Heroes of the Dorm finishes strong on ESPN

The casters of Heroes of the Dorm

After all its problems, Heroes of the Dorm succeeded where it most needed to: the final, which were broadcast to a bemused ESPN2 audience late on Sunday night. People who were just tuning into Heroes of the Dorm, or who had not followed the tournament’s messy opening stages, saw a close-fought, five-game series between two of the best teams in the tournament, each representing major colleges that are familiar in the context of sports, if not eSports.

It was interesting watching how making Heroes of the Storm about college teams changed people’s relationship to the event. My girlfriend, who is not remotely interested in Heroes, got behind the Boston College squad purely out of hometown loyalty. I did the same, and transferred my allegiance to UC Berkeley after Arizona State bested the Boston team.

It was entirely arbitrary but, as traditional sports have known for ages, it’s easier for people to form emotional attachments to a competition when there is some kind of regional affinity to be invoked. There’s a Boston team competing? Great, Boston’s the best at sports, let’s destroy these guys. Boston lost? That that other team can go to hell. Who are they playing next?

Arizona State had been flawless until they faced Boston College, but so had Berkeley’s team. Berkeley also had at least one major advantage in Conan “Suppy” Liu, a veteran American StarCraft 2 pro player with the Evil Geniuses team. Having someone who has competed well against the likes of Polt in StarCraft 2 playing collegiate Heroes seemed a bit like unleashing Vince Wilfork at a Pop Warner football game. But as a support player, Suppy’s impact was a bit subtler, as he focused on making saves for his teammates and keep them alive in fights for critical extra seconds

Perfect mismatch

But the duel between Arizona and Berkeley was less about individual players than it was the teams’ grasp on map dynamics. Watching the two college teams battle across five Heroes of the Storm maps, it was evident that they were playing on an incredibly high level. If Heroes is really a game about making use of each map’s unique features, both teams were capable of instant reads and reactions that made for an incredibly close series.

Arizona seemed slightly better when it came to dominating maps. Their performances on Cursed Hollow were inspired, and they turned a Haunted Mines game around thanks to a brilliant ambush at the mine entrance that savaged the Cal squad. But the Berkeley players seemed to have a critical edge when it came to team fights, usually coming out well ahead each time they fought Arizona on an even footing.

It made for an interesting dynamic, and one that suggest Heroes might become a good spectator eSport. Heroes becomes a very different game depending on the map, and the asymmetry between Arizona and Cal’s approaches to the game was fascinating to watch. Cal was always churning forward, grouping up and looking for that massive battle that could deliver them a few moments uncontested control of the map. Arizona were always looking for lateral plays that would catch Cal out of position.

How much of this came through to the ESPN2 audience is up for debate. The casters for Heroes of the Dorm were some of StarCraft’s most popular names, and they certainly tried to unpack what was happening at each stage of the game. Sean “Day[9]” Plott explained what was special about each map and what the teams would be trying to accomplish, and during the games themselves, the casting team constantly referred back to the game’s core concepts to show why one team was ahead, or why another had just made a good play.

Yet MOBA’s are an incomprehensible genre to the uninitiated, full of cryptic spell effects that are difficult to read if you haven’t already played a lot. More seriously, the overlay for Heroes of the Dorm was short on critical info. While the clean, unobstructed camera looked great on television, it left out things like the minimap, which meant that the state of play was impossible to follow most of the time. Nor did the display show which heroes were alive or dead for each team, which made team fights hard to track as well. I wasn’t the only one who noticed: SB Nation also felt the information given during the broadcast could have been more helpful.

Call it like you see it

I’m also not sure how I feel about the broadcast itself. Nick “Tasteless” Plott and Dan “Artosis” Stemkoski, fixtures in the StarCraft commentary booth, were doing play-by-play for the finals and it seemed like they had been instructed to provide a lot of extra energy and hype for the sake of the ESPN2 audience. All eSports casting involves a necessary bit of showmanship, but there were times that the Tastosis duo seemed to be channeling a wrestling broadcast.

It got particularly egregious during the endgame, when you might have a clearly defeated team trying to rally to protect their core. “THEY’RE TRYING TO SAVE THEIR CORE BUT I DON’T KNOW IF THEY CAN!” Tasteless would yell over a self-evidently lopsided endgame. Even people who don’t know MOBAs can probably be trusted to figure out that having one player to the other team’s five is probably a bad place to be, and the occasionally histrionic casting detracted a bit from the top-shelf games.

Yet the casters should be cut some slack. Arizona and Berkeley played some unbelievably close and dramatic games that came down to the absolute wire. When Berkeley won the deciding match, it was after a series where nothing had ever been easy.

The victorious Berkeley students get a pretty tremendous prize as well: up to $75,000 in tuition money, which could make college near-free for many of them.

Heroes of the Dorm was a flawed tournament and its presentation on cable was not without problems of its own, but thanks to two brilliant teams and a spectacular finals, it would be hard not to call it a success. People who watched ESPN2 last night got a taste of eSports and Heroes of the Storm at their finest.