Naiman: "It means a lot to me that the majority of the community has embraced me."
Ole "Naiman" Batyrbekov's story is one unlike any other in competitive Hearthstone. Prior to the Hearthstone World Championship at Blizzcon, Nydra wrote in his fifth Story of Blizzcon:
"In the spring of 2015, [Naiman] was on his way to becoming the next big thing in Hearthstone. The Kazakhstani had won the respect of his peers for his immaculate Hunter play, had just finished top four in the $10,000 Gfinity Masters and had made impressive sprints up the ladder each season. Experts were looking forward to his breakthrough, when he would carve his name among the Hearthstone elite and already talked about him being a likely world finalist.
(...) In April, Naiman, alongside three other players was issued a year-long ban from the Hearthstone World Championship circuit, the reason later revealed to be ladder win trading. Naiman’s reputation plummeted. Everything he had achieved lost value. Doubts about his ability as a player surfaced. Overnight, he turned from a Hearthstone hopeful to a hated villain. In fear of looking bad in front of Blizzard, third party tournaments withdrew whatever invitations they had extended to the Hunter aficionado. Dignitas, the team that signed him not three weeks prior, showed him the door. One mistake had cost Naiman everything: his job, his reputation and his Blizzcon dream.
(...) Naiman’s ban was lifted with the start of 2016 and the restructuring of the Hearthstone Championship Tour and he welcomed the new year with anticipation. The slate was clean. He could start all over, prove himself to the world, restore his reputation. Do the thing he loved. Become a champion. And what better opportunity than the first official HCT season."
Naiman took the opportunity with both hands, winning the European Winter Championship and immediately qualifying for the World Championships. After that he was seen in other big tournaments such as StarLadder and SeatStory Cup V, performing well there too. Matthieist had a talk with the redeemed Kazakh, talking about 2016, being on Virtus.Pro and everyone's favorite topic, RNG.
How are you doing man?
I'm doing fine, thanks.
The year is nearly ending, so walk me through how 2016 has been for you.
At the start of the year I didn't think I would make it to Blizzcon, since I was banned the year before. But when I got unbanned I told myself: 'Let's make it to Blizzcon now.' That was the reason I decided to keep playing. I didn't actually plan or expect to win the Winter Championships. Top 8 or maybe top 4 would have been good for me. When I won it I was really surprised, but also felt a lot of relief. I was really happy.
And after you broke out you felt like you had proven yourself enough?
Well I wanted to prove that I could do well in not just one tournament. I wanted to perform well in other tournaments as well, to prove I'm a competitive player and especially to show more than the strategy I used during the Winter Championships, which was countering two archetypes. So competing in other tournaments and performing well in them was important to me, since I could display different approaches to the game.
Did what happened in 2015 add more pressure to perform well now?
Yes, it did. There was pressure from opponents and from players alike, since they didn't think I was actually good. They thought I was just a cheater... Now, after this year, I think all of those people realized that I can actually play this game. It means a lot to me that the majority of the community has embraced me. It's quite a small community, because whenever I travel to different tournaments it's the same players that participate.
It means a lot to me that the majority of the community has embraced me.
There is still a small percentage that thinks I'm a cheater, but I'm too old to let that affect or bother me. They should look at my accomplishments this year, and those speak for themselves I think.
I'm also really proud to be representing a team that I've wanted to join for such a long time. I've been hoping that they'd start a Hearthstone division for so long. Then, when they not only established one but also told me I could join them, I was so happy. At that point I realized I had finally come back completely and had redeemed myself.
How much has your wife has meant to you in the entire redemption process?
She was the one who impressed me. When I got banned, I told her I was gonna stop and spent all the time I had previously spent on Hearthstone I would spend with her. She told me: "Hell no, you're gonna continue playing the game. You know how to play it." I was astonished, since I thought she'd be happy if I wouldn't play Hearthstone anymore. That amazed me. At that time she was my fiancé, but after that she became my wife.
In Hearthstone, in any game and just in life the support of friends and family is really important. My older brother watches all tournaments I play in. He was actually supposed to come to Blizzcon after the group stages, but when I didn't make it out of the groups he decided not to come. My mother is a big support too, and actually has started playing Hearthstone after Blizzcon. That was the first tournament she ever watched, but she liked the game a lot. She plays chess, and after seeing Hearthstone she wanted to give that a try too.
Earlier this year it was revealed that there was a huge wintrade network going on in China. What was the first thought that went through your mind when you heard that?
My first thought was that people would start talking about me being banned again. But that wouldn't bother me too much, since I had already qualified for Blizzcon.
I think those Chinese players deserve a second chance too. Everyone deserves a second chance.
I think those Chinese players deserve a second chance too. Everyone deserves a second chance. If you get caught twice though, I think you should be banned forever. You can make a mistake once, but the second time it's not a mistake anymore. It shows you haven't learned anything from what you did, and that you don't care.
I think wintrading is still a problem in Hearthstone. I watch a lot of streams and I just see it. Sometimes I see players do it more unintentionally. They come across a friend on ladder and just concede, but don't do it for money or something like that.
What do you think Blizzard can do to prevent wintrading in the future?
They'll have to look at the matchmaking system I guess. I'm not sure what kind of system it's gonna be though. One thing what they could do is not pairing players who have each other on their friendlist, that would work. Or if they concede or lose it just doesn't count, that would be fine.
Right after you won the Winter Championships you got signed by Virtus.Pro. How was that process?
I was already contacted by them before the European Championships, but there I was still representing ANOX, together with DrHippi. After the tournament we decided to move to a different team. Bunnyhoppor was approached after the tournament. They wanted to sign CIS players, so then we recommended Bunnyhoppor as our team mate. We really like him and he's a very strong player.
Virtus.Pro is awesome. I love my team and team mates so much.
It's been awesome on the team. I love my team and team mates so much. It's not like G2's dynamic though, because we have different personalities. We don't practice as much together as they do. But what makes our team so strong is that, if we practice together, we get the best analysis. Each player's view complements the others'. I also have my own practice partner, who has been playing with me for two years now and he also practices with the other team members. Other than that I don't practice very much with anyone else.
Virtus.Pro won't jump to mind with most people when asked which Hearthstone team is the strongest. Other teams have their players focussing on creating content too, besides playing the game. How is that within Virtus.Pro?
Well DrHippi and I do stream, and Bunnyhoppor also does but just a little bit. Hippi and I finally started to develop our streams though, and I enjoy it a lot. I stream in Russian, because my third stream or something was in Russian and all of a sudden I received a lot of viewers.
Streaming in Russian might limit my audience a bit, since English is easier for most people. Though I think people who want to watch English streams want to listen to people who speak English perfectly, like native speakers. People like Kolento have the advantage of starting their stream very early. He was maybe even one of the first ones. I started to stream two years after him, and by that time he had already a large viewerbase. It's impossible for me to compete with him.
If I switch to English now I would lose a lot of viewers. Same goes for streaming in my native language, Kazakh. I'd get around 100 viewers at max, because very few people are interested in that.
You've said that whoever wins Blizzcon is the best player in the world. Do you think Blizzcon is more important than consistency throughout a year?
Yes I still think so. It's the World Championships, and whoever wins that is just the best player in the world, right? Even though, for example, Xixo is very good, he's not the World Champion. If you take a look at prize money Pavel takes the crown. So yeah Pavel is the best player in 2016, but not necessarily a better player than Xixo.
Consistency is also very important. However, Pavel didn't play in that many big tournaments, so it's hard to compare his results with Xixo's. If they had played in exactly the same tournaments then yeah, you can talk about consitency. In terms of importance Blizzcon is the #1 tournament though, and Xixo didn't qualify.
Do you think the HCT system of this year allowed for the best player to emerge, or do you still see some flaws in it?
Alright, so if you look at this year's World Championship, the only established player there was Thijs. All other players fought hard during the year to prove they're good. The whole system is good for new players to establish themselves and become more well known.
But I think there are still flaws in it. If you want to find out who the best player is you have to care more about consistency. In the 2017 HCT system they use a Swiss format for the qualifiers, which I really like. Other than that it's kind of the same as last year.
Overall RNG lowers the amount of skill required to play the game.
Besides consistency I think the RNG factor should be less effective. It's still a big part in the game. Overall RNG lowers the amount of skill required to play the game. Looking at the current metagame, of what we saw at Blizzcon, there was only one game that went to fatigue. Other games were decided by who curves out best. If there's a more Control oriented meta RNG will be slightly less important.
I hope that Blizzard will make cards that rely less on RNG. Whenever the word 'random' is on a card, the card is bad. It's better to make the game less RNG-affected. There is always some RNG in card games, but it's possible to lower it down.
Which card we currently see is the most unhealthy, in your opinion?
Probably [card]Ragnaros the Firelord[/card]. It just decides too many games. I don't know how I'd change it though - unfortunately I'm not a game designer. But take a look at cards like [card]Justicar Trueheart[/card] and [card]Reno Jackson[/card]. Those have a very interesting and unique effect, are strong and really healthy for the game.
The discover mechanic is not that bad. Players have a choice there, so it's less RNG. I'm talking about cards like [card]Babbling Book[/card], which gives you a spell you didn't choose. Especially for a tournament like Blizzcon, we all saw what happened there. A card like [card]Sylvanas Windrunner[/card] isn't that bad. If you play your Sylvanas on a board, and your opponent has multiple minions, it's his mistake for not playing around the possibility that you could drop Sylvanas. You can play against her, you can affect the outcome of the RNG effect.
I just think Blizzard should stop making cards that have no way of limiting the RNG outcome. The Grimy Goons cards are also bad in my opinion. The other player has no real way to influence the outcome, or think of what outcome you had from the effect.
To wrap up the interview, what will we see of you in 2017?
I'm gonna make it to Blizzcon again, for sure, and then I will win it. I'll play Hearthstone so much. This year was my year of redemption, and next year will be the year of my triumph, hopefully.