Late in 2018 Blizzard Entertainment all but signed the death warrant of Heroes of the Storm, its MOBA that brings together beloved characters from the Warcraft, Diablo, StarCraft and Overwatch universes. In a blog post, the company announced that it was shifting development resources away from Heroes of the Storm to other projects and cancelling the game’s official esports programs – Heroes Global Championship and Heroes of the Dorm – altogether. The post promised that Blizzard would continue to support the game, but warned that “the cadence will change”. It didn’t take much for players to read between the lines: Heroes was on life support.
The immediate reaction was dire. Professional players scrambled to find new titles to play, while dwindling view counts and a gutted player based forced popular streamers to try and build followings in other games. Casual players either left, cut back their playtime, or went to the Nexus, had a pint and waited for it all to blow over. A sense of melancholy spread throughout the community as it collectively mourned the game, and what could have been.
But it seems that the eulogising was premature. Despite the initially bleak outlook, Heroes has risen like Fenix from the ashes of a slaughtered Zergling swarm to have a full-blown resurgence. With scaled-back resources, no competitive scene to adapt to and perhaps less expectation and pressure from the higher-ups at Blizzard, the smaller dev team has been able to prioritise the one thing that’s in their control – making the game as fun as possible.
Game Designer Adam Jackson outlined the new philosophy in a Reddit AMA at the tail end of last year. “My main objective now is primarily to maintain the best balance possible while making the game the most fun for the most amount of people. There has been a focus on having more viable builds, more fun talents, more viable heroes and more cool hero interactions… my focus has been on making cool stuff.” Boy has he succeeded.
Sure, the content release has slowed – heroes now come every few months rather than every few weeks – but this has been made up for with regular balance updates, reworks, gameplay changes and seasonal events. And when new characters are added, they’re innovative, unique and a blast to play. Take Deathwing, for example. The latest hero is a massive dragon and raid boss with two ability kits, immunity to all crowd control effects, global mobility and abilities that make you feel like you’re participating in a Warcraft cutscene. Playing with or against him is mayhem in the best sense of the word.
My first fight against him reminded me why Heroes of the Storm is special. Playing as Jim Raynor, I was chasing down a weak Li-Ming. I had her dead to rights… until Deathwing thundered from the sky. He’d flipped the odds. As I tried to flee, the enormous dragon rose into the air, flapped his wings and flew overhead, scorching the earth and landing ahead of me. My path cut off, I had no choice but to go out in a blaze of glory. I was dead and the objective was lost, but I was having too much fun to care. Oh okay, I was a bit salty.
My 700 hours of playing Heroes of the Storm are full of epic moments like this. Nothing has changed in that respect since the scaled-back development. Whether it’s ‘Sanctifying’ an area to steal a boss with the Archangel Tyrael, sliding in for a game-saving ‘Mosh Pit’ with Tauren turned rockstar E.T.C. or controlling the two-player hero, Cho’gall, with a friend, every match is full of varied and exciting experiences. Add to that action-packed team fights, Blizzard’s trademark graphical polish, a bunch of beloved characters and seasonal gameplay updates and what you get certainly isn’t a dead game. It’s something that you just don’t get elsewhere – which is partly why, alongside devoted developers and a passionate community, Heroes continues to thrive.
Just over a year on, gameplay improvements and an emphasis on fun have breathed new life into the game. Streamers have returned in droves, initiatives like Heroes Lounge hint at a resurgent competitive scene, and while Blizzard doesn’t release active population statistics, I never have trouble finding a game in Australia. The current player base is an eclectic mix of long-time players, returning veterans and new folks learning the ropes. Storm League gives experienced players the chance to get their competitive juices flowing, while anyone can jump into Quick Match and enjoy reworked old heroes and fun new ones, each of whom is viable in their own distinct ways.
With many of us currently on lockdown at home courtesy of Coronavirus, there’s no time like the present to jump back into Heroes of the Storm or try it out for the first time. For players familiar with MOBAs it offers an alternative to runes, stores, last-hitting and laning phases. It’s not DotA 2 or LoL and isn’t trying to be. It’s a hero brawler focused on team fights, shared XP and the conviction that teamwork beats out ‘solo carries’. Matches are brief (around 20 minutes), the objective-based maps are diverse and offer great variety, and as a general rule, the online community is kind and inviting. It also runs on just about anything (including my brother’s ageing MacBook Pro), and is free-to-play, so there’s really no risk in trying it out.
Social media and the internet make it easy to be reactionary to news of any sort, particularly the negative kind. Heroes of the Storm’s ability to *ahem* weather the storm is a reminder that things aren’t always as bad as they seem. While the initial news was awful for esports professionals and fans, the effect on the core game was minimal. The community’s feeling of abandonment was far more damaging, yet it’s through their ongoing support that Heroes of the Storm continues to survive.
Video game history tells us that games don’t die until players abandon them. From Kingdom of Loathing and Brood Wars to Super Smash Bros. Melee and Blizzard’s own Diablo II, communities find creative ways to keep their favourite games alive. In the surprisingly wise words of Captain Will Turner in Pirates of the Caribbean, “No cause is lost if there is but one fool left to fight for it.” Games are only lost when the servers shut down and the last players log off. I’m not sure when that’ll be for Heroes of the Storm, but this fool will be fighting until the end.
Jack Delaney is a writer based in Sydney, Australia who wishes he lived inside a hard-boiled detective novel. You can find him here.