Hearthstone Americas Championship
NOTE: This is a spoiler free review of the event
On October 10th and 11th I had the pleasure of attending the Hearthstone Americas Championship in San Francisco to witness live the fierce competition between the top 8 players in the region, all of whom were competing for their tickets to Blizzcon, a prize pool of $25,000 USD, and all the glory that follows. The event’s roster featured fan favorite Trump of TSM as well as several up and coming pros such as JAB from Team Hearthlytics, Nias, and VLPS from Followesports.com who all represented the U.S., while Corela and MoleGel both proudly represented Keyd Stars and Brazil. At 14 years of age, MoleGel is currently one of the youngest professional gamers in the world. In addition there was no shortage of Canadian pride during the intense battles with both Hotform of Root Gaming and Purple from GamersOrigin. The play-by-play casting for the event were brought to us by the talents of Dan “Frodan” Chou, TJ “Azumo” Sanders, Brian Kibler, Robert “Whirthun” Wing, Janne “Savjz” Mikkonen, and Andrey “Reynad” Yanyuk. All performed adamantly with humorous, insightful and professional commentary while maintaining the general laid back feel of the event.
While the majority of the event consisted of newer faces in the scene, in no way were the quality of matches compromised, with crazy combos, some ridiculous luck, and plenty of straight up big plays generating excitement from the crowd. International differences in Hearthstone’s ever changing meta-environment and play styles were on full display over the weekend. It’s always very invigorating to see newer competitors trying to leave a lasting mark on the scene, and their personal stories and backgrounds. One of those stories was from Nias, who along with his wife are eagerly expecting a newborn child sooner than later while he competes for glory abroad and many miles away. These types of stories create narratives to follow, and give much more depth to the viewer experience making it more than just another competition.
The venue of choice is one that should be familiar to those in the local SF/Bay area gaming scene; Folsom Street Foundry has earned a reputation for their thrice-weekly game nights in partnership with Showdown Entertainment, hosting tournaments for various titles including Super Smash Brothers and Street Fighter. Blizzard’s Grand Tournament expansion was announced at the industrial tavern back in July to much fanfare, so it seems natural they would return for a circuit stop on their way to Blizzcon. While the venue is a tad small compared to conventional event spaces at only 8,500 square feet, it does provide a very friendly casual atmosphere, a perfect fit for Hearthstone’s aesthetics with Blizzard’s set designs reinforcing that notion. Hanging both inside and on the exterior of the venue giant banners displayed the weekends competitor’s, all of whom would be vying for glorious victory over the next 2 days.
The only seating at the venue was available at the bar, which sadly was very limited and awkward to sit at while facing the opposite direction to watch the games. The area would get crowded fast after the bar and kitchen opened making an already small space that much tighter. After the first hour or two most of the spectators closest to the screen opted to lay or sit down against the barrels positioned up front, while many still opted to stand. While seating would be preferable, the event was first come first serve and it’s hard to get people to stand up from chairs, even for a big award ceremony in my experience. Not helping was the relative temperature in the venue which while not hot was very warm throughout the entirety of the event due to the heat being exhausted by the projectors, lighting rigs, and production gear. While slightly uncomfortable it’s excusable given how much equipment was running constantly and the small venue space.
The kitchen had a limited food menu for the event that in my experience was hot and tasty. I ordered 2 of the items for lunch, one each day and couldn’t complain. I can’t speak for the drinks since I have a personal policy of not drinking on the job (and US regulations legally prevent me from doing so for about another 3 months but I digress) though one individual did mention they were lacking when it came to a selection of whiskeys. Quite a few local and other beers were on tap that seemed very satisfying when I talked to several who had ordered them. However there was a major issue as the bar’s credit card terminal went down for about 20 minutes halfway through the 2nd day, though I’m heavily inclined to cut the bar a massive amount of slack since ISPs can be unreliable and having worked with point of sale systems in the past I can say the situation is very understandable.
The actual event went off without a hitch and ran both days without any discernible technical issues, besides a caster’s Clear-Com headset appearing to having an issue and switching to a handheld mic towards the end of the 2nd day. This is a big deal for me lately since Esports events have been notorious both in the past and sadly recently for shoddy production quality, faulty computers and equipment, poor logistics, and downright amateur mistakes. Blizzard also went above and beyond when it came to keeping the tempo at the venue, with no real down time other than an occasional break after long durations. The production team filmed multiple interviews with each of the players that bookended individual games as well as entire sets, this was a phenomenal idea to provide some break from the action while still keeping viewers attentive and providing a lot of insight; it was immensely interesting to see the player’s thought process, personal story, and feelings, especially from the international players.
Blizzard also avoided what has become a cardinal sin for me with regards to Esports broadcasts, which is putting up a static screen with a countdown timer in the middle of the broadcast. Even though most of their content consisted of trailers and commercials for Hearthstone and it’s expansions as well as the aforementioned interviews, this aspect of filling downtime was still superior to even Riot’s LCS Worlds, (which is currently ongoing at time of writing) in this case where after every set break a countdown timer on a static screen is broadcasted for a number of minutes.. One piece of content that did stick out for me was a quick introduction video of how the Conquest tournament format works that is used for all of the events in the circuit this year. While this may seem small, it’s one of the factors that helped bring professional poker to a mainstream audience and I hope to see more of it in Esports going forward as the industry looks to expand farther beyond its core demographic. Compared to the Grand Tournament announcement however, the venue wasn’t nearly as packed with patrons though the crowd was still very respectable considering Fleet Week, a major event in SF was taking place with the occasional sound of fighter jets overhead. Overall the event ran well with a surplus of cheering and crowd intensity during insane moments along with a few major upsets along the way, as well as the occasional groan echoing when a competitor’s luck was less than favorable.
One of the reasons Hearthstone works well as an Esport is how unpredictable and often time’s crazy the matches can be. While games like Hold Em and Magic will always have some luck and chance involved, Hearthstone has many mechanics that directly dictate the pace of the game and based upon a roll of the digital dice. While this draws the ire of some hardcore gamers, (particularly when compared to more skill-based games) Hearthstone and others like it have the unique quality of not always having a foreseeable outcome. It’s simply more engaging and interesting to some than say a Counter-Strike or Starcraft match where most would agree one player has a better chance of winning than their opponents based on skill or strategy, it’s a different experience altogether. While ultimately this may limit Hearthstone’s growth in the future in relation to Esports, it is one of the best examples of a decidedly casual experience whose community and developers are able to foster a strong competitive scene.
*In the interest of transparency, it is necessary to disclose that I maintain personal relationships with both current and former Riot Games and Blizzard employees.