The first Hearthstone Championship Tour Major of 2017, the Europe Winter Playoffs, was plagued with controversies ranging from organizational delays to allegations of players intentionally disconnecting from losing games.
It was a less-than-auspicious outing for the tour's new format, which incorporated feedback of the much-criticized 2016 edition of the tour including a move from double-elimination brackets to the Swiss format.
According to pro Hearthstone players Thijs "ThijsNL" Molendijk, Dima "RDU" Radu and Harald "Powder" Gimre, while HCT 2017 has made some incremental improvements over last year, it still presents many issues for pro players.
According to Thijs, while the adoption of Swiss and the reduction of players of the regional playoffs from over 200 to 64 (though, 90 took part in the European playoffs due to point-ties) are welcome changes, acquiring HCT points through Ladder Play and Open Cups is still grindy and time-consuming.
"I think when you came with 200 players its a little of a ... it can become a little bit of a lottery ... so I'm happy it goes to 64 now," Thijs said. "And yeah, the points system, I would have liked it if it could be a less rewarding, like the last Ladder day [of a] season is really stressful, so I'm not too big of a fan of that. But yeah, it's probably one of the only ways we can go at the moment."
While Open Cups — locally organized tournaments which award HCT points — provide less points than last year, one major change has proved a double-edged sword. Players can only claim points from their highest Open Cup finish in a month and Open Cups must have at least 64 players to award points.
While this works out well for players who win their first or second Open Cups, anyone who doesn't is compelled to keep competing in them until they win to maximize their points total. This is difficult for streamers whose livelihood depends upon keeping a consistent streaming schedule.
"Open Cups are still shitty and not really worth it to play. But still I feel obligated to play them because you really want the points," RDU said. "Ladder still giving that many points is also not that cool. Forcing players to travel for big Majors to get the bulk of points is also not ideal."
In regards to players travelling to Majors, one issue the Europe Playoffs encountered was that instead of being held in a centralized location, stations were set up in bars and restaurants across the continent. While each venue had official Blizzard admins, incidents erupted from players having to move to internet cafes and living rooms after their venue closed to internet disconnects forcing multiple re-games.
For instance, DreamHack Winter 2016 winner Louis "Mitsuhide" Bremers lost a tied match againt Romanno after having to re-play the tiebreaker game three times because his opponent disconnected from the game twice. Mitsuhide was ahead both times the disconnects occurred. The final game, which he lost, was streamed without casters mentioning the disconnects.
He says that he would like Blizzard to take a more nuanced approach to disconnects, with board state being taken into consideration on whether the game should be re-played or be considered an automatic loss.
"I would appoint a specialist or former pro player (even casters have enough knowledge for this) to look if the person DC'ing is ahead or behind," Mitsuhide said in a text interview. "In every case where it's 50-50 or he's behind, his opponent should get the win. If he's ahead a rematch should be issued."
The decentralized organization also hurt Alliance's Jon "Orange" Westberg, who previously won SeatStory Cup VI and reached the Grand Final of WESG 2016. Orange failed to qualify for the playoffs through points but attended a Tavern Hero qualifier in Sweden in a last ditch effort to enter the tournament.
Orange described his Odyssey in a long Twitlonger, explaining how he was stranded in Stockholm in the middle of the night after the second half of the qualifier was moved to the next morning, just three hours before the playoffs were set to start.
"All I can say is that this [has] been the worst tournament experience I've ever had in my career and I am really [disappointed] in the people [organizing] this event. I hope that Blizzard will never let something like this happen again," he wrote.
While the move to Swiss format has been overall well-received, some members of the community have taken issue with the single-elimination playoff bracket, as it can punish players who performed well in the Swiss. For instance, Mikuláš "Pokrovac" Dio went undefeated with a perfect 7-0 record but was eliminated in the single-elimination quarterfinals by James "GreenSheep" Luo. That one best-of-five match was difference between going home or going to the Global Winter Championship in the Bahamas.
RDU addressed the possibility of such an event arising in a YouTube video he made criticizing the playoffs format in January. According to him, a single-elimination bracket is an artificial way to increase drama and there are better ways to create "hype" that are fairer to players.
"You could still like find other ways to make hype about your tournament than just inflating it through making the current format just single-eliminates one guy and, 'Oh, maybe the guy that won the Swiss and went 7-0 he's just going to go home, how unlucky!'" he said in the video. "It's just very bad way of tournament making."
In our interview, RDU said that if given the chance he would enact major changes to the HCT's qualification system that would restrict competition in Open Cups to Legend players.
"I want to make like Open Cups with a lot of players, like maybe 1,000, and then you award the first 20-56 with points and do them weekly and have the Cups require you to like be in good standing on Ladder when you sign up, or be like Legend on Ladder when you sign up for the cup," he said.
"And then, after three months of these kind of cups, like 12 cups, there'll be — if you give points to like a lot of players, like 256 and upwards, the better players are more likely to qualify, rather than having like a Ladder system where you reward people for getting lucky on the last day of the season."
Powder, on the other hand, says that he's positive about a number of the macro changes made for the 2017 tour, including making the seasonal championships international events with players from all four regions.
"I like most of the things they're trying to do, it's gonna be fun with the way that its gonna be three big championships where all the different regions get to play each other, which is nice, instead of just BlizzCon. So yeah, I think it's gonna be exciting," he said.
However, pros like Mitsuhide say it's difficult to take comfort in what steps Blizzard take forward when they bear the brunt of the steps gone backward. Especially when they commit hundreds of hours just to qualify, only to miss out because of format decisions and technical errors.
"You have to imagine most of us pros do this full time or semi-full time and grinding the open circuit requires three months of full dedication usually grinding ladder and playing open cups for a minimum of five hours every day," Mitsuhide said.
"In my case I earned most of my qualification points by winning DreamHack winter but it's still so many months gone to waste. After I lost the first round I had to go 6-0 to make it and the feeling of being robbed of the win made it impossible to focus well enough to win these rounds. So all in all, very, very frustrating and unrewarding experience."
Blizzard have declined to on the situation.
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