Blizzard announced that the Heroes Global Championship (HGC) – the sole esports league for the company's Blizzard-themed MOBA – would not be returning for a 2019 season. Professional Heroes of the Storm players who dedicated years of their life to the esport found themselves suddenly without a sport to play and, according to these players, without much of a warning from the company that hosted their esports aspirations.
Blizzard is one of the leading figures in esports today, but even it can’t will an esport into popularity. Nevertheless, it's surprising to see the chaos the company left in its wake when it announced that Heroes of the Storm’s 2019 esports season wasn’t happening and that the game’s development would be slowed.
"[I] only found out today," says Joseph 'Nabby' Magdaong who coached esports organization Dignitas' Heroes of the Storm team. Dignitas was a top-performing esports team in Heroes and, according to them, a team that ended their Heroes of the Storm career as the second most successful team of all time in the esport. Surely if any team were to get a head's up from Blizzard it would have been one from the top tier. But, "like most the [Heroes of the Storm] community this news only got to me on the same day," says Magdaong.
Casual observers will note that the writing for Heroes of the Storm would have been on the wall. Blizzard's MOBA doesn't bring in the viewership other games like Hearthstone and Overwatch do and Kotaku's Jason Schreier reported that Heroes of the Storm was Blizzard's least successful game "by far." When games fail to perform, resources are diverted and, in the case of Heroes of the Storm, developers are moved to other projects.
But you wouldn't get that feeling from speaking with the esports players themselves. "HGC was [initially on] a two year plan. But according to all interactions and communications prior [to] today, it seems like the [development & production] team were gearing for a third year," says Magdaong. He tells me over private messages that the esports teams have regular opportunities after events to communicate with Blizzard over the direction of the esport and that they spoke about the future of Heroes of the Storm as recently as BlizzCon. So, the news of Heroes of the Storm's apparent move to Blizzard's back burner blindsided Magdaong along with every other fan of the series.
Non-pro fans were also surprised by the news considering that at the most recent BlizzCon the company announced Orphea, the game’s first original character in what seemed like a push for more original content for Heroes of the Storm which until then involved playing as popular characters from other Blizzard franchises. Going forward Blizzard says that Heroes of the Storm will still be updated with new characters and events, but that the “cadence will change.” Developers were moved from Heroes of the Storm to other Blizzard projects, though the company wouldn’t comment on whether the downsizing of the Heroes team led to any layoffs.
Johan Lauber, another Heroes of the Storm esports player, had strong words to the news that Blizzard would not be going forward with plans for HGC 2019. "Fuck you, honestly," Lauber tweeted after Blizzard broke its own news. "Working [six] hard months with new fantastic teammates for this shit. Radio silence for weeks. I sent multiple email[s] and all [I] got back was that they are working on finalizing the details."
Fuck you, honestly. Working 6 hard months with new fantastic teammates for this shit. Radio silence for weeks. I sent multiple email and all i got back was that they are working on finalizing the details.— Lauber (@JohanLauber) December 14, 2018
Unlike Magdaong who worked for an established Heroes of the Storm, Lauber was kicked from a Heroes of the Storm team after the last phase in 2018 and worked his way up through the game's amateur Open Division with a new team. At the end of this open season the top performing amateur team has a chance to replace the bottom performing Heroes of the Storm team not unlike the Premier League system in European football.
Lauber and his team won and were ready to play in next year's season which Lauber believed to be in the works considering Blizzard reached out to him after his qualifying finals. "[Blizzard] asked us for information and stuff, then I had some follow up questions that they said they would get answers [to] me soon but never did," says Lauber. This was sometime in October 2018, just two months ago. After that it was "basically radio silence."
Like Magdaong, Lauber says he and the other pro players and teams didn't know about Blizzard's plans until the day of the announcement. But where players were in the dark, some members of the esports media knew ahead of time, such as Dot Esports managing editor Saira Mueller who tweeted, "Even though I've known about this for a week it doesn't hurt any less," in reference to Blizzard's Heroes of the Storm news.
Even though I’ve known about this for a week it doesn’t hurt any less. Heroes was the first esport I covered over three years ago and the one that got me into this awesome industry. I will always cherish the great friends I’ve made through the scene. RIPhttps://t.co/o2EBXu0oDq— Saira Mueller (@SairaMueller) December 14, 2018
Unlike the Overwatch League where Blizzard interacts with the teams more closely, Heroes of the Storm is run under a league system like the early days of League of Legends (Riot Games has since franchised) and it's up to independent entities to field the players. Blizzard doesn't have a level of obligation to Heroes of the Storm players, but instead provides the game, the stage, and the prize money, while players bring their talents and hopefully their ability to attract viewers.
"I would be lying if I say I wasn't envious of how much more [Overwatch League] have got in terms of funding, production and care. Especially [since] both games came out at around the same time," says Magdaong. "But I get it, [Heroes of the Storm] was stepping into an already diluted field, with Dota  and League [of Legends] dominating the market share... But I do honestly believe if Heroes had been given the same initial treatment it could've been amazing."
There are many promises with esports and how it might be ready to become as accepted as traditional sports in the popular consciousness. When we spoke to Overwatch commissioner Nate Nanzer last year he told us that the plan is for Overwatch to become a "forever sport." But Heroes of the Storm was not meant for immortality it seems, and as more esports-ready games are launched each year there will be some leagues that don't make it for the long-haul.
Sometimes the floor just drops under professional esports players who dedicate so much of their time to a particular game, and their dreams might just fall with them. "Personally I will just be taking this time to reflect and prioritize. I'm not sure where that will lead, esports or not," says Magdaong when I asked about his future plans after Heroes of the Storm esports. "I can imagine the same is going on for the rest of the team. Sadly, we just have to move on."
"I might go back to studies or try to look for other opportunities," says Lauber when I asked him a similar question. "My life is in shambles now."