Fixing the Region Gap

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As happens with each international competition, there has been a surge in discussion about the skill gap between regions in Heroes of the Storm. At the Western Clash, we saw Europe completely dismantle North America. Outside of Fnatic’s incredible run at Blizzcon, we’ve seen no western team find any success against Korea since the very first world championship. There’s been a great deal of discussion about how to fix this, where the blame lies, etc. However, before we go too far into correcting the “problem”, we first need to properly identify the issue at hand.

First, we need to acknowledge that this regional gap exists in every sport. Does anyone expect any team to be able to touch America in basketball at the Olympics? Is anyone surprised when the finals of every Starcraft world championship pit a Korean against another Korean? This gap is not a situation unique to Heroes.  Nor is it especially bad in Heroes. There are many sports that suffer even worse international parity. Super Smash Bros. Melee, for example, has never seen an eastern player win a major since its inception.

To me, first this idea of the region gap needs to be examined less as a problem to be solved, and more as a reality to be understood. I am NOT saying that teams need to give up, or stop trying to chase stronger regions. However, I think we as fans, and the players themselves need to change the conversation. This is not about NA having too much ego, or Koreans simply being video game robots. There are so many factors at play that create a strong region–each needs to be fully explored and understood before that gap can begin to shrink. So that your eyes don’t fall off from reading, lets look at three of the key factors at play here.

Talent Density

Whether its culture, genetics, or God simply wanting to keep things interesting, certain regions just breed talent at a higher rate. In Smash Bros, you always find a greater talent density in Southern California and Florida than you do in Texas and the Midwest. For whatever reason, Samoans make incredible defensive linemen. South Korea seems to just engineer strategic masterminds with higher APM than everywhere else in the world.

——-Just briefly, there will ALWAYS be exceptions to the rule. You don’t need to tell me about Armada, or that a Westerner finally won a Starcraft thing. Exceptions aren’t useful when examining trends. If one or two people/teams did a thing, there is little useful data to be gleaned from them when examining larger trends—–

Coming back to HOTS, this essentially means that there will be more top-tier players per team on a Korean squad versus an NA squad. Where GFE has Fan and Khroen carrying the way, L5 has 3 Fans and 2 Khroens.

Now, many people have brought up the idea of a super team. Just put the best player at each role together, and we’ll have one team that can challenge the talent of other regions! This has been tried before in League of Legends, and it failed pretty spectacularly on the global stage. We’ll address more about why it doesn’t work later, for now we’ll simply say this:

 Team synergy is incredibly important in MOBAs. The personalities of the players need to mesh well, their style of play and hero pools need to fit together. IT is unlikely that an NA super team would have any of these factors. In Korea and Europe, because there are simply more good players, it is easier to put together a team of five all stars who all fit well together, because you simply have more people from which to choose. Talent density essentially means that every team is a super team, which bleeds into our next factor.

Quality of Practice

In most games, there is simply no better practice than playing. There’s another blog in the ratio between scrims and solo queue, but the simple fact is this: if you play 10 hours, you will be better at the game than someone who played for six hours.  I know, I’m really breaking new ground here!

However, while volume of practice is important, it pales in comparison to how much the quality of that practice matters. To bring back Dunktrain’s metaphor from this week’s Town Hall, imagine that in order to win Blizzcon, you need to earn 100 points of practice. An NA player starts practicing with solo queue. Each day that he plays five hours of solo queue, he earns one point of practice. Now, a Korean player decides to do the same. However, because of his region’s talent density, he will improve more and learn more in those same five hours. His practice time is worth five points.

Obviously this is an oversimplification, but it essentially means that an NA player needs to practice five times as hard in order to reach the same skill level as a Korean player. The same holds true for scrims. Every time they scrim, Tempo Storm is likely playing a weaker team than MVP Black is when they scrim. They can scrim eight hours a day, but it still won’t give them the same quality of practice that Korean teams are receiving.

The same holds true when comparing to Europe. Every player on Misfits, Fnatic, and Dignitas is exceptional, probably top 3-4 at their position within the region. When these teams scrim each other, they will learn something from every scrim. Tempo Storm, Team 8, and GFE all have great players, but each team has at least one player who is average within the region. Weaker practice means that your mistakes and weaknesses get exposed at a slower rate, which halts your progression. The teams in NA work very hard, but working hard simply isn’t enough when your time is worth provably less than the time invested by every player in every other region. Therefore, in order to catch up, NA teams need to find a way to improve the quality of their practice, which is again limited by our third factor.

Infrastructure

Look at the organizations represented at the Western Clash. In Europe, we have three of the biggest eSports organizations in the world. Fnatic have world championship titles across multiple games, Dignitas is one of the oldest brands in modern eSports, and Misfits are partnered with the freaking Miami Heat! Across the aisle, we have Tempo Storm, an organization run by an angry ex-Hearthstone pro with no other MOBA experience. Next is Team 8, an organization in name only with absolutely zero infrastructure to speak of. Finally, you have GaleForce eSports, a team started by a cool dude with a bunch of money who wanted to own a HOTS team. Both GFE and Tempo have grown considerably in the past year, but they are still infants in the space compared to titans like Fnatic and Dig.

The European elite simply have more resources at their disposal. They can afford bootcamps and high level coaches. They have more stability with things like management and salaries. More people work for Fnatic full time than do for Tempo Storm. Simply put, the experience of being a pro on Dignitas or Misfits is superior to that of being on Team 8. No one on GaleForce can go across the hall to talk to the League of Legends team about how they deal with Korea. Tempo Storm is not lead by people with a MOBA background who know what their team needs to succeed in this genre.

Fnatic, on the other hand, has been to the top of the mountain. They know how to build rosters in this genre. They’ve been through meta shakeups, player drama, and dozens of international competitions. It should come as no surprise that Dignitas chose to boot camp before an international event–that’s what every single LoL team does! The players on Tempo Storm thought that a bootcamp in Korea was a waste of time, and no one in their organization had the League background to inform them how foolish that was. Without the infrastructure in place, NA teams simply don’t know what they don’t know about being competitive in high level eSports.

Fixing the Problem

These factors are not simple things to overcome. Likely, some never will be. For at least the next decade, Korea will just have a greater density of talent. No amount of blogging, reddit discussion, or money will change that. However, if we recognize this as a reality of the universe, rather than simply saying NA players don’t try hard enough, we can begin to understand how to overcome it.

We cannot reach a high quality of practice by simply scrimming all day against our own region. Instead, more time needs to be devoted to strategy and the mental side of the game. With proper coaching, teams can develop a practice regiment that gives them enough time in scrims/solo queue to keep their mechanics sharp, but then accelerate their mental growth with VOD review, team building, and communication exercises. Teams can spend more time studying their opposition. Not just to copy their meta, but attempting to learn how they can counter it with their own style of play. Remember, Fnatic didn’t beat MVP Black by mastering the Korean meta. They won by forcing MVP to play against strategies that were uniquely Fnatic. They came out with one of the biggest upsets in eSports history because of their mental fortitude and preparation, not because they were better at playing Heroes of the Storm.

In order to create this proper practice atmosphere, teams need the infrastructure to support it. Players need resources at their disposal. They need the stability to focus on their play rather than on paying bills. They need mentors pushing them towards a shared vision. They need plane tickets to Korea so they can bootcamp in the offseason. Ultimately, the job of the players should be to play the game at a high level. The less they need to focus on outside factors such as designing their practice schedule, the more they can focus on successful execution and team dynamics. The key to creating better quality of practice and raising the skill level of the region as a whole is developing the infrastructure of the teams currently at the top.

The Power is Yours

Ultimately, the responsibility lies with us as fans. We directly control how strong the infrastructure is in North America. By tweeting, sharing, and writing about the HGC, we show potential sponsors how much return they can get from investing in an organization with a HOTS team. By purchasing Tempo Storm merch and showing our team pride, we tell our endemic orgs that their HOTS team is worth investing in. By watching the HGC and growing its viewership, we encourage Blizzard to add more money and production value.

The money and infrastructure already exists in the eSports industry. With your views, clicks, and dollars you determine if those resources move into Heroes of the Storm. If you want Tempo Storm to take down Misfits next time around, show your support for Tempo Storm right now. Show Reynad how much his bottom line can be affected by Tempo Storm’s success in the HGC.

If you want Team 8 to stay together and get a shot at Korea come Blizzcon, help them get signed. Be the biggest Team 8 fan you can be right now. Follow every player on social media, watch Glaurung’s content on YouTube, tweet at Immortals and tell them you’d buy a jersey if it had Justing’s name on the back.

So next time you post on Reddit about how much NA sucks, or wonder why NA players can’t get over their egos enough to improve, consider this. What have you done to help? When was the last time you tweeted your support of GFE? How many pro players do you follow? How many episodes of Beyond the Nexus did you watch? When was the last time you tweeted at Jake to bring a certain player onto Town Hall?  Esports orgs see all of these things, and factor them all into their decisions. If you want to see the quality of a region improve, help drive the money and infrastructure to that region.
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