How Blizzard got off track on the Road to Blizzcon
In two months, Hearthstone will crown its second-ever world champion. The Hearthstone World Championship is the final destination on a nine-month qualification path that Blizzard calls "the Road to Blizzcon."
With a $250,000 prize pool, the tournament provides a huge platform for the game and an amazing spectacle. It elevates the game as an esport. But unfortunately, the road there has been filled with bumps and potholes.
Sometimes Blizzard has veered off course or taken questionable turns. The sanctioning of tournaments has been inconsistent, with rules applied in vague and opaque ways. Blizzard has been far too hands-off in running even the initial rounds of the World Championship itself. Then there is the thorny issue of the first competitive bans ever issued in Hearthstone, and how those players have been handled since.
Tournaments count double?
Qualification for last year's first-ever Hearthstone World Championship was mostly achieved through ladder success, with a number of minor tournaments also included. But in 2015, this changed. Major tournament results now contributed points, too.
For big tournaments with prize pools over $25,000, winning an event meant the equivalent of finishing a month at No. 1 legend rank twice. Finishing just in the top 100 is hard enough. It's a delicate calculation of winrates and potential rank decay, meaning that achieving the very top spot in any given month is almost impossible.
For some events like DreamHack Summer all participants had to go through a seven-round Swiss and a four-round playoff to get to that top prize. Some events, however, such as ESL Katowice, allowed the big name invitees to obtain 100 points from winning just four best-of-five matches, while the qualified players they were facing had to come through a qualifier with more than 1,000 players.
In other words, an invited player could pocket 100 points for winning as little as 12 games of Hearthstone, while another player receives only 50 points for winning dozens and maybe hundreds of games on ladder. It hardly seems fair
Hands-off tournament sanctioning
Almost as soon as the Road began, Blizzard got itself into problems with which tournaments it chose to sanction and award points to.
According to Blizzard's announced rules, tournaments had to have 16 players in its main event. The rules also stated that no more than 50 percent of those players could be invited. Despite this, the ESL Legendary Series S1 finals awarded 100 points to winner Austin "SilentStorm" Li—even though there were only eight players in the finals, and the format made it impossible to determine exactly who was in the top 16. Blizzard said it bent its own rules simply "recognize the achievements that players have made in the Legendary Series."
That response, made on Reddit, was one of the few examples of Blizzard responding publicly to questions and concerns about the Road to Blizzcon. The company did not respond to a request for comment on this article.
It appears similar exceptions were made for the Gfinity Summer Masters I. Full disclosure: I was the host for this event, and was not told that points were being awarded—and neither were the players. In fact, winner Anton "Legendaren" Danielsson claims that he was explicitly told he wouldn't win any points. And yet when one of his friends checked the standings after the win, Danielsson had been awarded 50 points for the $10,000 event.
At the Gfinity Spring Masters II, two qualified players not attending at the last minute, so it continued with just 14 players. Most assumed that points would not be awarded. That was the indication from Blizzard, too. But yet again they were.
Then there was DreamHack Summer. That event was advertised as completely open. But before signups were opened dozens of teams were offered as many reserved (some might call them invite) places as they want. Though DreamHack has declined to provide a number, independent estimates and reports from teams themselves suggest that well under 50 percent of places were actually available when sign ups were opened. Once again points were awarded to the winners.
This is explicitly not a criticism of Gfinity, ESL or DreamHack by the way. The problem here is Blizzard, who doesn't apply its own rules consistently and has a complete lack of transparency as to where these points are coming from.
When is a ban not a ban?
For the first time in Hearthstone's history, Blizzard issued competitive bans to five players who had their accounts banned during the Road to Blizzcon.
A lot of the issues with these bans were addressed in an editorial I wrote back in April, and have yet to be cleared up. The bans, which were not announced publicly until much later, are open ended and not explicit. What it is the player is actually banned from? That's unclear. The bans also bring up some troubling privacy issues—the reasons for bans were announced publicly without the player's knowledge.
A new wrinkle in the story appeared as the qualification points standings were finalized last week. Olzhas "Naiman" Batyrbekov, who created a new account following his ban, had seemingly managed to accrue 41 points since his ban. It would have been smarter to simply prohibit him from accruing those points or removing him from the standings. But when the list was finalized, there he was. And he's still there now:
Despite being on the list, he wasn't allowed to enter the Last Call qualifier tournament. He signed up, but was removed by ESL admins.
Since he wasn't allowed to qualify, how did he get those points? Why was he allowed to get those points, when someone who was eligible could have got them instead?
As the Road to Blizzcon rolled on, the Fireside Gathering Championship took place in each region. Winners of local community tournaments across the world fought it out for one spot in each regional qualifier.
The North American event was managed by ESL, and went off without a hitch. The European tournament, however, which was managed by Millenium, was a farce.
After complaints about a vague and incomprehensive ruleset were posted on Reddit, the sign-up link and participant chatroom link were available to anyone. Admins were asked directly if they would be checking the bracket to ensure that all participants had actually qualified for the event. And despite promising that they would, they didn't. How do I know that? Because I entered. And was never removed.
That was despite the fact that I made the deception known in the chatroom and on Twitter. Not a single person was removed from the bracket, and frankly Millenium got lucky that the winners ended up being eligible. At no point did Blizzard step in, offer any comment, or appear to take any control over a farcical situation.
The Hearthstone World Championship is a fantastic opportunity for the scene. Blizzard should be commended for the work it puts in to make it happen. But its inconsistency, a lack of transparency, and a reluctance to get more hands on with the tournament circuit over the past nine months has created some issues that cannot be ignored.
For Hearthstone esports to go to the next level, Blizzard needs to make sure this doesn't happen next year.
Update 4:18pm CT, Sept. 15: This story has been edited to clarify that a number of minor tournaments did count for World Championship qualification in 2014.
Photo via Hearthstone/Facebook