South Korea's Vulnerability: Heroes of the Storm

The one game where 'the gap' is actually closing

NOV 09, 2017

Last weekend thousands of fans, cosplayers, and competitors descended on Anaheim, California for BlizzCon 2017. There were costume contests, trailers for new expansions, and, of course, plenty of esports competition. Once again, we saw South Korean competitors nearly sweep the weekend with players and teams taking home first place in StarCraft 2, Overwatch, StarCraft: Remastered, and Heroes of the Storm.

Korea’s dominance in esports is nothing new, nor is it surprising to longtime fans. StarCraft has been a national pastime in South Korea for years, and the region quickly rose to the top of the Overwatch scene shortly after the game’s release. That same weekend, far away on the other side of the world, South Korea even continued its iron rule over League of Legends claiming yet another World Championship. While Korean teams generally dominate any game they choose to invest in, their control over one game in Blizzard’s pantheon has been shaken to its core.

In back-to-back years, the Heroes of the Storm grand finals only featured one Korean team. What’s more, South Korea’s dominance was challenged not by teams from China or Taiwan, but from the West. In fact, Heroes has seen Western teams continually compete for the title of “World Champion”. Typically, the moment South Korea enters an esport, they take control of the championship and never let go.. And yet, for the second year in a row, we saw Fnatic, the best team in Europe, eliminate a Korean team to earn their spot in the grand finals. While the East has still come away with the victory, we still have not seen South Korea dominate Heroes of the Storm like they do other games. Therefore, the question must be asked: what is different about Heroes?

They Just Don’t Care That Much About Heroes

In June of this year, the top two teams from each region competed in the Mid-Season Brawl. At that event, we saw not just one, but two European teams in the Grand Finals. Team Dignitas swept their way through Korean favorites MVP:Black and L5 to earn a rematch with Fnatic, the eventual champions. After both Korean squads missed the finals, fans were quick to attribute the losses to a lack of motivation. The big sponsors in Korea were not investing in Heroes of the Storm, and so the players were not as motivated to practice and prepare for the event.

It seemed logical at the time. The Korean teams at the Mid-Season Brawl were completely unprepared for several strategies employed by the Europeans. It’s certainly possible that they did not review any footage in advance of the tournament, and were not motivated to prepare counter-strategies. The motivation argument is simple, and perfectly explains Korea’s lack of dominance in plenty of games. We see no high level Korean pros in Super Smash Bros. simply because the franchise is not particularly popular in South Korea--the talented players simply don’t care about it. There are players competing in Heroes, but perhaps, Korea’s defenders argued, they simply aren’t motivated to be the best due to the lack of money and interest in the game within their country. However, this argument falls apart once we get to BlizzCon.

At BlizzCon, Korean favorite L5 was once again sponsored by Ballistix, MVP had also recently secured sponsorship leading into the 2018 season. Not only were the players financially motivated to win, but they were determined to avoid the embarrassment their country suffered at the Mid-Season Brawl. The Ballistix roster were hungry for victory and yet were upset once for the second time this year by a squad from Europe. Not only that but Korea’s third seed, Tempest, was eliminated by Roll20 Esports, a team from North America. NA is frequently considered the weakest of the major regions, and yet their best team was able to convincingly defeat a team from South Korea. In League of Legends, even unmotivated Korean teams could easily trounce the best North America has to offer. This year, Western teams proved convincingly that they can contend with the best Korea has to offer. If that fact can’t be explained by a lack of motivation, perhaps there’s something in the gameplay of Heroes that explains this phenomenon..

The Game is too Easy

This is another argument you’ll see thrown around on social media platforms. Compared to League, StarCraft, and even Overwatch, Heroes is often considered to have fewer skill-based mechanics. This would certainly explain why the gap between regions is so much smaller. Consider the Blizzard game with the lowest skill ceiling: Hearthstone. As a card game, Hearthstone doesn’t test your reaction time. Outside of positioning cards, you don’t have to be particularly accurate with your mouse movement. Beyond that, Hearthstone has a number of random elements that can completely change the outcome of a game regardless of the skill of the player. No one would expect South Korean players to permanently dominate Hearthstone when a Random Number Generator can potentially determine a World Champion.

That said, Heroes of the Storm requires dramatically more mechanical skill than Hearthstone. Every hero has four abilities, just like every other MOBA. Movement, skillshots, map awareness--all of these skills function almost identically in Heroes as they do in League of Legends or DOTA. There’s only one skill-based mechanic missing from Heroes that we see in these other MOBAS--last hitting.

In League and DOTA, characters gain power by purchasing items they earn with gold. The best way to earn gold is to kill minions. However, the only way to get the gold out of a minion is to land the killing blow--the “last hit”. Heroes of the Storm has no item shop, no gold, and therefore, no last hitting mechanic. If someone wanted to argue that Heroes is a less skill-intensive game, the lack of last hitting is really the only argument that makes sense.

However, it doesn’t really make sense in an esports context. Last hitting primarily occurs in the laning phase, the early period of the game where players are fighting largely 1-on-1 or 2-on-2. We regularly see players from other regions beat Korean teams during the early laning phase in League of Legends. Where the teams like SKT and Samsung Galaxy show their dominance is in the late game--in their mastery of the macro game and their coordination in team fights. Time and again Western teams have watched an early lead slowly erode away as their Korean opponents took control of the map after winning one or two key teamfights.

By eliminating the laning phase, Heroes of the Storm actually put more emphasis on the parts of the game where Koreans typically shine--map control and team fighting. If anything, the Korean teams should be even more dominant in Heroes than they are in other games with this “reduction in skill-based gameplay.”

The Pool is Too Shallow

We know that the Korean teams at BlizzCon were motivated to win this tournament. However, there is a larger piece of the “motivation argument” that we’ve yet to explore. Usually, when South Korea takes over a game, it stems from a cultural passion for that game. StarCraft, League of Legends, and Overwatch are all cultural phenomenon in Korea. Young gamers flock to PC Bangs to test their skills in these games. StarCraft pros in South Korea are major celebrities in their home country. League of Legends teams are sponsored by major brands offering huge salaries. In these games, there is a clear path towards a career as a professional gamer. Talented players know that if they invest their time and skill into the game, they’ll be rewarded.

Heroes of the Storm has yet to reach that same status. While Blizzard provides a small salary for each professional player, the typical support structure has not grown up around the game. Very few teams have title sponsors, let alone salaries from established esports organizations. Ballistix only sponsored L5 for BlizzCon--the rest of the year the best team in South Korea was left unsigned. Without sponsors, teams lack the support system of coaches, analysts, and substitute players you find in more popular esports. Infrastructure has always been one of South Korea’s greatest advantages. With that infrastructure comes a focus and history of success--a cultural commitment to winning.

The lack of sponsors could be creating even deeper issues for the Korean Heroes scene. In addition to their support staff, the quality of practice in South Korea is generally much higher. Every Western League of Legends team bootcamps in Korea to prepare for the World Championship because even the lower level Korean teams offer a challenge. The talent pool in South Korea is so deep that Western teams often struggle to beat the fifth or sixth best Korean squad. In Heroes, Europe’s second seed and North America’s first seed trounced the third best Korean roster.

If talented players see less opportunity in Heroes, it is possible the game is losing potential stars to games that offer a more promising career. We see the same situation play out in traditional sports all the time. Russell Wilson chose football over baseball in part because football offered more money, fame, and prestige. If a player has world-class mechanics, they can earn more fame and fortune pursuing other games. It makes perfect sense for that player to pursue a career in League of Legends, StarCraft, or even Overwatch over Heroes of the Storm. With a shallow talent pool to draw from, the region as a whole would not be nearly as competitive. Ultimately, Heroes has yet to establish itself as a core part of South Korea’s esports culture, leading to a lack of investment from sponsors and casual fans, as well as limiting the game’s ability to attract young talent.

If this is true, it will make watching Heroes in 2018 particularly interesting. Recently, Blizzard announced a change to the rules surrounding ownership of professional Heroes teams, as well as a goal of having every team in the major regions sponsored by the end of the year. This initiative should make Heroes a more attractive investment to major esports organizations. In fact, we’re already seeing major changes. KSV Esports, owners of the Overwatch League team the Seoul Dynasty, recently purchased both MVP Heroes rosters in advance of the new season. As more money and infrastructure enters the Heroes scene, perhaps we will see South Korea reach total domination as it has in so many other games.

That said, the West has tasted victory more than once this year. Teams in Europe and North America fought hard to close that regional gap, they’ll be loathed to let it grow any wider. If you’re a Western esports fan, now is the time to show your regional pride. Your local Heroes teams have proven that even gods can bleed, and will be entering 2018 determined to claim the throne. You can invest in this game knowing that your region can actually compete at the international level. The next season of the Heroes Global Championship kicks off in January, giving you plenty of time to catch up on the matches from BlizzCon.

Photo Credit: DreamHack / Abraham Engelmark