The humble team from a little college is proof that big things come from small beginnings.
Quiet, rural towns are mystifying. They offer entirely different opportunities than most regions, yet their charming and calm lifestyles allure people from all walks of life. One such city is Portstmouth, Ohio, the home of Shawnee State University. Despite being nestled deep in the hills of Southern Ohio, Shawnee boasts one of the top-ranking undergraduate game design programs in the US. That kind of feat can attract interesting students–some of which happen to be avid Hearthstone players.
Enter Zachary “Oracle” Lukie, Josh “AWtenor” Lowry, and Travis “Cueball” Brenneman. While at Shawnee, these three students formed the college’s first competing Hearthstone team. For the unaware, Hearthstone is a collectible card game from Blizzard Entertainment, the creators of World of Warcraft, Overwatch, and StarCraft 2.
The cards feature characters and jokes from World of Warcraft and the game involves careful deck planning beforehand, as well as tactical thinking mid-match. Different archetypes dictate how a certain deck tries to win; these are styles like Aggro, Tempo, Control, and Midrange. Each player deck also uses a WoW class like Mage, Warrior, Warlock, or Priest.
The Shawnee team played in the semifinals for the Tespa Collegiate Hearthstone Series on April 23, 2017–they placed fourth out of 800+ teams. That’s a pretty high rank for a team from such a quaint city. I recently got the chance to speak with Josh and Zach about their gaming career, and their experiences with the Tespa Series.
Josh was drawn from Toledo to Shawnee specifically for the gaming program, while team captain Zach was motivated by in-state tuition costs. He and Travis lived in West Jefferson, Ohio, so Shawnee was a bit of an adjustment. “From where I came from, it is very different,” Zach muses. “West Jefferson is a very very small town—I don’t know if you’ve ever even heard of it. The population is less than the population of [Shawnee’s] campus.”
In such small areas, hobbies like gaming can sometimes be cast aside by peers. However, Zach says he never experienced this, largely due to the current online nature of gaming. “I’m a very active member in the competitive gaming community… I’ve never felt that it wasn’t entirely accepted. I understand that a lot of people have different interests and don’t quite understand it, and that obviously has a big effect in it. I don’t think anyone has ever ‘frowned’ on me.”
Josh has never felt deterred either, and has been playing Hearthstone for quite some time. “I got into the beta before Zach got in, just because I played StarCraft 2 a lot. It just seemed interesting! I was like, ‘I get to learn about WoW lore, but I don’t have to play WoW.’ It just looked really cool, and I started playing it, and found out I was decent because I used basic logic.”
Zach’s time with the game started around the same time, but took a much different turn. “In high school, I played a lot of Hearthstone. I was early on in the beta, and I got hooked on it really hard.”
“Around my senior year, the expansion ‘Blackrock Mountain’ came out. That was when I first started [playing] competitively online in Open Cups…. I didn’t have money to travel or do anything like that to compete in large Open Cups and LAN events like DreamHack. I kinda realized that I was getting really good at this game because I was having such a good time, and I was playing it with my friends every day. I hit ‘Legend’ one time and felt really good about myself… And I won like $150 over the course of like five or six Open Cups. And I saw a Tespa advertisement on a tournament stream… That was kinda the moment where I was like, ‘Okay. I’m going to find a team when I go to college, compete, and then…’ Yeah. We end up here.”
“Here” of course means “the Tespa Collegiate Series.” Zach was always confident that his team would go far, but the others weren’t so sure. “Even from signup, I kinda knew that I was at the level that I’m at—I was actually assuming I’d be first or second, not third or fourth. I don’t know where [the others] thought they would get. They thought they would get the $400 from Round 64…or above that.”
“I remember our very first game—the very first round. Neither of my teammates had competed in Hearthstone… They were both great guys, great players, because they enjoyed it. But they didn’t have much tournament experience. And so, it was a really big deal when we won, because it’s a huge confidence thing. We know it was the first game or whatever, but I’ll always remember jumping out of the chair. Everybody jumped out of their chairs when we won the first game like ‘WOAH!'”
“I kinda realized that I was getting really good at this game because I was having such a good time, and I was playing it with my friends every day.”
Things didn’t sail smoothly through the entire series, though. “Un’Goro [dropped] mid tournament,” Josh states. “Journey to Un’Goro” is Hearthstone‘s latest expansion, which officially launched on April 6, 2017–a mere two weeks before the Championships. A new expansion means new cards, which also means that suddenly, the decks that were once great may now be not-so-great.
“Yeah those first 48 hours of launch, I just kinda skipped all of my classes,” Zach recalls. “I know Josh skipped some of his and [Travis] skipped some of his. Cause that’s the last thing you want: having to put in so much work to get this far, and then a new expansion dropping and you’re not understanding what’s going on entirely, and losing because of that.”
Rightfully so. In fact, in a small way, that may be what happened with the Shawnee team.
“A lot of people kinda complain that our loss, specifically in the semifinals, was largely due to bad luck. And I would agree that the luck that happened on stage was pretty bad. However, I cannot expect to win the match when I had made the mistake that I did, which was in deck selection and deck creation. That’s something a lot of people don’t realize when they watch the game on stage… There were two misplays on stage. We didn’t make any game-losing misplays on stage. It’s really easy for the community to look at that and say, ‘Oh, this team lost. #Skillstone’ and complain. But no. We made the mistake: we chose the wrong decks when we went to the tournament. We had a misread on the meta and what people were going to play, and that’s entirely our fault.”
“Deck selection was a very big deal. I went with what I was more comfortable with. I’ve obviously played a lot of Tempo Mage, and Tempo Mage was not a deck to take there. It was just a bad choice, and I thank my team a lot for standing behind me when I said I wanted to take Tempo Mage.”
“There’s a fine line in Hearthstone where you have to say, ‘This is my playstyle, and this is the metagame.’ And you need to pick a middle ground when you’re picking decks for a tournament you intend to win. I just kinda went with the decks I like to play, and that was it.”
In the end, the deck was already made; the die was cast. The team’s final round fast approached, and they had to choose: play a Warlock deck, or a Priest one?
“We didn’t want [the other team] to get in our heads and mind-game us on what we picked: we flipped a coin, and the coin didn’t land on the side we wanted. We would have had to play both classes anyway to win the set. It was just based on the ordering that we chose the classes.” With that, Shawnee State locked in Warlock. At the same time, Twitch Chat exploded with insults against Zoo and Discard Warlock decks–both subsets of the Aggro style.
“There’s a fine line in Hearthstone where you have to say, ‘This is my playstyle, and this is the metagame.’ And you need to pick a middle ground….”
“I’m not gonna say that it’s wrong to hate some of the Aggro decks that have come from the metagame, but there are definitely some of the more aggressive decks in the game right now that you don’t have to hate. I mean I understand a lot of the Aggro Druid [hate] because most times you can’t interact with them. But the other Aggro decks in the game right now offer a variety of things to interact with them. I can’t really justify why Twitch Chat hated it when we played that deck for $10,000.”
“The Hearthstone community hates Aggro decks,” Josh mentioned earlier, “but I really like Aggro Druid. Just because it’s very versatile—like, you can decide how you want to play at the Mulligan. The deck doesn’t have one set path. You can either make a very big minion at the beginning of the game, or you can just flood the board….” The Mulligan is the opening step of a match, where players can select cards from their first hand to put back in the deck, and draw new ones in their place.
In the end, the Shawnee State Hearthstone Team lost in the semifinals, earning each player around $6,000 in scholarships. “I was very happy with the overall performance,” Zach states. “Meeting some of the pillars of the community and whatnot was a great time—all fantastic people. I really can’t complain about anything that transpired. It was absolutely fantastic, and there’s no experience like that.”
Josh echoes this sentiment. “Top half percent of teams? Sure; I’ll take that.”
For now though, these three are the only ones in an organized Hearthstone community at Shawnee. “That’s something that we’re working on,” Josh explains. “The spring semester…my goal was to start a Tespa chapter. But after Zach came to me with the huge mountain of winning (or at least getting to) California in the Tespa Hearthstone series… The Tespa chapter kinda fell second to that.”
“But it actually was kinda just a blessing in disguise,” Josh continues. “Because now so many people are asking for it! So many people are asking for Heartstone advice and events. They want to start doing Firesides around here, and a ton of other things. It’s just so awesome to see the community actually want to do that.”
“Firesides” refers to “Fireside Gatherings“: small, local Hearthstone events, officiated by other players. “The events will probably be: some open to the community and some that will just be students,” Josh adds. They wish the best for other gaming scenes on campus, too. “League of Legends and Super Smash Bros. [also] have a decent competitive scene here. It’s not very like, present, and it’s very small, but they’re very competitive within each other.”
“You really have to think about the people you’re playing with, and how great of a time you’re having with them, rather than focus on ‘How am I going to expand outwards? How am I going to be better that everyone else? How am I going to compete?'”
When asked if the team thinks they made their area proud, Josh said, “I mean, I don’t know how many people actually watched from home or [Shawnee]. But the people that did watch definitely see that it was a huge accomplishment getting there. Random people will just congratulate me as I’m walking around campus, that I’ve never said hi to before… It’s just awesome.”
“I definitely think we have made a big splash as far as competitive gaming goes on campus,” Zach adds. “I would like for people to, yknow… If you see us on campus: congratulate us. Say hi. We’re friendly people!”
What about players of other games, in similarly small areas, who want to make it big but feel like they can’t? Zach has some advice: “Emotions like that, and negative thoughts like that, do not help you in a competitive gaming field. It’s really important that you just keep a positive attitude about yourself the entire time… If you’re playing a team-based game (or a single-player game that is team-based at the collegiate level, for some reason), just talk to your friends.”
“It’s all about the community,” he adds. “You really have to think about the people you’re playing with, and how great of a time you’re having with them, rather than focus on ‘How am I going to expand outwards? How am I going to be better that everyone else? How am I going to compete?’ and all this. Just focus on having a good time, and practice a lot. You’ll get there.”
Will Zach, Josh, and Travis be representing Shawnee again in next year’s Collegiate Hearthstone Series? “Oh of course! I don’t intend to finish fourth next year though,” Zach proclaims, matter-of-factly.
Josh chimes in, “We’re taking the whole thing.”