Despite its looming, Homeric legacy in the massively multiplayer online videogame space, it’s beginning to look like World of Warcraft might have been Blizzard Entertainment’s black sheep after all. The Irvine-based developer has never been a team of world-builders so much as a roving pack of genre savants, constantly on the prowl for another compelling—but ultimately unsatisfying—experience to vivisect and then refine. Where WoW laid out its territories with all the bewildering scope of a Bierstadt landscape, free-to-play smash hit Hearthstone saw the developer at its most Michelangelo-esque: It approached the collectible card game genre like a towering slab of marble, then sought to chip away at its layers to reveal the masterwork underneath. This defining forte has quickly rooted itself as Blizzard’s default praxis, and Heroes of the Storm, their latest creation, points to a Blizzard which has become exceedingly confident in its ability to—at least in theory—pry success from the hands of those already established.
In some ways, acknowledging its own expertise has made Blizzard’s job suspiciously easy. If every game is a potential populist masterpiece caked in layers of superficial bullshit, then clearly their first order of business would be to tackle the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA), a genre of videogame whose moniker is almost as obnoxious as it is nebulous.
Ostensibly, the MOBA is a type of game in which two multiplayer teams battle to destroy the opposing team’s base. It’s a simple enough premise, but pick-up-and-play these games are absolutely not. The two most popular MOBAs—Valve Software’s DotA 2 and Riot Games’ League of Legends—come crammed with oddball idiosyncrasies like “last-hitting”: a central mechanic wherein a player must deal the exact killing blow to non-player minions in order to receive a reward for its death. With their encyclopedic litany of characters, purchasable in-game items, and custom skills—which will all inevitably differ on a game-to-game basis—it’s been almost impossible to grasp what makes DotA 2 and League of Legends two of the most popular PC games on the market.
This is where Blizzard typically steps in to show us, via careful deconstruction, what makes a game genre good, and then tosses the stuff that they’ve deemed to be vestigial bullshit. With Hearthstone, they took the base mechanics of Magic: The Gathering and decided that forcing players to establish and expand their resources was bullshit. So instead of making them play resource cards, they gave players each a mana pool that would automatically grow each turn. Problem solved.
With Heroes of the Storm, Blizzard’s bullshit list must have been Tolstoy-length, because they have positively gutted the MOBA genre. Last-hitting has been tossed into the junk heap, along with item shopping, persistent team chat (cut to minimize toxicity, it seems), individualized character progression, and over-long match lengths. Teams each have their own pool of shared experience points, which grows with every objective captured and enemy slain. Just as they did away with resource establishment in Hearthstone, so they’ve done away with it here in Heroes of the Storm.
Also high on Blizzard’s list of priorities is the need to appeal to their incumbent constituency, a decision which manifests itself early in the form of exposition-crammed opening tutorials.
Following in the footsteps of Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. and Marvel’s Avengers, Blizzard presents its lore like an extended in-joke, ringing in its popular franchise characters like so many Pavlovian bells. The ensuing shenanigans transpire with all the absurd complexity of a hip-hop concept album, but even Dr. Octagon and King Gheedorah have nothing on this: Heroes of the Storm’s main throughline is a multiversal portal called The Nexus, through which Blizzard mainstay mascots like Blue Space Marine Dude from Starcraft and Horned Devil Man from Diablo teleport to do funky intergalactic skirmishing. Fourth wall-breaking witticisms abound (isn’t this all kinda silly, guys?), paired with guitar-playing cow-men and scantily-clad, gratuitously-proportioned she-warriors, who seem to have just slipped by the bullshit pile.
As for the game itself, Heroes of the Storm seems to be everything Blizzard intended for it to be. It’s quicker than LoL and DotA 2, it’s less convoluted, it’s got an incredibly well-produced opening tutorial, it boasts all the franchise characters you know and love, and—at least on paper—it’s a perfectly pared-down take on the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena.
The question is whether the game can aspire to become anything beyond that.
By putting together their own Heroes of the Dorm collegiate tournament and then publicizing the hell out of it, Blizzard has invested heaps of resources to buy Heroes‘ status as a bona fide eSport. But somewhere in their initial shuffle to cut all the bullshit, Blizzard has unwittingly thrown out a few crucial puzzle pieces that might have put Heroes of the Storm on equal footing with its rivals.
As it turns out, bullshit is actually a defining cornerstone of pretty much any sport ever conceived. Swing a wooden stick at a 90 mile-an-hour fastball and it’s practically a guarantee that you’ll miss. Try throwing a basketball towards a hoop some thirty feet away, and you might just graze the rim if you’re lucky. At the center of every sport, there’s some baseline mechanic—be it hitting a ball or handling a puck or treading deep water—that is complete and utter bullshit until you get the hang of it. In most sports, these basic mechanics are further complicated by the introduction of an opponent: hitting a three-pointer becomes exponentially more difficult when someone else has their hand in your face.
And so, through thousands of hours of practice, athletes commit the initial bullshit to muscle memory. Michael Jordan was such a good shooter, for instance, that he could sink a high-stakes free throw with his eyes closed. This meant that when someone was actually guarding him, he could reduce the matchup to nothing more than a one-on-one battle of wits, eliminating personal error from the equation altogether. This is the conceit under which most sports are played, and one on which the most successful eSports rely for their mass appeal.
In League of Legends and DotA 2, the bull-shittiest of bullshit mechanics is the last hit. Even in a completely neutral environment, it requires precise timing and coordination to score a single one. And yet, if you don’t last-hit, you will likely get your ass handed to you by the opponent, who will amass more gold and more items than you will over time. Although last-hitting certainly seems like an obscure trifle of a mechanic, it’s arguably the ability to last-hit that separates pros from low-rank casual players. In professional matches, last hits are so important that they comprise a key statistic in measuring player performance.
By cutting last hits, Blizzard’s main intent was to let players focus on the mechanics that really matter, like macro-level decision-making, team coordination, and strategic usage of terrain. Instead, they’ve removed one of the few aspects that imbued other MOBAs with their eSports edge, creating a quality pastime that nevertheless feels more like freeze tag than football.
This isn’t to say that the last hit is somehow the defining feature of eSports-friendly MOBAs. In fact, it’s practically a sure bet that there are better, simpler ways for players to demonstrate rote skill than something as laughably obscure as the last hit. And maybe this is what makes Heroes of the Storm a bit of a misfire: While the game demonstrates a clear mastery of what makes a good MOBA, it falls just short of delivering what might have otherwise been a complex, accessible eSport.