Gabe “theGwalls” Walls is one of many former Magic: The Gathering pros that found success in poker but over the last year his passion has become the booming online card game Hearthstone.
As with M:TG, Hearthstone shares a number of familiar mechanics with poker including variance, reading your opponent and, to a lesser degree, bluffing.
Of course Hearthstone also has some elements vastly different than poker. Perhaps most obvious, it’s been completely stripped of all the casino elements of poker and it’s actually free-to-play.
Walls mentioned the business model is one reason he was drawn to the game.
“I really enjoy the competitive aspect detached from the monetary system,” explained Walls. “The depth of the game is quite extensive, allowing for some real thought to go into each decision.”
Hearthstone Passes 20 Million Players
Designed by elite video game studio Blizzard, Hearthstone has been a surprise hit and recently passed 20 million players, which easily surpasses the volume of any online poker site.
It would be easy to write off Hearthstone as a geeky M:TG-type niche pursuit but so far Walls claims that hasn’t necessarily been the case.
“The diverse personalities are the most exciting part,” he said.
“I had a PM of the the biggest hedge fund on the planet who manages $2.5 billion dollars watching me, which is great for the reach and depth of the game.”
Walls isn’t the only player to feel the siren call of Hearthstone. Former world champ Pius Heinz, Xuan Liu and Mike McDonald mentioned playing the game in the past. PokerStars super grinder George Lind III thinks Hearthstone will be huge. Walls believes it’s easy to see why.
“Tons of poker players are playing Hearthstone casually,” said Walls.
“None of them have really broken through to my knowledge. I play with the best players on the planet nightly, and it is not easy to be one of them. They are all young and hungry, able to devote themselves to the game.”
A New Challenge for Poker Players
For poker players it’s all about a new challenge, according to Walls.
“Poker isn't that challenging, and being a poker player is more about looking for something to compete at than anything else,” he said.
“They probably see the depth in the game, realize it’s more than their comprehension allows, and are in love with the challenge,” he said.
“As most good mathematical minds tend to do, they like the puzzle! Hearthstone provides that puzzle in spades, right from your iPad!”
For now the financial support isn’t there for Hearthstone players compared to poker but Walls (who won hundreds of thousands playing poker) argues it’s coming.
Rise of the Hearthstone Streamers
At this point in Hearthstone's development it's arguably the pros who teach the game rather than play competitively who make the most money.
Hearthstone players use Twitch, a service which allows players to live stream themselves playing while commentating on the action.
Watching people play video games might not seem very compelling to some people but it’s proven wildly popular with hundreds of thousands of Hearthstone fans.
Eventually when you get enough viewers you can make money from streaming. Walls, who streams himself, estimates that the elite streamers in Hearthstone could potentially pull in $200k with the right sponsors.
“The best streamers are not always the best players,” explained Walls.
“It is an entertainment industry first, and people like Amaz [Jason Chan] have shown that. He plays good, not great, but is so interactive and hilarious you can't not love him. Some other of the best streamers like Sjow and Reynad have their own niches which is great. They entertain their demographic brilliantly.”
The widespread popularity of streamers would be hard to replicate in poker and it’s difficult to image superstars like Gus Hansen or Patrik Antonius taking that approach any time soon.
“Poker players are all about money, so I don't see a huge wave of streamed poker really taking Twitch by storm,” said Walls.
“There are a few, and they have followings, but it cuts the bottom line so hard giving away that info to your diligent opponents day in and day out. I don't see the best poker players being able to do it for any reasonable amount of real stakes.”
Hearthstone's First World Champion
Interestingly in the same month that Martin Jacobson won poker’s world championship, 18-year-old James “FireBat” Kostesich won $100,000 for becoming the first Hearthstone World Champion.
Walls personally trained Kostesich every day for three weeks leading up to the tournament so he was thrilled to see the young pro win the biggest prize ever awarded in Hearthstone.
“I expect him to be a great ambassador for the game,” said Walls.
“His story is inspirational, he is funny, charismatic, and naturally brilliant. It will definitely have a positive effect on the growth of the game for a while to come. He will start to dominate the scene and you will see serious fan bases there for every step of the way.”
Prior to winning the World Championship Kostesich was working a minimum wage job while supporting a three-year-old child. Now he’s a world-famous video game player that will undoubtedly go pro.
It all sounds vaguely like what Chris Moneymaker did for poker in 2003 and while the effect likely won’t be as pronounced, Walls believes Kostesich could do huge things for Hearthstone.
“He's young, kind, hilarious, and a real leader,” he said.
“He organizes and works with the diverse personalities of the game so well. I see him being a dominant force in any mathematical game he decides to take on, and Hearthstone is a great vessel for him.”
The Need for Innovation in Online Poker
Walls is bullish on the future of Hearthstone. A new expansion is coming in the near future and tournament prize pools have been rapidly expanding with some mainstream sponsors.
“I see a lot of potential!” he said.
“The ball is really in Blizzard's court to keep up such great content. The sky really is the limit once the real theoretical math minds start to discover this great alternative to poker and Magic: the Gathering. And with those minds, comes fans, comes the money!
Walls also said he thinks poker players will continue to seek out new challenges, such as streaming Hearthstone.
“Look for some great poker players who are bored with poker to transition into other games and build some serious fan bases, but the younger generation is really what Twitch is, and poker is quickly becoming slow and obsolete.”
Can poker do anything to help attract that younger generation when they are old enough to play?
“The biggest thing to learn from Hearthstone is innovation,” he said.
“They need to keep innovating the game of poker from a spectator's point of view. They can do so much more.”
Gabe "theGwalls" Walls can be found regularly on Twitter account.