What does the future of Hearthstone esports look like?
(Featured image via Blizzard.)

The State of Hearthstone Esports: What’s Next?

Jan 8, 2018
(Featured image via Blizzard.)

Anyone who reads my articles knows that I’m a bit of a doomsayer, especially when it comes to Hearthstone, since I believe the game has taken the wrong direction over the past few years. But if we put our complaints about the prohibitive cost of the game and dubious balancing aside, it turns out Hearthstone esports is actually doing okay at the moment.

Hearthstone Esports By The Numbers

Over the last year, the number of people interested in Hearthstone esports has gone up, at least judging by the viewership numbers for tournaments. The Trinity Series tournament in 2017 peaked at roughly 38 thousand viewers. However, the Trinity Series this year reached a staggering 276 thousand – this number goes down to 40 thousand if you don’t include the Chinese viewers, of which there were zero last year. Other Hearthstone tournaments show similar stories, with overall average viewership trending higher over time.

Another thing that Hearthstone esports has going for it is the pure number of hours that go into each tournament. Rather than have a few games amongst the top teams, many Hearthstone tournaments show several games between dozens of competitors. The Trinity Series tournament had 111 hours of uptime on Twitch. The fact that the tournaments run so long gives a nice boost to Hearthstone’s numbers, and it’s part of the reason they have stayed at the top of Twitch for so long.

Still Too Much RNG?

The progression of Hearthstone’s esports scene might be solid as far as viewership is concerned, but professionals are still a bit wary of the game’s future as a major competitive title. Many professional players have voiced the opinion that Hearthstone’s esports scene isn’t being handled very well since the game caters to a more casual audience. The majority of complaints from professional players stem from the fact that there’s simply too much randomness (RNG) in the game. This might be actual card RNG, draw order RNG, or the fact that certain decks just counter others, but it’s indisputable that there’s a lot of randomness in every game of Hearthstone.

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Here’s a statistic that’s worth addressing: the top Hearthstone players in the world only have 60% winrates, give or take. For the best player in the world to have a winrate that’s only slightly higher than an average player is quite shocking. And for a game as RNG-reliant as Hearthstone, 60% is incredibly good. But winrates can’t get much higher than this, and that’s almost entirely because of the nature of the game.

I think I’m a decent example in this case. I’m an average Legend player. I can get Legend fairly easily each season, with a bit of work. But I’m nowhere near the level of the professional players. Yet I’ve beaten most of the professionals I’ve faced on ladder, due entirely to getting a better draw than them, or playing a deck that counters theirs. An average decent player really shouldn’t stand a chance against the professionals. For example, I was Diamond in League of Legends, and any time I faced a Challenger player, I stood no chance. That skill gap really doesn’t really exist in Hearthstone, and that’s almost entirely because of RNG.

Lifecoach was a huge name in professional Hearthstone for the first few years of the game’s inception, but Lifecoach quit Hearthstone in 2017 for Gwent, citing the fact that Hearthstone takes no skill anymore. Lifecoach described the game as a “coin flip simulator.” Of course, this was during the height of the Pirate Warrior meta, when games lasted an average of five turns, and the winner was typically decided by opening hands.

The Future of Hearthstone Esports

What changes are we interested in seeing to Hearthstone’s Esports scene? Well, to be entirely honest, nothing really needs to be changed. The game isn’t nearly as competitive as it could be, but that’s not holding it back. Hearthstone’s viewership numbers continue to improve, and Blizzard is making a killing off of the fact that the game caters to casual players.

Hearthstone Esports - World Championship
(Image via Blizzard.)

Professional players are great to have for marketing, but for a game like Hearthstone, the actual competitive scene isn’t where Blizzard makes their money.  In fact, in terms of viewership, catering to casual players might actually be the way to go. The professionals themselves might dislike the randomness, but the numbers suggest that viewers don’t seem to mind as much.

For Blizzard, this is probably the best state for their game. We can complain about what we wish would happen all we want, but as long as tournament viewership keeps going up, there’s no reason to change. The professionals and elitist jerks (myself included) only make up a very tiny fraction of their players. Sure, we might account for a disproportionately large number of tournament views, but it’s still nowhere large enough to make an impact compared to average viewers who just like the game.

As much as I like to complain, and as much as I wish the game were more strictly competitive, Hearthstone is where it needs to be in order to continue growing.

Hearthstone and Other Blizzard Games

There are two big reasons that Hearthstone esports has been more successful than Blizzard’s other competitive titles. (Note that the actual number of players and the average non-tournament viewership is or was comparable between Hearthstone and several other Blizzard games in their prime.)

The first reason for Hearthstone’s success is the fact that it only requires two players. Other games require full teams, a huge stage, and a whole setup. Many Hearthstone tournaments are done remotely with webcams turned on. This allows tournaments to be far more frequent and run for longer, with lower overhead costs for the organizers.

The second reason is that Blizzard actually puts money into Hearthstone. This is something I talked about extensively in my article about Overwatch esports, but Blizzard is very stingy with prize money.

They don’t put money into a game until they think it’s dying, and by then, it’s often too late. With Hearthstone, however, Blizzard bit the bullet and has invested several million dollars a year into the scene, and as a result, the esports side of the game has experienced significant growth.

Hearthstone also has the distinction of being the only big digital trading card game on the market. While other games have to compete within their genres, if you want to watch a TCG on Twitch, you’re pretty much confined to Hearthstone. It was the right game at the right time, and the numbers are reflective of this. For Blizzard, it seems like the smartest choice is to maintain the status quo. The situation might change when Valve releases Artifact, a Dota-themed digital card game, but until then, a lack of any major competition in the genre means that Hearthstone still runs the show.

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Stephen has a degree in English from Brock University. He grew up playing video games and card games, always having an affection for strategy. He picked up League of Legends in early Season One and has since achieved Diamond rank multiple times. He also picked up Hearthstone in Beta and has since achieved Legend consistently. When he isn’t reading, writing, or gaming, he’s probably watching other people game.
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