Competitive gaming has been around for long enough that the community, and developers, have created their own set of standards. Things are supposed to run a certain way. Things are supposed to look a certain way. And games are required to have a certain amount of features.
Heroes of the Storm, on the other hand, is missing quite a few of those. But, as I discovered at the Heroes of the Storm Americas qualifier, that hasn't stopped Blizzard's MOBA from being surprisingly watchable.
After more than a decade of playing, running and spectating eSports events, I've developed a set of expectations for tournaments. The days will invariably be long. There will undoubtedly be delays. A computer or three will inevitably break down — sometimes it happens deliberately.
Those expectations change depending on the genre. MOBA games, for instance, can often go for an extraordinarily long time. The finals of a Chinese LCS event ran for almost seven hours. DOTA 2 matches at The International have run into the hours for a single best of three. I still remember some Counter-Strike matches with final scorelines more akin to an AFL match.
But Heroes of the Storm has been a refreshing live experience. The matches that have been back and forth, with all the intensity you would expect from an offline event, have been done and dusted within 25 minutes. Most games have finished under 20 minutes; not because teams haven't been competitive, but because the game isn't designed to drag on.
The official schedule has 90 minutes allotted for each best of three. That's half an hour for each map, which is about 10 minutes longer than most games would ordinarily run. It's meant that the days have ended slightly earlier than expected, which is nice if you've ever had the displeasure of waiting for a match to finish at 1am.
Multiple maps improves the live event experience, which is handy when the crowd and community is still forming their expectations — and collective knowledge — about world-class Heroes gameplay. Everything ran without a hitch until the second semi-final as well, although it wouldn't be eSports without a disconnect or crash somewhere.
Not everything is ideal, of course. The ban and draft phase doesn't actually take place within the Heroes client. It's done via a third-party website, meaning the crowd misses out on the reaction of the teams as the draft unfolds.
The size of the hero pool, and the state of the American meta, meant the drafts remained fairly consistent too. Despite the occasional appearance of heroes like Raynor and Rexxar, the new Hunter inclusion, most of the first day was largely characterised by Uther, Johanna, Jaina and Leoric. Even the second day's play revolved around those four, with Zeratul and Tyrande making an appearance if they weren't immediately banned.
Most compositions focused on two tanks; some teams even drafted three. It meant that team fights dragged out for an astonishingly long time, something best characterised in Complexity and Cognitive Gaming's upper bracket match in the group phase.
Cognitive managed to squeeze three heroes into a small nook just outside of Complexity's base. When an unsuspecting Complexity hero wandered past, it seemed like the perfect gank, especially with the other Cognitive members nearby. Still, it took more than half a minute before the hero originally targeted actually fell — and that was despite being focused down, with no initial support, and being caught completely unawares.
There's also a structural quirk, at least competitively, with Heroes' shared experience. It prevents single heroes from stomping teams singlehandedly, but it also means the team that gains access to their ultimate first — termed the Race To (level) 10 — has a massive timing window to press their advantage. The same happens whenever one team reaches level 13, 16 and 20 first, although the benefit is less pronounced (and dependent on the heroes chosen).
Blizzard will have to start planning further ahead for the game's competitive future. By the time Heroes takes the stage at Blizzcon next year, the hero pool will be pushing 60. Competitive players will probably want the amount of bans revised to compensate (mirroring the situation in League of Legends and DOTA 2), and that will have a knock-on effect on balance.
But these are minor quips, things hardcore fans would typically ignore (unless you had years of experience spectating proceedings). The overall presentation of the event is praiseworthy: Blizzard hasn't clogged the screen with overlays and excessive amounts of information, as can often be the case, and the general transitions and graphics are well timed and well done.
It's a good harbinger for HotS leading into Blizzcon, but also for eSports generally since improved production in one tournament encourages developers and staffers to better their product for future events. And it builds a platform of knowledge within Blizzard about dealing with tournament structures and schedules for new products, which will become invaluable for Overwatch's competitive debut — if not at Blizzcon this year as an exhibition of some form, then certainly in 2016.
The author travelled to the Heroes of the Storm Americas championships as a guest of the developer.