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Interview with Hearthstone Esports’s Alex Charsky

by - 2 months ago

Alex Charsky is a Senior Esports Product Manager for Hearthstone. He’s managed the Hearthstone Masters Tour and Masters Tour Qualifiers, and he recently took over Blizzard’s new partnership with ESL (DreamHack). His duties also include things like the prizing system for the 2020 Masters Tour, including the esports bundle(s). I was able to catch up with Alex last week at Masters Tour Arlington and talk about putting on such a grand event, the switch to Youtube, and the upcoming year of Hearthstone esports! Please enjoy our interview in full, below, and check back in for a companion interview with Hearthstone Product Manager, Drew Higbee, tomorrow.

The following interview has had minor edits for readability and flow, but the contents remain unchanged.

Blizzpro (“BP”):  How’s it going? You having fun today? Is the event going well?

Alex: Great, yeah, we’re very excited. It’s an international competition, with over 45 different countries represented and over 250 players, and it’s really excellent just to see this. We obviously start planning these events a number of months in advance and when it comes to the culmination of these events and players are in-house, and they’re happy and excited to compete over the three days, it’s great, and it’s exhilarating and its fun to watch.

BP: Yeah, I’m excited about it, too. I know the fans are always looking forward to these events. Blizzard recently announced a new partnership with Google that made it so that this is broadcast on Youtube instead of Twitch. Does that change anything for you guys, on your end?

Alex: Well, one, the Google partnership is awesome. It’s across several different aspects of the business and we welcome our new partner, and we welcome Youtube specifically. As with any new technology, we have some things we need to work through, but we have a very capable broadcast team that took the challenge head on and I think they mostly overcome most of the things, and the little things we’re still working through, I’m sure we’ll iron out over the next couple days.

BP: I’m sure you guys had more heads up than just the couple days that we the public have known about this partnership, but it still must be interesting to get things switched with relatively short notice. Did you guys have time to get everything set up how you wanted?

Alex: Yeah, we felt like we had reasonable time to prepare and we—obviously, a lot of it is, you won’t know until we go live, as live productions often go. You can plan a lot, y’know. The thing I tell my team is that you can plan a lot of things in advance—I’d estimate that about 80-90% of things are planned—and the rest is problem solving on-site. And I think this was very analogous to that. We obviously prepared ahead of the event to switch most of our workflows to a new broadcast partner, and the few things we didn’t quite hit the mark on in the beginning, I’m sure we can work out.

BP: And this year, you’ll have more chances than last year to work that out.

Alex: Yeah, we doubled the number of events! More opportunities to do this.

Photograph courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment.

Me: Yeah, I think that’s great, I really liked that change. What brought that about on your side? Why did you decide to do that?

Alex: Well, players seemed to really like them, and internally there’s been a great reception as well. The feedback that I’ve been getting from the game team and from the executives is that these are really awesome events, and taking 300 players from around the world, and bringing them together, and having these live LAN tournaments, is not a small undertaking. And we got ourselves to a good spot where we could successfully execute these, so I pitched the idea, “Why not double them?” Players really like them, and going to these destinations, and meeting up with their 300 friends and having a great time, scheduling activities around that, so lets give them more opportunities to do that.

Me: Yeah.

Alex: Also, I think these events reinvigorate players, so they’ll come in and play with their friends and exchange ideas and talk to people they haven’t seen in a while and get really excited about Hearthstone and want to continue playing, and having these every two months is just awesome to keep players super engaged and super excited to come.

Me: Going off that, another aspect of them that can be really exciting for the fans is that they also get this chance, sometimes, to interact with their favorite players. I know there was a little bit of miscommunication on that front this time about there being a viewing area. It’s obviously something you consider whenever you’re running any event, but where is that in your pros and cons and how you weigh the benefits of having an in-person viewing area for fans to come to, or a cool event like the party you did in Vegas?

Alex: Well, first off, I want to apologize for the confusion that we caused this time around. It was always our intent to offer a viewing area for players and any guests or anyone local who wanted to come in and interact with, like you said, some of these celebrities, and I think it just didn’t come across correctly. As you saw, there’s a huge area outside where players can congregate, and we have tables and chairs for them, and the broadcast playing, and it is set up for people to view and mingle and interact and meet their celebrities.

One of a couple pictures I snapped outside the player area the night before the event. There was also a fairly large dedicated viewing area just outside of the shot. During the event, the area was usually about half-full of players waiting between rounds, guests, and personnel.

I think it’s important and I think it’s one of the goals of the program itself to not only offer high-level competition as the primary goal, and to showcase it to the world via world-class broadcasts, but also, as another goal, we want to make sure that the live experience of the people who are attending is also great. And seeing players give feedback, “oh, it’s really a  shame, I was looking forward to meeting these Hearthstone pros, and it looks like I can’t,” that wasn’t great, and it certainly wasn’t the intent. We want to make sure these players feel like rock stars when they come to these events.

BP: Yeah.

Alex: I also liked the Las Vegas party. Every event and every venue is obviously different, but whenever we can, we’ll put on more sort of formalized events like that. It just didn’t quite work out with this event and how it’s set up, but we’re really looking forward to the Dreamhack events, because we’re in the middle of a convention. And I think that one of the things that really attracted me to the partnership with ESL and putting the events there is the fact that we’re inside of a convention and there’s way more opportunities to do more social things like that, and have our players at sort of the epicenter of competitive gaming and esports.

BP: Yeah, a lot of people—in my sphere at least—were a little bit disappointed when the Dreamhacks went away last year, so they’re pretty excited to have them back. But it’s a little bit of a different situation, because it’s not going to be an open event like it was before, right? It’s just for the Masters Tour stops, right?

Alex: It is, and you’re absolutely right, they are events you have to qualify for first. We hope that, by the way we structure qualifications, almost anybody who aspires to be in the Masters Tours can get there. Some of the things we’ve done is increase the number of tournaments, increase the capacity of tournaments from 200 to 500, and added invites via ladder for someone who doesn’t have the time to dedicate to qualifier tournaments. So I think we’re taking steps towards making sure we are very accessible as an ecosystem for people to try to qualify, but you’re absolutely right that in the past events at Dreamhack were basically first come, first serve, and now the players do have to qualify, but I think the qualification path is fairly reasonable for anybody who is trying to do it. We see a number of first-time players at every Tour Stop, so I think it’s working in that respect.

BP: It’s definitely open to that degree for the high-level players who can meet those qualification requirements, but this does raise two questions: first, that fan experience that we were talking about, I guess that is intended to be fulfilled by the con in general where, if you’re a fan, and you want to interact with the Hearthstone area and pros, you would say to them, “You’re welcome to come and enjoy DreamHack and have this be a part of your experience,” right?

Alex: Yeah.

BP: Okay, and the second thing: there’s still a little bit of a barrier between the grinders and pros in this secondary level and the Grandmasters who then go on to compete in the World Championships—with the exception of the China region. Was there any discussion about adding a way for someone to make it to the Global Finals without going through Grandmasters first, or do you think Grandmasters is an important step in that process?

Alex: There’s a lot of discussion when we structure these tournaments and events, and we value the community’s feedback, and that is one of the pieces of feedback that we hear the most, that there are fewer opportunities for Global Finals for the players, but my challenge to those players is that if you think you are global champion material, then the first step is to do really well in Masters Tours consistently. One of the things we’re doing is that we flattened the prize structure in the Masters Tours, we made it more intuitive to gain “points”—and by points, I mean, prizing—throughout the Masters Tour season in order to get promoted into Grandmasters. So, while the Masters Tours don’t directly feed into Worlds, I think, at least in 2020, there’s a clearer path for somebody who says, “I want to be a world champion,” though there is a lot of work they need to do in order to even get an opportunity to play for the global championship.

BP: Now that we’ve done a formal round of relegations and promotions, how do you like that system? Do you like how that system’s turning out?

Alex: Yeah, I think—it was always our intent to do promotion and relegation for the most consistently performing players in the Masters Tours and it is our goal to build up the next round of superstars and get them up to being used to playing in Grandmasters and, eventually, the global championship. I think it’s working well for the Season 2 Grandmasters, the players who came out of last year’s Masters Tours. There are some great stories there, like how France just came out as a dominant force and a place of so many Grandmasters being injected into the system, and I think that speaks to the fact that the good players will always rise up and put themselves into positions where they can be the next global champion.

Blizzpro note: This interview took place on day 1 of Master Tour Arlington, so Alex had no way of knowing that France would again assert its dominance in this first event of the new year. Talk about consistency from players like Felkeine, totosh, and Alan (who is not French, but who just missed the Top 8 at Masters Tour Bucharest and then turned around to get in the Top 4 here at Arlington).

BP: This year’s Grandmasters system is a lot more complicated than last year’s system, in terms of the format and structure of the actual tournament play, what was the thought process behind those changes?

Alex: We asked the Grandmasters what they wanted to do and a lot of them said they wanted more opportunities to play throughout the weeks, and since we are limited by the season length of 7-8 weeks, it made sense to just add more matches. And this was our proposed way to not just add more matches into the season, but also to make sure the matches matter. Some of the feedback we received is that sometimes it feels like some of the matches, especially towards the middle or the end, just don’t matter. Drew Higbee, Hearthstone Product Manager for Grandmasters, can probably go more at length into those decisions, but ultimately, they all stem back to feedback from participants in the system about what they want to see for the system to be improved and what we can do to accommodate them.

BP: I guess, because they’re such a small group, it’s easier to just talk to specifically them and maybe have more complicated rules because you can just confirm with each of them whether they understand, and they can ask you any questions. Is that another reason why you can make things a little more complicated than the general Masters Tours and Masters Tour Qualifiers that thousands of players are playing in?

Alex: Yeah, there’s a bit of that. In general, my philosophy is to try to keep things simple for the largest number of people and I see Masters Tour Qualifiers and Masters Tour stops as the most accessible part of our system. That’s where I need to be able to have a quick pitch to players as to why they want to engage with us. I don’t have as much time or capabilities to explain to each of those players, at length, how these things work, and one of the reasons why we moved away from the HCT system from a few years ago was that it was very difficult to explain to the average player who wanted to transition from just “Hearthstone player” to “competitive Hearthstone player,” and now, the message is much simpler, “win a Qualifier, do consistently well in Masters Tours, become a Grandmaster, become a Global Champion.” You’re absolutely right that when we’re talking to only 50 players—there are still some logistical challenges, like language barriers and timezones—but we do feel we have an easier time being able to communicate to 50 players than all the 500,000 players playing in our competitive ecosystem.

A few players gather around a Masters Tour competitor’s screen. Picture courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment.

BP: What are your thoughts on the differences between holding events like this in, currently, the middle of releasing cards, versus in the past when we’ve had events towards the end of the meta when it’s generally pretty settled? Why did you decide to do it at this point in the meta this time?

Alex: Well, as we continue to increase the number of events throughout the year, we’re just going to get a mix, I’m going to be frank about that–it’s hard to construct these schedules and dance around all the variables. I think there are a number of advantages when the meta is fresh; there’s a slightly different skillset that it requires from players. Adaptability and deckbuilding and decisionmaking with a lot more unknowns are much more highly rated when you’re playing in these fresh metas and, obviously, some players adapt to that really well and some players are just great at solving the meta and understanding everything through practicing with the decks that are known and having all the answers because they’ve practiced those decks for the past two months, so more evolved metas favor those players. So, I think, depending on who you ask, they might be very excited about playing with new cards or very unexcited about playing with new cards, but the reality of it is that as we continue to ramp up the number of events we put on throughout the year, we’re just going to have a mix of them. And that’s exciting! Sometimes, you want to see how the pros are going to play with new cards whereas other times you just want to see some really polished play with decks that the players have been practicing with for a very long time.

BP: I like that, perhaps by coincidence and perhaps by design, that we’ll get both versions intermingled this year… So, what do you like to see? What makes a good esport, what makes a good viewing experience, and what are you aiming for when you’re crafting these systems?

Alex: So for live events, and especially for the Masters Tours, my goal is for the players to have a great competitive environment, and to make sure the players are very comfortable and happy with the experience, because they are playing for tens of thousands of dollars at each of these events and we want to make sure we make the best possible experience for them. That’s one part of it. I also want there to be great storytelling. These are some of the best Hearthstone players in the world and they’re all coming in and playing for three days; we want to showcase their stories and share them with the world, so broadcast is obviously very important to us, and the quality of the storytelling and the broadcast itself is very important to us. And the third part of putting together these programs is the live event experience. We want to make sure the players can come and interact with each other, but we also want to make sure the fans can come and interact with those players and have a good time meeting the faces they see on the broadcast.

BP: Another way that fans can participate is through the esports bundle that came out. When they were first introduced, everyone was pretty excited about them, but it was asked why they were capped. At the time, part of the answer involved setting expectations and that the issue might be revisited at a later time. We’ve done it a few times now, and every time we’ve hit the cap pretty quickly. So I was wondering if that’s a conversation we’re ready to have again or if there are more reasons why we’re still putting a cap on how much the players at large can support?

Alex: Yeah, I think that one of my goals as one of the people that’s designing the Hearthstone esports system is ensuring the strong longevity of the esport itself. It is certainly interesting for me to see other organizations and other esports inject huge amounts of prizes into their systems and, occasionally, I question whether or not that sort of strategy is sustainable. And one of the things we want to do is make sure we manage expectations while we continue to build momentum in a more organic fashion as we keep going with these events. I think doubling from 1.5 million to 3 million, across six events, is very reasonable. I think it offers players a good opportunity to compete for their share of that prize pool, and I’m very comfortable with that number.

Blizzpro note: there are just a few days left during which you can get your Dragon Masters Bundle. The cap on the bundle–a topic we discuss on this interview–has already been reached, but the bundle itself is still a really good deal if you spend money on the game.

BP: Last year, there was a situation where the combination of the cards that were designed, the meta, and the competitive format resulted in these really long Control Warrior mirrors that made for non-ideal esports situations. I was wondering how you work with the game design team and if there were any similar concerns this time around?

Alex: The game team is great to work with. We’re obviously all stakeholders in this, so we provide each other with feedback. The reality is that game design for card sets is just hard—it’s hard to predict exactly how things will shake out once it’s in the wild, and I sympathize. In the past, I was a game designer, too, before I came to Blizzard. It’s easy for us to armchair quarterback their decisions, but we know it’s very challenging, so we never hold it against them, and I feel that we have really good rules and systems and things to address those types of issues whenever they come up, and if we see an issue like that developing, we certainly let them know so that we can work together to try to put some reactions in place.

BP: Were there any specific cards this time that concerned you?

Alex: No, I trust the game team to work out those things. It remains to be seen where we will end up—like I said, the meta’s really fresh right now—but if any issues come up, we’ll adjust.

BP: Well, you guys certainly have been more flexible this past year and this year, and I’m looking forward to seeing how this iteration goes. Is there anything else you wanted to say to the fans before we go?

Alex: Yeah, first of all, thank you so much for coming out and being a part of this experience. This is the first event of 2020, it’s the start of a new race for Grandmasters spots in the second season of 2020. We talked at length about things like the prize purse for these tournaments and the ESL partnership, and I think those are the main things I wanted to share with you.

BP: Alright, awesome. It’s been a pleasure chatting with you, thanks!

Alex: My pleasure, thank you.

Nicholas Weiss

Is a lawyer by day and a cardslinger by night. He's decent at both. He's been playing Hearthstone since open beta and writing about it for a few years now.

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