Naiman: 'Think about me like a player who returned and not as a player who cheated'
Almost exactly a year ago, Ole "Naiman" Batyrbekov competed at his last offline Hearthstone event. He finished in the top four of the Gfinity Spring Masters, defeating top names like Sebastian "Xixo" Bentert and Sebastian "Forsen" Fors. He was signed by Team Dignitas and looked set to break out as a top player.
Just a month later, he was banned from the game and released from his new team for what Blizzard calls 'wintrading'—using multiple accounts to fix results in ladder matches.
Now after having to build his career from scratch all over again, Batyrbekov has qualified for the Hearthstone European Winter Championship and is the favorite to take the title. That would book him a place in the $1 million World Championship.
"I don't feel any pressure," Batyrbekov tells the Daily Dot. "I feel really motivated. It was really hard to come back. I made a mistake, I got kind of severely punished for it. But then I came back."
When the ban was handed down and his account was suspended, Batyrbekov had no choice but to start fresh. He bought 15 card packs and the two expansions available at the time, and made it to the legend rank once again within just 120 games.
"Frankly speaking, right after the ban I was planning to retire," he says. "I thought I was going to quit Hearthstone and get back to real life, spend the time I spent on Hearthstone on my personal life. To get a real life. But then I had a conversation with my fiancee, and she was the one who told me I was not going to retire on this."
Batyrbekov was not the only pro player banned a year ago. Dan "Alchemixt" Walton, who did in fact retire afterwards, also had his account banned for a similar infraction. Blizzard informed both players in private that their accounts had been suspended.
In late April, however, Blizzard posted a public list of players banned from the 2015 World Championship. Walton and Batyrbekov both appeared on the list, despite not being told directly by Blizzard about any competitive ban or that the sanctions would be made public.
Despite this, Batyrbekov continued to finish in the upper echelons of the legends rankings every month. He accumulated dozens more qualification points with the faint hope of Blizzard allowing him to compete in the 2015 World Championship.
"I was still thinking that I can make it," Batyrbekov says, "and that Blizzard is not going to be that severe and might let me participate."
Hearing nothing from Blizzard he plowed on, gaining enough points to take part in the online qualifier. But 30 minutes before the event was due to start, Batyrbekov was told by ESL—who were running the event on behalf of Blizzard—that he would not be allowed to compete.
Undeterred, Batyrbekov dusted himself down and prepared for the 2016 campaign. The ban, after all, only lasted for the 2015 season. Once the new year started, the slate was cleared.
At the first attempt he made it through the 128-player preliminary bracket and into the eight-player offline finals in California.
With established players like 2015 world champion Sebastian "Ostkaka" Engwall, European champion Thijs "ThijsNL" Molendijk, and multi-time major winner Aleksandr "Kolento" Malsh among the countless big names who failed to qualify, Batyrbekov is in an unfamiliar position: He is the best known player in the field and considered the favorite to win the title.
According to Batyrbekov, his former Dignitas team mates brought him back into the fold among their practice group. Between the support of those players and others like Bentert and Dima "Rdu" Radu, Batyrbekov says that he has yet to encounter any professional in the game who still doubts him.
With one of the most tumultuous journeys in professional Hearthstone to date, Batyrbekov stands on the cusp of a breakout performance that has been over a year in the making.
"I would ask the whole community to forgive me for the mistake I made," he said. "and to think about me like a player who returned, and not as a player who cheated. To think about me like a player who was able to change and come back, and make it to the World Championship."