Led by Sam Braithwaite, Hearthstone Esports Biggest Experiment is Almost Upon Us.

Photos provided by Blizzard Entertainment.

At the Hearthstone World Championships in Taipei, Taiwan, Sam Braithwaite, Esports Franchise Lead for Hearthstone at Blizzard Entertainment, was hard at work. Dozens of media outlets were requesting interviews and it was up him to answer any questions regarding the changing future of Hearthstone Esports.

"When it comes to Hearthstone esports globally, I'm the go-to guy to figure out the overall vision and direction" explained Braithwaite. "My specific job as franchise lead is to oversee everything Hearthstone."

I had the chance to sit down and talk with Mr. Braithwaite about some of the most pressing issues facing competitive Hearthstone. In particular, we talked about the new Specialist format and the criticism it faces, how Hearthstone esports temporarily lost its way, and the specific type of educational entertainment fans crave from the games competitive scene.

Do you think the reason your job exists is that esports has grown more complicated or that people expect more out of their esports?

If you look at a company like Blizzard, we are one of the few companies out there that have multiple esports titles, right? Back in the day, before I got here in 2016, a lot of people worked on a lot of different esports at Blizzard. So people would work on maybe both Starcraft and Heroes of the Storm. Nowadays, we are really trying to refine and focus because the needs of each of our games are so different. 


The needs of Overwatch for esports is drastically different than what the needs are for Hearthstone, which is drastically different than what the needs are for Starcraft! By having us specifically be tied to a franchise, it allows us to partner up better with our game development teams to do what is best for the game, not necessarily what's best for overall Blizzard esports.

So what does Hearthstone esports need? What are the core building blocks that create Hearthstone esports?

I asked my self that very same question when I got this job back in August of last year. The first thing I did was put my head down and really figure out: What is Hearthstone esports? What's going right, what's going wrong, and what needs to be improved upon. I came to several conclusion which some people agree with, some people disagree with.

The method of doing this was with focus groups. We do a lot of surveys, we talk about who our general players are. When we do focus groups, we do them all over the world. From people who engage with Hearthstone esports regularly, people who have never engaged with Hearthstone esports, to some who play the game casually but could be interested in Hearthstone esports.

The trend that we found among them was actually really surprising to me. Coming from a more MOBA and RTS background, I'm used to most people watching an esport for the high-highs of competition. They are there to see something remarkable, something that they are not capable of doing. They are there to respect the esport.


"We had something going on every weekend. If you went on Twitch there was always some sort of Hearthstone esport event and we were starting to lose viewership and momentum because we lost why people should care about what they were watching"

It's a little bit different for Hearthstone. With our testing, we found that 85 maybe even more percentage of people watch it to get better at the game. They want to have educational content that makes it so that they can apply themselves and get better at the game. Hearthstone doesn't have those same highs as other games -- you don't have those at the seat of your chair moments where you are gripping your knees because you have no idea what is going to happen.

Instead, Hearthstone is different. What makes Hearthstone exciting and what makes Hearthstone great is you get this dopamine rush in your brain where, if you are sitting there watching justsaiyan play and he has 8 different options available to him with your hand, you in your head go:  if I was him in his seat, I would use this card and then I would do this and this.

When you see him do that same play, you feel smart. You think, this is awesome!

There is a 1:1 ratio that Hearthstone allows -- when people are playing it looks identical to the problems pro players have to solve

Yeah, we took that to heart when we were developing our new ecosystem. Another thing that we found, specifically talking to professional players and their teams, was that it was a grind to enter Hearthstone esports. You had to grind the ladder, you had to earn points, we had 32 tour stops all over the world, you had three seasonal playoffs going into championships that lead into world championships. What was important to Hearthstone esports was lost along the way. 

We had something going on every weekend. If you went on Twitch there always some sort of Hearthstone esport event and we were starting to lose viewership and momentum because we lost why people should care about what they were watching. This, in combination with our testing, allowed us to take a step back and it is why we wanted to create Grandmasters and the Specialist format. We wanted to create an experience that is consistent to where you can see the best players in the world face off on a regular basis using tournament formats and decks that are more familiar with your average user.


"One of the things that I really want to get across is, this is an experimentation."


Another thing we learned was that Conquest, as a format, is very daunting for up-and-coming players. You had to have not just four or five decks, but four or five decks from different classes to be competitively table. There was a serious barrier of entry there so we wanted to take a step back and ask: "How can open up the floodgates to get a bunch of people participating?"

One of the things we like to talk about with HCT is that this year, we had over 19,000 people competing in HCT. That is a lot of people, right?

Already, with our master qualifier system, we have around 80,000 people that are competing in these qualifying tournaments around the world. That is because we were able to streamline the entire process, allow for people to play at home, enter in tournaments at their own pace, be able to win packs and prizing, and then earn a ticket to compete at a $250,000 event! That is just cool.

The Specialist format has the potential to add to the mythos of players that are well-known experts at just one deck. It makes Hearthstone esports more relatable to your average player and it strikes me as a more compelling narrative considering how most people enjoy following esports -- did you consider this benefit when creating the format?

Yeah, I think that is actually where the name came from. We knew the format before we had the name, right? A name is just a name. But we knew we wanted to have a single class, three deck format with sideboards. The game designers actually came up with the name because, Specialist itself, appeals to those people you are talking about.

Sometimes when you think about the history books on certain players -- guys like Fibonacci, he is a specialist! He has probably like 20,000 wins with just Warrior. You have other players who have done the same thing with Priest or Mage. That is very relatable; there is a lot of people that have been entering these Masters qualifiers that don't even submit three decks sometimes. They just submit one deck from their favorite class and that is what they want to play.

Now, to put on my devil's advocate hat...

I appreciate you doing so.

There is criticism on the Specialist format as well. That it's not as skill testing for the professional players at the highest level. We hear that, and we think that Specialist format is a good way to meet in the middle. Single class, single deck would be a little too extreme on the "approachable" side, while, we think the sideboards add a layer of opportunity for players to showcase what makes them unique as deck builders, to be able to prepare and anticipate what the field is going to bring to an upcoming event and then be able to mix and match against their weaknesses and their strengths. That, I think, is a really cool thing that we have never really had in Hearthstone.

"let's wait until the Masters Tour in Vegas wraps up and then sit down and have a real conversation about whether this is working or not. I think we will be surprised at the end of this"

One of the things that I really want to get across is, this is an experimentation. The way that I like to lead the team is a very agile way. We have an idea with what we want to accomplish with the Specialist format -- I could sit here and talk to you about the goals of the format and what we are trying to do.

But, if two months from now at the end of Grandmasters season 1 and after we have our Master's Tour Las Vegas, if we are talking to the pro players and the community and we hear: "this isn't working, this isn't as fun, we went too far on this end of trying to make the esports educational..."

You are open to being flexible?

Yeah! We have several formats that we think could be appropriate and we totally want to test those out, but if this works, fantastic. We think that it will and we have our reasoning behind that. But we are prepared to try something else.

We had a discussion with Firebat about the Specialist format and he brought up a positive I had never thought of. He explained how the format will put mirror matches in the spotlight which is good when, like Firebat, you pride your self in an 85% win-rate in the Rogue mirror match. 
However, excessive mirror matches of just the top 3 classes are a big concern with the Specialist format. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this concern.

I would say that we feel pretty confident about it, especially after we launched these Masters Qualifiers. Don't get me wrong, there have been some rough patches. When we see mirror matches of control Warrior against each other and our round length jumps from one hour to two hours, that is concerning. But I think there are other ways to solve that issue and it isn't necessarily an issue with the Specialist format.

I think the thing I am really excited about, and the true test of the Specialist format, is going to be the Masters Tour event in Las Vegas. Going into the event, you have no idea what the other 350 other people will be bringing. You will bring your main deck that can do well vs. the general field and then your other Specialist decks is going to be about facing the odds against your weaknesses.

That is going to be an interesting moment. Also, looking at the Grandmasters. I talk a lot about educational content, right? Let's use an example of Firebat playing a Control Warrior mirror match in the Specialist format. The first match will be the same exact decks facing each other.

▲ The Specialist format allows players to bring 3 versions of the same deck, each different by 5 cards to allow for adaptation.

Going into match two, they can bring one of their Specialist decks. We are going to be able to see that, in a specific matchup, Firebat decided to go with these X cards while Zalae went with these specific cards. That in itself is already cool, but what's cooler is afterward, when the winner is brought on the analysis deck with our casters, we can ask the players why they made those choices.

This creates a narrative and an opportunity for someone like Firebat to demonstrate his deckbuilding skills, his flexibility, and explain why he did what he did to a huge audience of people who are asking "I'm grinding ladder with this deck and running into this problem a lot -- what cards do I swap in an out to get better?"

So now you have an esport that is giving people the ability to make better decisions based on things they learned from watching the pro players. The most common criticism is that Specialist format will just showcase the same decks, but isn't that what ladder often feels like? Maybe it would be nice to see the pros react to the same problems normal players face.

Right. That is why I say, let's wait until the end of Grandmasters season 1, let's wait until the Masters Tour in Vegas wraps up and then sit down and have a real conversation about whether this is working or not. I think we will be surprised at the end of this.

Is there ever any temptation, for you, to work with Hearthstone developers and ask for specific changes that may help solve esports broadcast problems. Does that collaboration ever happen or no?

I'd say it isn't a temptation because the development is actively aware and monitoring the esport. Since joining the team in August, I have been welcomed with open arms. I meet regularly with the game designers and developers, the balance team, etc. We have all hands meetings that we are a part of. The esports gives their presentations and updates, things like how is the Specialist format working, how is the master qualifiers are doing, the overall status of top 8's, what is the class diversity in our esport.


They love that. They eat it up and they think about that as they go and do their thing. Team 5 is changing -- there are a lot of new people on the team and you can feel that, especially on the esports side. I look at Rise of Shadows and it is a really good expansion in terms of competitiveness. I know people have some issues with Bomb and Control Warrior, and we will see how that plays out, but look at the number of disruption cards that were printed. They are very much thinking of OTK decks or Control Warrior decks and they are thinking about giving players the tools and options to be able to combat this.

That coupled with the Specialist format will really allow people to craft decks that hedge their odds against what people consider are OP or broken decks. 

What is your favorite card right now?

Rat Trap.

Least Favorite Card?

Baku The Mooneater 

What is the most interesting deck that you love to see played at the highest level?

Conjuring Mage.

Actually, let me change my answer. After watching Bunnyhoppor play with Togwaggle rogue, I would choose that deck. There were just so many things he could do depending on the matchup that he was facing.

The reason I love watching those control/combo Rogue decks played at the highest level is that they are one of the few decks and classes that are given information that you don't have at the start of the game. When you discover a spell from another class, that one spell can completely change how you play a matchup. I think that is really cool -- it makes you flexible and diverse.

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