Last weekend’s summer Hearthstone championships at the new Blizzard arena in Los Angeles were filled with the kinds of moments that can shape a competitive esports scene. Not only did the tourney feature one of its first female competitors, it also raised questions about the thin line between playful animation and outright rudeness when playing Hearthstone in person—and it all came to a head in a single match.
For the most part, Saturday’s series between Wang “BaiZe” XinYu and Chang-Hyun “Cocosasa” Kim unfolded as you might expect, with some comedic moments from Cocosasa, who’s known to be an animated player. But toward the end of one Priest vs. Shaman matchup, something weird happened: after summoning a powerful Prophet Velen card, Cocosasa lifted up his hand and waved.
“Did he just wave goodbye?” shoutcaster TJ Sanders asks, and in the moment, it looks like he might have. At that point, Cocosasa had taken a solid hold on the game, and for the entire match so far, he had reacted as if his opponent wasn’t even there, sitting right across from him.
It might seem like an innocuous gesture, but in the immediate aftermath of the match, the Hearthstone community erupted in controversy about Cocosasa’s wave. Some players saw his irreverent behavior as unsportsmanlike conduct, while others thought it might discourage women like BaiZe from wanting to compete in future tournaments.
In response to the immediate backlash, high-profile players like Brian Kibler, Sottle, and Lothar came out to defend Cocosasa, saying the move was all in good fun and that Hearthstone benefits from having players who are animated and even a bit over-the-top.
Earlier this week, Cocosasa apologized to both BaiZe and HCT spectators for his behavior and attempted to explain some of it, saying that his reactions to Hearthstone are naturally very expressive, and that his prior poker-face behavior in the game versus BaiZe was a strategic attempt to send out false signals about his current hand. Regarding the hand wave, he explained that the gesture wasn’t meant as a “goodbye” for BaiZe, but as a “hello” to the Prophet Velen card he’d just summoned.
This type of in-person bluffing doesn’t happen often in Hearthstone, and its increased presence might have to do with how front-and-center the personalities were at the Summer Championship. While competitive Hearthstone games have been played in front of live audiences before, something about the Blizzard arena made the whole tournament feel like more of a spectator affair. And with animated players like Ryan “Purple” Murphy-Root and Chen “tom60229" Wei Lin playing some of their own mind games in their match, it felt like player-to-player interactions were beginning to become more of a factor in live tournament games.
More than a controversy about manners, the response toward Cocosasa’s behavior was a first step toward figuring out the nuances that differentiate live-arena Hearthstone from its online counterpart. In a game like Hearthstone, where luck plays a big role in who wins or loses a game, one of the few tools that players have at their disposal is their ability to read an opponent’s expressions. Why shouldn’t players take strategic cues from more established games like poker? While there’s definitely a paper-thin line between good clean fun and outright disrespect, professional Hearthstone can use all the spice it can get.