Champions will be crowned this weekend at Hi-Rez Expo, which is home to the SMITE and Paladins World Championships. Esports Insider spoke with Alex Cantatore, Brand Director of Live Games at Hi-Rez Studios to find out more about the studio’s biggest event of the year.
Esports Insider: What are you most looking forward to about this year’s Hi-Rez Expo?
Alex Cantatore: As a fan, it’s got to be the SMITE World Championship.
We’re just wrapping up the first season of the SMITE Pro League played entirely on LAN here at our Atlanta esports studio, and the level of competition is just insane. These teams are living together, playing SMITE all day, and focused solely on being the best in the world. This is the best SMITE that’s ever been played, and I can’t wait to see what they pull out on stage at Hi-Rez Expo.
As a developer, it’s all about getting a chance to spend time with our communities.
We bring partners out to Hi-Rez Expo every year, people who attend every esport event on the planet, and they all say the same thing: “This is special.” The passion of our fans is just unbelievable, and getting to spend a weekend with them is as much of a reward to us as lifting Thor’s hammer is to the SMITE World Champions.
ESI: Why is Hi-Rez Expo the ideal place to host the World Championships for both SMITE and Paladins?
AC: Since the start, esports have been the reason for our Hi-Rez Expo, not just an attraction.
Our first annual community gathering was the SMITE Launch Tournament. We had such a good time, we decided to host our first SMITE World Championship.
Then we just kept growing. We added the Hi-Rez Expo in a side hall, a secondary attraction to the SMITE World Championship. And then as we added the Paladins World Championship, it just made sense to change the event’s name to be more inclusive of Hi-Rez Studios’ multiple games.
“We’ve expanded the scope to welcome all members of our communities.”
ESI: What is your favorite Hi-Rez Expo memory from years past?
AC: I’d have to say the grand finals of the first-ever SMITE World Championship. I wasn’t there in person – I wasn’t working for Hi-Rez Studios yet – but I was glued to the screen at home. I’d watched all sorts of esports before, but there was something special about this tournament, about these fans, these teams.
It was Cognitive Prime, a North American squad with some really lovable players on it, against Titan, this upstart European amateur team that had played their way through last-chance qualifiers. Titan shouldn’t have even made it to Hi-Rez Expo; they were 5 seconds away from losing before one player popped off, killed the entire enemy team, and won the game. And Titan was down 2-0 in the World Championship finals, but once again they fought back with an unstoppable, unexpected pick: Ares support. It went to a deciding fifth game where Cog Prime finally banned the Ares and battled to raise Thor’s hammer as the first SMITE World Champions. It was really in that moment when I was convinced I had to work at Hi-Rez, I had to be a part of this.
ESI: How has the Hi-Rez Expo changed over time?
AC: We really were solely focused on esports at the start. But as we talked to fans who attended the first SMITE World Championships, we learned that a lot of them didn’t really follow the pro scene, or even necessarily play our core competitive modes. They were just part of the SMITE community, and wanted a place to share with others who loved the game as much as they did.
So we’ve expanded the scope to welcome all members of our communities. Two years ago we added our first keynote address. Last year ago we moved to DreamHack Atlanta to get more space, so we could add developer panels. We’re adding a big community hangout zone this year, and we’re adding more playable stations for SMITE, Paladins, and our soon-to-be released game Rogue Company.
ESI: Tell me a little more about Rogue Company. Do you think we could see a Rogue Company World Championship at Hi-Rez Expo next year?
AC: Right now, we’re focused on making Rogue Company the best game it can be, a truly unique third-person action tactical shooter that brings something new to the genre. We’re still very early — DreamHack Atlanta will mark the first time the public has played RoCo — but we already have a full-time employee dedicated to making sure Rogue Company checks all the boxes that esports players are looking for.
Ultimately, we hope the community enjoys Rogue Company as much as we do. If there is an authentic, grassroots demand for Rogue Company esports, then we’d be happy to support the scene.
“Though I love a good Cinderella story, my SMITE favorites have to be the defending World Champions, Splyce.“
ESI: For readers who may not follow the SMITE Pro League and Paladins Premier League, what are the storylines we should know heading into this year’s World Championships?
AC: Man, we’ve got some insane storylines this year.
On the SMITE side, we’ve already seen some major upsets in the placement rounds. For the first time ever, we’ve had an amateur team — from Latin America — upset three Pro League teams to earn their spot at Hi-Rez Expo. This team, Sanguine Esports, they just keep coming back and win from unwinnable positions, and are my team to watch.
Though I love a good Cinderella story, my SMITE favorites have to be the defending World Champions, Splyce. This squad full of lovable veterans came out of nowhere to win last year. They struggled a bit early in the season, swapped out 3/5ths of the roster, and now look like they could become the second team to win back-to-back SMITE World Championships.
In Paladins, my odds-on favorites, the number 1 seeds, Natus Vincere were just eliminated by the sixth seeded Pittsburgh Knights. Now the field is wide open. Can the Knights continue their run? Will Team Envy repeat as champions? Will the mid-season invitational runners-up Ninjas in Pyjamas finally claim the trophy? Or will the veteran lineup of Virtus.Pro reassert their dominance?
ESI: Where can fans watch the SMITE and Paladins World Championships?
The show starts at 11 a.m. EST on Friday, with our annual Hi-Rez Presents keynote featuring all the year’s biggest announcements for SMITE, Paladins, and Rogue Company. The Paladins World Championship finals are expected to start at 12:30 p.m. EST on Sunday, followed by the SMITE World Championship Finals at 3 p.m. EST.
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