Hearthstone: Welcome to the Tavern

A view of the Hearthstone Tournament Stage during BlizzCon at the Anaheim Convention Center in Anaheim, California. BlizzCon is host to the annual world championships for game developer Blizzard. Brinson Banks for ESPN

BURBANK, California -- The history of Cora Georgiou's time as a Hearthstone esports analyst goes back to a sound studio in Hollywood with no crowd, no green room, no seating and an episode of "Castle" filming "20 feet across the way."

That Hearthstone Championship Tour event back in 2016 was nothing like where she, and the experience, were on July 1 at the HCT Summer Championship at Blizzard Arena.

Hundreds of people filed into the Burbank studio, with fans sitting at picnic tables near the stage and playing Hearthstone as top pros from around the world competed onstage. "U-S-A" chants broke out as Los Angeles native and Endemic eSports pro David "killinallday" Acosta took a lead in his quarterfinals match against Jinsoo "Jinsoo" Park the day prior. And whenever players threw out the often-unpredictable Shudderwock during the tournament, all eyes turned to the screen to watch the madness unfold and cheer or laugh at the results.

"We have this incredible production, and we have this awesome stage and crazy graphics team and sounds and lights, and the fact that people only get to see it on camera is tragic," Georgiou said. "Getting the energy of the audience and live cheering and chanting, getting to go offstage and communicate with people and talk to people who are just fans of the game is, I think, the environment that Hearthstone needs."

Starting with Hearthstone's Tespa Collegiate National Championship in 2017, Georgiou watched as the game's LAN tournaments went from studio affairs to crowd productions. Hearthstone Esports franchise lead Che Chou took the role in October 2016 with this evolution in mind. Since then, HCT events and tour stops around the world have included fan and audience components.

The in-person Hearthstone esports experience is unlike most others. The game runs at a slower pace. Audience members, thanks to the game's mobile platform, often play while watching. Blizzard Arena might be the home of HCT now, but it doesn't bring the electric atmosphere that Overwatch League does. That's replaced by a homey feel, with Fireside Gatherings on-site, side tournaments for attendees and fantasy games built around which competitors will make it the furthest in the tournament.

"Hearthstone -- the tone and the vibe and the feel of Hearthstone esports -- it's pretty unique to the franchise itself," Chou said. "When you go to a Hearthstone event, it's never a lean-back experience; it's an active, hands-on experience. That's informed a lot of the tactics we have."

Hearthstone esports, Chou said, doesn't take itself too seriously. The leisurely pace of the tournaments lends itself to a friendly atmosphere and one that focuses on delivering an immersive experience. The goal, he said, is to make it feel like "you've stepped into the Tavern, and everyone knows your name."

Scott "Bytes" Levy knows the feeling. He's an Innkeeper, a person who organizes Fireside Gatherings and community events for casual and competitive Hearthstone players, and he's been a part of connecting those players to these events as Hearthstone started incorporating fan service like "Dueling the Devs," where players get to square off against the people behind Hearthstone.

It's still a balancing act for organizers.

"It's something that we've always struggled with in the playoffs," Bytes said. "There used to be more live experiences or Fireside Gatherings that happened alongside the playoffs, but we found that people would show up for the live experiences or people would show up for the competitive aspect and not really enjoy them at the same time. I think you really have to push that integration. You need to have the experience of watching the game somehow be a game of itself, where you're invested in the outcome of every match to stay focused on it.

"This has been a different experience, though. I think being in the Tavern while it's happening, even if you are playing the side events and games, you're still enjoying if nothing else the atmosphere and you're getting into the moments. When there are those big moments, everybody's attention switches to the screens, and then the crowd goes nuts."

There's a communal vibe, even for the talent and players. During the summer championship, Georgiou got to mingle with the crowd and walk right up to the area where the casual players were facing off against one another. She greeted members of the audience, including a family with three kids who finally got to watch Hearthstone without a screen in front of them.

"Before matches, I would just sit down at a table next to some people, and they'd turn and look at me and do a double-take," she said. "It's so great to get to just meet the audience, you know, especially since you become kind of cynical when the only feedback that you see and the only people that you see watching are like Twitch chat."

A little more than a year later, this is still a new experience for her, and for the Hearthstone community's leaders and players as well. Frank "leadpaint" Kissick, a teammate of Acosta (killinallday), was right there for the "U-S-A" and "YO-KAD" chants; that's Year of killinallday, for the uninitiated.

"It definitely makes it so much more exciting as someone here rooting for one of your great friends," Kissick said. "It's incredible, right? You feel the crowd. If someone draws something they need, you know, they're popping off."

With the crowd behind him, Acosta earned a spot in the HCT World Championship by making it to the summer semifinals. He, like everyone else, is still learning the ins and outs of playing to, and in front of, a crowd. After being eliminated in the semifinals, he earned a prize pool of $20,000 and a serenade of cheers as he made his way offstage.

"Me being from the Greater Los Angeles area, I told all my friends to come. I'm like, 'Hype this crowd up.' And they did," he said. "I definitely didn't expect it to be that loud. ... It definitely makes you nervous, but most experienced competitors will be able to not really realize it during the match."

This, of course, is still a work in progress. The next step is making the pro viewing experience more digestible for casual fans, Chou said. Series like Talkstone, a video podcast that launched the week before the HCT Summer Championship, help break down the competitive meta and will become an entry point for rookies and ladder players alike. There's another series coming, he said, that will break down individual high-level player matches.

The team hopes this content helps improve fans' understanding of the game and, similar to Overwatch League's analytical videos, makes the action on-screen, both for the audience and online viewers, easier to follow.

"You literally can't even grasp how far ahead players are thinking or how much of the other players' hand they're reading and what they're trying to play around," Chou said. "We want to be able to call those things out and get the audience to understand that level of thinking to hopefully elevate everyone at the strategic level. We're hoping that tide will rise all boats."

With more accessibility comes more viewers, and with more viewers comes a bigger platform for people like Georgiou. When the Hearthstone team announced it would bring in an audience for LANs, she had no idea what to expect. Now, she said, the vision is a bit clearer.

"Hopefully, the next time this rolls around, more people will want to be involved if they live in the area," Georgiou said. "It's a great event; I don't know that it's something that necessarily everyone is going to want to fly across the country for. But we're in Los Angeles. There are lots of Hearthstone fans here, and I certainly would like to see that arena get filled up next time. I think it could happen."