The Passing of the Storm
The life of Heroes of the Storm hasn’t been an easy one. In 2010, Blizzard announced a new game called Blizzard DOTA. The intention for Blizzard DOTA was to compete in the ‘Multiplayer Online Battle Arena’ (or MOBA) genre, which at the time included the extremely popular League of Legends and Heroes of Newarth.
Shortly after Blizzard DOTA was announced, Valve followed suit by revealing DOTA 2, a spiritual successor to the first game in the MOBA genre: Defense of the Ancients.
Over the next three years, Valve and Blizzard would enter a lengthy legal battle over the name and rights to the DOTA legacy. Blizzard would eventually rename Blizzard DOTA to Blizzard All-Stars, only to rename it once more to Heroes of the Storm.
By the time Heroes of the Storm was released into the wild, DOTA 2 and League of Legends had built a strong foundation of players and popularity — these weren’t just the biggest games in the MOBA genre, they were some of the most popular games ever.
But Blizzard’s intention was clear: they were going to compete in the MOBA space. Heroes of the Storm entered the world in 2015, ready to set the world on fire.
What Heroes did differently
Heroes was an exciting prospect for a number of reasons. Firstly, the cross-over of Warcraft, Starcraft, and Diablo heroes in the game was highly appealing for Blizzard fans. For players of League of Legends or even the original DOTA (A Warcraft 3 custom map), this represented a new game in the genre by a well regarded and established developer.
Furthermore, by the time it released in 2015, Heroes of the Storm had a strong, unique identity amongst the MOBA genre. Many of the specific, bespoke mechanics from the original DOTA games were gone — last-hitting, item shops, and complex mechanics like ‘Unique Attack Modifiers’ had been removed in favour of simpler, more user friendly features such as team-based XP and RPG-like talent trees.
The message was pretty clear. This is a Blizzard game first, and a MOBA second. That is to say; it’s easy to learn, hard to master, and built to be an experience for anyone.
This was a seriously bold claim. After all, DOTA 2 was all about high-level play and complex, intricate systems. League of Legends, the other contemporary competitor, was a game built around competition and similarly sophisticated systems. They were obtuse, hard to learn games that rewarded those players who dedicated themselves to learn and master those systems.
The simplified mechanics of Heroes of the Storm was a major point of difference for most players, and was highly divisive. The hardcore players who enjoyed the complexity of DOTA or League were completely uninterested in Heroes’ simplification of familiar mechanics. More casual players, on the other hand, welcomed a simplified, streamlined experience.
I had played a few hundred hours of DOTA 2 when Heroes released, and I couldn’t have been more excited. I, like many, loved the core gameplay of the MOBA genre, but was thrilled to try a game without the obtuse, often impenetrable mechanics of DOTA.
So, with the release of the first Alpha, I started my journey as a Hero of the Storm. I’ve never been particularly good at the game, mind you — you’ll see that throughout this article. Four years later though, I’m still playing at least a few times a week — but that’s about to change.
All good things
Today Blizzards newly-minted CEO J Allen Brack announced that a portion of the HOTS team would be moved onto other Blizzard projects, and that the two major eSports tournaments — Heroes of the Dorm and Heroes of the Storm Global Championship — would be shut down.
While the details of this announcement are relatively vague, the intention is relatively clear: Heroes of the Storm is no longer a commercial priority for Blizzard. New content would continue to come out, but at a slower pace, and the eSports scene for the game is essentially no more.
What Blizzard is calling ‘Long Term Sustainability’ isn’t unheard of in their games — both Diablo 3 and Starcraft 2 suffered similar fates — regular updates slowed, content slimmed significantly, and now both franchises feel very much in stasis as far as Blizzard’s support goes.
Often dubbed ‘Maintenance mode’ by players, this kind of treatment has a far different impact on a game like Heroes of the Storm.
MOBAs live and die by their metagame. The way various heroes, maps and skills interact with each other and how the game’s updates and new content effect these various interactions. Much like a sport bringing in new teams and players, the regular updates to Heroes of the Storm is what kept the game fresh and exciting for players. With those updates being less frequent, more players will begin to churn out of the game.
Unlike Diablo 3 or, to a lesser extent, Starcraft 2, Heroes doesn’t have a single-player option, and relies on a healthy playerbase for matchmaking. Therefore, it’s not hard to see why players are considering this to be the apocalypse for Heroes. While the game will certainly remain active for a long time to come, smaller markets — who already struggle with a low number of active players — will likely see the effects of this change sooner rather than later.
Even if you don’t play, this is a big deal
Potentially, this isn’t just a bad sign for Heroes fans — it could mean a lot more.
Firstly, many developers and publishers will see this as a sign that a casual-aimed MOBA simply isn’t commercially viable. After all, if Activision-Blizzard can’t pull it off, what chance does anyone else have?
Secondly, it’s another bad look for Activision-Blizzard in a year that simply hasn’t been their year: World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth has had a dismal post-launch reception, and let’s not forget Diablo Immortal’s phonegate controversy.
Lastly, the full cancellation of both Heroes of the Dorm and Heroes of the Storm Global Championship is a potentially troublesome precedent for eSports organisations. While most eSports leagues and competitions are independently run, most of Blizzard’s major competitions — such as Overwatch League — are run by Blizzard themselves. The knowledge that Activision-Blizzard are willing to simply shutdown these competitions with little notice will certainly deter teams from entering those competitions.
For me personally, the announcement of Heroes entering ‘maintenance mode’ is simply heartbreaking. Whilst my interest in the game has waxed and waned, over the last few years I’ve racked thousands of games in Heroes of the Storm — from the early alpha versions up until literally playing a few games last night. I will miss the game that has given me countless of hours of entertainment, and the game that has given me countless precious memories of nights spent with my friends and family.
In their announcement, J. Allen Brack refers to Heroes of the Storm as a ‘love letter to Blizzard’s worlds and characters’. Whilst that statement feels hollow today, the passion and love with which the development team has built the game has always been clear. Heroes of the Storm is a special game that deserved more, and I’ll fondly remember it for years to come.