Competitive video games – eSports – are a strange and bewildering thing for the average American’s sensibilities. If you’re reading this, chances are it’s not all that strange to you, but to many people who were casually flipping channels on Sunday evening, to find themselves witnessing the finals of the “Heroes of the Dorm” tournament, and seeing video games being played competitively, complete with passionately intense screaming commentators and a massive live audience, on ESPN2, it probably seemed very surreal. The collegiate tournament was the first of it’s kind, with 64 universities competing at HotS in a March Madness style bracket, vying for college tuition. Although other games in the genre have enormous followings, and the tournaments pull in hundreds of thousands of viewers on Twitch.tv, this was the first time a game of this type had been seen on a major cable network. The results were exciting for established fans and newcomers alike.
But even for those of us who are passionate about eSports already, the MOBA (or Hero Brawler) genre is already a pretty strange thing. Think about it: a genre of game, nearly 15 years old, stemming from fan-made mods of Blizzard titles, which then got capitalized on by opportunistic game companies and developed into full titles, which then exploded into the most widely followed competitive video games in the world, only to be made years later by that same company, Blizzard, into a standalone game rooted originally in their own properties, which is now hosting a tournament viewable on the Entirely Sports Programming Network on cable television.
But this tournament didn’t just represent a baffling curiosity of media property laws and a chance to make people rethink what the word “sports” might mean. It represented Blizzard, a (non-canceled) Titan in the gaming industry, stepping into the arena in an already viciously competitive and bloated genre of gaming. Not only is there a lot of money at stake for companies that make a successful MOBA title, but the fans of each respective title are among the most loyal, vehement, and oft-times vitriolic people in the gaming world.
Blizzard is a game company that is used to success. Not just profitable games, but huge, earth-shattering, paradigm-shifting juggernaut successes. We all know that World of Warcraft blew the MMORPG wide open in 2004, becoming one of the most wildly successful video games in history, but all of Blizzard’s releases have been massive successes for over 20 years. WoW had the perfect timing to capitalize on a blooming new genre of game, much as the timing of League of Legends was perfect for Riot Games. But Heroes of the Storm is stepping into an already deeply entrenched and established genre of game, and many think that it’s too late to try dominating the popularity of the MOBA genre. So what can Blizzard do to shoulder aside a big space for itself? Well, making a fun, addictive game that is well designed is crucial, of course. Check, as you’ve surely already determined for yourself. Bringing many of the beloved characters from their company history into the game for fans to embrace, another good move. But what else? Oh, of course – –
Money. So. Much. Money.
Now, this is a humble, quiet gathering compared to the tournaments that League of Legends gets together, but for a game that isn't even released? Blizzard has a nice advantage, beyond being great game designers, or perhaps because they’re great game designers: the success of their previous titles has given them a very healthy budget for development and promotion. The Heroes of the Dorm tournament on ESPN was the debut of that promotion power, and it’s very powerful indeed.
As for the event itself, you couldn't ask for more from a tournament. If anything was going to convert some sports fans with a mild gaming interest over to eSports fans, the exciting games, intense commentary, and back-and forth drama of this tournament would do it. For a game with a very limited hero pool (44 versus over triple that number for League of Legends) at this stage in development, and no bans, we saw a pretty wide and robust range of hero selections. Of course you had your staple top tier pics, but many teams tried out a large variety of comps depending on maps and opponents, much more than your average tourney, which means the game design is directly on the path of where Blizzard intends for it to go.
Also it had confetti.
As some other old timers like myself may remember, the StarCraft scene in South Korea was like a wistful dream, shared only in rumor. They had StarCraft tournaments. On TV. To young Terrans, Protoss and Zerg, grinding away on their fastest money maps, or on iCCup, struggling to rank up their ratings, this sounded like a fairy tale. But it was true. Korea embraced games and gaming like no one else ever had, and eSports was born. But you know all of this. The point is this – 15 years later, in some way, the Heroes of the Dorm tournament this past weekend represents an arrival, not just of HotS on to the Hero Brawler market, but of eSports to America – not to the established fans, not to hardcore gamers, but to the America in the larger sense – the everyman. Did many people view the finals on Sunday on ESPN2? Not bloody likely! But it happened. It was there, and we saw it. The seed has been planted. How can we grow that seed, so that one day we’re sending our kids to Penn State on a Warcraft scholarship? If you love the game, don’t stop watching it, talking about it, and creating content. Get it out there in the American zeitgeist and never let it leave. Become a fan. Pick a team. Compete. This is bigger than if Blizzard can “defeat” Riot – this is about our lifelong passion becoming legitimized, and I'm going to do what I can to make that happen. GL HF!