How Hearthstone is Raising the Bar for its Esports Initiatives

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Plus, more details on the return of the Hearthstone Global Games.

The Hearthstone World Championship Finals are happening right now in Amsterdam (you can watch them here), with 16 of the best players competing for the chance to become World Champion. It’s the first time the finals have taken place away from BlizzCon, with a massive event all their own, and it’s a reflection of just how focused Blizzard is on making Hearthstone a huge deal in the world of esports. To that end, these finals are the culmination of a year that saw the esports side of Hearthstone take a huge leap forward, with tournaments on the road to Amsterdam taking place all over the world, from the Bahamas to Shanghai. 2017 also introduced new Blizzard run series’ like the Hearthstone Global Games (HGG): a nation-based team competition unlike anything the game had seen before.

I caught up with the man driving it all – Che Chou, Global Franchise Lead for Hearthstone Esports – on day one of the finals, and asked him about the return of HGG and a whole lot more. (You can read more about Hearthstone esports in 2017 here, and get our thoughts on the revamped plans for 2018 here.)

IGN: Now that Hearthstone Global Games are officially back, I’d like to get your thoughts on how it went last year. What were the things you think worked well, what didn’t work so well? What the main lessons?

Che Chou: HGG was definitely a grand experiment on a couple of things. One was – hey, what can we do to drum up national pride and that World Cup feeling with Hearthstone? And we definitely felt like it is connected to the second thing we wanted to experiment with, which was that teams of players was an important aspect of it. Plus, as Blizzard, we hadn’t really done any official team Hearthstone competitions.

We also knew we wanted to create a long series of content. We wanted to create lots of content and for players to be able to follow this, like, story of countries doing their groups and coming out of it… I think what we ended up with… countries liked it. Particularly what we learned when I did a bunch of listening tours around our regions was – regionally, HGG was very popular. For instance, there are many countries where they don’t have a star player in the HCT or at seasonal championships there’s no representation for that country, but, while some people will watch HCT, many will just tune out because – well, I don’t have a horse in the race.

HGG was definitely a grand experiment… what can we do to drum up national pride and that World Cup feeling with Hearthstone?

But with HGG what we found was – there was a consistency of matches, because a country was not eliminated for a long time, so if you were a fan of Taiwan, you could just watch the Taiwan team, week over week, which was what we saw in countries like Taiwan, Japan and South Korea. That community latched onto their national team a lot. That was super cool. And our regional offices and our regional esports teams gave me the feedback that was like – HGG was a godsend for us, because it really engaged this esports population that felt maybe like – hey, HCT is cool, but it’s just not as personal for us. So I think it also scratched that itch. So those are some of the good things.

The main negative thing that I took away from it was we felt the season was probably too long for its own good. It ran for, like, 15 weeks over the summer and it was three days a week. There was just a lot of matches, and a lot of games and a lot of broadcasts. Mostly my concern was – we want to tell a tighter story for 2018. We wanted to make sure – let’s start the season and have stakes pretty early on, and not, sort of, play through groups forever, before you hit the stakes. For this year I think we’re going to address that by probably condensing the season a little bit, telling a tighter story around running that format. And we’re pretty excited about the finals; we have some pretty cool plans.

IGN: How much are you actually talking about right now in terms of structure and the run time and so on?

Che Chou: We haven’t revealed those details yet. One thing I can confirm is that player voting is coming back. Voting for the teams. We’re going to have a second HGG [announcement] soon… but we wanted to let people know – if you wanted to be in the running to be one of the players that gets voted onto a team, just know that HCT season one, so up through March, the top players get put on a roster.

IGN: So the number one points earner is automatically on their country’s team, right? And the other three players are voted in?

Che Chou: It’s going to be similar to 2017 but we might make slight changes.

IGN: The key takeaway from what I’ve seen so far is that the audience can have three unique votes.

Che Chou: That’s right.

IGN: Which is huge, because that then avoids the bottleneck of one really well known person getting all the votes.

Che Chou: That’s actually correct, and I think the other thing we wanted to do was – we felt like, in 2017 the player voting roster was, I think, an intentional mix of influencer and competitive player, and what we’ve learned is – influencers are important, and I’m not saying they won’t be on the list, but at the end of the day, competitive players are probably better for the tournament, and therefore better for the team. And better for the team to get further, so having an HCT point earner in there, and then top players from that country, those will all be on that list.

Influencers are important… but at the end of the day, competitive players are probably better for the tournament…

IGN: Do you think there’s opportunity to drill even deeper into this concept and go with city teams? As you were saying, being able to latch onto your region seems hugely important. It was really smart for Overwatch to go in that direction and just makes sense for esports in general. Where do you see it going?

Che Chou: I’m definitely watching Overwatch with a lot of interest right now, and you’re right, there is just something really natural about, like – I come from San Francisco, and I might not even know anything about San Francisco Shocks, but I automatically would just want to root for them, because that’s my home town, right? That, I think, is awesome, and it’s something that we’re always thinking about for Hearthstone. I’ll just say that in 2018 that’s not an area of focus for me. I think it’s really about landing all our new systems, with Masters and saying – hey, if we’re going to put all this pressure on Tour Stops to be a points generation thing, and that’s how people qualify, then let’s make sure that those stand up well.

Am I interested in exploring things like regional and national affiliations and support? Yeah, for sure. At the same time, though, team Hearthstone is still in its infancy, because on the one hand the game does not actually have a multi-person mode. Whatever team thing you put together, it’s not going to be better than whatever the game builds, so it’s always going to feel a little bit – in my opinion – tacked on.

I think right now, for me the right approach is what we’re doing, which is – I definitely want to recognise professional organisations that are supporting our players . And I think giving them this meta competition of a Pro Team Standings, where we can actually say – these are, legitimately, the top teams in HCT right now. That, I think, is our first kind of cross-step towards looking at – how is Hearthstone going to manage teams and that interaction? Right now I think it’s purely at the level of saying – we appreciate you and for your performance we want to reward you with prizing.

It also sets us up to say, well now we know, officially, these are the top HCT teams, which allows us then to invite them to go and do things. Even right now, we’re putting team logos on broadcasts, which we hadn’t before. So I think a high priority for a lot of these teams is getting more visibility and brand building for themselves, especially in Hearthstone, where we’re also seeing a lot of upstart teams, like Spacestation [Gaming] – the organisation has picked up some pretty incredible players. It’s also very young right now, and I think without Hearthstone the game actually supporting it in the mode we do want to take it kind of slowly and see where it goes.

IGN: It feels like even in the last six months the org side of Hearthstone has changed a fair bit.

Che Chou: Some teams recognise that, hey, we sponsor these players but there’s no ROI for us because we don’t show up on stream. When they play, the audience doesn’t know that Fr0zen’s on X team, or whatever it is. It’s like, yeah, I don’t blame them, because we weren’t doing that. So in 2018 we are going to recognise that – team rivalries, team storytelling, is going to be a big part of our broadcast. This is literally the first broadcast we’ve done since all of our announcements, so I don’t think teams have shown up here on the broadcast as a part of the story very much yet, but we start Team Standings in season 2, or at the end of season 2, so we will definitely incorporate that into future HCT competitions.

The seasons for 2018.

The seasons for 2018.

IGN: It’s great that you’re listening to what the teams want. I’m curious to know – did you have confidential conversations with team owners and pro players to help determine the 2018 esports plans for Hearthstone in general?

Che Chou: Actually, yes. 2017 was a super ambitious plan to shake up Hearthstone esports, or accelerate its development – let’s build events, we hadn’t done any events outside BlizzCon, let’s do that. Let’s find a new production partner, we found the World Series of Poker guys. Let’s step up a bunch of things, and also let’s up the budget by an insane amount so we can do this epic stuff. And so we spent 2017 learning about a bunch of stuff, and a lot of it was very production-focused – how do we do events, how do we do the best broadcast we can, how do we run tournaments better?

There’s that, and then I think, sometime in the middle of the year, I started planning 2018 budgets and talking to my team, and I’m like – if 2017 is characterised by this, what is our 2018? What are we trying to do in 2018? And the first thing we wanted to do, right off the bat, we wanted to address quality of life for our players, and we also wanted to address tournament integrity/the quality of the overall product. Because I think, at the broadcast level, it’s okay where it is, so we need to focus our efforts [over] here because it needs a lot more attention. So in that effort what we did was [say] well, in order to know what we need to do improve quality of life we need to talk to players.

TJ [Sanders]… organised an extensive listening tour across, like, 78 players. And these were all top players. He got very detailed feedback about what their pain points were…

So, TJ [Sanders] actually took it upon himself, after our team meeting, he organised an extensive listening tour across, like, 78 players. And these were all top players. He got very detailed feedback about what their pain points were, etc. There was a bunch, but if you had to have a couple of takeaways, it was – play-offs is hard because we’re always guessing, it’s a guessing game, we don’t know if we’ve qualified until literally at the very end of the season, because you’re just taking top 64, and the 64th place could have ties too, then you just take all of them. So you actually don’t know how many people you’re going to invite to play-offs. And so every season there’d be 10-15 people on the bubble that were like – I don’t know [if I’ve made it]! – and then they would wait for us to email them. It just wasn’t ideal. So we knew that.

Also, players really hated having to grind those online cups, because there was an endless amount of them, which introduced endless points in the economy, so if you didn’t win at least the one to get your five points that month then you’ve lost five points. Those two things were above and beyond the two biggest pain points. And the third one was also, like, hey, this is a lot of hard work and the prizing isn’t really doing it for us, so we took those to heart and we thought about – how do we improve that?

It was through that conversation of improving quality of life that we ended up [thinking], well, quality of life is not enough. What is our player journey? We know you can have an amateur player come through Tavern Heroes or whatever, making the play-offs, and you can potentially have a Cinderella story. But at the same time, you have these really good players, who are returning season over season, purely based on being insanely good at the game. And so it feels like there is a player journey here that is underserviced, which is – we don’t really have a great story about professional Hearthstone players. We want to step up as an esport but we don’t really have those household names that you get with every esport. We have some, like, we have the World Champion names, like Pavel, Ostkaka, but beyond that, once you start going outside the concentric circles of Hearthstone communities, at some point, people aren’t going to know who Ant is, or whatever.

So we’re like, okay, there’s work to be done in recognising, there’s a bunch of players who are consistently performing. They may not win every tournament, but they’re consistently top 8, top 16, and those guys are worth celebrating, because they’re out there, playing all the time at all these tournaments, and they’re really frigging good. So how do we recognise consistency over time? Because that is really how you prove out Hearthstone skill. It’s about win rates and it’s about consistency. And then we began on the path of the Hearthstone Masters program, and how do we do this.

Out of the gate we – season 1 – our points thresholds are probably conservative. The feedback has been excitement for the system, but a little bit of concern or scepticism for how high the points are. And we are actively aware of the feedback, but we’re also actively going to monitor how people come through season 1. Like, if we find that, yeah, you’re right, it’s too high, then we’ll just adjust it. I think we’re going to stay agile.

XXX

Masters at work.

IGN: It feels like there’s so much more encouragement to dedicate yourself to Hearthstone now. Not just for pro players, but also aspiring amateurs too.

Che Chou: I think one thing worth mentioning at the amateur level is that there’s a lot of conversation about – well, I can’t go to all these events, it’s not accessible to me – but you don’t have to. You could make play-offs without going to all these majors. You don’t need to hit up every major to make play-offs. You just need 45 points. However you want to get 45 points, the goal is just to make play-offs. If you make play-offs now you have celebrated your opportunity to get even more points. So it’s about making play-offs. And we will adjust that point threshold to make sure play-offs is attainable after season one.

More money in the system.

More money in the system.

Really, the key here is – if you make play-offs, we’ve actually injected another half million dollars into the prize pool for the year, which means that we’ve actually deepened prizing, so if you’re a mid-low tier competitive player and you make play-offs, you’re taking home, at a baseline, already ten times more than you did in 2017. And so you can make play-offs and actually be more successful than you were in 2017, just in terms of takeaway.

So yes, on the one hand, if you want to show up at the World Championship, there’s no world where – in any sport – you’re not actually committing big chunks of your life to this thing. And travelling is one of those things. I do think that at the Challenger/amateur level you can have plenty of success, there’s a lot of rewards there. At the World Champion level, it’s only going to be a handful of people that make it here every year.

IGN: I guess it’s about finding that balance between ensuring the well-known, super consistent players that have been around for years and work really hard are represented, at the same time as providing opportunities for new people to come through the system.

Che Chou: I would say the field here is pretty representative of what Hearthstone is. You have the Kolentos, who are, like professional professional – they’ve been sponsored since day one and they travel on their team’s dime, and that’s great. And then you have DocPwn, who is a world class player, but not part of any org, just does his own thing, but could be a World Champion. So you have these unknown guys, and I’m pretty sure in 2018 we’re going to get unknown challengers coming into [the scene], hopefully moving through play-offs. The hope is that because we have removed a lot of the really good players that, in 2017, have gone through Tavern Heroes to come into play-offs. That has happened. We’ve now restricted that, and I’m curious to see if we get a more authentic or honest representation of that Challenger pool, and seeing who comes out of that.

IGN: Coming back to what you were saying earlier about quality of life improvements, being able to resume matches was obviously a huge one. It’s actually kind of unbelievable it took that long. Was that something that was really driven by you guys? And now that’s done, what’s next on the list from an engineering/client-side perspective?

Che Chou: To answer the first part of the question, it was absolutely driven by the esports team – myself, Matt Wyble – pushing on Team 5, [saying] we really need this feature, because we can’t control DDoS. There’s a bunch of things we can’t control in a tournament environment, right? …it was a recognition on the dev team’s side that – if we want to continue to have [Hearthstone] esports we need to implement a feature where you can have a disconnect. Disconnects happen, and replaying matches is super demoralising… To be transparent, this came out of the incident at Summer play-offs, where we had the Boston venue getting DDoS-ed. At some point, we have a distributed tournament system, so stuff will happen.

To be transparent, this [resume game functionality] came out of the incident at Summer play-offs, where we had the Boston venue getting DDoS-ed.

On the other hand, when you ask what’s next, we’re always engaging with Team 5 and saying – hey, we’d love to work with you guys on esports features. Nothing to talk about right now, but one thing that’s really cool, that we’re seeing today and you’ll see all throughout the weekend, is Team 5 and the franchise team’s recognition of the World Championship as not just an esports event, but truly a franchise-worthy celebration. That’s why you turn on the game today and there’s confetti and the Tavern Brawl with the [Champion’s] decks.

IGN: I was going to ask who pitched that Tavern Brawl idea. It’s fantastic.

Che Chou: That was actually Team 5 and their designers coming up with that idea. I would love to see more of these types of things, where it’s the virtual denizens of Hearthstone and this game world all come together to celebrate when there’s big events. But yeah, personally, I’ll tell you that I’ll continue to push on the dev team to want to integrate more stuff for esports.

IGN: There’s definitely a few other things that just have to get fixed. Like, the Spectator mode. It seems pretty broken. Even on day one of this tournament there were a handful of instances of the top hand not working properly.

Che Chou: I saw one early on. There are Spectator bugs that we obviously file that are being addressed, but that’s – they’re bugs.

IGN: How about something like animation time? From an esports perspective, would you want to be able to have – in the client – the ability to speed animations up or turn them off? Or is that just something that has to be factored into turn times?

Che Chou: I can’t speak to the design of the timing of the animations, but what I will say is that the philosophy of Hearthstone esports from day one, or at least ever since I’ve been here what I’ve heard is that they want competitive players and they want people watching the competitive tournaments to see what they play every day. It has to mirror the experience they have by themselves, because a lot of that speaks to the fantasy of – I could be that guy. If I had that same deck, I could do this. So that further reinforces that fantasy. Also, just as a player, animation times and the rope, it’s all a part of the game where it’s like – I’ve got to get my moves in there. So some of that is just a part of the game too.

IGN: Ultimately though, you want more in-client support for what you guys are doing, so maybe a tournament mode or a different client for you guys to use for professional events? What do you want?

Che Chou: I have a laundry list that I talk to Team 5 about. All I can say is that I’m actively pushing on features. I don’t want to get specific here, because, not that they’re not cool ideas, or even no-brainer stuff that you guys have probably thought about, I just don’t want to commit on record. If I mention it, then it’s like – well why don’t you have it? You mentioned this a year ago. Because I don’t control those resources. But I will tell you that it’s a priority for me and I’m pushing on those things.

IGN: Cool, thanks for your time!

Cam Shea is senior editor in IGN’s Sydney office and is currently indulging in several days of watching top level Hearthstone play. He’s on Twitter.

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