"The competitive Hearthstone players and talent I know are all very intelligent adults"

~Richard Lewis on WSOE’s December event and the state of the game’s esport scene.

WSOE Hearthstone

December’s WSOE 2 Showdown was one of the few high-profile third-party Hearthstone tournaments of the year, leveraging a unique approach and an interesting format to great effect despite having to deal with a last-minute balance patch just before the start of the event. We’ve caught up with Richard Lewis, ESP Gaming’s Director of Talent & Programming and esport journalist extraordinaire to discuss the lay of the land in Azeroth’s cardslinger-filled taverns.

The first event under the WSOE banner featured DotA 2: why did you choose Hearthstone for the next one?

There were lots of reasons to do Hearthstone. The first is that with it being a card game it is something that is more in line with the types of broadcasts lots of our Vegas crew are traditionally used to. We knew straight away what we could implement to make the broadcast really stand out as something different. Secondly, I think many of us at WSOE were of the opinion that the game is currently a bit under-served in the volume and level of tournaments that are on the calendar. Finally, Hearthstone has an abundance of genuinely entertaining talent that we knew could come together and put on a show. You throw all this together and it’s a no-brainer to try and fit Hearthstone content into our calendar and I think it worked out really well for everyone.

World Showdown of Esports (WSOE)

PHOTO CREDIT: World Showdown of Esports (WSOE)

You’ve explicitly advertised the event with a focus on a mix of established an up-and-coming talent. Tell us a bit more about how you selected the hot prospects for the broadcast.

I approach putting a crew together the same way for each event. I get a bunch of footage of talent in action, watch them and assess how their work resonates with me. I then think about pairings and synergies, as well as potential. Some choices are no brainers. How could we do Hearthstone without Frodan or Brian Kibler? These guys are people I admire for their skillset as a whole, not just relating to their knowledge of this particular game. I consider them great storytellers, which is what commentary is when you boil it all down. For desks, I like big personalities, strong opinions. There’s nothing worse than people who sit on the fence or are worried about upsetting people on social media working a desk. A desk segment should be its own story, contextualising what the commentators talked about, adding to it and then also telling a story about the interactions between the analysts. Who predicted something wrong? Who underestimated a card? Who said a player didn’t have what it takes? You want desk talent to go at it and keep viewers watching. Again, ItsAdmirable and Zalae are tailor-made for that.

Every show I like to pick someone that I can see has the talent to be big but hasn’t had the opportunities. Lauren Jbara was working for the Detroit Pistons and when I saw her reel I was blown away. She’s not endemic to gaming but she wants to learn and I think she’s a more than welcome addition to any broadcast. We had the same thing with Moustache Dave in PUBG. People said I was nuts to hire a guy whose YouTube videos were only getting a few thousand hits. Now he’s so busy I’ve not been able to rehire him. There’s a lot of talent out there that just needs the platform. I consider it my responsibility as I transition away from on-screen work to make sure I give it to them.

You’ve been fairly critical of Hearthstone in the past, calling it “not esport-ready in any way, shape or form” in a 2017 interview with Blitz Esport and also weren’t particularly keen on how the casters present themselves during the official broadcasts. Has your opinion changed in any way about these factors? Did these observations play a part in how WSOE’s Hearthstone event was designed?

For context the first quote you’ve selected that does refer to the game as it launched and I think it’s an accurate description. There were fundamental issues with how the game was created when it came to spectating. And to be fair to Blizzard it was created at a time when I think they still were focusing on just making the games rather than investing too many resources into esports. They also couldn’t have predicted just how popular it would turn out to be. It’s easily the most successful digital card game and I think we’ve seen from the launch of Artifact that it’s a lot harder than you would think to make a card game that has mass appeal. It’s not as simple as just making a good and interesting game. Still, there’s plenty that should have been in it and still isn’t there in my opinion. The ability to create your own tournaments, some form of replay system, features that would now be considered staples of competitive games.

As for the comments about the broadcasters, I certainly stand by those. I know from talking with them that they very often feel pressured in regards to what they can and can’t say on air. For example, many have told me they’ve been instructed that if a player makes a misplay you can’t explicitly call it bad. Think about that for a moment and then try and imagine that as a rule being applied to any other sport. My issue with Hearthstone shows always was that it was a combination of having to have this “inn” setting, talent not being able to criticize players and an aesthetic that often made it feel like children’s TV to me. Nothing wrong with that if that is your aim and you have to know your audience. It’s just that the competitive Hearthstone players and talent I know are all very intelligent adults, usually older than a lot of other esports out there, and I think that’s who you should cater to.

This was the WSOE thinking when we put together the show. We wanted it to have all the hype of any other stadium esports event, even though you might not think about that as naturally befitting Hearthstone, and to make sure we let the broadcast talent express themselves free from traditional restrictions. I think that, along with the production value, is why so many people enjoyed the broadcast.

World Showdown of Esports (WSOE)

PHOTO CREDIT: World Showdown of Esports (WSOE)

Casual observers also tend to question Hearthstone’s legitimacy as an esport despite the fairly impressive overall winrates posted by the best players even in comparison with other such titles. What are your thoughts on this matter?

I’ve probably joked about it myself. It’s basically like poker in my mind. I consider poker a sport. To try and imply that just because something has a lot of RNG attached to it means that it isn’t competitive seems a stupid argument. My design philosophy would be to minimize RNG as much as possible but even the staples of esports have random elements in the game because they not only encourage replayability but also can be comeback mechanics.

In recent years, Hearthstone’s tournament scene has increasingly become top-heavy and developer-controlled: what role do you see for third-party events in the scene?

The official Blizzard events can have value that third-party events can never compete with. Want to roll out new in-game content? Celebrity appearances? Crossover promotions with other IP they own? They can do things that no third-party organizer can and that’s as it should be. Their tournaments are also their chance to enact their vision of how they see it. I think what has to happen though is that third-party events be allowed to enact their vision too. Developers have a tendency now to want to be involved in every tournament, every process, every creative decision. All that achieves is stifling new ideas and formats that I think end up leading to the community getting bored. I’m grateful that Blizzard let us do this event our way and I would like to think that we did things that other tournament organisers might want to replicate or experiment with.

What do you think of the recently announced changes to the official circuit? Why did you choose the nine-deck format WSOE and was the decision-making process impacted by the announcement that Conquest will be no longer be featured in 2019?

We had an idea about the format from the moment we knew we were going to do Hearthstone and it wasn’t influenced by any external factors. We like to make sure we do things differently enough at our tournaments that they stand out as interesting at the very least. We just felt the 9 deck format was the one that was going to give us the best series and showcase the players skillsets as broadly as possible. Everyone seemed to like it from the talent, to the players to the viewers so it’s probably something we’re going to stick with.

I think the changes to the HCT will certainly help people when it comes to following Hearthstone esports and will also provide more opportunities for less established players to make a name for themselves. Hard to see any negatives in that. Of course they’ve not announced what will be the default format for the competition and that will be crucial to the success of the new model.

An unexpected patch with major gameplay changes dropped just one day before the beginning of the tournament. How did you handle the situation?

As soon as we found out we communicated with attending players and made sure that the changes would have minimal impact on their preparation as was possible. We tried to alter the schedule to give them as much time as possible to assess how the changes would affect them. It’s obviously not ideal but this isn’t a Blizzard or Hearthstone problem. This is something that happens across all of esports. Every developer has to roll out balance patches at some point and naturally the casual community makes up the greater percentage. Do you delay quality of life changes for the game to accommodate a tournament? I think there’s a medium ground we can occupy where devs and tournament organisers can work together around big tournaments but ultimately it’s the developers ball so they get to do what they want. I don’t think in this instance the changes had a massive impact on the tournament but it certainly gave us an additional logistical consideration we’d probably have preferred to do without.  

World Showdown of Esports (WSOE)

PHOTO CREDIT: World Showdown of Esports (WSOE)

Even four and a half years after its launch, Hearthstone’s client still lacks many features that would usually be considered mandatory for a competitive title, like a functional spectator mode or an in-game tournament mode. Was this a concern about setting up your own event for the game?

As I mentioned earlier I personally believe these features should be in the game by now. If it was my project I’d have had them in at launch or close to it. In terms of a broadcast these do create some challenges but not particularly difficult ones to overcome, not with the caliber of our crew and the fact that many other tournament organisers went before us so we can learn from them.

Strictly in terms of gameplay depth, are there other card games that would you consider viable options for a hypothetical WSOE event?

For WSOE everything is on the table. Our mission is basically to create great tournament content around whatever esports we think would be a good fit for our show. Card games are great because they are 1v1 titles, which fits into our vision of having people call each other out for big money matches and title defences, so I’m certainly open to doing more of them. Hearthstone went really well and I think we can replicate that success with other card games if the opportunity arises.

Seeing how Heroes of the Storm’s competitive presence was recently neutered, what are your thoughts on the health and relevance of Hearthstone’s esport scene, especially with the aforementioned revamp of the official tournament circuit?

Well, it’s certainly doing a lot better. I personally think Hearthstone avoids a lot of the problems that plagued HotS, the most important of which is player numbers. Hearthstone is a very popular game so even if big name pros decide to go and do something else with their time there’s another talented player coming up who can potentially replace them. The circuit changes that will give more opportunities for regular players to qualify should help some new names establish themselves. I definitely don’t see Hearthstone esports falling victim to the current wave of Activision-Blizzard cuts, let’s put it that way.