Hearthstone as an eSport is arguably at its zenith. With some variety of major tournament or league play filling almost every day of the week, it’s hard to argue that it could be bigger. If non-western tournaments are factored into the equation, including the enormous and largely self-contained Chinese scene, there’s simply more high-level Hearthstone eSports than even the most dedicated fan could ever watch. This is not a game dominated by one country or scene, as was always the case with StarCraft and its sequel. It’s become a truly international game, with such low barriers to entry and simplicity that the doors to understanding it and enjoying it are wide open.
But perhaps that simplicity will spell the end of Hearthstone as an eSport. The game sells itself as a game that anyone can win, and there are enough random effects to ensure that that’s true. It’s a game often compared to poker, in that the skill comes in maximizing one’s odds within the inherent variance. But poker is a game where no-name players often win major tournaments. And who still watches poker?
Will the eventual influx of unknown champions do the same in Hearthstone? It’s still a young game by eSport standards, but every eSport faces its end eventually. Will that happen to Hearthstone?
A Bit of History
It’s fairly clear that Blizzard did not expect Hearthstone to be an eSport when the game launched a little over a year ago. With no player lobbies, observer modes, or support, making Hearthstone a spectator sport was an uphill battle. Yet the enormous interest in the game, coupled with a growing eSports scene across other games, led to the very rapid rise of Hearthstone tournaments, even during the open beta.
It was also clear early on that Hearthstone was a great game for streamers. Lacking the twitch-based gameplay and split-second decisions of popular RTS games and MOBAs, Hearthstone streamers can easily interact with their audience while maintaining a high level of play. And as a free-to-play game accessible to casual players, the install base is enormous, meaning a larger potential viewer pool. At any given time, Hearthstone is likely in the top three games on Twitch.tv by viewer count.
Large streaming viewer-counts led to a proliferation of high-profile Hearthstone personalities, from Trump to Amaz to Forsen. And eSports is largely driven by personalities, something Hearthstone has in spades. Most of the popular streamers quickly became tournament staples, garnering invites largely based on viewership numbers alone. This led to their fans following them into tournaments, increasing exposure for other, lesser-known contenders, who often took home the victories. Players like StrifeCro, Firebat and Kolento are known less for their streams than their early tournament results.
With the explosion of interest in Hearthstone as an eSport, Blizzard too began supporting it, offering huge prize money during its annual World Championships at Blizzcon, and finally releasing a Spectator mode (limited as it is). And with large audiences and revenue, all the largest eSports organizations and events, from Dreamhack to ESL have gotten on board the Hearthstone train.
And now we’ve arrived at peak Hearthstone.
The Variance Issue
But none of this says anything about the game itself. Hearthstone is an outlier among eSports in that skill does not necessarily translate into a win. While strong fundamentals and solid decks are a requirement for competitive play, those are relatively low barriers to possible tournament success when compared with other eSports. There’s simply no way even a merely above-average player could ever win StarCraft II‘s WCS or a mediocre team win Dota 2’s The International. But they can win in Hearthstone, even if it’s mildly unlikely.
Blizzard argues that increased variance in Hearthstone allows for greater skill, by increasing the number of possible board states and outcomes that need to be considered. This is both strictly true and misleading, as it suggests that higher-skilled players therefore have an greater advantage. In actuality, while a higher variance increases the theoretical skill-cap, it also proportionally decreases the impact of skill-differences between players. In a zero-variance game like Chess, a Grandmaster will likely win 100% of their games against an average player. In high variance games like Hearthstone, this win rate drops precipitously, allowing much inferior players to frequently take games off of superior ones. After all, if all your skill can do is get the game to a 60% to 40% win-to-loss chance, you’re still going to lose 40% of the time.
Literally as I write this, a commentator in the Gfinity Summer Masters streaming in my other monitor just stated: “And Tom, who we’ve both agreed has played very poorly, will advance first out of his group.”
I worry, in part, that Hearthstone as an eSport is artificially supported. The number of invite-only tournaments keeps the well-known personalities on screen regularly and creates the impression that the most well-known players are also the best. It also artificially increases the number of titles to their name.
If you’re playing against a pool of just fifteen other invited players every time rather than an open pool of 500 or a 1000, you’re going to end up with more top finishes. In StarCraft II (the eSport I know best), it doesn’t matter how big the open brackets are, you can be fairly certain the top players will make it through. But the same can’t be said for Hearthstone. There’s no WCS challenger league qualifiers here. In the recent Dreamhack Summer tournament, for example, World Champion Firebat went down 0-3 in matches in the open swiss tournament.
Does it Matter?
So with all that being said about how variance will likely prevent any true consistency among the top Hearthstone players, at least wherever there are open brackets, will it matter for Hearthstone as an eSport?
My guess is no. I doubt most viewers truly care about the competition, about any one player actually being better than any other. Instead, most viewers are looking for the storylines, or exciting moments. They may cheer for their favorite streamer, but when he doesn’t win, it doesn’t matter. It’s Hearthstone after all. It’s an entertaining distraction. They’ll still tune in to watch them so long as they remain entertaining.
And ultimately, I think that’s what Hearthstone as an eSport is. It’s less about competition, and more about fun. Success in tournaments doesn’t really matter, because it’s understood that RNG will decide some (if not most) games, and that on most turns, the right play is clear.
So as much as unknown players may win a major tournament never to be heard from again, the well-known players will remain, playing in their leagues and closed groups, keeping the tournament scene alive. It’s artificial, but it’s probably stable.
And so Hearthstone eSports will live on.