This week, Hearthstone pros showed an emotion the usually level-headed card slingers hide behind a poker face: panic. The culprit? A single question that appeared in a Korean customer survey, reading (loosely translated): “Would you still play Hearthstone if there were no tournaments?” Given Blizzard’s recent, unexpectedly delivered killing blow to Heroes of the Storm, the community somewhat understandably grew nervous. What did this mean? Was the plug going to be pulled from Hearthstone as well? They wouldn’t ask this question if they weren’t at least considering it, right?
The short answer is: No, Hearthstone esports isn’t about to get its plug pulled.
You can take those words at heart, or you can call me naive and say that I’m ignoring an “ongoing trend” within Activision Blizzard. Regardless, it’s probably worth it to break the situation down and look at it from several angles.
We already know Hearthstone esports will be having a next season
First and foremost, a short-term reassurance can be found in Blizzard’s own words. Just a month and a half ago, the Hearthstone esports team gave us a glimpse at what’s to come in the next HCT season. Although the specifics remain a mystery so far - and I agree it’s about time we learn more about it - it’s safe to say Blizzard has made a commitment to next year. The company has a reputation of taking its sweet time to make announcements, and once they make one, it’s extremely rare they walk back that decision later.
“Alright,” you may think, “but what about after next year?” Granted, the future is uncertain, and will for a large part rely on how well the three-tiered tournament system will do. But there are several aspects to that system which gives me reason to believe Hearthstone esports will sustain, if not grow. Last year, Hearthstone’s viewership dwindled mostly because of tournament-saturation. Every other week there was a new champion of yet another Tour Stop, and viewers couldn’t muster the strength anymore to follow everything.
Next season “Premier Play”, as Blizzard has decided to name it, will be an ongoing league featuring only “the best and most compelling Hearthstone players in the world”, split per region. This ensures viewers can keep rooting for their favorite player, grow committed, and stay engaged, boosting viewership. One tier lower we find the three Live Global Tournaments, which can be considered somewhat of an equivalent to the current seasonal championships. And those seasonal championships still peak at almost 60,000 viewers.
"The only reason a publisher invests in a game’s esports system is because it brings in money. It's advertisement and Hearthstone esports can be great advertisement."
Furthermore, Blizzard has every reason to keep Hearthstone esports alive from a financial perspective. Because, remember, the only reason a company invests in a game’s esports system is because it brings in money. It's advertisement. Nothing else. And esports is some of the best promotion Hearthstone can have. Viewers watch someone play a deck, want to try it out themselves, but don’t have the right cards. The result? Packs are bought, and money flows to Irvine.
Lastly, it’s not an uncommon strategy in surveys to throw in a handful of wild questions, to gauge what the response will be. While Blizzard values South Korea, that’s historically not where Hearthstone esports has thrived like other esports have - other countries have a much larger share. If anything, this survey question shows their desire to grow the scene more in the country.
Hearthstone esports isn’t going anywhere. It isn’t fighting an almost impossible uphill battle Heroes of the Storm fought from day one; it sits atop the throne of card games. The game still has a bright future if the cards are played right, and so does its esports scene.
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