Trouble on the Road to the 2015 Hearthstone World Championship

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Just last week, Blizzard announced the 2015 Hearthstone World Championship. While not many details are available just yet, we have learned what the qualification process will look like. The sixteen player World Championship will be made up of four representatives from each of four regions – The Americas, Europe, China, and Asia-Pacific. Those four representatives will come from a field of eight players at the Regional Championships, for which players must earn their spot through a Regional Qualifier, which will be 40 player double elimination tournaments. Players can secure one of those forty spots through the Last Call tournament or by being one of the 23 seeded players based on points accumulated throughout the year.

How does one accumulate said points? There are two ways – finishing in the Top 100 Legend at the end of a ranked season and through performance at Blizzard sanctioned tournaments. The point breakdown is as follows:

  • 1st: 50 points
  • 2nd-10th: 40 points
  • 11th-20th: 30 points
  • 21st-50th: 10 points
  • 51st-100th: 1 point

No information is available yet about how points will be rewarded at tournaments.

While I don’t expect the details of the qualification procedure to change at this point, I do want to express some concerns I have about this method.

While there is nothing concrete yet about how tournaments will award points, I’m somewhat concerned about the fact that they will at all. Thus far, pretty much every large-scale Hearthstone tournament has been invitation based rather than an open competition. At most, tournaments tend to reserve perhaps a few slots for the winner of open qualifiers, with the majority of the places taken up by invited pros.

While this is entirely understandable from a business and marketing perspective, since organizers want their events to attract viewers by including their favorite players, it is not particularly fair in a competitive sense. Players who are invited to tournaments simply have more opportunities to earn points than those who are not. This is particularly troublesome because the Regional Qualifier seeding goes to the 23 players who accumulate the most points, which means that players who don’t have the opportunity to earn points from tournaments are simply starting out behind.

Now, I understand that it is in the interests of Blizzard to build stars, and giving players who have already made a name for themselves a minor advantage when it comes to earning a Regional Qualifier seed works toward that goal. I’m just concerned that the tournament system we’ve seen so far in Hearthstone is very much a rich-get-richer model, where players who are already established in the scene – or sometimes in the scene of other Blizzard games – continue to benefit while up and coming talented players have few opportunities to shine.

I believe that I’m actually one of the players who may potentially benefit from this system. I’ve already received invitations to play in several Hearthstone events, and I would not be surprised to receive more in the future. That said, I hope Blizzard is careful about rewarding established players too heavily with points from invitation-only tournaments this year. Hearthstone is a game that clearly appeals to a wide audience, and I’d love to see more of that audience getting a chance to play competitively at a high level.

My second concern with the invitation structure stems from using the ranked ladder system to distribute rewards. I have voiced my concerns with the ladder system in the past, but I want to revisit them, because I think they remain very relevant. The fact that the Top 100 players all receive points helps mitigate the all-or-nothing system of making Top 16 for last  year’s World Championship qualifiers, but there are still several core issues with the current ladder system.

These issues are uncertainty and volatility. The root of the uncertainty in the system is the hidden rating that ultimately results in your ranking within Legend. Two people can be Legend 1 at different times and have it mean very different things, and they have no real way of knowing it.

Legend2

“Should I sit on my rating, or should I play more?”

This is problematic because the rewards for the season are only distributed at the end of the month when the season is over. If a player is ranked #1 with two days to go in the season, there is no way for them to know how secure they are in that position. How far behind is the #2 player? How about #10? If they stopped playing now, how likely are they to end the season at #1 and get the 50 points that comes with it? This leads to one of two behaviors – either playing frantically in the final days before the season ends, or just ceasing play entirely and hoping your ranking holds.

That’s another thing that comes with the end of season rewards – inactivity. This is related to the second core problem of volatility. When a player is ranked very highly, it’s difficult for them to increase in ranks by winning, and they can drop quite dramatically by losing. I’ve been ranked #30 and #2000 Legend in the same day, which seems sort of outrageous if you think about it. I’m not entirely sure what kind of rating system Hearthstone is built on – again, there’s that uncertainty – but my guess is it’s something similar to ELO, which calculates point shifts based on ratings differential between players and the expected likelihood that one player will win. This mathematical expectation often does not correlate to reality thanks to random elements beyond a player’s control. Thus, once a player reaches a rank they feel may be relatively secure, they will generally stop playing entirely rather than risk their rating by losing.

Ultimately, I’m not a big fan of a system that makes people not want to play. I’m also not a fan of a system that doesn’t offer me the information I need to make informed decisions. I think the Hearthstone Ranked ladder is great for encouraging participation and for offering players goals to strive for, but I think it’s lousy for actually distributing a limited number of rewards due to the uncertainty and volatility intrinsic in the system.

As I mentioned in my last critique, I’m not sure what the best solution to the ladder problems are. Perhaps it’s best to have a particular threshold that players can reach in order to get additional rewards, but that has the problem of having to introduce a new barometer for measurement outside of what is already used in-game. If the ratings weren’t obfuscated, you could offer a Regional Qualifier invite to everyone who exceeded a certain rating value during the season, though that has the problem of potentially increasing the number of invitations significantly, as well as resulting in an indeterminate number of them.

Perhaps the best solution is to develop a rating system that better reflects the likelihood of players winning any given game. I’m not a math guy, but I know that many Magic players argued that an Elo-like formula that simply used different variables could more accurately capture the relative skill of players. Given the size and experience of the eSports team at Blizzard, and the amount of data they have regarding player performance from the ladder alone, I imagine the tools are there to do that. If the ladder  rankings were less volatile, they would better serve as a means for rewarding players with limited things like Regional Qualifier invites.

In any case, whatever the issues with the qualification process, I’m excited to get a chance to qualify for the Hearthstone World Championship this year. I started playing competitively too late last year to give it a real shot, but this year I plan on making it to BlizzCon. I hope to see you there!

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