Blizzard Entertainment doesn’t follow anyone’s playbook. It writes its own. We’ve seen that with games like Diablo, StarCraft, and Overwatch. And this approach applies to esports as well as to game development.
In January, Hearthstone crowned its 2017 champion, Chen “tom60229” Wei-Lin, in Amsterdam, the first time Blizzard held finals for its card game outside of the company’s annual fan fest, BlizzCon. It was an ambitious trip, showing the importance of turning a championship round into a showcase for how a major publisher puts on a signature event.
While in Amsterdam, I interviewed Che Chou and Matt Wyble, two of the people that run Hearthstone’s esports scene. Chou is the global franchise lead for the card game’s esports, and before he joined Blizzard in 2016, he ran Halo’s competitive gaming scene for 343 Industries and Microsoft. Wyble joined the Hearthstone team in 2013, and before that, he was an economics professor, a consultant, and … an aspiring Olympic modern pentathlon athlete, retiring after the U.S. trials for the 2012 London games.
As you can imagine, Chou and Wyble bring different perspectives. One ran esports centered on a first-person shooter and, before getting into the development scene, wrote about games as a journalist. Wyble had legitimate Olympic aspirations, and it’s interesting to see how he applies those lessons to esports (like on what value, if any, national training centers may bring to competitive gaming).
How do these viewpoints blend to bring fans a thriving, compelling esports scene? Let’s find out. Here’s an edited transcript of our telephone interview.
GamesBeat: How does running esports for a card game differ from running esports for a shooter like Halo?
Che Chou: Everything’s different, but the feel — it’s also — the core of it, something that I picked up from Halo was just observing and noticing the player community. From a player community standpoint, even though Halo is a team-based game in addition to an individual sport, the spirit of competition in competitive gamers, it’s kind of the same. One thing I love about running esports programs is getting to know that player community, understanding what motivates them. Getting into the minds of players and understanding their pain points and trying to create better player experiences for them, all of that was stuff I was working on with Halo that I think translates really well for Hearthstone. Now, everything else [is] radically different. On Halo, it was a much smaller program. When I joined Hearthstone in 2017, it was a year of rapid growth and learning and experimentation. We did a bunch of new things. I’m super grateful for the experience so far and for even being here and along for this incredible ride.
GamesBeat: You’re talking about how people, the way they approach and watch — the competitive spirit is kind of the same, but do the fans differ? Do they behave or interact differently?
Chou: Yeah, I would say that the Hearthstone community overall is very different from the Halo communities. Gaming communities are all different, depending on the franchise itself. I really like the Hearthstone community, largely because it’s a reflection of the franchise Blizzard has built. Hearthstone stands for a lot of positive things that I believe in. At its core, it’s an accessible, open game that encourages, or at least has the fantasy of — you can be a player on [a] ladder, playing at your home, and you can be that person. You have the potential to go from there all the way to the world championships. That fantasy lives today.
GamesBeat: How does production for and running a card-game esports event differ from running a shooter event?
Chou: That’s very different as well. Most shooters are team based. One thing that’s awesome about Hearthstone is just the fact that it’s much more lightweight. From a people standpoint, you’re dealing with one player representing themselves, instead of four to a team. There’s less overhead, less people to deal with. Also, Hearthstone is a very lightweight game. It’s a mobile game. You don’t need super beefy computers to run it. It’s easy to set up. When I ran a shooter, on Xbox, we needed to get all kinds of equipment involved with Halo tournaments. Hearthstone is a lot more agile. You just — if you want, you could just set up two tablets that are running the game, two iPads. There’s a spectator mode that’s already built in. Overall, I’ve found the game components to be much easier. That said, we spent a lot of 2017 rethinking and exploring our options on broadcast production, how to level up Hearthstone broadcast production. We teamed up with 441 Productions, who have a pretty great resume. They come from traditional sports, but the thing that drew us to them was they had worked on the World Series of Poker. They understand how to bring out the drama and the player stories of card players. By working with these guys, we’ve learned a ton about, first of all, what makes traditional sports broadcasting tick, but we’ve also learned how to tell a better story. Even in their closeup shots of players, that in and of itself is magical because now — it’s very subtle. You don’t notice this for a while, but you start to notice body language, facial expressions, signs of stress. All that stuff is super important to the color of the broadcast and the color of the tournament. It’s something that I noticed over time, and it really cemented when we did our first big broadcast with them in the Bahamas.
GamesBeat: It’s like golf in that way. It’s slow and methodical, so you can capture more of the players’ reactions.
Chou: Exactly. If you watch any of the tournaments from us today, it’s so stressful on stage up there, and there’s so much at stake. Even when a player is ahead, has a better board state, they’re still stressed.
Matt Wyble: Fr0zen had his hands in front of his eyes. He was blocking the view, so he couldn’t see.
Chou: That stuff is just awesome. My hope is that we are bringing our game, our kind of sports, to the world on a whole new level that can appeal to a new demographic that’s never discovered this. That’s really the dream here.
GamesBeat: The other thing that makes this different from a shooter is — it’s slower paced, and it’s just one person against one person. That allows you more chances for closeups and more focus on a player and their reactions?
Chou: Right. It also is — as an individual sport, for the viewer and the fan, following these players is also different from playing, say, a player on a team. It’s a really psychological game on stage because it is slow and methodical. Most players, in a tournament environment, just take longer turns. There’s a lot of roping. People will take the maximum amount of time to think things through, even before they click confirm or end turn. All that creates this slow boil. Especially — I describe it as psychological. To me, it really pays off in terms of how we’re capturing that visually.
GamesBeat: Matt, how does your experience training for the Olympics and being part of that whole machine translate to helping build esports at Blizzard?
Wyble: One thing there is, I have a lot of respect for just how good these players are and how hard they work. I’ve been up close and personal for a lot of premier athletes and seen all the work they put in, all the work they do behind the scenes that allows them to have a chance to achieve their goals, whether it’s an Olympic medal or the Hearthstone world championship, whatever it is. I think we really are acutely aware of what goes into that. We really want to — when we’re talking about these events, an event like this, and who we’re doing the event for, the first thing we talk about is those 16 players. We have to do right by them. Everything else we’re doing doesn’t matter if we’re not holding to that standard. And so, I think I probably bring some of that perspective to it because of my background.
GamesBeat: How has that helped Blizzard build out this program and make it better?
Wyble: I think a lot of the things we’re doing this year, especially — if you look at mature sports — all sorts of traditional sports, non-esports — over time, they’re able to build an ecosystem that supports everything they’re doing. If you think of baseball, they have — it starts in tee-ball and little league and senior ball. Then, there’s college and a draft system and farm leagues, this whole infrastructure and ecosystem that supports this game millions of people love. This year, we draw inspiration from understanding that that sort of robust ecosystem is important to the health and sustainability of your esport. That’s why we’re building the Hearthstone masters system this year, which rewards top players for their continued success and will allow them to fly around the world and compete and do this professionally. Things like bringing teams in more formally and rewarding the top team each season. Doing everything we can to tell great stories about those players and help them elevate their own profiles. These are all examples of ecosystem building that might not be as — when we talk about it, it might not make the flashiest headline, but we’re really excited about that because it’s critical to the continued growth of Hearthstone esports and making sure — the things we’re setting up now, we want to still be doing this in 10 years or even longer. Every step we take now, we’re trying to set that up for the long haul.
GamesBeat: Could esports groups set up training centers the way national teams have done for Olympic sports?
Wyble: It’s an interesting question. I think it’s dependent on the individual esport. Certainly team events, teams are able to really elevate their play in that sort of context. For Hearthstone, one of the interesting things is, our players already self-organize to do that in a lot of ways. They might not get together in person, but in leading up to this tournament, there were players that were on Skype calls 10 hours a day, practicing hour after hour with their groups of teammates, be that formal teammates on an esports team or just their practice group. I think a lot of our — it’s been interesting. I think our top players have all cracked that code, figured that out, and built that for themselves, which is great.
GamesBeat: Could doing something on a bigger scale help go from helping the top players to building that ecosystem, though, where you have more players coming in to something like a farm league?
Wyble: I see what you mean now. I think there are ways we can do that. We have to adapt that for Hearthstone specifically. There are great ways in things like our fireside-gathering program. That’s definitely a place where you can get together at a more local level, compete, and take a first step on this journey to being more competitive. Obviously, we couldn’t — as Blizzard, we can’t host all of our players all the time at these events, but through this partnership with our community, we’re able to do that at local events and online tournaments we’re able to run. We’re doing a lot more around breaking down high level play. These are all pieces of building out that community and finding that next superstar Hearthstone player, ensuring the long-term viability of the ecosystem.
GamesBeat: Do you ever tighten a screw, swing a hammer, or work on the set design yourselves for an event?
Wyble: I don’t think there’s a lot of hammer swinging, but there’s a lot of rolling up our sleeves and getting very involved in details at times. Probably a little bit less over time than maybe it was a couple of years ago, at least for me. But a lot of care goes into everything we do here. A good example is, all the graphics that appear on broadcast, those are all vetted and go by the same people who approve all the art that exists in a game. We want it to feel very consistent in that way. All of our sets are meticulously reviewed by the Hearthstone team as well. We often say that we think of Hearthstone esports as a feature of the game, and so, we want to hold it to that same standard and make sure it exists within that same universe and fits with everything else we’re doing with the game.
Chou: I don’t know about Matt, but I build sets all the time.
Wyble: Hammer swinging left and right.
Chou: I even serve lunch.
No, I’m really fortunate to have a very good support team. I’m very involved in the planning and the strategy portion of these events, but once it’s in the execution phase, I’m blessed with people who swing hammers way better than I do.
GamesBeat: During the event, as it starts and goes on, how do you prepare graphics on stream? Do you have a large staff doing that? How hard is that to pull off?
Chou: I assume you mean doing the broadcasts? Most of the graphics have been, like Matt said … pre-vetted or concept approved by Team 5, the Hearthstone developers, that we want to use. We run all the media by them to stay consistent, to stay true to the Hearthstone franchise. Things we need on the spot, we work with the 441 crew. They have graphics guys who operate — we have expression operators who can whip up graphics and put them on the screen.
Wyble: A lot of our core graphics package — hopefully, it feels very familiar and very in line with the game in part because we actually take the raw 3D files from the game client itself and put those inside of our broadcast graphics package, reconstitute them in that way. If you see one of our wipes, when we go from a different screen, it’s the book pages flipping open. How that came about was, we were starting to build graphics — that’s a bit of an older graphic. We got the raw assets from the Medivh hero cinematic that our internal cinematics team did, and we gave that to — we were working with some graphics production folks externally. We gave them some of those raw assets, and they were able to reconstitute that into something that worked for what we needed. We do a lot there to not only be similar but actually use the literal same assets, so it feels the same.
Chou: Speaking of broadcasting, for this tournament, something that we’re doing that’s new for us and that I’m actually really excited about, having been given the chance to experiment with it — we have the main stage with the main tournament happening, and then, we have the tavern hall, with lots of cool stuff happening. It’s definitely got a festival vibe in there. One of the elements of that hall is a side stage we’ve set up with — it’s a bit more like a late night talk show environment. It’s two chairs and guys up there, developers, influencers, players talking about Hearthstone, talking about their experiences with Hearthstone, playing competitively or just playing Hearthstone. [Hearthstone game director] Ben Brode spent some time up there today. He was chatting with [Hearthstone players] Thijs and Rdu. Basically, we’re putting on a sort of side show for the audience. But we also hired a crew to go and produce it, so we captured all of it. We’re going to use the long-form stuff as [videos on demand] to put on our channel, but we also, during this weekend, we took some of that content and cut up shorter two-minute versions of it that we put back on to the Twitch broadcast for the tournament. It’s extra content that we’re making, capturing, cutting up in real time, sticking it on to the stream. We’ve never done that before, and it’s worked out super well. It really gives the broadcast that feeling of — that live event, festival feeling. People see that there’s tons of different things happening other than the tournament.
GamesBeat: During the tournament, as play evolves, as things happen, and you start seeing storylines, who are the people who point to storylines and say, we need to focus more on this? Is it the commentators or the production staff or the two of you?
Wyble: I think it’s all of the above. Certainly, we have a lot of production staff. We have a bunch of production trucks outside with folks in them, people in editing bays, editing video clips we have. We have stories where we’ve captured interviews in the days leading up, where we know that they’re interesting, and we want to follow along. But planning only gets you so far once the matches start. Someone can get bounced before you’re able to even use any of that content. Certainly, our casters are a big part of that. Probably better than anyone, they understand what’s going to be compelling to our fans. They also have personal relationships with a lot of the players. They’re valuable partners.
Chou: We’re constantly calling audibles during the tournament to shift focus depending on the outcomes. 441 are professionals through and through. They know how to do that better than anyone. They’ve hired really good players, even, out of our community to work on their staff. They’re able to spot a story from a mile away, and they’ll usually pivot pretty quickly. Obviously, we’re constantly watching, so we give them a lot of suggestions and feedback. It’s a collaborative effort, but really, 441 has done an amazing job highlighting what’s important about the tournament.
Disclaimer: Che Chou once worked at the same company as I did, Ziff-Davis Media, though he left a few weeks after I joined, and we never worked together. My coverage remains objective.