Player bans, Blizzard and transparency

Hearthstone Radoslav “Nydra” Kolev

This month, two known Hearthstone pro-players had their accounts permanently banned. Dan “Alchemixt” Walton was the first. On April 7th, Walton announced his retirement from competitive Hearthstone, despite his organization Complexity choosing to side with him. Ole “Naiman” Batyrbekov came next but his team Dignitas was far less understanding than Complexity and immediately released him from the roster.

Neither the community, nor players’ home teams were given an official statement about the reason behind the bans. That was until today.

In a post on Battle.net, community manager Aratil listed Naiman and Alchemixt, alongside lesser known players XzaM and Damnery, as win traders. There came the first piece of transparency we saw in weeks and with it a far greater punishment than the community anticipated – the players’ disqualification from the World Championship circuit.

I wanted to write this editorial much earlier, right after the Naiman ban in fact, but I figured I would give Blizzard a week or so to react. After all, the company has had a pretty decent record of disclosing offenders in the past, as they revealed more than 800 accounts of botters when they started their anti-botting campaign, so maybe there was always the intention to eventually come public with their decision. I’m glad I waited. There’s more to talk about now, but all in due time.

After each of Naiman’s and Alchemixt’s bans, Blizzard was criticized for their lack of transparency, and with good reason. While Alchemixt had been rather inactive, Naiman was on the top of the World Championship leaderboards. He was signed by Dignitas and was building towards what could’ve been a glamourous Hearthstone career. Then the ban came and everyone was left wondering “What now?” Nobody knew if Naiman would be allowed to return as a player and if his points would be erased.

Blizzard was completely silent at the time, and I could find an answer to only one of these questions. Naiman’s points were gone, the former Dignitas member told me himself. He also admitted he was on the verge of quitting Hearthstone until his girlfriend persuaded him to return. On Monday, he had already made a new account and had hit legend with his trusted Hunter, but that wasn’t any evidence that the issue was resolved. And so, the community continued their speculation about the reasons for the ban – could it have been wintrading, or botting, or account sharing, or any other breach of the terms of service?

The term "Hearthstone pro" is loose at best.


Expectedly, parallels were drawn between the ban policies of Blizzard and companies like Riot Games, the latter always keeping the punishment and the disclosure hand in hand. In 2012, Christian “IWillDominate” Rivera was the first case of a pro player ban and everyone knew exactly why – his “persistent tendency to engage in verbal abuse and insults, his lack of cordial demeanor, and his treatment of less-skilled players.” Riot continued to be consistent in their transparency when they banned Nicolas “Incarnati0n” Jensen, Alfonso “Mithy” Rodriguez and Erlend “Nukeduck” Holm. Other companies like Valve have adhered to the same beliefs. In January, Valve issued a ban on CS:GO team iBUYPOWER and also disclosed their reasoning publicly and continued to do so in future cases of malicious behavior.

These comparisons, however, are not exactly fair. Riot Games, for example, are well known for their complete control over the competitive aspect of League of Legends. Professional LoL players are contracted with Riot themselves and they’re part of a closed, thoroughly regulated professional league.

Hearthstone players are not. The scene is still in its infancy and beyond licensing tournaments for World Championship points and hosting the world finals, Blizzard is barely involved. Only this year we’re starting to see a semblance of year-long circuit structuring, and that itself has its basket of flaws. The term “Hearthstone pro” is loose at best: Many of players who we consider to be professionals are not even on a paid contract, which technically makes them no more than jersey-wearing amateurs.

There’s also another side of the argument. When I brought the topic up for discussion on my talk-show “The Innervated” this Monday to hear from my fellow co-hosts, TheChiv made a point the wide public probably did not think of.


Transparency sounds like this great, noble thing and everybody feels like the right to this information. However, I look back at all the little incidents that happened in just the Hearthstone scene alone, e.g. the MagicAmy thing, Hosty and so on and there’s so much anger. People are waiting for the next little shoe to drop so they can go on a massive reddit witch hunt and just trash people left and right. And people got threatened, got attacked, so Blizzard are not condoning it, they’re not going to put it out there to fuel that.


Though one can see a merit to Chiv’s argument, I was unconvinced at the time. Granted, witch hunting is common in all esports but arguing over circumstantial evidence and the word of a bunch of guys over the identity of a player is one thing, but a permanent ban on a professional player issued by the game’s developer is a whole other matter. Even though Hearthstone pros are not at the same level of engagement with the scene as League’s – think contractual bindings – the public deserves to know. If a player is going to be invited to tournaments, compete for prize money and be supported by fans, these same fans have the right to know who they are spectating. At the end of the day, the pros are the face of competitive Hearthstone and are set to lead by example, whether we like it or not, and their malicious behaviors need to be made more public than those of the average Johnny.

Thus, seeing the aforementioned Blizzard blog post was a sign of the developers doing the right thing, but ironically, the transparency led to even more questions.

The Hearthstone scene is still in its infancy and beyond licensing tournaments for World Championship points and hosting the world finals, Blizzard is barely involved.
 


First and foremost, what constitutes as the “World Championship”? One would assume it’s the whole race for Blizzcon, but that includes way more layers than people might be considering. Outside ladder and the world finals themselves, there are offline tournaments and online open cups in the hundreds, awarding world championship points every month. How are these tournaments going to handle the likes of Naiman and Alchemixt? Are they prohibited from allowing them to compete altogether, or are they free to play and just be uneligible for any points that they might win? If it’s the latter, this leads to the subsequent problems of known offenders potentially stealing points from worthier opponents. Obviously, it’s highly unlikely that either of these players will appear at a World Championship associated event, but the issue remains nonetheless.

Secondly, why are we only now getting closure if there have already been multiple cases of offenders being banned. In October 2014, several players including Specialist and Gabe Walls were also banned for wintrading but their names weren’t disclosed publicly by Blizzard and in fact it was the players themselves who came forth with an explanation.

There’s a serious discrepancy here. Even though the 2015 circuit is way more developed than its predecessor in terms of rules and structure, in 2014 players could still make it to the Blizzcon qualifiers by finishing high on the ladder or competing in open cups. The latter is exactly what a player named zRusher did, becoming one of the competitors in the final BlizzCon NA swiss. What’s wrong with zRusher? Well, he was Specialist’s partner in crime when the two found out how wintrading can be done profitably on ladder. If these reddit and twitter posts didn't excist, we would've never learned what these players did wrong.

What I hope is the case here is that Blizzard have realized the importance of transparency and have decided to be more open, but that still begs the question whose names are they going to reveal. How Blizzard are going to police a race for the world finals that is literally open to anybody remains unclear. One can only hope that they'll be more expeditious in offering clarity, because waiting for several weeks before doing so is a problem. 

We’ll find out with the next ban wave, I guess.