'Hearthstone' Inspires China's Evolving Digital Gaming Market in Shanghai

When Blizzard invited me to Shanghai for the Hearthstone Championship Tour Spring Championship, I wasn't sure it was a good idea. When I told people about it they'd tell me to "be safe" and had this worry on their face I can only describe as "don't become an enemy of the state." They'd remind me of the recent death of Otto Warmbier at the hands of his North Korean captors, for the crime of taking a poster, and I'd remind them China and North Korea are different places.

Hearthstone is a digital trading card game based off of the World Of Warcraft universe, where players build decks and battle it out against each other online. Players can earn in-game gold or spend real world money to buy card packs filled with zany characters like gurgling fish people, pompous thespians or an angry chicken. With 70 million players worldwide, it's one of the most popular online trading card games (TCGs) around and the tournaments are a very big deal, with the prize pool for the World Championship set at $1 million.

Despite Hearthstone's popularity, the competitive eSports scene in China remains relatively hidden from the rest of the world. It's hard, sometimes almost impossible, for anyone who doesn't speak Chinese to follow a scene that's largely unaffected by other Hearthstone tournaments and play styles. I knew I had to see it for myself.

"For whatever reason in eSports, outside of China, people don't necessarily have visibility into the scene here, sometimes vice versa," Matt Wible, Hearthstone's eSports manager told Newsweek. "That's a big reason we wanted to come to China, we have this global game with great players from around the world, it's not a concentrated thing like other games end up being."

Dedicated fans can watch Hearthstone in any language and understand what's happening on the screen. I can tell which card is which just from seeing its picture, for example. But I first started watching eSports tournaments in 2004, when you had to physically connect computers on a LAN line to play, and often wondered why the Chinese scene is so different.

"Because of how passionate the fans are here, China's already leading the way in the world in a bunch of ways. China's at the forefront and we are going to continue learning from them," Wible said.

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Fans in Shanghai came out to watch their favorite Hearthstone champs go head-to-head. Activision/Blizzard

After a 20-hour flight complete with strict Chinese flight attendants (no visible cellphone use!), a terrifying episode of violent turbulence and enough awful airline noodles to ruin my love of ramen, I finally made it to Shanghai. The tournament was held in the gigantic Expo Center in Pudong. It looked like the site of a massive concert, not an online card game tournament. Over the course of the weekend, I spent hours tucked away in the press lounge, overlooking the thousands of fans tightly packed in rows of small chairs. Somewhere between 1,000 to 1,500 people attended the event in person every day, just to observe a giant projection screen of two dudes sitting in chairs playing digital card games together. Online, hundreds of thousands more watched from around the world on Hearthstone's own Twitch channel.

ESport events with crowds of that size can get kind of rowdy. All it takes is one fan in the crowd to yell some words of encouragement, memes or chants at the players on stage, before the rest of the fans pile on. The Chinese viewers were much more respectful, remaining dead silent as to not disturb those playing on stage. At certain points, the tension was so thick all I could hear was the fog machine whirling in the press lounge.

You haven't lived until you're part of a thousand person hivemind figuring out a puzzle at the exact same time as you.

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Fans in Shanghai came out to watch their favorite Hearthstone champs go head-to-head. Activision/Blizzard

"When you go to a Chinese tournament or any Chinese Event, they are focused on the entertainment part, people are having fun here," Eloise, a world-famous Hearthstone streamer with millions of viewers, told Newsweek. "For Western events, it's more serious, you play to win. In China, a lot of the people just come here to enjoy."

She's a major celebrity here, and would likely stand out even if she weren't wearing a pink tutu and Tempo Storm jersey. The only female Chinese Hearthstone streamer to become popular enough to grow a following globally, not just locally, she is constantly bombarded by fans looking for pictures. Most are quickly scolded by security and corralled off to a designated fan meetup area, but she is gracious enough to take a few pics too. The vibe here is markedly less intense than Western eSports tournaments. "Hearthstone is a casual game and Chinese people love casual games," she said. "Only a few games can be popular in China, it's very unlike the Western community."

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Fans in Shanghai came out to watch their favorite Hearthstone champs go head-to-head. Activision/Blizzard

While flying back from the other side of the world, eating octopus tentacles on the in-flight meal, I wondered if I accomplished what I set out to do: learn about Chinese eSports. Chinese eSport fans love mobile games that are free-to-play and worship the pros at the top of their game. While the culture, food, gaming habits, day-light cycle and smog levels might be different then what I'm used to, the love of eSports remains the same.