More money, more rising stars: 2018 will be big for Hearthstone esports whether you're casual or competitive

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It's all been leading up to this. After months of high-level competition, tense matchups, and fluctuations in the meta, the Hearthstone Championship Tour (HCT) is entering the World Championship. The four-day tournament will stream live from Amsterdam starting January 17th, and is effectively the grand finale of Hearthstone's Year of the Mammoth - a fun name for the state of the Standard format before old sets rotate out with the next expansion. If you're partial to slinging spells in Blizzard's perpetually popular card game, or just enjoy watching chess-like mental maneuvering between expert players, this weekend is going to be a treat.

But beyond the Hearthstone World Championship, Blizzard has outlined plenty of changes for 2018 - all detailed here - that will reshape Hearthstone esports as we know it. To learn more about these plans for the competitive scene - and the impact they'll have beyond the ever-expanding pool of pro players - I asked Che Chou, franchise lead for Hearthstone esports, and Matt Wyble, esports manager with Blizzard's Team 5, about what we should expect in the new competitive season. If you've become an avid fan of players like Pavel, Kolento, and Hoej, be prepared for plenty more fascinating stories of rising Hearthstone heroes.  

GamesRadar+: What changes for the coming year are you most excited about?
Che Chou:
Back in December, we announced a bunch of new things for HCT in 2018. There are really three exciting things about it. I can't wait to see how they play out and we're starting to see the beginnings of it now. The first one obviously is the Hearthstone Masters Program that we're putting together. Our goal there is to recognize performance players over a period of time, to really start to establish a pro lifestyle for Hearthstone. The second one is that we split out a Challenger system that's specifically catered to folks that are coming more from a grassroots angle. It allows those players who come through the more amateur system to compete at a more even level with their peers, as opposed to intermixing with pros in that system as well. And the third thing is, we're now recognizing professional esports teams in HCT and also rewarding them, both on broadcast as well as with prizing throughout the year. All three of those, since the announcement, have generated a lot of excitement within the community. A lot of esports teams have reached out with interest, so it's going to be good to see where it goes from here.

Matt Wyble: A common thread through all those pieces is that we feel like we've grown tremendously and we have amazing competition, but we want to help solidify the ecosystem even more. We want to make sure this is something [in which] we're consistently rewarding our top players, we're bringing teams back into Hearthstone in a really big way, and also providing the opportunity for more grassroots for people looking to step into the scene and make a name for themselves and do so too. I'm super excited about being able to build out that ecosystem and kind of introduce that stability and bring new people into the pro tier.

What kind of player stories are you hoping to see in 2018?
Wyble:
One of the great things about HCT is, now that we've been around for a little bit, is that you see players returning. Unfortunately, Pavel [Beltukov, winner of the 2016 World Championship] came oh so close, but didn't make it to Worlds this year. He was one game away twice this year, which I think is absolutely insane - people don't understand how crazy that is, and just how good that guy is at the game. I think a lot of the things we're doing here is to see some of those - Hearthstone skill is, I think, best shown through people's consistency over a lot of events, and people continuing to really perform well. The players that we've seen perform at the highest level over time are ones that are able to adapt; they can take in a new expansion and very rapidly figure out its implications. To be a top Hearthstone player, that's really just a requirement. You're going to be able to really identify who those top skilled players have been over time. I think that's going to be huge.

Chou: I think that's the outcome of the story; that's the conclusion that you want to see. But I think the road to getting there, to me, is the more interesting story. Even now, we're starting to see our top 64, super tryhard pros jockeying for points this season, and the season's just started. I think what'll be really interesting is to see what sort of stories come out of the race. Who's going to be the first player to make masters? And when we introduce teams in season two, I think there's going to be a whole team meta competition now between teams, and rivalries. And that's not a story we've had with Hearthstone. That's something I can't wait to see.

I think what we're going to see in 2018 is that those championships become much more of a tentpole event, because you're going to have four to six tour stops per season along the way before you even get to that championship. There's going to be a ton of story built up just getting there, and now the Championship is imbued with so much more story and personality and meaning, because of all these tour stops that built up through that season. [With the tour stops,] we're creating more of a festival environment so that you're not just coming to watch an esport - you're coming to be a part of the community. We spent last year putting on a bunch of cool events and learning from them; I think we're going to continue to build on that for this year. Coming to Hearthstone esports events should feel like a community gathering, as opposed to a passive sit-and-watch experience.

Out of curiosity, how many 3-star masters are you expecting to see over the course of the year? That seems like such a lofty goal.
Chou:
The Masters program isn't capped, so we could get many three star masters. I know that right out of the gate - to be transparent - we had feedback from the community that there were concerns about 45 points [the number of points needed to enter the seasonal Playoffs]. Is 45 points a realistic threshold for Hearthstone players? Our response is maybe, maybe not - but if it's not, we will definitely react with season two and adjust accordingly. Even with season one we put out the message that if 45 points is what it is, and we don't get the full playoff bracket, we will just go down the list of top point owners in each region. I think the overall approach is: we don't know what we don't know, but we will learn and we will adjust accordingly to do the right thing for esports.

Wyble: I think it's important for us that it was uncapped. We want to make sure that all the players who meet that standard are rewarded. That said, it's going to take us a little bit to tune it, but I think as the year goes on we'll get smarter and smarter very rapidly on that.

Do you think we'll see a lot of teams shake up over the course of this year? If you're not a player in that team's top three, it seems like you're incentivized to jump ship and switch up teams.
Chou
: I think that there is going to be a competitive team meta that is... it's more like F1, right? You're managing the team over the long haul as opposed to sprint. Many teams in Hearthstone right now sponsor top Legend players, but they're not competitive esports players. You know we have folks that play on stream that are top legend, that, you know, and they will get some points for that team, but if the team is serious they're going to potentially pivot; maybe the requirements will be that you have to stream and be competitive, I don't know. I'm not sure how that's going to evolve, that ecosystem, but my hunch tells me that teams will get serious about it.

Wyble: We're going to see new teams rise, in the same way that we're always seeing new players rise up. I think a couple of teams that have done that really almost preemptively were really smart, because you know this is something where you want to continue and invest in. I think those teams that can gain some momentum early have a chance to really establish themselves as being premiere Hearthstone teams. It's a first step that unlocks a whole world of stuff that we want to explore.

How do you think the changes at the very top level will affect the average, everyday player?
Wyble:
Hearthstone is very popular in terms of viewership, and I think that for a lot of those players, they're going to be able to see their favorite names a lot more often. And on the Challengers program side, a lot of the changes we made will allow us to streamline that process a little bit. We're excited to have more folks be able to continue to enter into that system and see how far they can go, and see if they have a chance to make it to a playoff or even go to a championship, or next year's Worlds.

Chou: Although I think a lot of the messaging and the excitement has been around the tip of that pyramid, one of the big changes we made for 2018 - which I don't think we speak about enough - is that we've added a bunch more prizing to our budget this year. We're upping it by hundreds of thousands of dollars; basically, we're going wider with our prizing, as well as deeper. To just give you one super granular example: at the HCT last year, if you were one of the top 60 to 75 players in playoffs, we paid you $100 as the baseline prizing to show up and play. Now, if you place between 33rd 64th, you're guaranteed a minimum of $1000. So if you show up, if you made playoffs, it feels significant as a competitive player. As the top tier get more incentivized and there's bigger money there, we've also made sure that it trickles all the way down the ecosystem.

What do you think makes a good card game caster?
Wyble:
I've gotten to be around a lot of different esports casting to some degree, and I think it's a hard thing to do in general. I truly believe Hearthstone is the hardest to cast of any of the esports, because there are so many different options that can be happening at any given time. There's a few things you need, like an incredibly deep understanding of the game, so if we think of the casters that will be at the world championship, all of those casters are very, very, very skilled players. They might not admit it immediately, but they very much are. I think being able to think on your feet, being able to take in a lot of information at once and just a ton of experience. Some of our casters, like Frodan, have been with us since the very, very beginning. Frodan's had a thousand hours - maybe more - on camera, and I think that experience has been very valuable. But we're always looking for new casters; we do programs from time to time to find them. We love getting fresh blood in the scene as well. I think it just starts with practicing.

How will 2018 change the face of Hearthstone esports?
Wyble:
I think we're seeing way higher fandom for a lot of our competitive players. In the past it's been people that were well-known on Twitch, but now we're seeing a lot more pick up for people that weren't as well known outside the community; people like [Anthony "Ant" Trevino] and [Muzahidul "Muzzy" Islam] and a lot of folks who will be at the championship. As that happens, I think it's an awesome time to think through more cool ways we can integrate that.

Chou: For me, the goal in the health of the esport is: if I can create a social sphere of influencers for Hearthstone of strictly the most competitive players - they might not stream every single day, but when they do, there's a huge audience for them, because they're known for their skill and how they do in tournaments - that, to me, is the dream. I would love to be able to create that group of influencers and have that be sustainable for them, because to me, that means we've hit a certain milestone.