In the first press conference of the HGC 2017 Mid-Season Brawl, South Korean team L5 gave a response to a question that you could feel physically alter the atmosphere in the room. The best Heroes of the Storm team in the world - and the current world champions - had just come out of their first win at a major tournament and declared they were losing motivation to play the game. It was a stunning and bizarre statement - one that suggested Blizzard’s big shake up to Heroes of the Storm esports with the HGC format had not only solved issues, but created some new ones too.
For so long, South Korea had been the dominant region in competitive Heroes of the Storm. Whether it was MVP Black, Tempest or L5, global tournament success had always come their way. And with that, came the biggest prize pots. It peaked when L5 (under the name of their sponsor at the time, Ballistix) took away $300,000 for emerging victorious against Fnatic at Blizzcon 2016. Wherever you looked, South Korean teams were cleaning up.
The transition to the Heroes of the Storm Global Championship format in 2017 changed that. The top eight teams from each region (North America, Europe, Korea, China) would now be placed into a league and face off each weekend, vying to earn points and climb up the rankings. Prize money was to be more evenly distributed across all eight teams in each region’s league, while the top teams would go on to qualify for further tournaments where they could compete for bigger prizes. Relegation was also a possibility.
Overall, the HGC created regular competition and also marked a significant rebalancing of monetary rewards for playing at the top level. Heroes of the Storm esports manager, Sam Braithwaite, explained the decision as follows: “NA and EU never had the infrastructure and the stability and the guaranteed compensation to allow them to treat this as a full-time job. Our goal with the HGC was to enable these guys to be able to treat it like that and I think we’re starting to see the results.”
The Mid-Season Brawl made that shift clear. In the first global meet of the HGC 2017 season, Europe had stolen the spotlight from South Korea. The stories were about the tussle between Fnatic and Team Dignitas, how a new hope for North America came from Roll20 sneaking out a map win against MVP Black and what Blizzard were planning to do in response to the worrying words from L5 and Korea.
While Blizzard’s overall intentions with the HGC can be seen as noble, it’s clear they did not resonate as well with South Korean teams and L5 (now sans a sponsor again) in particular. Shortly after their public declaration of growing disinterest in competitive Heroes of the Storm, it was time to explore the why in more detail.
“Other than the top couple of teams we don’t really practise a lot because the prize money for the lower teams and top teams doesn’t really differ that much,” explains L5’s Lee ‘Jeongha’ Jeong Ha. “The top teams lose motivation because the lower teams are, basically, getting free money and that’s...I think that’s the main reason for the lack of motivation.”
“Other than the top couple of teams we don’t really practise a lot because the prize money for the lower teams and top teams doesn’t really differ that much.”
The format that Blizzard devised for Heroes of the Storm had alienated the Korean contingent. They were used to grinding and grafting, to working relentlessly in order to make it to the finals, to winning tournaments and taking home huge piles of cash.
Now, with the inconsequential difference in prize money awarded between final league places and the fact it’s spread thinly over more regular offline events, there was no ginormous figure to spur them on. Was taking the hit there worth it, though, if it meant more teams could compete and be sustained across multiple regions? Surely that’s better for the health of the game overall?
“I guess it could also be seen that way,” suggests Jeongha. “But, I think that the bigger the prize money the bigger the motivation to work and practise hard.” However, that wasn’t only area where the Korean region was finding problems.
“I can understand that the prize money for the lower teams and the higher teams doesn’t differ as much because Blizzard has to take care of all the teams,” says L5’s Kim ‘ScSc’ Seung-Chul. “But, for NA and EU, if they just make the HGC top 8 then they usually get a sponsor. However, in Korea, we won three times in a row and we still don’t have a sponsor.”
Braithwaite had heard these concerns “loud and clear” and at the time of the Mid-Season Brawl had hinted at the ways they were looking to rectify them now and in the near future.
“I don’t think we’re actually doing enough. I think there’s still more that could be done. HGC, this year in particular, is a foundation. My goal is to take a step back and really work on how we can make this ecosystem a place where we're incentivising orgs and sponsors to invest into Heroes because there’s a direct revenue stream for them as a sponsor org.”
With the knowledge that Blizzard were aware of the issues L5 were facing, was the promise of forthcoming changes enough to dissuade some of their hesitations about their dedication to the game?
“It really depends on which way they go but I think any change could be a source of motivation for us,” says Jeongha.
Yesterday, Blizzard announced HGC Cheer, a partnership scheme with Twitch that will allow fans to support their favourite teams and orgs by cheering them on with Twitch Bits. A portion of the revenue from these cheers goes directly to the teams, while fans can unlock exclusive in-game items, including mounts, sprays, banners and more for reaching certain milestones.
“The goal of this program is to create an ecosystem where organisations and sponsors are incentivised to invest into the HGC because there are direct revenue opportunities for them,” explains Braithwaite. “We also want to give fans the opportunity to cheer on their favourite team, collect cool items and increase the viewing engagement of the HGC as a whole.”
Why was this the way to go, though? Yes, some of the revenue from Twitch Bit purchases will go directly to each team, and there are more opportunities for organisations and sponsors to get their names out there via in-game items, but why not follow an existing approach? Why not funnel the money into bumping up the prize pools as similar schemes do in Dota 2 and StarCraft II? Surely that would go some way to pleasing Korean teams like L5?
“The reason why we went with HGC Cheer is that we’re not directly trying to raise prize pools. We’re relatively happy with the size of our prize pools right now,” counters Braithwaite. “We think the biggest opportunity for growth is actually going to be with partners and sponsors and organisations. Yes, raising the prize pool is nice, but ultimately when you raise the prize pool you’re benefitting two to three teams and not the 32 teams that are in the HGC ecosystem.“
Once again, the focus is on the health of competitive Heroes of the Storm in general and not just a focus on a few top teams. Braithwaite’s plan is more about sustainability and building a community over headline-grabbing prize pool figures, and still has the goal of getting every HGC team a sponsor in 2018. “If players feel like they’re having a hard time getting sponsors, hopefully this will be the ammunition they need to go in and lock those down,” he suggests.
A number of teams have already come out and spoken positively about the scheme, including South Korea’s MVP Black. “We are excited to hear about the support that teams competing in the HGC will receive from Blizzard Entertainment and Twitch through HGC Cheer. We think HGC Cheer has potential to be incredibly beneficial to both KR and global HGC teams, and we are eager to see how it might grow in the future,” says Team MVP Owner, Choi.
HGC Cheer will debut at two forthcoming Heroes of the Storm tournaments - the Western Clash and Eastern Clash - and it’ll be interesting to see how invested viewers get into supporting their favourite teams. It may be sidestepping the issue of prize money and not directly answering some of the concerns from Korea, but there’s the possibility it could find a way to motivate players and sponsors in that region. If all goes to plan it could encourage more engagement with the Heroes of the Storm community and keep the game’s competitive scene growing.