The Hearthstone Championship Tour 2018 has just started up, and through the nail-biter matches and insane tournament organization, mxdwn Games had the chance to chat with Hearthstone esports leads, Che Chou and Matt Wyble. We all shared the appreciation for the immensely growing Hearthstone competitive scene, so it was a pleasure to pick Chou and Wyble’s brains on a behind-the-scenes view of the current state of Hearthstone as an esport, but also the future as well.
mxdwn: What are your plans for the Hearthstone esports scene heading into 2018, and what direction are you hoping to take the scene in?
Wyble: We have a ton of new plans for 2018. If we go back in time to 2017, probably the biggest thing were a whole lot of new programs and doing things we had never done before. We tripled the amount of content we were creating, we created Hearthstone Global Games, we took the Hearthstone Championship on the road, we did a lot of new events, we brought in a new broadcast partner, and we dramatically increased the quality of our broadcasts. We did all of these things, and it was sort of a wild ride, and we were all really proud of what we were able to accomplish. I think 2018 is really about refining those things that we got started in 2017 and doing a massive amount of work to help build out an ecosystem for our players. That will provide a lot of sustainability and a lot of continued growth for years to come.
A great example of that is Hearthstone Masters. Hearthstone Masters is a new program that is going to reward those top players in Hearthstone esports if they are consistent throughout the year in terms of their performance. I think it is going to be transformational for a lot of players. One piece of feedback we heard over the course of 75+ interviews with players and influencers in the Hearthstone esports scene was stability is really huge and really key. If you are a three-star master, which will be the at top of the heap, will hopefully provide some stability and predictability that will allow those players that are so incredibly skilled and passionate about the game to do it professionally, and to travel around the world and play this game that they love. Another component is introducing teams formally into the ecosystem and rewarding top teams in a big way. Again, that just provides players on teams with stability and allows them to focus on playing the game they love.
Chou: A piece of feedback that we got from the community in 2017 is that prizing is not super great if you are not a top 16 player in the world. To be good at Hearthstone esports you have to work really hard, and we want to make sure that even at the mid to low tier competitive level, you are always getting some amount of success. Prizing should be better, so we went and we tweaked the numbers and we basically added another half-million dollars into the prize pool of 2018. We are at $2.8 million total now, and that obviously includes the $1 million from the World Championship, which is what we are going through right now, but that is $1.8 million dollars that are just seasonal championships and playoffs that we will be giving to the community.
Those are just some of the things that I think I’m really excited about, and at the end of the day, if all of these things click, and we can hit that steady state that Wyble describes, what we are going to see is a naturalization of Hearthstone esports. When team organizations are in it in a serious manner and they are competing with each there, there are team rivalries there, and there are going to be a ton of storylines that come out of that. Season over season, which players are transferring teams? Which new players are these teams picking up? Are they registering another name? We are basically deepening the sport, and we will be with the Masters system with a consistent field of players traveling around, being dominant, and playing against each other. New storylines will come out of that, and moreover, as fans of Hearthstone esports, you are just going to have so much more content to latch on to and watch. Between the tour stuff, the playoffs, and the seasonal championships, it is going to be really easy to follow your favorite players around as they travel the world competing in Hearthstone.
mxdwn: Speaking of the Masters system, player stability, and increased prize pools, Hearthstone has come a long way since the esports scene first started, and I’m just wondering, where do you see the Hearthstone scene just five years from now just as a whole? Any big changes or anything interesting that we might see come up from this?
Wyble: Hopefully, we will continue to be able to grow and gain momentum in the way that we have over each year since we have gotten started in a huge way. I think it is really important to us, and I think this is different than some esports, participation is really important to us. We want our fans to engage, not just as viewers, but as more active participants if they would like to. Things we do right now, like over 100,000 players earning competitive points, and having these large distributed tournaments and playoffs, I think there is even more we can to do build on it. Think of it as a pyramid, and playing in the world championship in Amsterdam is at the top of that pyramid, and just playing the game on ranked ladders is the bottom of the pyramid. I think there is a lot we can do in the middle ground with a combination of fireside gatherings, online tournaments, Hearthstone Championship Tour stuff, and a lot of other types of events to create a sort of holistic ecosystem that has something for everyone no matter what your skill or commitment level is.
Chou: Speaking of the future, one thing I like to see is the momentum there. As we developed event after event, net fans, and have players come out to all of these events, I started to see, in person as well as on social media, there is this sub-community of Hearthstone fans that are forming and gaining momentum and are dedicated to the sport of Hearthstone. They talk about the players, they dissect plays, and they analyze decks that are submitted. These are fans that are willing to invest time to go down that rabbit hole, just like any sport, and it is really awesome to see. What I want to see five years from now is that the esport is mature enough where we have legions of these fans going as deep as they can into the rabbit hole and having all these wonderful conversations about the esport itself.
mxdwn: Since speaking of five years from now, and trying to have all the fans kind of build up and become their own professional player, have there been any major hurdles in trying to build up the current competitive scene, and do you see any needed changes going forward?
Wyble: Because we are an open ecosystem, any player who can play at home, and if they are good and committed enough, that they have an opportunity to make it to the playoffs and become a part of the tour. Because we have that sort of system, and because we have so many people that are participating and actively engaged in it, finding smart ways to do things at the scale that is required is interesting. What programs do you design and implement for people across different continents? I think coming up with smart ways to do that and getting it to stand up takes time.
mxdwn: How exactly do you prepare for an event such as the Hearthstone Championship Tour?
Chou: Many months of phone calls and meetings, haha. So, this World Championship, as sort of the example, we started planning this event over six months ago. We knew that we had to hold an epic World Championship outside of Blizzcon, so the bar is already set super high. Blizzcon is where we have had our past championships, and Blizzcon already has this epicness built into it because even Blizzard puts a ton of resources into it. To break away from that and still hit that level of quality and awe for our fans is a daunting challenge, but with the World Championship, because we had gone to the Bahamas and Shanghai, we knew that for Europe we had to honor the fans by coming here and celebrating with them.
Over six months ago, we started scouting cities and we eventually ended up on Amsterdam due to how awesome the venue was, but that was just the beginning. So then it is: what is the vision of this event? So my team and I set out with all of our awesome support teams at Blizzard to sort of paint the vision of what we want to do and then many people come together to make this thing happen. That’s just on the event side of things. We also work with out production partners and ask: hey, what new production and broadcast stuff do we want to try this time? What is the current meta of the game and how long do we think the tournament is going to run based on the decks that were submitted? We have to manage hours at the venue, so it is just a lot of thought that goes in to planning an event of this magnitude. To see it all come together truly gives me chills, and I am also super humbled and grateful.
mxdwn: That honestly does sound amazing to be able to participate in something like that and just see the fruits of your labor be set out in front of you.
Wyble: I think this event in particular is the culmination of a vision that we started rallying behind almost two years ago when we created the Hearthstone Championship Tour as an evolution of the Hearthstone World Championship events that we had done previously. It is so gratifying, this thing we have all talked about, brain stormed, and had late night conversations about ‘would it be great if we did x,y, and z?’ and to actually be doing x, y, and z, and seeing it work and seeing people delighted by it and laughing and having a great time, that is honestly why we do what we do?
mxdwn: Last question, what would you say is the most challenging but rewarding part of what you do?
Wyble: We spend a lot of time doing new stuff. We are often on the bleeding edge of coming up with whatever it is that we think is a good idea, and that is usually something that none of us have ever done before. It is something that we are signing up for, and we are signing ourselves up for something with maybe a limited understanding of the ramifications of what it is going to take, but I think that cycle is something that Chou’s team has been game for. We want to be bold and push the envelope and constantly be challenging ourselves and trying new things, and that is hard. It is especially so when you are doing things that no one has done before, or at least we have not done before. You have to learn a lot along the way through trial and error. The good thing is that that approach is not easy, but it is definitely working for us. I think it is very clear to us, even on something like the broadcast that every time we put one together, it is remarkably better than the one before it because of our willingness to challenge ourselves and pushing the envelope in that way.
Chou: To add to that, I think esports is a messy business because it is complicated, it is events based, it is powered by people, players, and motions. I think Hearthstone is very unique in that it is an esport that holds truths and franchise values. By being a truly open system and by being distributed at the playoffs level, there are tens of venues, and you are trying to do a swiss tournament across all these venues, and then do a live broadcast on top of that. Those are all challenges, but I think we can overcome those challenges, and for me, the hardest challenges are things that impact players. Players have dreams and aspirations, and we always try to double check on things because things that go wrong impact people at the end of the day who have dreams and aspirations.
It is always a huge bummer for me to see things that sets people back because now they cannot compete in this one tournament, or have to wait for the next one. That weighs on my heavily and that to me is the biggest challenge, but also, to see when things do go right, like to see players like Ant. To see players in the spotlight because they have earned it and they have gotten here on their skill, so to bring that stage for them and to have them stand up there and be the champion, or be the hero, that payoff and celebration of our players is the best part of my job. Seeing them celebrated is incredibly satisfying to me.
Wyble: I think as an example for this event and who we are doing this for, the first reason is the audience is really sixteen people, and those are the competitors here at the tournament. They worked so hard and have done so well that we want to honor that by doing everything we can to give them a fair shake in the tournament and as good of an experience as we can. We are super lucky to be able to do this.