Blizzard's Sudden Shuttering Of Heroes Of The Storm Demonstrates Why eSports Needs Its Next Evolutionary Step

from the the-bit-leagues dept

We’ve long discussed the explosion eSports has undergone over the past few years. From a largely overseas pastime, eSports has since grown leaps and bounds, with collegiate and professional programs sponsored by educational institutions and sports leagues. Buy in from major media properties in sports has occurred at the same time, including from ESPN. The trajectory of eSports has seemingly moved in only one direction: upwards.

But it was always going to be the case that this progress would eventually hit a wall. Those of us interested in the acceleration of eSports have been looking for symptoms of this wall, unsure of where it would come from. Now we have something of an answer, with a prime example of why eSports needs to undergo its next step in evolution, as demonstrated by the chaos that was Blizzard shuttering its Heroes of the Storm league.

For those of you not in the know, the Heroes of the Storm Global Championship was a massive thing, with hundreds of players, production crews, broadcasters, commentators, and streamers building the whole thing in to a true ecosystem. Started in 2015, the game continued to be developed to support the eSport league. Until a few days ago, when Blizzard unilaterally decided to kill it off.

Last night, Blizzard announced plans to scale down Heroes of the Storm, moving its developers to other games and putting an end to its Heroes of the Storm Global Championship (HGC) esports league. The news came as a shock to hundreds of Heroes of the Storm players and broadcasters, many of whom say they now find themselves out of income streams with no warning.

“We are troubled by the way the announcement was made; namely the impolitic choice to use social media to share such a message that effectively ended the careers of hundreds of players, content creators, casters, production crews overnight – and broke the hearts of countless fans,” wrote Darrie, the general manager of an esports team called Method, on Twitter this morning, echoing the thoughts of many other former Heroes of the Storm players and managers.

Pretty much all the public comments from those involved in the league read something like the above, though many are far angrier and harsher. And you can understand why. Blizzard never gave any indication that the league was in jeopardy and then decapitated it via a blog post. This would be akin to James Naismith disbanding the NBA by literally taking his ball and going home. Such a thing wasn’t possible, of course, as the NBA grew as an organic third party league built off of the game Naismith created.

eSports needs to take this next evolutionary step itself. Game publishers can’t hold the keys to livelihoods like this, if eSports are to continue to grow in size and popularity. That kind of single point of failure is going to curtail investment, both of the monied and interest varieties. So what could hold this next step back?

Copyright is the likely culprit. The idea of trying to create a third party league out of a video game property, with all of the licensing that would be required, sounds inherently like a full on nightmare. But it absolutely needs to happen. Otherwise, eSports, controlled and siloed by each individual publisher, may just have seen its zenith.

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Comments on “Blizzard's Sudden Shuttering Of Heroes Of The Storm Demonstrates Why eSports Needs Its Next Evolutionary Step”

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32 Comments
Gary (profile) says:

Culprit?

Without a firmly established precedent for fair use or re-use, you can’t even show footage of a video game online without fear of a takedown. (Lookin at you, Nintendo.)
It would be bloody impossible to navigate the copyright waters past the maximalists and use video games as an open eSport.
Copyright is the opposite of a free market – It represents maximum corporate protectionism.

Agammamon says:

Re: Culprit?

The fear of takedowns is solely a Youtube thing.

Nintendo, et al, are not using the DCMA to bully people. They are using Youtube’s policies to do so. And Youtube’s policies are not the DCMA – they are significantly more lenient and sudmissive to complaintants than they need to be. Especially the part where you can issue a YT notice to a channel and get their monetization while YT is still trying to figure out who owns what. And YT automatically assumes the complaintant is the owner right off the bat.

Zgaidin (profile) says:

Re: Re: Culprit?

This may be true, but many e-sports rely on after-the-fact YT viewers to keep interest and revenue streams (both viewers and advertisers/sponsors) alive. Most of these tournaments are multi-day, laddered events which may take place during the work/school day or the middle of the night for some portion of viewers, depending on where the tournament is being held, since most major tournaments are LANs. Most fans don’t have 6-8 hours a day over several days to watch the whole thing live. So, if all your YT content can be taken down by a single notice from a publisher who is no longer interested, that’s a serious concern.

Agammamon says:

That’s the thing.

Basketball, golf, football, etc – even chess and checkers – are all ‘open-source’. They’re all mechanics so they’re not even copyrightable (given how hard the professional leagues copyright/trademark everything they can get away with, if they were they would be).

Teh vidya is dependent on, if nothing else, a significant layer of artwork – which is automatically copyrighted and will be trademarked as far as possible.

But imagine an open-source game managed by a league. Someone’s going to have to pony up for the artwork used in game by players – and it had better be good since this is a spectacle sport – and then there’s the legion of people who will be needed to ensure no exploits get in (and that can be something as often overlooked as the timing of an animation).

So, unless you’re really in to pixel-art fighting games or competitive sidescrollers, the entry costs are pretty steep (and the risks high) to buy a AAA esport title for use.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Revenue vs upkeep

"with hundreds of players, production crews, broadcasters, commentators, and streamers building the whole thing in to a true ecosystem."

There’s the problem. Hundreds of players (aka income stream) vs millions of players.

Of course it is very short sighted of Blizzard as they could have used this phenomenon to create something millions would buy. Then created the next great thing that millions would buy. And the next…

They could also have found a way to monetize the ecosystem without being bastards, in advance. But then…why change identities in midstream?

Why is it so hard for entities to recognize the value of what they have, and then expound upon it? Right, short term profits.

Madd the Sane (profile) says:

Re: Revenue vs upkeep

Part of the problem, I’ve heard, is that Activision is putting pressure on Blizzard to be more investor-friendly. This includes putting less effort to get more profit.

Diablo Immortal was the first public signs that things were going downhill for Blizzard, which has been largely a separate entity from Activision’s ploys.
YongYea on YouTube has more info.

Steven (profile) says:

Re: Dragon Ball FighterZ is another example

And its for largely the same issues, marketing. FighterZ is a one-off licensing of the Dragonball IP by Arc System Works published by Bandai Namco(who have had the Dragonball IP for video games basically forever)

In mid-February Bandai Namco is releasing a new game (Jump Force) which will contain some of the more famous dragonball characters, and suddenly FighterZ is barred from EVO Japan.

FighterZ is widely considered the best fighting game to come out in 2018, and is getting a bit of best game -full stop- consideration, and its competitive scene may die on the vine in the hope the next project will be just as good.

Worse still, this is incredibly short sighted by the publisher. while the general public won’t know most of the information in the proceeding paragraphs, you can bet the FGC(fighting game community) does. They’ll be well aware how they were jerked around by Namco Bandai and it will be much harder for them to get top billing(and all that free advertisement) in future events after these kind of games.

The FGC is all about complete mastery of one game, these are the kinds of people still playing smash bros. melee 17 years after it came out, and playing Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo edition 24! years after its release. If they’e worried that within a year of a games release its going to be competitively banned, they’ll never even pick it up to begin with. And its been shown multiple times, if the FGC doesn’t bother with your game, sales just won’t happen (see: marvel:infinite).

And if the narrative of “Jump Force killed the FighterZ competitive scene” spreads enough you might not just see indifference(which the strength of the IP might overcome) but actual negativity. That’ll completely torpedo the product. Imagine if instead of ignoring that other shoe companies exist, Lebron James was out there saying Addidas was an example of everything wrong with basketball shoes. That’s how bad this could get for Bandai Namco.

Paul Brinker (profile) says:

Esports Vs Leagues

Star Craft has a non publisher sponsored league in Korea. Smash games and other fighting games have non publisher leagues as well. Most of those leagues are fairly small not due to publishers blocking things, but simply due to the size of the prize pools and fan bases.

You cant reasonably have a 3rd party league till a game is well established and unchanging. A Solid Meta and rules that do not change or wont be patched over a set of matches. At the same time the game still needs anti cheats and other patches.

The sort of it is that we don’t have leagues because the money is just not there. Sponsoring a team is a money pit. Winnings wont cover costs, and only awarding to first 2nd and 3rd place cause strange meta games like we see in Poker where players buy shares in other players to spread out the wealth.

If you want to fix things, players will need salaries. You need sponsors, both at the team and League level. You need agreement from the publishers that games wont change during a set of matches. Finally, you need a meta game that people watching will enjoy. This is a tall call for a new game.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Esports Vs Leagues

rules that… wont be patched over a set of matches. At the same time the game still needs anti cheats and other patches.

All of this is fairly irrelevant. The league can set the rules however they want, and choose whether or not to apply patches at all. Since the events are held locally, under the control of the league, there’s no actual need to apply anti-cheat fixes. Referees can do that job during the match just like they do in every other sport. Better in most cases, since catching rule-breaking isn’t at the mercy of camera angles and referee locations, player inputs can be recorded directly and the game can be replayed frame-by-frame to confirm any rule-breaking.

TKnarr (profile) says:

Re: Re: Esports Vs Leagues

Unless of course the game requires a server (and even a lot of nominally single-player games these days require a server for authentication), in which case the game probably won’t run unless it’s patched to the most current level. And under copyright law as it stands today, patching the game client to bypass the server check is copyright infringement plain and simple (the cases that set precedent in large part stem from just that, patching the client to run without a server or otherwise bypass publisher-imposed DRM).

The fundamental problem is that any eSports league is either run by the publisher and subject to their whims, or it’s utterly dependent on a product owned and controlled by someone who may well consider the league to be a competitor.

Paul Brinker (profile) says:

Re: Re: Esports Vs Leagues

As much as a dream you have AC, Most of my statements have happened in non official league events. Overwatch got patched in the middle of a Blizzard sponsored events, totally changing the meta and causing people to become noobs again. (no you cant play Overwatch on an old patch)

FPS cheaters are sometimes found only after a user gets to the main round when he has to use the tourney comp and not his personal one (Aim bots etc). Cheaters have been known to go well into left field in order to cheat, including uploading cheats into Mice and other devices.

Your correct only in older single player non-online games where the publisher has long abandoned the game. But even then publishers sometimes ask that their games not be used in private leagues (they cant stop them in the US, but they still try). Not having a publishers blessing can result in sponsors and advertisers dropping out.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: One Other Little Problem

It will take some time to really affect them in that way, as Blizzard have a couple of decades worth of good will behind them and HOTS was not related to their core franchises

If they don’t screw up Diablo 4, WoW or Overwatch, then this is just a blip in an otherwise pretty damn solid history. If the next couple of full sized projects are fluffed (Diablo Immortal doesn’t count IMHO), they face a much harder backlash that might not be recoverable.

ryuugami says:

A company that will pull a stunt like this is one that will cause a lot of people to ask themselves "Why should I buy anything from these dungheads?" I’m going to be very curious about Blizzard’s future revenue levels.

Counterpoint: EA is still in business. Also, Ubisoft was nominated by Steam users as one of the contenders for "Best Developer in 2018".

It’s not about gamers being sheep either. Same for Google, Sony, Verizon, Facebook… Naughty or nice does not have much impact outside of a negligible loud minority.

Anonymous Coward says:

Blizzard is cutting costs ,letting staff take early retirement .
HOTS was not a big hit compared with overwatch or LEAGUE of legends.
Most eports do not make a profit, they are there to promote the game, get viewers on twitch ,the publisher
donates the prize money .
They are now a different company owned by activision.
Many companys stop selling some products simply
because they make a small profit ,
AAA companys want games that sell millions every year , like fortnite .
You can still play hero,s of the storm ,i expect there,ll still
be servers online for years from now ,
it just wont be updated as much as before.
It would be good if the game ip could be transfered to a non profit or sold to another company if blizzard is losing interest in it.
There,s 100,s of games that can no longer be played
because there are no longer any online servers ,

Zgaidin (profile) says:

The Reverse Rollercoaster

The profitability lifespan of any e-sport, is a bit like a roller-coaster if gravity were reversed. Instead of a long, slow uphill climb to gain momentum at the start, it’s a long, slow down-hill climb where you, as the developer, are just throwing money at your e-sport for prize-pools, event planning and hosting, etc in the hopes of gaining enough momentum to hit the rapid up-hill rise that will boost you to profitability. After that you’ll have ups and downs like any business, but you must generate enough momentum in that first stretch to rise to popularity. Dota 2 is a prime example (and similar enough game) who made it and has been making very good money off their e-sport ever since. See the free documentary Free to Play to see how they did it, if interested.

Unfortunately, it would seem Blizzard was not successful in promoting HOTS to competitive levels. I suspect there are a host of reasons behind their failure from established competition in the MOBA niche (Dota 2 and League of Legends) to game structure issues. Regardless of the precise reasons, HOTS never became wildly popular, and the true profit motive of any e-sport is to make the game very popular with amateur players who spend money in game on cosmetics etc. At some point, you realize you didn’t gain enough momentum and continuing to host tournaments with all their related costs is just throwing good money after bad. Blizzard has apparently reached that point with HOTS. In short, any budding e-sport is always a speculative market both for the publisher and the players, broadcasters, sponsors, etc. You spend a lot of time, effort, and money on something in the hopes it takes off, but if it doesn’t you may lose your shirt.

I think the cautionary tale here, is to avoid an e-sport that’s tied to other IPs. If Riot decided to stop supporting League of Legends, and someone else wanted to take a shot, they could just buy it. Nothing in the game is tied to any other IP. Every character, map, mount, and ability in HOTS, however, is tied to another Blizzard IP such that it seems unlikely they would sell, and even if they were the licensing would be a nightmare.

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

“We are troubled by the way the announcement was made; namely the impolitic choice to use social media to share such a message that effectively ended the careers of hundreds of players, content creators, casters, production crews overnight – and broke the hearts of countless fans,” wrote Darrie, the general manager of an esports team called Method, on Twitter this morning

Wait… one particular game gets shut down, and this guy thinks it will "effectively end the careers" of everyone involved? It’s not like this was the only game around of interest in the esports world! Anyone with a modicum of talent and skill will be able to pick up another one with a bit of practice.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Anyone can pick up another game

While it is true that these people can go to another game, it takes time and effort to get to the point where you are truly competitive and successful against other players. Broadcasters must develop new audiences and find out which subjects and players are of interest to those audiences. Such action by Blizzard totally dismisses the time and energy these people have put into the game to reach the point they can make money on it.

So, what if they do? What is to stop the next company/game from taking a similar action? Why, as a player, should I take that risk? Why, as an e-sport watcher or broadcaster, bother to follow or participate in something that could be easily pulled without warning? It shows a total disregard for the feelings and efforts of the game’s audiences. I wonder how many times companies can do this sort of thing before their audiences decide to find recreation in other forms of entertainment. If anything, I would guess and hope that there will be a bigger push for Open Source games that cannot be so easily controlled by any single entity.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re:

That’s kinda like saying cancelling a basketball league won’t be a problem for the players because they can just switch to golf. Sure they can make the switch long-term, but short term it most certainly did torpedo their career, and if that was their only source of revenue they’re kinda screwed unless they can find something and do so quick.

Anonymous Coward says:

“But it absolutely needs to happen.”

No, it doesn’t.

In case you’re unaware, publishers are assholes to their customers. If there’s no financial stake in it for them, they’re not releasing permissions to use their assets.

It’ll be the Spotify of the gaming world, and we all know how badly Spotify is doing financially.

Did you know the XBox has a streaming service? It’s called “Mixer” and it allows you to stream your game.

Provided you accept the nagging pop-up stating the music in the game will be disabled.

In rare cases, the video streams themselves can be taken down without warning (which is usually when players are trashing the game due to bugs or poor design).

It’s getting so bad, companies are even paying Microsoft to remove “bad reviews” for “terms of service violations”, which remarkably take a 2 star rating and convert it to a 5 star rating (Looking at you Turn with your Forza bullshit).

Advocating something “must be done” when the publishers are going to demand blood, newborns, a bucket of fried chicken, and upwards of 70% of all profits made from the venue is NO ONE’S responsibility to take on.

If you disagree, then I request you start your own eSports business and see for yourself what nightmares exist in the corporate world.

Or just read the 10+ years of Techdirt articles. 😉

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