Running five major eSport franchises – the challenges, surprises and failures with Blizzard’s Kim Phan

Blizzard eSports

Kim Phan is Blizzard’s director of eSports operations. She and her team plan everything that makes it go – from licensing local Hearthstone tournaments to the StarCraft global finals at BlizzCon each year. As Blizzard manage more games than ever, with bigger audiences than anyone thought possible until recent years, she’s got a lot going on.

For more on the games themselves, here’s what’s going down in Overwatch patch 1.9.

At IEM Katowice, between making sure two major tournaments didn’t go off the rails, she sat down with us to discuss Blizzard’s place in the industry, how they compare to their competitors and why some tournaments are for watching, and some are just for playing in. First up – how do they even decide what to focus on in the first place?

PCGN: With games in development, for example on Hearthstone, presumably you weren’t thinking about it as an eSport at the start?

Kim Phan: I can tell you I was thinking about it as an eSport. Every game that comes out I’m always thinking about whether or not it could be an eSport. For me, myself and my team knew it was going to be a big hit. It was a hit around the office when we were alpha testing. It was just so fun to play, very accessible and I could see people who were competitive playing and talking smack to one another. I knew it was going to be a big eSport and sure enough, it was – it is.

Blizzard eSports Hearthstone tournament

Do you think of them in different ways or do you just go, ‘These are our games, this is something we do now and therefore we should be thinking about them from an eSport perspective’?

I would say that it depends on what team you’re on. On the development team, their core focus is to build a great game. I’m sure there are people who think ‘could this be a great eSport?’ but usually the philosophy of the game development team is just [making] a great game, a game that is fun to play.

From there, you decide how big of a pillar is eSports in that game. Not every game can be successful in eSports. I think at that point it’s my job and my team’s job to look at a game and say yeah, if you want it to be a core pillar in eSports, these are the things that are important – it needs to be easy to watch. Is there a way to spectate the game? That’s, like, really important now, especially with Twitch and YouTube and broadcasts – that’s how sports is successful, you don’t really need to know [American] football to watch football. The Superbowl parties are big parties to go to and people will go and just watch and cheer for their favourite team. You don’t have to know the rules but you do know which team is winning. Same thing with basketball – you can always just look at the score.

So I think that is what game developers are having to think more about if they want to make their game successful in eSports. For me, I’m always looking at it. Some games just aren’t meant to be – Diablo, it’s a game that’s really fun to play, but you need to have an element of balance as well if you were to make it competitively fair.

World of Warcraft pve esports

Diablo has leaderboard systems, there are things like World of Warcraft PvE, and speedrunning. Do you have any thoughts about PvE eSports?

We definitely see it as an opportunity. Now, whether someone calls it an eSport or not is another thing, but there is a competitive element to it and my team is very interested in it, especially the World of Warcraft PvE.

We’ve been doing the live raid races for a long time, just to see which team can do it better – that’s still competitive. It’s not your traditional eSports where it’s two teams head to head, but we have done a lot of tests – like battlegrounds for WoW for example, the dungeon races is another one. Even though you’re not going head to head against another player, you are trying to see who can run through the dungeon faster. I think that’s exciting to see.

We are going to be experimenting, we have experimented last year and we’re going to continue to experiment this year. Now, whether or not we make it a big program with prize money and all of that stuff – I don’t think that’s the only thing that defines eSports anymore. For me, eSports is just being able to watch to see who the best is at something

Exorsus's mythic Nighthold clear

We spoke to some of the top WoW guilds about this just before the Nighthold opened. They were saying it was very challenging because of the way strategies work, interest mainly being on new stuff – are you trying to find a middle ground there?

Yeah, I think we have to think about it that way. It’s a different audience, also, watching that type of content. But I think it is important to make sure, at the end of the day, there is integrity in the competitive landscape. So, we have to be very careful when patches come out and balance changes are made – it happens today with StarCraft and with Heroes, when a new hero is introduced or when we do a balance change. I think same thing with WoW when content is released.

So you do see more tournament servers popping up so you can keep a more stable environment, an unchanged environment, and then after you see that it’s stable you can update [the tournament] server. So I think if we wanted to take something like that seriously, that’s what we would have to do – be very focused and deliberate about what is on that server.

Do you hope to see something like that this year?

For WoW right now we do have a tournament server that exists. It’s not public, we use it for our tournaments. So I think in order to support it more widely, especially if it’s going to be big and successful, we always start off with a test, see how it goes, do some broadcasts on it, get the feedback from everyone – do they enjoy watching it, is it fun to watch? Do we have the tools in place in able to support it?

That was also challenging for WoW. We didn’t have a great spectator UI and we made a lot of improvements to it last year. We have to make these steps towards that, then if people want it and it’s successful and people want to compete and play then we would definitely support it.

Blizzard eSports Hearthstone trophy

When it comes to the way people want to play and community development, Hearthstone, for example, didn’t have an agreed upon competitive format when it came out. What’s it like from your perspective trying to find those correct formats?

In the case of Hearthstone, we really owe a lot to the community who truly embraced the game and tried all of these various formats. Not all of them were formats we would agree with, but we got to see them in play. We also have a very passionate and vocal community that actively tells us what is good and what isn’t good. I think that open discussion is positive.

For us, we look at a lot of things. We have to take into account the actual game balance as well, we have to take into account [whether it’s] fun to watch, and then we need to think about it from a competitor point of view. The team does have a lot of folks on it that have competed and were previously professional gamers, and there are sorts of things that are very important to a progamer.

Does this really showcase the best skill? With Hearthstone, not knowing which cards are going to come out when, I don’t know if it’s fair to say one person is better than another person after one game. Away from Hearthstone, with World of Warcraft, we started noticing in 3v3 arena that certain compositions were really strong against other comps. Then if you’re just stuck with that comp, and you end up playing against a different team where it’s just not a strong comp against their team – does that really say they’re the best team? Or do they have the best comp?

So we introduced a four [player] roster into 3v3. Every team doesn’t have to use it, but they can have a fourth player so that they can adapt to having roster changes in the middle of the game. So maybe one comp is known to be stronger against another one, now that team can adjust with their fourth player. That made it more exciting, to see another element of strategy there. Are they gonna put the right player in? Are they not? How are they going to change their comp and how does it affect the game?

That type of stuff, you see it with [Hearthstone’s] Conquest format as well, you really want to know – a Hearthstone player, how many decks should they know? How many classes should they be able to play to really say that they’re the best? So having them come in with [multiple] decks really can say yeah, they’re a well-rounded Hearthstone player.

Blizzard eSports HOTS winners

How do you decide where to focus your attention as the eSports team?

There are several different factors that we take into consideration. First, we have several programs now for our various games, so we have to ask ourselves what is our objective for this program? What are our goals? Maybe one program is more catered to participation, and we really want a lot of people to participate – so then we design a tournament structure that allows for a lot of participation.

But if we decide we want it to be more fun, or more team-based, or we want to know which country is the best then we’ll create a format that is more like the Overwatch World Cup or Hearthstone Global Games. I don’t think we [want] to try to fit everything into one program, which is a mistake we’ve made in the past.

So we really have to ask ourselves: what is it we want to do? Do we want a lot of people to watch, or do we want a lot of people to participate? The most perfect thing is to be able to find a balance amongst all of it but sometimes you can’t do that. In the case of Heroes, we knew we wanted to experiment [with] watchability to a larger audience, so we took a program like Heroes of the Dorm, which was very collegiate focused and very North America focused.

We had it basically mimic March Madness, where colleges play against each other, and we thought this is very easy for people to understand if they don’t play Heroes. The goal of that program was about reach – how do we get more people to understand and watch it? So we tested out distribution on ESPN to see if there was an appetite there, but we still had our regular Heroes World Championship so people who were really hardcore into Heroes could still watch that and see the best of the best.

College students, were they the best? Probably not, but it was super entertaining to watch and see this rivalry where if you went to Berkley, you didn’t really have to know Heroes but you wanted to cheer for Berkley. Then the other team is ASU so there’s this nice rivalry between ASU and Berkley, which already exists in basketball and football and every other sport, but now it exists in a game.

Blizzard eSports Heroes of the Dorm

Is there something people haven’t hit on yet that will grow interest in lower-tier competition, and allow higher-tier teams not to compete as often?

Yep, that’s a challenge. I think that was a big challenge we were facing because everyone was getting into eSports, everyone wanted to run an eSports tournament and everyone wanted to run the best one. So when you see a market that becomes that saturated – we do have to take a step back and think about, again, what are some of the goals we want to try and reach and how do we want to try and achieve that?

In those cases, maybe if a partner comes to us and says [they] really want to run a Hearthstone tournament, there is that open dialogue we have with them to understand how [they] want to run it, what are the reasons why and maybe we try to – I don’t want to say convince or influence them – do something different.

Rather than an eight-person bracket with the eight best players/teams in the world…

Right, exactly. I think a great example right now is with Hearthstone. There’s the wild format and the standard format. I think we definitely want to see a wild format be played and so sometimes we’ll reach out directly to our organisers [when] they have an event coming up and they really want Hearthstone, we’ll say have you thought about this format. It will cater to a different audience and it was change things up a little bit.

Blizzard eSports Hearthstone competition

So I think those are the things that we try to actively do – and we’re also very aware, there’s a license process to use our IP so we really try to understand what everyone is trying to do in the space and [ask] ‘Does it complement what we’re doing?’ Because, at the end of the day, there is a pyramid approach that everyone really wants to go for where the top of the pyramid is really the best of the best players. You don’t want them to be exhausted and fly everywhere all the time, and after a while [that will happen.] Plus, if you see them too much then you don’t get excited to see them anymore.

With, for example, the Overwatch League – which we haven’t started yet or given more details about – the idea behind that is these are the professional players and they are only playing in the Overwatch League, unless it’s the off-season. But then we have the World Cup as well, which is very country-based and you’re not playing with the best players in the world maybe, but you are playing with the best in your country. You can compete against other countries.

I would say there needs to be some development league, or amateur, or semi-pro, that doesn’t allow the best of the best players to compete because you need this group of folks to come in and develop their skill and feel rewarded for winning and not get demolished immediately in a tournament. Having grass roots and amateur play I think is healthy for the ecosystem.

Overwatch League plans, teams, players and more

With the Overwatch League, do you see a development league being run by ESL, Dreamhack, or someone else?

You see that right now in Korea, we have the APEX League for Overwatch there. That’s only for the players in Asia. Who runs it, or how it is run, we’re still working on. But yeah, I think there is a lot of room for a lot of content to be produced and a lot of tournaments for players to compete in.

I think you just have to be really careful on timing of when and where. So maybe at the very top is where you’d wanna broadcast more often. Maybe the development leagues or amateur or grass roots, if that’s truly about participation then that’s where the focus should be. Not putting out so much stuff out there where people get confused about which match is important and which isn’t, which team is important and which isn’t.

Those are challenges we have to think about now that we didn’t have to think about before. Before it was like, the more the merrier. But now there is just a lot, and I think that could actually be bad if you’re trying to tell stories.

Brood War ASL

What does the eSports team, and Blizzard as a whole, think about Brood War coming back? Do you think it’s something you could support fully again?

We’re very supportive of all of our games, especially if there’s an interest there. I think we’ve always been supportive of Brood War. It’s exciting to see how it just hasn’t gone away in Korea – not that I would want it to go away, but it’s a very specific audience that loves to watch Brood War. That’s still our community, those are still our players and still our people who enjoy that content.

Now, if the interest grows outside of Korea I think that there is a world where we could want to do something more, but I don’t know if there is yet. It has just never left Korea and I think that’s something we want to embrace, we don’t see it as competing against StarCraft II in any way – it’s just one of our games, the same franchise.

I think right now we’re gonna wait and see how people are responding to it, and I think if you see players wanting to compete again outside [of Korea] or the desire for there to be tournaments outside, I think we would be supportive of that.

Blizzard eSports StarCraft II

So you could see a future where it runs at BlizzCon alongside StarCraft II? You’re kind of running out of time at BlizzCon…

Yeah, we’re running out of space. Space and time. Maybe BlizzCon is not the right place, maybe BlizzCon is not where it happens. I’m definitely a big fan of events like Dreamhack, where there’s more of a festival and there’s a lot of competition going on. I [like] when you go to Gamescom, for example, and there’s a lot of activity happening.

So I think the event is very specific, how [it’s] set up, but I can see a place where there’s all of our games happening at once. We may need several days, several days to do that.

Moving on from Brood War, do you think there’s an answer to ‘the Korean problem’ in terms of their incredible skill level? You don’t want the western scene to just be the D-league, and then they go and get destroyed at world championships.

Yeah. You see this in StarCraft II, why we have two different regions. You have the Korea leagues which anybody can compete in, it’s not only for Koreans. It’s just in Korea, you have to physically be there. Or there’s the [WCS] circuit, it’s very deliberate that it’s people who are living outside of Korea because we want them to build their confidence.

It’s not easy, especially in StarCraft, to play on stage [when] every little move really matters. So building the player’s confidence and giving them the opportunity to actually win a title or advance further or earn prize money – then you’ll make them want to continue investing. A game like StarCraft requires a lot of training and just practice, practice. I think that having a place for them to be able to win, you see them building their confidence – and then take out the Koreans. You’re already seeing it in StarCraft right now, there are players that people know about that they didn’t know about before.

Blizzard eSports Neeb

I stopped working to watch Neeb go 4-0 up in the finals of Kespa Cup.

Neeb would have never had an opportunity to shine if we didn’t create the system that we did. He actually started winning and people knew his name, then he got picked up by a sponsor and then a team. That then allowed him to go to more events, more tournaments, he started training and getting better and so I think that was a really magical moment, for him to do so well. Same thing with Scarlett, same thing with Lilbow.

We’re catching up – there was a world where foreigners couldn’t even really compete against Korean players at all. Now you have – it’s not perfect – but you know who the best players are outside of Korea. Before, you probably couldn’t name [any].

Similarly, you guys don’t have a game that’s as titanic as LoL, CS:GO or Dota 2 – what’s it like handling smaller eSports? Do you have to manage expectations?

I never feel like I have to manage expectations, at least not publicly. There’s still a community around it, there are still people who are engaged in it – we’ve believed in eSports for a very long time and we still do. We just have to do what’s best for our games and what’s best for our community.

We do look at other competitors to see what they’re doing, what are they doing well, if people are receptive to it. But our priorities are our players, so what is it about the game that people love to enjoy and play? If we build a great game we’re going to try to build a very good eSports [scene] around it to highlight the best players.

Blizzard eSports small

That’s the only approach I really take – I try to learn from everybody else, see what they do, I want to be aware, I want to innovate and challenge and try new things. But every game, and every community is very different. What we do for Hearthstone does not look like what we do for StarCraft, and it does not look like what we do for Heroes or Overwatch.

Even within those games we have multiple products as well, that are slightly different. I think we don’t always have the answers, but just trying and experimenting and getting feedback and seeing what people like is where we put a lot of our focus.

Is there room for more eSports games in the ecosystem?

I think that’s what you see in sports today. You have a different audience that loves to watch football, basketball, golf, tennis – there’s a tonne of different sports out there. Cricket! Some people love to watch that! There’s an audience for it and professional people competing in it and making prize money.

I think where Brood War used to be the only eSport people knew about for a very long time, with the growth of eSports and everything in general, more and more games are coming out to be eSports. I do think you’re always going to see a lot more.

Blizzard eSports growth

Now, will all of them have the crazy viewership that the top eSports have? Probably not. I think that just depends on the audience and the game and whether or not people are enjoying watching it. With videogames that’s where it’s different. For a long time only the people who played the game are the people who loved to watch the game – but you’re starting to see a change where there are more people who really enjoy watching games that they don’t play.

The world has a tonne of people in it, billions of people, so I do think there is room for more games to come in and I think you’re going to see more and more people who like to watch different types of games.

Where does Blizzard sit on the eSports model spectrum of Valve’s hands-off approach and Riot’s ‘This belongs to us’ LCS?

Kinda goes back to us doing the best thing for our game. I’ve paid a lot of attention to what Riot and Valve do, but at the end of the day I really look at each game and try to figure out what’s best for that game and I think if you pay attention you’ll see that each game also has a different [approach].

In some cases there are some programs that we run directly – just because we either believe that’s what needs to happen or we want to try something or test something. Like BlizzCon is a great example, we’re heavily involved in everything BlizzCon and all of our eSports team is super engaged in that.

Blizzard eSports blizzcon

Whereas maybe another event we’re totally fine with ESL or Dreamhack or another organiser running that. I think we have tournament structures that allow for that to happen as well. But it also depends on the life cycle of the game in eSports, where is it at, is it a new game that just launched, is it a game that we want to kind of set what the competitive play looks like and then have people follow? Or is it more like Hearthstone where we kind’ve gave it out there for everyone to try and then we picked up what we thought was best and developed that way.

So I think I’ve seen us go [back and forth] on that spectrum and then with the Overwatch League, it’s very ambitious.

It’s certainly closer to the LCS model.

Yeah, and it’s something we could do with Overwatch. I don’t know if we could do that with another one of our games. There’s so many factors that [are taken into account] – the player population of the game, the accessibility, the watchability, all of that stuff is a factor that is in play. Not all of our games have the same type of structure.

What do you think about the current state of Blizzard’s take on eSports? Let us know below.