Alex ‘NaviOOT’ Ridley’s passion for Hearthstone is infectious. There’s an excitement in his voice when he talks about his strategies and gameplay that makes you want to dive in and craft a new deck yourself.
This quality has not gone unnoticed in the game’s community. From humbling beginnings the popular streamer has grown to become the ambassador of ANZ Hearthstone for thousands of twitch viewers, but after winning the Sydney Innvitational this week, he continues to blur the line between content creator and professional esports player.
“What got me into Hearthstone was, when I was growing up, I played a lot of paper CCG/TCGs,” he explained. “Magic, a lot of Yugioh, so that understanding of how card games worked was there early on. One of my friends I played Yugioh with told me about the game and I checked it out on a whim, but got addicted straight away. That was the end for me right there.”
It was a self professed “janky Shaman deck” that got him into the game, carrying him to legend ranking in his first season. From there, attempting to play professionally and beginning to stream seemed a natural next step.
“The thing with trying to brand yourself as a pro-player in Hearthstone is that it’s really hard – you need a big sample size,” said NaviOOT. He played at this year’s Blizzcon Innvitational, has international acclaim and even played for the Chiefs Esports Club in the past – but with the way Hearthstone esports currently works in smaller regions the title of ‘pro player’ isn’t as straightforward as it may seem.
“If you’re trying to compete in the game you really only have the one best of five to look at,” he continued. “A couple of bad performances in a row might not be because you played particularly bad, it can be because of variance. It’s difficult to be that consistent performer, and the way the pro tour is set up isn’t really conducive to that.”That’s why streaming has become an important part of the biggest Hearthstone personalities and players day-to-day. Disguised Toast, Ant, Eloise and NaviOOT seem to have all landed in a similar spot.
“Being a pro player isn’t something you can rely on,” said NaviOOT. “You have to produce other content to stay relevant, and to stay valuable to an organisation or brand. Streaming provides that reliability – you can turn it on every day and I’ve found I really enjoy it.”
It also helps connect ANZ players and the larger APAC region with the rest of the world digitally. “It’s really weird being part of what we call APAC in Hearthstone,” he said. “The way everyone is spread out makes it really difficult to have these [Sydney Innvitational] sort of events, even though the community in APAC is tight.”
“ANZ especially is very close with the Singapore, Japanese and Korean players – we all work together, prepare together, but because we’re so isolated we never get to see each other live,” he continued. While difficult, the growth of events and leagues from Blizzard ANZ is contributing greatly to a local scene hungry for community. “Anytime we do there’s a lot of bonding and it’s a really good time, so stuff like the Sydney Innvitational is important, especially for new players who come along and experience the real friendship there.”
Other than tournaments for the player community to grow, NaviOOT thinks we need to see more content from ANZ players. “At the moment it’s hard, but not a lot of people produce much content coming from ANZ outside of myself honestly in the Hearthstone scene,” he explained.
“It’s gotta come from the players, right? You can’t just have stuff given to you, it’s all good and well to ask for tournaments but I do feel like the players have got to give something back too – content, streaming, stuff like that.”
In the lead up to expansions like Kobolds and Catacombs NaviOOT has worked with local and international talent to produce informal card reviews and gameplay. Content like this shares professional insight with the wider audience, and gives returning players a good idea of what the new cards will do.
“I think the power level of the set as a whole is quite high – maybe not as high as Naxramus, but it’s definitely up there,” he noted when I asked him to sum up how he felt about this set. “I like the design of the set in that there’s a lot of new cards you can build archetypes around, but it’s not forced like C’Thun for example where you just search C’Thun, put all those cards in a deck and there you go. There’s cards with recruit or spell synergies and the design is quite nice.”
The Hearthstone Sydney Innvitational brought out some really interesting spins on both new cards and old archetypes (full deck lists here!), with Warlock seeing a return to popularity. With the Tournament itself only two days after the launch of Kobolds and Catacombs, NaviOOT predicted a good amount of what was to come when I spoke to him on Friday.“Being the first couple of days of an expansion, we won’t see the real powerful decks for a few weeks. I am definitely excited to play a slower type of Warlock though – that archetype has been pretty dead for a while but they just got some really strong healing which was holding it back,” he explained. “I’m a huge fan of the Warlock’s card draw hero power. I’m also really excited to try the Mage legendary weapon, Aluneth, which draws three cards – I think it’ll be really strong!”
As this was the last major event for Hearthstone this year, everyone is now looking forward to 2018 and what it’ll bring for an ANZ and international community. For NaviOOT though, this Innvitational sets up his 2018 goals well – returning to pro play more often.
“Looking forwards to the next year I want to consolidate what I’m doing with my streaming but I think I’ll focus more on pro play like I did in 2016 – that was a really good year for me,” he explained. “This year I kind of stepped back from the pro play and focus on streams, and that went well but the professional side definitely suffered. A lof of your work is preparation and drafting line ups and decks, and while that did suffer a bit I think they can go hand in hand with streaming well. If you can do well professionally, it’ll help your streams grow too.”