Recent days have seen quite some debate on the income available to players and teams from professional Hearthstone: Hearthlytics disbanded despite a competitive roster as they were not able to make ends meet and Orange left Archon as he wanted to take a different direction than the team – something generally interpreted as meaning that Orange wants to focus on competitive play and Archon has become more and more of a streaming organization as of late.
This is not new: Reynad has led Tempo Storm to the direction of streaming and content creation for a good while already, and after Ostkaka won Blizzcon in 2015 there were several discussions where people wondered why he was not making the most out of his win by streaming a lot to generate a steady source of income. Streaming, not competition, has been recognized as the most steady source of income available in professional Hearthstone.
Should Blizzard pour in more money to Hearthstone esports?
Multiple concerns have been voiced over Blizzard’s support for competitive Hearthstone: while the Hearthstone Championship Tour provides some prize money, it is nowhere near enough to actually support a full-time, professional scene. Third-party tournament organizers generally do not receive funding from Blizzard either, another aspect that many would like to see changed. However, are these requests for Blizzard to provide more money for Hearthstone esports the best way to proceed?
Ultimately, all the money in Hearthstone esports – as in any other esports or real sports – comes from consumers. Blizzard is not going to spend money on Hearthstone esports unless they see how that investment pays for itself, and the causality between prize pools and Hearthstone microtransactions can be difficult to establish.
However, there are ways to invest money in esports with an effect that is easy to track. Others are already doing it, and Blizzard could do it too. I’m talking about crowdfunding.
Crowdfunding as a way to support teams and tournaments
Whether in the form of a compendium, event stickers, or team stickers, esports crowdfunding typically takes place as sales of cosmetic ingame items, with a percentage of sales then handed over to the teams or added to the prize pool of an event. What makes this particularly attractive from the point of view of the game’s publisher is that publishers tend to keep a large portion of the money – between 50% and 75% – and as this money comes from people who want to support their favorites and maybe show their colors ingame, it is money that the game would not otherwise attract.
The option to bring team support to within the game also attracts money that teams could not attract on their own: many people who do not want to buy a team jersey might well buy a digital item to showcase their support. For example, I am 36 years old. I’m not going to walk around the streets wearing a Team Liquid fan jersey – even if I were to buy one, I would have no actual use for it. Digital goods are a much more attractive value proposition for me.
Crowdfunding for Hearthstone: custom card backs!
There are not a lot of cosmetic items in Hearthstone, but there is one item in the game that would allow people to show their support for a player or a team: the card back! They are relatively simple items that are currently only earned, not sold. Thus, opening up the sales of custom card backs would not even compete with the existing ingame offering!
Let’s imagine for a moment. Let’s say Blizzard made it part of the Championship Tour that any team who gets a player to within top-16 of a region gets the right to work with Blizzard to implement a custom card back for that year’s Championship Tour and gets 50% of the revenue generated by that card back. So we might have a Team Liquid Year of the Kraken (2016) card back or a Team Archon Year of the Kraken (2016) card back! These card backs would be made available for purchase between the Preliminaries in which the team qualified for one and the Championships and they would be heavily promoted in the Championships broadcast. The card back would remain in sale for the duration of that Standard season, such as the Year of the Kraken we are currently in. In order to get one for sale next season, the team would need to get new results again.
What kind of competitive world would this promote? Obviously, you still need the viewers, the fans – there is no income in any sports without fans. Thus, a team purely focused on competition and not on promoting itself might still struggle, but a world like this would encourage teams like Archon and Tempo Storm to maintain a strong competitive roster of at least 3-4 players alongside their streaming activities. There is always an element of randomness in a card game, so sticking with just one strong player would not be an option, as no one can guarantee success every time, but a strong lineup would have a good chance at success.
It would be important to find the right balance between making card backs exclusive enough to really encourage teams to maintain competitive rosters and not making them too hard to get: a special card back for a champion, for example, does not necessarily fit this model, as it makes earnings even more top-heavy again whereas the goal is to spread the money around to build a viable competitive ecosystem.
It is another balancing act to control the sales periods and availability of card backs. Should there be a Winter Season 2016 card back, followed by a Spring Season 2016 card back, and a Summer Season 2016 card back? Or just one for each year? Perhaps even multiple card backs per year might work, but I’d approach the subject more cautiously so as not to over-saturate the market and drive down the interest.
Crowdfunding for Hearthstone: tournament support!
Selected tournaments could be supported the same way teams can. How about a Dreamhack Summer 2016 card back, available for a limited time?
Tournaments could also be supported by sales of other assets: a limited availability hero portrait, for example. We already have an example of this with Khadgar, although that was 100% for charity. Or perhaps sales of existing hero portraits could contribute to the prize pool of a major tournament during a certain period of time, heavily promoted, of course.
There are lots of options available for Blizzard to help teams and tournaments through crowdfunding instead of direct financial support with no clear return on investment. Obviously, there are lots of details to iron out to actually make something like that work, but it could be the missing ingredient to stabilize the competitive ecosystem of Hearthstone.