Stew is the president of Hi-Rez studios and one of the company's founders. He is extremely tall.
At the Smite World Championship last week I sat down with Hi-Rez president Stew Chisam to discuss the future of competitive Smite, including its potential return to Europe—something that seems more likely now that the game has its first European champions.
PCG Chris: It seems one of the themes over the last year, in terms of the competitive side of what Hi-Rez does, has been centralising things around this part of the world. Holding the Super Regionals here, starting your new esports studio here to handle that stuff. Do you guys anticipate moving back out into the world at some point?
Stew Chisam: I think we will, yeah. Maybe not [SWC]. I think there's a lot of advantages to having this event here in Atlanta. It's so motivating and inspiring to our employees to be able to come to an event like this and bring their families. It takes so many people from our company to pull this event off, so logistically and cost-wise it really helps to have it here. But in terms of doing other events out in the world I think you'll see a bit more of that next year.
Although it's been really fantastic having our own studio. That's allowed us to do some neat things. The problem when we go somewhere else—and we did run a small event at GamesCom this year—you get really constrained on time. What has been nice about the studio is being able to have some fun, cool events simply because we had more time.
In the spring we ran a big charity event where players got pies thrown in their face and other things which helped raise a lot of money for charity. That's hard to do on the road.
PCG Chris: I guess I'm thinking as a European fan, but I also know that Smite is really big in Europe. I think it's the biggest region?
SC: Yeah. I think you'll see a lot more from us in Europe this year. We're starting up an office in Europe. Part of our problem in Europe is that we haven't had the right feet on the ground to help us execute the things we need to do to drive the scene there. So that will help a lot.
PCG Chris: This might be too early to call, but do you think the Super Regional might work differently in the future? Can you imagine a future where the regionals are actually separate again?
SC: I think so, yeah. Y'know, the Super Regionals were awesome this year but there were some pros and cons. Six days of esports is a long time, a lot of matches, it was really constrained. What drove us to the Super Regionals this year was, one, there was a scheduling conflict—we had to run two regionals in a tight period of time and we had some other things going on. Two, we had a fifth team that we had to bring to Worlds, so we had to have the Wildcard.
It was a cool experiment, it was a lot of fun. We haven't decided what we're going to do next year, but that's not necessarily a permanent structure. Although we polled the players, after the event, and most of the players were like 'I loved the Super Regionals, it was great, please do it again.' Because they love being around each other, and they can learn so much from that experience. The NA guys being able to see the EU guys was really fun for them.
PCG Chris: The trade-off there is against the fan experience.
SC: That's right, absolutely.
PCG Chris: Speaking of which, one of the things that has come out from this tournament is that regional skill and experience discrepancies are very much still a thing. People came in thinking that this was maybe the year that Avant do surprisingly well, or one of the Chinese teams really shows up—and, well, nope. NA and EU is where Smite is best played.
SC: At the moment it's hard to deny that. I think you did see some incremental improvements in the other regions, but the NA and EU teams keep getting better as well. I think you see that in the quality of some of the plays.
PCG Chris: Is that something that you perceive as a problem? Or is that simply the reality of esports for a lot of different games, so you mitigate it where you can but accept that there are going to be discrepancies?
SC: There's only so much you can do, realistically. We made a cool investment alongside Level Up who does our publishing in Latin America this year where we had the Smite Masters tournament in São Paulo. We brought teams from both Brazil and Spanish-speaking Latin America and brought the winner of our Spring Finals to that to help with some cross-region play.
We've been working with TenCent, and they’re just starting over the next few months to ramp up the Chinese scene to the next level. I think the best thing we can do is encourage more cross-region events. The hardest things for the teams in the other regions is that you have some exceptional players but, but being able to play against other exceptional players is one of the advantages that NA and EU have right now.
PCG Chris: I guess you need an even bigger Super Regional. Hm. What would you call a global Super Regional?
There's a lot of calendar to fill out, though, obviously, between each year's Worlds. I think we can do some things in the middle of the year that'll be exciting.
PCG Chris: Is that a case where you go out and work with partners again? I know when you started in Europe you worked with ESL.
SC: Yeah, and we still work with ESL—we ran an Xbox tournament in the UK. We ran a GamesCom event that ESL helped sponsor. Our regional finals in Australia was through ESL. So we definitely work with partners, especially when we travel.
PCG Chris: For other developers that have the problem of maintaining a strong scene around the world, some of the slack is picked up by tournaments happening autonomously—DreamHack, StarLadder or whatever. What can you do to encourage that, do you think?
SC: We worked some in the Xbox scene this year to help us learn some of that. MLG ran a nice event in Columbus, there were a few others. We have lots of conversations with lots of people. One of the great things about both Smite growing and esports growing is that there's so many more people coming into the scene now wanting to have conversations with us and other studios. It's getting easier to easier to arrange those types of things.
PCG Chris: You made the decision earlier in the year to limit the prize pool for this event in order to better distribute money throughout the year. Are you content with how that's working out?
SC: I consider that to be the best decision we've made all year in terms of esports. I think it was an essential decision in terms of the long-term sustainability of the scene. You talked earlier about how to encourage other players and teams to come in rather than having a few dominant teams. Having 90-something percent of your prize pools go to four teams doesn't leave enough incentive, so we needed to make sure there was enough money on the table to make it worth it for other people who can come in at that level.
PCG Chris: Thanks for your time!
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