Blizzcon 2013 eSports Overview by Kelby May

As one of the developers largely responsible for the growth and development of eSports over the past decade plus, I went to Blizzcon eager to see what the company had to show off for the eSports community. For those unaware, the StarCraft 2 WCS Global Finals for 2013 were hosted at Blizzcon this past weekend. In addition to this, there was also the first major invitation for Blizzard’s newest card game, Hearthstone: Heroes of WarCraft, hosted at this event. Finally, Blizzard was also showing off its first  MOBA title, Heroes of the Storm, at Blizzcon this year. I had the pleasure of attending the event and checking out all three titles and wanted to share my insights with the community on my opinion of these titles and how I see their scenes progressing moving forward.

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StarCraft 2 Global Finals

As a bit of an aside, those who know me well personally will know that StarCraft is my first eSports love, and I have followed the StarCraft 2 scene very closely since the games release.  Well, that is to say, I used to follow the game very closely. I was the guy who stayed up every night till 2:30am just to watch Tasteless and Artosis cast Code S as I drifted off to sleep. I feel StarCraft 2 was the catalyst and paved much of the road for this new “golden era” of eSports we are entering.

When Blizzard announced their plans for WCS, I was initially very excited with their plans. I personally feel their general structure and format is the best of any eSports League. Three (four next year) synchronized seasons in per year in each of their major regions (EU, NA, and Korea). At the end of each season the top finishers from each region come together for a mini, end-of-season global final, which alleviates the desire for international competition much of the LoL community feels. Placements in each of these seasons, the mini global finals, and one off events like DreamHack, earn players circuit points which determine the invites for the Global Grand Finals that happen at the end of the year.

Now, this new announcement excited me a great deal because on top of adding structure and production to the scene, it also seemed to address one of the primary issues that StarCraft has always faced in regards to development in the west: Korean dominance. If you’re not already aware, StarCraft has ALWAYS been dominated almost unrelentingly and unanimously by Korean players, with only a few brief periods of “foreigners” (non-Koreans) coming up and challenging top Korean players. Then however, it seemed that with providing a significant prize pool, exposure, and infrastructure for EU and NA, both of these respective regions would provide a real opportunity for up and coming regional talent to develop and potentially create new names and rivals for the Koreans which have always dominated the scene. While it would be unrealistic to hope that we would ever actually see a significant number of foreigners challenge Korean dominance, it would certainly give much more exposure to a much greater number of foreign players other than the same old faces who went to every tournament and just got handled over and over again. As a result, in the days right after the announcement, I was deep into scouting and negotiations with many already established and rising StarCraft 2 players.

Which brings us to where for myself, things broke down. Blizzard did not enforce any form of region locking rules in its WCS tournaments, which allowed Koreans to live and player their WCS matches from Korea in whatever region they wished, and then were flown out by Blizzard for the final LAN stages of each season of WCS. Once Blizzard released the list of players from Korea who announced their intent to play in WCS NA and EU, I stopped all recruiting pursuits into the scene immediately and am very happy that I did so.

The expected happened; Koreans proceeded to dominate WCS in all regions throughout the entire year and viewership has steadily decreased while Dota 2 and League of Legends continued to rise. Now, I found myself at Blizzcon, at their Global Finals, there to watch 15 Korean players and one foreigner, NaNiwa. In truth, I haven’t followed SC 2 much at all since WCS started. Not only did it ruin the other regions for me, but it split fragmented the Korean talent pool, which made WCS Korean less appealing to watch.

So why all the backstory? Well, at Blizzcon I had the pleasure of talking to a friend of mine (who will remain unnamed), who works on the Blizzard eSports team. I was excited to hear their plans for the following year of WCS, as I was sure that the declining viewership ratings and constant complaints from the pro and fan community would inspire Blizzard to make some slight, yet incredibly significant changes to their format and see StarCraft revived. Let’s be honest here, I say “revived” because StarCraft 2 is presently not doing well. While viewership and the number of teams investing into other eSports titles are increasing, StarCraft 2 is decreasing. It’s especially alarming when many major Korean teams are either completely eliminating or drastically reducing their SC 2 roster budgets. Unfortunately, the conversation I had was, from my perspective, quite disappointing. What I got from the conversation was it seems that there will be no changes to region locking coming in 2014. Now, I simply disagree with this decision, and while these views do not necessarily reflect the view of Blizzard eSports as a whole, if they do echo the rhetoric currently being pushed by Blizzard internally, it saddens me greatly. Amendment: I’d like to point out that I’ve since followed up with Blizzard on this topic and it seems there was some misconstrued information which came from our conversation. In regards to region locking specifically it would be best to reference Kim’s comments during the WCS panel at Blizzcon (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QYysmcCBtV8&t=42m0s) until an official announcement is made.

With this knowledge I watched my first Blizzcon finals. It was heartbreaking to see Jaedong, the heavy crowd favorite with so much momentum lose and take his fifth 2nd place finish of 2013, but Chobra’s tumbler post on the finals rang true with me. sOs simply played beautifully, and it was great to see someone who plays the game in such a unique fashion have so much success. Blizzard’s production and set up for the event was fantastic. The stage with extended walkway out into the crowd and the analyst desk were great, and everything seemed to go off rather flawlessly with the exception of what I’ve heard was a rather brief conclusion. The attendance of the event was also staggering. Not only did the grand finals fill the entire seating area in StarCraft hall (which had seating capacity comparable to IPL 4), but also the entire main hall seating area which was about double that of the StarCraft hall. I saw many signs hoisted high by impassioned fans. It is clear to me that there are many out there, probably a lot like myself, who still adore and want to support StarCraft, but I think Blizzard needs to take more seriously the feedback the community has given them when finalizing plans for WCS 2014.

Hearthstone

In truth, I was expecting less from Hearthstone than anything else coming into Blizzcon. The game is in closed beta, and while many people are talking a great deal about it, I’d never played a hand before and only watched collectively a couple hours of it before on livestreams. I however was pleasantly surprised in regards to how much I enjoyed the tournament. The production live and on stream was simple, yet excellent. Also, despite having little experience with Hearthstone or other card games like Magic: The Gathering, I found the matches to be quite entertaining and easy to follow. It is readily apparent to me that the game is simple to pick up, yet has a great level of strategic depth, as we saw Artosis come blazing through the competition and unexpectedly win the whole tournament.

One thing that will be huge for this game is Blizzard’s announcement that the game will be playable on iPhone and Android devices in the future. Not only can I already see the money piling up, but this will do wonders for the games popularity as it will now be accessible to fans anywhere, at any time. I see great potential for this title in the future and can’t wait till it comes out of closed beta so the public at large can get their hands on it.

Heroes of the Storm

Formerly Blizzard All-Stars, Heroes of the Storm is Blizzard’s first venture into the MOBA game genre, though they’re not calling it a MOBA game. After watching the developer’s overview panel and playing several matches of the game, I can see why Blizzard is doing so. While I think Heroes of the Storm would still be technically categorized as a MOBA title, it is truly a very different game than either League of Legends or Dota. Let’s start by listing the primary differences.

No farming – While there are minions in HotS (note it’s the same acronym as Heart of the Swarm, apparently intentionally chosen for SEO reasons), you don’t get gold for killing them, just experience.

No items – There is no shop or any items for your hero in HotS. All power increases come from leveling.

All experience is shared globally among your team – Every minion or hero you kill in HotS gets your team experience which is distributed evenly. This means that everyone on your team levels together so there are no more individual levels, just team levels.

Heroes scale very differently – Everyone in the game starts with all three of their basic abilities. Ultimates are unlocked at level 10. Every time you level, you don’t put a point into one of your abilities like LoL or Dota, instead every couple of levels (I think it’s three), your champion will have one of three passive traits to upgrade. Many of these upgrades are passive effects such as combinations of increased health, regen, attack damage, etc., and some effect your abilities directly (for example: longer hook range on the blitz/pudge hero called “stitches”).

Neutral minion camps – While there are neutral monster camps on the map in HotS, they serve a completely different purpose than in LoL or Dota. Since there is no gold to farm for items in HotS, instead when you kill neutral minion camps in HotS, the minions join your other lane minions to help push against the enemy base.

Many different maps – Instead of a focus on one map like in LoL or Dota, HotS had four different maps available to play at Blizzcon and presumably has even more planned for launch. All of the maps seem highly objective focused are very greatly in theme and play style.

As you can already tell from the things I listed above, this game is quite simply a much different experience than LoL or Dota 2. It’s much more casual and definitely not balanced at this point. It plays most comparably to dominion. The maps are small, objective focused, and naturally leads to a great deal of team fighting/skirmishes.

The primary concern I have with this game as a competitive title in the future (granted, it’s in alpha right now) is how snowbally the games can be due to global experience. Once your team gets a couple of levels ahead of the other team, it’s very difficult to come back since all differentiation in hero strength comes through levels. Once a team hits level 10 before the other team, you’re now in a situation where all 5 players on your team have their ultimate ability and no one else on the other team does. In a professional setting, I’d imagine this to essentially be game breaking. One aspect of the game I really enjoyed however was the affect that mercenary (neutral) camps have on the game. The first game I played, I was playing with Travis Gafford and a few of his friends. Our team had a collective KD something in the neighborhood of 60-3 once we were 10 minutes in, so the finer aspects of the game were a bit difficult to take notice of in such a lopsided affair. The second game I played was with Travis, Doublelift, and a couple friends, but this time against players who had clearly played the game before. Like the previous match I had played, our team’s collective KD was insane. 15 minutes in I was 21-0, but we were losing and I was confused as to how. I began to realize that while we were roaming the map and murdering all in our wake, their team was putting a major emphasis on farming all the mercenary camps, some of which spawned incredibly strong minions, which caused our base to take serious damage. We were able to refocus our priorities and pull out the victory, but that game showed me some insight into the potential depth of strategy already present within the game.

Overall, I thought the game was quite fun, but it’s far too early in the development and balance of the title to see how viable it will end up as a major eSports title.

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by Kelby May, on November 12, 2013