MOBAs and Approachability

How Blizzard borrows from real sports to make their eSport more approachable.

What makes a sport (any sport, not just an eSport) approachable? Why has basketball spread around the world, whereas only a few countries know what a game of cricket even looks like. Obviously, there are a huge number of factors. Amongst them, as one of the key factors, must be approachability. People play basketball because all you need is a couple of people, a ball, and something to shoot into. The rules are easy; get the ball in the basket. Most baskets, wins. Cricket needs bats, a ball, stumps, a few more people and an understanding of a rule set that goes from quirky to outright weird.

So, my theory must be that basketball is more popular because it is more instantly approachable and, therefore, attracts more players. Which sounds great, until you look at eSports like MOBAs and RTSs which, as someone new to the eSports scene like me can tell you, are much more like cricket than basketball. They are a hive of jargon, complex rules and hardcore fans.

heroes-of-the-storm

Which is why Blizzard’s approach to the MOBA, Heroes of the Storm, intrigues me. I’d heard that Blizzard wanted to make MOBAs a little less terrifying and a little more inclusive. As a sports fan it was fascinating to experience how, when playing my first few games, similar playing Heroes felt to picking up and learning a new sport.

HotS, possibly unintentionally, seems to me to share much of its DNA with basketball. It is these parallels I want to explore.

1. Wars of attrition

I’m not saying for one minute that Blizzard’s design team meant to copy basketball. As I said, basketball and Heroes of the Storm aren’t, superficially, that similar. However, when you start picking at it, even the the basic game goals share a number of similarities, be they intentional or otherwise.

Basketball and Heroes are both won by accumulating a high number of points in very small increments. In basketball, it’s the two to four points you win (or deny) on each offensive (or defensive) possession. In Heroes, its the XP you accumulate from killing minions, heroes or taking objectives which mount up into a winning position.

This type of game structure means that the game develops slowly. The pace is defined by attritional back and forth. Evenly matched games build and build until crunch time; the crucial period of time when the game is truly decided. For heroes, crunch time is usally everything from twenty minutes and later, where heroes have their full skill set and death timers exceed a minute. Balanced games see you positioning yourself for crunch time, making sure you are ready for a crucial strike. Basketball is similar; the best players can keep a game close and then “take over” in crunch time.

2. Games of basketball (and games of Heroes of the Storm) are not lost in the first thirty seconds.

The pace of a game of basketball is, to a large extent, defined by the shot clock. This twenty four second countdown is the game’s metronome. Most possessions last a maximum of twenty four seconds before the team shoots. Whether the attacking team score or not, the shot clock is reset when the ball hits the rim of the basket. This is basketball’s essential rhythm, ensuring that the forty eight minute game is broken up into a minimum of 100 chunks (though it’s usually closer to 200). With this steady pace and large number of possessions, no single basket (before crunch time) is that important. Teams can lose a single skirmish and it not be the end of the world. Lose two, or three, or four, however, and the points deficit starts to mount up. This seems to me to be almost identical to the rhythm of Heroes of the Storm. In Heroes you can afford to take some early losses as, with the large number of small objectives, it is possible to close the XP gap over time. However, if you keep losing more objectives than you win, then the XP gap will widen and, come crunch time, you will be easy pickings. In Heroes, a combinations of cooldowns and player deaths act as the game’s shot clock, governing how aggressive each hero can be and forcing them to retreat regularly, rather than just keep attacking.

As far as this affects the player, it allows you to find your feet in the game. There is an old adage in sport; you can’t win a game in the first few minutes but you certainly can lose it. In football, the other team can jump out to a quick lead then sit back and defend it. In motorsport, you can attack the first bend too hard and end up in the sand trap. In boxing, you can leave yourself open for one second and you won’t even feel the knockout blow land. In my first few rounds of Heroes I rarely felt defeated in the opening minutes and eagerly returned to the fight as I saw the XP levels see-saw back and forth with each success and failure.

I play online multiplayer games to have fun and compete. What I love about Heroes of the Storm is how it makes me feel competitive. I know that I can have a bad start and recover. I can warm up into a match knowing that I will have to try hard during the first few levels to let my team down. Mistakes in crunch time are more harshly punished but that is as it should be. However, at least I can reliably be part of a team which reaches crunch time without the game already being lost. Heroes, like basketball, is not structured in this all-or-nothing way for the first seventy five percent of a match. It builds to, steadily, metronomically, to its crunch-time crescendo, be it a tense final battle or a catastrophic crushing

3. In basketball (and in Heroes of the Storm) you need effective role players just as much as you need superstars.

In basketball, I’m pretty sure It is harder to be Lebron James than it is to be Mike Miller. They are obviously in different stratospheres, in terms of talent, but one is the star and one plays a specific role. Much, much more is asked of Lebron than of Miller.

In Heroes, when push comes to shove, you need to make some takedowns on the opposition heroes. This is a vital job, as teams that can win the takedown battle can accumulate enough XP to really open up a noticeable lead in levels. This, in my opinion, is the “Lebron” job. You need your assassins to take risks and get big kills, as well as gather XP, not die, look for objectives and all the rest.  However, like Mike Miller knocking down open three point shots, someone happy to play a simpler role can still contribute significantly to a HotS team.

As I alluded to earlier,I’m not just a Heroes of the Storm novice but a MOBA novice, in general. I’ve never played a round of LoL or Smite and only have DOTA 2 installed on my Steam account because I’m pretty sure Valve insisted. I’ve spoken to friends of mine who tell me how simple, relative to other MOBAs, Heroes is to play. They explained how the removal of gold and items, as well as the pot of shared experience (rather than each hero levelling individually) gives you less to think about. That information fitted very well with what I felt I experienced but, I felt, didn’t quite cover it. I thought the game did a great job creating (and highlighting) characters whose role was obvious and pre-defined. In my first game, without worrying about levels or skill trees or objectives, I was just able to play my role, do my job, and I felt that the game rewarded me for it. I have played most of my games as Malfurion. He has one job: heal. So that’s what I did. I boiled the game down to one simple job; keep as many of my teammates as healthy as I possible could. I would kill minions when I could and, as the tutorial told me to do, occupied empty lanes, but, for about 80% of my time I was just waiting for my healing spells to come off cooldown and keeping my teammates good to go. It lead to a few takedowns, plenty of “thank you, healer” VO, and a manageable introduction to a game. I was Mike Miller, taking my open shots. I could see the stars on the team, able to move into and out of fights, taking objectives, rarely dying. They were playing a game at a level that was beyond me, but that didn’t stop me feeling like I was making a positive contribution.

Several smaller design choices aided that feeling of simplicity and simple focus. By limiting my build choices for the first couple of player levels (essentially the first couple of games) I couldn’t get myself into situation where I was caught with an ineffective build. Again, as Malfurion, it just kept me focussed on healing and supporting my teammates, without me getting distracted by other, equally cool, abilities, which did little to help me fulfill my role.

Although it’s somewhat specific to my choice of starting character I couldn’t agree more with this Yannick LeJacq article on Kotaku; http://kotaku.com/one-small-thing-i-love-about-heroes-of-the-storm-1693155601. By including this sort of dialogue it’s clear that Blizzard has made a conscious choice to reward players for doing things other than killing heroes. It’s rewarding playing a specific role and thinking about the team as whole and your place in it.

By, accidently or not, mirroring the team game style of basketball, where supporting role players play an equally important role as superstar scorers, Heroes has avoided the off-putting experience of many online games where expert players harry new players out of the game (which can be a particular problem with the relatively low user bases of betas). By allowing players to grow into the game and their heroes, rather than having everything dropped on them at once, there is an opportunity to play a role, contribute, and learn. I don’t have to rush to be a superstar.

Depth

This post is really focussed on what makes Heroes of the Storm an approachable eSport and what it borrows from real sports. That being said, I’ve got to at least touch on what takes a sport from being an enjoyable frippery to something that players, and fans, can really get their teeth into; depth.

Now, I’m still a new HotS player and a relatively recent basketball fan, but it only takes a few minutes online to realise that both basketball and Heroes both share a bottomless pit of depth and opportunity to learn.

Here’s Grantland’s Zach Lowe doing his best to educate me about basketball: http://grantland.com/the-triangle/the-supersize-nba-season-ending-things-i-like-and-dont-like/

Here’s Grubby doing the same thing with Heroes:

https://youtu.be/OX4qNPDXnWU?list=PLD0UJYil0pceFfUbfv-Wv08CH7D46dsMz

Analysing all the tiny subtleties of MOBAs and basketball that I do, and don’t, understand is slightly beyond the brief I set myself, but these links makes one thing abundantly clear to me: there is a lot I can still learn about HotS and about basketball.

Conclusion

I’m not trying to assume I know the reasoning behind the decisions that Blizzard made, regarding approachability, when they developed Heroes of the Storm. They might never have talked about basketball, or cricket, or sport at all. All I know is that when I started playing Heroes of the Storm it made me think of sports that I’ve played with my friends. It made me remember the first time I tried football and basketball. It felt the same, that feeling of “oh, I get it, this is fun”. I wasn’t driven away by a game I didn’t understand. Nor did I get the sense that my inexperience was ruining the experience for my teammates.

It seems to me that Heroes shares some common ground with many sports, but particularly basketball, and this list of traits (whilst not exhaustive) all make the game more accessible:

  • Heroes of the Storm is a game of increments. As such, there is always plenty to do and, in the early going, no cause can be lost because of one mistake.
  • Playing your role is vitally important to team success, and that role can be as complicated or simple as you like.
  • Just like basketball, there are lots of different roles, so you can find the one that fits your skillset and build from there.
  • There is scope to grow into a superstar, if you have the time and talent.

I wonder if it is a direction that eSports will continue to travel down in the future. It feels like, as the audience for eSports continues to grow, making a game which captures that audience will be key to long term success. Through its clever parallels to the real sports I love, Heroes of the Storm has certainly sucked me into the Nexus.

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