WORNING: SPOILERS for ESGN Fight Night Season 5 & 6, Dreamhack Bucharest
What, exactly, makes Hearthstone so compelling to watch? Blizzard has consistently stated that they were completely surprised by the success of Hearthstone streaming so early in the beta, as well as how popular it quickly became in the esports scene, but considering how well the game has done just from grassroots interest and community tournaments, the upcoming Blizzard-sponsored world championships are pretty unsurprising to me, and should be tons of fun to watch.
One thing that, for me, separates Hearthstone from other esports is just how simple it is to follow the gameplay. Mechanics are straightforward enough that even if you’ve never played the game, a stream or casted match is easy to follow. (At least as far as I remember; disclaimer, I have been playing Hearthstone since the second closed beta invite wave.) And watching someone else play can really teach you how to be a better player, as opposed to a game like StarCraft which as far as I can tell is all about memorizing build orders and maximizing your APMs. Or League of Legends which I understand is about buying boots?
Hearthstones that are fun to watch
There are some nerds out there who are annoyed that Hearthstone esports is currently dominated by invitationals and personality-driven shows. When I watch Hearthstone, though, I’m not just watching two dudes play a game. I’m watching television. If I’m not entertained by a stream or a VoD, I won’t keep watching. I can just go rewatch Savjz vs. Realz from ESGN Fight Night Season 5, Doge House vs ManaGrind, a match that has everything:
- Somebody to root for (I’ve been a fan of Savjz since, like, November)
- Somebody to root against (I just don’t like Realz, especially after his game 1 bad manner)
- Production values (showing players’ faces during the games especially)
- Great casting (Kripptosis OTP)
- Close games played at a high level
- Eye candy (only applies if you’re into dudes tho); and
- A compelling narrative
As far as I can tell, sports narratives are made out of two important ingredients: (1) history and (2) personality. (I don’t really watch any normal sports. Or any esports other than Hearthstone. So I don’t watch any sports that’s existed for more than six months.) I don’t like everything about Fight Night, but I do like their reality-show-esque talking heads to camera, and the on-set interviews & discussions, which give the matches context. With Hearthstone being such a new scene, there’s bound to be players you’ve never heard of in all the tournaments, and I always like to know who’s who. Even though I say on Twitter that I’m usually rooting for the cutest boys to win, I don’t JUST mean a pretty face; I mean, do they say super adorable things, and do I think I’d like them if we met IRL?
Like to take a just slightly different example which fulfills 6/7 of these criteria, Fight Night Season 6, DuckWingFace vs. Chakki (ManaGrind vs Clarity). I’d never heard of DuckWingFace before, but I already disliked Chakki; and DuckWingFace is not only reasonably attractive but he says in the interview that he thinks he’ll win enough money at Fight Night to buy “a shitty boat.” Plus, he and Chakki are former teammates with a personal grudge, which. Even if you’ve never heard of those two guys before, you watch the interviews and you probably care which side wins. (The sides are “OMG he’s so cute I hope he can afford that shitty boat someday” and “evil.”) However this match has less rewatch value because of the outcome, something that’s totally outside producers’ hands.
Just as an aside, because DuckWing is particularly bad at it, here’s some Free Advice for all these European Hearthstone pros: You need to pronounce your name differently in a foreign language. I know it’s super weird but you’ll get over it, I got so used to pronouncing “Eleanor” differently when I studied in Italy that I sometimes pronounced it wrong in English. If you’re making English-language content you kind of want English-speakers to understand your real name. Or else if Hearthstone ever gets you laid the girl will be calling you by your gamer tag.
How to Make Your Hearthstone Fun To Watch
Not everything on my list of what makes a perfect match can be controlled by producers–for example, if they ran around inviting only the prettiest players, the gameplay quality might suffer. However, as someone who watches a lot of competitive Hearthstone, there are five things I think the successful broadcasts I have in common:
- Production values
- Quality casting
- Close, interesting, high-level games
- A compelling narrative
1, 3 and 5 are pretty basic to competition as entertainment in general, so I don’t think I need to touch on them too much. Not to say that everyone is doing them well; for example, people keep hiring Frodan to cast for some damn reason. And some of the problems with stakes and narrative come from it being such a new scene–right now a lot of people are leaning on invitationals with already notable players to get viewers to care, but as the game gets older more and more people will become well-known because of their Hearthstone skills. And I like I said above, a lot of the “not caring who wins” can be alleviated with interviews and behind-the-scenes-ish content.
Production values are a much more difficult nut to crack, especially considering the lack of in-game tournament or observer mode. While it’s very interesting to see the different experiments that have been done with how to edit the two game viewpoints together, it has made putting a tournament together for broadcast very difficult and expensive.
One of the issues that’s most controversial right now, and with a direct bearing on 4, is the issue of format–as I finish this post, I’m watching the live stream of the Dreamhack Bucharest Hearthstone tournament, which is an open tournament with 128 players, and they’ve decided to run single elimination, one game at a time, to be able to broadcast everything. My issue with random-seed single-elimination is that it makes every place but first completely meaningless–if you lose to the eventual winner in any round, it’s easy to feel like you “deserved” to place. Tons of people on Reddit seem to be upset that Savjz was eliminated early on, which, as much as he’s my favorite, part of what makes ANY sport inherently interesting to watch is the possibility of an upset. As much as everybody loves “world championship” tournaments in all competitive areas, the Quidditch World Cup is just a lot more interesting if Ireland wins but Krum gets the Snitch. (This is the only analogy that’s accessible to me because, as stated above, I don’t watch real sports.) (Also Hearthstone is a much better game than Quidditch. Quidditch is like pre-patch freeze mage where the Pyroblast is the snitch.)
And of course, I have to acknowledge different viewers have different priorities in what they want to watch. For example, I am completely and totally and wildly in love with the ongoing OGN Hearthstone Invitational, mostly because of its insanely beautiful production values, overly complex format, and quasi-behind-the-scenes content, but a lot of nerds are annoyed that some of the games aren’t great quality, as well as the low number of games per broadcast. Which, fine, but they’re missing some awesome shit:
I still cannot decide which version of this happy dance gif is better tho:
I don’t know what it is about his hair but as far as I can tell through internet stalking he gets a haircut, it looks great for about two weeks, but by the time he goes on television it’s grown out all weird and floppy again. Also it often looks much better straight on than from the side. Still better than all these adult men who keep buzzing their hair like it’s middle school though. It’s almost as if nerds have no idea that your face looks better with a good haircut?
There’s enough to say about format, and good competition vs. good television, that I’ve split out the beginnings of my thoughts on the subject into a separate draft, which right now I plan to be part 2 of a new ongoing series. Though it’s possible that my next blog will be a tumblr-style gifset of the OGN Invitational, because PRIORITIES.