Compared to other games in the genre, HOTS still has a small roster of heroes. That said, they’ve managed to cram as much diversity as possible into the current pool. There’s something for every playstyle, some hero that fulfills any fantasy (even if your fantasy is to sit next to a building and put hats on your friends).
However, despite Blizzard’s willingness to innovate and diversify, their role classification system has become tragically outdated. The four roles of Warrior, Assassin, Support, and Specialist do not properly convey the wide range of playstyles that Heroes has to offer. With the release of D.Va, I feel this issue has reached a critical mass. I’ve seen plenty of discussions on this topic, but I want to dig a bit deeper into why it matters so much, and give a proposal for how I feel the problem should be resolved.
I’ve seen many arguments against what I’m about to discuss. Many fans bristle at the idea of designing a game around the high level competitive playerbase. Fans of Heroes are attracted to the game because it does not force the harsh role restrictions of a game like League. In League of Legends, if you do not pick a champion that correctly fits into one of the five well-defined roles within a team, you are dooming your team to a loss, and guaranteeing yourself endless rage. Some people prefer Heroes strictly because the team roles are not so well defined.
However, to a certain degree they actually are. If both have equal skill, a team with a primary tank, healer, ranged damage, and secondary front line will beat a team of five assassins every single time. The game has already been optimized to the point where at least two team roles are set in stone if you want to win consistently.
I would also like to point out that this is not a bad thing. Optimization elevates the quality of play across every skill level. I promise you that Bronze LoL players today are infinitely better at the game than Bronze players from five years ago. They still have the same skill level, but their game knowledge has been elevated by the game’s meta becoming optimized. When playing a competitive ranked mode, meta optimization removes confusion in the drafting phase, allows the team to quickly identify roles, and create a cohesive strategy.
In every game you’ll have people who rage, but frankly if you are not playing the game’s ranked mode with the intention of playing in the most optimal way possible, you are actively inviting rage and criticism upon yourself. Heroes has plenty of game modes for sub-optimal, fun styles of play. Optimizing the competitive meta does not detract from those modes, but allows the players who do enjoy high level optimal competition to connect with the game on a deeper level.
For many players, esports are attractive because they directly mirror the casual player experience. You’ll never get to play baseball at Wrigley Field, but you play Heroes on the exact same Towers of Doom as Tempo Storm. The more the esports game mirrors the game for average players, the easier it is for fans to connect with the esport. Blizzard in particular has struggled in this area across all of their games. The role classification system is no different.
The way hero roles are defined at the pro level differs wildly from the actual game. We call Breez Fnatic’s “warrior player”, but his hero pool has never included even half of the heroes in the warrior class. Bakery is Dignitas’ “support player”, however you’ll likely never see him playing Lili even when she’s viable in the competitive meta. The pros have clearly created different classifications for the heroes in their mind, and that detracts from the new viewer experience.
Think about it. If you want to be like Breez and become a warrior player, you can’t just go look at the game and start learning any hero in the warrior class. Even if you do your research and learn which warriors are played in the HGC, you may not understand that some of them don’t fit the actual role that Breez plays. There is a complete disconnect in the role system between the pro players and what we actually experience in-game. This needs to change.
The role classifications should help a player understand the available positions on a team. They should educate the player on what is important to be successful in a competitive match. Quickly, I want to look at a game that does this very well in a few areas–Paladins.
First, get over the “lul Overwatch clone” part of yourself. That’s a different discussion for a different blog. In Paladins, like Overwatch and Heroes, there are currently four role classifications–Damage, Support, Front Line, and Flanker. I want to focus on Front Line and Flanker for the moment.
These two roles do an incredible job of conveying the competitive structure to the player. Paladin’s primary game mode is a point-capture mode which requires the team to control a specific point on the map for a set amount of time. Most heroes in the game are too squishy to sit on the point for a long time, and that’s where the Front Line heroes come in. Every Front Line hero has a form of shield and a high health pool. Just from the name of the role and the heroes available, you get a clear understanding of how those heroes should be played.
The same is true for Flankers. The concept of flanking refers to attacking from the side, bypassing the front line to attack the weaker parts of an enemy army. Flankers in Paladins all have high damage and mobility. They are specifically designed to attack the enemy backline and use their mobility to get around the front line safely. Both of these roles are crucially important to a successful team composition, and all the heroes within each role actually do what their role describes. This is the sort of system that Heroes must adopt. A system that educates the player while also informing the conversation about competitive play.
Role System 2.0
The following are my proposed role classifications. These are designed around the optimal competitive metagame, and should indicate how a hero helps their team win the game. Note: some heroes do not fit perfectly into their assigned role. Most of these heroes are not doing great in the current meta, and need to be reworked. My hope is that a role system like this would inform how those heroes are reworked.
It’s what we all call the role, so might as well just lean into it. Tanks are the heroes who control the zone around an objective. They have some form of damage mitigation either in their kit or talents, and the tools to initiate a fight, usually through a form of crowd control. Their job is to stand between their team and the enemy, absorbing damage and controlling space. By putting more than one tank for a team composition, you are making a major sacrifice on damage in order to guarantee zone control and protection from ranged threats.
Tank Heroes: Cho, Johanna, Anub’Arak, Diablo, ETC, Muradin, Stitches, Varian, Tyrael
Front Line heroes belong in the thick of the fight. They don’t have enough survive-ability to create zone control alone, but they also don’t melt instantly. Their job is to be in the thick of the fight alongside the Tank, working their way towards the primary targets. These heroes don’t have the mobility to bypass the enemy front line completely, but are a significant damage threat to any target if ignored for too long. Their kit focuses on damage or control, but also includes some form of survive-ability.
Front Line Heroes: D.Va, Zarya, Ragnaros, Dehaka, Artanis, Leoric, Chen, Arthas, Sonya, Thrall, Alarak
Again, it’s what we call the role, so just commit. An assassins job is to infiltrate the enemy backline and make something not be alive anymore, then escape. Their kit includes high burst damage and usually a form of mobility or escape option. These heroes cannot do meaningful damage or survive long in a poke war. They need to wait for the right moment to strike, and commit their damage all at once.
Assassin Heroes: Genji, Valeera, Samuro, Greymane, The Butcher, Nova, Zeratul, Illidan, Kerrigan, Tracer
Sometimes you just need to throw damage at the enemy from far away. These heroes are all about damage. If protected, they can shred through any enemy. They will not last long fighting 1v1 against an assassin, but they shine in a longer poke war.
Artillery Heroes: Cassia, Zul’Jin, Gul’Dan, Chromie, Li-Ming, Lunara, Gall, Kael’Thas, Jaina, Tychus, Valla, Nazeebo, Falstad, Raynor, Sgt. Hammer
The term support is entirely misleading for how Heroes is played. Many heroes can fill a supporting role in a variety of ways, but every team must have a healer. These are heroes who have healing as a primary part of their kit. There are many heroes who help keep their team alive, but the true Healers are those who can keep their team alive in a fight without assistance from any other form of support.
Healer Heroes: Lucio, Auriel, Lt. Morales, Kharazim, Rehgar, Uther, Malfurion
While they don’t provide the healing throughput of a Healer, the Support hero’s primary goal is to protect the rest of their team. They will usually also provide some form of crowd control, damage, or utility, but their main function in the composition is to enable other heroes to accomplish their tasks. In certain metas a support can also fill the role of a team’s healer, but generally they will need help to fully protect their team in a fight.
Support Heroes: Medivh, Brightwing, Lili, Tassadar, Tyrande
Our last role who are primarily concerned with what happens outside of team fights. These are the heroes who dominate the lanes. They clear minion waves quickly, and if left alone for too long will eliminate enemy structures. You would choose a pusher when you are looking to create pressure on the map, when you want a lane to be constantly threatening forts and keeps. They will often provide other utility, but their primary benefit to the team is to create an advantage through soaking minion XP and destroying structures.
Pusher Heroes: Probius, Xul, Rexxar, Sylvanas, The Lost Vikings, Azmodan, Zagara, Murky, Gazlowe, Abathur,