Hearthstone’s early Twitch explosion has left its creators scrambling to build the scaffolding to support it, while eSports names old and new rush to fill the vacuum around its top players.
Some of those players have the backing of established organisations; others are entirely alone. But none of them know whether they have a full-time job in Hearthstone ahead of them - and they’re all faced with the difficulty of deciding who to trust in a still-growing ecosystem.
At the European Hearthstone Finals in Stockholm, two players sit almost nose-to-nose at a makeshift pub table. The only drinks served in this establishment are bottles of still water - but that hardly matters to Ukrainian pro Neirea, who doesn’t touch his.
His opponent, dressed in open white shirt and tan leather jacket, is Max. Max is an unknown. This is the first time he’s sat before the official Hearthstone Twitch channel’s cameras. He buckles under Neirea’s initial assaults, but soon stabilises - winning one match, and then surviving an exhausting, half-an-hour second long enough to silence one of his own minions: an unwanted acolyte foisted onto his side of the board. The move draws exasperation from the Ukranian, and gasps of applause from the stands.
An online audience of at least 50,000 watch his win - the self-assured victory of a pro. But in the strictest sense of the word, Max is a long way off declaring himself professional. Semi-professional? “I wouldn’t even go that far, to be honest,” he tells me afterwards.
Max has played Hearthstone for five months, and played competitively for two. He’s yet to make any money from the CCG - the perks of his ability began just hours earlier with the flight to Sweden - and lacks the backing of a team or manager.
It’s a kind of independence that comes with unexpected costs: namely a scant four hours’ experience with the patch that landed a day before the tournament, and the “misfortune” of leaving an adapter at home - making practice at the hotel impossible.
“All my practice is done on the ladders. I don’t have any practice partners,” said Max. “I guess it makes it a bit more stressful having a few extra things to worry about.
“I don’t know how much it affects tournament performance though. It would be absolutely great not to have to worry about that sort of stuff, but so far I’ve managed.”
The contrast with the European Hearthstone Finals’ other UK representative couldn’t be sharper. Greensheep got to know Hearthstone in last year’s beta, and was brought into contact with eSports’ old guard through the other top players on his friends list.
Now decked out in the familiar black-and-yellow colours of Team Dignitas, the Blackpool teen accredits much of his success to his teammates.
“I think a team is a really big deal - they’re usually the same skill level as you, and they’re always online,” he enthused. “If it wasn’t for [Dignitas fellow] Blackout, I don’t think I would’ve won that last game. He gave me the Paladin that snatched it.”
It’s telling that Dignitas have mimicked the structure of their squads in other, team-based sports like Counter-Strike and LoL. Hearthstone might be played solo - but pros in any game need a sounding board, and they need the company.
“If I wanted to do this full-time, go to every single tournament, I think I would need a support structure,” said Max.
“My dad’s trying really hard to understand and get involved. Two of my housemates play Hearthstone, but they’re not top-tier legend players. I can talk Hearthstone with them, but they don’t really understand on the same level as some of the pro players here.”
There’s a thread of uncertainty that trails through conversation with Hearthstone’s best players: neither Max nor Greensheep are confident that the game can become their full-time employment, even as they draw in thousands of viewers on Twitch.
Max has two more years of a physics degree he’d like to finish, and is wary of “giving up [his] life to chase becoming a professional Hearthstone player”.
Greensheep’s association with Dignitas extends til the end of the year, on a “see how we go” basis. He harbours a back-up ambition as an eSports organiser (“I might as well work in this sector because I know a lot about it already”).
“I’m still a student, and I can’t make a living off this at the moment,” said Greensheep. “I’m hopefully going to start streaming soon, but I need a better computer. Hopefully people will watch me and I can make a bit of money. But it’s not enough to sustain.”
It’s not yet clear where financial stability for Hearthstone’s pros will come from: team salaries, perhaps. Sponsorships. Or a league directly funded by Blizzard where “everyone gets a bit of money” - an idea floated enthusiastically by Greensheep, but prodded with caution by celebrity caster Artosis.
“You can get very steady and solid pro gamers [that way], but I personally like the more open approach,” he said, in the aftermath of a weekend’s sleepless broadcasting.
“League of Legends does fantastically, yes, these guys are making livings and whatnot,” he went on. “[But] this is one company controlling everything. And when it’s one company controlling everything you don’t have the competition.”
Artosis pointed to StarCraft, where competition between organisations like ESL, DreamHack and others has gradually improved standards and payouts.
“Pro gamers have more freedom, they can do whatever they like. If they want to play a lot or not play a lot it’s up to them,” he explained. “While it may be more steady and solid for a while the other way, I feel this way is a more natural and long-term better. Because eventually [Blizzard] could be like, ‘Okay, we’re not doing this anymore’.”