Hearthstone 2017 HCT Europe Winter Playoffs – what progress has been made in a year?

One year ago, I examined the 2016 Hearthstone Championship Tour Europe Winter season on this blog. Back then, there were several lessons to be learned. Now with the Hearthstone 2017 HCT Europe Winter Playoffs just finished, it is a good time to take a look at what was discussed one year ago and compare it to how this tournament went.

Lesson learned: where can I earn points to participate?

Last year everything was new, and there were quite some pains in getting the online cup system up and running. There was a lot of confusion regarding which cups awarded points and which did not, and false information was plentiful.

Blizzard has since been able to fix this issue to a large extent, as they now have a dedicated Esports section for Hearthstone on their website and a functional event calendar within that section

If there is something to improve still, the ruleset for the 2017 season took a fair while to be published, so information on ladder points came in fairly late. Still, regarding this point we are miles ahead of where we were a year ago.

Lesson learned: what were the rules again?

A year ago, there were some incidents with players being disqualified because they had not used their exact real name on their battle.net account. Furthermore, the surprise ban of pen and paper caused plenty of confusion.

This year, there have been no similar reports: rules may not have changed, but these are now things players are aware of and comfortable with. Time does heal some wounds.

Lesson partially learned: you want me there how fast?

Last year, the tournament invitations arrived extremely late and players had a lot of trouble arranging their travel and accommodation. No sign of that issue this year either.

There are still some issues regarding the timeliness of communication, such as publishing the rules for the new season and for keeping the point tally on the website up-to-date. Oh, and we also do not yet know what everyone won at the Winter Playoffs, as while we know the total prize pool was $25k, we have no idea what the distribution was.

Thus, the communication has improved but there are still a few kinks left to iron out.

Lesson partially learned: LAN locations

One year ago, there were quite a lot of gaps in the LAN location network. Notable areas missing a venue included Finland, Denmark, Italy, and Ireland. Of these four, three now had a venue, with Ireland being the only one without. Good work on improving the location spread there, even though it is never-ending work.

Another issue last year was the varying quality of the locations. The ones that received the most vocal complaints were the venues in London and Berlin, and what do you know, neither of them hosted the event this time. The UK location had been moved to the ESL Studio UK in Leicester, at least somewhat alleviating the travel issues, and receiving praise in general.

Alas, things were still not perfect. The quality of the internet connection varied, and especially Russian players were prone to disconnect from games. The disconnects and delays caused a fair bit of drama both in the Tavern Hero part and in the Playoff event itself. More work is still needed in vetting the LAN locations.

Lesson partially learned: hurrah for Swiss format!

One of the improvements I’m most excited about is the introduction of Swiss format to Blizzard-run Hearthstone tournaments. In a card game, Swiss is by and far the best format for determining the best players.

The format of the Winter Playoffs was seven rounds of Swiss for 89 players followed by a top-8 cut and a single-elimination bracket seeded based on the Swiss results for that top eight. This meant that there was one 7-0, five 6-1s, and two 5-2s going through to the single-elimination bracket (with 11 5-2s missing out).

There was some criticism leveled at this arrangement.

First, some people would have preferred a clean cut instead of some 5-2s making it in on tiebreakers. However, this is an almost unavoidable feature of any Swiss bracket with a top cut. Only relatively few numbers of players and rounds result in clean cuts. For example, 128 players and 7 rounds results in a clean cut at 6-1 – but having just the right numbers is often not possible.

Second, the cut for a spot at the cross-region Winter Championships was top-4. Therefore, the top-8 from the Swiss were still all in a position where they needed to win one single-elimination bo5 in order to get their ticket. As luck would have it, pokrovac, who had a clean 7-0 record after the Swiss portion, lost to GreenSheep who came in at 5-2, thus eliminating pokrovac from the Winter Championships. Many people felt this was unfair, and multiple solutions were proposed on Twitter. The most workable ones were the suggestion to have a direct top-4 cut instead and the suggestion to follow the setup used in Magic: the Gathering, where the top seeds get byes in the first rounds of the single-elimination bracket. Some such arrangement could be considered to make the Swiss portion more rewarding.

Overall, I’m extremely happy to see Swiss format used. The number of players, the number of rounds, and the exact format of the bracket after the top cut are things to be improved upon, but the format already did wonders for the playoffs.

The schedule disaster at the Tavern Hero qualifier

Perhaps the thing that this tournament will be most remembered by is the schedule disaster at the Tavern Hero qualifier. Played the day before Playoffs, Tavern Heroes from all over Europe clashed to fill the final 8 spots of the Winter Playoffs. This did not go well.

The tournament ran horribly late with players playing well into the night – between midnight and 2 am depending on the venue – and even then the tournament was not done and players had to continue in 8 hours and finish the Tavern Hero part before the Playoffs could begin. This resulted in the Playoffs starting three hours late.

To make things worse, both the Tavern Hero part and the first day of the Playoffs went so late that some venues closed and sent the players away. In at least most cases, Blizzard and the local admins arranged for alternative play areas (internet cafes, even the home of the Swedish admin), but this may not have always been the case.

Why did these issues happen and what could be done about it?

In the early reports, there were two apparent reasons: players repeatedly disconnecting from games and players playing on venue’s hardware where they had to share computers and could not all play at once.

For example, there were apparently 28 players in Paris and the venue had no wifi and they could only play on the venue’s hardware, thus causing significant delays. Same thing in Rome with 23 players and 12 computers. Some of the venues were simply not quite up to par. The players brought their own devices, but had no way to play on them.

These issues obviously caused some heated discussion, and some people were ready to call the whole system of running the Tavern Hero part the day before the actual tournament a failure. However, when taking travel into account, the only way to not run it the day before would be to do the whole thing online, and that is not quite the tavern atmosphere nor the fair play environment needed. It is possible to run the tournament the day before. If anything could be changed in the tournament format, it too could be in Swiss format with a top-8 cut into the Playoffs. This would enable it to be played with a lower number of rounds, although with a higher number of games overall.

So, in the end, we are back to the issue with vetting the LAN venues. The importance of this cannot be overemphasized: the quality of the tournament depends on good venues, and we had a major reminder of that both in the Tavern Hero part and also in the Playoffs themselves where the disconnects continued even on stream.

Broadcasting Swiss

I have written about broadcasting Swiss before, especially on how Magic: the Gathering does it and what lessons Hearthstone could learn from that. Some of those ideas are still valid and unused even after the Winter Playoffs.

This was the first time Blizzard broadcasted a Swiss tournament, and they clearly had a number of new ideas on how to go about it. As always, these caused heavy debate, and Abar, one of the producers, already responded to much of the discussion on TwitLonger.

First, he defended Blizzard’s choice of showing mostly well-known players in a two-fold argument: known players attract viewers and as some of them were fighting for their tournament lives, that makes for good entertainment. I feel that there was some slight inaccuracy in this statement, as while technically in the chosen format it is x-3 record that dooms you, in practice it is nigh impossible to have good enough tiebreakers to make it if you lose two series early on. Going from 2-2 to 5-2 simply does not give you the tiebreakers to move on. Known players at x-1 records? Sure, they are still in it, and can be interesting, but x-2 just is not going to make it in any realistic scenario. I feel that giving the appearance that it does is disrespecting the viewers.

Another new thing was switching between games. This was great for the most part, as Swiss broadcasting really requires the readiness to show multiple games from the round. However, the broadcast also jumped on and off the games in a haphazard manner at times, skipping key moments of one game to show early turns of a control matchup for example. Hearthstone is in general fast-paced enough that it makes sense to show an entire game from start to finish – there is no major downtime that necessitates showing chunks of action to compensate and keep up the pace.

Spotlighting and drawing was another new feature. I’m all for making broadcasts accessible, but the execution just was not there yet.

Especially the dark overlay to spotlight a card was horrendous to watch and detracted from the viewing experience. Magic has been doing this a lot better for a long time by showing a copy of the card in question as an overlay and I can testify how it is useful for the less-knowledgeable viewer, as I watch some Magic tournaments while no longer playing myself and thus having no good grasp of the most recent cards. The spotlight used in the Winter Playoffs broadcast was not nearly as useful.

As for drawing graphics to illustrate potential moves and sequences, it can work, but needs practice. The casters were not yet that comfortable with it and could not use it to its full potential.

One thing I have not seen mentioned but bothered me was the delay in the broadcast combined with the other available information. The brackets were updated before the games finished on the broadcast, and players also tweeted their results while they were still featured on the stream. I intentionally avoided looking at the bracket once I realized this, but the results of several games were still spoiled on Twitch chat and on Twitter. If Blizzard wants to broadcast compelling storylines, they need to delay publicly updating the bracket while the games are still being broadcast and direct the players to not tweet the results too early.

Overall though, Blizzard succeeded in reducing the downtime between games in a Swiss broadcast, and that is of crucial importance for the viewer experience. There are still plenty of details to work on, as especially the early broadcast was plagued by minor issues, such as not seeing the cards both players held and not seeing if the other player had a secret up, but I like the direction Blizzard is headed with their broadcasts.

Conclusions

To sum all of this up, Blizzard has improved on a number of issues they had last year. There were some minor issues here and there, and there is still more work to be done on broadcasting the tournaments.

There is just one huge issue remaining: vetting the LAN locations. Even though work has been done about them, some locations were still unacceptable and those caused huge issues in everything all the way to scheduling and broadcasting.

 

 

 

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