Phase One of the HGC has come to a close. Over the last few months we have learned about the skill gap in each region between the top teams and newcomers. We’ve seen crazy success stories, great international competition, and two heads of beautiful hair tragically cut short by Tempo Storm’s lust for an undefeated season. Perhaps another time we’ll do a deeper retrospective on the HGC as a whole and what it means for Heroes esports moving forward. Today, however, I want to use this season to explore a theory I’ve held since my days coaching teams in the Heroes beta. Let’s get into the concept of role stability.
What is Role Stability?
In traditional MOBAs, every role on a team is clearly defined. In League of Legends, every team will always have a Top-laner, Jungle, Mid-laner, AD Carry, and Support. These roles have remained unchanged since the first competitive season of the game. DOTA and Smite have similarly static team positions. In fact, virtually ever team sport has a clearly defined position for each player on the field.
HOTS is unique in that there are really only two roles that are static for every team–Tank and Support. We specify Tank because the Warrior class in Heroes is no longer a useful classification for the sorts of heroes that the Tank can play. The other roles within the team vary wildly by region and team. Some teams have a dedicated melee and a static ranged damage player. Others define their positions more by each player’s hero pool than their role within the team.
Heroes has this unique team dynamic because the game does not have one static map with well-defined lanes. Every map requires different team compositions and different lane setups. You cannot simply have a Mid-laner because some maps don’t even have a middle lane. Teams have no need for a static AD Carry because forts and keeps don’t prioritize heroes. That said, there is still clear evidence that clear and static team roles are important to success. They simply have more to do with the team itself than the map or overall metagame.
As we said, every team must have a Tank and a Support. The other three roles are much more fluid. When the meta shifts, different heroes become more valuable. Certain maps adjust the importance of certain compositions. Some heroes are only viable at all on one or two maps. When looking at this season of competitive HOTS, you will see all sorts of heroes rounding out those last three spots on a team. There appears to be no set rule for how to build a Heroes team. Indeed, there really isn’t. As long as you can build a cohesive draft that plays well on the chosen map, and potentially deny some picks from the opponent, you can find success. This can be done with three ranged, double tank, a melee assassin, two specialists, and so much more.
However, if you look a bit more closely, you’ll see that there is actually a very clear rule in place for all of the most successful teams in the league. Once every Heroes player begins to understand this core concept, the quality of play at every level will grow exponentially.
Consider Team Dignitas for a moment. Ask yourself–who plays Abathur? Think of every possible team comp that would include an Abathur–who’s on the hero? If you watch the league, you’ll know that the answer every time is Snitch. No matter the map, the comp, or the opponent, Snitch would be the Abathur for Team Dignitas.
Now you might ask yourself–what if Dig wanted to play a comp where they needed Snitch on something else? What if they played Abathur and Lost Vikings on the same team? Let’s assume for the moment that this is a team composition that is viable in the current meta. This is not a composition that Dig would ever prioritize unless it was a dominant strategy. Even then they’d likely just ban out one or the other, or pick one to deny the strategy to the opponent. Few teams have their roles as clearly defined as Team Dignitas.
We know Jaypl and Bakery fill the Tank and Support roles respectively. Let’s look at their other three roles and how they fit into the team. Zaelia is a melee specialist. Even before double warrior was the common meta, Team Dignitas prioritized putting Zaelia on a second front line hero. he will occasionally dip into slightly squisher assassins, but their role will virtually always be do be in the thick of the fight alongside Jay. For Mene, ranged damage is the only job description. You will be unlikely to see any Dignitas team composition that does not have Mene in the back lobbing spells, arrows, or spears. Finally we have Snitch.
Snitch is a true flex player–he has an adaptable hero pool with some unique specialist picks available. However, if you examine the season you will see that Dig has a very clear hero pool for Snitch around which they build their drafts. Despite the perceived flexibility of these three roles on a team, Dignitas has intentionally limited each player to a specific set of available heroes. They do not simply draft heroes that play well on the map and assign players after. Each of their drafts is specifically designed to put each player on a hero that fits into their role within the team. If you look closely, you’ll see that this is true for all three teams at the top of Europe. They don’t necessarily use the same role definitions as Dignitas, but every player has a clear set of heroes available to them in any draft, and those heroes always fulfill a similar role within the team composition.
The Region Gap Explained
It is my belief that this specific issue is the primary reason why NA is so far behind the other regions in Heroes of the Storm. Only our best team, Tempo Storm has even remotely locked down their three flexible roles. They are largely able to do so by virtue of having a true flex player in Psalm, but even they stray from their clear roles at times. This is partly due to the team not having a static ranged damage player. that said, their roles are more clearly defined than any other team in North America. Let’s look at a few of the other teams in the NA league and see where they are struggling in this area.
I’ve spoken before about the reasons I believe Team 8 are so successful despite the overall competitive youth of their roster. However, I think the team is still being held back by a lack of definition in their roles. Glaurung, Prismaticisim, and Yoda are all flexible players. We have seen each play bruisers, melee assasins, mages, and specialists. However, Team 8 have found a unique way to overcome this problem in most of their drafts thanks to Glaurung. As we’ve said before, Glaurung’s role within the team is as an initiator. His hero pool is not limited to specific classes or ranged vs melee. His pool is entirely comprised of heroes that let him lead the charge into the enemy team.
Look at their last game against No Tomorrow. Glaurung could have played either the Leoric or Genji to fill his role. However, the team was limited by Dyrus’ hero pool and had to put him on Leoric. By Glau’s own admission Prismaticism is a better Genji, so he belonged on that hero. Based on the composition, the logical fifth pick would have been a ranged damage–a Falstad, Li-Ming or some such. However, none of those mages and carries would have fit Glaurung’s role within the team. Instead they drafted Greymane. This gave them a bit of ranged poke, but still allowed Glau to play from a position of strength and initiate with Greymane’s massive burst combo. If Team 8 can similarly define the roles for Prismaticism and Yoda, I believe they will quickly challenge Tempo Storm for the number one spot in the league.
This team infuriates me from this perspective. The World Champion Cloud 9 was a team with very well-defined roles. They also had the advantage of a true flex in Fan. However, the moment Blizzcon ended, they began to drift away from that clear team dynamic. Look back at those Gold League games. You’ll frequently find iDream relegated to Kael’Thas–a hero that did not fit his role within the team at all.
B-Step’s players remain highly talented, but they’ve regrettably continued their maddening trend of not defining roles well. K1pro is inexplicably playing heroes like Anub’arak, and McIntyre, one of the best melee players in North America, is frequently seen lobbing spells in the backline. To this moment I cannot say what iDream’s actual role is on the team. This is a team that desperately needs a coach to come in and define the team’s roles. Someone needs to sit down with K1pro and show him those Falstad and Jaina games from 2015. They need to figure out why they have two of the best Melee players in the history of NA and neither is consistently on the front line.
Gale Force Esports
GFE is a team that has learned their lesson about role definition. When they added Fan, the team was thrown into utter chaos. They had three amazingly talented players who could seemingly play anything! Unsurprisingly (to me) the team soon found themselves not living up to their full potential. They had bright moments with their whacky team compositions, but ultimately fell short in every critically important game.
After the Western Clash, the team appears to have had a bit of a maturation. They still struggle with clearly defining the roles of Fan and MichaelUdall, but Khroen has returned largely to the backline where he belongs. It may ultimately be that Fan and Udall don’t quite work in the same roster, but I believe both players are talented enough to adapt to any role once those roles are clearly defined.
How quickly people forget about the dominance of the Bob Ross Fan Club. “Zuna feed” is a fun meme, but it really seems like the Heroes community has forgotten Zuna’s incredible talent and dominance last spring. Bob Ross Fan Club was a team with amazingly well-defined roles. Both Zuna and Arthelon handled the raw damage output, but did so with clearly distinct hero pools. McIntyre was among the most consistent melee players in the world at the time with a legendary Kerrigan.
However, as soon as they lost Erho, the team went completely insane. Instead of finding a new tank, they tried everything they could to get away from the formula that made them successful. To this day we still see the team trying everything they can to not put their players in the best position to win. I will never forgive the decision makers that ruined Tomster’s promising pro career. On King of Blades, Tomster was quickly rising in the scene as one of the most deadly melee assassins to ever play the game. Now two teams have signed him for his talent, and promptly stuck him in the backline. The team’s current roster simply doesn’t make sense. Should they ever put Tomster on melee, Zuna in the backline (and splash some Zeratul) and replace Bigempct with a true flex, you will quickly see this team return to prominence.
Many readers are having a visceral reaction to this statement right now. Replace one of their most talented players? Shouldn’t they be getting rid of Kenma? He sucks and is bad? Also Zuna feed! Remember, the Bob Ross Fan Club was a dominant team with Kenma in the support role. Sure the team may be able to improve with a more talented, less reportedly-toxic support, but this is not the core of their issues from my perspective.
BigE and Zuna are both talented players, easily top 20 in NA. However, both players fill the same role within a team. They are both at their best when they can make plays from a position of high damage. Further, neither has a true flex hero pool. I wouldn’t want either player on Vikings or Abathur. I also would not want to put either player on Zarya or Arthas. Neither is going to be at their best on a Tassadar or secondary support. There are players who shine in these roles, but both Zuna and Bigempct will always perform better when on the Greymanes, Li-Mings, and Tracers of the game. To put both players in the best position possible, they would have to always play compositions with two ranged assassins, or stick Zuna on Zeratul every game. This is too limiting for a team trying to contend for the top.
Were I Naventic’s coach, I would essentially start from scratch. As they’ve started to do I would quickly sign Kure to fill the tank role. Now, obviously Kure is not a tank player currently, he’s a prominent assassin. Should he want to stay in that role he should avoid Naventic like the plague. However, if I’m Naventic’s coach, I would rather work with a player who showed promise in the role and commit a few months to having him learn the role rather than go back down the road of having Zuna tank, or picking up another weak tank player.
We’d discuss as a team what to do with Kenma, but unless there are lots of toxicity issues happening, this would not be a priority change for me. I would then immediately have Tomster regain his former glory as a melee player. Zuna and I would have a long talk about identifying and defining his hero pool. Then, once I’ve got a clear understanding of how to optimize Zuna, I would find a player who’s hero pool compliment’s Zuna.
I’d be looking for a player who has the flexibility to play the odd specialists like Abathur, but also shines when playing a second support. I would also want that player to have a strong stable of Ranged assassins for when Zuna is needed on Zeratul or Genji. Essentially, my team would be built around Zuna and Tomster. Both players would be drafted into their strengths, and the rest of the team would be skilled and flexible enough to give them the support they need to carry.
Limitation is Not Weakness
This is the core concept that NA still struggles to understand. Dreadnaught has talked about it a number of times, but the goal in Heroes is to put the “burden of execution” on the enemy team. People think that you need to be able to play everything, and that more flexibility is always good. This is not the case. The game only has two bans in the draft. It is impossible to truly target-ban a player like you can in other MOBAs. By limiting your team to what works best you are making the team stronger. Drafting becomes easier, practice becomes more efficient, and analysis becomes more useful.
My challenge to every player is the really examine your hero pool. Don’t be the guy who applies for my team and tells me “I can play anything”. What you’re telling me is that you actually don’t know where you best fit into a team. You haven’t put in the work to really develop a competitive hero pool. Then, once you understand where you excel, stand by that. If you are a ranged assassin player, only join a team who will play you in that role. If you’re at your best when playing melee, make sure your prospective team understands how to draft for success with a pure melee player. If they want you to develop a Sylvanas, don’t be afraid to say no. Explain why they will be better off learning how to draft around not having that hero, or having another player play it. If a teammate quits the team, replace their role. Don’t shuffle the whole team around just to accommodate the most talented player available. Mechanical skill can grow with practice, player fit is so much more important.
As the HGC continues to grow we will see more teams come to understand the importance of role definition. This will likely be one of the areas where coaches are most helpful. Players often struggle with really identifying their role, and can get bored playing the same small pool of heroes game after game. It’s the job of the coach to put the players in the best position to win–to protect them from themselves. I firmly believe that this is the most critical point of growth for all HGC teams, and the more each team is able to master it, the faster we’ll see them grow into international contenders.