Tuesday, July 9, 2024
HomeBaldur's Gate 3The journey from esports to game development, from two former Hearthstone casters

The journey from esports to game development, from two former Hearthstone casters

This is a big weekend for Hearthstone esports, as it’s time to crown a new world champion. The Hearthstone World Championships will take place over the next few days and it’s an event that Hearthstone players and fans look forward to each year. The excitement also extends to the development team, some of whom carved their path to Blizzard through the esports scene. Specifically, two members of the team, Senior Game Designer Cora Georgiou and Associate Game Designer on Hearthstone Battlegrounds Jia Dee, got their start as Hearthstone casters.

Fun fact: Cora and Jia didn’t just cast Hearthstone. There were occasions where they also played the game on a competitive level. In fact, next week will mark the five-year anniversary of an event called World Showdown of Esports 2: The Hearthstone Showdown, which held a competitive tournament for the women of Hearthstone. There were several familiar faces from the Twitch and YouTube spaces like Hafu, Slysssa, Alliestrasza, Edelweiss, and many others, but the Grand Finals came down to Cora and Jia.

This felt like a fun time to reach out to Cora and Jia to discuss their paths to the development team. They talk about their esports careers, their long-term moves to Irvine to join the Blizzard team, the upcoming Hearthstone World Championship, what esports has meant to the game as a whole, and even take a moment to reflect on that tournament from five years ago where their paths crossed.

Shacknews: Let’s take a moment to reflect on your respective beginnings as members of the Hearthstone community, faces of the Hearthstone esports team. Tell me about your journey from Hearthstone esports to the Hearthstone dev team.

Jia Dee, Associate Game Designer/Former Hearthstone Caster: In my case, I was a casual Hearthstone player for about a year. The year Hearthstone came out was the year I graduated from… my God… high school. It feels like an age ago, but I just got really into it because I used to play other card games, like Yu-Gi-Oh, and my friend recommended Hearthstone to me. I’d never played any other Blizzard games, so I was like, “What is this Battle.net launcher?” But eventually, I got into Hearthstone… really into it.

After the first year, I started to see if I could hit Legend and the like by really hunkering down, watching videos, and asking for help from more experienced players. And I did. And then, from there, I tried to join local tournaments in the Philippines, Fireside Gatherings at the time. After a few months of that, the owner of the board game cafe where I played was like, “I want to hold a bigger tournament.” And he asked who amongst our regular community would want to cast, and I volunteered and I did that. And it was awesome! Even though it was maybe five people watching the stream, which cut off every few minutes because the internet was awful, but I had a great time.

At that event, there happened to be somebody working for Mineski in the Philippines who was thinking to organize another Hearthstone tournament at a slightly bigger event. They asked me if I wanted to come on to do that, and I did that. And then at that event, there was somebody who worked for ESL Southeast Asia who was like, “Do you want to cast the Blizzard official event, the Malaysia Major in 2016?” And I said, “Of course I do!” And then I went and did that and things kind of went from there.

Cora Georgiou, Senior Game Designer/Former Hearthstone Caster: My journey actually looks kind of similar to Jia’s. Hearthstone came out the year that I graduated high school. My brother introduced me to the game. He was recommended a video from Kripp on YouTube, one of Kripp’s first videos of playing Hearthstone during beta. So Sage [Georgiou, Associate Game Designer and brother] introduced me to it and Sage and I also played Yu-Gi-Oh a lot growing up for like ten years. But we were kids, so we didn’t have the money to keep up with it. You know, it’s a fairly expensive card game and we didn’t have friends who played with us. It was just the two of us. So, Hearthstone was great because there was always an opponent that I could play against on ladder and I loved it, got really invested really quickly.

I’m very competitive, so I just had a blast and I would play a lot when my friends in college were busier than I was, because I was a broadcast major and I was friends with a lot of music education majors who were very, very busy. So, I had more free time than they did. I played a lot of Hearthstone and then in my junior year, this would have been like 2016, I sent in a video for the casting call essentially that Blizzard did, because for esports they were looking for commentators and I got picked up to cast. It was the winter playoffs. It was the first event that Sottle and Raven did, as well, officially for Blizzard. And then, from there, [I] sort of just kept going. I juggled commentary with school for like a year or so, and then when I graduated, just kept at it, did a lot of third-party events. I did a lot of DreamHack events. I did a lot of collegiate Hearthstone and made a fair enough living there for a few years. And then after about four years, I transitioned to game design and wanted to do something else.

Shacknews: I have some more questions about your times on the esports side of Hearthstone, but I want to ask first, when you both hired for the dev team, it meant having to pack up your lives and move to the Blizzard home base out in Irvine. I know that, Jia, you came all the way from the Philippines. Cora, you came out here from Chicago. What can you recall about those days when you were moving away to essentially pursue a new life with this game that you grew to be so familiar with over the years?

Dee: Mine was very recent, actually just over a year ago, so I recall it pretty well. That was maybe Covid on the downswing. Obviously, it’s still not done, but it was a time where I’m like, “Okay, things can finally start opening up again. I can take big risks and make big swings, maybe big misses, but big swings.” At the time, Hearthstone Eports was… I think a lot of us could tell… probably not going to be in its peak years, so I was thinking a lot about my future. Was I certain that I could keep doing casting indefinitely? Probably not, especially in the Philippines, where the local tournaments scene wasn’t that big at the time anymore. So thinking about other opportunities, my options were basically to do something related to my degree, which is in molecular biology, which I did not enjoy, and I would have to probably go back and do higher education to get any semblance of a good-paying job in that field… or follow the footsteps of the many talented people who came from Hearthstone esports that eventually transitioned into the design team, Cora being one of them, of course.

In early 2022, they opened the position for Associate Game Designer on Battlegrounds, which is entry-level, so basically for people like me who had no formal game design experience, who didn’t go to school for game design necessarily. And so, I shot my shot. Big shout out to Celestalon [Chadd Nervig, Hearthstone Features Lead], who encouraged me to apply for either a constructed or a Battlegrounds position. The timing was right because I had a contract for casting only throughout the rest of that year, so I thought I could finish that out and see if I could fully transition to the design team. And, thankfully, I did get accepted.

And so, I moved in September of last year and the move was maybe not as harrowing or scary as you might expect. Even though it’s a 15-16 hour time difference because I have a lot of family all over the U.S., mostly on the west coast, like more extended family, like second cousins and such. But I had been to visit several times and, yeah, it was fine and everybody helped me both within the Blizzard community and my family and other personal friends in the area. I didn’t feel like it was too daunting whatsoever. The prices of everything was scary, but it’s kind of scary also how quickly you get used to that.

Georgiou: Also, living out here? Not cheap.

Yeah, my distance traveled was obviously not as much as Jia’s. My time difference was only about two hours and I spent a lot of time in Southern California, obviously with casting. There were months where I was back and forth every week for TESPA, because it was weekly.

I was hired as an Associate Game Designer on the final design team in 2019. It was shortly after the Las Vegas Masters Tour, that I was like, “I think I’m probably not going to be getting much casting work in Hearthstone from here on out.” Grandmasters was just kicking up and I kind of saw the writing on the wall. For myself, I was still working on Pokemon a fair bit, which was a blast, but at the time they weren’t doing commentary for all of their regional events. It was just international events and Worlds, so I didn’t see a ton of opportunity there. And so, I was like, “I could go into traditional broadcasting. I could try and leverage my experience into maybe more of a stage hosting gig across different games. Or I could try to stay in Hearthstone because I really loved Hearthstone.”

Dean Ayala [Former Hearthstone Game Director] actually reached out and was like, “Hey, I think you might be a good fit for this position.” And so I said, “Okay, sure.” And I sent in a resume and they had me out for interviews on-site. This was pre-COVID, and I was hired in August. I started in October, so I moved from Chicago to SoCal. I started October 2019, and then less than six months later, COVID hit. And at that time I was living by myself in an apartment in Southern California. I was thrilled. It was the first time I’d really lived alone in my life other than college. I really enjoyed it. It did not make much sense to be paying all that money in rent when I was going to be working from home and so, with the help of some friends, had all of my stuff put into a storage unit and I went home.

I actually had been living back home for the last three years and moved back out to Southern California in December of last year. This time, though, a little bit different because, well, we were all working from home during COVID. My brother was hired onto the Hearthstone team. So this time we were able to move together, which was actually pretty cool. So, some silver lining at the end, but yeah, it was kind of a start and then a long stop and it was very strange.

Shacknews: Most people who follow Hearthstone esports remember you two mainly as casters. Some of them may not remember that you two also used to compete. Part of why I asked to speak with the two of you today is specifically because we’re hitting the fifth anniversary of this event called World Showdown of Esports, and it featured the women of Hearthstone. It’s a tournament that ended with Jia versus Cora. I want to ask, what was it like for the two of you to step away from the casting desk and compete in a big-time tournament such as this one?

Dee: A whole lot of factors went into this because, first of all, there weren’t that many invitationals around the time that I remember. Invitationals tended to be only for the biggest of the streamers or people with a huge following already. So then, for an invitational to include a lot of people that weren’t necessarily streamers or competitors first to include casters, to include up-and-coming competitors, was pretty novel. And then, on top of that, [it was the] first that I had heard of an all-women tournament on a global scale. I believe there had been some in China prior to that.

And then another thing that happened: there was a huge balance patch that happened the night before our tournament.

Georgiou: I forgot about that…

Dee: Yeah, that messed up everybody’s lineups. And another thing on top of that, was the format was unlike the Standard one for competitive Hearthstone at the time, where we had to bring nine decks instead of four. There was a very complicated pick-and-ban phase. So the tournament was novel for a lot of reasons.

When I got the invite, I was like, “Okay, of course I’m doing this! This is such a good opportunity. The prize pool is amazing. I don’t know if I’m going to do well, because most people here have more competitive experience than me, but going to go in and have a good time.” And a good time it was! The vibes at that tournament were amazing. Everybody got along so well. We had a bunch of media days leading up to it where there was just a lot of good laughs, like moments that were… very distinctly female energy, which I loved, like being in the bathroom together doing last-minute makeup before the next camera shot and things like that. And just all-around, after every match, there were moments of sportsmanship, hugs, and handshakes. And after the tournament itself, we all got together for dinner and the organizers treated us very well. So, I think that experience was, despite it being one of the best, an outlier in my overall competitive experience.

Georgiou: Yeah, I would not say I was a competitor. I competed when I had the opportunity because I thought it was fun, but I didn’t really have the… stomach… for what it took to be a really successful competitor in Hearthstone.

I was blown away by this event because the budget was enormous and the production value was incredible. From a viewership perspective, this tournament looked better than just about every other tournament that was happening at the time. And so, the fact that they chose to spend that money on a women’s-only tournament. I still don’t know why they did that, but I’m very grateful that they did, because I think it brought a lot of legitimacy to women in Hearthstone that was not there before and certainly had never been seen before, and I think still hasn’t been seen since for women’s-only tournaments.

There were a lot of outlying factors that made it something that was really interesting, meta-wise. And I actually thought the format was very fun. I’m surprised we didn’t see anybody doing that format after, because the pick-ban phase was kind of a spectacle all in itself. It was quite cool.

Shacknews: You brought up the balance patch that dropped right before the tournament. I had forgotten about that. I remember that being a big deal at the time, too. And that actually segues perfectly into this next question. How did your experience in the esports world help shape who you are as a developer? Did it change your outlook when going from esports to the dev team?

Dee: Oh, definitely some influence there. Part of the reason we were hired was our knowledge of the game itself, like mechanics, how to play the best decks, how to find the best decks, and knowledge of how to explain them to a wider audience. They always say that teaching is the best measure of how well you understand the topic. Are you able to explain it to somebody? As casters, we do that on a daily basis. All of the study that goes into making sure you know what you’re talking about when casting directly translates into knowledge of gameplay and what might be a design that is too powerful or too weak.

There’s definitely a lot more that I learned after joining the team on the side of what makes something fun, what makes something easy to grasp. But the skills I picked up from just being a high-ranked player, from knowing what makes a deck competitive or what drives a meta, have also helped a lot with just the final balance process in Battlegrounds.

Georgiou: Yeah, and I think from a different angle, you take a lot of bad beats when you’re a visible figure in esports, and you learn how to take criticism and react to criticism, but also how to sometimes not react.

Though the environment of esports versus game design is very, very different and, often, the criticism and the feedback are given in very different ways, it’s still really helpful to have those skills and to be able to not only receive feedback but also know how to give constructive feedback and how to, like Jia said, help others who are now in a position that you had been in at one point in time. And yeah, I think developing that thicker skin through esports gave me a pretty good starting point for game design.

Shacknews: We’re coincidentally coming up on the Hearthstone World Championship this weekend. With your own esports background fresh in mind, what would you say that esports has meant to the game of Hearthstone as a whole?

Dee: In terms of how Hearthstone esports has affected the game as a whole, I think it’s very interesting because obviously, neither of us were here at the beginning, the inception of the game. But, from what I’ve heard from most of the folks on the team that have been there around longer, it was that esports was never the initial goal when making the game. Nobody set out for it to be a game that was mainly seen as competitive. It’s just something that was fun. So, it was a happy surprise that a lot of people jumped onto Hearthstone to see who would be the best person at this game and who could create the best decks.

And, throughout the years of all of that, we had not only people who were known for mechanically playing certain classes very well, you had people that are known for being the mad scientists of how to make decks that nobody expected or go against the meta and come up with a lineup that could surprise everybody but still do well. They all got a platform through esports and a lot of the big streamers these days, I would say the vast majority of them, had at some point a competitive career in Hearthstone. I think it’s because the nature of the game itself is quite technical. Everything is a card with numbers on it. There is math, there is odds you have to do, and there are strategies that are very learnable if you’re willing to put in the time. And the best way to learn a lot for a lot of people is to watch streams, watch other people who have more experience than you playing the game. And that all lends itself to the educational nature of watching these streams and watching tournaments.

And maybe it also speaks to the general temperament of a Hearthstone player who is might be somebody who’s willing to put in a little bit more time to learn technical aspects of the game to improve. And that is part of the fun watching your rank go up.

Georgiou: I think it’s it’s actually impossible to say what the long-term future of Hearthstone would have looked like were it not for Hearthstone esports and how the esports scene grew so organically. I think a lot of the popularity of Hearthstone… the first year or two was largely influenced by that sort of homegrown esports scene and the personalities that came out of it and the communities that they forged and the players that became fans of them. I think Hearthstone’s longevity in no small part is due to that sort of happy accident.

I owe a lot of my personal experience, history, and career path in life now to that lightning-in-a-bottle thing that happened.

Shacknews: Last question for me. What advice would you give to somebody who’s playing or casting any game competitively and is considering making that transition to game development, having gone down that path yourselves?

Dee: Be humble more than anything.

When I was applying for the job, I thought, “Oh, I play this game day and night. I eat, sleep, breathe Hearthstone. I know what a good or fun card might be.” Absolutely not true! I might know what a strong and weak card might be, but I have no idea what a card that is too complex, or a card that is too inaccessible, or a card that is cool on paper but has no easy way to translate into user interface. That’s all things that you need to learn from scratch if you haven’t formally studied game design or tried it yourself.

So while a career in competitive gaming esports, whether it be as a competitor or as a caster, might help, you definitely need to, if you’re considering switching to game design, just keep an open mind. Treat yourself as a blank slate, absorb everything people that are telling you, and do not assume that you are more knowledgeable than anyone else.

Georgiou: I think similar to Jia’s point, a lot of us have made that transition from esports to design for Hearthstone specifically. But I think Hearthstone is not necessarily the rule.

To that point, esports versus game design, the two are very different. And you know, that being said, we’ve all adapted. We all really enjoy the work that we do now, but it is very different work. So I think just being very honest with yourself about what it is you want out of a career, what it is you like about esports and whether that’s reflected in game design, because there are certainly some aspects of pulling back the curtain that are… not all the best when you know how everything’s made. Some things are just a little bit less special, but some things are a lot more special, so there’s a bit of a give and take there, but yeah, just obviously, being honest with yourself about what you want and what you’re interested in and if game design is that right fit.

The Hearthstone World Championship takes place this weekend, from December 16-17. Hearthstone is free-to-play on PC and mobile and is fresh off the release of Showdown in the Badlands. We also have some recent coverage on the upcoming Hearthstone Battlegrounds Duos mode, as well as a few more insights from Dee and Senior Game Designer Mitchell Loewen about designing Duos-exclusive heroes.

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