“eSports is sports,” the president of Taiwan wrote over the weekend, becoming possibly the first world leader to declare that playing a video game can be fundamentally the same thing as playing football.
President Tsai Ing-wen wrote those words as she honored one of her countrymen — Chen Wei-Lin, the new world champion of Hearthstone, whose face was splashed across the front pages of some of Taiwan’s largest newspapers this week.
If you don’t know what Hearthstone is, or understand why Chen’s feats on a video screen are being treated like a story of national drama, please let us explain.
Hearthstone is a game of contradictions. Its cartoonish graphics mask sophisticated strategies, which the most committed players are constantly inventing, perfecting and deploying against each other. It’s hard, in other words.
Despite its fantastical theme, at its heart it’s a card game built on simple principles of attack and defense. You build a deck of Drakonid Operatives and Leeroy Jenkinses, and weirder names still, like a poker player builds a hand of jacks and queens. You use your cards to attack your opponent’s cards, and then to attack her avatar directly, and then you win the game — if you’re not clobbered first.
And the nearly motionless silence in which the best of the best of Hearthstone’s tens of millions of players prosecute their matches tends to bely how very much it all means to them.
Take Chen. He will tell you himself that he is not the most expressive of people. His screen name in Hearthstone is “tom60229,” which is apparently his registration number from his old grade school in Taiwan.
Chen, whom Hearthstone players call “Tom,” has been trying to win the world championship for the past four years, or nearly as long as the game has existed.
He bested thousands of players and made it into the first Hearthstone World Championship in 2014, ESPN reports, only to lose every single match.
“The last two years all I’ve been trying to do is get back to this stage and try to do good,” Chen said over the weekend from the show floor in Amsterdam, after he managed to fight his way back there.
He had, in fact, made it to the tournament’s final match by Sunday. He was facing Frank “Fr0zen” Zhang of the United States, whose country had won the tournament three years earlier, the same year Chen was shut out and disappointed himself.
“The North American region has won before,” Chen said before facing off against Zhang. “So this one has to go to Asia Pacific.”
He spoke through a translator, and he did not speak much. He stood shorter than nearly every other finalist in the championship, and his mop of dark hair squished out under his headset when he put it on and sat down across the table from Zhang.
Both fell silent, and the first game began. A few minutes later, Chen’s head slumped down to the table as he recognized yet another defeat and conceded the game to Zhang.
Americans were well represented in the crowd, and they grew loud in their cheers. “Fr0zen is the Chosen,” read a handwritten sign that one man waved.
Well, maybe. But the match was best three out of five.
Chen lost the second game, too. Somehow, a shower of confetti fell down on the two men afterward, fluttering past the fake fireplace behind them, landing in Chen’s hair and across his screen, as if mocking him.
Chen said nothing and wiped the confetti away. Zhang had not won yet.
The announcers were already handicapping his odds, though. “If Tom wants to reverse sweep, he’s got to beat the Jade Druid three times,” one said. And you don’t need to know exactly what the Jade Druid deck is to know that odds of beating it three games straight were not good.
But Game 3 turned in Chen’s favor. He unleashed a chain attack of Voidform cards, chipping away at his opponent’s defenses, again and again.
Zhang wiped his brow. Now it was his turn to concede. 1-2.
“Tom’s showing some life,” said the announcer, still doubtful that the day would end with a Taiwanese champion.
The fourth game was so stunning that reporters rushed to write about it. In a sort of suicide gambit, Chen attacked one of his own cards on the table, which in turn strengthened another card in his hand, which he used to beat down Zhang’s avatar in just a few rounds.
He had tied the game, and now the announcers were paying attention to his expressions quite carefully.
“Look at the body language of these players, how it has shifted,” one said. Zhang had entirely covered his face in his hands, but Chen was sitting upright, neither frowning nor smiling — just staring calmly at the screen. His confidence was obvious.
The announcers had previously described Chen as something of a conventional player. It was his American opponent who was known for risk-taking and bold new strategies. But in the first seconds of the final game, Chen did something that many would note afterward.
He was dealt “Ultimate Infestation,” generally considered a late-game card and thrown out by players with the misfortune to find it early.
Chen kept it. “That is not something I expected to see,” said the announcer.
He held on to the card, patiently, through nine rounds, and finally deployed it on the 10th, at just the right moment, and overwhelmed and crippled his opponent.
A few minutes later, confetti spilled from the ceiling for the second time. This time it was no mistake, and it was meant for Chen.
He had fought his way back from disappointment years earlier, and become, as he always meant to, the game’s fourth world champion and its first from the Asia-Pacific region.
The other players ran out to congratulate him. In a few hours, his president would honor him and quote him in Chinese — and make no distinction between his victory and the feats of great athletes.
“How does it feel?” someone asked Chen.
He still was not much of a talker. But he allowed himself a small smile and said, “If we were not on the stage, I’d probably start crying.”
Amy B Wang contributed to this report, which has been updated since it published on Monday.
— Maurice @HCTAmsterdam! (@MREisenmann) January 21, 2018