The global esports industry has seen its activity, popularity, and revenue steadily grow in the past years, with a projected revenue stream in 2019 of $1.1 Billion. Despite some developing some of the most popular esports games - Overwatch and Starcraft among them - Blizzard seems to stumble time and time again when creating a meaningful esports division of its own.
Blizzard Had It All With Esports In Korea
Many consider Blizzard’s Star Craft: Brood War to be the foundation of all esports. By 2006, the game was established as a mainstream juggernaut icon in Korea and the global community. It was the first game to bring in big-name sponsors and had fans watching all over the world. At the height of its popularity, the video below gives a picture of the scope of popularity and production value that went into the games.
To no one’s surprise, the long-awaited release of Starcraft II launched with esports as an integral part of Blizzard’s marketing strategy, and yet, it never reached those same peaks as its predecessor.
StarCraft II Flops Hard In Korea
There is perhaps one main reason that Starcraft II failed to reach the same monuments levels of popularity. First, there was conflict from the beginning in regards to the ownership of Intellectual Property Rights with the Korean e-Sports Association (KeSPA), and the corresponding ability to broadcast the game.
Blizzard, rather than come to a compromise to benefit all parties, chose instead to abandon KeSPA and partner with Global StarCraft League (GSL). The decision was catastrophic from the start, as KeSPA prohibited its member teams from participating in any StarCraft II competitions. The best talent in the world was effectively prevented from playing in any tournaments.
It took years for any manner of reconciliation to occur. Even then, it was purely done for business reasons, resulting in all teams playing in the Proleague as the main space for competition. This merging into one space over-saturating the player market: since there were many more teams vying for the top spots and sponsorship, large numbers of popular players retired and many fans lost interest as their favorites left the scene.
Finally, after years of mediocre performance and fierce competition from games like League of Legends, the Proleague was discontinued in 2016. Blizzard had very badly dropped its Golden Goose of a franchise that could have gone on to dominate the esports world.
Hearthstone Developers Cannot Make Up Their Minds
Hearthstone has issues with its esports scene as well; mainly in that it seems unable to settle on the format for qualifying its players for competitions or to select the best format for its annual championships. This is understandable when a game releases - but it's been five years now since launch. Since then, we have seen players qualifying through Blizzard sanctioned tournaments, then needing to qualify in four distinct seasons, and now there's an overhaul of the previous tour system to a three-tiered system.
Each change has caused a lot of frustration with players, sometimes resulting in key players permanently leaving the competitive scene. Qualifying is a long and arduous process, often involving the final days of a month spent playing for most of the day simply to retain a top spot - rewarding a grind more than actual skill. In addition, there is no official tournament client of the game. A disconnect between two opponents results in a match being replayed regardless of how far ahead one player was,, which has led to some controversial outcomes. There's also the fact that in the past few years, Blizzard has leaned hard into design philosophy centered more around RNG and less around skill, driving some pro players away from the game entirely - as seen when Lifecoach left the competitive scene.
The inconsistency of the esports scene has resulted in some players leaving over the long-term. Disguised Toast, a popular Hearthstone streamer, recently returned a card reveal to Blizzard, stating that it felt disingenuous revealing an upcoming new card when he has issues with the state of the game as it stands.
Heroes of the Storm Was Abandoned Like A Dog On The Side Of The Road
Heroes of the Storm is not only a recent example of Blizzard failing to make a go of their MOBA - they also did so in what's considered the most disrespectful of ways to its community, its competitive player base, and everyone else involved.
Blizzard’s decision to cancel its 2019 competitive scene came from nowhere in late December of 2018. The news hit members most invested into the community right before the holidays. It left players who had been training for the next championship out of luck, and those associated with the esports production seemingly unemployed from one day to the next.
Blizzard meanwhile played off its mistreatment of all parties involved by issuing a statement:
"The Heroes of the Storm team and I also have a unique opportunity to rethink things and reprioritize. Because now more than ever, our charge is to focus on taking care of you, our players, and to channel all our energy into keeping the game dynamic and fun. This means we’re still committed to regular hero reworks, themed events, and even new heroes."
Eight months later, we can say with absolute certainty that the statement was grown in the deepest levels of Blizzard’s PR dungeon, sprinkled with the highest quality of Corporate brand bullshit, and masked with enough perfume so as to hide its decaying stench long enough for people to forget about the whole thing. Two heroes have been released, and a number of events that focus on selling skins are all players have been given, and there is no reason to expect anything more.
How Can Blizzard Fix Things? Will they ever?
As much as Blizzard tries to cover their own hindquarters, players and fans alike do not forget when a company mistreats and lies to them. When Blizzard tries to pump up interest in its esports for any of its other franchises, it is hard to put any faith in them at all as a fan, a potential competitor, or as someone interested in the production side of things. Were they to try and fix the state of things - both with esports and their franchises in general - their efforts would most likely be taken as the same empty, shallow promises they've made over and over again.
However, they seem to be content to sit in the pit they've dug for themselves. The Blizzard of today seeks to execute an entirely different vision than the Blizzard of twenty, and even ten years ago. Past performance is often a strong indicator of future action, and if in the future Blizzard were to gut Hearthstone's esports and development team to reinvest into Call of Duty and Candy Crush, there would be no reason to be surprised.
Is there a chance for Blizzard to thrive in the esports scene in the near future? Many longtime fans of the company would sure hope so - however, after all the stunts they've pulled, it's hard to stay optimistic for the future of many beloved franchises.