Over the weekend, Irvine-based Gameforge/Hex Entertainment held its inaugural eSports event for its popular new trading card/MMO HEX: Shards of Fate. The fledgling event proved a success, drawing HEX fans from around the world to the Santa Ana eSports Arena to watch the best HEX players battle it out for their share of the $100,000 prize pool. During the action packed event, we grabbed HEX Entertainment CCO Corey Jones and wrung a few answers from him regarding the new tourney.
MMORPG: What were your expectations for this event - in terms of attendance or anything else for that matter?
Corey Jones: Live events for a digital game are difficult until they reach a certain level. Like, League of Legends is at the Staples Center because it's the most popular game in the world. Typically your turnout is based on how big your community is. We're lucky in that we have such a hardcore fan base. We have lots of people here that flew here to be at this event, which is pretty remarkable. Our local community is pretty good-sized. Yesterday we had close to 200 people here so that was great. It's definitely met my expectations in terms of what the turnout was. As far as production quality, my production team did such a good job of making this feel like a big deal. And I feel like the broadcasters really exceeded my expectations.
MMORPG: How long has this venue been around and how did you end up staging the event here?
CJ: I don't know their complete story but our offices are twenty minutes away so it was perfect. We had looked at other eSports studios but they're not really built for people, they're just built for broadcast. For example, Riot has one. This one was fairly new, close to the office, and I think they put a couple million dollars into building this place out. It's pretty amazing. As a free-standing solution for what we needed, it was perfect.
MMORPG: With events like this, do you hope to turn a profit?
CJ: Not at all. It's really part of the value proposition of the game as a whole. If you're building a lifestyle game, things like this are part of the cost of doing business. Trading card games in general are lifestyle games. They're so intense, and you spend so much time playing and they're so creative and there's so much ownership for the player, they're absolutely one of the most lifestyle-like games out there. They've been around for over twenty years and before there was real eSports, you had trading card games spearheading the idea that you could win money playing them. They sort of created what became popular eSports.
MMORPG: You've said before that your goal has been to bring more people into the game. Did you think about that when presenting information during the tournament?
CJ: Definitely. Part of good eSports—and my guys study everyone else's eSports because they're very passionate about doing a good job with this piece of our business—is making sure that everyone is informed and they understand what's going on. We've had people go to eSports events that don't play that particular game and they're like, “Wow, this is exciting.” And back in the day with Starcraft, there were some really nice eSports events where people who didn't even play were like, “I got excited!” There was always this reaction like, “Hey, I actually liked that,” as if an entertainment as big as video games would be shockingly entertaining. Of course it's entertaining! Games are fun.
MMORPG: Have you noticed any national majorities among players of HEX? Do you have more European players versus more North American players, etc?
CJ: It's almost an even split. In qualifying we had two Russians, two French, two Germans, two U.S., one U.K., one from Turkey and one from Croatia. It was a perfect mix of our global audience.
MMORPG: In some cases, Eastern European players can be pretty serious and hardcore. Is that so with HEX?
CJ: Yeah. One of our Russian players, he was on the phone with his team back home and they were doing analysis and feeding him information about strategy. They're very serious.
MMORPG: Who wouldn't be, for $40,000?
CJ: Yeah right, exactly.
MMORPG: Strategically-speaking, have any of these top competitors managed to surprise you at all?
CJ: How they played the meta-game was really interesting to see. There were some things where we thought, “Oh we'll see this deck or that deck” and then it just didn't show up. There was some interesting tech. It didn't play out, sadly. InfamOusneO had a deck that was pretty interesting that we'd never seen before, he got knocked out day one.
MMORPG: Going in, were there any favorites to win?
CJ: No, I think we're too new. After this, if one of the winners makes it to the next one we may. Earlier you probably heard them talking about Valuecity, how he's considered one of the top ten drafters in the game so some of the people are stronger at some things than others. Part of this is we want the focus to be on them so we can start to grow the story of what it means to be a professional-level HEX player.
MMORPG: Do you hope by holding an eSports event you'll grow your audience?
CJ: Oh yeah. Esports and organized play are definitely an aspirational part of the game and so what happens is, people will see these events and think, “Wow, that looks incredible. People are winning big money, and I really want to be that player.” That aspirational part is a big piece of what makes competitive card games work. For as much as what was put into this, our stream was over a thousand—which is good—but it's not like the really big games. Like everything else with HEX, we have to take the first step. We're this little acorn that will grow into a tree eventually. For our first eSports event, I think we did a great job. We've definitely planted our flag in the ground in terms of what we're going to be shooting for. I couldn't be happier with how this has turned out and absolutely it's had an impact on the number of players we have, for sure.