Late last night, Heroes of the Storm reached into my chest, tore out my heart, and began to vigorously stomp on it. It cackled maniacally while doing this. And all I could do was sit back and watch in a daze.
A few weeks ago, Blizzard’s new-ish MOBA reset the rankings for its highly competitive “Hero League” mode, forcing everyone participating in HL to play through twenty qualifying matches before receiving a new rank. The rankings in Heroes are uniquely spartan in comparison to the other major MOBAs. League of Legends, the most popular game in the genre, has seven different ranks, each with five self-contained tiers embedded within. HOTS just has the numbers 1 through 50, 1 being the best rank. You move up in the ranks by winning HL matches; victories award you a certain amount of ranked points, while losses subtract them. Except for the first ten ranks—until you reach 40, you can only go up in rank.
There’s been little rhyme or reason to the HOTS ranking system since I began playing during the closed beta, but I’d managed to settle into a comfortable groove around the 25-30 range prior to the reset. I expected to land somewhere similar this time around. I didn’t.
Last night I streamed my last five ranked qualifiers. I’d only lost 5 of the previous 15, so I think that my winrate alone left me in a good position to at least maintain my old rank. Better yet, me and my fellow HOTS-playing friends just seemed to keep winning.
I had an easy first game as the giant ladybug known as Anub’arak:
Two similar games with King Leoric:
An aggressive stomping with The Butcher—one my favorite assassins in the game, and the character I’m best with:
I decided to go with Zeratul for the final game. He’s my favorite character in Heroes, the one I first truly fell in love with, and the one I’ve still played the most games as (almost 200 at this point). He’s also a very tricky champion to play with well because of how precisely targeted and well-timed his special abilities must be, so I was feeling a little rusty with him. I died a lot, and it was an intensely close game. Somehow, we pulled through in the end thanks to a combination of luck and well-orchestrated team fights.
Right before that final Zeratul game began, Smi1ey, one of the people I was playing with, joked to me: “What if, after going through all of this, you just end up with 40?” The joke was: 40 is literally the lowest possible rank you can achieve in HOTS if you have any modicum of experience playing ranked. The only way you can be below 40 is by being very new to the game. I’ve played almost 1,000 HOTS games at this point. Being rank 40 is sort of the MOBA equivalent of getting handed a “thanks for participating!” trophy.
Ha ha ha, we all went. If only we knew what was going to happen next.
In the clip below, you can hear the exact moment that Heroes of the Storm crushed my soul:
The little circular meter started to fill up expectantly, and I held my breath.
It was rank 40.
Not rank 30, or 35, or even 39. 40.
I’d gone 15-5 in my ranked qualifiers, routinely played around rank 25-27 prior to the reset, and here I was: dropped way back at the very beginning of one’s climb up the HOTS ranked ladder.
Talking to my friend Carlo on the Stream, I compared the feeling of receiving a far lower rank than I believed I deserved or was capable of achieving to the moment I got my rejection letter from Brown University my senior year of high school. I was only half joking.
My goal in playing MOBAs has always been to achieve a sufficient level of mastery that I can actually enjoy myself in the game—which is a feat unto itself for games as large as complex as Heroes, Dota 2, and League of Legends. Fun can mean a lot of different things in games like these, though. In League of Legends, I continue to find joy in the process of discovery—being startled when playing against a scary champion for the first time, or excited when I pair well with another. It’s different in HOTS. I feel like I covered all the general bases in that game a while ago. And still I’ve wanted more.
Part of the drive to keep playing Heroes comes from the fact that the game is super fun, obviously. But I also want to win, to know that I’ve played well, and have the game recognize that in turn. Maybe the upsetting takeaway for me is that I’m really not that good at this game; maybe it was just the “fun” part of Blizzard’s game design equation that allowed me to trick myself into believing I was.
We all to think that we’re above average—a fantasy that video games normally allow us, or even encourage us, to indulge. But there will always be better and worse players in a competitive multiplayer game. Now I’m beginning to wonder if the real value that MOBAs have in my life is the way they’ve trained my emotional endurance. Because HOTS taught me a profound and exceedingly painful lesson in how unfair life can feel sometimes. But still, you’ve got to power through.
I played a few more games of ranked this morning, and was happy to see my HL score jump 200 points or so with each win.
Thanks so much to everyone who watched the stream last night, it was a lot of fun!