Disclaimer: A lot of the ideas I use in this article come from different members of the Hearthstone community. Special mention goes to Dan “Frodan” Chou, his words on Value Town were the inspiration for writing this article.
This week was an intense week for Hearthstone, Na ‘Vi unexpectedly disbanded their Hearthstone team and Archon is no more. In the threads about these events a lot of people were shouting at the fact Hearthstone is dying and that the current state of the game cannot support a competitive format. Additionally, discontented tweets from pro players about the state of the game continue piling on, it seems the competitive community is starting an uprising against the creators.
I will admit that my first reaction was similar to the one the community had, I thought the rats are jumping the sinking ship. On Wednesday night after I finished watching Value Town, a show hosted by Chris “ChanManV” Chan, I changed my mind. I was convinced by what Dan “Frodan” Chou said, Hearthstone is maturing this is just a transitioning period. Later that night one of the people I respect the most in the scene, Andrey “Reynad” Yanyuk, claimed that Hearthstone is in a better position than most esports and we haven’t even peaked yet. This made me think. As an outsider to the scene I have to bow my head to these pillars that have been here since the start, their opinion is obviously much more educated than mine. So as a philosophy graduate I took their words and tried to make sense out of them, this is what I came up with.
These are the Rough Times
Hearthstone is a really young esport. Compare it to League of Legends: the game was released the 27th October 2009, it wasn’t until 6th of August 2012 the first LCS season was announced. Before that there was outside organizers participating in the scene as they saw potential. Hearthstone was released the 11th March 2014, in 2014 we already had massive prize pools and Blizzcon was a huge success. The year after the trend continued going, tournaments were pulling in absurd amount of viewers. This was until the post League of Explorers metagame when the scene slowly went into decline. This is not because the esport side is dying, to the opposite of this, like Frodan said the initial excitement has died out a bit and now it has to developed into a more mature scene.
This is a bit akin to a relationship, if you have ever been in a long term one you will know what I mean. The first few months are the honey moon period, everything is exciting and you cannot see any of the flaws in the significant other. After a few months the excitement dies down, this is the moment the relationship is set to the test. It either dies out because the people in the relationship couldn’t transition to the maturation of the relationship, or it will blossom in something even better, with more trust and engagement from both people involved. In some sense the transition stage can be called the puberty of the relationship,so we could say we are living in the puberty of Hearthstone.
So what do I think we need? We need the major exponents from the competitive scene to cohere together and invest in the future of the esport. I heard Aleksandr “Kolento” Malsh say it was not worth it attending tournaments for him, he makes more money streaming. This is absolutely absurd because going to tournaments should be seen as an investment into the scene that will profit you in the long run. If major names attend tournaments more viewers will be attracted to following the competition, it is only natural to want to see your favourite player compete. This results in more sponsors, thus money, into the scene and helps the scene flourish as a whole. More money = more events and enjoyment.
Additionally we also need the dev team for Hearthstone to step up their game, it would be absurd to claim they are without fault. If they manage to make a game which can host a healthy competitive scene whilst also pleasing the casual player they will have done gods work, it is hard but I trust they can do it. All we need is a couple of good expansions and balance changes to make the game a good grounds for competition.
Above all we are in the hands of people like Reynad, owner of Tempostorm, and Steve “Buyaka” Maida, owner of Luminosity gaming, to direct the scene in the right direction. They are the people that most of all have the potential to make the scene really flourish, they need to attract sponsors and show how much this game can give. Obviously it is a hard job, they need the support from the players and the development team but if they have it I think they can potentially reshape the Hearthstone landscape.
Overall it is not something one single person can do, the scene should work together and everybody should try to give their input to improve it. Be it pro players attending more tournaments or the dev team communicating and making more balance changes, Hearthstone needs to be seen as a huge group project.
Something which I really wanted to talk about is Frodan’s claim that the sponsorship potential for Hearthstone is higher than in any other esport. Whilst you can still advertise video games, mice and keyboards, the people who watch Hearthstone streams are usually avid gamers, you can also expand sponsorship in areas such as food and beverages. Playing Hearthstone at the highest levels doesn’t require mechanical skills, eating or drinking whilst playing legend games is possible. What this means is that businesses could be attracted by the idea of making players place their products in exchange for monetary support.
This gives Hearthstone the possibility of expanding more than any other esport, I don’t think I have to emphasize how much money counts when developing any sort of infrastructure. In a few years’ time, if the leading figures of the Hearthstone scene manage to attract the big sponsors like Coca-Cola, we could have a scene which has an absurd amount of competitive content happening weekly. These behemoths of the capitalistic world can do anything with the amount of funds that are available to them.
But esport scene cannot exist without a following, here we have to give it to the dev team that they have done a great job making Hearthstone really appealing to look at. No online game appeals to the casual eyes as much as Hearthstone. The interface is clean, cards get played and effects are flashy and explosive. It is so good, that even if he has never played the game, my brother enjoys watching tournaments with me. You don’t need to be a Pro Player to understand the basics behind the game.
The last point to fight back is the idea that there is too much RNG in Hearthstone, it can never support a competitive format. I wrote a whole article about this but I think James “Firebat” Kostesich summarized the issue perfectly on stream about a week ago (you can find the video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SqVfKHLzTSQ ). Bumping the win percentages of the pro players up by just a bit would make for the competitive scene to flourish again, whilst we have too much RNG this is not impossible to solve. You only need a pro player around 65% win rate in order to grant him consistency in the long run, 100% win rates are not to be expected in a card game.
Overall we play a game which has huge potential, but we are not the only game around competitors are coming up from every corner. The question is: will Hearthstone come out on top?
The Positive Aspects
Now, I am not saying that the guys in the dev team are doing a perfect job, but they have started getting more involved with the community. Posts on Twitter and Reddit by Ben Brode and the others are pretty common, they always answer intelligent queries sent to them. Additionally, they also confirmed they read the Hearthstone related subreddits multiple times during the day and that they keep in mind community feedback. This is especially obvious after they removed Purify from arena in order to not butcher even more an already butchered class. Also on the 5th of September Brode confirmed that they were going to make balance changes to make arena less of a Magefest (as of now the changes are official you can find them: http://www.hearthhead.com/news=255768/blue-tweets-brode-talks-rng-improving-communication-and-yogg-saron ).
Additionally the team has said multiple times that they are interested in keeping the esport scene going, what we need to see now is more willingness to make concrete changes and look back at past designs. People have to acknowledge that it is hard to change a card, a small change can impact the metagame and a class completely. It is a decision that takes time and a lot of testing. Consider that the Hearthstone team is probably swamped with work, they are currently trying to optimize the game of every platform. When everything will be set in stone and all the platforms will be sorted out, the focus will be able to finally shift entirely on the game.
Overall the communication can improve from their side, but I will take a step back and be less arrogant and stop claiming that they are not doing a great job. It must be really rough to do what they do. Hopefully the team will show us why all the critiques that have recently targeted them are founded in ignorance and they are right in how they are managing the game.
Also sponsors are looking to invest money in the scene, tournaments still happen on a monthly basis. Especially now that we are getting closer to Blizzcon it is important to make the game in the best shape it can be, we need to showcase off the competitive scene. Additionally players, like Firebat, have shown that they are willing to invest their own time and money in order to make the scene flourish. They love the game that much.
What we need is time, maybe in a couple of years’ time we will look back at this period laughing at our own misgivings.
Some will claim that I am being a Blizzard/Frodan fanboy blind to the real state of the game. All I can reply is that after a long reflection I think I realized I might have been unfairly pessimistic about the Hearthstone competitive scene. Whilst there is work to do, I think Reynad and Frodan are totally on point, this is a transitioning stage and by 2020 Hearthstone will be one of the biggest esports out there. The questions time will answer is the following: will everybody involved cohere together and manage to work as a team to lend support for this wonderful game?
Before concluding I will say that I would advise anyone who is mildly interested in the Hearthstone background scene to watch the following VOD of the Value Town show, it provides wonderful insight and can help clear the uneducated opinions many of us have as outsiders to the scene. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i3sGfM4365Q&t=15m39s
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