Kerry LaRose & Kaeo Milker talk Blizzard's partnerships with ESL & DreamHack; Warcraft 3: Reforged

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DreamHack Anaheim 2020 marked the start of Blizzard Entertainment's new partnership with ESL. The ESL Pro Tour, which takes place at the DreamHack series throughout the year in addition to a multitude of other conventions and competitive events, will now feature Starcraft 2 and Warcraft 3: Reforged. 


Kerry LaRose, Esports Lead at Blizzard Entertainment, was instrumental in executing upon Blizzard's new involvement in the ESL Pro Tour from start to finish. Kaeo Milker is the Production Director of Warcraft 3: Reforged, and previously was the Production Director of Blizzard titles such asHeroes of the Storm, Starcraft 2, and the original Warcraft 3: Reign of Chaos. LaRose and Milker joined Inven Global's Nick Geracie for an interview at DreamHack Anaheim 2020.


To start, could both of you introduce yourself and what you do at Blizzard Entertainment?


KL: I'm Kerry LaRose, I work within the esports team at Blizzard. I've been there for about three years now, and I've worked mostly on the real time strategy titles of Warcraft 3, Starcraft, and Starcraft 2.


KM: Hey, I'm Kaeo Milker. I'm a Production Director at Blizzard. I oversee games like Heroes of the Storm, Starcraft 2, and Warcraft 3. I'm excited to be here at DreamHack Anaheim 2020.



Kerry, Blizzard has a lot of different games that esports competitions have been built around. What does the day-to-day look like for someone in your position, and also, what does your job entail for DreamHack this weekend?


KL: Honestly, it's a bit different at this DreamHack event when compared to the general day-to-day. We have a lot of different esports that we support and a lot of different types of programs. I can speak mainly to the programs that I've specifically worked on, which are centered around the rts titles as I said before.


The best way to describe the day-to-day in esports is answering a lot of emails, chasing down a lot of things for events, and working with the game team to try and get ready for the next big thing. For this event, however, there is a specific program. This is the launch of the new ESL Pro Tour, and it's a partnership we have specifically with ESL for Warcraft 3 and Starcraft 2. We're working with ESL as a partner on a long-term deal around this league, which is not something we have done before.


This is our first big event with this new system in place, so that's what's kicking off here, and that's really different for us. We're counting on ESL and DreamHack to drive these types of events and we're here to support them in helping make sure that everything goes well. We can provide oversight and insight where it's needed, but honestly, they know what they're doing. They've been working on these types of programs for years, so we're just kind of helping out where we can.



Can you talk a bit more about the specific program for this event, how it came to be, and how it factors into the bigger picture of DreamHack Anaheim 2020?


KL: Yeah, I think there's a few components to that question. The first is how this fits into what ESL and DreamHack are doing overall. They have their conventions, but for the ESL Pro Tour, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is kind of their premiere flagship program. The ESL Pro Tour is a year long circuit that takes place across a ton of different events in venues in a ton of different regions, and now, Starcraft 2 and Warcraft 3 are a part of that.


In terms of how everything came together, the idea of sustainability in the form of a long-term plan is something that our community has wanted for rts esports for a very long time. They want to see what the future looks like and what is going to happen year after year. ESL has been partnered with us for years, and they've been working with us on our RTS programs for years, especially in the case of Starcraft 2. They know the community, and they know the games extremely well.


The people involved have been doing this show after show all over the world, and we really felt like they had the best capabilities to bring this long-term plan to fruition. They've taken on what is honestly a really huge task — bring rts esports forward for the next several years by presenting this long-term league plan that everyone can count on. We felt they were the best people to work on this, and the best opportunity for us to do so was right now.


The rts genre has been in esports for quite some time. When newer game genres, such as battle royale, or even Blizzard's Overwatch, enter the competitive space, does that affect the approach of creating the optimal rts esports experience?


KL: Obviously, there's a lot to learn from other esports, Blizzard titles or otherwise. We've really focused on Starcraft 2, Warcraft 3, and the rts genre in general as the ultimate 1v1 esport. That has its own set of challenges, and its own separate audience in a lot of ways compared to other esports, especially team-based games.


There's something about these rts titles that shows these superhuman players battling it out one on one. The commanders are looking down and micromanaging every little piece of their army on this grand stage, and we feel like that has a different set of challenges than what you see in the larger leagues and their competitive space.


We definitely try to take a lot from how larger, team-based esports do their broadcast in terms of production like stages and setups. In terms of the storylines that we're telling, we think they are really unique to rts. That's another reason we think that ESL and DreamHack are good partners for us on this program - they've been helping us build these stories for years. We've worked with them on so many projects and shows, and they know how to set the stage in front of a live audience.



How does this new esports program affect things on the developmental side?


KM: I've been working on rts games at Blizzard for a really long time. Warcraft 3: Reign of Chaos was the very first game I ever worked on here, and it came out in 2002. As I said, also worked on Starcraft 2 and Heroes of the Storm, so rts and multiplayer online battle arena has been my life here at Blizzard for a really long time.


We approach all of these games with a similar mentality in that we want to create a game that can be played at the highest level of competition, but also have a dynamic that makes the game easy to learn, but difficult to master. That way, anyone can start playing these games.


This is why we did things like adding campaigns for Starcraft, Starcraft 2, and Warcraft 3. There's an entry point for anyone to get in and start learning the basics of these games, but there's also this pathway through competitive play that leads all the way up to the esports programs that we're putting on now with ESL and DreamHack.


These events allow the game to be viewed at the highest level of competition, and that is definitely kept in mind within the development process of the game. We think about how we can ensure that anyone can pick up a game that can also be played at the highest level of competition, whether it's making a game from scratch, or revisiting an old title like we did in Warcraft 3: Reforged.


We came back and re-created every asset in the game. We had to think about things like readability in terms of how recognizable something someone had to do would read to players, and we actually got a feedback on it.


That's one of the cool aspects of having a game revamped like this come out. There are aspects of how the game has changed over time that makes it a living, breathing organism, and now, we have this team that is dedicated to supporting Warcraft 3 for the long term like we've done for all of our games forever at Blizzard.


As we get into these competitions with DreamHack, we'll continue to look at how we can keep making the game better for spectating and playing. That's not a process that ends at any point. That work begins right now, which is really exciting for us.



How do you remake a game with the legacy of Warcraft 3 that appeals to the nostalgia of lifelong players while also attracting new players?


KM: Revisiting anything, especially something as iconic as Warcraft 3, is a challenge. Warcraft 3 was groundbreaking not only for rts, but video games in general. Game development is more art than science, and there's a lot of conversations along the way about where the lines are as we approach a game like this.


Even with Warcraft 3: Reforged, there were a lot of things we set out to do originally that we're really excited about, but as we started looking at it and getting feedback, there was this consensus that we really need to stay as true to the original game as we can while we are layering all the new cosmetics, technology, and matchmaking capabilities based on what we have now that we didn't have back in 2002.


For the team, it was about how we stay as true as possible to the original game, and one of the things we did was make Warcraft 3 playable in classic mode. Classic mode has all the new battlenet functionality, so there is an improved performance and connectivity, but the game itself and the graphics are just like the original. We plan on layering on new features and content in the coming months through monthly patches.


We'll keep adding on, but we landed on having the game exist still in its original state. If you play the campaign, it's the exact same campaign you played in 2002 for Reign of Chaos or 2003 for The Frozen Throne. What we've done is also create this whole new thing that brings up the visuals to what they should look like in the modern gaming era.


At DreamHack competitions, we'll be seeing Warcraft 3: Reforged where thousands of models have been rebuilt from scratch. There's all new models that have been added as well they don't exist in the past, so it's a pretty cool opportunity to get that mixture of offering things for players who were in love with the original game as well as players who haven't ever looked at it or haven't seen the game in a really long time.



This last question is for both of you, so I'd like to ask you what's something you'd like to see in the next 12 months for Warcraft 3: Reforged in your respective areas of Blizzard?


KL: It's pretty easy for me. The thing I want to see the most is new stars coming out of the regions that haven't had the chance to compete at the highest level until now. Warcraft 3 esports has been around for almost 18 years now, but for the last many years, these high-level competitions have been played primarily in Asia, especially China. A lot of regions haven't necessarily had the opportunity to compete in their own backyards before.


Having this plan with ESL to have events throughout the year all over the world gives those players a chance to really shine. They will be exposed to a global audience, and that's a chance for their names to become well-known to those fans. On top of that, there's a chance for more fans to get into the game. There's so many people coming back to the game, and there's so many people picking it up for the first time.


Also, the game being updated to a cosmetic state that will make a good impression to those seeing the game on stream for the first time since the visuals will be up to the expectations of what a modern title looks like.


I think there's going to be a lot more eyes and a lot more chances for new starts to rise, and as someone who has been in esports for a long time, I love seeing when those new players rise up and watching new names become household names. It's just a really cool thing to experience, and here, I think it's something we're going to get to see.



KM: From the game development side, the launch of Warcraft 3: Reforged was really just the beginning for us. Now, we're at the point where it's in people's hands and we're getting tons of feedback, which is really cool.


There are a lot of things we have reacted to already, but there's also a lot of things we had planned and a lot of things we want to do now that we've heard all this feedback. Additionally, as we get into these tournaments being played, there will be a set of features like profiles, clans, and ranked leaderboards. We'll also be layering on bug fixes, quality of life fixes, as well as major features and content.


The game is just really getting going now, and like Kerry said, it brought an influx of both new and returning players to Warcraft 3. It's really exciting to see everyone with their eyes on it again, both as an esport and a game, and it really sets the stage for our team to do what we do best: get behind our game and support it for the long-term.

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