I’ve spent the past weekend watching the Hearthstone (Free) Summer Championship live from the Blizzard Arena in Burbank, California, and while sitting in the audience I really just found myself in complete awe of what Blizzard has built with this game and its associated esports scene (as well as the larger fan community following said scene). TouchArcade has been covering Hearthstone quite literally since the beginning and as such, I’ve had continued contact with many different layers of the Hearthstone team. This year saw significant shake-ups in senior leadership, and with Matt Wyble leaving Hearthstone esports for Overwatch and Ben Brode checking out entirely to do his own thing, I really haven’t been sure what this means for the future of the game. We’ve seen other studios lose similarly significant team members, leading the rest of the project feeling indescribably “off," which is something I’ve been super concerned about with Hearthstone– A game I’ve spent just over five years now obsessing over. This event has really made me realize one significant thing: Hearthstone indisputably now has a life of its own, and while former big names may have helped guide it to where it is today, the Hearthstone machine has been expertly crafted, and isn’t stopping anytime soon. The game is better than it ever was, and these esports events are only getting more compelling to watch and more fun to attend.
Backing up a bit, if you’re in the Los Angeles area, or you have any reason to be in the Los Angeles area that you can schedule around the time that something is happening at the Blizzard Arena, you simply must attend. If I was local, I’d be at every event they hold there as there’s just something magical about seeing how the sausage is made in the high production value streams that Blizzard broadcasts surrounding each of their esports offerings. I’ve mentioned this before in previous articles about Blizzard esports, but I really cannot overstate the extent of the technical symphony they’re running behind the scenes and on stage. The set pieces look even better in person, and the energy of watching one of your favorite games sitting in a crowd of people who are also excited about surprising top decks or crazy RNG is unbelievably fun. It really makes me wish I had any of those esports bars that are popping up now near me, as if I had a place with the energy of the Blizzard Arena near me, I’m not sure I’d ever leave. But, I digress.
One of the fun parts of attending these events as a journalist is followup interviews with Hearthstone team members. I basically always get a sit down with Hearthstone Global Franchise Lead Che Chou to get a “state of the union," so to speak, on the direction of Hearthstone’s esports initiatives. Time time around, questions all surrounded the changes made last year involving the actual structure of the tournaments that power the Hearthstone Championship Tour. If you weren’t around for that, the entire foundation of the 2018 and 2019 season of Hearthstone esports is available here, but pertinent details basically boil down to Blizzard doing tons more to encourage rewarding consistently great players. A new point system gave pro players a very tangible goal to hit in order to be included in high-level Hearthstone play, and the rewards for players participating in playoff games were also significantly ramped up. Basically, if you qualified for the playoffs, you now should (at minimum) be rewarded with enough prize money to cover your travel- and potentially much more. Comparatively, last year you needed to make it into the top eight to even take home more than $100.
Unsurprisingly, it seems all the changes made to the rewards and point structures so far have been overwhelmingly positive, with many of the hypotheses turning out to be totally true. It’s a better environment for the players, players are taking home more money, and the new pro team standing systems is creating some fascinating team dynamics. One side effect that the system has had that Blizzard didn’t anticipate is top players attending tons of tour stops to rack up as many points as possible instead of just qualifying for the next big tournament and stopping… But, I suppose if the only bad thing about the new system is people are playing more Hearthstone than they need to, that’s a pretty solid problem to have.
A thing I’ve been really curious of lately with the recent Supreme Court ruling favoring sports betting is what, if any impact is that going to have on the organizers of these massive esports leagues- Particularly considering Hearthstone already has a wager-ish system in place with choosing your champion where you can win packs. According to Chou, Blizzard has no plans to get involved in any kind of wagering further than what they’re already doing (which isn’t really wagering) but I’m super curious to see where third parties take this in the future. Esports betting seems like a seriously untapped market right now, and if I’m going to personally bet on anything, I’d be way more into betting on a game I’m intimately familiar with like Hearthstone, and I bet there’s loads of other people out there in the same boat. We’ll have to see how this develops in the future.
With the loss of Brode and Wyble still fresh in my mind, I really went to this event with a critical eye looking for any places the game might be faltering in their absence and I really came up short. Instead, I was inadvertently exposed to just how ridiculously awesome Blizzard’s intern program actually is. If you ever see yourself looking at a company like Blizzard and wonder how it is that they consistently create such great things, it seems to have a lot to do with their company culture of filtering the absolute best of the best from available talent pools to bring into the company. This particular event lead me to meeting two new bright-eyed interns anxious to get started in their new role on the esports team. In previous years, I had met another intern who I thought was an amazing addition to the Blizzard team at the time who has since “graduated" to become an employee. In effect, it seems like Blizzard culture is just eternal, and while it might be a big deal for other companies when major players leave, with everyone on the same page with the ways that Blizzard operates, it’s just another day.
This leads me to be super hopeful for the future of the game and the next expansion announcement. It’s going to be weird not having Ben at the reigns, but I’m sure the next face of Hearthstone will fill the role admirably. As far as the current state of the game is concerned, I think the amount of matches in the Summer Championships that were drawn out to five games really goes to show how well balanced Hearthstone is now with all the different mechanics that mitigate the annoying amount of RNG it had in its early days. These super-long matches really just go to show the unbelievable amount of thought that goes into playing the game at high levels, which is always super rad to witness firsthand (particularly as someone who normally plays aggro decks and just dumps minions and goes for face).
The tournament itself, however, culminated in a match that actually did not go to game five, with A83650 (say that ten times fast) facing off against Bunnyhoppor who managed to pull ahead 3-1 and take home a cool $50,000 (with A83650 being awarded $40,000- Not bad for second place). For the Hearthstone crew, they barely get any sort of reprieve as the Championship Tour soldiers on, stopping in Italy, Oakland, and Tokyo this month alone. Who knew a weird Blizzard game announced at PAX East could have this kind of unstoppable momentum?