Che Chou walks us through the massive changes to Hearthstone Esports next year.
Hearthstone Esports in 2017 saw non-stop improvement as the team at Blizzard continued to iron out hiccups and lasered in on the competitive integrity of the wildly successful digital card game. In 2018 it’s going to be even better.
I sat down with Che Chou — the Franchise Lead for Hearthstone Esports, who was in town for the Sydney Innvitational — and he gave me an exclusive run-through of how competitive Hearthstone will work in 2018.
You’ll Love My New Recipe
For those worried about complex changes to how they compete in Hearthstone, fear not. By and large the road to the HCT World Championship stays the same. Ranked play and Tour Stops will determine whether you qualify for the Playoffs, with one key difference — now once you reach a threshold of 45 HCT points (for Season 1, and subject to change) you will qualify for the Seasonal Playoffs and you will not need to earn any more points along the way.
This is a pretty fantastic change, as it means you’ll no longer find yourself (or your favourite players) stressing about whether they made the cut to qualify for the playoffs. Now, instead once they make the 45 point cut they’re in, and it’s up to them whether they want to continue to try to earn points or just relax.
“We’ve set the points value at 45 and we think that it’s fair,” Che said. “We think we’ll see a lot of the same faces. If you look at our point charts, you don’t ever have to travel to a Tour Stop to qualify for playoffs. You can sit at home and play on ladder and qualify through three months of ladder. We’re going to keep a close eye on the point values though, and how we adjust it season over season to get the right population to qualify for the playoffs.”
Along with the points threshold system comes new points values for ranked play. As per Che’s point, if you’re good enough you can sit at home and earn the 45 HCT points you need to qualify without ever playing anything but ladder — although you’ll need to place 25th in Legend or higher in the slightly shorter three month long Season 1.
Everyone, Get In Here!
If you can’t qualify via the HCT Points system, there’s another option available — HCT Challengers.
“I don’t want to call it an ‘amateurs’ system,” Che explained to us. “Because it’s not. There are players who are really good, you know, Legend players who have not made playoffs. They can go through this. Basically, Hearthstone Challengers is for anyone who hasn’t qualified for playoffs in the last three seasons. So if you’ve not qualified for playoffs in the past three seasons, it’s like your flag gets reset and you can now take the challenger path.”
Comprised of both Tavern Hero Qualifiers and Challenger Cups, HCT Challengers provides a really solid path to the playoffs for those good enough to compete at the highest level, but who find they can’t rank high in legend or travel to Tour Stops. They accomplish this by either winning a Tavern Hero Qualifier via a Blizzard approved Fireside Gathering, or by winning a Challenger Cup. Challenger Cups are online cups hosted on approved platforms like Strivewire or Battlefy. What was previously the Open Cups system, in other words, has shifted across to HCT Challengers.
This is one of the biggest changes to the tournament system for Hearthstone. Excising the Open Cups system from HCT’s points based qualification system is something many people wanted, but keeping them around — and in this alternative playoffs path format — is a great idea for people who love to compete.
Once you win a Tavern Hero Qualifier or Challenger Cup, you’re invited to the Challengers Finals, another online tournament featuring any player who made the cut through HCT Challengers. The Top 8 from the Challengers Finals earn a place at the Seasonal Playoffs — they get a ticket to the show! Although it’s worth noting that having qualified for the playoffs via HCT Challengers, they will not be eligible to use it as a path next season.
Ready To Rumble!
The best of the best have an entirely different reason to play. The Masters System — not affiliated with the Alex Kidd-bearing console — is HCT 2018’s biggest new feature, designed to give consistent top players a reason to participate as much as possible.
Using the Hearthstone Champion Tour points they’re already earning, players will now have the opportunity to score additional prizes provided they achieve certain goals. If a player can earn 150 points over the course of three seasons, they’ll find themselves invited to “Masters Only” Tournaments where they can earn extra money, and they’ll earn some swag at the end of the year. That’s Tier One. Tier Two and Three are where things get interesting. Tier Two requires 175 points, and those who reach this level will get an appearance fee of USD $1000 to travel to a Tour Stop per season. 3-Star Masters will earn USD $2500 for each of three appearances and they’ll get automatic qualification to the Playoffs each Season.
“Right now what we have in Hearthstone, we have influencers and esports players,” Che explained when I asked about how the Masters System will affect the ecosystem. “Influencers are a handful of guys who consistently stream every night, and they have really good numbers and they make good money on Twitch or with sponsorships. And we love them for that. But what you don’t see right now is a lot of esports players doing the same thing. You see some of them right, you see the Ants and so on. My goal, what I’d like is, because of the Tour Stops and the Masters System, that our esports players — not just the guys like Dog… Dog’s a very good player right? He often makes playoffs. But he’s a streamer first. I’d like to create a new stratosphere of Hearthstone influencers who are actually just esports players.
“And sure, they might stream less consistently than the influencers who are streaming today because they have to travel, but the idea is that because they’re on this gravy train and they’re travelling, they’re showing up on broadcast a lot. And that’s helping to promote their personal brand and getting them recognised. So take someone like CitizenNappa, the more he goes out on the tour stops and has success, and shows up on broadcast in a quarter finals match, the more viewers will begin to recognise him and the more he becomes a household name… that’s a place I want to get to.”
Where’s My Cut?!
This all adds up to a large increase in the prize money Hearthstone Esports will award in 2018. Straight up, anyone who makes the Seasonal Playoffs will earn USD $1000 just for qualifying. In 2017 this was USD $100 — they’ve introduced 10 times the base prize money for players.
“For 2017, Year of the Mammoth, we were at around USD $2 million in prizing,” Che said. “We were just over USD $2 million if you include playoffs prizing. Going into 2018 with the Hearthstone Masters system, we’re going to be rolling out approximately $2.8 million in prizing. The World Championships prizing stays the same but the extra money goes back into the player ecosystem, giving it back to the pros.”
On top of a USD $900 increase in the lowest level of prizes, there’s the Masters System tournaments and appearance fees, there’s Regional HCT Points leaderboards with hefty payouts at the end of the year and there’s the Pro Team Standings.
Pro Team Standings is a bit of a test for Hearthstone Esports. Better resembling Formula 1’s Constructor Standings system, it gives players the opportunity to passively work together for their team sponsor. Teams can sign three players to represent them each season, and there are cash prizes awarded to the top 10 teams worldwide. A team’s ranking is determined by their combined HCT Points total for the season, with the best team earning $7500 per player. The money will go to the player, not the team — so any messiness on that end will hopefully be avoided.
One massive change which has been out for a few days already is in the Hearthstone client itself. Introduced with Kobolds & Catacombs last week, friendly games now pause in the event of a disconnect. This will ideally lessen the amount of restarted games required, which is a massive quality of life boost for competitive Hearthstone.
Introduced with Kobolds & Catacombs last week, friendly games now pause in the event of a disconnect.
“We went back to the drawing board with Team 5,” Che explained. “[We] said ‘hey we’re going to change things up on the events side to help some of these things, but at the end of the day it’d be great if Hearthstone the game itself could help mitigate some of these issues.’ So the team actually took some time out and built a feature into the game, which just shipped with Kobolds, so now in a friendly match if a player disconnects the game state will pause. So you don’t have to replay it. If we have a hiccup in the network the game will pause and you can continue [when you reconnect].”
Are You Ready For This?
Che mentioned in passing that they love the Global Games tournament and that it will return, although the nature of the nation-based competition hasn’t been revealed yet. Couple that with new Masters tournaments, more opportunities for players to qualify for playoffs, better tools to manage hiccups in-game and a concerted effort by Blizzard to celebrate competitors and there’s more reason to both watch and compete in Hearthstone than ever before. It’s shaping up to be a fantastic 2018-2019 Season for Hearthstone Esports.
“We definitely wanted to shore up on all the [feedback] we heard this year,” Che said. “And the feedback we heard this year is absolutely what drives our plans for 2018. I feel like [our 2018 plan] addresses the feedback… whether or not it works the way we intend is up for grabs. We’re excited about what we’re going to do, and my hope is that the community is as well and that it will resonate with them.”
Joab Gilroy is an Australian-based freelancer that specialises in esports and earning chicken dinners. You can tweet at him here.