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Hearthstone’s Growing Popularity: Interview with the eSports League
Despite its beta status and initially lukewarm reception from gamers, Hearthstone is a game that has grown tremendously in popularity over the last twelve months. Particularly when it comes to its growing popularity among the eSports community. Larger organizations in this area like the Electronic Sports League (ESL) are already hosting weekly tournaments for the game. Leviathyn managed to get in contact with Julia Hiltscher, the Vice Director of Community Management at Turtle Entertainment (the company that runs the ESL and NESL) and talk to her about just how big and popular Hearthstone could get.
Leviathyn: Thanks for agreeing to this interview. eSports has grown significantly in both its size and popularity in recent years and the ESL is one of the more prominent organizations in this area and they have been a major player in both the Starcraft 2 and League of Legends eSports scenes. How are ESL/NESL tournaments organized and run and is this any different to other organizations?
Julia Hiltscher: They are on our websites and anybody who has a EU/US Game account can come and play. We run them with our experienced ESL admin staff – Those having the lead who have started the game a lot in the beta. Our partners are also running cups in their national section, you can find an overview here. The only prize money cups we currently have are on the NESL – those are here. We also do support and take suggestions on Facebook and via @ESLTiekey and @ESLJulia on Twitter.
When and why did the ESL/NESL start supporting Hearthstone?
It is pretty simple, we work with Blizzard regularly, we have run the Innkeepers Invitational for Blizzard at Blizzcon, we always keep our eyes open for new games and we listen to what our community on ESL wants to play. After over 50% of the BNet Eu ranking was made up of professional players from ESL.eu – Our NESL colleagues suddenly surprised us with the announcement of the prize money. We were really happy and hope we can find a sponsor for Europe as well!
What are your thoughts on the state of the beta at present?
Our partners conference took place this week, it is a conference held by Turtle Entertainment (the company behind ESL). All our partners are invited, such as Blizzard, Wargaming and Riot. Blizzard brought along some tournament accounts with which you can play any available card in the game and we did a tournament with everybody, including the representatives from our subsidiaries. It was a lot of fun and people were taking it pretty seriously, I myself screamed at Sebastian Weishaar, because he would not allow me sufficient time (I felt that way in that moment in the heat of the action) to make a new deck after I lost the first round in a BO3 against him.
You see players can get very emotional when playing this game, the balance is very good and anybody can instantly understand it and play it. I do not have to tell people working in eSports that balance and a learning curve with an entrance level low enough for any casual gamer are good indicators that a game stands a chance to become pretty popular in eSports, as long as it is challenging enough to play. Because eSports is in the end of the day also a spectator sport, and it is only very successful when you get baffled every time you watch a final in a pro tournament.
Speaking of the beta, it recently became open to everyone – has there been a notable impact in the size and popularity of Hearthstone tournaments?
We are currently going through a busier phase so to say, as we have to create new exciting cup concepts. Timo has just released news on the first “Common Cup” Series. Before we would have about 1000 pretty professional players on ESL and NESL honing their skills using our platform, now we also have to be a just-as-cozy home to the more casual people and we love that too. It is the general concept of our league, that we always try to have the highest quality in professional eSports (IEM, EMS One, EPS, WCS, LCS) but we also offer cups for people who were more casual and now want to get eSports grassroots experience.
Now that more people can play, more people are joining ESL to get the thrill of a grassroots cup (Common Cup, Hero Cup, Winter Cup) so again, we are really busy now and dependent on the players’ feedback on our Facebook, on our Twitter accounts, under the news and in our forums, so we can offer exactly those cups; people want to improve their skills or to enjoy themselves on the weekend after a stressful week.
Are there any challenges that Hearthstone presents as an eSports compared to other games like League of Legends and Starcraft? (ie the lack of Spectator mode)
The way ESL and Blizzard presented Hearthstone in the Innkeepers Invitational and the way Kripparian, Artosis or Trum stream Hearthstone, it can be streamed good enough from the perspective of an eSports audience. I hope that a real spec mode will be there soon, for the sake of everybody who streams themselves on Twitch TV including myself, but I can lean back right now and wait for it. I am sure if the game continues being a success story, there will be such a mode.
And is it an eSports? Well for me personally, it is. I cannot speak for Blizzard here or for the players playing it. For me, it is a totally different game compared to LoL and SC2, just as you cannot throw SC2 in one pot with LoL. You can maybe compare a MOBA to a MOBA. League of Legends is an eSports of its own right, same accounts for SC2. We are all grown ups and can be friends with other gamers, respecting their current choice of game.
From the perspective of tournament organizers, are there any major balance issues that you notice when it comes to the game? (ie Druids are overpowered)
I used to be a pro in UT2004. Just like you I see people fighting over balance every day. As a Warlock in Hearthstone (while also fancying the Priest because he can be such a bitch if he does not get disabled) of course I feel bad when somebody nerfs one of my favorite cards. From the professional perspective of a game developer or organizer, it is always a high priority to listen to your top players, while keeping in mind that you can make the majority of your community really sad when you only listen to the top 1%.
Saying that, you can imagine how hard this can be, I do not wanna burn my hands in this discussion, as I should not judge a balance I don’t have the right to judge, just being on level 14 myself. I am though, when I am watching pro streams, not unhappy with the balance and let others speak about this topic. In the end of the day, a healthy discussion is always helping the game. The community should speak up on Reddit and do it in a polite and orderly manner. Which by the way many people do and that tells me eSports has grown up a lot in the past decade. I do not only see wise comments on Reddit when it comes to Hearthstone but also for example, on TeamLiquid, on the Riot forums and on the World of Tanks forums.
How big do you think Hearthstone could get? Do you think it’s going to peak early while the initial interest is there or do you think it’ll build momentum over time like League of Legends has done?
Let’s put it this way: The infiltration of ESL with Hearthstone since the Beta is so strong that I cannot imagine it disappearing next year. The way it gets people into lengthy discussions about cards and the fact that many grown-ups remember playing games with a similar mechanic in school, makes me believe that this is going to last a VERY long time. I think this is easier to predict than tomorrow’s weather. By the way, what is more exciting? A 5v5 game where every player has to stick to his role and listen to the captain even when there is emotional stress, or a 1v1 game, where you know you and you alone are responsible for your moves? I think both are exciting and both have a right to be eSports.
Luckily all are played with same peripherals, it doesn’t matter if it is cards or heroes: eSports is about balance, tricky strategies, coping with stress, learning from mistakes, and of course the “watchability” and the people who play the game. Just as in soccer, we do not only care that a good Warlock or Zerg wins – we want to know who that person is, we want to fall in love with the player, laugh with this player and cry with this player. If he is boring, it is only half as much fun.
Would you say that games like Hearthstone that strive to inspire an eSports following need certain characteristics or would you say that it’s a matter of support from the community that lifts these competitive games above the rest?
ESports needs characters – a player who never laughs and never brags or never speaks his mind is boring. An audience that does not cheer makes me feel hollow inside. Luckily, the Intel Extreme Masters Audience is always so loud that I feel like a swallowed a boombox when I work at Gamescom in Cologne. It is a very exciting feeling that makes your heart pound up under your chin and you then automatically want to cheer as well. I have cheered so hard for some Protoss whose name I won’t say right now – I was voiceless for 10 days. Same happened to me when we were running the Call of Duty World Championship EU qualifiers in the ESL TV studios.
There are more and more digital card games appearing in the market in lieu of Hearthstone’s success – do you think there’s room in the digital CCG eSports scene for more than one big game? Do you think we’ll see some sort of eSports rivalry akin to that between DOTA 2 and League of Legends?
Hehe, that so-called rivalry is a myth to me personally, as I have personally never heard of a Dota 2 player switching to LoL and vice-versa but we will see in the comments of this interview. On ESL there is room right now for the Scrolls community peacefully existing right next to the Hearthstone community and I have seen CS:GO and CoD co-existing in the ESL peacefully as well so I just think right now, it is very hard to launch another card game. If I wanted to spend my money as a studio on another card game with a similar mechanic (Magic, Hearthstone, Scrolls) and I was not ready to launch a few months ago, I would not spend marketing budget on it anymore. But I am not a studio and who knows, a card game with a totally different mechanic can have a chance; for example, I was a hardcore Dominion player (a physical card game you can also play in a light version online) and I can imagine a game like that to become pretty popular online, but it is also possible that “one eSports” such as FIFA can overpower another (PES).
Thanks to Julia for agreeing to participate in the interview. You can see more of Leviathyn’s Hearthstone coverage here and check out Leviathyn’s Thursday Night Hearthstoners video series over on our Twitch channel - every Thursday night at 11pm EST.