by Simon “Sottle” Welch
As the Hearthstone tournament season has accelerated into full swing, people involved in tournament production suddenly find their services in high demand. I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to commentate on four major LAN events in the month of March—in three different countries. This created one of the most hectic months of my life as I started the month with a trip to Poland, spent 24 hours back in the UK, jumped back on a plane for two weeks in Hollywood, and then rounded it all off with a trip to London. This is the nomadic life of a Hearthstone caster.
The month kicked off with IEM Katowice in Poland, home of the ESL Legendary Series finals. This event was my first experience with big stadium esports events as Hearthstone generally takes place in more intimate settings and has yet to take off as the huge live spectator draw that CS:GO or League of Legends has. Because of this, the scope of the event at IEM Katowice completely blew me away. As I walked up to the Spodek—one of the largest indoor venues in Poland—for the first time, and witnessed the sea of people jostling to get in, it became apparent to me how irrelevant the “legitimacy” argument of esports is. It doesn’t matter what we call it, or whether the world at large considers what we do a “sport”. The simple fact is that people care, people are invested in what we do, and we are a growing, blossoming industry. The event as a whole was a great experience for me for a sense of perspective on the esports scene as a whole, having previously been limited to a fairly confined Hearthstone bubble. The downside of travelling to these events as a caster though, is that you never get a chance to take it in. I’ve been to countless multi-game LAN events now as a caster, and not once during any of them have I found time to take in any of the other games or explore the expo halls. It’s a sacrifice I make happily though for the opportunity to travel as a whole.
The setup at IEM Katowice. Image courtesy of IEM
The Hearthstone event itself was a great success, drawing in one of the larger crowds i’ve seen from a live tournament. The field was the expected mix of established names and lesser-known ladder warriors, a mix spawned by the new completely open Hearthstone Championship tour format and was eventually taken down by AKA Wonder who defeated top Russian player SilverName in the final. The production was smooth and crisp and as always I was thankful to be working with established production teams like ESL, and long-time casters like Gnimsh. From a viewer perspective, it’s easy to appreciate what you see on camera, but the amount of work that goes on behind the scenes is staggering, and these events would quickly fall apart without a lot of unsung heros. Tournament admins, production managers, content producers, camera operators, the list is endless, and each of these people is just as important a cog in the overall machine as the faces you see on camera.
After returning home from Poland, I had all of 24 hours to spend with my wife before hopping on an 11 hour flight to Hollywood California for the Hearthstone Championship Tour Winters Finals for America and Europe. This was a huge opportunity and a big step up for me, even after casting major events in the past, and I left nervous, but incredibly excited. Americas Finals was up first, and even though the event did not go live until the weekend, our week started on Tuesday. From media days to rehearsals to meet and greets with the players, there was a level of preparation and polish to these events that was way above and beyond anything i’d been a part of previously. I’d like to think that this level of attention to detail showed through in the eventual broadcast as everything from the video packages to the casters knowledge of the people involved reflected all the work that was put in previously. These rehearsal days are particularly gruelling as although all aspects of the production are rehearsed, individual people are not necessarily involved in everything. Downtime is the killer, as as soon as you stop, your energy gets sapped and suddenly everything becomes more tiring. This leads to a bunch of bored casters trying to kill time. Cue Robert Wing smack talking everyone in sight while losing caster challenge matchups with Face Hunter, or Azumo taking on all comers with the might of “TJ Warrior” (don’t ask, it’s hidden tech).
The Hearthstone Championship Winter Tour broadcast crew. Image courtesy of @PlayHearthstone
The casting itself from my perspective was some of the best that i’ve been involved with, and the feedback from the community was generally excellent as well. On a personal note it was fantastic to be trusted with hosting the casting desk on a number of occasions. The host role is one that is drastically misunderstood by a lot of onlookers who generally don’t appreciate how tricky it is to navigate. Seamlessly transitioning between segments while directing the flow of conversation on the desk, all while having someone in your ear feeding you information is a lot more difficult than it may sound, and ESL and Blizzard trusting me to handle this role on such a big stage was a great honour for me personally. Life is particularly awkward when you lose production sound in your earpiece and are still involved in an intense impromptu rap battle with your co-caster seconds before you go live. Thankfully frantic waving from the stage manager saved the world at large from our hot bars and professionalism was resumed. Amnesiac was the eventual winner of the event, which was a solid result for the new HCT format in general. People would be hard pressed to argue that Amnesiac was not one of the best players in North America, making him a deserving recipient of a spot at the Hearthstone World Championships.
The Europe Winter Championships was much the same story, long rehearsals, intense preparation, and a fantastic end product, only this time, with the added bonus of a 3AM wake up call! The decision to broadcast from a Hollywood studio on EU time was a strange one to a lot of onlookers, but believe me, having seen the scale of the production flying out all the players and talent to the US and having to endure a few sullen glances over half filled coffee cups and cans of energy drink is much preferable to having to transport all of the production equipment to a venue in Europe. Also of note at the second event was the player pool. Formally a group of relative unknowns to the scene at large, the group of players assembled for the Europe Championship were a ton of fun to hang out with, and I think a lot of that personality came through in their player interviews. From the trombone playing, fun loving Tars, to the incredibly expressive Nicslay, this was a group that was a blast to be around. Much of the fun of Hearthstone events happens outside of the confines of the tournament, with a personal highlight this time around being our impromptu hijacking of a Mexican Restaurant and its unwilling conversion into our own personal karaoke bar. This time Naiman came out with the crown—at Hearthstone, not karaoke—another hugely deserving player to find himself with a guaranteed spot at the World Championship.
And so after a gruelling two weeks in California, I returned home to be a part of my home event—Insomnia Truesilver Championship. I’ve been a part of Insomnia for many iterations now, as an open player fighting through to top 16 twice, and then as an invited player in the inaugural Truesilver event. Returning this time as a caster however was a different pace for me, and it was a fantastic feeling to help push what is becoming one of the biggest tournaments in Hearthstone on home soil. The event starts with a massive open Swiss, a competitive format which is much lauded by players, but is continuing to prove hard to broadcast. The downtime between rounds is a killer, and greatly disrupts the flow of the event, the long breaks on the first day were felt not only by the viewers but by the casters as well, as the drop in energy when sitting around waiting to go back on is hard to combat. With Swiss out of the way however, day 2 and 3 turned out to be huge successes as we quickly got back into our stride and put on another highly successful broadcast. With the UK’s own Ness crowned as the eventual Champion, it was a fitting end to an insane month to me, and after returning home the following day, I climbed finally back into my own bed, both physically and mentally exhausted, but with a month packed full of great experiences and memories in the bank.
Teammates Noxious and Sottle cast together. Image courtesy of multiplay
So there you have it, March 2016. 14,000 Miles travelled, nearly as much time spent in aeroplanes and airports as in my own home, four major LAN events cast, countless hours of sleep lost to jet lag and excitement, 4AM call times, endless rehearsal days and lost luggage. Wouldn’t change it for the world.
Sottle is no stranger to the competitive environment. The compLexity Hearthstone player comes from an unorthodox background of being a Yoyo Champion in Great Britain, as well as virtually beating people up as a competitive fighting game player. Nerve-damage in his hand forced him to exchange the button mashing for the virtual card game Hearthstone. As a pro player he made his mark in the scene, as a caster he is a rising force, now the next step for him is to build up his name as a personality in the scene as well. Follow the Brit cast tournaments, play games, interact with his stream and have fun in Arena, the ladder or just Q&A sessions – Sottle is always the perfect mix between entertainment and education.