Hearthstone's Sam Braithwaite on moving from HCT to Masters

The Hearthstone Championship Tour comes to an end this weekend and Shacknews speaks to Blizzard's Sam Braithwaite about moving ahead to the new Hearthstone Masters circuit.

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Saturday evening marks a monumental occasion for Hearthstone esports. A new world champion will be crowned at the HCT World Championship in Taipei. But more than that, this tournament marks the official end of the Hearthstone Championship Tour as a whole. With the end of this weekend's compeititon, Hearthstone esports moves on to an entirely new format, in more ways than one.

Hearthstone will move towards an all-new system called Masters and Grandmasters. The Masters system was first unveiled back in February, bringing together the best players across the competitive circuit, the Ranked Ladder, and more, as they attempt to reach Hearthstone Grandmasters status. The Grandmasters will then compete for a chance to advance to the Hearthstone Global Finals, where they will compete for a $500,000 prize pool that's set to grow from now through November.

Hearthstone Masters and Grandmasters represents a major step forward for Hearhtstone esports, the latest in a long process for Hearthstone Senior Global Esports Franchise Lead Sam Braithwaite. Braithwaite took some time to talk to Shacknews over the course of the weekend. We discussed the current state of Hearthstone esports, the new Masters and Grandmasters system, criticism from a noted Hearthstone luminary, and whether there's a future for the competitive Wild scene.

2019 HCT World Championship (Photo credits: Helena Kristiansson for Blizzard Entertainment)
2019 HCT World Championship (Photo credits: Helena Kristiansson for Blizzard Entertainment)

Shacknews: This is the last official Hearthstone Championship Tour event. What are your feelings when you hear that?

Sam Braithwaite, Hearthstone Senior Global Esports Franchise Lead: It's a pretty emotional experience. For me, I was on the sidelines as a fan. I've loved Hearthstone esports forever. I've been following it, have 10,000-plus games played. But for me, I look at the team, specifically guys like Drew Higby, who's our product manager for Grandmasters. He's also the one who's putting on this entire show today. They've been working on HCT for years and for them, this means a lot more to them. They're the ones that have been at three different world championships to put on for HCT, they've done all the tour stops around the world, they've been putting on all the seasonal playoffs. I know this is both an emotional and exciting thing for them. We love HCT and we love the world championship and everything that surrounds it.

But we're also really excited for the future and for trying something new. For experimenting with different formats, both in league structure, as well as deck structure. It's a very bittersweet moment.

Shacknews: For the casual viewer, what's going to be the biggest difference between HCT and Hearthstome Masters and Grandmasters?

Braithwaite: For the casual viewer, I think the two greatest differences is, one, there's going to be some importance and meaning behind Hearthstone esports.

A lot of the things that we did with HCT was lost over the course of the year. We did 32 tour stops, right? That's one every two weeks almost. That's a lot of Hearthstone esports to consume and that's a lot of mind space that we ask people to occupy. "Hey, we want you to care about this." But why they should care about this was lost, because of how many events there were, the points system was a little convoluted, people were qualifying from different areas.

We're trying to bring that all in and give people an easy-to-follow program. Hearthstone Grandmasters is live every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Come watch the best players in the world compete in a format that's more relevant to you, as an average and casual fan, which is the Specialist format. So that's another one of the things that we're excited about for people who are your average fans and audience watching. We now feel like the esports content that we're going to be putting out on a regular basis is going to be more educational and entertaining and we're going to be able to give you and equip you with the tools you need to be successful.

With us to be able to make the pivot with these Masters qualifiers that we're running, we're starting to see a ton more people participate in Hearthstone esports than ever before. The HCT as an ecosystem had 19,000 people competing, which is an incredible amount of people. But with the Hearthstone Masters qualifiers, we're seeing 80,000 people competing and trying their best to earn a spot for the Masters Tour in Las Vegas.

My message is, it's all cascading. The people that are now participating in Hearthstone esports are now more likely to go watch Hearthstone esports. The more people that are watching Hearthstone esports, the more sponsors and money will go to Hearthstone esports. The more sponsors and money, the better well-taken care of the Grandmaster players are. It's a life cycle that we hope to set up and our goal with Grandmasters and Hearthstone Masters, in general, is to create a sustainable ecosystem that will last for many years to come.

Shacknews: You're going with eight-week seasons for Grandmasters and that makes me want to ask what happens if balance changes come in the middle of that season. Is there a concern that a round of balance adjustments might disrupt the competition?

Braithwaite: No. We actually think our competition is now set up to really welcome those types of changes. Week in, week out, everybody is going to be competing and everybody is going to be on the same level to where every player plays every weekend, meaning that there's not going to be an unfair advantage for somebody because they have a weekend off or they have more time to experiment with cards. Everybody is going to be dealt the same deck and they're going to need to be able to adapt to it.

I like to use this World Championship as proof of the pudding on that, to where players had eight days to put together decks for this event. And they loved it! It was exciting! It was cool! And we're seeing such diversity in decks, like even Combo Tempo Rogues, everybody's deck looks a little bit different. Token Druid, everybody's deck looks a little bit different. And that's what we're going to see if there are balance changes in the middle of the season.

Shacknews: How did you determine the initial field of Grandmasters and how much more room for growth is there?

Braithwaite: The initial field of Grandmasters was determined by three factors. One is going to be HCT points earned during the 2018 competitive season. We felt like that was the most important thing. We have to get the best players in the world that have proven themselves in the past year and give them a spot in this league.

Second, it's lifetime earnings and achievements within Hearthstone esports. If we look at, speficially, guys like Thijs [Molendijk]. Thijs attends HCT playoffs, he's not one of the top eight point earners in Europe, but there is no doubt that he is one of the most fabled, legendary European players. The second-biggest tournament of the year. The China vs. Europe event, he went and won. He's won substantial amounts of money and we think that warrants an invitation to one of the most prestigious leagues.

And third and lastly, it's the contributions to the Hearthstone scene. Not just in terms of popularity, but in terms of creating content and guides, casting, being a positive member of the community, but they still have some competitive experience. The example I like to look at is Silvername [Vladislav Sinotov]. Silvername is one of our most popular streamers out there. He has a huge, rabid fanbase in Russia that follows him extensively, but he's still a competitive player. He still signs up for HCT events and still goes to the playoffs. And we think that was a good balance for that last spot in our Grandmasters program. Somebody who has a lot of clout, but also competitive experience, and is able to bring in an audience that maybe didn't care about Hearthstone esports before then.

Shacknews: How do you feel the format change from Conquest to Specialist will affect Hearthstone esports going forward? In particular, how do you feel this will affect the pace of each individual game?

Braithwaite: The pace is going to depend on the tier that you're looking at. In Hearthstone Grandmasters, we're going to start seeing series and games go a lot quicker. Because we're not just switching to Specialist format, we're switching to best-of-3, as well. If we look at the matchup that we just had with Bunnyhoppor [Raphael Peltzer], that was a three-hour best-of-five experience. That's a big ask for people to sit and watch three hours and watch one specific matchup. We definitely look forward to being able to pick up the pace a little bit.

I think what Specialist is going to bring, it's going to make things a little bit easier to follow. It's going to make things more like the actual experience that everybody else has on ladder. You're not banning decks. You don't need four competitively viable decks from four different classes. Instead, it's, "Hey, this player has a specific deck and class in mind. He's got two alternatives. Let's see how he or she pilots that specific deck. They face off against this specific deck. What cards are they going to add in or remove to hedge their odds against that specific deck?" And that mirrors what a person's ladder experience is like. It's like, I love playing Conjuring Mage, I'm jamming it on ladder, I'm gonna play 200 games of Conjuring Mage. But I run against Control Warrior. What cards will I take and remove from my deck to be better against control matchups? That's the type of content that we want to put out in Grandmasters: How are we making the average player better at Hearthstone and how are we improving their ladder experience?

Shacknews: I want to ask about viewership numbers and engagement. When addressing the departure of Muzzy [Muzahidul Islam] and JustSaiyan [David Shan] last week, Tempo Storm owner Reynad [Andrey Yanyuk] said the following: "The game itself is healthy, but the esports viewership leaves a lot to be desired," adding that viewership has been in decline since 2015. What is your response to that quote?

Braithwaite: Our response is Hearthstone Masters 2019.

I agree with Reynad! Over the past year, we've seen Hearthstone esports viewership, week-over-week. Our big moments still get great viewership. If we look at our seasonal championships, our world championships, we get big numbers because those are the big things that people care about. But when you specifically look at all the tour stops that we did, one of the feedback that we got was, what was important to Hearhtstone esports lost its meaning because we were live every single weekend. With 32 tour stops over 52 weeks, that right there is a tour stop every week and a half. Add in Global Games, collegiate programming, seasonal championships, playoffs, Hearthstone esports is live every single weekend. Why is it important? Why do people care? Why should they tune in to watch? I think that some of that was lost and that's what we're trying to get back.

We're trying to create marquee moments throughout the year. Those are going to be your Masters Tour events in Las Vegas, in Seoul, and in... the one that I can't talk about yet. That's going to be your Hearthstone Grandmasters with your consistent viewing experience. I'm a fan of JustSaiyan, I'm a fan of Muzzy, I can tune in and I know that at Friday at 2PM, they're going to be playing, compared to any other time when you hope they're going to be playing and haven't been knocked out of the tournament.

So we're making strategic pivots to actually make up for some of the concerns that Reynad brought up. I hope at the end of this year, he can sit back and say, "Hey, this worked. I want to pick up some players again."

WSOE 2
Jia, fresh off winning WSOE 2 in December

Shacknews: I'd like to take a moment to ask about third-party events, held by entities like World Showdown of Esports, DreamHack, and PAX. What has Blizzard noticed from these events and sought to apply to its own first-party esports tournaments?

Braithwaite: I think one of the things that we're seeing is, people love a variety of events. I love the WSOE events, because it gives us something different. I love what they're doing with the female competitors. Jia [Dee] is a freakin' gangster. She's just kicking everybody's ass, which we love to see! Super excited to have her as talent for Grandmasters.

But we're also seeing on our end, a big emergence of nation-based competitions. We held Global Games as Blizzard Entertainment. We saw that there was a demand for it. Third-parties now seem to be taking that over from us. There seems to always be nation-based competition going on from WESG [World Electronic Sports Games] and WCG [World Cyber Games]. That's exciting!

But I think moving forward, we want to have a different relationship with third parties. We think Hearthstone Masters actually empowers us to be more collaborative with third parties than we've ever been, because now we have something to offer. If you're a third-party organizer and you want to be involved with Hearthstone esports, before you would just apply for a tournament license through our standard procedures, you would get it, you'd run your tournament, we'd do our best to promote you, and that was usually the end of the relationship. Now we can say, "Oh, you guys are doing this event? That's exciting! Why don't we give you guys a Masters Tour invitation to your winner?" We've basically increased the value of their tournament, because now whoever wins that tournament gets an opportunity to go to Vegas to compete for $250,000, on top of what they were already doing anyway.

We get a lot of criticism right now about, "Yes, I've earned my ticket to the Masters Tour, but I still have to pay for my flight and hotel," which is expensive. And it's especially expensive coming from Latin America, Australia, Russia, etc. We're doing one in America, which is great for that population. We'll be doing one in Europe, which is great for that population. But what about everybody else? I think third-party collaboration is one of the steps that we take to fix that. Somebody wants to run a local tournament for somebody, but what if instead of offering a $1,000 prize pool, they cover the airline and hotel and we give them a Masters Tour invite. And now somebody's earned a free flight, ticket, and hotel to go compete for $250,000. That's the dream, right?

So we'd like to build to that. I think we have a couple already in the pipeline that we'll shortly be announcing through third parties, opportunities to win that airline and hotel. But that's what we see as collaboration moving forward.

Shacknews: Lastly, Hearthstone Masters sounds amazing for players and fans of that scene. But what about those people who play Wild? What do you say to the Wild player who hopes to see their scene represented more on the esports stage?

Braithwaite: I think my response to that is... we've tried. We host Wild tournaments. The numbers speak for themselves. They don't get good viewership. They don't get good activation.

If there's truly a demand out there, support the tournaments we have that exist right now, regardless of what the prize pool is. If you care about it, show that there is a demand and we'll be ready to respond to it. If you guys want to organize tournaments, we'll be happy to help empower you. We'll offer things as prizing to help you do so. But we've tried to do Wild tournaments and we're just not seeing that there's a demand in terms of competitors or viewership. But we're totally open to it if there is!


The 2019 HCT World Championship concludes tonight with the Top 8, which is set to begin at 7PM PT. You can watch all of the action on Twitch. Shacknews is on-site and will report on the winner as soon as the event concludes. Stay tuned for more interviews, along with a few post-tournament features in the days ahead.

Senior Editor

Ozzie has been playing video games since picking up his first NES controller at age 5. He has been into games ever since, only briefly stepping away during his college years. But he was pulled back in after spending years in QA circles for both THQ and Activision, mostly spending time helping to push forward the Guitar Hero series at its peak. Ozzie has become a big fan of platformers, puzzle games, shooters, and RPGs, just to name a few genres, but he’s also a huge sucker for anything with a good, compelling narrative behind it. Because what are video games if you can't enjoy a good story with a fresh Cherry Coke?

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