2020 is a defining year for card game esports

There’s no skirting around it: it’s not been a good few years for card game esports.

Since the digital collectable card game (CCG) genre exploded following the release of Hearthstone in 2014, a number of issues have coalesced, causing growth to stagnate, and, eventually, to reverse. But with new projects in the pipeline and investment pumping in, could 2020 prove to be the year that the scene is brought back to life – or will it see the genre’s final flop?

A dying giant

If we’re to assess the chances of a card game esports revival, first we have to study what’s already out there. And in this field, there’s no greater presence than Hearthstone.

Why 2020 will be a defining year for card game esports
Photo credit: Helena Kristiansson / Blizzard

A few months ago, Xiaomeng “VKLiooon” Li was crowned the Hearthstone Global Finals champion at BlizzCon 2019, becoming the first woman to win a major BlizzCon championship. “For all the girls out there who have a dream for esports competition, for glory,” VKLiooon said, “if you want to do it and you believe in yourself, you should just forget your gender and go for it.”

It was a huge and wholesome moment for Hearthstone and for the wider esports community, which still sees overwhelming male representation among professional players. It was also one of the only Hearthstone stories to make waves in a relatively quiet year for Blizzard’s title. Quiet, that is, apart from one major hiccup.

In October 2019, Hong Kong-based Hearthstone player Chung “blitzchung” Ng Wai was suspended after using a post-game interview to support local protesters. The incident received widespread international coverage, and Blizzard faced an enormous public backlash for what was perceived as pro-China censorship. It even lost a Mitsubishi sponsorship as a result of the controversy.

With public sentiment firmly against the title’s developers, players took to social media to exclaim their discontent and distance themselves from the game. But truth be told, interest in Hearthstone esports had been waning long before.

A quick glimpse at charts on Twitch statistics sites such as SullyGnome and TwitchTracker will instantly show that viewership for Hearthstone has been dipping by virtually every conceivable metric since early 2017 (if not earlier). A report released by research firm Superdata in the same year suggested that Hearthstone was “killing itself”, as revenue began to fall. The situation doesn’t appear to have improved.

“Blizzard basically cut off the entire grassroots scene with Grandmasters.”

“I think Hearthstone’s track, in terms of esports, is at this point irreversible,” said Tom “Matthieist” Matthiesen, a journalist who specialised in Hearthstone for almost five years. “It saw peak popularity in 2015-2016, and has been slowly slipping ever since.”

So, what has caused the decline? Matthiesen pinpointed Blizzard’s decision to change to the Grandmasters format as a major driver behind the exodus.

“The culture in card games is really open-format. The idea is that you can bring your deck to an event, and if you’re good, you work your way and make a name for yourself,” he explained. “Hearthstone, for a while, had a relatively open system. Was it always good? No, but Blizzard was gradually making improvements to make it more of an open system in which consistency could be proven.

“In 2018, Hearthstone had a Masters format. There were tons of tournaments all across the world, which was very exhausting for viewers and players, and very costly as well. But what it did do was highlight those players who would perform consistently well. It was a very open and very grassroots structure. Instead of improving that format in 2019, Blizzard basically cut off the entire grassroots scene with Grandmasters.”

With the introduction of the Grandmasters system, 16 players per region were chosen to compete against one another in set seasons. Eight were selected based on their 2017 performances, and eight based on various metrics determined by Blizzard themselves. Whilst the greater stability offered to competing organisations may have helped bring in sponsorship money, the Grandmasters format was very exclusive. Perhaps too exclusive to allow an entire esports ecosystem to thrive.

“Basically, Blizzard cut off the lower-tier almost entirely, and that really hurt the community,” Matthiesen added.

Hearthstone will feature the Grandmasters format again in 2020 (with some tweaks). With old players exiting the scene, new ones lacking incentive to join, and viewership dropping, will Hearthstone finally fall from its perch at the top of the genre?

A new battle

For the first time in years, Hearthstone is facing real competition for its market share. And no, it’s not coming from a hyped-up new card game from Valve. It’s coming from a new genre altogether: autobattlers.

Teamfight Tactics
Image credit: Riot Games

Of course, that’s not the way things were meant to be. Hearthstone was meant to be reinvigorated by competition from Artifact, the Dota 2-inspired card game released by Valve in November 2018. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out that way.

“Nobody really liked anything about Artifact—they tolerated bits and pieces, but no one really liked something,” said Radoslav Kolev, a veteran writer and editor who has closely tracked the game since it was first revealed. “Even the heroes sucked.”

With a mountainous learning curve, steep paywalls, and a lack of integration into the existing Dota universe, players never turned up, and Artifact streams were virtually nonexistent. Artifact was dead on arrival.

“Every single element of this game told its players, ‘Please don’t play me, please, find something else to do, because I am here to alienate you.’”

“They screwed up monetisation, they never made a ladder… the draft season was the only good thing, but then you had to pay for it, like everything else,” explained Kolev. “Every single element of this game told its players, ‘Please don’t play me, please, find something else to do, because I am here to alienate you.’”

When a worthy opponent finally arose to take on Hearthstone, it wasn’t Artifact. It wasn’t even a card game. Well, not really.

Dota Auto Chess, a strategy mod for Dota 2, stirred up interest from the gaming community at the start of 2019, and inspired the launch of two major new games: Dota Underlords, Valve’s official take on the genre, and Teamfight Tactics (TFT), by League of Legends developer Riot Games. Both autobattlers were initially released in June.

Unlike Artifact, both Underlords and TFT appealed to the players of the MOBAs that they shared their universes with, they were both relatively easy to learn, and they were both entirely free to play. Popular streamers of MOBAs and card games alike have flocked to the new titles in their droves, and players have followed.

The jury’s out on whether autobattlers can be considered part of card game esports; many gameplay aspects are shared, yet others are entirely fresh. Purists place them in their own category. Yet one thing is certain: they will undoubtedly have an impact on card game esports in 2020.

If you consider autobattlers to be card games,” Matthiesen said, “I think they will expand the audience of card games, because they also attract other strategy players.”

A drop of magic

While autobattlers have spurred on players and content creators alike with new and inviting challenges, an oft-overlooked titan has been making its own moves towards modernisation. Magic: The Gathering Arena is alive and kicking in 2020.

Magic: The Gathering Arena
Photo credit: Wizards of the Coast

In February, 16 players will compete for a share of $1,000,000 (£766,000) at Magic World Championship XXVI. Wizards of the Coast’s competition is unique in that there are two ways to qualify: one through tabletop events, and another through MTG Arena, the online adaptation of the historic card game.

There’s also the Magic Pro League (MPL), which consists of 32 pro players from around the world who are offered contracts by Wizards of the Coast, competing in both MTG Arena and paper Magic.

Then there’s MagicFest, the Players Tour, and Mythic Invitationals, with prize pools of $700,000 (£536,000). Not to mention the four MTG Arena tournaments that will be hosted at DreamHack festivals in 2020, with a combined prize pool of $400,000 (£306,000).

How is nobody talking about MTG Arena esports?

“I think the reason MTG Arena flies under the radar [in esports] is because people still associate it with the physical card game aspect,” said Matthiesen. “When I hear of MTG, I think of people bringing their decks to convention halls and playing there. From what I’ve seen in my bubble, MTG Arena hasn’t done a fantastic job of attracting new players the way Hearthstone did.”

“I think MTG: Arena is actually the perfect card game product.”

“MTG is a really complicated game, and difficult to get into,” Kolev agreed. “I think MTG Arena is actually the perfect card game product, and out of all the online games I’ve tried, from Hearthstone through Duelyst, Faeria, to Elder Scrolls, Eternal… up until MTG Arena, I didn’t feel that any of them was done well; not even Hearthstone. But MTG Arena did so many things right by trying to be the best digital Magic experience, that is at the same time very close to the paper Magic experience.”

The true issue, as Radoslav noted, is how MTG Arena struggles as a streaming product.

“The game is just not entertaining to watch. It’s difficult, you have to track a lot of things, it has a beloved universe; there’s so many hindrances to get into Magic, that automatically it will be of interest to much fewer people than Hearthstone. It can be the best product ever made, but the game, in its heart, is just not meant to be a leader.

“We’re dealing with an online generation, with new fans, the viewership on Twitch is getting younger and younger, and Magic is just not the game for it.”

Magic: The Gathering might not seize headlines, but you can bet that MTG Arena ecosystem will continue to flourish heading into 2020 and beyond. Ultimately, however, MTG Arena doesn’t have to play by the same rules as others in the space, as paper cards, not virtual ones, are its main product and money-maker. In that sense, and although it boasts an impressive community and a diverse tournament structure, it has little to do with the way other card game esports operate, and its existence can’t single-handedly demonstrate the sustainability of the genre.

A future legend

While the term ‘digital collectable card games’ now encompassing (or inspiring) an ever-increasing array of titles that barely fit the moniker, the upcoming launch of Legends of Runeterra is a much-anticipated return to basics.

Legends of Runeterra
Image credit: Riot Games

First announced in October 2019, Legends of Runeterra is another Riot Games title, which is set to release later this year. With the backing of Riot Games, which, through League of Legends, manages arguably the largest and most stable esport in the world, could Legends of Runeterra herald a second coming for card game esports?

“The benefit that Legends of Runeterra has, to give them a kickstart, is the massive fan base of the League of Legends universe,” said Matthiesen. “League of Legends has an estimated user base of over a hundred million active monthly users. That’s insane. That’s crazy! And Hearthstone had the same kind of fan base; Blizzard fans are very loyal, and World of Warcraft is still an incredibly huge game. So, I think Runeterra has an advantage over other card games that have come out in the past to try and rival Hearthstone.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Kolev. “Artifact was never going to be the battery that re-sparked the genre, but Legends of Runeterra is the game with potential, I believe. If it had come out when Artifact was trying to do the same thing, I think we could be looking at a very different world for card games. It’s cooked with the right ingredients. It has all the recipe there for success.”

So, what should Riot Games do in order to ensure its game can grow as a successful esport? Matthiesen believes that the answer comes from the early days of Hearthstone’s growth. “I hope that with Legends of Runeterra, they will understand that card communities thrive when the scene is open,” he said. “There are third-party organiser who have previously dabbled in Hearthstone, the big organisers like ESL, Starladder and ELEAGUE. Those kinds of organisers all have great ideas on how to make a cool and fun card game tournament.

“This was the magic of Magic: The Gathering; that you could drop by your club on a Friday night, play some Magic with some friends and win something, and it feels better than just winning a ladder game.”

“Eventually, obviously, there has to be some structure in place, but I hope that—at least in the beginning of Legends of Runeterra—the scene is open, with many tournament organisers trying out different formats and helping grow that grassroots scene.”

Riot Games has proven that it can build an esports behemoth, but Legends of Runeterra will be a test to see whether it can do it again. And for it to be done successfully, it may well have to be done organically.

“Even though we think that card games are streamer-driven, card games actually were born on the back of grassroots competition,” said Kolev. “This was the magic of Magic: The Gathering; that you could drop by your club on a Friday night, play some Magic with some friends and win something, and it feels better than just winning a ladder game. This is what made Magic great, and this is what the heart of card games is all about.”

Autobattlers and paper card games aside, the future of traditional card game esports seems to rest firmly in Riot Games’ hands. If Legends of Runeterra succeeds, it will show the world that Hearthstone’s success was not merely a flash in the pan. If it should fail as Artifact did, it will warn developers that the genre is truly dead.

“2020 is going to be as interesting a year for card games as they come,” said Kolev. “I think not since 2015 have we had a year with potential for the genre. Because in 2015, Hearthstone was having probably one of its best years. All the other games appeared, competition was heating up on the market, and we got some great stuff out of it. I think it was by far the golden year of Hearthstone, because the competition made it so fresh and agile.

“Now, Runeterra is coming to shake up the space. I think, if the big players [Blizzard, Valve] get woken up by Runeterra, it’s enough to usher in a second golden age for the genre.”

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