As top players from around the world battled it out at the Fall Championships, Blizzpro was lucky enough to catch up with Che Chou, Global Franchise Lead for Hearthstone Esports, to spend a few minutes talking about how it all came to this. Che came to Blizzard in October 2016 and has been the driving force behind the big changes in Hearthstone esports since that time, so we thought it’d be a good idea to see how he thought the changes were going, what he wants from Hearthstone esports going forward, and how he felt about the recently-scrapped tournament mode.
The following interview has had minor edits to form for ease of reading and to make all my questions seem less dumb, but all the substance of the questions and answers remains untouched.
Blizzpro (BP): So, how’s it going? Are you having fun?
Che: Yeah, I mean, it’s a–these champs are always a good opportunity to reconnect with people face-to-face: players, teams, team owners… so I’ve been kind of doing listening tours and just meeting with various folks in the ecosystem to kind of see how things are going with them.
BP: So how are people feeling about the system? How are you feeling about the system now?
Che: I think 2018 has been a continuation of building towards something from 2017, right? And I think if I were to step back and characterize the last couple years of Hearthstone esports, from around the time I joined and thereafter, HCT was around already, but I think the last couple years we’ve really indexed on putting together systems and putting together programs to really answer one question, which is, “Is Hearthstone a game of skill?” And that is a question that is answered, I think, through the players. The players need to demonstrate that through their actions. And I think what we were able to see through, some of it from last year, but a lot of it was this year, in terms of putting together tour stops, and putting together a rolling point system, or putting together a rolling points system across masters where it’s not just getting enough points to make playoffs, now there is sort of an umbrella meta, which is, “Hey are you consistent?” and, if you are, then you fall into this categorization called masters. So, all of that is for us to get at one thing, which is, “Who’s the best Hearthstone player in the world?” And that will, in turn, answer “Is Heathstone a game of skill?”
So, all of that is for us to get at one thing, which is, “Who’s the best Hearthstone player in the world?” And that will, in turn, answer “Is Heathstone a game of skill?”
Che: What we’re seeing today, is that Hearthstone is a game of skill. You have a handful of players–more than just a handful, but to name two that you know, Saiyan and Hunterace–who have been remarkable in that they have been around forever, but now, during their breakout time right now, they are doing things that were previously unheard of in Hearthstone, in terms of the consistency that they bring to the system. So seeing Hunterace get basically four top four finishes–two of them which he won, two of which he got second place–that’s pretty nuts. And then seeing Saiyan come super close–top three, four every time–and then win Montreal was like, it was like his comeuppance, you know?
BP: It was about time.
Che: Right, he deserved it! But, to me, the ability of these players to do that means that we’ve created a platform for them to go and, through the sample size of many games, actually prove that consistency is what matters.
Che: So I feel pretty good about that. In 2018, we put this Tour Stop system in place for that purpose and I think that its doing what it’s supposed to do. And I think Masters has given players that rolling incentive or context to think– how to view themselves as players outside of that one tournament where if you don’t make the quarter-finals you start with zero.
Che: Also, on top of that, besides these players we’ve been putting together programs and content to really highlight them and showcase them. Programs like The Tour; it really is a glimpse into this crazy, travelling life where players are competing for all these really valuable points and are, in turn, seeing the world through Hearthstone. They’re flying around, socializing, hanging out–that’s awesome…
Che: I think HGG was also super interesting this year in that… we learned from what we did last year and refined the program a bit, shortened it, made it a bit more “punchy”… and we went and tried something that we’d never before tried with this HGG Cheer Program. And really that was, in all transparency, we’ve always wanted to do something like this where the community loves their players and they cheer for their players or do something to crowdfund their players, and players get direct support. It never really made sense in the current HCT system because we never know who the players who are going to go to Playoffs from each region will be, and we obviously don’t know who the players are who exit the Playoffs and end up coming to Worlds, so it’s a little bit hard to say that we’re going to have “cheering” for these guys because you literally have 250 players around the world who we would have to put into the system, so… that was be a little unwieldy and we couldn’t wrap our heads around how to get that to work for the current HCT system, but we saw the HGG as a great opportunity to say, “Alright. We know the top 16 countries are fighting for a spot at Blizzcon, there’s a finite quantity of teams, so we experimented [with starting the “cheer” system] in that HGG round of 16. And what we found out from our experiment is that the Hearthstone audience loves that kind of interaction.
BP: Yeah, I could tell right away it was going to be a hit.
Che: Yeah, they just love it! They were cheering even when there wasn’t a broadcast. They were in there and that’s an interaction that our community has told us, clearly, that they like. And, now that we have the data, we need to think about how do we make this work with [other aspects of] Hearthstone esports?
BP: What about a similar, parallel system with the top points-earning teams? A Tempo Storm cheer, or whatever?
Che: Yeah, that’s a possibility.
Che: Pro team standings has also been really interesting. Tempo Storm has dominated with Muzzy, Amnesiac, and Saiyan, but there’s a top 8 right now, globally, that’s very strong, with very strong players. And, again, that, to us– we were just putting together platforms to illustrate dominance, and it’s hard to illustrate dominance in a game with variance if you don’t have a big sample size in your competition.
Che: So, yeah, overall, I think we’re pretty happy with where things are right now. Obviously, there’s a lot of feedback out there, too, that we’re listening to. For example, the one that I’ll throw out there because it comes and goes, but I think, as we’re wrapping up our last Tour Stops of the year, one piece of feedback that’s definitely come back to us as a team is thinking about global tournaments and peoples’ ability to get to them. You know, 20+ Tour Stops a year… for pro players, it’s really not that big any more–it’s expected–but, I think, for a lot of the players, it was hard to travel to them. It’s something that we’re going to be looking at for sure.
BP: Okay, so you just raised… a lot of topics, so let’s try to come back to a couple of them.
BP: You mentioned that the goal of the new system is to try to show who the best player in the world is, through consistent results; is there any concern about how that might look if you get a player with a lot of points, like maybe Saiyan [note: at the time of this interview, Justsaiyan had not yet earned his spot at Worlds], not winning or even competing in the World Championships? Is there any concern that maybe you’re splitting [the fanbase] about who is the best player in the world this year when you have this top points earner and then you have the World Champion?
Che: Yeah, I guess… I guess the answer is “no,” because I think the title of the World Champion goes to the person who can pull it off–there’s an equal amount of skill, endurance, and some amount of luck that all goes into this thing and if you can do it, you can do it. If you happen to be the Tavern Hero Qualifier/ Challenger guy, has that dream story, and then does it… we wouldn’t discount that person because they didn’t grind to become a Master. I think that [winning the World Championship] is a legit thing. We put the thing together, and if you are able to go through to gauntlet and get it, then you deserve the title. I think it’s more the other way around. The [World Championship] story is always legit to us, but we wanted to make sure that, to your point, if players like Saiyan or Muzzy don’t make Worlds that all their accomplishments, all of their winnings, all of that stuff was not for naught.
Che: It’s like, you know, “You are a Master player, you deserve these benefits, you deserve being recognized. Because you’ve gone out and won a ton of these qualifying tournaments and, yeah, you didn’t end up winning where it mattered to go to Worlds, but you’re no less of a player.”
BP: Speaking of those benefits, one of them was supposed to be the invite tournaments… I think right now we have about five Masters players, I know we’re not done with the year just yet–
Che: Yeah, it’s hard to have a tournament that’s interesting without a full field–
Che: We are looking to see how Masters shakes out. We even talked about–and in full transparency, we’ve been pretty busy, so running these kind of ad hoc is not desirable–but what we can even do, and what we’ve talked about, is once we get enough players who look like they’re on the bubble for Masters, we can easily pull together an online tournament for them. But we just haven’t had enough players yet, so we’re just sort of watching who is coming in[.] Our ability to take a system like Masters and tell a story about who the best players are and who the most winning players are, that’s what’s important to us, and that’s something that we’re really hoping to continue to do.
Our ability to take a system like Masters and tell a story about who the best players are and who the most winning players are, that’s what’s important to us, and that’s something that we’re really hoping to continue to do.
BP: When it was first launched, there was some discussion about how maybe this point threshold was too high. Obviously, it’s not entirely too high, as some people are meeting it, but I remember the [Hearthstone] team said something at the time along the lines of, “if it turns out to be too high, we’ll adjust it.” Is it landing about where you think it should have?
Che: Um, I think we’ll probably reserve that judgment until after we look at the complete set of data… I think from a playoffs perspective, I think it’s a little bit hard to adjust for regional populations and skill, you know? Europe is just a stacked region… and so, I think we’re going to probably finish out the Year of the the Raven the way we have it today, but we will definitely look at thresholds and points and stuff [for the upcoming year].
BP: Was it anticipated that everyone–or at least, some of these players–would go to just about every Tour Stop? Were they “supposed” to go to every Tour Stop?
Che: Um, yeah, it’s interesting you ask that, because the second part of the story with these Tour Stops is that we put them together to determine skill over time, but what we didn’t anticipate– We took away online cups, so you didn’t have to grind cups any more, so we thought the main engine to qualify for playoffs was going to be ladder and Tour Stops. And the psychology behind that, we thought, would be that people would play in their regional Tour Stops, get enough points to make thresholds for playoffs, and then chill a bit until they go to playoffs, and then champs, and then try to make Worlds. And, instead, I think that’s a combination of people being extremely competitive, and also, once you overlay a Masters program, then people are like, “every point matters; I’m going to go to every Tour Stop.” And so what we ended up seeing, obviously, was “oh [no], everyone’s going to every Tour Stop, and people are getting really tired.”
Che: But they’re still, like– it’s a good tired, I think. Most of the feedback that I’ve heard is like, “Yeah, I wouldn’t have traded it for anything, but maybe [Blizzard] should chill a little bit.” And that’s something we’re going to look at, I get it. So, no, we didn’t anticipate that everyone would go to all 20+, so that was a learning opportunity. The original design was that we would try to distribute Tour Stops equally across regions–and we tried, as much as we could, working with third parties and stuff–so that, regionally, players could hit up their local Tour Stops, and that that would be mostly for qualifying them to playoffs.
BP: We’re almost out of time, so I have a few more questions I have to get in. First, there was this big thing with the HGG Chinese Taipei team disqualified for stream sniping, and then, afterwards, as I’m sure you’re aware, Tom60229 came out with a statement lambasting the scene a little bit, saying that there are other cheating issues throughout the scene generally [note: the post is in Tom’s native language, in formulating the question, Blizzpro relied on in-browser translation services], so we were wondering what the team was thinking about and doing in terms of keeping up the integrity of Hearthstone esports.
Che: So I’ll just start with a slight correction. I think that my reading on his statement, because I actually read the translated transcript of his stream, and overall I think his takeaway message was that if you have rules that are hard to police, or enforce, then the people who follow the rules get punished.
BP: Okay, sure.
Che: So that was our biggest takeaway from that conversation, and I think it was a good conversation to have. Right now we do operate in a world where the honesty policy is pretty key to playing online, right?
Che: Obviously, in offline tournaments you can control lots of factors, but Hearthstone is a wonderful online game, and its easy to play online, so yes, it’s something that we always monitor and when we have evidence of violations we will take swift action. I think a lot of what Tom says is valid and, actually, we sat down as a team to discuss a lot of these topics. I’m not going to go into what our net debt was on these sort of things and what kind of actions we will take, but let’s just say that we don’t disagree with lots of his points and that those are all things that we’re discussing.
BP: Okay, and then the last thing before I get kicked out for going over time: I think that a lot of people in my bubble or skill range were looking towards–
Che: What’s your skill range?
BP: I’ve hit legend a handful of times–
Che: Okay, so about five to Legend?
BP: Yeah, I spend most of my time playing between five and Legend.
BP: We [players in that skill range] were looking at this potential for tournament mode to be the link between us and the pro scene and right now you have the Tavern Hero Qualifiers and the Challenger Cups kind of playing the role as that link. I know that you don’t work on developing [in-game systems], but how well do you think the systems that you do have are doing are creating that link between the players who maybe are not quite as involved, and can’t devote the time to travel the world or grind ladder every month?
Che: Yeah, I think we’re doing an okay job. I think like when you look at everything we lay out for you, there are routes. The things that we try to do well are the ability to play on ladder to get points there, which has a very low barrier to entry, and if you happen to have Fireside Gatherings or Challenger Cups that you can play, you can literally go directly into playoffs by just winning two tournaments. And, if you do happen to make Playoffs we also try to do a thing where you don’t have to fly, hopefully as far as you’d otherwise have to, because there’s a local venue nearby or, at least, in North America if you’re in the Americas–in Europe we have five close venues, we have venues in Asia. So, we do think about those things and what Blizzard can do to make that more accessible. That’s what we do and that’s what we plan.
BP: But how do you feel about it? Do you think it is working out how you’d like it to?
Che: I feel okay about it. I think as an esport the size of Hearthstone today, I would argue that we may have one of the most complex grassroots-to-pro infrastructures that exists right now, in terms of how many competitors and tournaments we manage and feed into tracking all those players and their points that then feed into… Like, we track a lot of stuff, right? So we tried to build a system where everyone could access it in some way. Yes, at a certain point, if you never want to fly on a plane then you probably will not be competitive [at the highest level of] , that’s just the way it is, but you can go pretty far. You can probably go all the way through playoffs, potentially, and, you know, some people have. But at some point you probably have to make an effort to travel to compete because I think, for tournament integrity–being offline is where Hearthstone thrives; it’s the pinnacle of Hearthstone to have these big, offline events–but I do think at some point people need to commit a certain amount of resources to playing competitively, but, as a system, I feel like we have come up with the best we could come up with, with the resources we have, to try to come up with a system that can accommodate as many people as possible.
BP: Alright, that’s all we’ve got, thanks so much Che.
Che: Great, thanks and no problem.
Special thank you to Che Chou for taking the time to meet with us and for Mark Fuji, Hearthstone Media/Public Relations, for setting up the interview. The time just flew by chatting with Che, so hopefully we’ll be able to catch up with him again soon to talk about all the question we didn’t get to this time.