Blizzard's Drew Higbee discusses the growth of Hearthstone Esports

Hearthstone Esports Product Manager Drew Higbee is the longest tenured member of the esports team and he took some time to talk to Shacknews about the growth of Hearthstone Masters and Grandmasters.


Blizzard kicked off the Hearthstone competitive year over the weekend with the first Hearthstone Masters Tour stop of 2020. Arlington was more than a site for over 300 players to seek to win prize money and prestige. It was a chance to try and join the field of Hearthstone Grandmasters. Grandmasters is getting ready to kick off its Season 3 in April and will some changes instituted, as Blizzard continues to tinker with the overall format.

To learn more about where Grandmasters is headed, Shacknews spoke to Hearthstone Esports Product Manager Drew Higbee. We discussed the changes to Grandmasters, the switch from Twitch to YouTube, and the return of DoA to Hearthstone casting.

Hearthstone Masters Arlington
Photo credit: Blizzard Entertainment

Shacknews: You're the longest tenured member of the Hearthstone esports team. From that perspective, how would you say the transition from the Hearthstone Championship Tour to Hearthstone Masters and Grandmasters has gone?

Drew Higbee, Hearthstone Esports Product Manager: Yeah, as you mentioned, I've been on the Hearthstone esports team for about six years now. I watched it when it was the Hearthstone Championship only, evolved that and changed it with the Hearthstone Championship Tour, and evolved that into the Masters and Grandmasters ecosystem. We're very excited and think, frankly, it's gone well transitioning. Obviously, 2019 was a transition year, so we didn't get to see the full breadth of how that ecosystem really plays out. As we go through 2020, we will, including having six Masters Tours this year. And two years of relegation for Grandmasters, which is very exciting to see new people coming into the ecosystem.

What lends a lot of confidence to that is how much we've been talking to and listening to our players, talking to pro players, players who are just coming into the scene, Grandmasters, the whole variety of players, including players who are playing in Masters qualifiers for the first time who had never participated in Hearthstone esports in the past. We have a lot of new players coming in for the Masters Tour qualifiers who maybe hadn't come into Hearthstone in the past because there was a higher barrier of entry into tournaments. All of that has been going really well. There's always areas and places to improve, but we're very excited with the results so far.

Shacknews: You've received feedback from both players and viewers regarding Hearthstone Grandmasters. The new season is starting soon. What is a specific area of critique that the team is looking to address?

Higbee: I think one of the areas of critique that one of the Grandmaster players had was, "We want to play in more matches, because we feel like the more matches we play, statistically, it helps prove out that we're the better player." We're addressing that specifically the first three weeks of Grandmasters this year. Each of the seasons is slated to be full Swiss tournaments among all the particular Grandmasters in that particular region against each other for the first three weeks. Then we take that and divide it into two divisions after that point.

That also addresses another piece of feedback that we got from the Grandmasters, which was "I feel like I was the weakest player in my division, but my division was the strongest division, so when I got relegated by being last, maybe I wasn't the second-worst player in my region." This system helps equate that a little bit easier with "Well, you played through the first three weeks, then you went into an additional four weeks where it was divided into "This is the top 8 players, this is the bottom 8 players." And if you are to be relegated, you at the bottom of the bottom group.

Shacknews: You've tinkered with the format used for Grandmasters. You tried Specialist. It didn't work out. Do you feel like you have the format in a good place now?

Higbee: Yes, I do think that we have the format in a good place, but we're also going to experiment and try a few different things. So for the first three weeks of Grandmasters, we're trying various formats and then we'll shift to Conquest for the final five weeks of each season.

Shacknews: We're entering a new era for Hearthstone esports, mainly because it's an era without Twitch. How has the team gone about making the transition to YouTube?

Higbee: The transition is obviously very new, but in some ways, it's very old. We've had Hearthstone Esports VOD's on YouTube for six years. They've performed very well. All the games and trailers go up on there. We simulcasted all of our game release trailers on both to Twitch and YouTube in the past. It was really only Hearthstone Esports that was only on Twitch the last three years. In general, we're very excited to be moving forward with a partner that has a very strong video on-demand system, very strong base of people interested in watching Hearthstone, Hearthstone as a category on YouTube is very high-performing, a lot of our most famous players have a ton of views on all of their videos there. We're looking forward to this year with YouTube.

Shacknews: You had a lot of great behind-the-scenes content on YouTube during the Hearthstone Championship Tour. I haven't seen too much of that with Masters and Grandmasters. Is that an area you're looking to grow in the next few years?

Higbee: So I think right after this event, we have the Grandmasters Summit, where we're filming a bunch of new content with the Grandmasters. We'll be posting all of that on the YouTube channel, as well. So I think there will be more fun and interesting videos and pieces to see with the Grandmasters coming up.

Across the Masters Tours, there's always the challenge of how much do we focus on creating this shoulder content versus how much do we focus on the players telling their own story through their play and elevating these players and letting the world know them through their performance on the Masters Tours. We feel like a lot of the time in the Masters Tour part of the ecosystem, the best way is to let the gameplay speak for itself. And the players who have really great results, you're going to see them in more tournaments. They're going to make their way into Grandmasters. It's more about showing off their play and introducing them to the world as they make their way through the Masters Tour.

Hearthstone Masters Arlington
Photo credit: Blizzard Entertainment

Shacknews: You work with the broadcasting team, so the first question I want to ask on that end is, what does it mean to the team to have DoA back? And how has the team helped him make the transition back to Hearthstone?

Higbee: I worked with DoA in 2015-2016, he came out and cast the Asia-Pacific Winter Championship and that was actually the first time I had seen him in person, even though he had worked various events with us in Korea and the Philippines. He's obviously a very experienced, very well-versed broadcaster with a deep history in card games. He was very excited to come back. We chatted with each other, we share mutual hobbies and interests all around gaming, so we'd been in contact over that time period. He said "I'd really like to come back and cast some Hearthstone." And I said "That sounds awesome, let's talk about it!" That evolved into him being here at this Masters Tour.

I look forward to working with him at more events throughout the year. He's a very talented individual that we're happy to have and he's very passionate about card games. He loves Hearthstone, so it's great to have him on the desk.

Shacknews: How does the team determine who to have on the casting team for Masters and Grandmasters? And I ask this knowing there was a lot of sadness among followers of the competitive scene who grew very attached to that Frodan/Brian Kibler team.

Higbee: I think there's a wide variety of things that play into it, some individualized. Some commentators like to come to certain types of events. Maybe they like to go around the world and come to traveling events. They like two to three day events, which are more focused, compared to weeks-long, regional play, which Grandmasters is. Sometimes we hire talent based on what their interests are. Sometimes it's things as simple as it's difficult to travel to this country for this event because you're in this specific country and this is your passport, this is your visa. Sometimes that plays into things. Unfortunately, Darroch Brown couldn't be at this event, wasn't able to get his visa. That does happen.

I think, in general, we have honest and frank discussions with our talent and we talk about what their interests are and what their level of engagement they want to participate in Hearthstone for that year is. And we talk to the wider talent team, we have a large degree of transparency with all of them, as far as, "Hey, this is what these people are interested in, this what these other people are interested in." They talk about it amongst themselves and we come to a conclusion of who wants to be at what events.

Shacknews: What is the team's biggest goal with Masters and Grandmasters this season?

Higbee: Our biggest goal with Masters and Grandmasters this year is really showing off all these players' play. There are so many players who dedicate so much time to playing Hearthstone and being good at it that we want to create these events and create these broadcasts that highlight all of that effort we put in and genuinely celebrate them and their competition. That's the biggest goal for us as a team, making sure the players feel that and the audience feels that. Because we're honestly huge fans of Hearthstone competitions. Everybody on the team loves that moment of, "Oh my gosh, what's the next card that's going to be drawn" or "Oh my gosh, this person's 6-1, are they going to make it to the Top 8?"

All those moments, we're all competitors. We have deep card game backgrounds. We love that. We love esports. We think that creating and sharing that experience, making sure it's genuine, and that the fans and the players can feel that, that's our biggest goal this year.

If you missed Hearthstone Masters Tour Arlington, you can catch the video on-demand on the Hearthstone Esports YouTube channel.

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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