Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Competitive Hearthstone might not be flashy, but it can be fun to watch

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Welcome once again, Gameologitarians, to our weekly open thread. Fill us in on your weekend gaming plans down in the comments. As for me, I’ve recently gotten back into Hearthstone, and I imagine I’ll play at least a few rounds this weekend. It’s the Warcraft-based digital card game from Blizzard. I spent a hefty chunk of time building up my decks and card collection after the game entered its open pre-release period in January, but I lost interest after a few weeks. Then the iPad version came out, and I was back in it for a little while. The game has since gotten a sizable expansion, which adds a bunch of new cards and tricky fights against super-powered computer opponents, but not even that was enough to draw me back to this cruel mistress at the time.


Last week, though, I got an email inviting me to a Hearthstone tournament in New York City. I knew the game had a lively competitive scene, but I’d never watched any. In a way, it’s the opposite of my preferred competitive games (those of the “watch two characters beat the crap out of each other for a minute at a time” variety). I was intrigued, though, so I watched some high-level matches ahead of my trip to the Hammerstein Ballroom for the North American qualifiers of the Hearthstone world championship, the final leg of which will be held at Blizzard’s fan convention in November.

Watching videos of competitive play, the first thing that struck me was the way tournament broadcasters aim a camera directly at the faces of each player. The feed from those cameras is on-screen at all times, so we see every bit of emotion. Faces contort as their owners scheme, and brows furrow as those plans get squelched. The commentary can be difficult to follow if you aren’t familiar with the myriad cards that populate competitive play, but the pace of a turn-based Hearthstone match allows the announcers to break down individual strategies and speculate about where the contest might be headed.

That said, I’m not quite sure it’s the kind of thing that can hold my fickle attention. It makes great background noise when you put on a match or two at home. But once I was sitting in that theater, surrounded by far bigger Hearthstone fans than I and without other things to divide my attention, it just got a little too boring. I loved hearing the crowd erupt when a player drew the one card capable of finishing a match on that turn or a sympathetic “awwww” when a desperately needed card showed up one turn too late. Without the necessary knowledge to predict and appreciate these moments, though, I wasn’t in on the fun—just an observer tickled by their kinship. I was impressed by the new cards and strategies I saw at the tournament, though, and it successfully drew me back into the game. I was even convinced to spend some money on the single-player expansion (which I thoroughly enjoyed, for what it’s worth). Well played, Blizzard.

By the way, if you’d like a taste of competitive Hearthstone play, the ending of the first game in the video I’ve embedded below was one of my favorite moments of the day.