Over the last six months an online card game has taken the gaming world by storm and almost instantaneously created a massive online community with countless blogs dedicated to the game’s strategy and development.
No we’re not talking about online poker.
Hearthstone, which was developed by gaming giant Blizzard, is shaking up the gaming status quo with its free-to-play model that’s already attracted tens of thousands of players.
Incredibly Hearthstone is still in open beta and hasn’t even been officially launched.
The designers of Magic: The Gathering are likely worried and they should be with Forbes publishing articles like “How Hearthstone Could Change the PC Gaming Landscape” and “Five Reasons Hearthstone is Better Than a Real Card Game.”
Why does this matter to poker players?
Hearthstone and online poker have nearly identical demographics. If a game like Hearthstone can generate huge player fields in a matter of months, there’s no reason online poker can’t do the same.
Blizzard has stated their goal with Hearthstone is to simply make collectible card games accessible, describing the game as, “deceptively simple, yet insanely fun.”
Online poker could learn a thing or two from that logic. Here are five elements that online poker should adapt from Hearthstone:
1) Forgiving Learning Curve with Rewards People Care About
This is something that video games have perfected while poker continues to struggle at.
Basically in video games every new player is generally given a great deal of help when they begin, and a variety of rewards, before being thrown to the wolves. In many video games players are also given an allotment of cash/gold/equipment to get them started.
In poker there has been some experimentation in this department (think beginner tables, sign-up bonuses or PokerStars Daily Challenges) but it’s still in its infancy.
Now consider Hearthstone where the game’s currency (gold) is coveted by players because you can purchase packs of cards with it. Gold is thrown at new players for completing a variety of easily accomplished tasks like the following:
- Win a game = Gold
- Play in the Arena = Gold
- Level up a character = Gold
It’s not until much later that the gold train comes to a screeching halt and players have to start grinding or consider paying cash for cards. But by then they are hooked.
This model would be easy to replicate in poker and players should be given cash bonuses or FPPs for everything they try in a client.
2) Truly Cutting-Edge Software
While speed and reliability are much more important in online poker than impressive (but system clogging) graphics, there has to be some kind of compromise.
Online poker graphics have remained stagnant since around 2008 and you have to wonder why more sites don’t contract proper video game studios to create truly cutting-edge software packages.
It’s 2014. It’s time to move forward.
Play a quick game of Hearthstone, which is basically a card game, remember, you’ll be treated to one of the most detailed, striking tables ever animated. The attention to detail is incredible and you can even interact with small parts of the table while waiting for an opponent to play.
It’s not overly complex but every card has a physical feel to it and each time you destroy one there is a satisfying explosion.
Why can’t online poker have dynamic chips? Why can’t you win a messy pile of chips when you drag a pot? Why can’t you throw your cards into the muck? Why is everything so static in the modern poker table.
3) Accessible for Everyone
Accessibility is the name of the game when it comes to Hearthstone. Although the game is currently in beta, if you have a Battle.net account, you can download the client for free and get playing. It seems unlikely that will change with the final product.
From the first second you start playing Blizzard is hands-on with player development and lets new players destroy some relatively easy computer opponents, rewarding them with tons of gold, before throwing them to the wolves.
Pricing is perfect, as you won’t even think about actually laying down cash for new card packs in the game until you’ve invested a few hours.
Most online poker sites understand this but it’s absolutely inexcusable to not have a play money component on your site in 2014.
There’s a huge percentage of players who will simply walk away from a game if they can’t try it for free.
Hearthstone also has some very good social features with every player’s friend list getting imported from Battle.net. That means you can always see who’s online and chat with them.
The game also has a unique way of dealing with abusive language in games: it doesn’t allow any chat. You are allowed a number of pre-set emotes but that’s it. It’s a stark contrast to poker where many new players are scared away by a barrage of mean comments from players calling them fish, donkeys or worse.
4) Strong Brand Power of an Award-Winning Game Studio
This is obviously a long shot for poker but Blizzard is one of the biggest, most well-respected game companies in the world.
Despite a ton of competition in the online CCG world, Blizzard immediately became one of the major, if not THE, biggest player in that market. It was practically overnight, thanks in part, to the incredible strength of the Blizzard brand.
There are plenty of well-respected online poker sites but what if one of the true heavy-hitters of the tech world moved into poker? Something on a Yahoo, Google or Facebook scale.
There’s no question that a new poker player would feel more comfortable taking their first steps on a site backed by Yahoo instead of Crazy Jacks Poker by a software company that exists primarily in a hut in Lithuania.
Pipe dream? Yeah, probably but it doesn’t hurt to aim higher.
5) Innovative Sponsorship Opportunities
Hearthstone doesn’t even have any pro circuit to speak of yet but there are already some blossoming sponsorships for players in the game.
Perhaps the most widely known one is between player/broadcaster Jeffrey “TrumpSC” Shih and gaming equipment maker Razor.
TrumpSC streams most of the games he plays and makes videos about it. Almost anyone can improve their game by watching his streams on Twitch.tv.
Razor sponsors the TrumpSC stream and occasionally gives away free merchandise to viewers. It’s win/win for both parties.
It’s actually somewhat reminiscent of the various free training that Jason “JCarver” Somerville provides for Ultimate Poker but it’s independently sponsored by Razor.
It would be amazing to see more mainstream companies sponsor poker players in similarly unique partnerships. For example Red Bull could sponsor a player’s marathon challenge to run up $10 into $10,000.
It’s time to move beyond the standard Team Pro or Red Pro paradigm that was pioneered by online poker sites years ago.
Online poker players need laptops, desktops, monitors and input devices too.
And for those doubting the viability of poker as a spectator sport, consider that the recent League of Legends Season 3 World Championship was watched by a total of 32 million people. The livestream generated more views than the NFL’s livestream of Super Bowl XLVII.
Bertrand 'ElkY' Grospellier: Just Another Hearthstone Addict
Like many other poker players Bertrand Grospellier -- ElkY as you may know him -- is a true gamer at heart.
One of the most successful poker pros of all time with $10.9m in live tournament earnings ElkY began his gaming career as a professional Starcraft player in Korea at the age of 20.
As if he didn't already have enough gaming passions, he recently started playing the latest online phenomenon Hearthstone. We asked him a few questions about his new obsession.
How often do you play Hearthstone?
I’ve barely played for the last few weeks because I have been extremely busy but otherwise I tend to play three or four times a day, or more. It really depends.
Where do you find the resources to learn about Hearthstone and improve?
I use the player streams and I read a lot of strategy websites - mostly in English.
I’ve also installed a tracker to know what important cards you have left and how likely you are to draw them. For example, it tells you that you have a 10% chance of drawing a fireball because there’s only one left in a deck of 10 cards.
I used to calculate this myself but if you don’t pay attention for a second you can lose track.
Who are your favorite streamers?
StrifeCro and Kolento, even though I haven’t been watching them that much. I need to do it more.
I also need to watch Amaz since he’s apparently the best player out there.
How much do the best Hearthstone players win?
I haven’t really been following the tournaments but I know that they can earn quite a lot of money with their Twitch streams thanks to subscriptions, advertisement, etc.
I think it can even be their main activity and source of income. They earn a lot more money this way than with video game tournaments.
How’s your Twitch stream going? I saw that you just launched it. (Editor’s note: ElkY also broadcasts poker on there, which often turns out spectacularly as it did yesterday when he final tabled SCOOP #23-H and was gunning for $353k)
I’m not on Twitch for the money but I think that I have 5,600 followers on Twitch (Editor’s note: 15,650 since the interview).
There were 450 people watching me simultaneously during the final table of the Poker Sunday Special on PokerStars.
I really enjoy it and I think I’ll be doing more and more of it in the future.
Have you ever played Hearthstone against any other famous poker players?
Yes, I have played against Benny Spindler on the ladder for example.
You obviously know everything about Starcraft and its success. What do you think about the Hearthstone phenomenon? Does Hearthstone really have something more that other games don’t?
They’re comparable even though their respective universes are very different. Hearthstone is a bit more accessible to everyone and easier to familiarize yourself with.
Still, you have to find the right balance between simplicity and depth so that the game is easy enough to learn but also interesting.
Personally I think Hearthstone could benefit from being a little more complex, but each extension makes it better.
When did you start playing? After Naxxramas?
No, I’ve actually been playing since the beta version but it was very unstable, less interesting and there weren’t as many cards.
Since Naxxramas and Goblin vs Gnomes there are a lot more viable cards and games but also a lot more variance -- especially with the unstable portal and the Shredders.
What are your biggest achievements so far? Have you ever reached “legendary”?
No, I’ve been ranked 1 and finished 2 last month. In the arena I’ve reached the 12 victories at least 5 or 6 times.
It’s still a little unbalanced though, especially with the Paladins, Mages and Hunters.
What’s your favorite class?
Possibly Druid. At the moment I also play Rogue or Hunter. But basically anything but Priest.
What’s your favorite legendary card?
I like Jaraxxus. It might not be the most powerful but it’s definitely the funniest.
Do you have a favorite deck?
I usually like the mid-range ones but sometimes I play aggro. I rarely play with control decks.
Do you have any advice for Hearthstone beginners?
First of all, watch Trump’s videos. They’re linked on Blizzard’s website.
They’re well done and cover a lot of different concepts. It’s very important to take as many concepts as possible in consideration.
It’s a little bit like poker; you need to gather as much information as possible and analyze them before you take your decision.
Most of the time there aren’t that many decisions to make but you still have to act fast and keep on improving.
There’s also this website, HearthArena.com. It’s very helpful for arena drafts and you can find stats about the best cards to pick.
I often disagree with it but it’s still a great tool for beginners. It’s crucial to have a balanced deck. Especially in the arena.