There is one game above all others that makes sense for a full-blown revitalization effort, should Microsoft close its deal for Activision-Blizzard.
If you've been living under a rock, you may be unaware that Microsoft and Xbox are trying to purchase Activision-Blizzard for a cool $69 billion dollars. Activision is of course the studio behind mega franchises like Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, and Overwatch, although the studio has decades worth of legacy content that is currently dormant. Titles like Skylanders, Guitar Hero, and Tony Hawk's Pro Skater are just a brief expression of the great and noteworthy content Activision has yet to revisit in recent years, as it chased trends to satisfy share price growth. Microsoft does a fair bit of that as well of course, but the fundamentals of platform growth differ somewhat from Activision's own goals, opening up a world of new possibilities.
If I dare to dream for a moment, here's one game I think Microsoft should give serious thought to revitalizing should the deal close later this year, and why it absolutely and unequivocally makes more sense than any of Activision-Blizzard's other recent titles.
This is Heroes of the Storm, the world's most underrated MOBA, and one of my personal picks for best PC games ever.
Heroes of the Storm: the world's most underrated MOBA
Heroes of the Storm (HOTS) effectively became mothballs of the storm a couple of years ago, as Blizzard threw in the towel in its attempts to court interest from the hardcore MOBA crowd. MOBA stands for multiplayer online battle arena, and is a huge genre on both PC and mobile, but has yet to really take off on console for the most part — potentially presenting Microsoft with an opportunity.
The core goal of a MOBA, practically all MOBAs, is to destroy the enemy base. Typically, you will fight back and forth across the map, using defensive towers to shelter from incoming enemy players and their AI creeps.
Heroes of the Storm differed from its peers by offering a more accessible approach. Players wouldn't have to navigate in-match economies and the potential inter-team conflicts that arise as a result of that. Heroes of the Storm players also share all the exp gained during a match, to ensure the entire team levels up together. Blizzard attempted to add dynamism with objective-oriented maps on rotation instead. HOTS characters also gain talents as they level up during a match, with unique character builds that can completely change how a character plays, similarly to World of Warcraft. What makes HOTS an absolute winner for me above all is ultimately what Blizzard is known for to this day, and that is industry-leading character design.
Heroes of the Storm is to Blizzard what Super Smash Bros is to Nintendo. It's a cover-to-cover celebration of Blizzard's legacy, with heroes from Warcraft, Starcraft, Diablo, and Overwatch all available to play. As a free-to-play title, you need to unlock the characters permanently via in-game currency similar to League of Legends, but it's a relatively small price to pay for the opportunity to pick up some of your favorite characters from the depths of Blizzard lore.
As a shameless Blizzard devotee, it'll never stop being incredible seeing Deathwing share a stage with Diablo, while cutting them down with Gul'dan or Tychus. Blizzard went hard celebrating its most famous heroes but even sought out to flesh out some of its lesser-known characters like the murderous Stitches abomination from one of Warcraft's early starter zones, or The Lost Vikings from one of Blizzard's classic games. It helps that the game is pretty damn fun, too.
I am by no means a super hardcore MOBA player, but even in "maintenance mode" I find myself frequently returning to HOTS. I've tried League of Legends, DOTA2, and even Pokemon Unite, but always found HOTS to be my true MOBA home. It feels like Heroes of the Storm front-loads the most exciting moments in MOBA gameplay across shorter match times, which is better for me as someone who is generally impatient. I don't want to spend 20 minutes farming EXP off in some lane, I'd rather just get right into the brawling. Sadly, though, not long after I started playing, Blizzard took the axe to the game.
HOTS isn't truly "dead," but it's not exactly alive either. The game receives bug fix patches a couple of times per year, but Blizzard announced back in 2018 that development on new heroes and balance patches had all but ceased. The esports events were shut down. And the game's developers scattered to other companies or other internal projects. It was an inglorious end for a glorious game, that perhaps only needed a handful of philosophical changes to see some healthy player growth.
Why Heroes of the Storm makes sense for Xbox
If Microsoft does win its massive regulatory battle over Activision-Blizzard, Heroes of the Storm will be one of dozens of franchises fully under the control of Xbox. Microsoft has not been shy of its vision for the future of its gaming division, which revolves around meeting people on any device they choose to game on. Microsoft is a large publisher of games on competing console platforms these days, and has continued to support Minecraft as a cross-platform game since its acquisition there. Microsoft spoke of intentions to bring its games to NVIDIA's cloud platform, while also bringing Call of Duty and other titles to Nintendo Switch for the first time.
Microsoft's goal is to mirror Tencent's approach ultimately, with a focus on service games that can harvest large monthly audiences via free-to-play business models. However, Microsoft's goals are a little different, since it still has a large home console install base to speak of, and has some of the most popular gamepad accessories on the market. Furthermore, Microsoft's own cloud gaming platform, Xbox Cloud Gaming, is comprised entirely of console hardware. As gaming grows on mobile platforms, the Xbox console development environment effectively will grow with it, since it's all part of the same device family. Furthermore, a large part of Microsoft's future revolves around the subscription service Xbox Game Pass, and Activision-Blizzard stands to play a large part in that ecosystem.
Microsoft already has a tried and tested business model for a MOBA with Xbox Game Pass, in partnership with Riot and Tencent. Those who subscribe to Xbox Game Pass get INSTANT access to potentially hundreds or even thousands of dollars worth of content across Riot's games, from League of Legends to Teamfight Tactics. There's no reason to think this wouldn't also work incredibly well with Overwatch, Call of Duty, and of course, Heroes of the Storm, whose dozens of characters can be expensive to unlock piecemeal.
Beyond Xbox Game Pass, though, there just isn't a popular isometric MOBA on Xbox consoles right now. The only MOBA that really performs notably on console is Smite, and it has a third-person perspective. Microsoft has proven that it can make viable gamepad controls for genres typically designed for a mouse and keyboard with Age of Empires, and I would argue that Diablo and Pokemon Unite both already proved that you can do fixed-camera isometric action RPG gameplay with a controller. Pokemon Unite and League of Legends: Wildrift has also proven that they can work on touch devices too.
Heroes of the Storm is the absolute ideal candidate for a cross-platform, multi-mode multiplayer service game that could showcase Microsoft's tech across PC, consoles, and smartphones, in much the same way League of Legends: Wildrift is gradually working towards. You could filter playlists by input to preserve competitive integrity, but I feel like for casual play there's not the same kind of efficacy deficit you might see in competitive shooters between those with mice and keyboards and those without. The potential is blatantly obvious and potentially stronger than any of Blizzard's other dormant games for true cross-platform, multi-input play.
Are revivals going to actually happen?
Microsoft Gaming CEO Phil Spencer has name checked various Activision-Blizzard franchises while talking about the merger in interviews. Skylanders, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, and Starcraft to name a few. I have yet to hear Microsoft mention Heroes of the Storm, sadly, but I would hope they give it a serious look.
Microsoft revived Age of Empires despite the fact RTS is perhaps limited in mainstream appeal when compared to some other genres. Microsoft also painstakingly ported the game to Xbox, complete with gameplay changes and powerful gamepad controls. If Microsoft is willing to work to broaden the diversity of its Xbox Game Pass portfolio across all devices, Heroes of the Storm is an absolutely perfect candidate.
Heroes of the Storm still lives. 30 - 60 second queue time, still fun AF, still the best MOBA. I'll die on this hill forever. #HOTS #HeroesOfTheStorm pic.twitter.com/eo0UsBA2I8March 6, 2023
I can hear criticism of the idea of mixing mobile gamers in with core PC gamers or even console gamers before even hitting publish, but I would argue that it's better than allowing the game to remain dormant in perpetuity. Bringing in a player from mobile may eventually convert them into a core PC player too, and competitive ladders can remain split by input to preserve the game's competitive nature. There might be issues with regard to balance between input modes, but I doubt that these challenges would be insurmountable. Some classes might perform better than others on different types of inputs, but the same is true for Overwatch right now, which already has cross-platform play in casual modes.
I could also see a future where Xbox characters could guest in Heroes of the Storm too. The Nexus is a confluence of different timelines and universes after all, complete with heroes and villains that would have never met in any other game. What would it look like if The Butcher went toe to toe with Ogre from Killer Instinct, or Master Chief squared off against Sylvanas? It would bring the game to a whole new audience, elevating Xbox's properties and Blizzard's properties in equal measure. Fallout, DOOM, Halo, Gears of War, and beyond, could transform Heroes of the Storm into a celebration of popular franchises in a way that only Super Smash Brothers has been able to achieve previously.
It's fun to dream, but would it actually happen? Anything is possible in the Nexus, they say.
Grab a build from Icy-Veins.com, watch some character guides on YouTube, and jump into Heroes of the Storm for free using the link below.
Heroes of the Storm (PC)
Heroes of the Storm is a painfully underrated MOBA from Blizzard. Despite being in "maintenance mode," the game is still popular, with short queues and high-quality matches. Use the link here to download for free, and grab two free heroes in the process.
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Jez Corden a Managing Editor at Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by caffeine. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his Xbox Two podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!