The controversy of the HCT APAC Fall Playoffs still very much rages on: the first game in between Sequinox and Akumaker was won by the former player but the series was reset due to a technical issue, leading to a reversal and Akumaker’s eventual 3-0 win. The issue was not independently verified, the nullified game was scrubbed from the VODs, an official complaint was filed and both players are upset. This is not the first time Hearthstone’s playoff events were marred by similar issues stemming from inadequacies posed by the use of third-party venues and volunteer admins. This recount of the story is based upon the players’ individual recollections, community-collected material and the responses we’ve received from the players, their orgs and Blizzard.

Your victory proves nothing!

There’s not a more important game in a regional HCT playoff than the top 4 decider: after surviving through a grueling Swiss bracket, the eight best players are organized into two double-elimination groups where the top two qualify for the seasonal playoff. It’s one of the biggest event all around and no one wants to win or lose due to a technicality. Unfortunately, this is exactly what happened in the game between Sequinox and Akumaker: Sequinox’s win in the first game was invalidated due to a technical error. The playoffs are played at Blizzard-sanctioned third-party venues all around the world, and the admin at Akumaker’s venue in Australia reported that somehow the official stream’s live commentary could have been heard through the player’s headphones. If that was the case, it clearly had no impact on the outcome as Akumaker has lost the game but the assumption was that the issue was present on both sides, leading to a rematch.

The problem is that the admin on Sequinox’s side had no idea about any of this, only learning of the situation after the central lead admin has already issued a decision to nullify the game and restart the match. He would not receive any further information apart from this confirmation via an in-game message from the observer. An upset Sequinox would then go on to lose 0-3, missing out on the seasonal playoffs. Akumaker would not get his customary winners’ interview on the stream due to the ongoing controversy. The invalidated match is missing from the event’s VOD.

For what it’s worth, neither player is happy about the way the situation was handled. Akumaker, the beneficiary of the questionable administrative decisions has gone on to state in a TwitLonger post that “from my perspective […] I think it is an unfair ruling” adding that “I hope ruling and situations in future are dealt with more care, so nothing like this can ever happen again and tarnish the reputation of Hearthstone eSports”(sic!).

Sequinox’s take is understandably even harsher, going so far as to write that “I strongly believe it is just foul play on the part of the admin at Aku's venue, and that he simply wanted to "help" his countryman out.” The latest major development saw Resurgence – Sequinox’s team – file an official complaint to the Blizzard Hearthstone Esports team, questioning “the motivation and procedures set in place” that led to the decision, a specific turn of phrase which doesn’t require much reading between the lines to discern the accusation of foul play. “We would like Blizzard to be more transparent on how the decision was arrived and how they intend to improve on their procedures moving forward given that the integrity of the entire circuit is now in question”, the management stated.

The Australian admin was surprisingly active on both Reddit and Twitch during the tournament, his messages giving additional credence to the notion that he may have put his thumb on the scale. The Reddit account supposedly used by the admin in question no longer exists and neither the venue nor Akumaker responded to our queries. We’ve also reached out to Blizzard Hearthstone Esports for comment who pointed us in the direction of their official response but haven’t answered our follow-up questions.

There are clear discrepancies between Team Resurgence’s complaint and the official response. The former states – and is, of course, corroborated by Sequinox’s recount of the events as well – that "the Taiwan on-site admin (Sequinox's location) were not asked to verify if the caster audio could have been heard by Sequinox" while Blizzard insist in their communique that "the lead admin team independently verified that this was a technical issue that occurred at both venues". The team maintains that “Blizzard did not communicate with the Taiwan on-site admin until after they notified Sequinox via in-game chat that the rematch has been decided upon”, adding that „how the lead admin team was able to independently verify that the technical issue occurred at both venues and whether it was played through to Sequinox is still in question given that Sequinox used a different terminal and was supposedly checked by the Taiwan on-site admin prior to starting the match”. We’ve been told that Blizzard have offered Sequinox a guaranteed spot at the Winter Playoffs, which the player has declined in the spirit of fair play. Whether any improvements or changes will be made to the HCT system in the wake of this controversy remains to be seen.

Sad tales from the tavern

This isn’t the first time Hearthstone’s high-profile esport events were marred by controversy: some of the Seoul tour stop’s players were in for a rude awakening when an unexpected patch made one of their decks unplayable after the submission deadline. The initial decision would have forced them to carry on but it was reversed after backlash from the community – instead, they were allowed to change that one particular deck, already knowing the other players’ line-ups.

There were many similar issues that stem from the third-party organizers over the years (ranging from unreliable internet connection to the venue simply closing down for the day due to delays), though it’s clear that this situation is not easy to solve. Playing high-profile events exclusively online leaves open the possibility of cooperation, using a decktracker or other sort of software assistance or simply “ghosting” where the player simply tunes in to the official broadcast to garner an advantage about their opponent’s hand during the ongoing match – this is something that actually happened during The Pinnacle 2 way back in 2015 –, meaning Blizzard’s desire to push the esport scene towards an offline environment makes sense. Still, it’s clear that the current implementation is nowhere near adequate enough to facilitate high-level competition, and many in the community would echo Team Resurgence’s sentiment that “due diligence should have been carried out to firstly, prevent this from happening and secondly, to ensure that verification with on-site admin is carried out properly”.