May 18 2015 - 5:06 pm

Why Blizzard is committed to Heroes of the Storm's esports future

In the nearly two years since the Heroes of the Storm reveal, Blizzard has spouted a familiar refrain when it comes to esports: let the community decide if the game really is one
Dot Esports
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In the nearly two years since the Heroes of the Storm reveal, Blizzard has spouted a familiar refrain when it comes to esports: let the community decide if the game really is one.

That’s a mantra Blizzard’s lived by for over two decades of esports. The community built StarCraft into the most storied esport in history. The WarCraft 3 and even World of WarCraft communities propped up tournaments across the globe. Even in the Heroes closed beta, a budding competitive scene quickly developed.

But as a revolution in online streaming has powered esports' growth in recent years, other developers are taking a more hands-on approach to esports. And they’re benefitting. Riot Games has grown with League of Legends into the largest developer on the planet. Valve has created a monster with Dota 2 and The International, the highest-value esports competition in the world.

Esports isn’t a hardcore, niche subset of a game’s fanbase anymore. Esports supports dreams and even careers. It’s not part of the gaming industry, it’s an entire industry itself. So when a company like Blizzard, which has a long history of creating games perfect for high-level competition, sounds wishy-washy in its commitment, it’s worrisome.

But last week the company made a $1.2 million commitment to Heroes of the Storm with the Road to Blizzcon, including a $500,000 prize pool at the world championship itself, the biggest the company has ever awarded. That, combined with the recent Heroes of the Dorm event, which aired in primetime on national television, shows that Blizzard may finally be ready to break out of its esports shell.

The company’s already started to take a more proactive role in esports, like with its World Championship Series, a system used to organize the mess of tournaments the community created in StarCraft 2 and Hearthstone. But that’s still a bit hands-off approach (as it simply adds an overarching structure to third-party events), especially compared to companies like Riot Games or Smite developer HiRez Studios, who host their own professional leagues. Nowadays, esports require a certain commitment to reach new heights. And Blizzard may finally have the game to do it with.

Heroes of the Storm is a brawler based around five-on-five competition. It’s also a free-to-play game, something that goes hand-in-hand with esports success. It opens up the game to anyone—no payment necessary— and the developer makes money from player engagement (buying new heroes or skins or other in-game features). And what better way to engage them than to make them an esports fanatic?

Blizzard’s Chris Sigaty has a nearly 20-year history with the company, overseeing development on games like WarCraft 3 and StarCraft 2, one of the few titles ever developed with the stated goal of succeeding an esports legacy. Sigaty is a staple at the company with his own character in WarCraft lore, Sig Nicious, guitarist of Blizzard metal band Elite Tauren Chieftain.

He’s lived that Blizzard “community” mantra with esports, but says the meaning is a little different than how it sounds at face value. Blizzard just doesn’t want to get ahead of itself with a game like Heroes of the Storm.

Sigaty says Blizzard wanted it to be a competitive game, and the company “felt internally” that it was. But you can’t force it—the community has to make that decision.

“We feel very strongly that you can’t just say it’s an esport,” he explains. “You can try to design an esport game. You can market around it. But it’s not really an esports game unless it turns out to be fun to watch as decided by the community and players that is playing your game.”

In other words, until the game truly inspires a following and an audience, you can’t just call it an esport and pretend like it’s true. “For us to claim something in technical alpha before doesn’t feel right until we’re all getting together and high fiving about it,” Sigaty says.

That “high-five” moment was Heroes of the Dorm, an experimental partnership with ESPN that produced one of the most talked about events in esports history.

Sigaty could hardly contain his excitement talking about it. His team was tasked with the project just as the development team was entering the stretch run—”firefighting mode,” he calls it—heading into the June launch. Then suddenly, they were supposed to put on a “Blizzcon-level event” in April. “Everyone is like, WHAT? Freaking out and scared,” he said. “Everybody went all-in on it and it happened and it worked out better than I thought.”

The development team had to quickly edit existing features to fit the ESPN television format, with a score ticker at the bottom of the screen and a different resolution than typical on gaming monitors. They opted for a minimalistic spectator interface that lacked some of the detailed information in the default but that mirrored the look of typical overlays on sports broadcasts.

“A ton of effort went into it and it turned out to be a great result,” he continued. “We’re super happy with it and proud of what happened.”

Sigaty is no longer reserved about confidently calling Heroes an esport—and even a great one.

“I really do feel like [Heroes] arrived with Heroes of the Dorm,” he says. “It was just… the games were really fun to watch, it was exciting, it was action-packed in short spurts. In some ways it felt like it has the potential to be the strongest esport that we have, that Blizzard has.”

Sigaty quickly backtracked: ”That’s a bold statement. I’m not trying to claim that at all.” But that he’s even considering it shows the level of excitement Heroes has quickly developed at Blizzard.

The fact that the company even committed to Heroes of the Dorm itself is a sign that times are changing. It’s an uncharacteristically aggressive move when it comes to esports for Blizzard. It also eschewed that focus on community: the tournament was only open to college students, not the community at large, and a large portion of the core audience couldn’t even watch because they didn’t have cable.

Blizzard realized that might annoy some of their loyal followers. But the potential payoff was worth it, Sigaty says. “Can we take something that generally doesn’t have appeal outside of the established norms and get people talking and get people wondering if this is something that can go beyond the huge milestone that’s already established? We felt like it was worth it to try.”

And it worked. The viewer numbers were perhaps not massive, with the event posting a 0.1 Nielsen rating, meaning only 0.1 percent American television-owning households watched the event. But “it totally created the conversation we were hoping for,” Sigaty says. “Just on esports in general. It felt like it really made it a conversation around the world. The reach was crazy as a result.”

Social media blew up as esports hit a mainstream audience. Sports broadcasters loved it and hated it. People wondered why ESPN would broadcast those nerds, just as others cheered UC Berkeley for winning the PAC 12 another title.

Of course, many esports diehards wondered why Blizzard wanted to put its product on television at all. Does esports really need to compromise its own strengths to cater to a television audience and a partner like ESPN? Many, including me, have argued that esports doesn’t need mainstream vindication on television.

“I’ve heard this said and I actually agree with it: We don’t need TV to be successful. We’re already successful,” Sigaty says, clarifying “we” means esports in general, not Blizzard. “We don’t need it. We’re already pulling in huge numbers game to game. Added up together it’s crazy how successful esports has been in getting attention and fulfilling people’s entertainment needs without traditional television.”

Heroes of the Dorm was a leap of faith for Blizzard. What if it failed to put on a good production, and embarrassed itself on national television? What if people hated the game itself? What if the matches were boring? What if viewers hated the commentators and the gibberish spewed at them?

But as a proof of concept, it was worth the risk. Heroes of the Dorm showed that, while esports may not need that mainstream audience, it still has potential to reach them. There’s still room for esports’ exponential growth to continue.

“I think it’s good for us to be pushing the boundaries,” Sigaty said.

The upcoming road to Blizzcon and Blizzard’s biggest prize pool for an esports tournament ever, the $500,000 Heroes of the Storm world championship at Blizzcon in November, may not be pushing the boundary any further.

“Road to Blizzcon is completely back to our norms, back on our normal platforms, partnering with stream platforms and the existing community,” Sigaty says.

But it’s a great start for a game that won’t even launch for two more weeks, a way for Heroes of the Storm to begin its professional esports career. And while some may still question whether another multiplayer online battle arena can enter a market already filled with esports titles like League of Legends, Dota 2, and Smite, Blizzard certainly isn’t.

Heroes of the Storm is ready to be the next big esport, and Blizzard is committed to making that happen.

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