During the middle of the action at Western Clash in Katowice, Poland, Sam Braithwaite, the Esports Franchise Lead for Heroes of the Storm and Starcraft sat down with me to talk about the future of the Heroes Global Championship, the challenges facing the esports scene with battle royale games exploding and how they intend on educating casual players on the inner-workings of the competitive circuit.
Can you talk a little about your role and what you do on a day-to-day basis?
I’m the Esports Franchise Lead for Heroes of the Storm and Starcraft. When I first joined Blizzard two years ago, I came in as a Product Manager. My responsibilities were the overall design and infrastructure of HGC as a whole so everything from designing the format, HGC Cheer, all the initiatives and offline events. It was an executioner role.
With my new role and how I’m stepping in is more of a strategy and business level. [I’m] making sure that we’re making the right business decisions that are aligned with Blizzard’s overall goals, that we’re thinking globally, that all regions are included in everything we’re doing, providing management and leadership to the overall team across both Starcraft and Heroes.
Are you personally satisfied with the overall HGC product in 2018 compared to where you were in 2017?
Yeah, I think it’s still a little bit too early to see. A lot of the changes that we’ve made will really shine once we get to the Mid-Season Brawl and moving forward.
Immediately, one of the big changes we’ve made to the Western Clash was four NA teams and four EU teams to really drive that rivalry between North America and Europe. We were disappointed last year with how it shaped up because it was very dominant for Europe overall and I think that over the past year we’ve seen really good growth from North America.
"The reality of the situation is Fortnite, PUBG, the whole battle royale phenomenon is dominating a lot of people’s bandwidth in terms of entertainment"
This is one of the best tournaments we’ve had in a really long time. Mid-Season Brawl last year was fantastic, but this tournament in terms of NA stepping up, we’re very happy.
HGC Cheer 2.0 will be coming out in May and we’ve made a lot of adjustments and changes to that, which is exciting as you guys will be able to see a little bit later but, overall, very happy. We laid the foundation in 2017 for what HGC is and from here on out it’s about making small changes and improvements to just improve the overall experience for players and fans.
What has been the biggest change you’ve seen first hand in the rise of North America to close the gap to Europe in terms of overall competitiveness?
When I first joined the team and started working with these guys, you could tell that teams were formed based off of friendships. Now, when you look at the rosters, they’re built based off of domination, being the best. Roster changes are meant to build the best team possible and you look at people who may have been together for a while being separated, they’re starting to look at the meta differently and some teams have coaches.
HeroesHearth has Cauthon which is great, Tempo has Kala and both teams performed really well. The infrastructure of the teams is grown [as has] the maturity of them. I think getting sponsors and having the actual cash flow coming in on a steady basis allows them to treat this as a job and they’re able to escalate their play because they’re able to dedicate more time to it.
Off the top of your head, are you able to provide the overall growth in viewership that HGC has experienced from 2017 to 2018 thus far?
I don’t have those in front of me. In general, to be transparent, the start of this year has been a little slower compared to the start of last year*. We’re noticing this as a trend across a lot of esports right now. The reality of the situation is Fortnite, PUBG, the whole battle royale phenomenon is dominating a lot of people’s bandwidth in terms of entertainment and what they’re watching on Twitch and what they’re playing.
For us, while the game is still doing very well, we’re trying to figure out on our end, how do we get those turned users back and engaging again. It’s something that we are targeting and that we’re focusing on but we’re optimistic. It’s one of those things that it natural and happens all the time. Diablo 3 was a MOBA-killer for a few months when it came out when I was working at Heroes of Newerth we were like ‘Holy s---, this game really killed a lot of our viewership.’ It’s natural, games will come and go but that core audience is still there and engaging on a regular basis and we’re really happy with that.
*Braithwaite noted that peak viewership is higher than in 2017 but concurrent viewers are down thus far
What is the Heroes’ team doing reactively to get the eyeballs back onto the game and away from the battle royale’s that are so popular at the moment?
One of the things we’re trying to do and we’re always thinking about is how to convert players into viewers. Only so many people that play the game actually engage and watch esports across any game no matter what, and tapping into that audience is really difficult.
One of the directions that we’re heading down and that we’re really focusing on is content, guides and leveling up the player base. We’ve been putting out a lot of content on our website about becoming a better player and making sure that we’re giving players the tools to escalate their game. One of the things you’ll see coming out in the next couple of months is a crossover of the Heroes of the Storm website and the HGC website.
Imagine you go to the Heroes of the Storm website and you look at Malfurion because you’re a new player and want to learn about his abilities and talent builds. With the changes that we’re going to be making, when you go to the Malfurion page, the first thing you’re going to be seeing is who the top three HGC pros who play Malfurion. What are the builds? What battlegrounds is he most popular on in HGC? What are the win rates? What are the percentage of talent breakdowns? Are the players who are the best have guides out and are they on the site right there to look at?
"We do a pretty good job on the Heroes team I think, of being agile and able to respond to those types of things."
Imagine being able to go to the Malfurion page and it being able to tell you the best HGC games that he was picked in and played on a specific battlefield. If you want to watch the best Support player in the world playing Malfurion on Infernal Shrines, it’s right there hooked into our HGC website.
What we’re trying to hopefully do is entice players and get people who are normally playing the game casually interested in esports by having them fall in love and follow the players themselves in the type of content the players are putting out in terms of guides and strategies.
Maybe next time Jun is playing Malfurion they will tune in because ‘Oh, that’s the guy I’m following his talent builds on and on these different battlegrounds.’ Maybe that will kick start their habits into watching HGC. That’s the path that we are heading down is how do we tap into that audience that isn’t interested but is actively playing the game.
Has the Heroes team taken any pages out of the success that the Overwatch League has experienced and visa-versa to help eachother grow?
Absolutely. It’s a two-way street too. Overwatch League just launched their own version of HGC Cheer so we share a lot of wins and learnings from each other in addition to what we can do to improve the overall ecosystem. I think another one of the things we’re seeing from that is if we look at MVP Black, they got picked up by KSV which is the Seoul Dynasty team. There’s a lot of outward attention being brought into esports and Blizzard esports because of OWL and we just need to make sure that we as Blizzard are setup to capitalize on that as that comes in.
They’re doing a great job in terms of advertising and marketing the league and that’s something we’re looking at as the feature-set gets built out for Overwatch it’s going to end up benefiting all the other esports that are inside of Blizzard.
Without revealing too much, what can fans expect over the next 12-18 months with HGC that will give them excitement going forward and the belief that you have their best interest in mind?
I think a revamped HGC Cheer 2.0 is something that they have been asking for for a while. Even just this Western Clash and how we’ve divvied up the teams was based off the community. Tournament structure, having the series be x-length, best-of-sevens and the fact that whoever wins the clash earns an extra spot for their region for the Mid-Season Brawl -- all of these things were recommended to us by the community. We do a pretty good job on the Heroes team I think, of being agile and able to respond to those types of things.
With HGC, we’re really proud of what we’re doing. We think it’s a really strong system, we’re putting a lot of really good content out there; the tournaments, especially the offline events have been absolutely epic so far this year. Last year’s Mid-Season Brawl and Blizzcon were all amazing tournaments.
The gap is closing around the world between Korea, Europe and North America. We’re starting to see the most high-quality Heroes you can actually ask for so I think that’s what people can expect is that as HGC continues to go, as there’s stability within the season and the league new players are coming in.
Even the story right here with Sonic, that’s my dream. The fact that [Fnatic] went and grabbed the number one guy on the GM leaderboard is just a message to all those people out there that want to be pros.
“Grind Hero League, it works. Play the game at a competitive level, you’ll get recognized.”
We made it happen it two days. They were like “Quack was sick and we need somebody. This guy’s in Open Division, he’s an absolute beast and we run into him in Hero League all the time, lets get this guy out here.” It went well. He showed up and I very much see Sonic being on an HGC team in the next year.
As the leader in English-based worldwide esports media coverage, Inven Global will open the first IGEC-ESPORTS DEEP DIVE for enthusiastic esports fans and related parties at the University of California - Irvine based in California, USA, on May 1st.
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