How a Dirty Rat led to controversy at Hearthstone’s China vs North America Championship

The tournament's final match was spoiled by a questionable play.

Until Sunday, this year’s China vs. North America Championship had been going perfectly. Going into the final day, both teams were tied after five intense days of Hearthstone, with players and viewers looking forward to a dramatic conclusion of the $87,000 prize pool event. But one controversial play in the deciding series has led to a row that’s blown up on social media and western and Chinese community boards alike.

China had led round three from the start, and by game six the only player standing for Team NA was Keaton “Chakki” Gil, who was facing down CN vs. EU champion Bohan “Lovelychook” Zhang and two more of his teammates. Chakki would need to beat all three Chinese players in consecutive Best of 7’s—tough odds for any player.

Nonetheless, Chakki was determined to make the comeback, and after beating Lovelychook he moved on to play the Chinese coach “Lvge”. Once again the series reached a decisive seventh game, with Chakki’s Miracle Rogue up against Lvge’s Reno Mage. Two turns into the game, the Chinese player considered a risky move. He hovered over Dirty Rat, a card which summons one of the minions in your opponent's hand onto the battlefield.

DIRTY RAT

Dirty Rat can be effective if you can follow up with a board clear on the same turn, because it can rob the other player of a powerful creature and its effect. But playing Dirty Rat in this situation, when you can’t really know what your opponent is holding, is generally considered unwise because it can summon high-value cards like Tomb Pillager or Gadgetzan Auctioneer, which would likely spell doom for a Reno Mage deck.

Having considered the number of cards which Chakki kept in the mulligan phase, Lvge decided to go for it. The outcome was a weak 2/2 Edwin VanCleef hitting the board, destroying one of the Miracle Rogue deck’s main win conditions. Chakki never recovered and Team China went on to win the match and the tournament.

Ordinarily, that would be that, but a series of tweets from NA player Andrey “Reynad” Yanyuk suggested that Lvge’s decision to take the risk was influenced by the excitement of his teammates and the Chinese casters, which according to multiple parties was audible through the headphones due to the lack of white noise which is usually piped in to isolate players from the crowd at tournaments.

Chakki confirmed he could hear the casters during the game. He wrote: “After [Lvge] grabbed the card, the Chinese casters went crazy and it was very easy to hear them. After the casters yelled, Lvge threw out the rat. You can clearly see him hovering it out of his hand in this clip.”

Both Julien "Cydonia" Perrault and Frank “Fr0zen” Zhang confirmed the situation and called for “official guidelines that Hearthstone tournaments should follow so the players can be assured a fair environment”, but also overall commended the way they were treated by the organizers’ during their stay in China.

The response from the Chinese side was swift, as NetEase, Lvge and VSPN—the production company responsible for the tournament—all released statements of their own. According to VSPN, the “soundproofing technology [was] very reliable” and “it [was] very difficult to hear anything from the commentators without headset, let alone for Lvge to be able to hear from the commentators with headset on.”

However, VSPN words conflicted with Lvge’s own statement, issued independently in an interview for Chinese community board YingD, that is translated in full here. In it he admits that external factors affected his mindset and decision making leading up to the decisive play.

“I have to admit: On that Turn 2, I did feel the crowd sounds becoming higher pitched,” Lvge said, “but it was not what our opponents are claiming, that my teammates were shouting at me to play Dirty Rat. I saw that [Chakki] kept one card, and from my own experience with the deck, since he threw 3 cards back, that wasn’t a spell. And since he didn’t play a pirate turn 1, the choices were basically VanCleef, Questing or Pillager.”

NetEase, Blizzard’s official partner in China, is also reportedly on the case, according to a statement given to GosuGamers by a company spokesperson: “I personally felt that it’s very unfortunate that it ended the way like this, but we will be doing our own due diligence on investigating this matter, and will let you all know when we have reached a conclusion on this.”

NetEase and journalists present on-site have also denied previous claims that there was no delay between the in-game action and the streamed content, which the players were able to view while their team-mates competed. It’s a pity such an otherwise well-received event has led to some predictably unsightly mud-slinging from fans online. But from the sound of things the lesson may have already been learned.