Brian and Natalie Kibler are the American dream. Every day is easy. Brian, with his trademark lush hair and immaculately unwrinkled shirt, assessing another Hearthstone game he's streaming from the comfort of a leather office chair. His computer room is a shrine to good nerd living—a generational mashup of toys and grown-man concerns. The black book case behind him holds a pile of books, board games, Pop! dolls and Kibler’s proud collection of Magic the Gathering trophies. To his right, there’s a table covered with vitamin supplements and industrial-sized drums of whey protein powder, because of course Brian “Brian Kibler” Kibler knows how to bulk responsibly.
The Kiblers' fluffy Pomeranian mix Shiro is, without a doubt, the most famous pet in the Hearthstone community. Like Brian, Shiro is cute, comforting, and perpetually enthusiastic. He's a constant fixture in fan art, and Natalie tells me that she fully expects to be recording full-length music videos starring Shiro before long.
Occasionally Natalie wanders into frame, sometimes with a bowl of lunch or a handful of their fluffy white Pomeranian Shiro. They sit, they roast the kids in chat, they look at each other in only the way that people who have been in love for a long time look at each other, all while blindingly optimistic tropical house music plays from their speakers.
For many, the grind of streaming on Twitch must be tedious, and it generally favors the young, single, and unbound. But Brian and Natalie have found nothing but bliss in these endless broadcast hours. They are Hearthstone’s first couple, and after another long stream and an episode of Better Call Saul, they jump on Skype to tell me how happy they are.
“This is something unique to Brian’s personality, he gets obsessed with things. He wants to do the same thing over and over again,” laughs Natalie. “This can be a blessing and a curse, but in this case it was a blessing, I have to get him to try new restaurants all the time.”
“Okay, that’s not...” says Brian, preparing his defense.
“I mean, I’m glad you like the same thing over and over again,” says Natalie, cutting him off. “Because you married me.”
Brian Kibler is an iconic Magic the Gathering player. Since his debut in the mid-’90s, he’s earned $279,747 in winnings, which currently ranks him number 11 of all time. Before his Twitch career took off, Brian was earning his game design chops with credits on the mobile-first deckbuilder Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer, the pokerish Drawing Dead, and most notably, the World of Warcraft Trading Card Game—which subsequently served as the spiritual inspiration for Blizzard’s work on Hearthstone.
He was content to swap his Magic career for a steady stream of off-camera, nuts-and-bolts consulting work, he was in his mid-30s, and less active competitively than ever. But after Hearthstone entered open beta, he learned that he could carve out a living by simply being Brian Kibler—the jovial, good-looking dude who CCG fans fell in love with on the Pro Tour.
“I was only vaguely aware of streaming. I had streamed Magic periodically but it was just for fun. I never considered it as a career path,” he says. “But I happened to go to Blizzcon 2014 and talked to some people about streaming, and they were like ‘yeah these guys get all these sponsors and make significant money’ and I was like ‘Oh! Well, maybe I should check this out.’”
A lot of great professional players aren’t able to translate their technical ability into a watchable stream, but Brian Kibler never had that problem. He has a natural affability, and can effortlessly distill complicated plays into approachable language. Kibler’s “brand,” for the lack of a better term, is being the relentlessly nice guy. He does not rely on the latent acidity of Reynad or Kripparrian, nor does he encourage the Twitch chat carnage of Forsen or Reckful. Instead, he builds intricate, intentionally complicated decks. He laughs when he wins, he laughs when he loses, he laughs when he fucks up. Nights at the Kibler household often end with Brian and Natalie, side by side, playing more Hearthstone.
“I pretty much never get angry. I can get snarky, like when I’m streaming and people are saying something that’s totally wrong I’ll fall into snarky mode, but I don’t get angry,” says Brian.
“From the wife’s perspective I can say that Brian completely internalizes any negative feelings that he has,” says Natalie. “But we never fight, really. We can have disagreements, but we’re both sadly very rational. We never yell at each other. We just talk about it and it’s over and it’s fine. Either that or he’s secretly miserable because I tell him to do the dishes. But he’s been doing the dishes a lot lately so I think our relationship is super good.”
Kibler’s success doesn’t just come from his enthusiasm. Hearthstone is a lot of players’ first collectible card game—the combination of polish, approachability, and Blizzard’s international marketing muscle has seen the game rack up 70 million players, a lot of whom lack the kind of insight needed to compete successfully or understand the nuances and terminology familiar to hardcore fans.
In contrast, Brian is a CCG veteran. He’s been playing Magic for longer than some Hearthstone pros have been alive, so his experience and perspective cuts through the daily controversies that can turn r/hearthstone into a dumpster fire. It takes a lot more than an underpowered spell to put Brian Kibler on the warpath. Earlier this year, when a brief, slightly wrongheaded drama consumed the community concerning the cost of Hearthstone packs, Kibler was one of the few who took a diplomatic, contrarian tone. Perhaps you could chalk that up to his professional obligations at Blizzard, but it’s still nice to have someone willing to step outside the hivemind.
“I think a lot of the criticism that comes out in the Hearthstone community is very kneejerk-y and angry, and not really measured,” he says. “I think the best example of this was the whole furor when Purify was released in Karazhan. There were dozens of threads and videos of people talking about how this showed how stupid Blizzard was and how it was this enormous mistake, and now literally dozens of top players in the playoffs right now are playing Purify Priest. While I agree that maybe it wasn’t the best card to release when Priest was really weak and there weren’t great uses for it, but the degree to which people’s reactions were totally disproportionate was crazy.”
Today, Brian is one of Blizzard’s primary casters for Hearthstone tournaments around the globe—a career move that came about directly from his game knowledge and ease on camera. This suits the Kiblers well. Two months ago they enjoyed an all-expenses paid trip to the Bahamas for the HCT Winter Championship, at which Brian called many of the matches. They both enjoyed the sun.
Natalie worked as a web designer ever since she graduated college, and up until recently, her primary gig was with a corporate client that sold medical supplies. In late 2015, after their marriage, she started editing Brian’s Hearthstone videos for his YouTube channel. “We wanted to start doing more video content, because it dovetailed nicely with Twitch,” says Brian. By the end of 2016, Natalie put her design work on hold indefinitely to join the nascent family business. Now they upload a video every day at 8am Pacific Standard Time.
“You weren’t doing that much work for [the medical company] but it was enough work that it was frustrating to you,” says Brian, speaking to his wife. “So eventually it got to the point where I was just like ‘why are you doing this?’ (laughs) You were completely frustrated and weren’t happy doing it.”
“Now I just edit his videos, it’s easy and fun. It’s still not a full-time job by any means. I fully expect for someone to just write a program that does what I do. It would cut out the downtime” says Natalie. “Or a small child! If we have kids then I’ll get my intern. And I’ll go back to, I don’t know, brunching all day everyday.”
It was during that Bahamas trip that Natalie Kibler made a special guest appearance on the channel of noted Hearthstone meme-streamer DiguisedToast.
It was drunk and silly, the kind of impromptu internet connection that materializes when a massive corporation rubber stamps a bunch of plane tickets for its game's most popular personalities.
But it was also a confirmation that Natalie—who does not stream or play professionally—is a bona fide member of the Hearthstone community. “I have a lot more social followers than I used to,” she says. “I guess it’s weird that they know who I am, but it’s also weird that they know who he is. So I’ve kinda experienced his celebrity when I’ve stood next to him in tournament halls for Magic… I don’t think I’m an internet celebrity yet.”
The Kiblers are both a decade older than their colleagues. Pavel, the reigning Hearthstone world champion, is 19. Firebat is 21. Amaz, 26. But they are still living the strange life of Twitch streamers. There’s an air of impermanence in this industry, like maybe eventually the universe will self-correct, the sponsorships will come crashing down, and it will no longer be possible to make serious money from playing video games in public. So perhaps Brian and Natalie ought to be an inspiration to the rest of the community; proof that it’s possible to be in your ‘30s, married with a ridiculously cute dog, and still live a normal life live on stream. In a business where everything is unregulated, the Kiblers are a stabilizing, wholesome presence. The euphoric monotony of monogamy, as framed by the proverbial children’s card game.
“This is still sufficiently new that we’re still figuring out how big it can be or what it can entail. And the whole genre of games broadcasting is still growing. My interests and my expertise lend themselves particularly to card games,” says Brian. “I’ve played games most of my adult life, and most of my not-adult life. Even when I’m done streaming, I’ll be on my iPad playing Hearthstone. Sometimes there are comments in Reddit threads like ‘oh his enthusiasm is so fake,’ it’s like if I weren't actually really into this, I wouldn’t have done it as long as I have.”
“We love computers. We live by the beach and we never even see it,” says Natalie. “We’re nerdy, this is our dream!”