I was lucky enough yesterday evening to attend the Launch Party of the much anticipated latest release from Blizzard Entertainment, Heroes of the Storm. Anyone playing League of Legends will know how this whole MOBA thing works, yet Heroes turns the idea in upon its own Franchises and uses a selection of characters from classic titles such as World of Warcraft, Starcraft and Diablo to provide your recruits for 5 v 5 action on a selection of maps that will also be familiar faire to anyone who’s ever picked up Blizzard game. The launch was clearly a very big deal for Blizzard themselves, with the whole of one of East London’s most iconic buildings, Old Billingsgate being used as the most dramatic of backdrops for the events of the evening. And when I say backdrop I really mean that in the most literal sense: the centrepiece of the evening was a transmedia presentation that was projected on the whole of one wall of the venue itself, using the architecture as prop in the action, plus thousands of player-submitted portraits in a spectacular sequence that really has to be seen to be believed.
This was an extremely slick and well produced evening’s entertainment, but it was immediately apparent that the audience Blizzard were aiming their efforts at wasn’t simply in the building, but were avidly watching via the Internet: we were part of a very clearly-choreographed and high production value launch with a final closing musical set from one of the brightest rising names in Pop Culture, 21 year old wunderkid music producer Madeon. Monday night’s almost theatrical approach clearly indicates a company that is keen to demonstrate their commitment both to hardcore players and casual players, and there were plenty of opportunities for the uninitiated not simply to learn about the game as the evening went on, but also an opportunity to play some 5 v 5 head to head games on systems especially installed for the event. The event also involved interviews with a number of people involved in the making of the game, including an appearance from Game Designer Dustin Browder. Queues for the event had formed outside the location well before the scheduled start time, and those lucky enough to secure a ticket were awarded a free code for the Hero Uther and a special Lumberjack Skin as well as what now seem to have become an iconic marketing item from Blizzard: the Heroes of the Storm shades.
Blizzard also invited a number of notable Internet streamers to the event, including Mark Turpin (Turpster) from Yogscast and Walter Hopkins (@mfpallytime) who were on hand to offer their thoughts and insights into the evening’s shenanigans. The game has now gone live with over 30 Heroes to choose from and seven battlegrounds to place them on. Blizzard have promised to continue updating the game world with both characters and locations, and each of the Heroes will have a fresh selection of purchasable ‘skins’ in order to allow players to further customise the look of their favourite fighters. Players can also buy mounts: another giveaway from the evening was one for anyone watching the broadcast. Players were encouraged via social media to assemble their own five man teams and by doing so in Facebook they could unlock access to the Mechanospider. However, most players at the event seemed more pleased at the reveal of the new Crusader character, Johanna:
What was abundantly obvious at the whole of the event last night was the genuine enthusiasm and anticipation the audience had for the release of this title: yet another addition to the ‘family’ of games that Blizzard has worked hard to bring together to stand under the umbrella of Warcraft’s popularity. It is also very reverential to the titles from which it borrows, but is more than aware of the possibilities that it could now exploit alone with a new approach to this clearly very popular genre. Plus, like Hearthstone before it, there is the ability to lift source material from other members of the family, giving the designers an opportunity to further maintain the familiarity of environment whilst at the same time plough their own furrows in the fields of MOBA development. This is becoming something of a theme for Blizzard, and although the business of being continually self-reverential may be too much like recycling for some, it is clearly a formula that continues to work. With Overwatch the next title in the stable now waiting for a chance to move to testing, one can only assume that the process of picking and choosing the best bits from each game to feature in the other will continue for quite some time to come.
In the end however, it is the long-term possibilities for this title that will matter most to the company, and it has already released details of Heroes of the Storm World Championship that will begin this month and culminate at Blizzcon in November 2015. After this game was able to debut on ESPN in the US even before it was formally released in the wildly popular Heroes of the Dorm competition, the eSports possibilities the new title presents must be front and centre in Blizzard’s minds. Last night’s show was very much a shiny and sparkly demonstration that the company is prepared to put a lot of money where their mouths are in terms of creating spectacle. If the future of gaming in the next ten years centres around this kind of ‘streamed’ event it is very obvious that Blizzard understand what is expected of them. It isn’t just the pixels any more, just as it isn’t simply the sporting events that eSports so wishes to emulate. People come for a show both inside and out, a chance to drink and mingle with friends before the real action goes down, and when it does there needs to me more than simply a static screen for them to watch.
This is a company clearly marking their intent. Heroes is serious business, and you’ll be watching it for many years to come.Related: Blizzard Entertainment, Heroes of the Storm, MOBA