HOUSTON -- The audience at the Collegiate Esports Championship Heroes of the Storm Finals was as sparse as it had been all day. Besides two noisy fans of California State Polytechnic University Pomona, who left after the second game in the series, it was also the quietest the audience had been, or would be, that day at CEC. Even Starcraft, another of Blizzard Entertainment's games, an erstwhile "dead game" in popular lexicon, had more fans in attendance.
When Rutgers University made their final play for Cal Poly Pomona's keep -- a structure located inside the team's base -- in order to secure their championship victory, there was polite applause. The Rutgers players smiled, congratulated each other, and calmly walked to center stage to receive their trophy. It was a relaxed environment compared to the more energetic highs of the collegiate Overwatch teams and Street Fighter V players, or the sheer astonishment and surprise from the collegiate Hearthstone victors, Georgia Institute of Technology. It was difficult to believe that Heroes of the Storm had been a major part of the evolution of collegiate esports.
As recently as 2018, Heroes of the Storm boasted one of the best collegiate tournaments in all of esports: Heroes of the Dorm. When Heroes of the Dorm first began, the game itself was still in beta testing. The prize was a full-ride collegiate scholarship. Despite more popular games taking off in esports professional scenes, nothing was bigger in collegiate esports or pushed it forward as much as the Heroes of the Dorm tournament. Not only did it provide then unheard of opportunities for collegiate players, it also inspired a generation of college students to pursue other esports ventures.
"When I was in college my esports club was invited to attend the first Heroes of the Dorm final in Los Angeles," said Ovilee May, esports host for Riot Games' League of Legends Championship Series.
May was not a Heroes of the Storm player, nor did she follow the scene closely, but the tournament eventually inspired her to pursue a career in esports.
"Blizzard sent us a bus to take me and my members to the event where we got to watch the event live. It was the first time that collegiate esports was taken seriously with an actual broadcast production ran by a team of young students who were working hard to build the collegiate scene from the ground up," she said.
"It was the collegiate event of the year," May continued. "Riot and League still hadn't solidified their collegiate program, and Tespa was years ahead of them by producing what I believe to be the first collegiate esports event that anyone ever cared about."
On Dec. 13, 2018, Blizzard announced major cutbacks to support for Heroes of the Storm. This included moving developers off of Heroes of the Storm and onto other Blizzard games as well as pulling support for Heroes of the Storm esports programs, including the Heroes Global Championship and Heroes of the Dorm.
Heroes of the Storm as a game and esport has been in flux for years, and many of the Rutgers players have been around for all of it. They love the game, but are realistic about its popularity and future. They've stubbornly and passionately stuck with Heroes of the Storm over other games, despite meta hiccups and waning support from Blizzard. It is beloved by a small group of die-hard fans and players similar to how some people feel toward cult movies or Joss Whedon's ill-fated "Firefly" television series.
"Heroes of the Storm is my favorite game," Rutgers' Dominick "BegforMercy" Maisano said. "I know there's other games that maybe have better rewards or are more popular, but it's my favorite game, it's the one I love to play every day, so I was really happy to have some foot in competitive. I've been here for a long time and it feels really great to do something like this."
"In all honesty, our original team name was 'Reinstalled for This,'" Rutgers Heroes of the Storm player Rick "hiimrick" Green said. "I literally uninstalled the game and reinstalled when Tespa put the [CEC] on. That's how I kind of felt about it."
The rest of his teammates laughed and nodded their heads.
"This turned out to be the most fun I've had playing the game," he said as they continued to laugh and smile at each other. "It turned out to be a positive."
"I think there's still room for a competitive scene in HotS," BegforMercy said. "It's just going to take a different form."
CEC host Anna Prosser is passionate about collegiate esports and has been around the scene for a long time, since the first Tespa tournaments and Lone Star Clash, a collegiate Starleague tournament held in Texas. She said Heroes of the Dorm was one of her favorite events that she ever did.
"The stories that came out of it, the feelings that came from it, the opportunities that people gained from it are so landmark that it will always live as a touch point in esports history," she said.
Prosser's words echoed the what the Rutgers players said. Nothing else was quite like Heroes of the Storm, and no other tournament had as much of an impact on collegiate esports as Heroes of the Dorm.
"Being here [at CEC] and thinking about what some people are calling the last hurrah for Heroes, I have a certain peace about that," Prosser said. "I don't think that moving on from the formats in Heroes of the Storm will mean moving on from these people in the industry and the passion they have or the opportunities we can provide. In order to stay sane in the esports world you have to recognize that games or formats of those games or versions of those games will ebb and flow."
Nothing in Heroes of the Storm's unknown future will be able to replace the magnitude of Heroes of the Dorm and what its scholarships did for collegiate esports athletes.
"For some of these players, the scholarship money meant being able to afford an education that would have set them decades behind in student loans. For others it was a way to bring recognition to their school and earn respect from the university administration that shrugged the event off as a waste of time," May said. "Some schools declined giving the players extensions for final papers due that week or allowed them to reschedule times for testing. After the team brought home the trophy and had their faces showcased all over social media universities slowly began to change their tune."
Now the attention has shifted to other events, like the CEC, and other games, like Overwatch or League of Legends.
"What's really important is why you're here in the first place," Prosser said. "The opportunity to change lives and connect with other people. I hope that we can go from Lone Star Clash, which was for us; to Heroes of the Dorm, which was really about the players; to this [the CEC], which I'm hoping can be both and also for everyone else. If we can't replicate [Heroes of the Dorm] at least we can take the next step."