In 2020, YouTube got exclusive rights to stream esports tournaments of several Blizzard games, including Hearthstone. And this dealt a crushing blow to the viewership statistics of the events: the number of spectators dropped significantly as viewers were not ready to leave the familiar harbor called Twitch. In addition, the new format of the Grandmasters league also did not benefit the discipline. Here's how much the HS esports popularity has dropped.
How has Hearthstone esports changed in 2020?
The Hearthstone esports ecosystem is built around the Grandmasters series leading up to the World Championship. GM consists of two seasons with four weeks of competitions in each, based on their results, the participants in the World Championship are determined. In addition to the regular Grandmasters seasons, Blizzard also hosts Masters Tours: six of them were held in 2020 which is two times more compared to 2019.
It would seem that the number of events has increased, but this is not entirely true. Despite the fact that there are more Masters Tours events, several other tournament series were cancelled. For example, this applies to the Hearthstone Global Games, a national team tournament.
No more HGG in foreseeable future
HGG was replaced by the Gold Club series, which is run by Blizzard and Chinese company NetEase. However, the series is not very popular on YouTube: for example, GC matches get way less views compared to Masters Tours games.
Problems of the Hearthstone esports ecosystem also lie in the format of the Grandmasters league. As CIS caster Olesya Olesami Denisenko thinks, Grandmasters is somewhat of a “private club”, which is difficult to get into: that’s why the same people play with each other every time.
COVID-19 is also a problem. All planned offline events eventually went online, and some tournaments were simply canceled. For example, Hearthstone has always been one of the key disciplines at the major Chinese competition WESG, but the event was cancelled in 2020.
Additionally, Hearthstone esports is no longer centered around Standard format alone. Competitions have been regularly held in the popular Battlegrounds mode since 2020. But not all viewers watch the competitions in both modes, which is why the HS esports audience becomes segmented.
In short, there were enough problems in HS esports apart from its move to YouTube. But the change of the main broadcasting partner affected viewership decline the most.
Catastrophic drop of HS esports viewership
Hearthstone esports views dropped by 70% over the year. HS tournament gained more than 38.3M hours watched in 2019, but a year later this figure was only 11.7M.
Comparing Twitch and YouTube alone, the downfall was even more serious. HS esports on Twitch gained 38.2M hours watched in 2019; YouTube broadcasts collected only 8.6M hours watched in 2020. Despite roughly the same airtime, the drop was about 78%!
As it turned out, viewers simply do not want to watch Hearthstone on YouTube. Some viewers complained at forums that they can no longer receive free packs for watching streams (like they did on Twitch), while others just say that they just don't like watching live streams on YouTube.
Two years ago, the broadcast of events on avera gathered around 25.6K viewers, but last year the figure dropped to 8.3K. The discipline has also dropped two times by peak viewers: 276K in 2019 vs 140.3K people in 2019. Interestingly, HS esports record in 2020 was set during Outland Inn-vitational, which was broadcasted… on Twitch!
If we compare the world championships’ statistics of the last two years, then the drop in peak viewers was as much as 67%. The most popular game of World Championship 2020 was the match between SilverName and Jarla in the semifinals; this match received an additional promotion, but still only attracted 89.2K simultaneous viewers. After the match the number of viewers decreased even more: less than 30K people watched the final at peak.
Statistics by language
One of the problems of Hearthstone esports is a dependence on the most famous esports players who prefer to stream on Twitch. These include SilverName, Thijs, Rdu and French content makers who stream on SolaryHS channel.
Taiwanese Mandarin, French, English and Russian broadcasts dropped the most among the languages; the audience of local streams decreased by 88%, 77%, 69% and 66%, respectively.
Transition to YouTube the least affected the Japanese and Portuguese languages, where the drop was 41% and 24%, respectively. Interestingly, Spanish-speaking audience of Hearthstone esports streams has grown by 22%: mostly because Spain has way more YouTube streamers than other countries.
One should remember that the drop of viewership statistics is not associated with the number of tournaments. Hearthstone itself (as a streaming category) is also not falling in popularity either, and the audience of top streamers has not diminished. The main reason for the fall was precisely the move of esports to YouTube.
HS has no competitors among CCGs
Despite the problems, Hearthstone still only competes with itself: other collectible card games cannot impose competition on it. HS esports has two times more hours watched compared to its closest competitor Magic: The Gathering, even after a 70% drop.
Only Gwent esports has grown among Hearthstone's main competitors by hours watched (56% up) over the past year. MTG is closest to HS among esports CCGs; however, the game has also dropped by 66% by metric in a year.
Artifact was expected to become the biggest rival to HS, but the game failed very hard. All Valve's attempts to revive the game were useless: still no one plays in Artifact, and its esports scene is absolutely absent: 0 esports hours watched in 2020.
There is simply no other CCG to take advantage of HS problems. This gives Blizzard more freedom in some sense, as it can freely experiment with streaming platforms.
The change of esports broadcasting platform cannot be painless for any game. Twitch's audience is too loyal to the platform: ever since the Hearthstone esports scene emerged, fans have been inextricably linked with Twitch, and the main content makers of the game still continue to stream on this platform.
In general, the decline was expected, but the main question is whether it will stop in 2021. The competitive season starts in early April, so we just have to wait in order to draw further conclusions.