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Anyone who touched DOTA All-Stars, the map mod of Warcraft III that lifted the then-niche MOBA genre to prominence, knew that it would become bigger. Rough estimations put the game’s playerbase at millions across China, America, the Philippines, and many other countries, from high school kids to university physics students. Many bought Warcraft only in order to play the mod, a situation that has never occurred before or since. DOTA was poised for adaptation to the hallowed hall of the Wal-Mart PC gaming aisle. Then a curious thing happened: one of those college students, now graduated and with years of experience as an exec, realized he could shake the idea upside down until hundreds of millions of dollars fell out. The twist was the free-to-play model, then obscure. Heroes of Newerth, the packaged heir apparent, had its throne stolen by online red-headed stepchild League of Legends.

To date, Mark Zuckerberg’s heist of Harvard’s social media concept may be the only other adoption that has ever inspired more cries of “why didn’t I do that?” Dota 2, the only well-known competitor to the Godzilla that is League of Legends, is not another kaiju but instead one of those frigates that got capsized in San Francisco Bay. Into this scene comes Heroes of the Storm, or Blizzard’s rather tardy “why didn’t I do that?” HOTS has been in beta for a little over a year before its launch today; now, it will make its bid for the MOBA market in earnest. The setup is pretty much the same: two teams compete to destroy the other’s base first, and the game is free to play. But there are significant differences.

The main hook of HOTS is that its roster of playable heroes is taken directly from Blizzard’s game lore. The launch trailer shows off Starcraft characters Jim Raynor and Sarah Kerrigan as well as World of Warcraft villain Arthas, or the Lich King, among others. The fanfiction-like potential is hard to deny – never has there been a more titanic clash of enormous pauldrons and enormous chins. A Starcraft siege tank driver is playable, as well (her description notes her cannon “strikes fear right into the heart of the toughest of warriors… including some of her allies”), among Tyrael and other heroes from the Diablo franchise, and Blizzard devs promised many more favorites will be added in an AMA last December. Even Deathwing, he of the most impressive chin of all, is under consideration. “We have ideas and testing to do,” Blizzard dev PIGonzalez wrote, “but the important takeaway is that these [monstrous] characters are not ruled out at all.”

The other hook is that HOTS requires less knowledge than either League of Legends or Dota 2. Enemies killed give global experience to the team, and nothing else. There are no items – the only differences among team members are their characters’ unique abilities. Teamwork is also more important, as each map has incredibly powerful objectives. One includes a pirate who fires his cannons for doubloons; another suits up one player in a giant tree to punch buildings. Match time is also shorter than either MOBA competitor, requiring less commitment. Taken in all, Blizzard is aiming for a succinct multiplayer with a whimsical tone (sometimes, every hero is riding a horse) to snag people who just don’t have the spare time to build up knowledge for more obsessive titles.

This is not to say Blizzard is ignoring the competitive opportunities of the MOBA world, however. The first world series of tournaments has already been announced: North American stages with a combined prize pool of $75,000 and an international championship at Blizzcon offering $500,000. Against other MOBA winnings, even the grand prize is peanuts, but it’s only the very beginning. If HOTS is as fun to play as it looks, it could go far.

Are you thinking about jousting Tassadar against Nova, on horses? My money’s on Nova.

Francis Kelly

I'm an enthusiast writer who grew up in the 64 tradition - Commodore, then Nintendo. In the following years, the Internet has given me both online publishing and online multiplayer. It's a wash.