When I spoke to Sam Braithwaite, it was halfway through Heroes of the Storm’s Mid-Season Brawl, a tournament set out by Blizzard to act as, well, the halfway point of the season. As the name suggests.
Braithwaite, the esports franchise lead for Heroes of the Storm, is in good spirits. “This is probably the best tournament in Heroes’ history,” he says as the tournament unfolds around us. “It’s everything we’ve ever wanted and more, with great games, a great series, and genuinely, who knows who’s going to win?”
Braithwaite had just come from the winners bracket finals between Dignitas and Fnatic, a pulse-pounding match that saw Fnatic assaulting Dignitas’ core within the first few minutes of the match.
In addition, talking about the Genji dominance seen at the Mid-Season Brawl, Braithwaite was clear: “I love it. I love it. I think this is the best meta we’ve ever had. There’s so many kills every single game. It’s so much fun. Genji is one of those Heroes that I think everybody’s okay with being first picked because he brings so much excitement to the table.
“He’s like (popular streamer) DrDisRespect in a MOBA character, you know? High adrenaline, high octane, just resets, kills, resets, deflects. Clutch plays, diving behind enemy line. I love that kind of game play and I think it makes for a really exciting viewing experience, but at the same time, we’re noticing that teams can pull out these strategies that counter it.”
Heroes of the Storm is at an interesting point right now, where the game is achieving big things but is still reaching towards mainstream success. A healthy meta and strong financial ecosystem is crucial for the sport, and the players involved, is essential.
Still, away from the tournament, Braithwaite is happy because, with the Heroes Global Championship (HGC), Blizzard has now created an ecosystem with more security in which Heroes players can thrive.
“Salaries are such a legal word, you know?” Braithwaite says with a grin, when asked about exactly how the finances will break down to make it more appealing for players. “Here (in the HGC) they’re guaranteed to earn $100,000 in prize pool. Eighth place in HGC pays $100,000, so every team is at least guaranteed that for participating.”
“Here (in the HGC) they’re guaranteed to earn $100,000 in prize pool. Eighth place in HGC pays $100,000, so every team is at least guaranteed that for participating.”
This has proven unpopular in Korea, where the top-level teams have complained that awarding money for participation takes away the enthusiasm for people to prove themselves. However, Braithwaite said that creating this system for the HGC, and applying it across all regions for the game so that players have a level playing field.
“When we created the HGC we made it with the primary goal of consistency.” said Braithwaite “To give not only the fans, but the players, infrastructure and support. We finally gave the structure to North America and Europe that Korea’s had for so long, which is a standard league with weekly matches and regular competition. Now that we have that, we’re starting to see the talent really rise up and that gap close in between the regions. Which was one of the goals of the HGC.
“We’re happy with that, but we’re also happy with the trajectory of our viewership. We keep seeing it growing, month after month. I think that the consistent league schedule is training viewers into regular habits of hey, this is a sport.”
With regards to complaints from top Korean teams, Braithwaite said that these concerns are being heard “loud and clear” but that the HGC has only been running for six months, “let’s see where we’re at a year from now, two years from now.”
Internally, Braithwaite says this has been known as the execution stage of HGC. “It’s the first phase, there’s a lot of firsts for us in the HOTS esports team, and we’ve been working hard to get things done. Now that we have the rhythm down of those weekly broadcasts, every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. We’re able to take a step back and look at what’s next.”
What’s next? Primarily the team want to focus on the game’s financial ecosystem, creating a league where organisations and sponsors are incentivised to invest in the HGC, because there’s a direct revenue stream for them.
“We’ll be tackling this stuff head on and, we think, with the plans we already have in motion, that there won’t be any un-sponsored teams in 2018.”
"We think, with the plans we already have in motion, that there won’t be any un-sponsored teams in 2018."
For Braithwaite, the past 18 months working on Heroes of the Storm have taught him that it isn’t big prize pools that are the most exciting part. During conversations, players all said they wanted prize pools to be less top-heavy.
“I think it’s time for esports in general to move beyond big prize pools and instead focus on creating the best storylines and creating the ecosystems, creating a world where the players can treat this as a full time job. In that they don’t need to worry about anything else.”
After the Mid-Season Brawl Braithwaite says that, as with every tournament, the next stage is to come together and pull the event apart, with a post mortem running down the negatives and positives of the event so that the team can improve. “I don’t want people to think we’re not thinking far ahead,” Braithwaite says. “We just like to be agile, and adapt to the things that are going wrong and going right.”