2023 is the tenth year of Hearthstone esports. Blizzard’s announcement about the competitive program for the year also raises the question of whether this is the last year of Hearthstone esports. Blizzard even lists the question “Does this mean HS Esports is being canceled in 2024?” in their frequently asked questions about the program! The answer is that they do not have anything to share about 2024 yet. That is one great way to build confidence in the sustainability of the program.
In this article, I take a look at what is going on with Hearthstone esports. Where is the program headed? More importantly, will it matter for the game?
Hearthstone Esports in 2023
The Hearthstone esports program is experiencing its biggest budget cut ever in 2023. The prize pool for 2023 is $650,000: $500,000 for Standard format and $150,000 for Battlegrounds. All qualifications for tournaments will happen through the ladder, so there are also no separate qualifiers that would need staff to operate. Streams in different languages are also being cut with select community streamers given a chance to replace official broadcasts (for free, of course). There are lots of cuts that go beyond the prize pool alone.
Now, compare this to last year, when the overall prize pool was $3,000,000, of which $500,000 was for Battlegrounds and the rest for Standard. The Battlegrounds system was similar to this year, just with more events and prize money. The Standard tournaments had qualifiers, there were multiple big tournaments with hundreds of participants, and they were streamed in multiple languages. This year, all tournaments will consist of 16 players only.
At first, Blizzard also planned to keep all the Standard prize money for the World Championship only, which would have meant that only eight Hearthstone players would get prize money this year. This was later changed so that the three 16-player Masters Tours also have prize money for all the people who qualify, which means that tens of players may be able to get a share of the Standard prize pool.
Blizzard has only lightly dabbled in Battlegrounds as an esport, and the program is not transitioning to that format. Battlegrounds is losing almost as much of its prize pool as Standard and remains the far smaller competition.
How Did We Get Here?
The viewership of Hearthstone esports has been falling for years. 2022 was the lowest point in the history of the game, with the $500,000 World Championship tournament only attracting 13,000 average viewers with under 22,000 peak viewers. Those are not the kinds of numbers you want to see from a half-a-million-dollar investment.
Looking at the World Championship viewership over the years, the overall trend is clear:
- 2016: 328,000 peak; 116,000 average
- 2017: 294,000 peak; 136,000 average
- 2019: 276,000 peak; 110,000 average
- 2020: 89,000 peak; 23,000 average
- 2021: 23,000 peak; 16,000 average
- 2022: 22,000 peak; 13,000 average
The popularity of Hearthstone esports has been trending down for years, but there is one year in particular that stands out. 2020. For the 2020 season, Blizzard made a deal with Google and moved Hearthstone esports exclusively to Youtube for three years. At the time, the rumor was that Hearthstone esports was a freebie thrown in on top of the big fish Overwatch and Call of Duty. Be that as it may, the viewership of all properties suffered greatly. It is one thing to be a big streamer and cash in on an exclusivity contract for life-altering money, and quite something else to be a big company trying to get eyes on your product and trying to do the same. That money just isn’t life-altering to a giant corporation.
All titles are now back on Twitch. Call of Duty esports has already seen a 75% year-on-year growth in viewership after returning to Twitch. However, there are rumors that another Youtube exclusivity contract is being worked on. I guess Activision just does not want people to watch their esports. This time, Hearthstone might be able to escape the deal though.
Will Hearthstone Die Without Esports?
Immediately after the announcement, the Hearthstone social media was all doom and gloom. Competitive players were quitting left and right and everyone seemed to be in despair about the future of the game. As in most crises, the initial shock started to wear off after a while. Some people quit, whereas others started to work on new plans around the game. For example, the three-time Worlds contender Lunaloveee started to work more on content creation and upload regular Youtube videos.
While many successful games are also successful esports, a game does not need esports to thrive. Even when it comes to Activision Blizzard, their most successful title is Candy Crush, which cannot be described as an esports hit. The game doesn’t even have any meaningful Twitch viewership! Yet, it brings in twice as much money every year as all of Blizzard’s games combined. Just let that sink in for a moment.
Hearthstone is also still a top-25 game on Twitch. Remember Marvel Snap? The hot new card slinger? Hearthstone has five times as many viewers on Twitch as Marvel Snap, and this is with Marvel Snap being fresh out of the oven and at the peak of its hype. Marvel Snap does not have any esports program either. They just introduced the ability to play against your friends, so now the game has the rudimentary support needed for competition for the first time. This is not to say that Marvel Snap is not a good game. I know several Hearthstone players who have greatly enjoyed the game. It is also the most successful new entrant to the genre since Hearthstone itself. The point is that Hearthstone is still by far the most popular card game on Twitch, and that’s with no Hearthstone esports on Twitch for three years and with new competitors entering the market.
While the Hearthstone community has been waiting for Hearthstone esports to return to Twitch and find its viewership numbers again, the executives at Blizzard may have come to the exact opposite conclusion of what the game needs to be successful. If killing their esports viewership for three years had hardly any effect on the success of the game, what is the entire esports program good for?
Hearthstone is moving away from esports as a career. There is still an esports program this year, but it cannot be relied on for income even if you’re the best player in the world. Furthermore, Hearthstone Community Manager Alkali Layke mentioned on The Angry Chicken Podcast that the new Creator Program will include tournament support in the form of giveaway codes. This is a grassroots, casual competition that Blizzard can support for pennies instead of millions.
Will this new approach work? It is too early to say. However, Hearthstone has everything it needs to be successful even without an esports program. The Creator Program replaces the esports program to an extent. Instead of supporting competitive players, Blizzard provides more support for content creators, who have had a bigger reach than their esports program for at least the past three years anyway. Hearthstone is now fully embracing a more casual approach. Casual, fast, and easy is where Hearthstone’s core strengths lie, anyway. While it’s sad to see esports slowly dying, if anything, the game may become even more successful by fully embracing its strengths.