In a way, the trials and tribulations of the game’s indefinitely postponed the Hearthstone tournament mode perfectly encapsulate the story of its competitive scene: a history of woeful support by the developers and an incredible grassroots strength that keeps it going despite all the hurdles.
It’s a well-known quirk of esport history that Hearthstone was never meant to be a competitive game. For a long time, professionalization and high-level gameplay was purely community-driven, and while Blizzard’s Hearthstone Championship Tour has almost completely replaced the massive, Kinguin- or G2A-sponsored events over the years and steps were definitely taken towards a better-established competitive framework, there is still no progress on the front of the actual tournament gameplay experience, at least where the game client is concerned. The spectator mode is still close to useless, disconnection protection is a pipe dream at best and there is still no way to incorporate anything beyond a best-of-one friendly or even locked decklists unless you rely on external tools and eagle-eyed admins.
This wasn’t always meant to be like this. It is unclear how and why Tavern Brawl leapfrogged the Hearthstone tournament mode during the development process, but it was revealed in 2015 that the game’s weekly wacky escapades were not always the priority, at least where the client was concerned. Tournament mode would occasionally appear as part of community requests and certain discussions – especially when official events repeatedly ran into issues due to the lack of one –, and it seemed like the incredibly long wait would end soon when the mode would even receive an announcement back in February, a few months before Ben Brode’s surprise departure. And yet, the recent In The Works announcement would confirm the cancellation – excuse me, the indefinite postponement – of its development.
This was a source of serious frustration for many, though it was made pretty clear even back then that it was not meant for the professional playerbase, aiming for “a broader audience” and only promising basic features upon its launch. Even in May, the official statements supported this approach with Dean Ayala going on record stating that it will be “a true beta” rather than an instant solution. It was also still touted as a work in progress by senior developers in August during the promotional period for The Boomsday Project, though the specific wording used by senior developer Daniel Emmons looks fairly amusing in retrospect:
“Tournament mode is a crazy riot in order to make it work. Mostly because there are a lot of things that in-game tournaments mean to different players. We do have an updated message coming out soon. It is going to give an update on the feature and where we are at with it. Look forward to that.”
Now the party line is that “Tournaments can serve many different audiences, but the implementation we’d arrived at catered to a very specific audience of players. Instead of broadening Hearthstone with an exciting new way to play, it felt “tacked on”, and wasn’t integrating well into the larger Hearthstone experience”, suggesting that it was only beneficial to the competitive crowd, and while the developers’ insistence on pushing the esport experience into ill-equipped LAN „Fireside” surroundings, it’s worth acknowledging the challenges they face.
Hearthstone’s done an incredibly great job at utilizing different formats of asymmetrical competition between Arena and the Heroic Tavern Brawls – also the entire ladder experience to some extent – and it seems like Team 5 hasn’t yet found a viable solution to deal with the inevitable delays that are part of a longer tournament with a set field of participants. In fact, it’s very hard to envision an in-game tournament mode that would both manage to be interesting to the wider, more casual playerbase while having the functionality of the professional events’ needs. While I would think that their existing – and seemingly scrapped – work on the feature would serve well as a separate client for the highest-profile events, it seems like they opted to go down a different route. Paradoxically, the cancellation of the Hearthstone tournament mode isn’t as much of a setback as it may seem for the competitive crowd, simply because they were not its target audience in the first place. That’s an entirely different issue, but one that’s worth at least acknowledging. The wait continues for a proper tournament mode but it’s not like there was anything but a mirage.
It’s not like this has stopped the best and brightest of the game to keep fighting for those HCT points: the competition remains as fierce as ever, and even if the much-requested tournament mode is no longer even in sight, the top players still have an expanding Hearthstone Championship Tour and the Global Games to look forward to.