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Why I Think Blizzard Must Revert the Hero League Party Size Change

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Blizzard has now limited Hero League to solo players and parties of 2. Check out why we think this is a mistake here.

 

On September 2nd 2015, Blizzard announced their plans to limit the party size for Hero League to 2, effectively preventing groups of 3 or 4 players from queueing together (groups of 5 players hadn't been able to queue in Hero League since the August 18th patch). Despite a massive amount of negative feedback from the community to the September 2nd announcement (hundreds of comments to that post stand testament), the change finally went live with the patch introducing Rexxar, on the 8th of September.

 

In this article, I will go over my reasons for thinking that this change is not good for the future of the game, and I will make the case that Blizzard has to revert the change, or at the very least promptly offer new systems for parties of 3 and 4 players.

 

Refuting Blizzard's Arguments

 

In the September 2nd announcement, Blizzard provided 3 reasons for why this change was needed and/or a good idea.

 

  1. Players within a party (of 4 players, according to Blizzard, but presumably also of 2 or 3 players) can have varying skill levels. Blizzard claims that while these partied players are happy playing together despite differences in skill, the solo-queuing player on the team should not be forced to suffer this skill discrepancy.
  2. Parties of 4 (though, again, presumably also of 3) communicate internally and are inclined to exclude solo-queueing players from the strategy discussions, reducing the team's efficiency and causing frustrations for the solo players.
  3. There are far fewer parties of 3 and 4 players in Hero League than there are solo-queueing players or parties of 2. As a result, Blizzard felt comfortable removing the former from Hero League in order to improve Match Quality for the latter.

 

In the comments to Blizzard's announcement, which are brimming with outrage and disappointment, players were quick to point out the flaws in Blizzard's logic. I will limit myself to making the simplest cases against Blizzard's argument.

 

Argument 1

 

Argument 1 is Blizzard's strongest argument, on the face of it. Varying levels of skill within a Hero League team can lead to issues. Players who solo-queue end up being placed into a team with much stronger or much weaker players, who are only there to compensate for the skill levels of others in the party. Similarly, they may face much stronger or much weaker players on the other team for the same reasons.

 

An example of the problem (or a connected problem, anyway) is a Rank 1 Hero League player queueing together with several Rank 50 Hero League players. The opponents that the Matchmaking system finds for them will be stronger than the Rank 50 players, but so much weaker than the Rank 1 player that this player can overwhelm them and single-handedly win the game.

 

While this is indeed a real problem, Blizzard is applying a band-aid fix to it, one which causes a number of players to no longer be able to play the game with their friends (which will likely drive some of them not to play at all).

 

The obvious fix to this issue is for Blizzard to improve their matchmaking system. Dota 2, one of the greatest rivals to Heroes of the Storm, allows groups of 3 players and groups of 5 players to queue together. Their limitation only excludes groups of 4 players, but it is still much better than Blizzard's solution of locking out groups of 3, 4, and 5. Moreover, Dota 2 is a game in which individual players can have a greater impact on the outcome than in Heroes of the Storm (levels are not team-wide, there are no "map objectives" as such, Heroes can grow disproportionately strong through items). In other words, it is much easier for an exceptional player to carry in Dota 2 than in Heroes of the Storm.

 

Dota 2 solves the issue in part by having two separate MMRs for players. One is a solo MMR, and the other is a party MMR (in addition to which there is also a separate team MMR). This allows players to enjoy ranked games both solo and with their friends.

 

Another game with similar problems, albeit in a different genre, is Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. There, players are not limited in the least for how they queue for competitive games (parties of 2, 3, 4, and 5 all work), and somehow Valve have managed to create a working matchmaking system to accommodate such parties. And what is true for Dota 2 is also true for Counter-Strike: individual players have a much greater impact on the outcome of a match than in Heroes of the Storm, meaning that rank discrepancies are even more problematic.

 

How the matchmaking algorithms of these two titles work I do not know, but it is obvious that you can have reasonably balanced games (no one claims, I believe, that the matchmaking in Dota 2 and CS:GO is without problems) without overly long queue times and without blocking entire segments of the playerbase from accessing the game.

 

Argument 2

 

Argument 2 is based on a seed of truth, but its connection with the party size change is tenuous at best. Communication in Heroes of the Storm games (be they Quick Match or Hero League) is not strong. Many games go by with only a few map signals and little or no text chat. This much is true. However, I would argue that a Hero League team comprised of a party of 4 players and a solo player will have much better communication and teamwork, overall, than a party of 5 different solo players, or two parties of 2 players and a solo player. The notion that 5 solo-queuers placed in a game together will suddenly begin communicating and discussing strategy where a party of 3 and two solo-queuers were not is far-fetched.

 

In my personal experience, parties of 2 are often very detrimental to teamwork in general, because they have the ability to lane together and, for the most part, isolate themselves from the rest of the team. On the other hand, parties of 3 and 4 players are forced (with exceptions, of course) to cover different lanes and, as such, be involved in the team's actions over more of the map.

 

Moreover, while a solo-queueing player who is matched with a party of 4 may indeed feel somewhat left out as the 4-player party communicates over Skype or some other voice program, most players would be happy to suffer this loss in socialisation for the added benefit of having 80% of the team working together towards a common goal, therefore greatly increasing the chances of an enjoyable, coordinated game (if not of outright victory).

 

Bonus Tip: What Blizzard could do if they want to alleviate communication issues in the game is make communication easier! One obvious way of doing this is including voice chat in the game. When we asked Dustin Browder about this during our Gamescom interview, he said that it is a feature they are interested in but which they have no timetable for (read: it's not a bad idea but they have no plans to implement it).

 

At the very least, incentives could be given to players who communicate. A system that allows players to commend others for "good communication" and which offers soft rewards for a certain number of commendations (a mount, a player profile) might incentivize communication a lot more.

 

Argument 3

 

Argument 3 is perhaps the most non-sensical. The very idea that there are not many parties of 3 and 4 players in Hero League undermines Blizzard's original point. They claim that since there are few such parties, it is fine to remove them completely from Hero League. However, if there are few such parties to begin with, it means that they show up in few games and therefore also negatively affect the experience of equally few solo-queueing players. What we are left with, then, is the notion that Blizzard were happier removing players from the game completely instead of having a proportional amount of players have a less-than-optimal experience (an assumption which, as we pointed out just above, is very doubtful).

 

Regardless of the number of players affected by this change, the point stands that it is a change in the wrong direction. This is the first time that I can think of that Blizzard is actually pushing players away from playing one of their games. No matter how many parties of 3 and 4 players show up in Hero League, this solution is a poor one.

 

Suggested Alternatives

 

In a recent tweet from Dustin Browder, an Unranked Draft Mode was proposed as a solution. In addition to this, a number of community members have been quick to offer possible solutions. It is my opinion than none of these proposed solutions are viable, and that instead Blizzard must simply revert the party size limitation and improve their Matchmaking system.

 

Unranked Draft Mode

 

An Unranked Draft Mode is a solution put forward by those who think that the appeal of Hero League lies mainly (or exclusively) in the ability to draft Heroes for a known map, and counter-pick the other team. There is a strong probability that this Unranked Draft Mode will make it into the game, as Dustin Browder suggested on Twitter.

 

This would allow players to experience the drafting process without having Ranks to fight over (and for which the MMR system would need to account). It would be, in a way, like a parallel Hero League where there is no stake and no party limitations.

 

I believe that the end-goal of potentially reaching Rank 1 (or at least, a high rank) in Hero League is the main reason people choose to play in that format. The drafting process is a necessary requirement of any competitive match system, but it is not the main reason to play competitive matches.

 

The lack of stake in Unranked Draft Mode leads to a possibly extremely frustrating problem. Imagine that you and two friends queue into Unranked Draft Mode to get as close as possible to a "competitive" game feel. You sit through (and enjoy) the drafting process, you load into the map, and then you realize that your two teammates have either no idea how to play their Heroes or have no real interest in winning the game. Why? Because there is no more incentive to winning this game than there is to winning a Quick Match. Can the same happen in Hero League? Yes, but the incentive of ranks makes it much less likely.

 

Finally, even if Blizzard begin working on an Unranked Draft Mode today, it will still probably take some time to make it into the game. Time during which segments of the player population are left without any viable option for competitive play (and which Unranked Draft Mode does not really solve, anyway).

 

Quick Match and Team League

 

Quick Match is often suggested as an alternative to players who want to play together as parties of 3 or 4. It can be an enjoyable experience, and indeed many players (even those over the level 30 required to access Hero League) only play this format. It is a good learning tool. It allows players to complete their quests or play new Heroes without too much pressure to perform on their shoulders. It allows experienced Heroes of the Storm players to bring their friends into the game without throwing them into a very tough, competitive environment.

 

But Quick Match also has a slew of problems. Because most people use Quick Match to complete quests with Heroes that they do not like to play, or to try out new Heroes, the overall quality of games suffers. Furthermore, since it is impossible to know what Battleground you will queue into or what composition the other team will have, ideas like countering the other team's Heroes or choosing a Hero that is strong on a given map are thrown out the window. These are aspects that add a lot of depth to Heroes of the Storm.

 

Quick Match games also often feature players who are trying out the game for the first time(s), and they have the potential of being mirror matches (which can be boring and, at any rate, reduce the immersion of players).

 

But the biggest problem with Quick Match is that there is nothing to play for. It has no stake. Most people who play Hero League do so not just for the increased level of competitiveness, but also because they want to improve their rank. They want to be able to quantify their improvement and their success. Even if most of them will never reach Hero League Rank 1, it is still a goal to aspire to which motivates players. Quick Match lacks such an end-goal, not to mention that it lacks the ability to pick and counter-pick Heroes based on Battleground and on the other team's Hero picks.

 

Team League is often touted as the go-to alternative for 3 and 4-player parties who cannot engage in Hero League. But this is not a viable solution either.

 

Chances are that groups of 5 or more friends are already playing Team League, provided that they can and want to play Heroes of the Storm together competitively. And if a group has fewer than 5 players, playing in Team League involves a number of things.

 

For one, 1-2 strangers must be found and then brought into the group of friends. Then, a schedule must be devised where all 5 players can now be online at the same time in order to engage in Team League games (and everyone knows how difficult synchronizing the schedules of 5 different people can be). Finally, the aspirations of the new recruit(s) must be appeased (these new players may not be satisfied with losing games, since they joined a team to perform well, and not to play with friends).

 

More than anything else, though, switching from a group of 3 friends to a team of 5 players (including 2 recruits) and using this team of 5 players to play exclusively against other 5-man teams considerably raises the intensity of the competitive level. Long gone are the relaxing 2-3 hour playing sessions after school or work; now you've got "team practice" and you had better not fail!

 

Mixed Hero League

 

This is a suggestion I have not seen thrown around very much, and which I have tentatively named "Mixed Hero League". I propose that this be implemented instead of "Unranked Draft Mode", and that it should essentially be a Hero League that is open to solo-queuers and parties of 2, 3, 4, and 5 players. Any solo-queuing players who do not want to participate here and instead only play against other solo-queuing players would have an option for "Solo queue only", which would instead place them in a sort of "Solo Hero League".

 

This would allow partied players to enjoy the game with their friends in any combination whatsoever, while still giving players the option to participate in a ranked environment where there are no parties. It is possible that not enough players would tick the "Solo queue only" option, of course, resulting in poor matchmaking and long queue times for these games, but this would speak volumes for the popularity of a Solo Hero League.

 

It has been pointed out that it is problematic to have so many parallel matchmaking queues running, but I fail to see how much of a difference there is between two ranked queues (Hero League and Team League) and 3, especially if you consider that both Quick Match and Unranked Draft Mode use MMR, even if this is not reflected in any visible ranks.

 

Reverting the Change

 

In my opinion, Blizzard have no choice but to revert this change and allow parties of 3 and 4 players back into Hero League. I would go so far as to say they should allow parties of 5 players in as well (as Dota 2 does). They must do this or else see a significant loss of interest from a solid chunk of their playerbase.

 

Not everyone who is playing in groups of 3 and 4 will outright quit Heroes of the Storm because of this, but some will. And why wouldn't they, when they can play together with their friends in any number of other online games.

 

I would argue that the proposed benefits of this limitation (improving the experience of solo players and improving team communication) are not worth excluding parties from Hero League, and are also probably not even attainable by excluding these parties from Hero League.

 

Instead of having these limitations, Blizzard must simply improve the matchmaking system of Heroes of the Storm and provide players with the tools and the incentives to promote communication and teamwork.

 

What is your opinion? Are you happy that solo-queueuing players no longer have to be paired with and against groups of 3, 4, and 5 players? If you are playing in a group of 3 and 4, will you switch to Team League? Quick Match? Unranked Draft Mode? Or will you give up altogether?

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So much truth in this post.

I was so dissapointed with these changes, because I was just about to start playing hero league with my friends, and then this happens. HoTS does have alot of potential, the game is fun and all that, but this is just isn't healthy for the game anymore.

The fact that this game is supposed to be heavily based on team work to accomplish your goals, and instead they're pushing us more to queing solo. Just plain ridiculous.

I pretty much agree with your point of fixing the matchmaking system, it still isn't working as it should. Fixing that would solve most of the problems this game has.

Adding voice chat also seems like a good idea, since stopping to write is mostly too slow. In case you're playing in a group of 4 friends, and the 5th one being solo, you can easily share your strategy with him/her with in-game chat, while using skype etc. With your friends to goof around or something similar :D Of course there should also be the option to toggle it off, in case you don't want to use it.

I'm also one of those that would prefer to get rid of random team comps and add drafting in quick match too (it isn't that quick anymore though :D) Sometimes you'll just get so bad team comps that some matches become unwinnable only because of that. This is just my opinion. It wouldn't be that bad to add un-ranked draft mode in the future, when the most problematic things have been solved.

I won't give up on this game yet, as I said, this game does have alot of potential. Blizzard just has to listen to the feedback they're given, especially when the recent changes have left majority of the fans unsatisfied.

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      or…
      Focusing on claiming key pieces during key moments?
      The answer is “it depends”. Although both tactics may lead to victory, the first style is opportunistic whereas the second is analytical. Unfortunately for the second player, their strategy would be much harder for a performance-based system to evaluate; how would it know what defines a key piece, let alone a key moment? The first approach is mathematical; one is better than zero and, generally, “free” trades correlate with winning, which is more or less why they are inexistant at a high level chess unless intentional.
      In chess, you aren’t rewarded for losing less, and the reason for this is that the underlying ELO system is robust and self-correcting; rating resets don’t occur every couple months, let alone twice in a week, and rating gains and losses are small. Of course, the ELO system isn’t beyond reproach, but I think it’s fair to say that players understand that long-term results are what matter, not individual game results. And, it doesn’t run the risk of overvaluing Queen taking Rook because of insufficient or misinterpreted data.

      Queen literally takes Rook during a Tribute fight. Siege damage is important to Zagara, says data.
      As you can tell probably tell by now, I’m very skeptical about how such a system is supposed to evaluate what differentiates a highly skilled player, period, regardless of what hero it is they’re playing. Here’s a concrete example of what I mean by that: Although I don’t consider myself to be a particularly strong mechanical player, I have always managed to maintain a rather high win/loss ratios, for a team game, back in my active days anyway. Why? I’d be lying if I didn’t say that many of these victories weren’t simply due to outdrafting opponents, clear non-confrontational shotcalling, encouraging teammates, defusing infighting, taking every match seriously, knowing when and why to engage, going over mistakes, and generally making powerful macro decisions. On top of being that one weird guy that says “can play anything*, prefer assassin or specialist, let’s try to ban x and pick y.” Doesn’t reading that first thing in any given lobby instill confidence in the rest of your teammates? I bet this translates into wins every once in a while, so why not do it?
      I tend to thrive on waveclear tanks with strong engaging power because they let me decide exactly when a minion wave needs to push or when an enemy hero needs to die despite low mechanical ceilings.

      And now you know how to ban me out.
      *…whereas I couldn’t outplay most of my opponents to save my life. I accept my fate as one of the worst Illidan players in existence, and I’m fine with it.

      I have nothing to add, your honor.
      The great irony here is that none of the aforementioned elements that I feel make me, and probably many other players, reasonably strong are – nor can be – taken into account by any automated system because they’re simply too subjective. Why exactly am I being punished for not mindlessly using my abilities on-cooldown and padding my numbers? We get it; dealing damage is important. But what about useful damage? How can that ever be taken into account by a machine? This might sound like an argument from incredulity but, as I see it, we have plenty of evidence to conclude that the system isn’t quite working as intended.
      Of course, within this system, winning is still what matters most, and by far. Fortunately for me, my skillset does tend to translate into wins. But obfuscating one’s point gains and losses behind questionable variables is going to, at best, confuse players, and at worst, breed harmful behaviour. These two consequences have already been observed.
      TL;DR:
      A solid performance-based matchmaking system can have positive effects on matchmaking by allowing players to find their appropriate MMR faster. However, what defines a good player in a complex, team-oriented game goes well beyond what any data collection system can collect, interpret, and use. In its current state, the performance-based matchmaking system is at best unnecessary and at worst obfuscating, and ultimately risks breeding harmful player behaviour.
      I’ll allow myself to end on a bit of wisdom: If you play to improve, you’ll never lose a game in your life. And the sooner you quit worrying about your rank, the sooner you’ll be able to focus on what really matters.