Where “dead” esports live
A post-mortem examination of multiple fallen titles
What happens to esports when they die? Do all dead esports go to heaven? Where do the players go, and is there a future for them?
Esports live and die by their communities and developers. Most games that grow into the larger zeitgeist of the esports world do so through the power of the community, pushing the boundaries of the game’s competitive viability. However, developers do need to foster their competitive communities if an esport wants to survive the ecosystem.
So, then, what happens to titles that don’t maintain either, or both, developer and community support? Those games end up in the esports graveyard, guided by their dwindling community members leaving for other games and losing interest in the title. They are then lowered into the grave as their developers cut funding and support for tournaments and leagues, or for the game altogether.
“Once you get a taste of big money and big prizes, then all of a sudden you take it all away,” multi-esports veteran Chris “Bitey” Mohn said. “Well, it just pops for a bit.”
We’ve seen what has happened with Heroes of the Storm, Guild Wars 2, Battlefield Heroes and Paladins. These esports have “died” and are no longer a draw for competitors or, in some cases, even casual gamers. But dead esports communities are full of cautionary tales and community triumphs. Here are just a few of them.
Heroes of the Storm
Heroes of the Storm is a team-based game that brings together beloved characters from across Blizzard Entertainment’s multiple franchises. Alongside its debut, the game’s annual Heroes of the Dorm tournament began in 2015. Then, in 2016, Blizzard kicked off the first Heroes of the Storm Global Championship series. The next two years were full of these Heroes of the Storm Global Championship events.
However, everything ended in 2018. The company just didn’t have the resources to keep giving the title the same level of support it needed to thrive. “We now have more live games and unannounced projects than at any point in the company’s history,” the announcement stated. As a result, some developers were shifted from Heroes of the Storm to other projects.
“This isn’t the first time we’ve had to make tough choices like this,” Blizzard stated. The announcement added how games like Overwatch, World of Warcraft, Diablo II and StarCraft II wouldn’t exist if similar decisions weren’t made in the past.
“A little bit of a roller coaster; with an abrupt ending when Blizzard decided not to continue the HGC format,” Dennis “HasuObs” Schneider said.
HasuObs is a streamer for Team Liquid and currently plays for team 30k in the Heroes of the Storm Community Clash League. The tournament began in 2019 and is organized by HeroesHearth and Wisdom Media.
“I wish it didn’t happen that way with the HGC so the pro-players from that time would still be around,” HasuObs added. “But, of course things, change and, over time, the Heroes scene has stabilized — and we do have options in terms of tournaments. The game itself was always fun for me and still is.”
While HasuObs said playing in the CCL is tricky because games take place on the North American server and he is European, but that the size, structure and production of the league has always helped him stay hyped.
“Honestly, I’m just very happy about the fact that we have a big ongoing tournament in Heroes that also connects the different regions, as we have players from North America, Europe and Korea,” HasuObs said.
The CCL doesn’t just host players from around the world, but it also features people like Phillipe “Nazmas” Laberge, who has been there since the beginning. While he now plays in the Heroes of the Storm Community Clash League for Oxygen Esports he was first introduced to the game when it was in alpha. Nazmas then competed in the 2017 and 2018 Heroes of the Storm Global Championships with Team Freedom, going up against contenders like Team Liquid and Tempo Storm. He shared one of his favorite memories involving a live showcase and a crowd of supporters, a stark contrast to playing the esport now.
“It has to be when a young fan came up to [Vincent “Lutano” Alonso] and I and said how much he liked our team and the weird heroes I played, like D.Va and Samuro,” Nazmas said. “We ended up giving him a signed Team Freedom shirt and his smile was worth it.”
While those moments may be gone for now, they may not be lost forever. According to HasuObs, who is playing his second season of the Heroes of the Storm Community Clash League with team 30k, his teammates share a similar mindset when it comes to helping the competitive scene thrive
“It’s kind of a new era within HOTS esports,” he said. “Teams and players are trying a bit harder again, and the structure of the league gives a good opportunity to those who want to compete on a higher level again.”
To Nazmas, getting to play in the Community Clash League is also a chance for him to continue competing at the highest level in a game he loves. For somebody who is competitive, there is nothing that can replace the feeling of a hard-fought victory, and he said he is glad he had that opportunity. While the chance seemed to disappear once Blizzard stopped supporting the scene, he has another shot thanks to the community.
“I’d say the journey started with a lot of practice, failure and sweat,” Nazmas said. “But, eventually, it paid off as we became a better team. Then, I guess, at one point, the league came to an end. But then the community revived it with its love for the game. And here we are now—rebuilding that knowledge and competing again.”
Guild Wars 2
When Guild Wars 2 launched in 2012, player-versus-player combat was at the forefront of the new MMORPG, with an equal playing level for every account. Even new, level 1 accounts could jump into PvP and have the exact same stats as seasoned veterans. However, the player-versus-environment was virtually non-existent. There were some dungeons spread across the map and the game did flip a couple of aspects of the genre on their heads, but developer ArenaNet was adamant about making the PvP scene grow. The esport was semi-successful but ultimately short-lived.
In fact, a portion of the fanbase quickly grew annoyed at ArenaNet’s attempts to turn Guild Wars 2 into a large esport. Fans expected new content but instead were presented with professional 5v5 tournaments, such as the GW2 World Tournament Series and ESL’s Pro League. These tournaments featured prize pools of up to $400,000 and players from around the globe competing in LAN tournaments in Beijing, Boston and Cologne.
The casual and PvE-focused fans were not amused. A gif of the Guild Wars 2 april fools video, where multiple items were thrown off a table, was quickly turned into a parody mocking ArenaNet for throwing the rest of the game to the wayside in favor of their esports program.
But in truth, ArenaNet wanted the whole game to thrive, according to Colin Johanson, Lead Director on Guild Wars 2 in 2015. It was just the vehicle they used to push the whole game into a better place.
“Rooting against programs like pro league is basically rooting against Gw2 growing,” Johanson said. “When folks come here [on reddit] and rip on stuff like PvP, you’re basically hurting the game’s ability to grow.”
But while Guild Wars 2 tournaments grew to sizable prize pools of $400,000, the game was never considered a tier one esport. Opponents of the pro league program claimed the esport was too difficult to follow or that there were too many intricacies among the classes for it to be enjoyable to watch. Others simply wanted a PvE-focused game. The absence of the Guild versus Guild game mode that was popular in the first game also caused frustration with the Bellevue-based studio.
As ArenaNet released expansions for Guild Wars 2, the focus on PvP decreased while support for the PvE scene grew. The first expansion, Heart of Thorns, introduced the long-awaited PvE raids, while the smaller group format, Fractals, also received more and more updates. Story-driven chapters came out more regularly and devs introduced new maps as part of an ever-changing “Living World.”
The roles were shifting and, this time, PvP was pushed to the background. Then, in 2017, ESL announced its Guild Wars 2 division was shutting down.
These days, Guild Wars 2 esports is a dead, shadow of its past self. MMORPG PvP has always struggled in the esports scene, as even Blizzard barely got World of Warcraft’s arena battles off the ground. According to escharts.com, WoW PvP tournaments barely even hit 30,000 viewers.
It was a valiant effort, though, and ArenaNet’s passion for esports should not be forgotten. They had good intentions with the aim to grow the game into something larger and foster a supportive esports environment helps achieve those goals. Unfortunately, it was never meant to be.
In the category of dead esports that never quite made it, look no further than Battlefield Heroes. This unlikely candidate was a free-to-play game by Electronic Arts released in 2009 as a casual, accessible, third person cartoon shooter. A competitive scene soon emerged, but before it ever had a chance to grow, EA killed it off with a single update that introduced pay-to-win aspects.
One could argue that Battlefield Heroes was ahead of its time. Free-to-play multiplayer shooters that ran almost solely on microtransactions were not that common during the year-long beta in 2008, and after the game’s 2009 release. Battle Royales were nonexistent and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive didn’t go free to play until almost a decade later.
With that being the case, Battlefield Heroes set the stage for easy, accessible and free multiplayer gameplay. One could spend money on cosmetics, experience boosts or even stronger weapons, but all of that was optional. Upgrades could be bought with in-game currency that was quickly earned by simply playing the game. However, right in the middle of the first $200 prize pool tournament, held by Epsilon Esports in December of 2009, EA released a dreaded update.
See, originally, stronger weapons purchased with the in-game currency (Valor Points) were “rented.” Players got to keep the weapon for a month until they had to buy them again. This was fine, as players simply earned enough Valor Points by playing to loop the process indefinitely. But this update increased the price of the weapons, lowered the amount of time players had with them to around one to three days and also lowered the price to buy these weapons with real money. Effectively, players had to play every day for about five hours in order to keep one stronger weapon, or start spending real money. That is not even including extra items like bandages, vehicle repairs and more.
This, ironically, turned Battlefield Heroes into exactly what the announcement trailer said the game would not be.
Before the tournament was even over, almost every single competitive clan announced their departure from the game. Chris “Capsloc” Tamayo, leader of one of the game’s best clans, Elusive Gamers, remembered it as the end of his clan.
“Gameplay was completely affected by the restructure because players could no longer afford basic things like bandages along with better weapons, which really made the game not be as fun as it once was,” Capsloc said. “This also disrupted competitive play since, now, even if you were a skilled player, you’d have to spend money to stay competitive, which not everyone could afford to do. Our clan really saw a decline in active players after this update came along and eventually it led to the disbanding of the clan.”
While Battlefield Heroes and its competitive scene struggled on for a few months longer, the budding “professional” potential had been taken down in one fell swoop. EA shut Battlefield Heroes down entirely in April, 2015 when it was clear the game was on its last legs. It can still be played on third party servers, but there is no more official EA support for the cartoon shooter.
Battlefield Heroes was never made to become a serious esports contender, and the trailer alone proved that. It was a funny, cartoony, casual shooter. Yet, a competitive scene was still taking root. So while a thriving esports scene was unlikely in the first place, EA destroyed any chance one may have had to grow.
Hi-Rez’s other esport: Paladins
Hi-Rez is known for latching onto trends and turning genre conventions on their head. Paladins was the developer’s take on the Hero Shooter genre and it took off, despite competition from Epic Games and the current king of Hero Shooter esports, Overwatch. The game did, and still has, esports viability, but a 2021 announcement from Hi-Rez and Paladins’ official esports page has shelved competition for now. However, the game has history in the esports space and delivered an experience for those invested in competitive matches for its five-year run.
Paladins came out in December of 2016 and garnered a player base of around 60,566 players after its opening month, according to Steam Charts, before stabilizing to its current player base in the mid 10,000s. The game was similar to Overwatch but different enough with its character customization options to keep players invested.
“There’s a hunger for games that have an unquenchable amount of stuff to learn,” former Paladins professional player Bitey said.
Meager community aside, Paladins’ first big esports tournament came a year later at DreamHack Summer 2016 in the Paladins Founders Tournament, organized and founded by Hi-Rez. Next year, at DreamHack Valencia, the Paladins Summer Premier garnered over 33,000 viewers on Twitch and became one of the most watched Paladins events at the time. The community was showing up and the game grabbed onto people’s interest, despite its constant comparison to Blizzard’s title.
“For me, Overwatch was a hero shooter were Paladins is a hero shooter,” said former Paladins caster Alan “IHOLDSHIFT” Donofrio. “It felt like there was a lot more combat that was more important when it came down to Paladins. There’s a lot more customization when it comes to the item shop, and also the card loadouts they had.”
But the customization also led to production and casual headaches, according to IHOLDSHIFT. Casual players had to keep up with the constantly changing in-game currency, card and hero changes. For the casual viewer of the esport, and the casters, keeping track of both teams’ items and equipped cards was a constant battle.
“I felt every time I casted that game, I had to explain just the base mechanics of what the card shop looks like, what the items look like in some form.” IHOLDSHIFT said.
However, the esport continued on into the Paladins Premier League era. This started with a partnership between Hi-Rez, the World Esports Association and Facebook to put on a show for the online leagues. It debuted in September of 2017 with a North American and European league and quickly expanded into Brazil, CIS, South East Asia, Latin America and Oceania in 2018.
Thanks to the stable league format and WESA sponsorship, a large number of endemic esports organizations came into the community. Fnatic, G2 Esports, Spacestation Gaming and Natus Vincere were just a few of the organizations that fielded Paladins teams at the time. The 2018 World Championships also became the most watched Paladins tournament ever, peaking at just under 79,000 viewers and 787,303 hours watched.
Then, in 2019, Hi-Rez went for a bold swing and decided to host a LAN League and switch their broadcast platform to the now-deceased Mixer. The Georgia-based league brought in the top eight teams from across the world in a setup not dissimilar to the Overwatch League or any League of Legends regional league.
But the third switch in the broadcasting platform may have hampered the esport’s growth. The 2019 World Championships saw Team Envy lift the trophy, but to a much lower viewership count (around 45,000). They were not bad numbers by some metrics, but a far cry from those of just a year ago.
“They [Hi Rez] were following exclusivity deals, making money and investing back,” Bitey said. “I mean, honestly, it was an okay deal, but the viewership is going to struggle if you don’t keep it condensed.”
The league ultimately folded thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, moving online and never returning to Georgia. Hi-Rez parted ways with WESA and Mixer and jumped back on to Twitch with the revamped, online Paladins Pro Circuit. But the esports title lost many of the organizations associated with it before thanks to the dissolution of its previous online regional league and international LAN league.
Because of the pandemic, the final Paladins World Championship was a segmented affair, as Europe, North America and Brazil held separate tournaments due to travel restrictions. All three tournaments brought in viewership in the low thousands, as amateur teams like Snap’n took home the North American title.
On January, 18 2021, Hi-Rez announced the cancellation of the Paladins Pro Circuit and the discontinuation of Paladins esports. The game is still moving along, though. The 2021 Hi-Rez developer presentation teased more content and champions for the title, but no word on the esports side of things.
Paladins’ death can be attributed to a myriad of factors. The game never took over in terms of viewership, its constant switching of exclusive platforms further segmented its viewership and the game’s complexities and constant comparisons to Overwatch did not help its esports viability.
When the official announcement came down, most people within the community felt the inevitable had finally happened. Bitey had already moved on to other shooters, abandoning the title soon after the LAN league folded, and IHOLDSHIFT jumped into Call of Duty casting before the online leagues took off.
“Once the announcement came out that they [Hi Rez] were no longer going to support it, it really didn’t come as a surprise to anybody,” IHOLDSHIFT said. “ I remember that Twitter post came out. I mean, everybody that I saw retweeted it that was a part of the paladins community at one point in time, they were all like, ‘surprised it lasted this long.’”
So while most would prefer their games go out with a bang, a whimper is much more likely. And if the players are lucky, they may still have a second shot at bringing their esport back from the dead.