The ESL, Hearthstone’s Road to Blizzcon and the future of Blizzard Esports

Anyone who follows a competitive esports scene is likely to have heard of the ESL, an organisation that runs tournaments across the full spectrum of skill levels and across a wide variety of popular titles. It’s not unexpected then that an organisation as large as the ESL would have its fair number of horror stories to go with it.

With a quick search on Reddit a huge number of complaints can be found ranging from late payment of winnings, in some case over a year, to the questionable decision to host an open air Counter-Strike tournament in the middle of Dubai’s summer.

The ESL also happens to be the organisation to whom Blizzard has outsourced production and management of its esports events. This month the ESL faced criticism over the handling of one of Hearthstone’s most high profile events; The Road to Blizzcon qualifier. In this event players battled it out for an opportunity to compete on the Blizzcon Stage, win a share of the $250,000 USD prize pool and most importantly claim the title of Hearthstone World Champion.

With the stakes set so high and the cost of entry to the tournament consisting of hundreds of hours of online ladder and tournament play, it’s no wonder that players felt upset and let down when they may have lost their place to poor management.

Kolento with his Dreamhack winnings

Kolento with his Dreamhack winnings

Kolento’s Disqualification

The latest controversy started over what might be considered a “bonus round”. Pavel, one of the winners of the initial qualifier, is unable to attend the event in Prague.

As a result a lifeline was handed to the 8 runners up. Those runners up were placed into a small 8 man single elimination tournament for a chance to take Pavel’s place. Amongst those players was one of Hearthstone’s best and most respected players. Alexander Malsh aka Kolento. The controversy began when Kolento failed to show up to his match against the French player Tomof and as a result faced a disqualification.

“That’s fair” you may be thinking, the only problem is Kolento claims he was never informed about his match or that a bonus round was even taking place. Kolento and his fans felt cheated. With many flocking to online message boards to ask why more wasn’t done. Since then the ESL has released the following statement on Reddit.

“In regards to the incident reported by Kolento, we would like to clarify: all eight players were sent an e-mail three days prior to the tournament to the addresses registered on ESL Play, which we ask players to keep updated. Seven of the eight players showed up on time to play their matches.

Kolento was matched against tomof. When Kolento did not show up for his match, our ESL admin repeatedly tried to get in touch with him through the ESL match chat and Battle.net, as did tomof. ESL and European Road to Blizzcon online qualification rules allow for a 15 minute grace period when showing up to a scheduled match (in this case 7pm CEST start time, cut-off time: 7:15pm CEST). After 20 minutes, the match was ruled as a no-show.

Kolento appeared online before 8pm CEST, however ESL decided against overturning the no-show ruling after discussion with Blizzard. Whilst it is a shame that we were not able to see Kolento take part in the competition, it is important for us to enforce our rules and remain impartial.

Bearing in mind the tournament rules and the circumstances, ESL’s admins made an informed final call. That said, we will certainly look into improving our match notifications and welcome feedback from the community.”

According to this statement Kolento was notified after all, so why didn’t he show up? A further response from the ESL, in the comment section, revealed the crux of the issue. In the original tournament players were notified via their Battle.net registered email addresses as many players had qualified for this tournament through dedicated ladder play alone. For the decider, players had instead been contacted by the email address registered to their ESL account, for Kolento this had been an outdated or throw away email. In that case are the ESL still at fault? Should Kolento has been checking his old email when correspondence up to that point had been done via his primary account? It’s been an a hot topic this week but many fans agree that at the very least some form of check in system should have been in place for such a small scale tournament.

This is what it should look like...

This is what it should look like…

This is what it actually looked like.

This is what it actually looked like.

Redwall’s allegations of cheating

Three weeks ago in the main part of the very same tournament the ESL faced even more criticism. Reddit user Redwall420 reported his opponent to the admins for attempting to cheat. The rules of the tournament requested players play 3 unique decks from 3 different classes. As a result, the rules requested players delete all decks with the exception of those intended for use in the tournament. It was also stated that a player may request a screenshot of his opponents deck selection screen to make sure they were playing by the rules.

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When Redwall requested this screenshot it appeared that his opponent had created multiple decks in what he claims was a possible attempt to ‘Sideboard’. Sideboarding is the act of playing two (or more) similar decks which are tuned to counter different matchups. For example one deck may contain a card that destroys weapons in order to improve its win rate against Warriors and Rogues whereas another deck may choose a card that steals secrets and traps to give it the upper hand against Mages or Hunters.

Upon being caught moments before the start of the series the admins advised Redwall’s opponent to delete his extra decks and proceed as normal. While this meant that the result of Redwall’s game was ultimately unchanged, the question remained as to whether or not those decks has been used to cheat in previous matches of the tournament. Despite this, the admins took no further action. Gaming website Polygon managed to secure a statement from project manager Charles Watson who claimed “our admins did a good job investigating the situation to determine whether cheating had taken place, administering the right competitive ruling and keeping players informed of their decisions”. Watson also made the claim that by submitting decklists prior to the game, the possibility of sideboarding is removed. He also added that in previous tournaments these submitted decklists have led to players facing disqualification over sideboarding.

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The major issue this raises is that players have no way of knowing the decklist submitted by their opponents. The only way to discover if cheating has taken place would be to take note of every card played in the BO5 series and request that an admin compare it to the submitted lists. With a turn time of less than 90 seconds and players having to carefully consider lines of play this isn’t a very likely prospect for many players and those that do go to the trouble have to spend a long time waiting for an admin to respond to their request before any investigation can begin to take place. The whole process is incredibly strenuous and unrealistic in a tournament setting and as a result leads to an environment where cheaters can flourish.

Here's a screenshot of Blizzard's upcoming game Overwatch.

Here’s a screenshot of Blizzard’s upcoming game Overwatch.

ESL and the future

Many players, Redwall included, got the impression that the ESL isn’t taking Blizzard’s titles seriously enough. They feel that in such a high profile tournament allegations of cheating should have been further investigated and more should have been done to contact the players involved in the decider. What this means for the future of Blizzard Esports is still very much unclear. This fall it’s expected that Blizzard’s latest title and suspected esports hit Overwatch will reach beta.

With yet another competitive title in its arsenal perhaps it’s finally time for Blizzard to take a more hands on approach to the running of its major tournaments. Riot Games’s LCS is perhaps the best known success of a homegrown event, with the LCS finals boasting a total viewership of over 8 million fans at its peak. In contrast the ESL’s most popular League of Legends tournament managed a large, but much less impressive, 489,000 peak viewers. I feel that Blizzard’s fans deserve a fair and competitive scene to enjoy their favorite titles in and I’m beginning to doubt whether or not the ESL can provide such a service. Let me know what you think in the comments section below.

Article Written By: Lewis Foster

 

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