Free-to-play games such as Hearthstone offer huge prize money but winning tournaments is not actually a good way to make a living, finds Alex Hern
It’s the lot of every sports fan to sit on the sofa watching their stars play and think “I could do that, if I tried” safe in the knowledge that no one is ever going to call them on that claim.
It’s no different in eSports, the world of professional video games. In fact, the temptation to cast yourself as an undiscovered star is all the greater, given the general absence of any physical feats of strength or agility.
Professional video gaming differs from traditional sports in other ways too. One of the more interesting ones is a very real flow from casual to professional.
No matter how good you are during your Sunday kickabouts in the park or your weekly squash matches, winning them won’t see you steadily rise up the ranks, eventually taking on the best in the world for prestige and glory.
But in gaming, they can. In late November, I decided I would try. How hard can it be to become a professional gamer, really? Surely, I thought, the biggest hurdle is just finding the time to try. So I decided to go full-time for a week to see if I could make it.
I played Hearthstone, a digital collectible card game based on the venerable Warcraft franchise (which includes World of Warcraft, among others). Launched by mega-publisher Activision Blizzard in spring 2014, it’s steadily grown to become one of the most disruptive forces in gaming.
Like many games harbouring dreams of eSports dominance, it’s free-to-play, with daily victories earning gold, which can be used to buy new cards to build out your collection. Naturally, those cards can also be bought with real money, and the most dedicated players (including the Guardian’s technology editor) have dropped hundreds of pounds on these digital collectibles.
The game’s creators haven’t disclosed quite how valuable it is to them, but one recent study suggested it brought in around $20m (£14m) a month for the company. That’s not surprising: free-to-play games can, if they take off, be extraordinary earners. Their player base grows quickly because the barrier to entry is almost non-existent, and yet the amount of money they can pull in from the most dedicated players (“whales”) is usually far in excess of the £40-£60 a traditional game can charge as a one-off fee. One player I know, an executive at a London-based startup, only plays using decks made from “golden” cards, a purely cosmetic difference that costs two to 10 times as much as the normal cards. He declined to estimate how much he had spent on the game when I asked.
Casual players such as me often focus on playing the game to maximise the amount of in-game currency that they earn. But in the background is a second motivation, one that can take over alarmingly easily.
The game offers a ranked play mode, which randomly pits players against each other, winning and losing ranks as they play. Rise high enough in the ranks and you hit the Legend rank. There, your ranking stops being equivalent to your tier (rank one players being best, and rank 25 being worst), and becomes your actual place in the cohort of the best players in the world. Moreover, simply reaching that tier brings you a step towards qualifying for the world championships; the higher you rank, the more points you get on your scorecard. Get enough points, and an invitation to the regional qualifiers can come your way.
Win the regional qualifiers and you get invited to the world championships; win those and a $100,000 prize is yours.
All you have to do is win an awful lot of video games. That sounded appealing. I play an awful lot of video games, so who’s to say I can’t win a lot?
As it turns out, my editor, for one. He said there were two problems with the idea – neither of which were that I’m not actually particularly good at Hearthstone. Instead, his issues were more specific. “Firstly, you’re not even as good as me. And secondly … what’s the highest rank you’ve ever reached?” It was 15. The highest is one; the lowest is 25. He had a point.
But I wasn’t going to let my quest to be a pro gamer be deterred by a little thing like not being very good at Hearthstone. And I was buoyed in that decision after I spoke to Andrey Yanyuk, better known as Reynad, one of the most successful professional Hearthstone players. “Hearthstone’s just a very low skill-cap game,” he told me. “If … you’re playing several hours a day, you’re pretty much gonna be at the same skill level as most people playing the game at a professional level. It’s very easy to hit that skill ceiling in Hearthstone. Once you hit it, you have the same odds of winning as anyone else. It’s just how the game works.”
But Reynad also introduced me to another thing to consider when it came to striding out as a pro player: winning tournaments is not actually a good way to make a living.
Sure, the world championship has a grand prize of $100,000 – a nice income for any job, particularly video games. But only one person can win that, and the rewards decline precipitously as you get further down the ranking.
And unlike physical sports, there’s only really one Hearthstone tournament to consider: the official, Blizzard-run world championships. Fail to win that, and you have to wait another year for your chance at the big money. Unlike other head-to-head sports such as tennis, for example, there’s not really a championship circuit.
What’s more, even if you are really, really (really) good, the game itself is fairly open to punishing amounts of random chance. One popular card has a 1.5% chance of wiping the board clean; another has a 400% swing in the amount of damage it will randomly do on the board. The best players will learn to manage the randomness but that still hasn’t stopped tournaments being decided on a roll of the virtual dice.
So the more consistent way to make a living playing Hearthstone might not be to head for the top of the tournaments, but instead focus on building up an audience eager to watch you play. That’s what a number of Hearthstone professionals do, turning to the streaming platform Twitch to play games in front of adoring fans.
Reynad began streaming online card games, not with Hearthstone, but with Magic: the Gathering Online (MtGO), the digital version of the venerable MtG card game.
Offline, Magic is a big deal: the game’s creator, Richard Garfield, pretty much invented the concept of a collectible card game, and it’s dominated the genre for almost all of its 20-year lifespan (at the peak of its popularity, the Pokémon trading card game may just have eclipsed it). Online, however, it never quite took off in the same way,. It largely gained an audience of people who wanted to play the physical card game but couldn’t. And so Reynad, who estimates he was streaming to 90% of the total audience for the game, peaked with around 600 viewers.
When Hearthstone was released, he saw his opportunity. “Hearthstone was just a better version of everything Magic was trying to do,” he explains.
“It was basically the same game, the same fundamental resource system, so it was everything I was already good at.
“I saw it come out, and thought ‘this is the only skill set I have, and this game will be big’. I was seeing it hold like 3,000 viewers in the first week of beta, and I was like ‘wow, I could be way more entertaining than Trump [early streaming success Jeffrey Shih’s username] … and way better’.”
Whereas before, Reynad had to play 10 to 12 hours of MtGO a day just to scrape a living, Hearthstone provided a larger fanbase, and one that was still growing at a huge pace. Twitch shares advertising revenue with its most successful streamers, as well as a portion of the money the streamers receive from their channel’s subscribers. And so, with enough people watching his streams, the income from advertising alone provides a living.
Reynad argues that streaming is what we should really be focusing on when it comes to discussing “pro” gamers. “I mean, what is the definition of the word professional? It’s somebody who does something for a living, right? So, yeah, most people who call themselves pros aren’t, because they’re not making a living off of playing the game. Whereas pretty much every streamer does it full-time, as a job.”
He continues: “I would argue that Streamers are more professional Hearthstone players than professional Hearthstone players. If you had the choice between being a good pro player, and having a successful stream, I think having a successful stream is infinitely better in all sorts of ways. But some people … it’s just a very saturated market, not everyone can be a streamer, just like not everybody can be a pro player.
“The top four streams will make 95% of the money that’s in being a Hearthstone player. That’s the reality, and it’s true for a lot of things in life. I feel like there’s definitely an opportunity to be a successful streamer, I just wouldn’t recommend Hearthstone.”
Unfortunately, I’m not good at any other game. So, Hearthstone it is.
I took a week off work, and set up my streaming apparatus on the Sunday afternoon. An app, Gameshow, would share my screen while I played Hearthstone, and put an image of me from my webcam in the top-right corner. The whole thing would be streamed live to my Twitch channel, where my adoring public would watch me fight my way up to the Legend rank, the first stage of my eventual plan to become Hearthstone world champion.
It did not work out that way.
The first problem was that I picked a particularly bad week to push for a high rank. Hearthstone resets its leaderboard on the first of every month, and my first day put aside for trying to become a pro player was 30 November. That shaved a seventh of my time off, forcing me to power through the ranks even faster.
On the upside, it did give me a day to experiment with Twitch and the other streaming technology I would be using, as well as perfect my decks and practice. It turns out, incidentally, that streaming to Twitch isn’t as easy as people such as Reynad make it seem. Even simply getting on the platform isn’t as easy as it could be, because it requires expensive software and a modestly powerful computer.
By the end of the first day, I had built myself a deck, which (I thought) could take me all the way. Based on an archetype called Secret Paladin, it works by flooding the board with cheap minions, while also playing the occasional “secret”. Those cards, the only piece of hidden information in the game, trigger when some condition is met on your opponents turn, like them attacking, or one of your minions dying. The deck builds up a rapid lead until turn six, when (ideally) you play Mysterious Challenger, a type of minion that automatically pulls out one of every secret in your deck. At that point, the deck becomes infuriating to play against, with the secrets triggering in rapid succession to prevent any attempt at clearing the board.
I know. It’s incomprehensible, unless you’ve already played the game, in which case it’s infuriatingly oversimplified. But the important thing is this: the deck wins a lot. So much so, in fact, that in the period I was playing, there were calls for Mysterious Challenger to be “nerfed” ie reduced in power, to ensure an even playing field. The term comes from first-person shooters, where players would complain that previously overpowered guns now felt like they were firing Nerf darts.
The other important thing about my deck is that whatever it did, win or lose, it did it quickly. Either my victory would be assured by turn six, or I’d be sure enough of my imminent defeat to concede the match and move on to the next one. That’s important, because to progress to Legend you need to win a lot of games. To progress from the lowest rank to Legend takes 95 wins; and even from where I started, with my rank carried over from November, took 85. Oh, and if you lose a match, you lose a star.
To reach Legend, I would have to win hundreds of games. That meant avoiding other popular deck types such as “control” (which involves focusing on staying one step ahead of your opponent permanently, taking a long time to kill them entirely) or “fatigue” (trying to make the match go on so long that your opponent runs out of cards).
But by the end of Monday, I had my deck and I had my streaming set up. On Tuesday, it was time to play.
Tuesday was not good. Going through the lower ranks of play was easy enough, and by the end of the first day I had risen from rank 20 to rank 16. But what I hadn’t banked on was how exhausting the game could be.
Streaming looks effortless when you’re watching someone else doing it. They’re just playing their favourite video game and talking to camera. What could be easier?
But, as anyone who’s ever done live TV probably knows, the pressure of an audience changes things. Firstly, the desire not to have dead air forces you to provide a running commentary on everything you’re doing. But vocalising something forces you to think about it, which means the sort of decisions previously taken on autopilot now take conscious mental effort.
Secondly, if you’re streaming to an audience, you have to be streaming constantly. It’s one thing to take a loo break – that’s fine, and plenty of streamers simply leave an empty chair for a couple of minutes. But if you’re at the screen, you have to be playing the game. You can’t have a quick 15-minute break to read an article, or watch Netflix. You have to do most of your streaming in one massive lump, because otherwise it’s impossible to build up a critical mass of followers. People start watching the stream in drips and drabs but if you stop, they all leave at once.
Then there’s the fact that Hearthstone is a turn-based game. There’s a lot of downtime, and I didn’t realise how much of that time I used to do other things until I couldn’t any more. Distractions they may be, but they make the game a less exhausting experience.
By the end of the second day, I was exhausted. But at least I’d progressed. The same could not be said for the rest of the week.
Wednesday and Thursday are a blur. People began watching the stream, in ones and twos. But that small group was witness to my uncomfortable realisation that I’m really bad at Hearthstone. To reach Legend in a week, I would have had to rise at least four ranks a day. I’d done that on day one, rising through the easiest tiers. But on the following days, things slowed down. A lot.
I began losing as many matches as I won. For a while, I powered through and managed to rise up to rank 14, but in the end, I entered a state that any competitive gamer will know: I began to tilt.
Originating from poker, tilting is the word for the emotional state you enter after a series of losses; hit by the failure, you begin to adopt worse and worse strategies, often becoming overly aggressive in an attempt to reverse the trend. Instead, of course, you simply lose more, and so tilt more. That vicious cycle is why being emotionally prepared for loss is important before any competitive play, and I just didn’t have it.
In my case, the tilting took the form of wildly cycling through other decks, in an attempt to find out what would actually work. Rather than using my thoroughly tested Paladin, I switched repeatedly: to a Warlock deck I’d thrown together in minutes; to a Warrior deck that was grindingly slow to play; to a Druid deck that just didn’t work.
It was unpleasant. But not as unpleasant as the Friday, when I was lain low by illness. Yes, a week of playing video games had left me so exhausted that I came down with an unidentifiable bug, and couldn’t bring myself to get out of bed. But I still streamed.
I streamed, and I did so badly, I dropped a rank.
By the end of Friday, I’d had enough. My stream had 126 views, total, over five days and around 30 hours of playing; and yet I had risen just five ranks, less than a quarter of the way to where I’d wanted to be.
I decided to redefine a week as a “working week”, and call it a day. Reynad was right: streaming Hearthstone is a terrible idea. But he was also wrong. If you stream eight hours a day, you’re not necessarily going to get good enough at it to be in the top few per cent. Sometimes you’re going to be me, and you’re going to suck. You’re always going to suck. And there’s not much more you can do about it.
Unless … I could stream myself playing something else. Maybe Destiny? I can’t be terrible at every game I own. Right?