About four years ago, the teams at Tespa and Blizzard Entertainment had a crazy idea: A college esports tournament for a video game, Heroes of the Storm, still in its beta testing stage, with full-ride scholarships as the prize.
Nowadays, Heroes of the Dorm is the best-known college esports event in North America. And after four years, it has graduated from an inaugural season that had just weeks of planning to a marquee event not just in the college esports scene, but for esports and sports fans nationwide.
Dorm has been on ESPN2. It has given full rides to 15 students and provided college career-defining moments and memories to thousands of others. With its fourth iteration beginning Saturday at Blizzard Arena in Burbank, California, ESPN talked to former champions and event founders as a new guard prepares to compete in the Heroic Four.
Hundreds of teams signed up for the first Heroes of the Dorm -- an enthusiastic response followed by some chaotic weeks for Tespa and in the tournament field as a whole. Teams failed to show up for matches or dropped out after realizing how tough the competition was. A quarterfinalist, UConn's Tricky Turtles, was disqualified the day before competing for a semifinal berth because a player didn't meet enrollment requirements.
But the show went on, and Cal, one of college esports' preeminent powers even today, earned the inaugural championship with a 3-2 victory against Arizona State.
Adam Rosen, Tespa co-founder: The entire program for Heroes of the Dorm came together in a very short amount of time. Probably a month before we launched the program, we began ideating around what the program could look like and what it could be. Internally, our team was running at 100 miles per hour and thinking about everything that needed to happen to make the event come to life. Leading up to the event, I think everyone was a little on edge with anticipation and hoping we didn't forget anything.
We had really never had any Heroes of the Storm live events. The game was still in beta at the time of the first Heroes of the Dorm, so we had a lot of questions around whether we'd be able to fill a huge venue with fans who love not just Heroes but also love collegiate Heroes. There was a lot of work that went into promoting the event properly and making sure we were able to attract fans that hadn't even played the game yet.
Then, when the event went live on ESPN, we saw two really different camps of responses. The first camp was surprised and supportive of seeing esports on TV and growing to be so well-respected on college campuses. The other group was really against it: "This isn't the sports that I'm used to. Get it away. I don't want to deal with it."
I think now, we're in a world where a lot of that negativity we saw originally has essentially evaporated. We have a program in the collegiate landscape at large that is really respected and admired by students and also the universities that are involved, as well.
Tempo Storm player Fan Yang, an inaugural Dorm winner: I don't think any of us expected how big it would be. We'd played a little bit in online tournaments and stuff. I remember playing a few amateur and online tournaments in Heroes of the Storm, and these were tournaments where if you won you got $100 split across the whole team kind of thing, right? That was at a level where some pro teams were even playing. We didn't expect too much from Heroes of the Dorm, kind of entered because it seemed like a fun thing to do, and it exceeded all our expectations.
Heroes of the Dorm: Cal Berkeley vs. Arizona State
Arizona State takes on the undefeated titans of the tournament, Cal Berkeley, in a best of five that would prove worthy of the Grand Finals.
The scale was probably one of the biggest things about Heroes of the Dorm for me, personally; and I can't speak for my teammates, but I'm sure they probably all thought the same thing. It was really the first time I'd been on a real, live stage with all of the lights shining on top of me, a huge audience, people as far as the eye can see cheering as you play. It was a completely different experience for me. It's really hard for me to describe.
It's one of the main reasons I became a pro player, to chase that feeling of excitement and just the feeling of when you win on that stage in front of the crowd. My heartbeat was in my ears pretty much the whole match.
When we won, it was pretty surreal. I'm generally a pretty reserved and quiet person, but right when we won, I was screaming my head off. There were pictures I saw afterward of the winning moment with the confetti falling down, and my mouth was wide open; I was screaming as loud as I could. I couldn't believe we had actually done it.
Gale Force eSports captain Michael Udall, who played for runner-up ASU: My first thought when I heard about Dorm was that I could prove to my parents that all that time I spent playing video games growing up wasn't a waste of time. The first time I really ever got involved was when I posted on Reddit with my rank and said I'd really like to make a team. Someone reached out to me -- it was one day before registration closed -- and that was Stefen "akaface" Anderson, who was my teammate until just recently at Gale Force eSports.
That first year, I never expected to actually go to the finals. I never truly thought it would happen. When I actually made it to the venue and walked up onstage, I was so nervous. I could barely keep my hands from shaking.
I will never forget the first Heroes of the Dorm, walking offstage and having the confetti go off and hearing everyone cheering and just knowing how close I was. That was actually one of the defining moments of my esports career. I think it was so good for me to lose, because it filled me with this fire and drive.
You weren't allowed to take your phones up onstage, so I remember walking off and checking my phone and not being able to respond to any message because I kept getting a new message, getting a new tweet, getting a new text. At the end of the night, I had like 250 texts from a bunch of people I went to high school with, a bunch of people I hadn't talked to in like three to five years: "Dude, I just saw you on ESPN. That was so cool!"
Udall's drive was rewarded in the second year of Dorm: Arizona State cruised through the competition en route to a championship. The path was smoother for Tespa and Blizzard too, as the game came into its own and the tournament organization was fleshed out.
Rosen: Year One, we learned a ton of valuable lessons. We learned the basics, we figured out how to put on a good show and how all the pieces come together, and we figured out what we didn't know, most importantly. Year Two, we focused a lot on improving the experience, so we stated looking at how we take this foundation that we built and how we make it more compelling for viewers.
I remember after the first year of Heroes of the Dorm, we'd go out and work with universities directly, and a lot of times what we found was a lot of these groups had not been exposed to esports before. A lot of them hadn't heard of our professional leagues before, and a lot of them haven't even heard of the games themselves. But a lot of them, we found, had heard of Heroes of the Dorm because of the dialogue it started within not only the esports community, but the broader sports and collegiate community.
Heroes of the Dorm has been a bit of a catalyst for helping to shape the mainstream culture and the mainstream perspective around what esports is and its role in competition and entertainment as a whole.
Udall: In the second year, that was the whole goal. That team was created to win. If we didn't win, we were going to be livid.
Arizona State wins Heroes of the Dorm!
ASU wins Heroes of the Dorm 2016 after an undefeated tournament run.
The next year, our team just absolutely dominated. We didn't drop a map the entire finals series. To work that hard and see it pay off was such a big deal.
We were lined up as five, we were talking to Anna Prosser, who was the host, and Austin "Shot" Lonsert goes to his mom and goes, "I won college tuition for you" and just starts bawling. That's just where our team's emotions were at. We could barely contain ourselves.
You don't realize how much it means until it's the financial quarter and you don't have to pay. I'll never forget going back to school the next semester and being like, "Oh, OK, I don't have to ask my parents for money." That's when it really hit me.
Pro player Yusuf Sunka, who played for 2016 runner-up UT Arlington: When League of Legends blew up, a lot of my friends who didn't have prior commitments were becoming pro players. They were playing in front of sold-out crowds and making tons of money, and I would always wistfully think, "Maybe in a different life, it'd be me," right? Once we started playing Dorm and made it to the final, we got flown out to Seattle. There was a documentary being filmed, so there were cameras following us 24/7. We were being moved from room to room like celebrities. And then we got to play in front of a huge crowd with the stage rumbling because of the cheers. For a few days, I got to live that dream. Having that experience -- playing in front of that crowd and having that rush -- I realized that maybe that dream wasn't too far away.
I actually didn't really want to play Heroes at first. I didn't really like the game. It took a bit of convincing, but it was only a few months. So, we played the tournament and ended up actually getting second place and losing to ASU in the final.
They told me if we make it to the final, you get a free computer and a chance for tuition. I didn't really believe them -- yeah, like we're going to make the final. But as we started practicing, I realized we were actually a pretty good team, and we made a pretty crazy run.
I realized I'd only been playing the game for like two months or so, and we made it to the final. Imagine with one year of practice what we could do? From the moment we lost, even though my original plan was to quit and go back to casually playing League, I decided to pursue Heroes and win Dorm in 2017.
In Year Three, a runner-up once again returned to the main stage for the Heroic Four. Sunka and UT Arlington ran up against a tougher test than expected in LSU, but the previous season's experience helped Sunka bring his team a title.
Sunka: You're thrust on this stage, and you're expected to perform, and for a lot of players, that's a jarring task. We normally play from home with all of our comforts. Even the online league is stressful, but any mistakes you make, maybe 10,000 people max watched it. It could be worse. When you're on a stage, though, it feels a lot more real. Every mistake you make, it messes with you. I didn't really handle it too well the first time.
LSU, who we played in the final, they kind of got in my head a little bit. They were talking a lot of trash the whole weekend, and they had a coach. And actually, the night before the big matches, I didn't sleep at all. I was so worried -- even though I was overprepared and I thought I had it all figured out. But it turned out I was, like, way overprepared. After it was all over, my teammates told me I was a bit of a control freak. But we won, and that was a relief.
We actually went out to lunch with the UT Arlington president after we won, and even before that, he was tweeting at us, and the official UT account tweeted. At the lunch, we talked to him about our run and repping UT, and he was actually pretty informed about esports. He was saying how he plans to open an esports arena, which they're trying to do in Arlington, and he was telling us how proud of us he was. At least for me, what I gained from it was the legitimacy of esports and the growth of it and how it even affects someone who probably had never even heard of it a few months ago.
Udall: I'm just guesstimating, but I'd say 50 percent of amateur Heroes players all played in collegiate. They didn't necessarily make it to the Final Four, but they made it to the round of 64 or something, and there's definitely a lot of camaraderie around that. My first team as a pro after college, we had four players who played in Heroes of the Dorm. We had four of us who would just talk about Heroes of the Dorm, and then there was the one player out who was like, "Uh, I didn't go to college."
I remember a lot of nights after practice our team just reminiscing, just talking about how cool it is that Dorm is actually a thing, how cool it is that you can win a college scholarship playing video games. Because that's something five years ago that I never would have thought is possible.
Rosen: One of the things that I found the most interesting from Heroes of the Dorm was really the story of the underdog. The first year of Heroes of the Dorm, we had Cal and ASU in the finals, and it was a very compelling match to watch -- it went to the end, and there was a lot of emotion involved for both teams. And when Cal took it, I think the ASU team took it to heart that they were going to come back and be the champions the following year. And they came back and won the whole thing, and actually, the team that got second place to them was UT Arlington. They put in the same effort and went back and practiced year-round and put together a solid team to win the whole thing the following year. That's been a really interesting thing to be able to witness.
Dorm is a really special program for us. Right now, we're hosting programs for six different games: We have Overwatch, Hearthstone, World of Warcraft, StarCraft, Heroes and Rocket League.
One of the really interesting things for us is recognizing that very critical and valuable role that Heroes of the Dorm plays in the evolution of all of our esports leagues. When we look at what we're doing with Overwatch and Hearthstone, I see bits and pieces of Heroes of the Dorm within all those programs, and I think it's a really special thing.
Heroes of the Dorm is here to stay, but in Year Four, the finals look a lot different from how they have in previous years. A new group of teams has made it to Burbank, and for the first time since 2016, a runner-up will not have the opportunity to win the title.
College esports looks very different too. Nearly 70 schools nationwide have scholarship-sponsored esports programs or plan to by the fall of 2018. But Dorm remains the biggest event with the biggest stakes, and it'll likely stay that way as four-year players leave the college ranks and the next group of incoming students try to make their mark.
Rosen: Collegiate esports is really interesting right now because we're at a point where a lot of universities are starting to directly invest in their teams by creating varsity programs, creating training facilities, hiring coaches. I think that is overall great for the industry, and I think overall five years out we'll look at that and that'll be the norm, and we'll have these programs on every major college campus in North America. But I think in the next couple of years, it's going to be really interesting, because we'll have this transition period where you'll have a number of universities that are fully bought in and fully supporting their teams, and then you'll have a number of universities that are on their way to doing that but haven't yet made that step.
When people think about the parity between having that varsity team go up against a team with very little support from their university, oftentimes people say, "They're a scholarship team. They have all the resources that they need; surely they'll win. We can't compete with them." But as we've seen in Dorm, that's not always the case.
Yang: Dorm has gotten more competitive pretty much every year they've done it, and I think this year is the first time that it's really hard to predict who's going to win. Every single team is so competitive this year.
It's hard to say how we would have stacked up. I'd like to say that we'd still be a title contender for sure, but the competition would be a lot closer. In our run, we only had maybe two to three matches against other schools where I really felt the pressure, where it was really close and I wasn't sure if we could beat them or not. If we played now, that number would probably jump up significantly. It would be almost every single match.
Sunka: Even in the Heroes of the Storm Global Championship, at least currently, only the top three teams or top four teams get to go to events. The team that I joined, I was actually the one with the most LAN experience, funnily enough, because I'd been to two Heroes of the Dorms, and the team that I was on had never really qualified for a pro LAN.
At our first event, even though I was the newest member of the team, I was actually the most experienced in going to LAN. And then also there's playing on stage and remaining calm. The first couple times are always the most difficult, but the pressure from Dorm definitely helped smooth the transition to pro LANs over.
Udall: Dorm is still a big part of my life. I know what those players are going through. I know how cool it is to be in the round of eight and thinking you're one win away from getting a computer and going to California and maybe winning college tuition. You can't put that into words. It's just something you feel.
I've played in pro LANs, of course, but Dorm is way better. There's something about a one-time spinoff tournament. You just can't capture the magic elsewhere. Like now, being a professional, it's my job. I go to tournaments once every couple months, and that's just how it is. It's something that becomes normal. Heroes of the Dorm, it is a do-or-die, it-will-never-in-your-life-happen-again moment. I was lucky enough to play twice, but that's a very rare thing. You care a lot more because it's not your career; you're not going to have another chance.
And that's something special.