Blizzard started off this Hearthstone competitive year over the past weekend with the first Hearthstone Masters Tour stop of 2020. Arlington saw more than 300 players compete, but it will hardly be the last competition of the year. In fact, Hearthstone's esports umbrella is set to expand in the months ahead thanks to a new deal with ESL that brings the game out to DreamHack events all over the world.
Hearthstone Senior Esports Product Manager Alex Charsky has overseen the new partnership with ESL and will help in bringing future Masters Tour events to DreamHack. Over the weekend, he took some time to talk with Shacknews about this huge step for Hearthstone Esports, the new deal with YouTube, the Dragon Masters bundle that saw the Masters Tour prize pool take a major leap, and also the developing situation in China that stands to affect the entirety of the esports landscape.
Shacknews: We're going into the second year of the Hearthstone Masters Tour. How has the program grown in the past year?
Alex Charsky, Senior Esports Product Manager: We're incredibly excited to grow the program! In 2020, we announced that we're doubling the number of Masters Tour stops, from three to six. Not only are we increasing the number of tournaments, but increasing the amount of prizing that we're giving away. With our recent crowdfunding initiative, we doubled the prizes from $1.5 million to $3 million across the six events.
In addition to that, one of the other things we did to grow the ecosystem from the ground up was expand the number of players we take into each Masters Tour qualifier. Each Masters Tour qualifier feeds invites into the Masters Tour system. We are now allowing up to 500 players to register per tournament.
Shacknews: How has player feedback contributed to the growth of the Masters Tour system?
Charsky: Player feedback is incredibly important to us. In many ways, it shapes some of these programs. Feedback we've received in the past was that it felt really bad to try to stay up online, try to register for a tournament, and not be able to get in and that was one of the motivating factors that we had that drove us to really look at whether there's any reason why we should cap tournaments at 250 players. Why not 500? We looked at our logistics, consulted based on player feedback, and I'm happy to announce that tournaments are still averaging 500 players in each of the qualifiers and there's a significant reduction in the number of people that want to play but can't.
Shacknews: You have Jönköping and Montreal lined up next for the Masters Tour. Are there any dream tour stops that the team is aiming for in the future?
Charsky: Absolutely! And one of the exciting things about our partnership with ESL that we recently announced is that they have a vast network all over the world that we can tap into. So we're already beginning discussions with them on plans for 2021 with the aim of really taking inventory of where they can help us and where they're hosting events and how we can best partner with them on regions that we have, in the past, may not have gone to.
Shacknews: I'm glad you mentioned the deal with ESL. What can you tell me about this deal and what it opens up for Hearthstone Esports in the future?
Charsky: Our deal with ESL is across three different franchises: Warcraft III, StarCraft II, and Hearthstone. For the first two, ESL is the primary operator of the esports. They'll run the pro tour and use our games at their tournaments. For Hearthstone, it's structured a little different. They are a partner, but we are retaining their services as a broadcast producer and also as tournament operators. So we'll partner with DreamHacks, Blizzard will still be very much involved operating and running these awesome tournaments as you've seen here, we will do that in conjunction with DreamHacks.
I think it's a great opportunity for us to place our already-awesome events inside of much larger gaming conventions like DreamHack. I've been to a couple of DreamHacks in the past and it's awesome to see all the other games and gamers come together and I think that represents a huge opportunity and a huge value act for our players, to be able to mingle with all those players and also be seen as other members of the gaming community as these experts at Hearthstone. I think this gives them a lot of validity as athletes.
Shacknews: I asked this to Drew earlier, but we're entering a new era in Hearthstone Esports, mainly because you've made the switch from Twitch to YouTube. How has the team gone about making the transition?
Charsky: The transition, we're still working through some of these things. We've recently announced our partnership with Google across Activision-Blizzard. Of course, we can't get everything set up perfectly with these live broadcasts and we're still looking to improve and work out all the little things that might slip by. But generally, we're very happy. We've been able to set up a great broadcast on YouTube and we'll continue to build on it.
Shacknews: The Dragon Masters bundle has sold better than expected to the point that crowd contributions to the prize pool have hit the cap. Is the door open to increase that cap in the future?
Charsky: I think it's great that these bundles are selling out very quickly. That's a testament to our players really wanting these programs to be successful. As a long-term strategy, as one of the people that designs and runs these programs alongside Drew, we have to be very careful that we grow our ecosystem in a sustainable way. And I worry that, for example, other approaches from other IPs that decide to inject a lot of money into the ecosystem very rapidly may not be sustainable. Our goal is to ensure that there's health and longevity for Hearthstone for a very long time.
Shacknews: How do you work with the other teams to put something like the Dragon Masters bundle together?
Charsky: We work very closely with the game team. They are big fans of what we do and we're obviously big fans of what they do. It's just a matter of collaborating with people within the team to find opportunities where we can do things like that. We're obviously very excited to bring that to the players.
Shacknews: What are the biggest goals for the Hearthstone Esports team in 2020, as we head into a new Standard year?
Charsky: The biggest goal for us is to continue to build on the programs we announced last year and continue to expand them. We've increased the number of Masters Tours for 2020. That's an indication of growth to us. We've increased the prizing. We've reworked the Grandmasters season. Based on feedback from the Grandmasters, we believe them to be more compelling and skill-testing. And we continue to try to tell stories of these awesome players that are there to compete and be the best at Hearthstone.
Shacknews: Lastly, I want to get your opinion on what's becoming a big issue. One of the biggest stories in the world right now is the outbreak of the Coronavirus in China and it does look like it affected the turnout for Masters somewhat. Top players like Liooon and XioT opted not to make the trip from their homeland. This is something that stands to affect esports in a big way going forward, so for your team, how do you deal with setbacks such as this. And is this something you feel stands to affect esports in the long-term?
Charsky: Obviously, the safety of our players is our number one priority. We were saddened to hear that Liooon and a few other prominent Chinese players made the decision not to attend. However, we respect their decision. While attendance seems a little light, I think everyone here is focused on the competition and wants to move forward and we continue to monitor the situation as it develops. We'll make necessary adjustments.
If you missed Hearthstone Masters Tour Arlington, you can catch the video on-demand on the Hearthstone Esports YouTube channel.