Meet the next big things
The brightest diamonds are often found in the unlikeliest places. Competitive Hearthstone is relatively young, but already rife with examples of players emerging seemingly from nowhere to become big names. In 2014, James “Firebat” Kostesich hoisted the World Championship after spending much of the year under the radar. Two of last year’s best players were Thijs “ThijsNL” Molendijk and Sebastian “Ostkaka” Engwall, both of whom began their careers grinding in the relative obscurity of community cups before finding fame and fortune.
In order to break out like they did, it’s not enough just to be good at the game. Hearthstone’s history shows that the best players needs total discipline and dedication, plus a dash of left-field thinking. Those are subtle qualities, which may not be apparent from watching a player in a tournament or on stream, which is why Hearthstone’s brightest prospects are often hard to pinpoint. Nonetheless, as the 2016 season gets underway, these are six of the players who we think have the potential to join the game’s professional frontrunners...
Jan “SuperJJ” Janssen
SuperJJ took competitive Hearthstone by storm in the days following the launch of the League of Explorers. The young German spent the majority of 2015 in the shadows, but the expansion gave him the perfect opportunity to showcase his deckbuilding smarts. With notable bravery, SuperJJ brought an untested Reno Jackson Freeze Mage deck to SeatStory Cup IV and became the most memorable story of that tournament, 5-0 sweeping heavy-hitter Stanislav Cifka in the grand final.
By the time the year ended, he’d taken another tournament first place and two more top four finishes, earning close to $16,000 in a month. Although emotions often get the better of him (he’s famously salty on stream), the way SuperJJ builds his decks and looks at the game overall is the stuff great players are made of. Expect him to become one of the trendsetters this year on his way to more titles.
Esteban “AKAWonder” Serrano
AKAWonder has been slowly but surely climbing the ranks of professional Hearthstone, gathering admirers among his fellow pros along the way. The Spaniard’s talent was spotted in January last year when he was picked up by SK Gaming, and he’s given his all representing them since.
Although currently without a major championship to his name, AKAWonder has proven himself in some of the most stacked tournaments in the world, elbowing through player pools in the hundreds to make respectable finishes. He was a semi-finalist at two LAN events last year—Gamegune and DreamHack Summer, where he lost to eventual winner TiddlerCelestial—and has two more top eights, including DreamHack’s main event in November, once again losing to the eventual champion.
All of that makes AKAWonder feel like a big story waiting to happen. He’s calm under pressure, humble in his victories, and appreciative of how far he’s already come. It’s a mentality that brings to mind ThijsNL, another one of the game’s nice guys. AKAWonder’s team-mates praise the unique way he approaches certain match-ups to gain minor advantages, like playing a control deck in an unusually aggressive style to catch his opponent on the hop.
Victor “Vlps” Lopez
Speaking of even-tempered talents who have already enjoyed the spotlight in major tournaments, Vlps is an easy pick for this list. The American made his breakout run during the $96,000 China vs NA Challenge event, and was an instrumental part of the North American team’s victory. Some of China’s brightest stars in Chaoshen and MieGod fell by Vlps’ hand as local viewers watched aghast as an at the time largely unknown player tore up the field.
Another chance for Vlps to flex muscles and prove his worth came with the North American qualifiers for Blizzcon. In the online round, he went through both Tempo Storm’s JustSaiyan and Archon’s Firebat to finish undefeated in the winners bracket. His dreams of making Blizzcon were eventually ended by Hotform, but Vlps had earned plenty of praise regardless.
Industry insiders compare Vlps’ persona to David “Dog” Caero, who rose to become one of NA’s best performers and most popular players last year. Even though his career has just started, Vlps already has the big-stage experience, raw talent and practice discipline to compete at the very top. Right now he’s not quite the finished article, but once he is, Vlps will be a force to reckon with.
Tugay “MrYagut” Evsan
If you often browse Twitch for Hearthstone streams, there’s a good chance you’ve already encountered MrYagut relentlessly grinding the ladder. The guy is a hardcore practice machine, renowned for his versatility, who spends his days learning and perfecting every class, deck, and playstyle.
The qualities MrYagut possesses makes you wonder what impact he might make if he starts getting invited to tournaments more often. His tireless schedule and love of Rogue make him come across like a cool-but-slightly-weird hybrid of Kolento and Rdu, while his broad knowledge of all the classes, plus the way he pilots them, has echoes of Firebat. The ability to calculate probabilities and analyse outcomes also brings to mind Lifecoach and StanCifka. All in all, quite the mix.
The few tournaments MrYagut has attended have shown him to be a daring experimenter. Check out the bizarre control Hunter he brought to the 2014 European regionals for BlizzCon and see if you don't become a fan immediately.
Anton “Legendaren” Danielsson
Sweden is one of the great esports talent pools and Legendaren is set to add to that reputation. Currently a member of the London Conspiracy organisation, he shares team colors and practices with some of the brightest upcoming talents in Hearthstone, including Inderen, Crane and Asmodai.
Although he hasn’t yet enjoyed the same hype that SuperJJ received for his back-to-back championships, Legendaren also took a challenging route to his first Hearthstone triumph. In July, he reigned supreme at the fully open $10,000 Gfinity Summer Masters I, going through multiple rounds of single elimination qualifiers and main event matches on the way to grabbing his first major championship. Half a year later, he came very close to taking a second gold, grinding his way through the Truesilver Championship preliminaries and defeating Kranich and SuperJJ among others before finally getting stopped by Rdu in the finals.
Make no mistake: Legendaren is champion material. He might not be the most flashy player, but he’s incredibly practical in the way he approaches competitions. Where others go for innovative builds or rely on a specific style, Legendaren simply picks the line-ups he’s most comfortable with and pilots them perfectly.
Lan “Neilyo” Tran
We end with a name that might be unfamiliar to western audiences, but who’s had a fantastic year in his region. A consistent competitor, Neilyo has gone on to become the undisputed best player in Southeast Asia, and his career path has already taken him to the highest of stages: the Blizzcon World Championship.
Neilyo’s biggest strength is his years studying mathematics. A math college graduate, he teaches both mathematics and Hearthstone to his students, constantly switching between the player and mentor roles. Like Ostkaka, Thijs, Xixo and others, Neilyo had to fight for recognition in the brutal world of open community cups before he was able to challenge—and defeat—star players like Amaz, LoveCX, Kranich and Pinpingho.
His path to becoming SEA’s finest has also exposed his greatest weakness, though. Sometimes Neilyo is too convinced of his own superiority, and he will need to find an element of modesty and self-reflection before he can channel his raw skill into regular championship wins.