In eSports, League of Legends is king and Dota 2 is the only contender to the throne. The multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) genre boasts tens of millions of players, hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue, and the biggest eSports events on the planet.
Blizzard has fallen behind. The publisher of StarCraft II, which ruled the world of eSports just two years ago, is now banking on a new title to tap into the lucrative MOBA genre and win back a big piece of the pie.
Like most Blizzard games, Heroes of the Storm has been a long time in the making.
First revealed at BlizzCon 2010, Blizzard’s version of Dota has gone through at least three separate evolutions and delays. Heroes of the Storm was originally a StarCraft II modification designed mostly to show off that game’s powerful map editor. As late as 2012, developers hoped to release it with StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm as a custom game downloadable through the Battle.net arcade system.
It transformed into a standalone title as its popularity with Blizzard employees and fans increased. Although Blizzard employees visibly try very hard to not say the words “Dota” or “League of Legends,” the ascent of those games undoubtedly moved Blizzard to try their hand in the space.
As of a year ago, Blizzard’s internal timeline aimed for a closed beta in September 2013 and open beta by March 2014, according to a former Blizzard employee.
That’s another deadline missed. But with the first public playtesting taking place at BlizzCon this weekend and the closed beta signups finally launching on Friday for 20,000 BlizzCon attendees, Heroes of the Storm is slowly nearing launch. Beta will launch in the first half of 2014.
The MOBA genre owns the two biggest eSports ever and a few dozen other games that haven’t made nearly as big an impact. How can Blizzard make its offering distinct from what’s already out there?
Visually, Blizzard is taking its traditional art style—”Big, huge heroes. Over the top stuff. 15-year-old characters that people know really well,” said art director Sam Didier—even more over the top.
Working in the StarCraft II engine, Blizzard’s art team has significantly upgraded the art quality for their new game. And, in contrast to StarCraft II‘s relatively dark realism, expect the new title to have a much more fun, humorous look to it.
“We want to make it a fun party game,” said Didier.
The Elite Tauren Chieftain is a new hero that illustrates that point perfectly. Two axe guitars are wielded by a hulking Tauren with roots in BlizzCon lore: Elite Tauren Chieftain was originally a heavy metal band comprised of Blizzard employees. If heavy metal Taurens are too serious for you, Blizzard has already revealed an ’80s glam rock version of the hero.
For further proof of the game’s light tone, look no further than Jim Raynor. In StarCraft II, he’s a brooding, alcoholic mess of a man charged with saving the universe. In Heroes of the Storm, he’s a patriotic American (possibly still an alcoholic) who wants to blow stuff up.
The final piece of evidence we’ll offer you is Nova, one of the most deadly characters in StarCraft II, as a roller derby girl for the new game.
The development team plans on diving deep into the well of Blizzard lore and creating a wide range of heroes that are both familiar and new.
“Who knows,” Didier said, smiling, “I can see a Leeroy Jenkins hero being built really easily.”
Art and characters aside, the most distinctive feature of Heroes of the Storm are the battlegrounds. Whereas League of Legends and Dota 2 are played on a single map, Blizzard’s new title boasts at least three maps with different mechanics.
“If you remember the Redstone level in StarCraft II, the lava came up and down and destroyed everything,” said Didier. “That was a really fun level but it wasn’t fit for the esports crowd. Now, we can finally do things like that.”
In Blackheart’s Bay, players will collect treasure to bribe the namesake pirate. They’ll use that pirate to attack their enemies and win the game.
On Dragon Shire, players use obelisks to capture the dragon alter and transform one of their heroes into an ultra-powerful Dragon Knight.
The Cursed Hollow battleground features Raven Lord, a powerful unit whose favor you win by collecting tribute totems. When you have enough, Raven Lord temporarily disables the opposing team’s towers and curses their minions.
Finally, in Haunted Mines, teams collect skulls to assemble a golem that charges across the battlefield and damages the other team.
As popular as the MOBA genre is, it still has some problems that Blizzard seeks to solve. The barrier to entry is not low: Hundreds of units, thousands of abilities and items, an ever-changing metagame and a notoriously hostile community can make it difficult for new players to start.
Blizzard will be launching Heroes of the Storm with a much smaller hero roster than League of Legends or Dota 2. The BlizzCon playtest version has 18 heroes, including Thrall, Kerrigan, Diablo, Arthas, Zeratul, Tyrael, and Jim Raynor. The launch version will undoubtedly have more.
New players will initially have access to simple heroes like Jim Raynor, “just a guy with a gun,” said Didier. By playing more, newbies will unlock similar heroes and then move on to more complex heroes.
“Take Abathur,” Didier explained. He’s something completely new in the genre. “He sits in the back of the map and is constantly casting spells on his teammates and opponents. He’s incredibly complex and he influences the game from well behind the front line.”
Blizzard provides a path from hero simplicity to complexity to make sure new players don’t feel overwhelmed. To provide depth for more experienced players, each hero has unique “heroic abilities” to use as ultimate attacks as well as talent trees to customize each game.
One of the reasons that League of Legends is such a financial behemoth is that players pay to unlock new heroes. This has been a huge source of income for Riot, the game’s publisher.
For all three years of Heroes of the Storm‘s development, Blizzard has been wondering how they can best monetize it.
“From a business point of view, we definitely said the launch roster was going to be free,” said a former Blizzard employee, “and any new additions after that would be monetized. The rotation was part of the mix like what League of Legends has now. The more unique bit, at least in the internal testing, was that we wanted to incorporate the drop mechanices of Team Fortress 2. The random bit of, like, ‘Hey! Play X amount of hours today and you might get a random item!’ as part of the game. We studied that quite a bit to see how it could be implemented.”
In other MOBA games, players level up independently based on killing other players or units. In Heroes of the Storm, teams level together, so that heroes like Abathur can level with their team despite being far from the action.
That will also mean that a bad player won’t fall too far behind the rest of the team. A new player can jump in with more experienced friends without being a huge drag.
Blizzard’s goal is to hit the mainstream hard. Over the course of development, they’ve been in talks with major global brands like McDonalds and Pizza Hut, said a former Blizzard employee, to collaborate on promotion.
Much of League of Legends’ popularity is based on its eSport’s success. League of Legends holds the eSports record for concurrent viewership with an audience of 1.1 million. The game’s diehard fans live for the competitive side of the game.
Dustin Browder, Heroes of the Storm‘s director, said the team was crossing its fingers about the game’s eSports potential, but that it was ultimately the community’s decision.
— Brent Ruiz (@brentruiz) November 9, 2013
This seems like a diplomatic nonanswer. ESports is a major emerging market with serious financial potential. The Heroes team has eSports on the mind, whether they admit it or not.
Blizzard hopes that a low barrier of entry, a free-to-play client available on the Blizzard launcher, and a well-defined path from simple to complex heroes means they can bring in new players and tap into the tens of millions of MOBA faithful who really want to try something new.