Andrew “TidesofTime” Biessener, a Hearthstone veteran with more than $50,000 in prize money winnings in Hearthstone, is gliding through an early qualification tournament for Blizzard’s $1.6 million Hearthstone Championship Tour. In the semifinals he needs to only beat William “Amnesiac” Barton, a sandy-haired 15-year-old playing in only his fourth tournament.
But even though he has a lineup of decks designed to counter Barton, Biessener loses. In the next round Barton, a high schooler from Massachusetts, tears through another veteran, Andrew “Kitkatz” Deschanel, and wins a coveted spot in the Winter Americas Championship—leaving him one step away from the World Championship.
Esports is, with a few exceptions, a young man’s game. With stars emerging before the age of 20 and hitting their prime not long after, it can be hard to quantify what a young prodigy looks like. Just balancing school and pro gaming isn’t enough anymore. It’s become unremarkable, a challenge faced by just about any esports player in any game. You need something else, something to stand out in a crowd of prodigies.
Enter Barton, practice partner to the stars and one of the finest minds in Hearthstone. Just seven other players stand between him and competing in the prestigious Hearthstone World Championship.
His emergence onto the worldwide esports stage might seem out of the blue, but according to him it’s “been a long time coming.”
Though he has only recently become a fixture in the tournament scene, Barton has been one of the best-performing ladder players in North America for over a year. And he’s actually been part of the competitive Hearthstone scene for most of the time it’s existed. He was first noticed among other high level players in mid 2014 for winning eight man pick-up tournaments organized by another unknown player who went on to become one of the game’s best players: 2014 world champion James “Firebat” Kostesich. The first time Barton played with Kostesich and the others, he beat them all.
Last year, his high-level ladder achievements allowed him to meet the man who’d become his boss: Jason “Amaz” Chan, one of Hearthstone’s most popular streamers and owner of the decorated Team Archon organization.
And according to Barton, he got Chan’s attention by dominating him on the ladder.
“I beat the shit out of him.” Barton says, laughing. “I was playing Miracle Rogue against Control Warrior, and I was rank two legend at the time and he added me. I helped him get from rank 30 to rank two, and I was in a Skype group with a lot of the Archon guys during that time.”
According to Barton, Chan broached the subject of joining Archon with him in August 2015. The move came amid other roster changes. The team made a somewhat risky change, dropping online tournament and ladder stalwart Sebastian “Xixo” Bentert. Rumors that Chan was eyeing Barton for the open position swirled, but it wasn’t until early October that Archon announced he’d been signed.
“There is no other word to describe Amnesiac than prodigy,” Archon said in the announcement. “At age 14, Amnesiac has displayed unparalleled skill at and understanding of Hearthstone.”
What is Barton’s reaction to the glowing praise from his new employers?
“Accurate,” he says.
And now after four months of inactivity, he’s backing up that cocky declaration with tournament performances. After appearing in the Red Bull Team Brawl and Curse Trials events, Barton traveled to Washington DC for the Americas Winter Championship preliminaries, the first step on the road to the $1 million Hearthstone World Championship. From a field of 128 players who had qualified through a mix of tournament wins and ladder achievements, only eight advanced to a live final for $80,000 and the first spot in that World Championship.
According to Barton, he prepared like he had never prepared for anything before.
“Whenever I was playing Hearthstone for the week leading up to it,” Barton says. “it was all based around trying to prepare for that. I have practice partners I really respect, a lot of good players. I practice with people who have different strengths than me because that’s how you get better.”
One of those practice partners is Simon “Crane” Raunholst, who’s credited with being a driving force behind the achievements of big-name pros like Thijs Molendijk and Adrian “Lifecoach” Koy.
But Raunholst sees Barton as easily one of the finest players he’s worked with.
“There is no doubt he is one of the best players in the world,” Raunholst tells the Daily Dot. “The special thing about him is how little effort he appears to put into something before almost mastering it. Picking up new strategies and such. Also, the combination of that and his age. I mean he is easily more intelligent than most adult people.”
This intelligence shines through whenever Barton gets a chance to talk in detail about the game and his passion for analysis and improvement. He applies that macro analytical approach to everything, even picking his lineup before the game begins and how lineups compare with the meta decks. He describes the approaches as “levels”.
“If you think about it in terms of levels,” he says, discussing his final matches in the recent Winter preliminaries. “level zero is just the strongest decks. Level one is counters to those, and level two is counters to the counter. TidesofTime went level two and I went hard level one, so I wasn’t favored against him. His lineup was the exact response to mine.”
With established players like Biessener out of the running, Barton is one of the favorites to take the title. Keaton “Chakki” Gill of Team Dignitas is the only other player in the field with a team sponsorship—so of course the two players have been drawn together in the group stage. He also faces a tough challenge from “Nostam,” a player who was also in DC for the preliminaries and whom Barton considers a strong contender.
Even while pursuing Hearthstone at the highest level, and with the chance to fight for a $1 million prizepool, Barton continues to push towards his educational and athletic goals, eschewing the notion of the anti-social schoolboy gamer.
According to Barton there a few people in his school who play Hearthstone, and most of them know who he is. But he doesn’t really hang around with them—they aren’t his type. Instead his friends are more “on the athletic side.”
His sport of choice is tennis, where he says he could reach the top 10 is his region if he tried—but “the tournaments suck.” As for school, his subject of choice may seem esoteric to your average high schooler but really makes a lot of sense for someone with a talent for Hearthstone. The only thing that interests him? Math, of course.
Key to the story of every pro gamer who balances it with education is the role of the parents. Are they enthusiastic fans? Do they try to dissuade their child from pursuing an unstable career? According to Barton, his parents are supportive if disinterested.
“My brother was a big gamer,” he says. “he wasn’t good or anything but really liked it. They knew he identified with it, but they didn’t know that about me. One day they asked what I was doing on the computer all day and I said ‘I’m first in North America right now.’ They’re really supportive.”
All this seems like the perfect springboard to a full-time pro gaming career, a path that we see more and more young people going down. But for Barton can’t quite envision himself making that decision
“I don’t ever see myself going full time.” Barton says. “I’m probably going to continue playing games like Hearthstone, and I think I’ve proved I don’t have to be full time to be successful. I do plan on going to college for sure.”
As long as the game keeps him interested, Barton will continue to play and compete. But if finds himself pulled in other directions, he may just disappear as quickly as he broke into the scene.
But for now Barton is a player that fascinates and excites his peers and fans alike. And he’s clearly been paying attention to his teachers. When he gets home and starts playing Hearthstone, there’s not a player in the world who couldn’t learn something from him.
Image via Blizzard | Remix by Jacob Wolf