“This team sucks,” the Raynor player quipped once again. “I want to quit,” he added a moment later. All I kept hearing was: I have the power to make your life miserable for the next twenty or thirty minutes, and I’m going to. But I wasn’t going to let him.
Once the game starts to get away from you, playing a match of a highly competitive MOBA like Heroes of the Storm or League of Legends can start to feel like you’re trapped in a subway car with the most virulent type of internet troll. They might start insulting you. Or they could moan and groan and stomp their feet in a more general fashion. During a recent Heroes match that I played, two of my teammates started to do both of these things at the same time.
I was playing very badly. We all were, really. Within five minutes the enemy team had established a strong lead, remaining consistently two to three levels ahead of us. This meant by the eight-minute mark, our opponents had already reached level 10. That’s the moment when each character on a HOTS teams unlocks their ultra-powerful “heroic abilities.” We were still at level 8. The person playing Jim Raynor, a soldier from the StarCraft universe, and our Malfurion, an elf from Warcraft lore, decided to start shitting on all of us.
“This game is over,” one of them typed. “gg.” The other agreed, typing “gg” as well. Every passing encounter with the enemy team brought a fresh reminder that yep, we were going to lose.
I wanted to prove them wrong. In my better moments, I’ve been able to. But in this game, I just kept dying.
This clip from the first half of the match shows what kind of shape we were in. I’m playing as Anub’arak, who’s normally a large beetle-type warrior from Warcraft lore. Here he looks more like a lady bug because I bought a special skin for him:
Every time I looked down at Anub’arak’s splayed-out corpse, his dead body glimmered as an unpleasant reminder. Whispering to me in an eager growl: Yes, these people are correct. You really do suck. It’s easy to get stuck in the momentum of your most recent few games in HOTS, and the last two I’d matches I’d played just before this had gone badly too. One ended with three of my teammates effectively surrendering by sitting at the back of our base and refusing to do anything—only moving their characters back and forth slightly to keep the game from noticing they weren’t playing and thus penalizing them.
Defeats are never a nice thing to experience. But moments like the one with Malfurion and Raynor—when one or more of your teammates starting venting their rage on whoever or whatever will take it—are the main thing in Heroes that actually feels defeating. Once our Malfurion started bemoaning the way the game was going, I knew that winning wasn’t going to only be an uphill battle against the mechanical gameplay odds we were facing—the fact that we were underpowered compared to our enemies, the way they had diced through our outer defenses leaving little more than a thin tissue between themselves and the heart of our base.
Securing a victory would also mean trying to revive our team’s forlorn spirits—right when two of us were doing their very best to make that impossible. Even when we managed to pick off one or two or our enemies, they wouldn’t let up. “We don’t even need our team,” Malfurion jabbed after he and another teammate managed to kill someone. A moment later, we were all dead again.
Normally when I’ve come across people like this particular Raynor or Malfurion, I’ve called them out for their destructive negative attitudes. I’ve even indulged my own ugly tendencies and lashed out at people in retaliation. And I almost started to help them pick a fight in this game, typing: “Thanks for your contributions.” It was the snidest remark I could think of.
But then I stopped, and decided to do something different. I decided to shut up, grit my teeth, and just keep playing the game, no matter what happened.
Somehow, we managed to take out the enemy team’s Rehgar, a wolf-man-type hero from the Warcraft universe, while they were pushing hard against our last line of defenses:
The surviving opponents started to run away. I noticed Valla, a live dual-crossbow-wielding assassin from Diablo, was low on health. I lunged towards her and didn’t stop chasing.
Looking back, that wasn’t a wise move. I was isolating myself from my allies, which was the same error that had kept getting us killed the whole beginning of the match. But it was so late in the game and our defeat was so seemingly probable that I didn’t care. I just wanted to get the kill, to make her pay.
I should have died. But something incredible happened when I chased Valla across the map:
I managed to kill both of the enemy assassins with the help of Malfurion—the player I’d grown to detest over the course of knowing him for fifteen minutes or so. Suddenly, the guy started to sound a very different tune.
“Ok guys,” he typed. “We can make a comeback. Just don’t engage dumbly.” We scrambled to capture two mercenary camps, sending the hellish monsters we’d overpowered to attack the enemy base for us. Then we ran back towards the gigantic angel and demon fighting at the center of the map. These are the two “Immortals” you’re supposed to help or hurt in this specific HOTS map, depending which side you’re on. The first team to kill the opposing Immortal gets rewarded with the big angel (or demon) jumping into the main battle and attacking the enemy base.
The Immortal was our only chance to turn things around. I died again when trying to take theirs down, losing myself to tunnel vision once again and not noticing the enemy team walking up behind me. But Raynor held them off until we could regroup.
Once we had the Immortal down, it was all or nothing. Too risky to bet that we’d manage to turn things around again if we didn’t manage to win the game right then and there. We had to make one final push:
I left this game feeling dizzy, exhausted, and starting to tear up. Like I’d accomplished something grand, but depleted my body and mind of all energy in the process.
I’d had comebacks before. I’d managed to execute maneuvers that, by some spectacular combination of luck and maybe a little dexterity, had turned an entire match around in a millisecond. But I’d never pressed this hard against the specter of defeat. People who don’t play MOBAs might not realize this, but cutting your teeth in Heroes and its ilk requires real emotional labor. You fight not just with the enemy, but with your own teammates if they start to turn on you. And with your own sinking feeling of defeat telling you to give up and stop caring about this one.
Why do you even bother playing a game like this? My friends always ask when I start griping about some jerk or another I encountered in my last match of Heroes or League of Legends, a bad game that set me off in even worse ways. I do it for the moments like this comeback, the exhilarating highs that make the ten or twenty bad games that came before them feel worth it.
It’s odd to rewatch this game after it ended. I played much more clumsily than I remembered. Not during the beginning portion of the game—obviously that was bad. But during those triumphant moments that felt so spectacular in the moment. Taking out Valla and Nova, and feeling like I’d bought my team a second chance at life. Looking back, I was still faltering, still jumping in and out of fights in the wrong directions, still making mistakes even as my team began to rebound. I wasn’t paying close enough attention to my surroundings, focusing entirely on the single target at hand that I’d chosen in my fit of desperation.
That’s what makes a comeback like this feel so amazing, though, and what makes Heroes of the Storm special. That feeling—like you’re carrying an entire army on your shoulders—is more important than the mechanical minutiae of one specific play or another.
It’s tempting to always focus on the superhuman feats that professional eSports players can accomplish, much like we do with their non-electronic forbearers. But what’s revolutionary about MOBAs is the fact that, unlike something like professional basketball, they’re games that let you do more than just sit and gawk at some eight foot tall behemoth who handles a ball better than you ever will. They give everyone who plays them a chance to achieve something.
Something that feels truly great, even if just for a moment.