Posted by Anthony McGlynn
Anthony McGlynn

There's no disputing the fact that esports has become an industry unto itself within video games. Titles like League of Legends and Heroes of the Storm aren't “growing in popularity” any more , they've already grown into huge electronic sports juggernauts, garnering thousands upon thousands of viewers across the world for their various live events and championships. As the esports “scene” becomes bigger and bigger, so too does the array of games getting large audience and media attention. MOBAs like League of Legends, shooters like Counter-Strike and fighters like Street Fighter, almost any genre that sports a strong multiplayer element has an esports representative with an appropriately celebrated top prize, including online-card games with Hearthstone.

Launching in March 2014, the Blizzard-made online-CCG (Collectible Card Game) grew a steady player-base relatively quickly. Thanks to a very positive critical reception early on and a little help from some popular voices in the world of YouTube, Hearthstone made its esport debut at BlizzCon 2014, Blizzard's own multimedia convention. The top prize was $100,000 and then last year, the same was repeated, with a larger prize pool valued at $250,000 overall. Due to its quick gameplay, fun visual style and portability – the game has been ported onto mobile devices – Hearthstone has been a hit worldwide, with a player-base now estimated at 50 million. And yet, there remains an ongoing debate as to the legitimacy of the game as a professional competition.

Being a card game, there's an inherent part of Hearthstone that relies on luck of the draw. You don't draw the right cards at the right time, you're done. This means part of being good at Hearthstone means getting lucky, and that's something that many in the community disagree with, arguing across forum posts and the subreddit that it simply isn't mechanically suited to being an esport. They're not entirely wrong either: Hearthstone isn't like any of the other games currently in the industry. Starcraft 2, Dota 2, Tekken – you don't win those by any form of luck, you win by being outright better. Outmaneuvering your opponent, taking advantage of their mistakes or short-comings. All players engaged in those games start each match with the same amount of chance to win. Hearthstone goes against that by its very nature as a card game because it requires the player to draw a good hand to get a good start, or to draw that pivotal card at the right moment for their combo or strategy.

This is something that Blizzard themselves have acknowledged, that part of the game is hinged on luck no matter what way you build it and how well you balance it. However, that doesn't make the argument against Hearthstone any more correct. It's true that some of the game relies on luck, but that doesn't mean that all of it does. Building a set of decks capable of handling any strategy another player may be using, creating distinct combos that can surprise an opponent: these aren't achieved by luck or happenstance, they're achieved by players playing and practising for hours to find them.

But more to the point, it's a debate that's searching for a definition of esports that's regressive of the form. We've seen controversy court the governing bodies of esports before, when the International eSports Federation was revealed to be using gender segregation based on how a “legitimate” sport is regulated. Naturally, the notion that gender impacts the base-level ability of a player of a video game was deemed false and the idea was receded, but it demonstrated blatantly how esports was looking for validity in the wrong way. The idea of any video games being rallied around the same way some major sports are is great, but it shouldn't come at the price of some version of gate-keeping in order to maintain the “sports” part of the name.

That's what the criticism of Hearthstone boils down to – gate-keeping. Collectible card games have existed at a professionally regulated level for decades. There exists career professional Magic: The Gathering, Netrunner and Pokémon: The TCG players, and their reputation and ability is deeply coveted. Sure, they're not regarded as “sports," but why can't esports break that mold with Hearthstone? It's already challenging the perception of what makes exciting competition by getting aired on ESPN and producing more than enough revenue to warrant its own staff and journalistic coverage, why can't that extend to fully embracing and validating a card game too?

Hearthstone World Finals Winner Ostkaka Celebrating
Hearthstone World Finals Winner Ostkaka Celebrating

Hearthstone is already very capable of producing the kind of tension that drives good sports – just watch this match to see for yourself – and even when it isn't an edge-of-your-seat kind of game, there's a mesmeric quality to it reminiscent of something like snooker or curling. Like those, the excitement is in the time between plays, watching the tactician's brain at work, assessing the situation before they line themselves up to take the best course of action available, helped out in the meantime by cutesy graphics and funky animations. It's not like people aren't already clamouring to see it in action either: Blizzard are rolling out a huge expansion for the game's World Finals this year, with a prize pool now valued at $1 million for BlizzCon.

Whether the community at large want to admit it or not, Hearthstone has become a spectator game entirely worthy of the audience and coverage it receives. It's already an esport in all but shared definition. Perhaps it's high-time that definition changed and esports truly defined itself by its own standards.