With a new tournament structure for professional Hearthstone kicking off tonight (AEST), regular weekly competition between the world’s best players will soon be the norm.
Hearthstone Grandmasters begins this evening, and I had the opportunity to sit down with the lone Australian representative – FroStee (Dylan O’Mallon).
Unlike the international esports stars I’ve spoken to over the years, his story is not one of triumph after triumph. He’s had to battle the unique disadvantages of being based in rural Australia, among other obstacles, on his quest to reach the pinnacle of Hearthstone.
Here’s what we discussed.
The Roar: What was your introduction to Hearthstone? What hooked you about the game initially?
FroStee: So, to me, I was a big Magic: The Gathering player. A few years back, I believe it was 2012, was the first time I touched a Friday night Magic – a community gathering that happens every Friday for the game. I was a big introvert at the time you know, I wasn’t one to go out.
But I gave it a try because my friends recommended it to me, and I just naturally picked up the game.
Fast forward a few years, however, the introvert in me didn’t like the fact that I had to go out and have to play, thirty minutes away from me, it was a real trip, a bit of a hassle every time. And I saw Hearthstone had just come up on Twitch quite recently and I saw a lot streamers getting into it and it seemed very curious to me so I applied for a beta key, got in the day before they released the open beta funnily enough.
The Roar: As fate would have it.
FroStee: Yeah, funnily. I just naturally picked it up from there, everything about it just clicked with me very well. The progression just seemed naturally excellent for me. Especially because as a uni student, you tend to be procrastinating quite a bit. I had a lot of spare time on my hands, so the fact that I was poor didn’t really put a damper on it because I would just keep playing, I’d keep progressing through that. So it hooked me really well in that sense.
The Roar: Now fast forward a couple of years again, you are one of, at least in our region, the most consistent competitive points earners. How did you get to that level that you’re at today?
FroStee: To me it’s just been consistency and persistence. A lot of it really boiled down to the fact that I set myself a goal and I just continued to work at it no matter what the obstacles were in my way. I have come very close to reaching a lot of my goals. One of them was to try to make top eight at a major event, or something of that sort, but I’d place ninth.
With that sort of thing, it’s hard to say it doesn’t get to you a little bit. But I just took it in my stride every single time, shrugged it off, moved on to the next one and just put even more effort into it. That’s been continuing throughout the years.
I remember the first year I played, Hearthstone wasn’t that competitive but, at the time in Magic: The Gathering, I had recently hit the pro tour. That was at the time one of the biggest peaks that you could do, and to try to compete in that. Didn’t go so well for me unfortunately, but there’s a bit of a theme there.
There weere also a lot of events going on in Hearthstone at the time, and I recognised that there was a lot of potential within Hearthstone. So naturally I hopped on that train and I continued to just apply myself to it and it just got me to where I am today.
The Roar: As a true Aussie battler, do you reckon you’ve encountered any sort of specific barriers being based in Australia when so much of the professional scene happend overseas
FroStee: Definitely, I remember last year there was a huge emphasis on traveling, and traveling to all sorts of different events and within the five years I’ve played Hearthstone, I’ve never had a team sponsor before. So anything that I would have to do, would have to come out of my own pocket to try to get to these sorts of events.
Naturally, flying from Australia has been a huge costly experience for me. You’re looking at just a thousand dollars in flights, and usually flights aren’t even the most expensive sort of thing when it comes to traveling. You’ve got hotel, food, all of these sorts of things.
For just a rural boy with not a lot of ways to earn money from playing Hearthstone, it was naturally a very tough obstacle for me to try to overcome this.
There’s been times in my Hearthstone career when I’ve taken on a full time job as well trying to balance competitive game play and having a girlfriend at the same time. Having all these different tugs and pulls, trying to find a good balance between all of it, it’s all about just trying to find that right mix of how much I’m supposed to practice, how much I can afford to give other things in my life.
To me, that’s probably the biggest obstacle that I’ve had to overcome – just trying to find that real work life balance.
In my first few years of Hearthstone, when there wasn’t everything else going on in my life, all I was doing was just focus on Hearthstone. I would just continuously play for even times of up to 16 hours at a time.
Especially when you’re trying to get that last big finish that you need to try get you qualified for the next event. I would just try to slam it out as much as I possibly could just because I felt like that was something that was really important to me that I needed to do.
The Roar: That’s fair enough. I was speaking to SNJing (Guan Zhendong) from China before, and he was saying that in China now esports athletes actually do get recognised by the government as athletes who are entitled to benefits. What do you think Australia needs to do to help people like yourself and just these sports in general move forward?
FroStee: I think it’s just about recognition at this point. I don’t really think it’s much more about what the government can do or anything like that. I feel like it’s a general perception thing.
It’s really funny that you mention this because a lot of people who I talk to don’t recognise what I do as a real job. The amount of time that I put into Hearthstone is equivalent to even more than what most people work in a general day. In esports, you don’t get much of a break. You can’t just afford to take just a little bit of a time off because that’s time your competitors are continuously progressing and you’re falling behind.
There’s a lot of work that you need to put into that, that’s just generally not regonised in Australia, quite yet. That’s because it hasn’t had so much recognition, it’s not as mainstream as some more prominent countries.
I feel like two things go into that, one is that it just takes some time. Especially for Australia, because of the internet infrastructure that we’ve had over the past few years hasn’t been the greatest, hasn’t allowed us to really try to push for anything like this. In the eyes of the public it’s really quite new to them.
You’ll still see people go on Twitter that complain up to sites like ABC, why are they playing this computer game on my ABC site or anything like that or SBS or anything of the sort.
Two, I just think that these sports, there just needs to be more of it in Australia, it just needs to be pushed a little bit more.
The one main barrier to that is the fact that a lot of Australia is really spread apart. Due to that, it’s very hard to get a lot of people together, it’s a very costly sort of affair to try to fly everybody in to a certain location. Whereas, you see in a lot of the smaller Asian countries they are very tight knit. That’s why it allows such a faster growth in these sorts of areas.
The Roar: That makes a hell of a lot of sense. Just backtracking a bit, you mentioned a lot of people don’t recognise what you do as a job. Is the general reaction you get when you do tell them this is what you do, somewhat skeptical, or do you get some positive reactions as well?
FroStee: Definitely, my girlfriend doesn’t see it as a job. So that one is a bit of a tough one to try to continue to impress that one. I’m trying to make some strides when it comes to that. My mum doesn’t see it as a full time job.
My dad is perhaps the most supportive out of the entire family. He’s always been very reasonable to me, he said to me: “You can pursue this, we’ve got to make it work somehow, if it is not working you’ve got to be reasonable about it, you’ve got to move on.”
That’s where it comes back to February, where I was essentially announcing my retirement. I saw the entire system, I saw that these big open cups were cutting back, taking 14 hours, 16 hours of your day.
I recognised that I’m not exactly the youngest person, I’m 25. It just wasn’t viable for me to try to continue the 16 hours a day sort of thing that you used to put in. I’m starting to get a little bit old now. To me I just kept it in mind that it was just time.
Then I got a message from Blizzard saying that I was being considered for Grandmasters and the entire thing just flipped on its head again.
It’s funny, because I mentioned to my girlfriend that the last prelims I was going to do were happening in January. It was probably going to be the last trip that I was going to do for a while. And then to try to explain in a month or two that I’m flying to Taipei for this thing that happened to be for the gaming stuff, it was a little bit of a tough explanation.
The Roar: That must have been absolutely incredible, and to find out that you had actually been selected for Grand,asters, what was your initial reaction in that moment when you got the email?
FroStee: To be honest, I still haven’t fully comprehended it quite yet. It is breathtaking to me. A lot of what I initially perceived is that I wasn’t the most popular Australian Hearthstone player. NaviOOT (Alex Ridley) is more recognised than I am, he is a big community figurehead. A lot of people really go to him and recognise him as that is what Australian Hearthstone is.
For me, it is always just been putting in the hours, putting in the work in the background even if you don’t get recognised for it.
A lot of what I did was not for the recognition, it was to prove to myself that I could reach my goals, and what I had set out to do. To finally have that recognised in something like Grandmasters, which in my wildest of dreams I never really would have comprehended it, I was just star struck. I was bouncing around for the entire day.
The Roar: That’s awesome. That sounds life changing. Going into the Grandmasters competition itself, obviously it is pretty easy to fit in the games to your regular schedule, I just want to ask more about the Specialist format. That is a big change. What is your take on the new way of doing tournaments?
FroStee: I haven’t really had a lot of time to play around with Specialist, there’s not been a lot of tournaments that Grandmaster players have been able to play in due to already having qualified for certain events. I have dabbled in it a little bit, but my initial reaction to it is quite positive.
A lot of Hearthstone is about trying to bring in newer players into making it more accessible, and that is exactly what Specialist does for the format, it makes it a lot more accessible for these newer players. They see the pros of playing the one specific deck and they make little changes to it in between the games.
To them, to see them doing that, “oh when he’s playing against Warrior he brings in this deck because these cards are really good against it,” it makes the whole situation a lot more approachable.
Compared to Conquest, where they have four different decks and you have some times where the players will just say ‘my line up just did things against his line up that he just couldn’t beat.’
To a newer player who only touches ladder that can be really confusing because he sees certain decks and they may not understand why certain cards are in them and for that matter it’s really good for them to try understand that.
On the flip side, I’m a little bit interested to see how it pans out in the long run, to see what kind of deck diversity really shines through. We are initially seeing a lot of Rogue and Warrior within the first bit of the expansion here and the first bit of Specialist. Because, they are initially the two strongest decks.
I’m wondering is the ability to cyborg in these sorts of formats, to change the decks, good enough that it can make different strategies viable than just the most powerful decks. So to me, mix of both, I’m interested to see where it goes, and there is a bit of curiosity to see what exactly happens with the format.
The Roar: That seems more than reasonable. Just lastly, can you give us an insight to what kind of decks you are liking at the moment? Is there anything wild that you’re playing?
FroStee: I wouldn’t say there is exactly anything meta-breaking or anything like that. I have a tendency, when the best decks are being played I will try to steer myself away from them and try to try out something a little bit different.
At the moment I’m playing a bit of a Control Shaman sort of build. I’m trying all sorts of different brews, I’m trying to play the fatigue game, trying to play the aggro. I’m just seeing what works, and to me that has always been a lot of fun because Shaman is one of my favorite classes in the game.
Everything that is going on with it at the moment is just a ton of fun to be able to play around with. That’s naturally where my curiosity is being pulled. Naturally I’m a lot less of a deck builder and more of a deck refiner. I don’t really go out of my way to try to build these new decks, as you know if something new pops up on the horizon, I’m like ‘let’s have a play around with this and let’s see what works and what doesn’t.’
FroStee’s first match of Grandmasters is tonight (May 17) at 8pm (AEST) against Flurry (Cho Hyun-soo) of South Korea. You can catch all the action on Twitch.