There will always be so much joy in watching Reynad take a bad beat. Hearthstone is a card game that utilizes massive swings of chance to equalize competitors, and in that sense it’s no different from poker, where pros routinely lose huge pots to lesser players pulling miracle straights on the river. Reynad knows this. He’s been playing card games his entire life, but there’s a particular, unforgettable reaction when he loses in Hearthstone. If you’ve ever watched him, you’ve no doubt seen the same scene play out dozens of times on his stream. Any evidence of the joy he may have been feeling disappears from his face, he glares off into the distance for a few seconds, and eventually re-centers in front of the camera to squelch and re-squelch his opponent a dozen times. Save for the Spotify playlist in the corner and the chittering provocations in Twitch chat, there is silence. Reynad takes a deep breath and starts to make his case. “He was ghosting me… He needed exactly that card to win…His deck plays itself.” They’re the petty protests of a consummate professional who can’t help but take a ladder loss as an affront on his character. I have never known true hatred, but I have seen the way Reynad looks at a lucky Babbling Book minion card.
25-year-old Andrey “Reynad” Yanyuk was born in the Ukraine and relocated with his mother and brother to Minnesota at the age of six. His dad was never in the picture, and his youth was spent sharing Gameboys and Nintendo 64s from his friends and neighbors. By 13, he dove headfirst into programming, and was considering a career in game design. At 15, during a trip back to the Ukraine, he was introduced to Wizard of the Coast’s hugely popular Magic: The Gathering – the card game where he first made his name. When he returned to the U.S., he started playing in tournaments, which quickly opened doors into poker. Reynad spent the last two years of his high school career cutting class and spending all day at the card shop, which unfortunately defaulted his chance at a diploma. “Things were pretty bad at home around that time,” he says. “I was missing two years of credits. But I did an online class and got those credits in like two weeks. I kind of wish I did that from the start.”
Reynad left home after his 18th birthday and hit the road. He moved to Nashville for a few months, and eventually circled back to Minnesota, keeping himself afloat through card games – poker, Magic, and everything else he could find. It’s an important thing to remember when his rage manifests during an unlucky Hearthstone match. It seems like he feels he has more skin in the game than his peers because he can recall a time where a bad run of cards would eat into his rent money. He had to win, because he had to eat.
“I have a really massive ego. It’s something I’m aware of, but you can kind of channel it the right way once you’re self-aware,” says Reynad. “It’s one of the reasons I wanted to stream on Twitch. I didn’t think it was the career that would make me the most money or anything, but the platform clicked with me. I saw Twitch as the next evolution of YouTube, and a way to get validation from strangers.”
“I have a really massive ego. It’s something I’m aware of, but you can kind of channel it the right way once you’re self-aware.”
By 2012, Reynad was streaming Magic full time on Twitch. He had established himself as one of the biggest names in the scene, but he was suspended for cheating after slipping an unlisted card into his decklist during a tournament. It was a minor infringement, but Reynad being Reynad, he took to social media to complain about the Wizards of the Coast governing body. His cantankerousness resulted in his ban increasing to 18 months. Not long after, he announced his retirement from Magic. In a way, the controversy was probably one of the best things to ever happen to him. Reynad’s Magic streams were bringing in paltry numbers, and only earning him about $500 a month. Hearthstone was waiting and ready to change his life.
“Before the ban, I was already talking about retiring and stopping. You’re not meant to play any of those games for that long,” he says. “When the suspension came along, it didn’t really affect me that much. I just saw it as a good time to take a step back. I would’ve moved to Hearthstone regardless.”
It is difficult to articulate the profound influence Reynad had on Hearthstone during the game’s early life back in 2014, but perhaps the best example is the “Zoolock” deck archetype. Reynad stuffed a bunch of aggressive cards in a Warlock decklist – one of the nine classes in Hearthstone you can build around – and he dubbed it “Zoo,” borrowing a term from his Magic The Gathering days that describes a deck containing mostly creatures and animals. Zoolock is still seeing occasional play today as it’s one of the most consistent decks in Hearthstone history. In Korea, it’s simply known as “the Reynad deck,” which delights Reynad to no end, as evidenced by the shit-eating grin that spreads across his face when he was made aware of that fact at the Seoul Cup Hearthstone World Invitational last year. These days, Reynad’s insatiable appetite for accolade is a running joke within the community. At last month’s Dreamhack Austin tournament, caster Cora Georgiou repeatedly referred to him as “The Creator of Hearthstone,” which is about as savage as it is loving.
“For anyone who streams for a very long time, it’s impossible for it to be an act,” says Reynad, when I ask him if his famous causticity was ever put on for show. “You’re doing it for so many hours, for so many years – you can’t fake being someone else for that amount of time. It’s just not human. Even if you tried, you’d end up being the person you’re faking.”
Reynad broke ground on the professional gaming team Tempo Storm in May 2014, shortly after Hearthstone’s launch. It was his own fresh-faced esports organization, conceived to help bolster the then-nascent Hearthstone competitive scene. Since those early days, the franchise has expanded into Heroes of the Storm, Overwatch, FIFA, World of Warcraft and Super Smash Bros. – with Reynad moving deeper into his duties as a CEO. In 2017, he’s less active competitively than ever, a natural consequence of his burgeoning business interests.
“Esports in general will continue hockey-sticking and it will outpace traditional sports faster than people think.”
“Hearthstone was new to Twitch, but I wasn’t. I was aware of the things I liked about it, but I was also aware of the burnout that I experienced before in Magic and how long-term it might not be healthy. On top of that Hearthstone was a brand new game, so I can’t expect it to be around in a decade,” he says. “At the time, in early 2014, every deck on ladder was a copy from my stream. I had the highest ranks, I had this massive following, and I had kinda hit the cap for the game. So I figured ‘what’s the next step, and what’s best for job security?’ I thought I should leverage [myself] into a brand that wasn’t me being a camgirl.”
In a moment where “esports” is one of the most popular terms with eager marketing executives at big brands, it must feel pretty reassuring to work with someone like Reynad. There seems to be no shortage of old guys throwing cash at this business right now, so it’s a distinct advantage for your primary decisionmaker to be someone who actually knows the scene. Maybe it’s weird to entrust a multifaceted business to a twentysomething former Magic pro, but frankly, a hedge fund manager in New York is far less qualified to vet potential Street Fighter signees. “One of the things I think I’ve done a really good job of is hiring the best people across all roles. Our staff collectively is a lot smarter in the space,” says Reynad. “But there is a lot of dumb money involved right now – a lot of people getting in on the hype in esports and not necessarily putting money in the right places.”
“As far as a bubble burst, it won’t be the industry entirely, just certain places where people seeking investment have spun a really attractive narrative and have gotten money for a really stupid idea,” he continues. “But esports in general will continue hockey-sticking and it will outpace traditional sports faster than people think.”
It might sound strange that a guy who once traipsed around America squeezing dollars out of poker games would suddenly develop an aptitude for business, but you get the sense that Reynad built Tempo Storm specifically so he wouldn’t have to face that life again. He will always be a competitor, but in 2017, he’s learned to transmute that fire from the felt to the boardroom. After all, it’s just a game. And Reynad loves games.
“I didn’t like how little money [being a professional card player] made, but I liked all the skills I picked up playing all those games at a high level,” he says. “It teaches you world-class resource management and risk assessment. And those skillsets translate really well to business.”