Plenty of people want to work in the games industry, but how do you make that a reality? I caught up with long-running Hearthstone caster TJ Sanders to talk about how he got his start in the scene and what it’s been like to transition into working for Blizzard’s Hearthstone esports team. It’s an interesting insight into what it takes to succeed, not to mention the thinking behind how Hearthstone broadcasting continues to evolve. (The World Championship finals are on right now if you’re interested in seeing what Hearthstone esports is all about.)
IGN: How did you initially get into the Hearthstone scene?
TJ Sanders: I used to be a competitive MOBA player, I played competitive League of Legends. And I realised that I was already 23 years old, I was too old to be a young pro player, whippersnapper. And so I wanted to stay competitive somehow. I wanted to write or try be a host or something. So I applied to like a small ESL cast on a forum back in the day and asked if I could cast one of their smaller community cups. They said, “Yeah.”
I realised quickly that I was being given these opportunities and at that point, I didn’t really deserve it. And so I started to just work really hard, play the game a lot, talk to a lot of people.
And so I started casting that and eventually I had good ties with ESL and a guy named Charles Watson who used to run all of the Hearthstone tournaments back in the day. He actually was the producer on the World Championship back in 2014. So he asked me if I wanted to cast on Hearthstone. And I did and I loved playing the game. It was much more slower paced which was my style.
IGN: So what was your relationship with Hearthstone at that point?
TJ Sanders: Not good. I was a really bad caster when I started casting Hearthstone. A lot of people look back on that, they don’t even recognize me because I even changed the title that I go by. I used to go by my Twitter handle which is Azumoqt which doesn’t really mean anything to a lot of people. And then once I started to get better and practice, I started to go by TJ. Just TJ. My Twitter handle stayed the same but people started to know me as TJ. And they don’t even realise, a lot of people don’t even realise I’m the same person because I just wasn’t good back in the day. I didn’t play much Hearthstone. And I realised quickly that I was being given these opportunities and at that point, I didn’t really deserve it. And so I started to just work really hard, play the game a lot, talk to a lot of people. Learnt a lot from Frodan because he was the person I was casting with the majority of the time.
IGN: I remember first seeing the Fight Night series.
TJ Sanders: Yeah.
IGN: And I was like who is this guy? He’s come a long way too.
TJ Sanders: Yeah and you know basically right after Fight Night and right after like the 2014 World Championship, Frodan was looked at as the guy. He found his place and then I was like, “well I get to cast with this guy. And I’m not doing it justice.” And so I talked to him a lot, he gave me a lot of advice early on.
IGN: I think that that’s something that people don’t really realise is just the kind of work ethic you really need to have. Because it’s not just good enough to just be a semi-decent Hearthstone player and know the name of the cards. There’s so much to it.
TJ Sanders: No you have to be good. Back then I was like rank 10, 11 and I felt like I was pretty good but once I started to grind and reach legend and then the top ranks of legend, started playing in a few tournaments back in the day, I realised that I still had a lot to learn. And so I start talking to block players, talking to a lot of casters. And just trying to digest as much information as possible. That’s what it takes.
IGN: What kind of prep would you do before casting a big tournament in terms of who the players are, the line-up they’re bringing, how they all match up against each other? There’s a lot to cover.
A week before the event, all of the casters actually get to interview each player separately for about an hour… machine gunning questions at them.
TJ Sanders: Well it’s honestly now being at Blizzard it’s part of my job to gather all this information. And get it to the other talent and help organise the information that we’re getting about the players and deck stats. So a lot of that just comes naturally with my job. But you still have to put in a lot of Hearthstone. Especially with the new set. My wife probably hates it but I play a little Hearthstone at work when I can. But I come home and eat dinner, on my phone, play Hearthstone. Try to learn the decks and then deck submission comes, I realise that players brought decks that are a little bit weirder. Make the deck, jam 100 games and really try and get there.
But it’s weeks of preparation. I try and talk to a lot of the players too and get their insight. A week before the event, all of the casters actually get to interview each player separately for about an hour. So they come and sit in a room with us, all six of us. Just machine gunning questions at them. And so we learn a lot there too. So it’s a few weeks of good solid work to be able to make sure that we can do these guys justice. Make sure that we’re seeing their good plays and telling their good stories.
IGN: And last year was the first year that Che [Chou] and the esports team were like, “all right we’re going large this year.” And then 2018 is going to be even bigger. So yeah, you have to be on point at absolutely every level in the production. Which is obviously a lot of work.
TJ Sanders: It’s daunting but I joined the Hearthstone esports team in March and since then the team has even almost doubled in size, just since I joined. And it feels like it’s a well-oiled machine now to be honest. I really only touch broadcast stuff. I touch player research, decks, what goes on in broadcast. And it’s amazing to come here and see these people that I really like sit next to all day, come up with this amazing event. It’s quite surreal once we get here. But the team is quite large now and we are doing big things.
IGN: What was making that transition to working for Blizzard like? I mean it must have been a scary step in its own way?
TJ Sanders: It was tough.
IGN: Was that the end goal? Did you have an end goal when you were initially getting your foot in the door?
TJ Sanders: My end goal was always just to be in esports as long as possible. And I always had sort of this dream of running my own events from start to finish but never the resources to be able to do so. And it was tough at first. I was casting for about three years full time before I joined Blizzard and before that I managed a Starbucks for a couple years. I never had like a sit down office job.
And so it was a rough transition at first, trying to get accustomed to everything. Blizzard is just such a huge company and even within Blizzard, esports feels like a pretty small cog in the giant Blizzard wheel. And so it was a little daunting but it’s been good. Everybody was welcoming and a lot of the team is new. If you look at the Hearthstone esports team now, most of them, I’ve been here less than a year, are newer than me.
So you know, once I became one of the veterans it became a lot easier. Which is weird to say since I’ve been there less than a year but it’s been cool because we got to shape the new 2018 system with fresh eyes. And that was really neat.
IGN: Yeah Che said to me yesterday that you took the initiative and organised the listening tours and spoke to close to 80 players to help get feedback [for how to change the system]. I mean that must be really cool being able to bridge your worlds – you utilise your relationships and the fact that you’ve been in the scene for so long, to kind of help shape what Blizzard is going to do, right?
TJ Sanders: And that’s sort of the main thing that I do everyday is just translate what the players want to the esports team. Because before that, I think that there was barely any people on our esports team, there was, like five people leading up to this year or last year, 2017. I say this year because we’re at the 2017 World Championship. It gets confusing sometimes.
I have a huge wish-list of things I’d love to see for esports but the fact of the matter is that it just doesn’t make sense to prioritise those things over other things.
And so there wasn’t really that bridge like you said but I spent a lot of my time talking to players and if one of the players, anybody – somebody that plays in the challenger cups or someone that plays in the World Championship, a lot of times they message me, send me a DM on Twitter or give me an email. I’ll set up a Skype call with them in 15 minutes, hear him out.
And a lot of those problems we can fix pretty easily, we just don’t have eyes on them. And so it’s pretty good that I get to hear all this stuff and use that to help us not only shape the 2018 system but also to fix small little problems that maybe they wouldn’t see otherwise.
IGN: Yeah, keeping the pro-player base happy is obviously important for the health of the scene. But I guess there’s some things that you guys aren’t directly under control of. Che said, for instance, that you had to fight to get the disconnect issue fixed. And there’s a few other things that I’m sure you guys would like to see implemented into the game. So I guess the question is, what’s the relationship like between you guys and Team 5? How does it work on a daily basis?
TJ Sanders: On a daily basis, it’s not a big interaction. We have weekly meetings with them where we go over the progress of things that we’ve asked for and they go over what their vision is for esports. And a lot of it is just there’s a lot going on in Hearthstone. I have a huge wish-list of things I’d love to see for esports but the fact of the matter is that it just doesn’t make sense to prioritise those things over other things. I do not envy the person whose job it is to make the decisions of what all the development time goes to because it’s got to be a tough job, because there’s a lot that goes on, but the resume from disconnect feature has been great.
We got the World Champion Tavern Brawl, which is cool. And even people that don’t watch competitive Hearthstone love that because you sort of go back in time and get to play all these – I miss Loatheb, I really do.
IGN: Well I just won a game yesterday with like six Patrons and an 18 strength Frothing Berserker on the board.
TJ Sanders: There you go. Beautiful. So that kind of thing is pretty cool when they give us that kind of support. But I only hope that in the future, maybe the Hearthstone team expands and we can get a lot more done. Because I do think that a lot of the things that are good for esports could be good for the game as a whole.
IGN: Yeah absolutely. I mean, a way to play best of three, or best of whatever matches with friends or whoever would be really great to have at this point.
TJ Sanders: Yeah I think Reddit has been asking for tournament mode since the game came out.
IGN: It’s just replicating the tournament formats and tournament pressure and we can’t really do that right now.
TJ Sanders: Yeah.
IGN: Something you mentioned earlier was providing stats and that kind of stuff for the casters and that’s something I’ve really noticed a lot with this tournament is just how much more everybody is like, “Oh according to HS Replay if you’ve got this card in the mulligan…” So that’s cool. That was your initiative or is that something that the casters had all kind of discussed?
TJ Sanders: Yeah so, earlier on this year we experimented with actually using the player’s real statistics that we would pull from internal data. But we had to be really careful with that because we didn’t want to give absolute information. And so we ended up-
IGN: What’s the danger of giving absolute information?
TJ Sanders: Because if you give absolute information then the game is “solved”. Then people know what the best deck is. If everybody had access to all the data that Blizzard has, then everybody would know. Everybody would play the deck with the highest win rate because that’s the deck that Blizzard said had the highest win rate.
And when we give absolute information about the players, people take that as, well if he’s the best player in the world and this is his best deck then it must be the best deck. And so we had to scale back the amount of information that we could give. So we had kind of fun stats like their fastest path to legend. We used high MMR specific deck win rates. So what was their win rate with a specific deck in the last month at high MMR? So it was very vague, you know? And that didn’t resonate with people that were viewing, it just didn’t feel good. The stats were meaningless.
We actually have this cool new broadcaster tool… up on the caster desk there’s a third monitor that actually sits there that basically is like a live deck tracker. For both players’ decks.
And earlier on in 2017, we started talking with HS Replay a little bit, just tried to… They do really cool stuff. They make Deck Tracker, they’re run by HearthSim which runs a few little Hearthstone programs. And we tried to come up with a thing we could do and we actually have this cool new broadcaster tool that HearthSim and the HS Replay guys made which up on the caster desk there’s a third monitor that actually sits there that basically is like a live deck tracker. For both players’ decks.
And it just sits there and it gives us a ton of information. And so we have access to those stats and we can relay those stats to the producers and they can throw the stats up on broadcasts. We can use those to look smarter. I don’t know if we look smarter in this World Championship but there’s a secret behind it.
And so that’s been really cool, it’s allowed us to use a lot of things that we wouldn’t have been able to in the past. And since it’s not absolute data, since it’s community driven and the data is pulled from a small subset of games and it’s widely accepted as a go-to site for players then we can be free to use them, and say, “according to HS Replay and this community driven data, we can say that’s highly favoured, slightly favoured.” All that kind of stuff. So it makes our job easy and we connect to the community better.
IGN: So what do you think the next logical steps are for the presentational aspect of the game? And you know because I’ve always wondered about whether knowing what the top card on each player’s deck is or those kind of ideas. How would you like to see the esports presentation evolve?
TJ Sanders: Dunk tanks for people that miss lethal.
IGN: Yeah actually, that’s a great idea.
TJ Sanders: I think that’s the obvious next step. We have Frodan’s jackets already so we need to find a way to one up him. But you know, it’s tough because Hearthstone is such a unique esport. We can’t emulate other esports because it’s so unique. A lot of times we look at the team sports, Blizzard just launched Overwatch league and it’s hard to take things from them because they have teams. Their game is much faster paced.
We try and look at single player games like us. Well, we look at StarCraft 2, StarCraft Brood War remastered or whatever. It’s hard because those players have these legacies. A lot of them have been around for years and years and years. And their talent has been around for years and years and years and even then the game is much faster paced. And so it’s hard.
It’s also hard for us to show that these are the best players in the world. Like to the average viewer, they see this guy Keleseth Shadowstep Keleseth and they’re like “well this is just like every other player that I’m playing against at rank 8.” And so it’s hard for us to show that these ones are the best players in the world. So I think for us it’s taking a more analytical approach. Bring the things down, showing people why these players are good. Because I think we have the storytelling down. We have beautiful media pieces, we sit these players down, we talk to them. We have a ton of content surrounding them but showing why these players are better than everybody else is the tough thing. I think that’s where we’re going next.
I don’t know if you caught it but during the breaks sometimes we play these Gamer Sensei analysis videos, which I think are great. And that’s the type of content that I’d love to see is short, digestible content that shows what these players are doing that nobody else is doing.
And I think that’s what Hearthstone needs to go the next step is getting people to shy away from the, “oh it’s just a coin flip. It’s an RNG game.” To, “wow, these guys do make the best plays and that’s why they get those percentage points over their opponents.” So I think that’s where Hearthstone is going next.
IGN: In terms of casting, it must be a very delicate balance between providing deep analysis and making what you’re saying accessible to more casual fans, all while being entertaining.
TJ Sanders: Yeah, yeah it’s hard… the balance between satisfying the casual viewer and satisfying the hardcore viewer. We talk about that all the time. I think this year, we partnered with a production group that is non-endemic. They never did esports stuff before. Whereas previous years we were with companies that did esports broadcast all the time because we wanted to up our storytelling game. Because you know that’s what the casual players will latch onto or newer players will latch onto is a good story.
I feel like we sort of left the hardcore viewers behind… at the beginning of the year, we had a casting approach that was a little more casual…
And I think that’s what we’ve done a great job of this year but I feel like we sort of left the hardcore viewers behind. Even at the beginning of the year, we had a casting approach that was a little more casual as well. We started to cater to newer players. We didn’t have as any pro-player guests to come up. Sottle is going to be really mad at me, not calling him a pro-player but it’s too long, three years ago is too much time.
So I still don’t even know what the correct answer is because Hearthstone is still very young. It’s still a very young esport and we don’t know. We’re going to try new things this year, we’re going to try a lot of new things. We’re trying the Gamer Sensei analytical videos here, we’re trying to jam content and stories as much as we can and we’re just going to see what works. And I think that 2018 is going to be a big experimental year for us when it comes to what works on a broadcast but I think that’s going to make it fun because it’s going to be a lot of content to digest and I think every type of player is going to have something to watch. And then we’ll go from there. See what works the best.
IGN: Awesome. Thanks for your time!