After Dreamhack Bucharest, Hearthstone has finally arrived as an esport

Andrey “Reynad” Yanyuk was in trouble.

Screengrab via PGLtv/YouTube

Andrey “Reynad” Yanyuk was in trouble. It was only first round of the DreamHack Bucharest’s Hearthstone tournament—the biggest tournament tournament yet for the new and hugely popular card game—but the talented American found himself in a position that looked unwinnable.

It was Yanyuk’s turn. About 40,000 onlookers watching via streaming site Twitch knew something he didn’t: His opponent, a player known simply as Zmin, had game winning cards in his hand. Still, Yanyuk was experienced enough to know that he was on the ropes and that this was likely going to be the last turn.

The most obvious play was what Hearthstone players describe as going straight at an opponent’s “face”—using every available card to attack, full force. But that would have left him just shy of a win.

“I was pretty frustrated,” Yanyuk recalled in a Skype interview. He’d done the math on the play, and came out one damage short of beating his opponent.

“The salt is real,” a commentator said, indicating that Yanyuk was upset or “salty.” A co-caster chimed: “He knows it. He knows that he is dead.”

Seconds passed. Yanyuk’s hands, which had been cradling his head, went back to his mouse and keyboard. His cursor hovered over his cards for what seemed an eternity.

The casters tried to imagine a scenario in which the American player might squeeze out a win. A player can only draw one card each round in Hearthstone, but certain cards have special property that allows you to draw more when played, and one caster suggested this gamble might pay off. His partner, meanwhile, tried to guess what combination of card draw and cards in hand could get Yanyuk to lethal damage. Every scenario looked grim.

Then, to everyone’s surprise, Yanyuk nodded confidently and began to play his cards. In the turn that will define DreamHack Bucharest’s Hearthstone tournament, Yanyuk played his cards and won in the most counterintuitive way possible: He attacked and killed one of his own cards. That card’s death synergized with another in his hand, and gave him exactly enough damage to fell his opponent.

In a split second the mood in Twitch’s chat room changed. The thousands who, just moments prior, were spamming a salt shaker emoticon, now found themselves singing a new tune. A phrase appeared over and over: “A GOD.”

Yanyuk, who in Bucharest, was unaware of his new-found status as a Hearthstone deity, was just happy to win that match and move on in the event.

“I did the math over and over to make sure it was right, and it ended up being exactly lethal,” Yanyuk said, before concluding matter of factly, “it was a pretty sweet way to end the game.”

The play was extraordinary not because of its importance to the tournament’s outcome—Reynad would bow out in the round of 32—but because of its sheer inventiveness.

But despite moments like this, Hearthstone still lingers on the fringe of mainstream esports acceptance. Even as more pro teams and agencies back the game, there’s still an almost palpable reluctance to embrace it.

From the beginning, Hearthstone was as much a spectator’s game as a player’s. It was Blizzard’s answer to collectible card games like Magic: The Gathering, which had developed an obsessive player base and lively tournament scene but had never managed to transfer that success into the digital realm.

Blizzard, best know for massively multiplayer roleplaying game World of Warcraft and real time strategy games like the StarCraft and Warcraft series, understood the value of building buzz before a launch. The company gave early Hearthstone invites to popular video game streamers, who would play it in front of eager audiences. That early buzz helped turn it into a rapid success after it opened the doors to the general public. But months later, questions about its viability as an esport still linger.

Of the criticisms leveled against Hearthstone as a competitive title, the most common is that, as a card game, randomness plays too great a role in determining matches. Titles like League of Legends or Counter-Strike: Global Offense, often described as the postergames of esports, rely much more on player skill, and have fewer uncontrollable factors in play.

As one detractor on Reddit wrote: “Every single tournament I see, without fail, serves no other purpose than to highlight the absurdity of it as an ‘eSport.’ … Sorry, but this game is simply too dependent on luck to be taken seriously.”

Randomness in Hearthstone manifests itself in handful of ways, some more palatable than others. On a fundamental level, the order in which you draw your cards from your deck is random. Players at the the start of each game have the opportunity to trade back cards from initial hand, but their replacements are also randomly chosen. And thereafter, any card you draw depends on the shuffle. There are also cards whose effects are random; some cards, for instance, deal damage to a random enemy, or destroy a random enemy minion.

Yanyuk fervently dismisses this as an issue.

“Having an element of [random number generation] doesn’t affect its legitimacy at all,” he insists. “Bad players aren’t going to win large events like [Dreamhack] by winning coin flips all day.”

At the highest level, however, the game can be played in way that randomness can be accounted for and partially controlled–a point that many outsiders or new players miss. It’s also easy to forget that unpredictable elements affect traditional athletics, like wind or snow or a referee’s discretion. Those who play Hearthstone at the highest levels play in a way that gives them the highest probability for a favorable outcome.

Take one of those cards that randomly destroys an enemy minion. If your opponent has four minions on the board, and you want to kill one specifically, the card isn’t ideal. But, of course, you can turn that 25 percent chance to kill into 50 or even 100 percent by using other methods to eliminate other targets first. The card’s mere existence means that your opponent should be wary of playing powerful minions on an empty board.

A criticism that appears less often, but has more merit, is that Hearthstone lacks the most basic, and critical, esports functionality: a spectator client.

Right now, most streamed content is produced by a single player broadcasting their own matches against random opponents in game’s multiplayer mode. There’s no integrated option in that lets you watch what both players are seeing, which is essential for watching a competitive match, and as such is a feature included in most esports, such as StarCraft and Dota 2. The excitement of Yanyuk’s great play at Dreamhack Bucharest, for instance, was amplified because viewers could see what looked like game-ending cards in his opponent’s hand.

It’s also essential for commentators. In Dota 2 or StarCraft 2, broadcasters need only to connect to an open lobby and then join the game via the spectator client once it starts.

Broadcasting Hearthstone requires much more effort. Both competitors have to stream their games separately, then the broadcaster has to capture video, then splice everything together, then push this final video out to the public.

In addition to all the normal headaches that come with an online broadcast, the broadcaster now needs to count on no technical issues from two streams over which he has no control.

As a result, Hearthstone’s online tournament presence is weak. Most online tournaments don’t broadcast their regular, weekly tournaments. Instead, they’ll organize small, often pre-recorded tournaments with top streamers. Keeping the broadcasts short minimizes the chance something will go awry. And inviting fan favorites ensures the type of high viewer counts that justify the complex production.

A moment from the final match. Screengrab via PGLtv/YouTube

Chris Chan, host and organizer of a popular weekly Heartstone showmatch series called Deck Wars, says that Hearthstone takes three to four times to produce than similar content he was creating for StarCraft 2.

“Just overall a more tedious process with all the different parts that needs to come together in the end,” he said.

As a result, the competitive Hearthstone community is underserved. A top player may consistently do well in staple weekly tournaments like the National Electronic Sports League’s weekly cup or GosuGamer’s GosuCup. But it’s still possible that they’ll be unknown to anyone outside of the competitive community, because there’s no way to watch those events.

You could try to make a name on streaming platforms, but a handful of top streamers, most of them very talented players who had the foresight to start building their brand early, have already gobbled up most of the audience on platforms like Twitch, or Azubu. Notoriety among a few hundred of the world’s best Hearthstone players does not pay the bills.

Hearthstone moves along, however, despite these issues. At any given moment it is typically one of the top four games being watched on Twitch. Blizzard recently announced the Hearthstone World Championship to take place at its annual convention, Blizzcon, later this year. A win at DreamHack Bucharest granted a seed into DreamHack Summer, indicating that DreamHack will continue to run tournaments for the game.

While Hearthstone’s growing pains are evident, the core community is still positive that it will be one of the year’s biggest competitive titles.

“The people arguing that Hearthstone isn’t an esport sound just like the people who argued that esports aren’t esports ten years ago,” Yanyuk told me when I asked him about Hearthstone’s future.

“What makes an esport an esport? A competition and an audience, and Hearthstone has more of that than many ‘esports’ by a landslide.”

It’s difficult to argue with Hearthstone’s continued growth. Blizzard recently released the game on the iPad, a move that was received with much fanfare in the gaming and esports media. The game shortly skyrocketed to the top of the app store, becoming the number one free app in just one day. It’s not clear how many of those new players will become fans. But that’s something Yanyuk isn’t concerned about. He explained his philosophy simply:

“All it comes down to is that people love competing in Hearthstone, and people love watching those competitions. That’s all an esport needs.”