Considering that the first-ever multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game was a Warcraft III mod, it felt strange that, up until last year, Blizzard never had a real MOBA game to call its own. That changed when Heroes of the Storm took the gaming world, well, by storm, in 2015. This accessible MOBA presented users with a much friendlier face than the fiercely competitive Dota 2 or the monolithic League of Legends, complete with extended options for new players and a host of recognizable Blizzard characters.
Like any competitive title, Heroes of the Storm has grown and changed since its debut, with more characters, more maps and better balance between the existing heroes. I spent some time not only playing the game, but also speaking with Dustin Browder, the game's director. If you haven't played Heroes of the Storm before, here's your chance to learn from the highest authority just why you should give it a try — and how to excel against the competition if you do.
A Friendly Face
The first thing I noticed about Heroes of the Storm that distinguishes it from other MOBAs is that the game actively wants you to play, even if you're new. By contrast, Dota 2, and even League of Legends, can seem very intimidating to newcomers, with the idea that you need to either get good instantly or get out immediately. The Dota 2 and League of Legends communities are not known for being gentle (even though both are actively working on that), and it takes a lot of time to learn even the basics.
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While Heroes of the Storm's community faces the same ups and downs as those of any other competitive online game, the gameplay systems are at least very friendly for first-time players. When you first boot up the game, it will ask you how experienced you are with MOBAs, and direct you to a corresponding tutorial. You can play through the tutorial sessions any number of times, and when you're done, you can play complete games against the AI.
"One thing we're always going for: We want [Heroes of the Storm] to be available to a wide range of players with a wide range of skill levels," Browder told Tom's Guide. "If you're really new, the new user tutorial will teach you everything you need to know.”
If you've never played a MOBA, don't worry — the setup is simple. You take control of a single hero and play alongside a team of other heroes with varying abilities. You attack an enemy's base, bolstered by minions that spawn periodically to back you up. The rival team squaring off against you does exactly the same thing. Pitting heroes against each other, striking the right balance between offense and defense, and figuring out how to level up your character as you gain experience can make for a relatively short, competitive experience that's hard to put down.
There's no story campaign in most MOBAs, and Heroes is no exception. However, you can earn rewards in single-player mode, just the same as in multiplayer. Your in-game currency won't come as quickly, and the games won't be as exciting, but there's no pressure to jump into the deep end. You can also cooperate with other new players against AI foes.
On the flip side, the MOBA space is extremely competitive, and Heroes of the Storm is not as prevalent on the e-sports scene as its competitors from Valve and Riot. (For a thorough examination of why the game hasn't really caught on, read Dylan Walker's excellent report.) Blizzard claims that the game is actually doing quite well from an everyday player engagement standpoint, but a rough start and a lack of top-tier prizes have handicapped it on the e-sports scene. League of Legends and Dota 2 also had a powerful head start, making Blizzard's path to e-sports victory an uphill one.
One thing Blizzard has done to get players interested in the game's top tiers is to release a few oddball heroes who are difficult to control but rewarding to play. This ensures that after players master some of the simpler heroes, they'll still have challenges worthy of their skill sets. Cho'gall, for example, is a two-headed ogre from Warcraft II. Because each head is somewhat independent in the source game, Blizzard thought the most elegant solution would be to let two players share control in Heroes.
"People who are allied with Cho'gall ask, 'How do we [position ourselves] differently? How do we protect Cho'gall? How do we leverage two characters in one location?'" Browder said. "The enemy team [says], 'Do we want to avoid Cho'gall, or just put one mobile hero against him, or do we want to collapse [him] with two or three heroes?' Communication is necessary to work with an ally in that way, which is really quite delicious."
A similar case is Medivh, a hero who has appeared throughout a lot of the Warcraft mythos, including the newly released movie. Medivh is not what you'd call beginner-friendly, focusing on scouting the map and teleporting other teammates around the map.
"Medivh has a very low win rate, except for very-high-level players, where he's closer to a 50/50 win ratio," Browder said. "We accept that he'll be sub-50/50 [early on] … We communicate with players that this is a harder-to-control hero."
In fact, Browder was quick to point out that just about every hero, including the starter set and inexpensive first recruits, had a place in the top-tier levels of play. (You can buy additional heroes with gold earned in-game, which is time-consuming but not punishingly so. You can also use real money, but the game itself is free to play.)
"A lot of characters we give you early on, especially those that cost less gold, are easier to play,” Browder said. "We've intentionally tuned the characters to be easy to acquire because they're easier to play … They are not less powerful."
Tips for Beginners
From my own perspective, Heroes of the Storm is the first MOBA I've ever been interested in playing on my own time. Each map has a different objective, ensuring that you have a lot of variety from mission to mission. The learning curve is very gentle. And, of course, I love having a stable of my favorite StarCraft, Warcraft, Diablo and Overwatch characters from whom to choose, rather than just a bunch of colorful fighters who look cool but don't evoke an emotional connection.
While Blizzard still has some work to do to make the game into a contender for top-tier competitive play, it's hard to deny that the game is a great place for would-be MOBA fans to start. As such, I asked Browder how he'd advise genre newbies as they learn the ropes. Here's what he said.
- Pick Raynor or Li Li. "They're the easiest characters, I think, to play," Browder said, given their straightforward offensive skills and decent mobility. "If you pick Muradin or Anub'arak, you won't die very often, and that feels good," he added.
- Take advantage of the game's co-op modes. New players can learn faster by getting a couple of heroes under their belts, and playing as the heroes they're most comfortable with, Browder suggested. "You don't have to get into ranked play right away," he added. Browder also emphasized the huge Heroes community, which he described as "very sweet," and how they frequently host tutorial streams and produce tutorial videos for new players.
- Don't worry about tournaments. For new and intermediate players, focusing on a distant goal of competing at a tournament level may prove counterintuitive. "Watch e-sports because you think it's cool," Browder said — not because you think it will help you dominate the competition. "When I'm learning to play basketball, I don't need to watch the NBA. I need to focus on fundamentals."
Why You Should Give Heroes of the Storm a Try
Blizzard is usually at the forefront of the competitive scene, with everything from StarCraft II to Overwatch to the PvP scene in World of Warcraft. Heroes of the Storm is now one year old, and over the past year, it has become a much tighter game. If you learn the ropes now, you never know — if and when the competitive scene ramps up, you could be at the forefront.