When you think of ‘veterans of Hearthstone’, you will likely think of players, streamers and maybe even a caster. Thijs, Dog, Frodan… All have become synonymous with the game. However, some who’ve been around equally as long now fulfill important roles behind the scene. Like Fade2Karma’s co-founder and manager Tim “Theude” Bergmann, for example.
During the HCT Fall Playoffs we talked to him and walked through is Hearthstone career, and discussed what it’s like to manage a competitive Hearthstone team.
You're manager at Fade2Karma now, but you've been with Hearthstone a very long time right?
Yes I started as a player in beta, then became a team founder, team captain and then transited into management. I've had the whole spectrum.
What drove you to found a new esports team, rather then joining one?
Back then I had offers from multiple other organizations to become their manager or team captain, that kind of thing. Ultimately I wasn't happy with happy with some of the things I had seen in esports as a player until then. I've seen a lot of contracts in my lifetime, I've seen a lot of organizations dealing with issues, and I thought I could do it much better myself. I've always had that. I'm that kind of person who likes to build something. It's just a personality trait. As a kid too I just wanted to build stuff, it's just the way my brain works. In Hearthstone, for example, I don't like to netdeck - I'd rather create a deck myself.
The team started as a competitive team, but in 2016 you announced that you were leaving competitive Hearthstone to focus on streaming. What happened?
We were just looking at it from a business perspective and at that point in time Blizzard didn't make huge efforts to support the competitive scene that much. We just thought it wasn't sustainable, so it didn't make much sense to stay in. So we switched more into the content-creation side of things because Hearthstone as a content-creation game is really, really good. Around that time - and actually at the end of 2015 already - we started to sign people like Falcone and Senfglas, and in early 2016 we brought Alliestrasza and J4CKiECHAN on board.
Did it hurt to leave the competitive scene when you originally founded the team specifically for that?
I'm very logic-driven. Obviously I had emotional attachments to it as well, but it was very obvious to us that we just had to do it. There was no other choice considering the state that we were in. It wasn't like we were this big company who'd been around for ten years and funds to take a loss just for emotional attachments. So it was just a clear choice that was handed to us. And I'm very happy we made that decision back then, because I'm 99% sure that we wouldn't be existing right now if we'd not made that choice.
It was a time when all the other teams were dropping their Hearthstone rosters too. It all went to shit, basically, at that point in time. I think we were one of the first ones to drop out, and then the other teams followed. It definitely was the right call to make.
“Obviously there are things that could be improved. (...) I think Hearthstone needs something like a team league.”
What made you come back to competitive Hearthstone this year?
We liked the newborn passion Blizzard had, with the announcement of the team rankings. We've been founded as a mainly Hearthstone team and we wanted to be part of those team rankings and whatever else may be coming after that. That's actually an emotional thing. It's the game we started in. So I talked a bit with Blizzard and really liked the idea.
Obviously there are things that could be improved and things that didn't go as well as planned. I think Hearthstone needs something like a team league. Maybe not as it is in the current format, because it doesn't get as much exposure and there's a couple of things that could be done better. If you look back at the tournament history of Hearthstone there were viewership-heavy and well received tournaments at the start, but if you ask people about the best tournaments that have been done overall you'll always hear the Archon Team League and the ESL Trinity Series. That's the direction I'd like to see Hearthstone to go in, something like Global Games but for teams. Maybe in an Overwatch League or LCS format, that's something I would like.
You signed Fenomeno, BoarControl and Glaser upon reentering competitive Hearthstone, who at that time hadn't had their breakout performance yet. Why them?
I wanted to sign Feno for a while, but I was just a bit too late and then he signed with Millennium. I've always thought he was a very hard worker and a very good grinder. He's very good at ladder and is doing well in tournaments now. Then I started to talk with BoarControl, who I'd also been keeping an eye on for a while. When both Feno and Boar said they'd like to work with each other I brought him on board too. I hadn't actually spoken to BoarControl much before I approached him for the team, but once I started talking I instantly fell in love with him as a person and player. He's very smart and analytical, a down to earth person. So yes we had those two players and were looking for a third. So we scouted a bit, and I met Glaser at the TakeTV Tour Stop. We talked, then I suggested him to Feno and Boar and they liked it too, so he became the third.
I wasn't going for 'the big names' because I could feel the three I had were more hungry for success than the established players. They still have to prove themselves. The way Hearthstone esports is structured at the moment is very heavy on grinding. You get the most HCT points from finishing high on ladder, and that's just a grind. So I also adapted the selection process for the players by looking at how the competition is structured.
If you look at Hearthstone, there are three areas a player can be good in. There's ladder performance, there are Conquest-format tournament and lastly, there are Last Hero Standing-format tournaments. Those are all pretty different. Some are very good at Conquest tournaments but not at the other two, or they're good at two areas. There are very, very few players who are good at all three. So what I tried to do is to pick up players who perform in the three areas as well as possible.
Lastly, what I find extremely important as well is that you have good team chemistry. I'm not a fan of practice groups that transcend teams. I think especially if at some point we move into the direction where we have team-based competition, you don't want to share your info with other teams. You don't see that in any other competition. You practice against other teams, but you don't train with them. So I don't see a reason why it would be happening here. It's a very common thing in Hearthstone though.
“I'm not a fan of practice groups that transcend teams.”
Alright now for a more light-hearted task: describe the three competitors in one sentence each.
Haha, ok that's an interesting one. Feno is the fun guy at parties who works really hard but could structure his work better. BoarControl is the analytical smart person you can always rely on. And Glaser is a really free spirit who likes to do things his own way which makes him a very cool dude.
Are you close to your players?
Yeah, very close. I talk with them a lot. I still consider myself to be decent at Hearthstone so sometimes I'll minimally pitch in. But at F2K we manage our players very closely and personally. We plan travels for them so that they don't have to, whereas other teams sometimes give their players a budget to book it themselves. They're taken care of, so they have what they need to compete. But also for streaming by the way, because streaming is also a very important aspect for a competitive player to increase their brand value.
I saw you at the HCT Playoffs in The Netherlands, and you're also emotionally a very committed manager. There are managers who just manage, but you seem to live the competition of your players.
You haven't even seen me watch a broadcast when one of them is playing [laughs]. I can't even watch, then I'm jumping around and it's a bit insane. But yeah I'm a bit like that.
Can it make your job harder as a manager to be this close, emotionally?
No, like, I don't flame them if they miss play. I'll still be constructive and I'll try to pep them up. Make sure they perform and they get the best possible foundation for success. That's the reason why I do this overall. I like to give talented people something they can build on. It's what gets me up in the morning.
What is something that's hard about managing a competitive Hearthstone team?
The hardest part about managing a competitive team is not actually the team itself, but what's surrounding it. The business side of things. I was talking with a few people who work in marketing and sales in esports and to put in in their words: Hearthstone is the worst game to market as a sales person. Because the structure of tournaments, viewership and how everything is done. Keeping the balance of having a good team and satisfying our requests is tough, making sure that we have the budget to send our players all across the world to play.
The players themselves are very easy to manage. I've never had to fly to a country to bail a player out of jail, you know what I mean? But in general, in Hearthstone I don't think there are many players out there who are extremely hard to manage. You hear those sports stories with people like Balotelli, and I'm glad that I don't have something like that.
“I was talking with a few people who work in marketing and sales in esports and to put in in their words: Hearthstone is the worst game to market as a salesperson.”
Can you elaborate a bit more on those struggles to market Hearthstone, and how you were able to get past those hurdles?
In a competitive team you pay salaries to your players, pay for their travel costs et cetera. The way you get something back from that as a team can be something like a prize pool split, you can market the players and do things like jersey sponsors or other sponsors. Those are the main revenue streams. So for the first one, in the whole HCT system - except for the world championship - there isn't that much prize money to earn. A Tour Stop is $15k. Let's say our team is going to a Tour Stop that's not in Europe, like 2/3 of the Tour stops are, you pay travel costs up to $6000. Even if your team then places first, second and third, the team will not get its money back. And obviously your team isn't going to perform like that, that's not realistic. So it's not a viable way to make a return as a business.
Then how are you able to keep this competitive team alive?
That's a good question, and that needs to be answered in the future.
You're banking on reserves, then?
Yeah basically, or other parts of the team carry it. There's no Hearthstone team out there, probably, that's making money off their competitive Hearthstone team unless those players are big streamers too.
What needs to change to make it... let's not say easy, but less hard?
In the end, you hope for a structure with changes made to the system that increase the viewership. There are ways to do that, but it isn't up to me to do so. If you look at other esports there are stipends for teams, and there are other ways for publishers to reward teams. For example, in Dota 2 teams get a cut from selling skins and in CS:GO you have the stickers. And then in League of Legends and Rainbow Six you have the stipends. In basically every esports that's out there, it's hard to sustain a team, so there's some help from the publishers.
Let's say Hearthstone tournaments would get 200,000 viewers and you would have guaranteed screen time for top teams -- that's why I also suggested the team league. Let's say I'm talking to a potential sponsor and they ask me: "So you're going to HCT Montréal this weekend, how much screen time will the players get?" Now I'd have to say between 0 minutes and a couple of hours. You know? I can't make a statement, because there is no guaranteed screen time. If you're going to a CS:GO Major, though, you can know every game is broadcasted and you can give a good impression of screen time and viewership. I cannot say that for Hearthstone.
That's why it was easier back in the day, when there were a lot of invitationals, because they had guaranteed screen time. It’s where my suggestion for a team league comes from. It could be something like the Overwatch League, and then the HCT system could be like the Overwatch Contenders. I don’t know how it’ll work but, you know, it’s not really my job to figure that out. I'm still hopeful that Hearthstone can get back to those glory days, when it was very, very well received.
Storyteller by heart. If something is competitive, I am interested in it.