The World Championship Series of League of Legends is almost over, and the next big thing in esports is just around the corner. Of course, I’m talking about the BlizzCon 2017 and its featured esports tournaments. Blizzard created the basis for what is nowadays a billion-dollar market in a way that was unprecedented back then. StarCraft: Brood War initiated the professionalization of gaming unlike any other game and is still regarded as integral part of the South Korean esports scene and currently experiencing a renaissance.
Also, the MOBA genre traces its roots back to the Blizzard classic, and was later refined in Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne. The principle of the original DotA has been copied numerous times ever since, and esports wouldn’t be the same without its sequel and Riot’s adaptation League of Legends.
However, in recent years, many people have suggested that Blizzard’s reign in esports is over and the numbers seem to support that claim. Dota 2, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and League of Legends dominate competitive gaming in many respects: they are the esports disciplines that boast the most players and viewers, attract the most lucrative sponsors, and have the best-produced events in the world.
In comparison, Blizzard’s games seem to play only in tier 2 of esports. While both Overwatch and Hearthstone are very popular on Twitch, and also Blizzard’s other esports games like StarCraft II and Heroes of the Storm do pretty well (and seem to be financially successful), there is still a remarkable gap between the Blizzard and the big three.
And despite these facts, I do think that the BlizzCon 2017 is the most important esports event of the year, and will continue to expand its unique status in the industry. Three reasons lead me to this conclusion, which I will explain in the next paragraphs.
Variety is the key
At the time this article is being written, five out of the top 25 games on Twitch are made by Blizzard. Overwatch and Hearthstone are doing particularly well, the latter often taking rank two or three. While WoW is an exception, as it has very little significance as an esports scene, StarCraft II and Heroes of the Storm are frequently in the top 20, although they are often declared dead or dying.
The variety of games is symbolic for the openness of esports as a whole, because it caters to the preferences of several types of gamers. Esports was initially a grass roots phenomenon developing around passionate communities, and has never been a centrally organized discipline. Instead, it thrives on the wide range of scenes that regard themselves as competitive.
Blizzard’s catalogue reflects this decentralized tribalization of esports communities very well, since it represents so many of them. Their philosophy to design games that are “easy to learn, hard to master”, is strongly connected to this idea. Blizzard is well-known for borrowing from other games and genres, while focusing on their strength and cutting everything which is regarded as unnecessary or too challenging. While some of you might argue that this philosophy waters down the spirit of esports too much, I think this is a very elitist argument. This becomes very evident, if we consider the high-level play of professional gamers who earn their living with Blizzard’s games.
Denying new players access by making the entry too difficult is not the right way to do it, and Blizzard has understood this lesson from their very beginnings. As a result, all their games are very popular in the esports community and offer something for (nearly) every taste.
If you are interested in RTS, there is no way around StarCraft II nowadays (or Brood War of that matter). Oh, macro is not your cup of tea and you prefer playing MOBAs? No problem, just hit the install button of Heroes. Or are you more of a FPS person? Feel free to give Overwatch a try.
Of course, it is impossible to satisfy the needs of all the gamers in the world, but Blizzard does a good job trying to. In contrast to Valve and Riot, they do not rely on a one (or two) trick pony, however, they seek to bring fresh concepts into the market. It is immensely positive that they do not rely on one game only and build their success on many pillars.
The BlizzCon, then, is the annual culmination of all their esports titles. And this year, we have prize pools that put all those that came before to shame. In StarCraft II alone, the winner takes home $280,000, the biggest amount the scene has ever seen. Heroes, Overwatch, Hearthstone and WoW also display world class esports action for more than a week. Maybe the prize pools and viewership are not as big as in tier 1 esports, but there is no other event that features such a large number of professional players and interesting storylines like BlizzCon does.
Investing into the future
Not only is the BlizzCon known for its tournament culture but also because it is Blizzard’s very own exhibition. As such, announcements for future games are to be reckoned with. Two years ago, the developers revealed their latest addition to esports culture, Overwatch. Although the studio had never developed a FPS game before (or finished development for that matter), the game was received well by critics and fans.
Next year, Overwatch will have its first Overwatch League, a multi-million dollar format that feature twelve teams from around the globe. For this purpose, established esports teams are cooperating with internationally successful companies and even traditional sports clubs like the New England Patriots.
By selling permanent spots in the league, Blizzard tries to professionalize the Overwatch scene and makes a step towards mainstream sports in that regard. According to this philosophy, players are guaranteed a $50,000 salary per year, fair contracts and a reasonable share of the prize money. This system is designed to attract big sponsors that will happily make investments into Overwatch as an esports scene, who have in turn the opportunity to get into new markets thanks to the global lineup of the league. Of course, this is an experiment with esports that has never been tried before. But Blizzard is willing to take the risk, and their chances are pretty good to reinvent esports infrastructure yet another time.
However, as much as Blizzard is occupied with the Overwatch League, their other competitive games are surely not neglected either. Although the latest Hearthstone addon Knights of the Frozen Throne has not been on the market for too much time, it is very likely that we will witness another Hearthstone-related announcement due to the high frequency of new content this game receives. And just like Hearthstone, Blizzard periodically adds content to Heroes of the Storm, so if you are interested in that you might want to keep your eyes open.
Also Legacy of the Void is receiving a facelift. The two-year-old RTS will get impactful balance changes after the WCS Global Finals at BlizzCon. How this revamp is going to affect a new player base remains to be seen, and I highly doubt that there will be a renaissance for the game. Still, the new patch seems to address some of the problems the game has, and especially the changes regarding Protoss are going to make StarCraft II a very fresh experience for its fans. On top of that, we might expect news from the coop-department, the most-played part of the game.
What about a whole new esports-related game? Well, although people desperately want to play WarCraft IV or a potential StarCraft III, I think it is very unlikely that we will see something anything in that direction. Blizzard’s new franchises are doing quite well, and StarCraft II is still the game in their RTS department. The past has shown that the rise of one strategy game means the demise of its predecessor. New games of other genres are not very probable as well, but yet more likely than the titles that are demanded the most.
Honoring the legacy
That being said, it is almost safe to say that gaming veterans will get big news. The HD remaster of StarCraft: Brood War seems to be a success is having a renaissance in Korea at the moment. Old legends like Flash, Jaedong and Bisu have returned to the game and attracted a large audience, both Korean and non-Korean. Though we do not see a similar comeback outside of Korea, many old players enjoy the classic and other remasters are highly anticipated.
At this year’s BlizzCon, I call it now, we will get new footage of both the Diablo II and WarCraft III remasters. While the first one is not really relevant for esports (apart from its very passionate speed run and PvP scene), WarCraft III is another matter. I do not claim that it will replace StarCraft II or even Heroes of the Storm, the game has made a comeback some time ago, when the project Back2Warcraft reintroduced it to the Western audience.
Although the impact of these three remasters on competitive gaming might be limited, they do two things for Blizzard. First, they add to Blizzard’s reputation as a company that does actually care for its customers. Fair enough, they don’t produce remasters out of charity or altruism but to earn money. But this move is congruent to their patch philosophy. All of these games have received a patch now and then for almost 20 years now, and publishing polished versions suggests that they are not going to abandon any of their scenes.
Second, with the HD versions, Blizzard can attract a younger group of players who have not experienced the classics for obvious reasons. By renewing their games, the developers increase the number of players and make their comebacks more likely. In addition, future titles of these franchises will surely benefit from their success and widen the audience that can be targeted with new games.
Hyped for BlizzCon
As I have pointed out, the BlizzCon is going to be the most interesting esports event of the year. Not only will we witness top-tier tournaments but probably some innovations too. I am very hyped and excited what Blizzard has got in store for us. Even if there won’t be big surprises and announcements, I will still enjoy the show and the entertaining games that are going to be played. What do you want to see at BlizzCon? What can we expect? Please, feel free to share your thoughts in our comment section!