The Roar
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Exploring the the brave new world of Hearthstone esports with franchise lead Sam Braithwaite

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14th May, 2019
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The 2019 Hearthstone World Championship only finished up recently, but a new era of esports for the popular card game is already upon us.

This Friday, May 17, sees the beginning of Hearthstone Grandmasters; the top layer of a new three-tiered tournament structure, while also being the most-publicised debut of the controversial Specialist format that will be used in Hearthstone tournaments going forward.

The previous Conquest format saw competitors bring four decks from different classes to a tournament. When a game began, each player would ban one deck of their opponent’s before playing a best-of-five match series. After a player won a game, they would no longer be able to use the deck they won that game with for the rest of the series.

Specialist sees players bring three decks from the same class instead, a ‘primary’, ‘secondary’ and ‘tertiary’ deck. The three decks must have 25 cards in common, while the remaining five are different. Crucially, while players begin each series with their primary deck, they don’t reveal which deck they’ve switched to – if they’ve switched at all – for remaining matches.

We had the opportunity to speak to Sam Braithwaite, the global franchise lead for Hearthstone esports, about why massive changes came about to the game’s professional scene.

The Roar: There are some huge changes to Hearthstone esports coming up, with the change to the Granndmasters system and the move to a different game format. I want to tackle this specialist format first. I think a lot of people have read it and just can’t get their head around it. What does the Specialist format look like and what will it entail?

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Sam Braithwaite: If there’s a way that I can summarise the Specialist format, it’s allowing us to reach a much broader audience with Hearthstone esports. Conquest format is a little bit intimidating for a lot of people. It doesn’t mirror what the average experience is like inside of Hearthstone and so, if you’re somebody that is a casual player and you’re tuning in, it doesn’t represent what your experience just like in the game.

That could be a little bit frustrating, especially because what we find is that most people watch Hearthstone Esports, compared to other esports, to be better at the game. They watch it to get educational content. They watch to figure out which decks and cards are the best, to figure out how do they take that and then apply it to their ladder experience because that’s what they do pretty much a hundred percent at the time they play the game right?

So, the switch was mainly to kind of broaden what Hearthstone Esports is while, at the same time, allowing opportunity for depth and allowing ability for deck building. Yes it is a single class but, for a lot of people, that is a huge welcomed change.

You don’t need four competitively viable decks from four different classes – that’s an expensive hurdle to be able to be invested into Hearthstone Esports. What we’re seeing is we’ve launched our Masters qualifiers – online tournaments that 225 people participate in. Almost every single one of those tournaments has reached maximum capacity and we have sometimes a wait list of 400 people.

That means that the demand is there, people are saying like, “Oh, hey this Specialist format, it’s really easy for me to sign up and play at a Hearthstone tournament, why not? I can just do it from my home.”

The trophy at HCT Taiwan

Is this trophy now more winnable for regular players than ever? (Photo: Helena Kristiansson/Blizzard Entertainment)

That’s what we’re looking to do. I think success for Hearthstone Esports and success on the Specialist format is doubling the amount of people that are playing and participating in Hearthstone Esports. You have to think that this is a cascading effect to where the more people that are participating in Hearthstone Esports, the more people that will watch Hearthstone Esports.

The more people that are watching, the more sponsorships that come in and it creates this ecosystem to where we’re basically self-sustaining right?

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That’s the ultimate goal with what we’re trying to do; trying to stand up a program on two feet to where we have something great that people can look forward to.

The Roar: That’s actually pretty interesting. I think a lot of people would look at it from the top down perspective and envision this scenario we’re everyone brings the same deck to the tournament and you just get the same game over and over again. But I think that’s actually a pretty reasonable point about making the professional scene a lot more accessible from the bottom end.

Sam: Don’t get me wrong – I understand the other side of the equation as well. We are changing things and, for the most competitive players, I can understand why maybe they look at this as a possibly negative thing. What I don’t think is gonna happen is everybody brings the same deck to a tournament.

The Roar: Why is that?

Sam: Card games have been around for a really long time. Ten to 15, 20 years and some of the people on my team have been working in this industry, specifically card games, for 10, 15, 20 years. When you look at large scale events and you look at tournaments where you have your main deck and you’ve got side boards – which is Specialist – you see a pattern emerge.

Yes, there is a dominant deck, but if you’re going to a Masters tour event and you know there is a dominant deck and you don’t think that you’re the best player in the world, you shouldn’t bring that deck, you should bring the deck that counters that deck because you wanna hedge your odds against it.

So now there’s Deck A, there’s Deck B. Well, there’s also gonna be Deck C, which counters Deck B and holds it own against Deck A. Then what the Specialist format’s also gonna do – which a lot of people aren’t taking into account – is there’s a huge population of people out there that just play one class, because that’s what they like to do because it’s fun and that’s okay.

There’s the people that only play Mage, there’s people like Fibonacci (Shokrukh Rakhimov) who have 23,000 wins on Warrior. This is an opportunity for them to show up and play the class that they like, they’re comfortable and familiar with and they don’t really care about hedging their odds against specific decks.

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They are there to pilot their deck and they want their deck to win.

So, yes, we might see, you know, top eights or top sixteens be dominated by two to three classes – but that’s normal across any card game. I think what we can expect to see is actually more diversity than people give credit for and if we don’t and this doesn’t work out, we’re totally open to pivoting this as well.

I’ve publicly stated that we are only going to be using Specialist format guaranteed for the first season of Grandmasters, the first Masters Tour Event in Las Vegas and the first round of the qualifiers.

The stage at the Hearthstone World Championships in Taiwan.

(Photo: Helena Kristiansson/Blizzard Entertainment)

If, at the end of our halfway through this year, we’re not hitting the goals that we have in mind for Specialist format, we have other formats that we want to experiment with that we think are better at achieving our goals than Conquest, but different enough from Specialist – so hold us accountable to that.

If this isn’t working out, we’ll change, we’ll pivot. But we have an idea in our head of what we’re trying to accomplish with this and we think it will work, but it might not.

And that’s okay right? It’s okay so long as we’re prepared to be agile and to pivot on it.

The Roar: One thing I personally thought as well with the whole class thing is you could actually have a situation where people watching these tournaments latch onto a particular class. I think if you’re a brand new player and watching a tournament it’s a bit hard to know who to go for.

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But if you’re a Shaman main and someone brings Shaman, you latch on that person. It makes the professional scene a more supportable experience.

This is a broad question, but where do you see Hearthstone esports in three or four years?

Sam: That is a difficult question for me to answer because the way I like to lead the team is, I’m a tinkerer. I like to change everything constantly, just trying to get what is the ideal situation. The reality is that we’re making a ton of drastic changes this year and we don’t know how it’s gonna shape up.

We have our idea in our head but it’s hard to anticipate three, four, five years in the future when we haven’t even launched our program yet.

So, at the end of this year, I think if you would ask me that question, I can give you a pretty good answer because there’s multiple paths in which I can see this.

We have our three tiers, we have Grandmasters, which is the regular online round-robin competition, we have our Masters Tour events, live events with $250,000 prizes, and then we have our Masters Qualifiers, which is where anybody can sign up, earn packs – we’re reaching the masses.

Each one of those, I can see scaling and evolving into multiple different directions depending on how successful they are. If we’re finding that Masters Tour events are our bread and butter and that’s we’re getting a lot of our engagement interactions, I can see us expanding that program and keeping Grandmasters how it is.

If we see Grandmasters viewership really climbing and people latching on with these personalities, and there’s regular consistent viewing schedule, I can see us expanding that program in a way, while keeping Masters Tours kind of very similar to how it is now.

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So, I don’t know yet, but I think that that’s exciting and I think that that’s okay to not know yet.

Global esports franchise lead for Hearthstone, Sam Braithwaite

Sam Braithwaite. (Photo: Blizzard Entertainment).

The Roar: Are there any other changes you’re looking at making to the general Hearthstone Esports circuit? Are you looking at bringing in like periphery events, NBA All-Star-esque events where you’re bringing the personalities of players more than just having them sitting on stage playing Hearthstone?

Sam: Yeah, so we did something like that for one of the first times in December. Here in Taiwan, we did the All-Star event and it ended up being super successful, I could see us doing something similar like that in the future.

We have no plans just so everybody’s on the same page, we have no plans of doing that this year, but I can see us doing that in the future.

But really, for me, when I think of what are the things I want to do once we’ve launched all of these and get these moving in a forward direction, I want to partner up more with third parties regionally to be able to give opportunities for people that don’t have opportunities to attend these events.

Some of the criticisms that we’re receiving right now with our Masters Tour events is that yes, you win, and you earn a ticket to a $250,000 event in Las Vegas but if you’re from Australia, that’s really expensive because you have to cover your own flight and hotel.

But what if there was a qualifier that was open to only Australians that was an in-person thing sponsored by a local Australian company where the first place prize was that, we as Blizzard say, ‘Hey, if you offer a flight and a hotel for a first place prize, we’ll give you an invitation to our Masters Tour event as a prizing thing’.

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It creates a symbiotic relationship to where we’re giving their tournament that they’re gonna be doing anyways more merit so more people are going sign up and, in return, they’re covering the cost and alleviating one of our stressors which is the burden of entry to book the flight across the world.

Sam: I would love to be able to roll that out on a really big global scale because I think that that is one making up for one of the soft spots in our ecosystem right now, which is it’s very easy for people in America to attend the Las Vegas event, it’s very easy for people in Asia-Pacific to attend the World Championships, but what about people in Eastern Europe? What about people in Southern America? What about people in Australia?

There is still a burden of entry there that I’d love to eliminate and I think that we can fix that with good collaboration with partners.

The Roar: You speak my language, more events in Australia – make it happen. Just finally, there have been some rumblings that some people are a bit upset with the change to Grandmasters in that some traditional ladder grinders have been locked out in favor of more personalities. Is that something you see being a problem?

Sam: I understand where they’re coming from on that but, ultimately, I think the decisions we’re making with Grand Masters are going to be better for the ecosystem as a whole.

We needed to, I don’t want to say a ‘king make’, but we needed to be able to build and have the runway to establish personalities within Hearthstone Esports. The entire open nature of Hearthstone Esports with HCT, had a lot of benefits but there were a lot of drawbacks in that we created these personalities like Muzzy (Muzahidul Islam) and Hunterace (Casper Notto), guys that have shown that time and time again, they can perform at the very top.

Norway's Hunterace (Casper Notto) looks during a Hearthstone match at the HCT World Championship in Taiwan.

Players like Hunterace – a traditional points grinder – should benefit from the new system. (Photo: Helena Kristiansson/Blizzard Entertainment)

But their lifestyle is that they’re traveling constantly, they’re grinding ladder and they need to constantly grind to be able to qualify for all of these events.

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We wanna make it so that if you are proven that you’re one of the best players in the world, your lifestyle should change a little bit.

You shouldn’t have to grind qualifiers and ladder like everybody else. You should be able to go on sponsorship tours, you should be able to create content, you should be able to build up your personal brand because you’ve already proven that you’re the best and then you should just be able to show up and kick butt.

So that’s what we’re trying to do with all of these and so I do get where they’re coming and there are gonna be people that will inevitably miss the cusp on something like this. But in the end, I do think that this is the right thing to do for the future of Hearthstone Esports.