Scenes From The Hearthstone Blizzcon Qualifier Round Of 16: Victory, Heartache And Online Sports At NYC's Hammerstein Ballroom [PHOTOS]

By Steve Buja , Updated Oct 07, 2014 12:55 AM EDT
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Two players sit across from one another. They are dressed in casual clothes, jeans, t-shirts. Headphones shut out the world outside. They never look at one another; their eyes are focused entirely on the screens in front of them. Neither ever moves, save for the superhuman like twitching of their fingers across the keyboard. The tension is palpable. Even if you do not understand what is going on, you know that this is important; that something is about to happen.

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Today was the second day of the Hearthstone Blizzcon Qualifiers, where 16 players from across North America are competing for the chance to appear at the annual Blizzcon convention in Seattle next month. The tournament was organized by ESL, the premier eSports League.

The legendary Hammerstein Ballroom stands less than half full today. Rows and rows of empty seats. Voices chatter and echo all over the grand venue's high walls. Yet, if you close your eyes and listen, the sound can overwhelm you, and that near empty hall can sound like a full sized arena. Like watching Bobby Fischer, you can see the endless algorithms and calculations going on behind a firm countenance. Hearthstone may be a game to you and me; but to these players, it is a full time job.

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If you have never experienced a live eSports event, you are missing out. Though it lacks the fever pitch of a Korean event, where thousands gather to declare their love and allegiance to their favorite players, an eSports event done right is like a night at the casino: suddenly, the entire evening has vanished, and you're not entirely sure when that happened.

The hall may look vacant, but do not take the rows of empty seats to mean that nobody is watching. The official Twitch broadcast was favorited over 61,000 times and received more than 10 million views (including repeats). Sunday Night Football got over 18 million views, but football has been an institution for the last half century. Hearthstone was released back in March.

Sixteen players entered, but only four will get the chance to compete at Blizzcon. The tournament had been raging for two days now and you could feel the air of finality hanging over the proceedings. Today, it was all or nothing. Each game was a single elimination, best of five match. On the surface, each contender, who had fought long and hard to get here, looked calm and composed, but underneath, the nerves can get to even the most seasoned of eSports players.

That feeling never goes away, either. Until one stands supreme, there will always be nervousness, hesitation, and a trail of contenders who didn't make the grade.

"I'm a tiny bit nervous," said TidesOfTime (real name Andrew Biessner; @TidesTV) to GameNGuide, "I'm more just stressed about you know, every match becomes all or nothing. And it could be the difference between zero dollars and a hundred thousand dollars."

Tides, who got the lion share's of applause during his match against JAB (real name Justin Black; @JABLOL), won that joust 3-1. But he had little time to revel in the victory. His next opponent would be Tarei, who is one of the best in North America (technically everyone is, but Tarei is in a class unto himself). There would be time for celebrating later, but there was research to do now. "I take about 15 to 60 minutes of studying my opponents, and go from there." Tides continued, "In the middle of it I think it's pretty important to be able to adapt in case things go hardly wrong. Say you have a deck that's really bad against his final two decks, or maybe his last deck, you want to get that deck out of the way and still win, and then play that better deck."

"I'm not confident about the match, but uh, I'm not un - I'm a little in the middle, I think it's pretty close to 50/50." he added. If he was nervous, the young man was not revealing any of it. At 22, Tides has a solid eSports resume. He was a former national player for Dota 2 and even tried his hand at League of Legends for a few months, had seasoned him to the adrenaline rush of the tournaments.

"Honestly, I like card games, I like strategy, I like logic." he responded when asked what it was about Hearthstone that appealed to him, "It has all of that, also my fingers hurt now when I do spam clicky games, so that's a plus when I play Hearthstone. And I can stream and talk to my viewers whenever I want, it's a very streamable game, it's a very relaxing game. You have a bit more free time playing Hearthstone than other games." Considering some League of Legends players go for 16 hours a day, any extra time is undoubtedly good time.

Tides' opponent JAB was reserved and a little despondent when I spoke with him briefly after his loss. He was visibly shaken up.

"I'm a little defeated after that last one." he said, his eyes elsewhere, "I prepared a lot last night and this morning for this match. Shame I lost."

The true sign of a professional is the ability to see the cards for what they are. JAB knew it wouldn't go well for him. In the third match of the set, in which each contender played their Priest deck (which is lovingly known as a 'mirror' match), JAB initially had the upper hand. But the long nature of that particular type of battle can wear on even the hardiest of players and a devastating Holy Nova from Tides effectively put the game out of reach for the soft-spoken JAB.

"As soon as I lost the priest vs priest mirror," he later confessed, "I didn't think my warlock was going to be favored against his priest and warrior, so I felt pretty defeated after I lost that game." But he still soldiered on, and put up a great fight in the clincher. It was not to be, though.

JAB may have lost the Blizzcon tournament, but he refuses to let it get him down. He's already planning his Hearthstone future. "I'm planning to start streaming like 5 days a week or something, so I'll do that and weekly tournaments. Then, whenever something else big comes around I'll definitely go for it." You can watch him at twitch.tv/jablol

When the dust had settled, the four finalists left were Firebat, dTwo, StrifeCro and...Tarei. TidesOfTime missed the mark. This time, at least.

Hearthstone has just opened, but the Inn will be around for a long, long time. Tides and JAB and all the others will have more chances to succeed.

Blizzcon happens next month from November 8 thru 9. You can purchase Virtual Tickets to watch all of the action here, from Warcraft, Diablo and oh yes, Hearthstone. The official Twitch channel is replaying the event all day. Check it out below.

Watch live video from PlayHearthstone on www.twitch.tv

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