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Hearthstone Esports Franchise Leader on New Faces, Wild, HGG, and More

The 2017 Hearthstone competitive season has come to a close. The Year of the Mammoth will come to an end in just a few short months. And after an exciting World Championships that saw Chen "tom60229" Wei Lin leave Amsterdam as the king of the Hearthstone world, the question becomes what's next for the game's competitive element.

Shacknews recently had the opportunity to watch the Hearthstone World Championships first-hand. During our time in Amsterdam, we spoke to Hearthstone Esports Global Franchise Leader Che Chou. Among the topics hit were the future of Hearthstone esports, the changes set to take effect next season, the future of Wild tournaments, and the return of the Hearthstone Global Games.

Shacknews: How do you feel the Hearthstone esports year has gone overall? What were some of the positive and negative experiences the team has had over the course of the season?

Che Chou, Hearthstone Esports Global Franchise Leader: It actually takes a world championship event like this for my team and I to take a step back and look back at all that has happened this year. If nothing else, 2017 has been a crazy roller coaster for us as a team, but also, hopefully, for our audiences that have been following the storylines. In 2017, I joined the Hearthstone esports team with the charter of taking it into the future. When I joined, my counterpart on Team 5, Matt Wyble, who was managing esports at the time with through the dev team, they had set up a super ambitious plan for 2017 that included things like, 'Hey, we're going to start doing championships and tournaments worldwide. We're going to go to all these different places, we're going to do live events, we're going to create audience experiences.' Those are all things that Hearthstone as an esport had not explored before outside of BlizzCon. That was super ambitious and, to be honest, the team... we frankly didn't know what we were getting ourselves into with that ambition.

We also worked with a brand new production partner, 441. We got a hold of them, because these were the guys who created the World Series of Poker. So the thought at the time was that if we really wanted to ramp up our production values and make HCT our premiere esport, how do we do that from a production standpoint? Why not go straight to the guys that put card games on the map for the mainstream? I think it's been a wonderful partnership. I'm really proud of the quality we've brought to our broadcasts from 2016 to 2017. Obviously, there's lots more to do there, but I'm pretty happy with where we are there.

But my favorite thing out of 2017, besides all the travel and the events, has been what we've done, how much we've invested in, and how much we've nourished the competitive Hearthstone community. I think that sub-community of the larger Hearthstone community is still in its infancy right now. There's a big Fireside Gathering community, there's a big overall player base. But when it comes to the Hearthstone esports community, I feel like we're just getting started. The dream, for me, I want to create a whole new breed of Hearthstone influencers who are just competitive players. It's great to see some of our competitive players like Pavel and Ant, just based on the success of their tournament results, start to gain a following. They've earned their stripes from winning tournaments, as opposed to just being a personality. I would love to see more influencers/players make that transition.

So overall, I think 2017 was an important year for us to be grounded and establish ourselves as an esport. And 2018, it's kind of our "grow up" phase. We're entering adolescence. 2017 and 2016 were definitely our growing years and now we're all in. We're going to try to create a pro Hearthstone lifestyle and start recognizing teams, start doing team invitational type stuff, so I think there's a lot that we're planning right now.

Shacknews: What are some of the big changes you're planning for 2018, particularly when it comes to the point system?

Chou: It's pretty simple. At its core, not a ton has changed, but we've done two significant things.

The first thing is, and this is big, we got a lot of feedback that qualifying for playoffs was a bit of a guessing game. Really, what we were saying was that we're going to take the top 64 point earners and if you tied for 64th, we're going to take everyone and let in the Tavern Hero guys. That was the system and with that system, people were like, 'Hey, I don't know if I'm Top 64, honestly.'

We wanted to take the guessing game out. Season 1 is 45 points to qualify? If you hit 45 points, either through ladder points, tour stops, etc., you qualify. We set a point threshold that allows our most serious players to plan out how they plan to qualify this season.

The other thing we're doing is that we're formally recognizing performance results over the span of time, as opposed to previous Hearthstone seasons where making playoffs or making World Champs or making Seasonal Champs depended on whether or not you got to quarterfinals. You could make it really far, you could make it to the round of eight, but if you didn't make the quarterfinals, you missed the jackpot. So what we're saying is, winning matches is still important, but at the same time, let's say you're a high-performing player, consistently making Top 8. If you miss quarterfinals, you don't just reset back to zero. We're going to start recognizing you over the course of three seasons and based on your performance each season, we're going to add it all up and that grants you the status. We anticipate that by the end of Season 2, start of Season 3, we're going to start seeing the first players moving into the Masters system and that's when I think things get interesting. That's when they hit the status, we recognize them as a master player, they start getting benefits, etc. One of those benefits is an inviation to the playoffs each season if they're at three stars. We're a couple of seasons away from players getting to that stage. Right now, for me a lot of the storytelling is, who's going to be first? Who are the players that are on their path there?

Really, it comes down to point threshold and recognizing performance over time. You could say a third significant thing is, with the Challenger system, we've removed that pro element from Tavern Heroes and online cups. Players who are less experienced with HCT and haven't qualified for playoffs before, they are now playing in a field that is not going to have the sharks come in and try to qualify that way.

[For Season 1] 35 points feels attainable. It's a little conservative, but we want to start conservative and see where players land in terms of results. If we find that Masters is too unattainable or qualifying with 45 points is unrealistic, we will adjust.

Shacknews: You've mentioned some of the changes to Tavern Hero and the Challenger system. We've seen a lot of new faces this year. Are there other ways in which you're to bring in even more new faces to the Hearthstone esports world?

Chou: Yeah, we had a couple of cool Tavern Hero stories in 2017. It's always great to see those guys come into playoffs through a different avenue. Great to see Tavern Hero guys make it into Top 16. We've also seen new faces, like uya from Japan who made it into the Summer Championship as a school teacher, who plays on a train on his way to work.

I think we will see new faces through Challenger, for sure. Those guys will be more authentic as Challengers. At the same time, because Hearthstone is a game that's mobile, accessible, always in your pocket, and everything else, we are going to continue to see new faces, just because of the open nature of the game. We're definitely going to see new faces this year. Another thing I'd definitely love to see is more women play Hearthstone and compete. There's no reason why they shouldn't or can't.

Shacknews: Will you also be branching out into new countries or new regions, such as the Middle East, for Hearthstone players?

Chou: We have a lot of tour stops planned for the HCT and I think one of the goals with tour stops is to be in as diverse a region as possible in terms of our coverage for the different regions: Asia-Pacific, Europe, and the Americas. We want to make sure hit all of those places.

In terms of eligibility of countries to play HCT, I think a lot of that is purely based on how available Hearthstone is in that country for the population there. We can definitely allow new countries to join. I think it just requires us to sit down and have that discussion and work with our legal department.

Shacknews: We heard about the return of the Hearthstone Global Games. What are some of the lessons the team learned with the first HGG and what are some changes we'll be seeing for the new season?

Chou: We haven't announced a ton of details, except that it is coming back. I'm really excited about the Finals. We're doing cool things this year. And we're still going to do the whole regional team voting mechanic from last year.

In 2017, HGG was definitely one of the highlights. It started off as an idea of "How do we do the World Cup for Hearthstone?" That started the thinking around it making sense that it's team-based. So it was our first official team championship for Hearthstone, from a Blizzard production standpoint. I know that we also have the Trinity Series. For us, it was like, we want to try teams, we want to activate national pride, we want to hit on all these different beats, and actually pulling it off and seeing countries and countrymen and all that excitement for us at Gamescome last year and people showing up with flags was so awesome to see.

One big piece of feedback that we had internally from ourselves and also from talking with others, is that we recognize that it ran too long. I think 15-16 weeks of competition was a little harder to tell that story. So we're going to make adjustments to address that this year with a more truncated, more compressed season. It's going to be more succinct, so we can tell a tighter story. So I think it's going to be about 9-10 weeks. We're going to tell a tighter story and we're going to work with our production partners to build more content and tell more stories for the broadcast itself.

We see HGG also as a cool place to experiment. This past year, a lot of HGG was very experimental for us. We're going to continue to plan for those things this year. At the end of the day, we're doubling down on what makes it special... teams, personalities, unlikely bedfellows and competitors from the same country on the same team.

Shacknews: I mentioned this to Matt Wyble at the Summer Championship and now I'll toss this question to you. Wild is going to be a lot more interesting with everything that's set to rotate out in just a few short months. Are there plans to throw more Wild tournaments?

Chou: The answer is yes. We don't have anything to discuss right now, because we're still working on it. It is being designed right now. We're discussing with partners on how to do it. I definitely want to do more Wild tournaments this year.

Shacknews: And lastly, do you feel moving the World Championship to January has been successful or do you feel that it's missing that raucous BlizzCon atmosphere?

Chou: BlizzCon without Hearthstone esports this year, there were ups and downs. I personally missed having esports at BlizzCon, though I loved what the team did with the Inn-vitational and all the new things that we tried there. The Inn-vitational as an experiment was really interesting and successful.

But when it comes to the World Championship as its own event. We recognize that if we take it out of BlizzCon, we'd better make it pretty epic. Hence, Amsterdam. And next year, based on the seasons and timing, the World Championship is actually going to be much closer to March, which will be much closer to set rotation.

January, it is what it is. We all came back from New Years scrambling to finish up production, so it's been interesting.

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