Let’s Examine the HGC Structure–reflections on the first season of the pro Heroes league.

 

hotsmsbAll in all, I don’t think we can call the inaugural HGC split anything but an unmitigated success. View numbers rose steadily, HOTS has risen in the Twitch charts since the start of the season, and the quality of play has never been higher. We’ve seen new stars rise up, old veterans start to struggle, and many of the game’s most dominant teams continue to reign over their region. All the hard work and growth will soon come to a head with the Mid-Season Brawl.

Before the Brawl, I thought it might be good to take a look back at the current HGC format for NA and EU. Specifically, I want to examine some key components of the structure, and compare them to the most successful league in esports–the League of Legends Championship Series. We’ll examine what differences are improved in the HGC format, and where Heroes could learn more from its big brother.

League Size

When it first started out, the LCS was an 8-team league in both NA and EU. After three seasons, they expanded both into 10-team leagues. The expansion lead to some positive changes for the relegation process, and obviously lead to more sponsors and organizations funneling money into the scene. However, the LCS still regularly faces criticism that a team or two at the bottom really doesn’t belong at the pro level. It has taken years and a loose region-transition policy to provide any level of parity within the leagues.

We will learn a great deal from the Crucible matches, but I do not think either region is ready to expand beyond the eight teams. Most pros still seem to believe that the amateur teams simply can’t contend the even the bottom of the HGC. If this is true, adding two more teams would just lead to more bad matches, and reduce the quality of the product as a whole. In this way I think the HGC was smart to start out smaller, and should continue to be cautious about expansion.
Coaches as Rostered Team Members

As a pioneer in MOBA esports, the LCS didn’t start out with any structure for coaching. Most people in the community didn’t see the point. However, as teams started to see the value, Riot caught on quick and made a change to the structure of the league. They added an additional roster spot to every team for a head coach. As a rostered team member, this meant that every team would receive a stipend from Riot to pay the coach a salary. This meant that even the un-sponsored teams could afford to recruit a quality, experienced coach. It also made for an attractive transition for retiring players.

I’ve written before about my feelings on the necessity of a good coach in this sport. To me, there is no reason for a coach to be compensated any less than a starting player. This would also help with league parity. There’s no way for low level teams without sponsors to ever afford a quality coach. A coach’s stipend would allow any team to compete for the best coaches available. This may not be in the budget for the HGC in the next six months, but I believe it will be a critical piece for the evolution of the league. Every team needs a coach, and that coach needs to be payed in accordance with their worth.

International Play

Early in the LCS’ lifespan, there was consistent criticism around the structure of the two splits. Only the summer split gave teams any way to qualify for the world championship, which was the only significant international event during the year. Early on there were a few MLGs and LCS teams still compete in the ESL season, but overall the spring felt empty on a global scale.

In this way the HGC has far exceeded even what the LCS does today. We get two significant international events each split, giving every match within the league season added weight. The teams in the top half are constantly fighting to qualify for an international event, while the teams at the bottom are constantly fighting to avoid the Crucible. There are real stakes to every HGC match, and the casters do a fantastic job of making those stakes known clearly to all viewers.

Relegation

The current 10-team format has allowed the LCS to make major changes to their relegation structure that aren’t relevant to this conversation. However, the original eight-team structure saw all four of the bottom teams battling newcomers for the right to stay.

I think I like the current HGC format with the Crucible and Open Division. The system provides a structure for the amateur scene and ensures that the best contenders rise up to challenge the HGC teams. We’ll have to see how the matches play out and evaluate from there to see if the league is strengthened by the process. Ultimately I think the only reason to change this system will be if we see a significant rise in power of the amateur scene and there are teams left out of the league that deserve to be there over existing teams.

Playoffs

This is one area where I feel the LCS structure is far superior. In the LCS, the top six teams are all put into a playoff bracket virtually identical to that of the NFL. They have a true playoff with the winning team being heralded as the split’s champion and earning additional prize money. The championship for the playoffs has an entire extra week of buildup and perfectly caps off the season for each region.

The HGC playoffs and regular season finale both fell flat to me. While the automatic bid for the Brawl gave the regular season added weight, a team simply waltzed into Sweden in each region with very little pomp or circumstance. They fought all season, and no one can say they didn’t earn that spot, but it simply didn’t have the weight of truly crowning a team as the Spring Champion for the region.

Further, the playoffs weren’t really a playoff at all. The system was simply a gauntlet for the final qualifying spot. The terminology is misleading to a causal observer, and lead to my feeling disappointed at the end of the Team 8 vs GFE match. I was thrilled for Team 8 earning their spot at the Brawl, but then the broadcast just sort of ended. And that’s it for the NA season. If I’m a fan of NA and don’t particularly care about the global teams (which represents more fans than Reddit would care to believe) then I didn’t get a champion for my region. I got a winner of the regular season, but they didn’t earn their crown in a playoff format. There was no championship bout for all the marbles.

Obviously this would require major restructuring of the Brawl qualification, but I want a Spring Championship. I want the two teams who fight their way through the playoffs to be flown to a neutral location in their region to have a championship match. When a team wins, I want confetti falling from the ceiling and a trophy handed to the victorious squad.

The current system helps foster the infuriating discrediting of regional accomplishment. No one cares that Tempo Storm won NA if they wash out at the Brawl. Regional dominance should matter. I’m from NA and I want to be able to celebrate my region’s teams. I want to feel pride in my region, and be able to say that someone locally was crowned a champion. Especially in NA where we’ll probably never see another global champion if other MOBAs are any indication.

Overall, I was thrilled with the first split of the HGC. I can’t wait for the Mid-Season Brawl, and am so excited for the future of Heroes. We’ve had a great start, hopefully Blizzard will continue to innovate and improve on the formula.
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