The news recently broke that Blizzard is forcing the United Hearthstone League to shut down. If you haven’t heard of the United Hearthstone League, don’t feel bad, most people haven’t (including me before today). It’s a tiny operation that doesn’t compete with Blizzard’s events in any meaningful way. It has a Discord with 100 members, a Youtube channel with 51 subscribers, and no prizes or sponsors as far as I can tell. It looks like it’s run by a bunch of fans who aren’t making any money off it, and are doing it just because they love Hearthstone.
Nevertheless, the UHL’s commissioner, Mike Lowe, reports receiving a call from Blizzard earlier today letting him know the UHL has to cease operating as a league or using the word “League” in its title (he was informed they can still hold monthly tournaments). Presumably, the overt or implied threat was if the UHL didn’t comply it would face a lawsuit from Blizzard. He was told that no league could operate independently of Blizzard, regardless of whether it’s for profit or not, so anyone else looking to operate a fan league like UHL is basically in the same boat. The story is actually the same a across all Blizzard titles (if you don’t believe me try running any Overwatch event with “League” in the title and see what happens.)
I’ve talked about this before, but this is the direction all esports are heading. Unlike traditional sports, with esports game companies literally own the game being played, and have the ability to legally stop anyone else from doing anything esports-related with their titles. A few years ago, when esports were getting off the ground, the companies were content to let anyone host events or leagues more or less as they wished, because this was good for development of the scene. Now, as esports becomes more established (and more money is involved) that’s starting to change pretty quickly.
I remember talking with this with a friend in the industry a few months ago, and telling him that’s the way things were headed: as more money started being made, game companies would start to monopolize the right to hold all major tournaments, and any independent outfits (like the UHL) would get shut down. His reply was “well no, if they did something like that, the community would go crazy.”
Well, they’re doing it. And for the first time people are noticing (well by people are noticing I mean that Mike Lowe’s tweet about this has been at the top of /r/hearthstone all day with 3,500+ upvotes, and a couple of smaller sites have picked up the story). What I’m curious to see now is what happens next. Will this snowball and become a huge controversy like my buddy predicted, or will the story fade gently into the good night over a couple of days?
My hope is that it’s the former, if only because, as I’ve said before, I think game companies monopolizing everything this way is ultimately bad for esports. What’s Blizzard’s incentive to improve Hearthstone as an esports product if they can literally sue any competitor out of business anyway? However, as it stands Blizzard has every legal right to do what they’re doing. The only thing that can be reasonably expected to stop them, and affect how they approach this issue in the future, is a nice, loot-box sized controversy. I don’t usually cheer for the reddit ball of hate to crush all in its’ path, but, well, fingers crossed time around.