Shortly after the dust settled at the Anaheim Convention Center on November 3, 2018, where the annual BlizzCon event was held, it was time to look towards the future. Professional Heroes of the Storm players and fans had just witnessed Gen.G esports defeat Team Dignitas in the Heroes Global Championship (HGC) grand finals. This victory cemented themselves as arguably the greatest team that has ever competed in the game's four-plus-year history and Gen.G took home a sizeable $500,000 cash prize for their efforts.
Now the preparation for the 2019 HGC (the Blizzard-run competitive scene for their game) could begin. Over the next couple of weeks, it was business as usual. Global organizations sponsoring teams began reaching out to Blizzard for how the professional circuit would operate the following year, players worked with one another to assemble new rosters, and fans spoke among themselves as to what the HGC could do to one-up itself in the new year.
"People that worked on that game were underwater all the time and were super stressed. Whereas other franchises, they have a big patch once every three months so they got to like sit around in the office and play video games and it's like nope, everyone who was working on Heroes was constantly working, constantly working overtime to make it all happen."
Those who did receive responses from Blizzard were met with half-hearted replies. Non-committal, and brief responses led many to believe something was up. That's because something was up. Although neither employees nor those sending the messages knew what was coming weeks later on December 13.
Former employees of Blizzard who did not feel comfortable disclosing their identity said that, internally, there was a disconnect between departments as they felt the esports department knew what was going on but was tight-lipped with the news.
As their inboxes began flooding with messages of concern from players and organizations, members of the public relations department weren't able to communicate effectively because they themselves weren't told anything.
"I had a coworker in [the esports] department that I kept bugging for details saying 'Hey, this is really bad. The players are getting really angry and upset. There's no news...
I was really trying to light a fire under their ass to be like 'Hey, you guys need to communicate with us because you're not telling us anything and we need to say something. We're waiting too long to say anything to our contract employees," said one source.
Another source told Inven Global that it felt like business as usual and they were preparing for next year's HGC.
"I was confident that we would have at least one more year of HGC. I knew that [executives] were really getting tight with the budget and we may not have one year beyond 2019. Maybe 2020 is when the budget towards it would be either extremely reduced or completely eliminated and reliant on the community but everybody was very confident we had 2019, especially going into BlizzCon," said one source.
The announcement that caught everyone by surprise
On that Thursday evening, as tensions reached a peak within the Heroes' community, Blizzard president, J. Allen Brack, and executive, Ray Gresko, issued a statement on the company's official blog. Cuts to the game's development team were coming as well as a death sentence to the competitive scene.
In one swift post, hundreds of players, talent, and contractors became unemployed. There were no follow-up statements issued by the company after that. The competitive scene, which many felt had more life left in it, was over.
"If Heroes esports wasn't making as much as they wanted it to what's the point in keeping it around, right? In hindsight, the same thing could be said for my job. Oh, here's all these 800 employees, can we technically contract their roles out for half the price and save some money here and there? Yeah, they could, so that's what happened."
Shortly before the blog post went live, an email was sent out to talent, contractors, players, and organizations announcing the cancelation of the HGC. Many found out about their assumed unemployment on social media once the blog post made its round.
According to sources within Blizzard, employees learned about the cuts to the game and esports' scene at the same time as the rest of the world, via email. Only a select few knew anything prior and some weren't even in the office when they found out. The decision didn't sit well internally as it was felt that whoever was involved with the decision wasn't closely connected to Heroes and understood what it meant to the company or Blizzard community.
Prior to the announcement being made, the Heroes of the Storm development team was one of, if not the, largest on campus. They were and (still are) a family that is closely bonded over their commitment to making Heroes of the Storm the best possible game it could be. When the email was sent out saying that members of the team were going to be moved to other projects, it caught them off-guard.
A flurry of emails were sent to Blizzard management asking why and expressing their frustration with how the reallocation of sources was handled, according to sources. They knew their hands were tied as they could only do so much.
Others, while upset over the news, were slightly relieved. Not because they disliked their current job or wanted to move to another game within the company, they were just exhausted.
Heroes of the Storm is a unique project within Blizzard headquarters. It was one of the few live projects that needed to be patched and balanced often while future content was being planned and worked on behind the scenes.
With a community wanting more and more content to prevent the game from becoming stale, it created a work environment that pushed employees to their limits.
"Honestly, the game the way it was operating was extremely unsustainable to begin with in terms of the content cadence release. It was impossible to keep up with. Whether you're a fan, a player of the game or an employee of the game, it was going to be completely unsustainable, it already was. People that worked on that game were underwater all the time and were super stressed. Whereas other franchises, they have a big patch once every three months so they got to like sit around in the office and play video games and it's like nope, everyone who was working on Heroes was constantly working, constantly working overtime to make it all happen," said one source.
Diablo 4 factor
It could be argued that the biggest piece of news at BlizzCon 2018 played a key role in determining the future of Heroes of the Storm. At the event, Blizzard announced an upcoming mobile game titled Diablo: Immortal which was met with, a less than enthusiastic response by the franchise's community.
Feeling the pressure to make things right the following year, management made the decision to ramp up the production of Diablo 4 to have it ready to be revealed at 2019's event. As for where they were going to get the resources to do that, the Heroes of the Storm team made a lot of sense.
With some of the most talented live developers on campus working on a title that Blizzard did not feel had the long-term potential of another Diablo game, the decision was made to change things up, according to sources.
"At that time there were a ton of incubation projects that needed a lot of help. Diablo 4 especially needed a lot, a lot, a lot of help to get it to where everybody saw it this past BlizzCon. They needed to announce Diablo 4 this BlizzCon, right? That was the plan and they needed to make sure it happened. To be honest, most of the talent from the heroes dev team that was split went to the Diablo 4 team. Some of them went to [World of Warcraft] as that game is a living and breathing game that needed a ton of support as well. People who are used to working on a live game such as Heroes made a lot of sense," said one source.
As for how management decided who would be moved to which game, they played to each of the employee's strengths, regardless if they were familiar with the franchise prior.
"I believe [developers] had some say but it was more like 'You do this type of work and this incubation project needs your skills so there you go.' I know people who were put on games they never even played before because that's what was needed at the time," said one source.
Business as usual
Although a year has passed since the announcement was made, the remaining development team has continued to churn out new Heroes of the Storm content, just at a more reasonable and sustainable pace. Recently, it was revealed that Deathwing, arguably the most requested hero in the game's four-plus year history, is coming in the very near future.
With time on our side, it's worth wondering if Blizzard executives would do anything differently given the heavy backlash that followed after an entire esports scene was slashed overnight.
"If Heroes esports wasn't making as much as they wanted it to what's the point in keeping it around, right? In hindsight, the same thing could be said for my job. Oh, here's all these 800 employees, can we technically contract their roles out for half the price and save some money here and there? Yeah, they could, so that's what happened," said one source.
(Blizzard has yet to issue a statement when reached out to by Inven Global.)