What Blizzard got wrong about this year’s World Championship

Posted by Radoslav "Nydra" Kolev at 09 September 2015 20:00

In his latest editorial, Radoslav "Nydra" Kolev goes through some of the problems that tainted the otherwise glamorous Road to Blizzcon 2015.

One thing should be made clear right from the get go: The fact that a World Championship is happening in the first place should be well appreciated. Ever since Hearthstone was first announced, the game has been marketed as a non-competitive title, something you play for fun, on your phone, in your time of leisure. Being Blizzard’s first attempt to create an online CCG – which obviously was far below in terms of complexity compared to established titles – nobody could’ve foreseen the birth and the rapid expansion of the competitive scene.

With the latter becoming a reality, however, Blizzard had to accommodate the fact that hundreds, even thousands of players had aspirations to make a living off of competitive Hearthstone. The 2014 season went on rather smoothly, partially because no player really expected it – the World Championship wasn’t announced until late April last year – but as Blizzard’s ambition to develop the circuit in 2015 grew, they ultimately ended up biting off more than they could chew.

It would be wrong to deny the multitude of improvements done in 2015 to create a healthier scene. 

Looking back and comparing the 2015 season to its predecessor, it would be wrong to deny the multitude of improvements done to create a healthier scene. If 2014 was the playing field exclusively of streaming personalities or otherwise popular figures, the current season fought to combat the scene-wide practice of full invitationals. Big tournament organizers were forced to open their doors and implement open qualifiers, giving a chance to the new generation of rising stars. The blooming of Fireside Gatherings supported the local scenes and created stories at the grassroots. The list of eligible countries was expanded, no longer locking some of the best players in Hearthstone out of the world championship. For all it’s worth, Blizzard tried – and for a large part succeeded – in creating at the very least the foundations of a world championship structure. We're quickly approaching the end of the journey. The conclusion of the August season ended all opportunities for players to gather HWC points in tournaments or on ladder. A few days ago, the last call qualifiers were also held, completing the 40-man line-ups for the regional qualifiers.

Here’s what could've been done much better by Blizzard with the ongoing World Championship campaign. Strap in and pour yourself a beverage – you’re up for a long read.

Providing invitationals with abundance of points

According to the official rulebook, high-paying tournaments were eligible to receive HWC points. Provided a list of requirements is met, $10,000+ prize pool tournaments could hand out a total of 115 HWC points with 50 for the winner. For $25,000+ tournaments, that amount was doubled: 230 in total, 100 for the winner.

Out of said list of requirements, the most important one was arguably the enforced balance between invited and qualified players, a justified move as we established earlier. Organizers could no longer operate full or predominantly invites-based tournaments if they wanted to receive HWC points, which were vital for a tournament’s esteem. A minimum of 16 players had to take part in the main event and at least 50% of them had to come from open qualifiers.

That’s all good, but only on the face of it, and one has to take into account the way invites were being sent out. Although that’s not always the case and obviously not true for every single invite recipient, tournament organizers would, as an unwritten rule, aim for popular figures, names that can secure high viewership numbers. In lots of cases, exposure would matter more than results.

That is a problem by itself on several levels. First, cherry picking by celebrity status hurts the integrity of the competition. While it’s every organizer’s prerogative to invite whoever he/she wants to his/her event, rules should be different when it comes to the crown event of the year, which should be about sifting through the best to find the greatest.

When it come to invites, in a lot of cases exposure would matter more than results.

This issue is magnified by the massive advantage an invited player received in most situations. Take a tournament like ESL Katowice, for example. With the format being one single elimination bracket, it meant that each of the invited players, all seeded directly into the Ro16 without having to go through a preliminary round, would have to win only four Bo5 matches to win 100 HWC points. For every other player, this would require coming on top of a 1000-man single elimination bracket, quite possibly the most unfit format for a game like Hearthstone. Four matches for 100 HWC points: That’s equal to placing first on the ladder twice, something which is only achievable through grinding through hundreds of games for the entire month.

Granted, many tournament organizers withheld from seeding invited players this far, and in cases like the Gfinity or Viagame events, invites and qualified players would start on equal turf at the main event. Still, if an organizer would want to go the ESL Katowice way, that would be according to the official rules.

Opaque or inconsistent rules

Throughout the entire 2015 campaign, the esports branch of Blizzard has been slow or silent when responding to questions about the circuit. The first case of HWC points controversy happened during ESL Legendary Season 1, an 8-man tournament with $20,000 for the main event, which awarded a total of 230 HWC points to the participating players.

The tournament in question had a rather interesting and complex structure, featuring a mix of open qualifiers feeding into partial invitationals called “Match days”, which purpose was in turn to determine the eight grand finalists for the LAN finals in Burbank. Although it’s unfair to criticize ESL’s structuring of the event as it was designed and executed before the announcement of the World Championship, Blizzard’s subsequent involvement and the white-listing of the Legendary Series as HWC event raised questions such as why is an 8-man tournament eligible for HWC points when the minimum required is 16.

The exact same concern was repeated just recently with the ONOG Summer Circuit. Featuring a structure similar to ESL Season 1, the tournament gave out a total of 230 HWC points to go with its $25,000 prize pool, despite also having a total of eight players in the main event.

In the case of ONOG and ESL, arguments can be made that the events stretched beyond just the offline portion, and included featured tournaments as sub-stages, which raise the total amount of players above 16, but that’s not the situation with a third tournament: Gfinity Summer I.

The lack of clarity spans beyond the tournament infrastructure.

After deciding to scale down from its spring events, Gfinity Summer I featured no invites and only eight players coming from the open qualifiers. In spite of the tournament not meeting the 16-man requirement, winning player Anton “Legendaren” Daniellson was awarded 50 HWC points for taking half of the $10,000 prize pool, to go with his 10 points from the July ladder season and 30 from the March ladder season, putting him on 90 at the end of August. Gfinity Summer I’s eligibility for HWC points was never made public knowledge. Legendaren himself told GosuGamers that he had no idea he’d received HWC points until after the event.

But the lack of clarity spans beyond the tournament infrastructure. In April, four players in Naiman, Alchemixt, Damnery and XzaM were banned from the World Championship for win-trading. Beyond a short statement, no further clarification on what the ban entails was given. What exactly constitutes as the “World Championship”? Are these players allowed in open tournaments? How is Blizzard going to police their potential attempts to re-enter the World Championship? Are tournaments prohibited to let them in or does it simply mean they are not eligible for HWC points if they happen to win any? Why is Naiman listed in the HWC standings when he’s banned from the HWC? I raised all these points and more in an editorial five months ago, and they’re still valid.

The official ruleset for the World Championship also leaves more to be desired in terms of transparency. In all its seven pages, the document fails to address, for example, when ladder season placements are being snapshotted and how they award the respective HWC points. If you think that the logical answer is “at 23:59 on the last day of the month when the ladder is reset”, let me bring up a recent incident with known Hearthstone player Stanislav Cifka.

In a reddit post, Cifka tells in detail his story of failing to make the EU regionals by one point. Having chosen to compete on the Asia server, Cifka places top 10 in July and adds a good chunk of points to his account as the season ends and the ladder resets at 23:59. In August, Cifka resumes his climb and at 23:59 of August 31st, he’s ranked 49th, but the ladder reset never comes. Confused, he continues to play nonetheless and ultimately finishes top 20 again before the reset inevitably comes. Once the HWC standings are finalized, however, just a day before the Last Chance Qualifier, Cifka finds out that he’s been given points for placing 49th – the position he was at at 23:59 - and not top 20.

Although Cifka and his manager try to resolve the issue, they find they’re helpless as everything has been calculated according to the rules: the official ruleset declares 23:59 on August 31st as the end of the HWC ladder season and mentions nothing about ladder reset. August 31st, 23:59, however, is also the only mentioning of ranked play parameters. If Cifka had, hypothetically, experienced the same ladder reset delay in a previous season, he could not have known which position would be taken into account when calculating the distribution of HWC points – the position he held at 23:59 or the position he held at the ladder reset.

Using the ladder as central cogwheel

I’ve written a lot about ladder so far in the editorial, and it’s time to tackle it head on:

The ladder is flawed.

Don’t get me wrong: The ladder does a lot of things right for the casual player but it exhales in its higher echelons, where the competitive community resides. The matchmaking algorithms are punishing, and losing to a lesser ranked player could mean dropping so far, that one would need to win five, six or even more games to recover.

The ladder is flawed, especially in its higher echelons where the competitive community resides.

Being a very dynamic entity intrinsic to the World Championship race, the legendary ladder is also extremely skewed towards the last days, even hours, of the season. Consistent performance throughout the month matters not – if you are not actively fighting for the top spot right as the season dawns, your chances of earning HWC points are minimal as the placement decay is brutal. Yet even if that was not the case, ladder as a form of competition has little to do with the tournament experience and to keep competitive integrity intact it should not be incorporated so directly into the HWC.

This isn’t to say that placing high on the ladder should not be acknowledged or rewarded, rather be done in a way that suits the playing field of the World Championship. Ladder placements could be snapshotted and awarded with HWC points on more regular intervals, instead of exclusively at the end of the season, to combat the end-of-season saturation. Tournaments could be held for the high-placing players, helping them transition from ladder to tournament play and giving them additional exposure. Matchmaking could be improved and ladder resets could be revisited and perhaps even diluted to feel grinding the ladder less like an onus you have to go through.

Questionable choice of format

HWC 2015 has undergone several changes of format, all of which leave a lot to be desired. The online swiss round that seeded the majority of the players into the offline regional finals and what’s largely considered the most optimal format for card games is gone, replaced by a 40-man double elimination bracket. Additionally, the Last Call Qualifiers, held earlier this month, were all in single elimination format – something that was never revisited since the HWC announcement despite the active feedback from the competitive community.

While ESL did their best to at least seed the LCQ players based on points earned, no further advantage was rewarded. In a bracket with no second chances and with Hearthstone’s volatile nature it mind, it meant that a player with 100+ points and who’s been active throughout the entire season has virtually equal chances of advancing as someone with the minimum of two points. You don’t believe it? Look at the EU LCQ where six of the top 16 players had 5 points or less and half had 10 points or less.

The issue with the format is something I recently addressed in the latest episode of “The Innervated” podcast (video above). Led by my firm beliefs that competition should always be as fair as possible and, in the case of Hearthstone, mitigate the random nature of the game as much as possible, I expressed a desire for stricter sanitization of tournaments in 2016. Third party tournament organizers should be encouraged to use formats better suited for competitive Hearthstone. Although enforcing the constant use of swiss is hard and impractical, embracing double elimination brackets and exiling the few Bo3 and Bo1 tournaments that still remain should be a primary concern.  

As conclusion, I like to believe all this will be remedied in 2016 and remain optimistic about the future. The 2015 season served its purpose to be a petri dish of ideas and concepts and if the necessary steps are taken, there’s nothing stopping Blizzard to create a healthy HWC environment moving on.