Every so often, we see some panic-inducing headline touting the immanent death of a popular game or franchise, and Blizzard’s Hearthstone has often been the topic of such declarative statements. Now that the game has been out for over five years, Twitch viewership is down, streamers are shifting over to other games, and the signs are pointing to something happening to the game. Is Hearthstone in trouble?
Blizzard is just now addressing long-standing issues with the game
For years, it would not be uncommon for Blizzard to be eerily silent on issues of class balance or overpowered cards, and the community would take note. Now, however, we are seeing a much more involved development team that seems more inclined to look at balance changes more frequently. One would think that this would help the game and its numbers.
A stagnant meta and "meme cards"
There are several issues that carry over from expansion to expansion. “Meme cards”, or simply speaking, bad cards, have existed in the game since its Alpha. At that point, the argument was that it was healthy for new players to learn how to play the game. This learning process includes learning to make judgement calls about what constitutes a good or a bad card.
But recent legendary cards like Griftah? These are absolute trash, never meant to be competitive, and they occupy precious space in our Legendary “pity timers”, meaning that we may have to open another 40 packs before we see another Legendary. Worse still, we cannot safely disenchant the terrible Legendary card for fear of pulling it again as our next legendary. It simply stays in a collection until we are finished opening packs from that expansion.
Class stagnation also plays into the general issue of the meta being slow to change, outside of the yearly rotation that sees three sets of expansions move from Standard to Wild.
We know all too well by now how each expansion plays out every four months. Right now, Blizzard is busy hyping up the release of its next expansion, Saviors of Uldum, with its formulaic reveal of cards, one at a time every few hours or days.
But in all likelihood, very few of the cards in the 135-card expansion will be utilized following launch. This is because the meta is currently optimized, and there is little room for improvement outside of a few flex slots. There may eventually be an entirely new deck created from this expansion, but if history is any indication of the future, this is unlikely at best.
There's also the issue of Tournament mode - an embarrassing ordeal from its ill-conceived plan to abrupt cancellation. This had been at the top of player requests for years, and finally, Blizzard announced that it was in development. Then they said it was not exactly a tournament mode, before finally cancelling the entire project in September of 2018. Worse yet, they were surprised to hear that players wanted something other than what they were developing. Players everywhere collectively shook their heads at the news.
And then we have Wild mode. Since its implementation, Blizzard has paid a good deal of lip service to keeping an eye on the new mode. But actions speak louder than words, and the almost complete lack of attention is enough to safely say that there was never any intent to treat Wild as anything more than an afterthought.
Recently, we saw the unprecedented move of two cards from Standard to Wild a full year earlier than was supposed to occur with Genn Greyman and Baku the Moon Eater. These cards restricted design space and made for some overpowered decks in Standard, and yet they persist in Wild. The most powerful decks for Paladin and Shaman are still the odd and even variants, but Blizzard seems content to let the problem persist.
Less streaming and a dwindling community
Like many developers, Blizzard does not share information about its sales or player counts. For now, we are simply going off of reduced viewership and streamers, as well as the long list of complaints that players have voiced over the years. The aforementioned optimized meta means that there is little reason to watch streamers. Those who play Hearthstone regularly already know what cards are in both the streamer’s deck and the opponent's deck, outside of those playing meme decks at floor ranks.
The number of streamers heading over to other games right now may simply be a normal symptom of Hearthstone being in a lull prior to an expansion. However, it's also representative of a game that has not offered much real innovation in the past couple of years.
Hearthstone’s eSports scene has also been a bit of a mess, as Blizzard seems unable to pinpoint the format for qualifying the best players in the world. Year after year seems to bring a new way to compete, with the most recent iteration called the Hearthstone Master System. This was controversial, in that the wording made it seem as if Blizzard would reserve certain competitive spots for players of their choice - which is to say, popular streamers.
Criticism of qualifying methods for the game have been around for years, and some top players have been vocal with their frustrations before moving on to other games.
Could Blizzard turn this around?
The notion of games continually being new and innovative to keep providing revenue for a developer is quite new. Two decades ago, a game was released, we maybe bought an expansion pack some time down the line, and that was it. But games as a service are now the law of the land, and Blizzard is having a hard time keeping up. Hearthstone seeks to hype itself up with every expansion, but there's simply too little that's fresh to make that a plausible reality for the long term.
Some of the criticism above is valid and comes from Blizzard not listening to its player base. Other issues may simply relate to the impossibility of keeping the same game fresh with each passing year. Whatever the case, it's hard to deny that Hearthstone is in a bit of a rut, and is facing bigger competition than it has in the past from newer games.
Teamfight Tactics is one such game currently gaining in popularity, and streamers have a chance to get in on a new, fun, innovative game right out the gate. Currently there are 110,000 viewers of that game on Twitch, and 7,000 watching Hearthstone.
For now, we can only wait and see how the streaming numbers look after the upcoming expansion which is right around the corner. But as time goes on, there's not much an old game can do without some ridiculous shift in direction.
There's a lot of great stories about Spider-Man the MCU could pull from, but you can't tell them until he's older.