On site at Hearthstone's ATLC, where the banal meets the fantastic
Cloud9’s Jan “Ek0p” Palys waves us into Team Archon’s suburban two-story home and politely asks us to remove our shoes. On the couch next to him sits Jeffrey “Trump” Shih, one of Twitch’s most popular streamers, while Hearthstone's winningest player, Aleksandr “Kolento” Malsh, and Cloud9 ace Cong “Strifecro” Shu lounge on bean bags on the floor.
This is the scene at the Archon Team League Championship (ATLC), one of Hearthstone’s most lucrative and innovative events to date. In the competitive world of Hearthstone, the ATLC is a grand experiment. The brainchild of Archon-team-owner-slash-wildly-popular-streamer Jason “Amaz” Chan, both the format and prize pool represent considerable leaps for the nascent title.
The ATLC forces otherwise individually minded competitors to cooperate as a unit. A “conquest” tournament, teams build six decks and square-off, round-by-round, blind-picking prepared decks until one side garners six wins in total. If a deck wins, it is removed from the pool of available decks for the remainder of the match. If a player loses two rounds, they are benched, unable to compete until a teammate scores a victory. The prize for their toil: a piece of the $250 thousand prize pool, which is currently tied for Hearthstone’s biggest single-event purse.There was something about the ATLC, in all its prescribed significance, that I couldn't quite shake while standing in the foyer of Archon’s cozy piece of Dallas suburbia. Despite some nail-biting moments and a newsworthy bounty, there remained an inescapable banality about the proceedings. Archon’s team house was cozy and well-maintained, but aside from a few 20-somethings wearing matching t-shirts, there was little to indicate to the uninformed outside world that a major competitive event was underway.
In-person and devoid of context, Archon’s glorified sleepover looked like any other LAN party in America on that same weekend. To a knowledgeable viewer, however, the ATLC was a who’s-who of streaming’s hoi polloi. At a slow point on Saturday afternoon, I played Super Smash Bros. for WiiU with Shu, Jon “Orange” Westberg, and Trump. I am in no way ignorant to the significance of such an experience in the eyes of tens of thousands of fans. But in this house, on this weekend, such scenes were commonplace–a poignant reminder of just how accessible esports, and its big stars still are.
On its most basic level, the setting for this epic and heavily spectated clash was, simply, a home. Dust collected in corners, Adventure Time’s infectious robot sidekick “BMO” mingled with stylized dragons from the Game of Thrones series on the windowsill, and the neighborhood cat mewed outside the porch doorway. (The same cat, “Tom Tom,” found her way inside amongst the streamers for a nap on one of three communal bean bags.) In the living room, players watched their compatriots earn tens of thousands of dollars from the comfort of a sectional sofa and some department store bar stools.Even when things got heated, the reactions from players were notably measured. On several occasions, a large, HD television displaying the tournament stream reflected stoic faces and sleeping participants, even as the Twitch chat streaked by in a flurry of hyperbole and adulation. Aside from a miracle moment By David “Dog” Caero and a fitting reaction from Value Town early in the competition, the tournament’s loudest moments emanated from the adjoining game room where Super Smash Bros. for WiiU was played.
The curious clash of cul-de-sac and quarter-million dollar prize pool only accented the tournament’s core ethos. Sports and esports are, fundamentally, about the celebration of the intangible. A linebacker collides with a running back to stop a game-winning drive and Caero’s last-minute card draw helped stave-off early elimination for a tournament favorite. The ATLC’s six-figure viewership, while only visible in the stream’s live stat-line, was real and present, even if the viewership occupied bedrooms and coffee shops across the world, instead of stadium seating.
It will be a while before Hearthstone events regularly fill up real-world arenas all on their own—most big Hearthstone events are bundled with other games at tournaments like DreamHack or BlizzCon. But to a certain extent, that's for the best. There's something undeniably charming about the ATLC's suburban digs. And even when Hearthstone really goes big, so long as players likeTrump, Orange, and StrifeCro play, Blizzard’s infectious card game will maintain the accessible charm that makes it special.
Photo by Ian Barker