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Making sense of an esport abruptly cancelled and those left behind

Daft Punk called it a night this past February; I imagine most people reading this have heard already. In typical fashion, they opted to announce the news through not a press release but a mostly wordless 8-minute video, recycling footage from their 2006 film Electroma. The first half of the clip didn’t leave much room for any optimism or interpretation — having GM08 set up TB3 to self-destruct, zooming in to show the explosion in slow motion, then cutting to an image captioned “1993-2021” wasn’t exactly enigmatic. If there was anything to be warm and fuzzy about, it was in the second half, in which an edited fragment of Touch — the track de Homem-Christo called “the core of” Random Access Memories (2013), the duo’s would-be final album together — plays over a cloudy sunrise.

“Hold on,” the choir repeats, over and over in crescendo. “If love is the answer, you’re home.

Instant crush

I’ve been thinking about the death of Heroes of the Storm Global Championship. No occasion, really — I just happen to think about it often, although more than two years have passed since then. Heroes was not the first esports I fell in love with, nor the last. I don’t even play the game anymore, either; I haven’t been able to, not since December 13, 2018. Its memories still hold a special place in my heart, though, and from what I’ve gathered from friends and colleagues who had been a part of HGC, I’m hardly alone.

“Everyone misses HGC, but it’s never coming back,” one former contributor told me, anonymously. “Nothing will be like HGC ever again. I’m okay with what I’ve moved onto. It’s still about games, it’s still a paycheck. But you know, I’m not, like, working on my dreams anymore. I’m just punching into work.”

To be fair, this outlook is most likely not entirely shared by those who have since moved onto and developed a genuine passion for other esports. It also isn’t meant to disparage the brilliant work of those who have managed to keep competitive Heroes alive, in certain regions, at a level of production few had thought possible. That being said, it’s still true that HGC’s abrupt shutdown-by-email robbed dozens of their dreams, hundreds of their livelihood, and thousands of their infatuation with esports — twelve days before Christmas.

Having worked within the scene for years in various capacities — covering Super League for several publications, writing weekly articles for the official Heroes Esports website, casting Power League and HGC Korea matches, helping teams find and negotiate with sponsors, participating in tournaments as a manager — I was deeply shocked and saddened by the news that day. Yet even I could not even hope to imagine the damage dealt to the players (who had for so long devoted themselves solely to the game, working on a mostly non-translatable skillset) and single-game casters (who had put all of their eggs in a basket Blizzard had guaranteed would hold, and made long-term career plans based on that promise).

Esports industry members were quick to be outraged and indignant on the Heroes community’s behalf, putting Activision Blizzard on full blast with no less than the deserved of amount of vitriol. But much of our initial reaction was of sheer disbelief and sorrow. It wasn’t that we weren’t aggrieved — then-Tempo Storm coach Kurtis “Kala” Lloyd (now streaming and managing WoW/TFT for Cloud9) summarized the decision as “some hot bullshit”, and players such as Justin “Justing” Gapp and Johan “Lauber” Lauber (both still active in Wisdom Media’s HeroesHearth Community Clash League) immediately pointed out in strong terms how much of a middle finger the blindsiding announcement was. These sentiments were of course widely shared. But for others, the layers of grief took more time to unfold.

Those who had worked in Heroes esports — like French caster Hugo “Malganyr” Mediavilla, who used to regularly dedicate “70 to 100 hours a week” to the game, doing “everything to push it to the top” — had to wrap their minds around the fact that their years of passionate effort had crumbled to dust with one heartless blog post out of the blue. Losing something we had cared so much about in such a ridiculously unceremonious way was numbing, paralyzing. The clip of HGC Korea caster Daniel “Gclef” Na tearing up, eventually viewed by hundreds of thousands in the Korean esports community, spoke for many.

The day after the announcement, the game’s number-one superstar, Lee “Rich” Jae-won, still streamed himself playing Hero League. Not because he thought the game could still go somewhere; just because he “still [couldn’t] face this reality”, because “it still [didn’t] feel real”, because he “just [couldn’t] believe that everything was lost overnight”.

Doin’ it Right

Even within Blizzard, only a select few had known of HGC’s immediate cancellation prior to the announcement; as such, hundreds were innocently strung along until that December, believing the league would definitely continue in 2019. (This much was independently confirmed by dozens of well-connected community members following the news, as well as in a 2019 report by Tim Rizzo.) Many people had signed leases, deferred studies, turned down other offers, and moved across continents (in the case of Liam “Arcaner” Simpson, the globe) based on that trust. This deception remains indefensible.

But at this point in time, rehashing the old arguments of whether or not HGC’s termination made sense won’t be productive — it’s not as if anything about anything could change now. Slow but steady growth, or sustained reaffirmation of unsustainability? Tough but justified, or morally indefensible? Proactive cost-cutting or myopic shareholder-pandering? Return to grassroots or irreversible death knell? I have my own opinions, but these debates have long before played out in their entirety; I know, I’m tired, too. All I will say is: the scene deserved at least a final proper year to wrap things up, even if on a shoestring budget, so members could have time to decide whether to call it quits or commit to a downsized future.

Those who never had much of an emotional stake in Heroes esports might still find this topic fascinating, as a medical researcher might appreciate a peculiar cadaver. Many who did, however, would rather let it rest. Most people I’ve reached out to for this article — whom I will not name, out of respect for their wishes to move on from that time in their lives — had nothing left to say on the matter, and were not interested in visiting it again, at least in this context. I probably would have said the same had someone else reached out. Occasionally reminiscing the good times with old friends is enough. To call it traumatic might be a stretch, but dwelling overmuch on what went wrong with Heroes has never been healthy.

I guess, if we were to play what-ifs, this past year does add one belated argument to the mix: the HGC would have fared quite well in the new environment of 1) the pandemic and 2) all Blizzard esports being solely broadcast on YouTube. The HGC audience was well accustomed to remote play — NA and EU used to play regular season games from home, the CN English stream used to be broadcast from the casters’ rooms, and KR (in 2017) already had experimented with playing without an audience without seeing much loss to viewership or production. Heroes was also arguably the most YouTube-proximate out of all Blizzard esports, thanks to the Heroes Esports YouTube channel having been the scene’s primary library for match replays.

That being said, in the wake of ATVI’s very recent mass layoffs, even this hypothetical feels daft.

Fragments of time

Since its demise, HGC has come to mean different things for different people. For some players I’ve talked to, particularly the younger ones, who at a crucial point in their lives had forsaken alternative career paths in favor of going (or trying to go) pro in Heroes, it seems to be remembered as a mirage, some kind of cruel joke; a siren call they should never have heeded. Many of those who chose to leave the world of esports entirely, and decided to leave its memories behind, fall into this category.

For others, especially those who came into Heroes with some prior esports experience, it seems to be remembered as a bumpy and mismanaged passion project they nevertheless cherished being a part of, despite the bitter ending. Former 2016 HGC Summer Finals champion Lee “HongCoNo” Dae-hyeong — now playing mid Vayne in Korean Challenger and running a YouTube channel off of his exploits, as well as coaching at Game Coach Academy — recounts the league as “a good run”, even if “it felt bad to be thrown aside at the end”. He isn’t involved in Heroes anymore, because if Heroes taught him anything, it was “the danger of going pro in a non-mainstream game”; it is why he is now creating League of Legends content.

And for those who still are in some way participating in competitive Heroes, HGC remains their background, and its memories their fuel. One such player would be Benjamin “BadBenny” Eekenulv, former tank player for Method and Fnatic, who had completely stepped away from the thick of esports for a year to “[work] part time as a substitute teacher and become a train dispatcher”. Nowadays he is competing in the CCL and the Icy Veins Masters Clash, as well as streaming when his work hours permit.

For me, the aspect of HGC I miss most is the particular size and vibe of its community. It was small enough to be tight-knit but large enough to have cool things, and was lucky enough to have a developer rich and ambitious enough to fund at least some very sleek ideas. The fanbase was relatively (I stress: relatively) free from toxicity, perhaps in part due to the game having long been perceived as “the casual MOBA”, regardless of how true or beneficial that assessment might have been. Its dreams were sometimes unrealistic (“Why can’t we have the [shiny new feature] that Overwatch League just got?”) and its support often hyperbolic (“Heroes is OBJECTIVELY the best spectator esport and this [latest tournament] has been the best Heroes event EVER”), but most comments clearly came from a place of love. Dead-game detractors always chalked everything up to inferiority complex, but that wasn’t true.

Other things I miss about HGC include the perfect balance of regional and international competition over a calendar year; researching meta trends with Master League, one of the best-designed esports stats websites I’ve ever used; and of course, just the sheer quality of the games themselves. I would also mention its branded editorial section — under Dylan Walker‘s direction, it housed some of esports’ most silly and creative written content to date, including a recipe for a coffee drink — but the old HGC website has been inaccessible for a while now, and I’m not sure where all those articles have gone.

The game of love

Memory and legacy are two different things, and HGC’s legacy in the context of esports is twofold. The first is whatever business lesson you want to take away from how Heroes esports overall was managed over its all-too-short four-year run. I don’t even have my own opinions on this one — insiders far better informed than I have their own takes, and those takes don’t converge. None of them matter anymore, either, seeing how Blizzard themselves have completely given up on the game itself. Was the problem rushing everything, or being too late to the party? Was it overfunded or underfunded? Was switching to a yearlong league correct? Were there too many maps? Was content release cadence the actual issue? I don’t think any of these perspectives can be easily brushed aside as wrong, aside from one woefully misinformed take parroted by a few lazy pundits — that Heroes as a game just doesn’t work as an esport. Anyone who mouthed that one post-2016 just never cared enough to watch.

The second, more universally applicable takeaway is that developer-funded esports always have been and forever will be a disposable, cost-intensive advertisement campaign for a video game. Games can fail to break even; marketing strategies can always change. Developer-funded esports isn’t a passion project — it only runs on others’ passion. It is first and foremost part of a commercial product. Of course, HGC’s brutal culling was not the first time in the industry all this has been made apparent, nor, sadly, will it be the last. But the proof that even a previously venerated company like Blizzard Entertainment could make such a decision hammered in the point with unprecedented force. It’s an important lesson to keep in heart, particularly so if you love esports.

I’m not saying machines of capitalism aren’t capable of having more meaning than the function they were initially funded to execute. If you think a mom buying a Pok√©mon Happy Meal at McDonald’s for her Pikachu-loving kid is literally nothing more than a sad example of falling prey to multinationals, you might need to cut down a bit on the critical theory. Most things can be whatever we make of them. That being said, esports’ many similarities with traditional sports often blind us from the realization that the two at their roots are different. Both are commercial and political, but only one is intellectual property.

HGC was a key part of the everyday rhythm of life for many thousands of people. The perfect way to spend a lonesome weekend; the background of the regular LAN parties with your gaming buddies; the favorite sports to watch with your significant other; that video game show your kid got so excited about. And for some, it meant something slightly more than that, as is often the case for addictive online hobbies, serving as a time and space that allowed them to be healthily engaged and happily distracted from woes in real life. All those past lives were disrupted. I hope everyone has recovered since.

Beyond

Maybe one day there will come a time when esports becomes no longer volatile; a world where enough games have accrued the (currently unfathomable) critical mass to become timeless, undying. A world where our own Roger Angell might be revisiting a story he wrote three decades ago for a game’s fiftieth anniversary. But until then, games and leagues and broadcast stations will keep dying, all the time. Can you be certain League of Legends will be around in twenty years? And if you can’t say that about League of Legends, what does that spell for hopes of longevity in esports, in a world where AfreecaTV cancelled the English broadcast for ASL, leaving the legendary Tastosis to crowdfund VOD casts through Patreon?

Having watched esports for twenty years now, I can say with some confidence that I’ll stay watching for another twenty more, at the very least. Things will keep changing. HGC won’t be the last tournament I’ll miss. But I’ll always miss HGC, always think about what it might have been, and always call it home.

So I’ll sign off on what Emerald Gao wrote about another bygone tournament, OGN Overwatch APEX —

“But a home isn’t necessarily meant to last. It’s just a starting point, something complicated but real that lets you say: this is where I came from.”

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