Ever since Hearthstone emerged as an esports title, Dan "Frodan" Chou has been in the middle of the action. The previous weekend he witnessed the crowning of 17-year-old SilentStorm as the first ever ESL Legendary Series Champion. This week we were able to get a sneak peak into the mind of the popular caster and team manager, and picked his brain about the LAN event, the Legendary Series, possible future changes, SilentStorm and the impact of RNG.
ESL: Hey, Frodan. Thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to chat with us right after the big ESL Legendary Series offline event. You’ve been covering this event as a caster throughout - how do you think the entire league played out?
Dan "Frodan" Chou: The league started off rocky, but overall caught its stride mid-season. While there have been some last-minute problems that potentially could have ruined our finals, I'm glad with how the team came together. The story of SilentStorm is what we hoped for - having an unknown player with amazing skills go all the way and prove himself in front of thousands. In the end, we had a few shortcomings, but I have no doubt season two will be much better and more fun.
ESL: Any particularly memorable moment that you think you won’t forget any time soon?
Frodan: The first interview with SilentStorm and Obezianka.
ESL: Throughout the weeks we saw plenty of upsets and newcomers rising to the top, with guys like Zalae, PinpingHo and Weifu making big splashes in the competitive scene. Who impressed you the most in online or offline play?
Frodan: Online play makes it hard to impress me given the nature of gray area zones in competition. Strong offline play is becoming more notable when you see it. Zalae was highly impressive this past weekend despite only finishing in the top four. Also I was happy to see Chakki do well after having mediocre results up until this point.
ESL: Not only have players made a splash, but some decks have too. The Darklock deck got the best facial expression from Kibler, the Zalae’s Combolock gave him a pass to the offline portion - which deck was the best curveball in your opinion?
Frodan: The most notable deck to mention here might be SilentStorm’s Demonlock.
ESL: SilentStorm went on to win it all and now has one of the most impressive tournament records in Hearthstone history. Do you think a win like that will open up new doors and get him invited more?
Frodan: I hope so, but the reality is that invites often require more than raw skill. You need some kind of notoriety and standing with the community. At the very least, it would be great to see SilentStorm go through the Katowice event and place high. If he does well in back-to-back events against stacked competition, I think he will finally get the attention he deserves.
ESL: Did you expect him to win it all? Who was your favorite going into the event?
Frodan: Believe it or not, I did. I thought him or Zalae would win the event. I love what SilentStorm represents - he tries to play his own decks and his own style. He might play the occasional popular deck, but he's quite the hipster in his choices. I remember the week he qualified - he didn't play Hunter or Warlock, two classes which were seen as dominant in our format.
ESL: Hearthstone winners are followed around by the accusation of ‘luck’ being involved. I myself heard you mention something similar at the DreamHack event when making a joke about the World Champion. How much luck do you feel is needed in order to win one of these big tournaments?
Frodan: You need luck and skill. How much luck is determined by how consistent and good you are. Just ask any of the top players who talk about "playing shape" and "good form" - you'll quickly see that even within the top ten players in the world there is separation. If you want me to pull numbers out of my behind, I would say luck is 10-20%, deck preparation 50-60%, strong play 30-40%. The ranges vary depending on how evenly matched the players are.
ESL: The luck statement gets thrown around in the Hearthstone scene all the time. How healthy do you think the RNG in this game is in general?
Frodan: It's a double-edged sword. Of course, on one hand having too much luck makes it too volatile. On the other, games that are predictable from turn two onwards are boring and uninteresting. There is plenty of great RNG like the Piloted Shredders or Webspinner. There is also bad RNG like Crackle or Implosion. People tend to overanalyze the impact of RNG when there are many steps along the way that could have prevented someone from relying on a lucky roll.
ESL: Away from RNG, the big winners from the weekend are without a doubt Darkwonyx, SilentStorm, Zalae and Chakki. Apart from Chakki and Zalae in some regards, none of these players have a big team supporting them. You are a manager of a pro team - how big are the upsides of joining a squad?
Frodan: Joining a team is very helpful from an administrative and financial point of view. Players can focus on what they want to do, which often is simply playing the game and being as good as possible. When they have to balance figuring out travel plans, sponsorships and logistics with organizations, it gets somewhat tough going rogue.
ESL: In general this is an ancient dispute in the Hearthstone community - professional players and unknown shooting stars. Five out of the eight final contestants in Burbank made their way through the open tournament, two of them made the Final Four with one of them ultimately winning it all. How do you explain that success? Should tournaments feature more open participants? What would be your ideal ratio?
Frodan: I would like to see tournaments favoring more open participants. I enjoy the idea of giving notable players a small advantage (i.e. if you have a 1,028-man bracket, seed them two rounds in advance for example), but not something immensely large like eight players going through 1,000-man brackets and eight players chilling. However, as a fan, I do want to see some of my favorite players go through so I understand the usefulness of a direct invite. Half opens/half invitationals are okay in my book, but I'm loving it a little less nowadays.
ESL: One of the most praised things about the event in Burbank was the casting. You, Azumo and Reynad especially got a lot of love and praise from the community. You’ve started working with Azumo for the ESL Legendary Series - how do you feel about this duo?
Frodan: TJ has worked incredibly hard over the past few months to improve his casting. I think the dividends paid off at the finals. Reynad has always been sharp in his analysis and presentation skills - there's a reason why he's such a beloved streamer. Once upon a time, he used to care about delivering good commentary over his play. He still can do that if he turns it on. When he does, he's one of the best.
ESL: How hard - or easy - is it for you to adjust to different co-casters, seeing as you work with a lot different people during your travels?
Frodan: Casting is an interesting art. It is definitely not a science... it’s so abstract! Many people have different definitions of good commentary so it’s difficult to say what’s best. That philosophy carries over to how I work with people because everyone has their own distinct style. I usually have one goal in mind when casting with someone new: make them as comfortable as possible.
ESL: To semi-quote a famous German soccer coach - after the season is before the season. I’m sure ESL and you are already in the planning stage of the second Legendary Series tour. Can you report on any big changes or adjustments?
Frodan: We are making it less grindy and more hypey. It’s no longer twelve weeks with eight regular weeks and four showmatch weeks. We are doing four giant open tournaments for US$3,000 each. Winners get big money and a seed to the finals. Highest placing finishers get a chance to play for a spot. We're also tossing around the idea of having a last call qualifier to see if someone can make a miracle run and grab the eighth spot. Bottom line - more hype!
ESL: In the last couple of weeks, the players were offered a number of entertaining challenges - seven Legendaries, one-offs or the Brewmaster challenge. Is there a chance something like that might become a regular show format?
Frodan: Haha, perhaps! It’s nice to have it in our back pocket for additional content in the future.
ESL: The format of the Legendary Series is unique to say the least, but Blizzard is pushing for Conquest mode - which format do you prefer for tournaments or weekly events?
Frodan: Unsure at the moment. There are lots of pros and cons of the ESL blind pick format. It's a strong mixture of ladder-focused strategies, but it doesn't reward preparation as much as we would like. It's not perfect, but we will work on it.
ESL: One of the biggest points of criticism this season was the reward system. Midway through the season, people were suddenly awarded a direct spot for the offline event, making it a little bit unfair. What was the reasoning behind that? Is there a change coming?
Frodan: The idea was to avoid giving a stacked advantage to people who played in earlier weeks. If you made a straight point qualification, whoever got invited first had too large of an advantage. This felt like a middle-of-the-road opportunity for players who got invited late, but still had a chance to get a spot. The system wasn't anywhere near perfect and that is why we will tinker with it significantly for season two.
Tomorrow will see the release of part two of our interview with Frodan, where he shares a more personal side of his Hearthstone journey and discusses everything from ESGN to MagicAmy, so stay tuned!
In the meantime, make sure to get hype for the upcoming ESL Legendary Series event at Intel Extreme Masters Katowice! Sixteen of the world’s best players, including SilentStorm, are set to conquer the inn at the Spodek arena - who will come out on top?