Hearthstone pros are not happy about having to play qualifiers in Buffalo Wild Wings

Regardless of what the haters say, at the top level Hearthstone is a mentally strenuous game, especially when played for high stakes. To perform at their best, players need peace and quiet to map out future turns. This is why many pros are unhappy at being asked to play high-profile tournament qualifiers in venues that include Buffalo Wild Wings restaurants.

Beginning on May 20, over the course of three consecutive weekends Blizzard will host the playoffs for the Hearthstone Championship Tour (HCT) Spring Championship. Hundreds of players from each major Hearthstone region will battle for a handful of seeded spots at the $250,000 championship, where the real prize is qualification to the $1M World Championship late in the year.

Blizzard uses a variety of venues around the globe—usually bars and internet cafes—to host the playoffs. These venues are usually located in major cities, and eligible players are obliged to attend one in order to take part. Competing from the comfort of home isn’t an option due to potential admin issues, and the fact the matches need to be streamed. 

Since the system was introduced in 2015, issues with the venues have been a constant bugbear. In the past, multiple “taverns”—as Blizzard calls the venues—have been plagued by poor Internet connection, with UK players experiencing regular disconnects in some of the most important matches of their careers. Now, with the 2017 Spring Playoffs approaching, it’s the US players' turn to complain that five of their possible venues are in the less than serene setting of Buffalo Wild Wings. 

(Please note at this point that PC Gamer is vehemently pro hot wings in general, but wouldn’t want to be competing for cash while surrounded by blue cheese dip.)

As an established chain of sports bars, Buffalo Wild Wings is perfect if you want to watch the Superbowl while tying one on, but the noise level is hardly appropriate for a Hearthstone tournament. And the pros haven’t been shy about saying so on Twitter. 

We spoke to several to see how much of a problem this is going to be.

“Hearthstone is a mental game (like chess or poker) and unlike some other esports you care a lot about the noise levels and distractions and personally they affect my play a ton,” 2016 world champion Sebastian “Ostkaka” Engwall said. “I'm pretty sure the majority of the players who qualify, which is a huge amount of work these days, don't care about the concept of playing in a tavern or having some Fireside Gathering tournament happening next to you. I'd even be happy if they just kept the same venues as they had before, but the baffling part is Blizzard is actively removing the best venues in terms of noise levels and personal space and replacing them with worse ones, so it's like they're moving in the completely wrong direction.”

“I won't be playing at a Buffalo Wild Wings, thank god there isn't one in Stockholm," Engwall continued. "In Sweden we used to play at an internet café which was really nice, and now I'm playing in a cramped area in the back of a store with very little space to sit, and sharing this space with a fireside gathering tournament happening simultaneously. When you're trying to qualify for the World Championship it feels like Blizzard should be treating you better than some loud table at a fast food restaurant with unreliable Wi-Fi.”

According to Vetle “Xzirez” Stubberund who represented Norway in the HCT Winter Playoffs, the wild variation in venues damages the integrity of the competition and sends a bad message regarding competitive Hearthstone, especially with the scene having grown massively over the past few years.

“My main concern in general is just an integrity issue,” Stubberund said. "I have played games at a pro and semi-pro level for years now and HCT has a lot of issues I’ve seen before, but all combined at once. The Buffalo Wings things is nothing new and if it was done a few years ago I wouldn't care as much, but the whole scene has become much bigger now.

"All locations have had several issues in the past, and for them to now send NA players to a Buffalo Wings bar just seems like saying ‘we don’t care’. Several pros have voiced their concerns about the HCT locations and the whole layout in the past, so I was expecting them to at least make the locations better... This just makes the scene look very unprofessional. Hearthstone already has a bad reputation as is, there’s no need to add to it.”

Though the players’ concerns are of course valid given that they want to perform optimally, in Blizzard’s defense the very nature of holding a worldwide event like this is a logistical nightmare. The company not only has to find venues that are at least somewhat suitable to host a Hearthstone tournament, but they have to be well spread across the continents, too. And while that’s easier to do in Europe, where travel distances are more manageable, it’s a whole other issue in the United States and Canada,  the latter of which only has a handful of locations. Although far from ideal, collaborating with Buffalo Wild Wings allows Blizzard to have better coverage overall, as a spokesperson told Kotaku

“When considering Playoff venues for the Hearthstone Championship Tour, one of our goals is to encourage diversity in geographic location to provide more convenient venue options for our HCT competitors. We’re always looking at ways to reach new locales while still supporting previous locations where it makes sense. Working with Buffalo Wild Wings this season has allowed us to bring the Spring Playoffs to new locations including Denver, Colorado and Marietta, Georgia. The participating Buffalo Wild Wings locations have been vetted to the same standards as each of our other existing Playoff venues. This vetting process includes a review of the physical space and internet stability, among other factors. We’ve paired some of our most experienced Innkeepers with new venues to ensure smooth execution. Each Playoff Venue, including Buffalo Wild Wings, will also feature two dedicated tournament admins.”

Whether or not Blizzard’s admins will be able to magically make the Buffalo Wild Wings bars into Hearthstone-friendly venues remains to be seen. The North American venues will be in use on May 27 and 28, and rest assured we’ll be watching with interest. And a side of mac ‘n’ cheese.