the HGC, newer or less well-known teams took wins off the established teams; results such as Expert being the second best placed EU team at BlizzCon surprised many watchers, and who would have foreseen Roll20 beating Tempest? Regular practice allowed teams to be on a more equal footing.
Cheers were introduced and were a resounding success with over 28 and a half million twitch bits cheered for various teams. That is roughly $140,000 for the teams and the same for Blizzard, not bad for a last-minute addition to a less popular MOBA! 20,000-30,000 people tuned into the HGC when it first started, though those numbers dropped; all things considered, the HGC launched as a success.
2018 HGC and Beyond
HGC 2017 was, I argue, a success: viewers got regular content, players got salary and regular practice and we got a competitive league where we could cheer on literally and figuratively our teams. Viewership was good and we got a shiny new website. Whilst viewership dipped, a stable league and improvements to the HGC website gave us a warm feeling about 2017.
But (and you knew there would be a but, right?) recent events in late 2017 and into 2018 have shown there is no room for complacency. Not only do we have to swallow lower HGC viewership figures but BlizzCon (whilst produced excellently) left a lot to be desired in both format and viewership. Best of 3’s in knockout stages (no doubt because of time constraints) allow unique map picks and their associated ‘cheese’ map strategies to decide a series.
Additionally, 2018 has been almost totally devoid of hype or information from Blizzard. A week before HGC, all we had gotten is that the HGC starts in a week. No news of rules, Open Division or, well, anything else really, other than that we know the patch HGC will be playing on and we have a belated schedule. This is deeply worrying and in stark contrast to another of Blizzard’s leagues: the Overwatch League.
The Overwatch League has an awesome level of content produced: regular updates, clips and information on social media and its website, and it is a part of the Blizzard launcher. Whilst it is unfair to directly compare the two because of the player base and investment levels it does rather reinforce the image that Heroes is Overwatch’s forgotten cousin, as its time, money and staff are concentrated elsewhere.
Furthermore we were told 2018 was the year where every team was supposed to be signed with a sponsor. Changes to the ownership would mean that organisations owned the spot, not the players. This is a necessary change as it gave control of a HGC spot to the owners and not its players. Understandably some players decided not to give up their spot and their control over decisions to the owners and hence we have had Team Expert and Roll20, at least for now, leave Heroes esports.
Cheers, which I argue were one of the success stories of 2017, appear not to be coming back until mid-2018. That is a way that we can directly support both Blizzard esports and the teams not available for half of the year; that is tens of thousands of dollars lost to teams and Blizzard. I appreciate that there will be negotiations involved but the cheering system was a major hype to Heroes esports and its late return is a blow.
What Can Be Done to Help 2018 Be Successful?
We join 2018 in an uncertain place with concerningly low viewership figures. Furthermore a distinct lack of timely communication from Blizzard is a touch concerning. News on the Open Division only came out two days before HGC started, leaving players like bkb, an European who wanted to play in the NA Open Division, in limbo.
There are many questions to be answered and issues to be resolved, but as I have said it is not all doom and gloom. Here are some suggestions on what I think might help Heroes esports. Please note I will not be talking about things like 3rd ban and voice chat as, whilst arguably needed, they are not something that exclusively affects Heroes esports.
Firstly, and most importantly, communication from Blizzard and interaction with fans needs to be improved. I don’t think this is rocket science and I really do hope that is a temporary thing and that the excitement of the Overwatch League has momentarily taken away staff from the HGC for them to return soon.Please give us more information in a timely fashion about rules, structure, and international events, even if it is only a short message such as ‘we are deciding on where to host an event and what our rules will be’ so that we the fans are aware that discussion is happening.
Similarly, content such as the HGC video featuring KSV Black is very welcomed. Let us see the individual players to gain empathy with and understand their story outside of just their skill in the HGC. Seeing KSV Rich talk candidly about his journey from being someone who was very salty and unpleasant to a reformed character (thanks to a coach) makes you care about Rich rather than just Rich being a skilled but faceless player to Western audiences.
Other tournaments or ways to showcase talent besides HGC is something I would argue would help Heroes esports. Please support, or continue to support, other tournaments such as Kings of Heroes and Bloodlust: the type of tournament which features pros, semi pros and amateurs and allows for a way for them to gain recognition outside of the HGC or Open Division. The Nexus Games nation battles was well received and it gained a decent audience for a ‘semi-pro’ tournament peaking at 11,500. It would be good to see them all back this year, assisted by Blizzard.
‘Cheers’ were also successful, allowing for fans to buy into teams, support them and gain rewards for doing so. Let’s do that again but expand cheers so that you can get different rewards such as team based mounts or to be able to support tournaments directly. A lot of people might just want to support HGC as a whole, or to increase the prize pool.
This ties in to the last thing that Blizzard doesn’t really do but I’d strongly argue it should do: reward community interaction. The simplest way to do this is reward a person for watching a stream, whether by giving everyone who watches portraits or a chance to win something especially good.
I appreciate that this was tried, but after a few complaints it was shelved and I honestly don’t think this was the right lesson to be learned. Look at other games that do this and have significantly higher viewership, Rocket league especially. There may be issues in implementation and I understand there may be a cost involved but I do think that rewarding viewers creates a rewarding experience and would increase viewership and other interactions such as cheering.
Staying positive despite an uncertain future
Poor viewership threatens the long-term viability of Heroes esports and we have not yet seen the promise of every team being sponsored. A poor year for Heroes esports could see future years being cut back and Heroes joining the list of other MOBAs whose esports were curtailed or who simply ceased to exist.
But if Heroes is supported well, by videos like KSV Black’s HGC one and we have hints of another video on Friday I am hopeful. If Blizzard allow us to become more interactive and incentivise to watch and tweet, and amateur and semi-pro tournaments are supported, then I think future years will reap the benefit.
2018 I wager will be a make or break year.