ATO alumnus conquers ‘Magic,’ ‘Hearthstone’

By Angela Tang, Emory Wheel

With nearly 1 million followers on Twitch and YouTube combined, an induction into the “‘Magic: The Gathering’ Pro Tour Hall of Fame,” and multiple lead game designer positions, Brian Kibler (Emory University, Class of 2003) has cemented his legacy in many areas of the video game industry. 

The Hampstead, N.H. native and Alpha Tau Omega brother said he has played video games for as long as he can remember. His interest blossomed at a very young age, and he traced his current gaming approach to “Baseball Stars,” a career-style Nintendo game he played at age six. The game’s objective was to use money earned in-game through matches to buy players and ultimately build the best possible teams. Kibler discovered that he could use the game’s predetermined popularity scores and mercy rule to his advantage. The most time-efficient way to earn money and, in turn, build the best team, was to intentionally lose at the first inning against the most popular team. 

“That was … how I ended up approaching games from then on … figuring out how the system worked,” Kibler said. 

Kibler began playing a variety of different video games and discovered collectible card game “Magic: the Gathering,” to which he began to dedicate much of his time in high school with the intent of going professional. His dad, who Kibler described as “a combination of supportive and skeptical,” drove him to tournaments throughout the U.S.

Kibler said that collectible card games have always appealed to him due to the constantly evolving nature of their challenges. 

“You have to … keep rethinking your strategy and adapting to new … environments,” Kibler said.

With a foot already in the gaming industry, Kibler arrived at Emory with the intent of breaking into the professional world. He majored in philosophy and religious studies, but only took classes Tuesday through Thursday to accommodate his gaming schedule. As a student, Kibler traveled extensively to compete, flying out to cities including Chicago, Houston and Tampa, Fla.

Outside the classroom, Kibler joined Alpha Tau Omega Fraternity, through which he said he gained many lasting friendships. The fraternity network has ensured that, despite his ever-busy travel schedule, Kibler has connections everywhere he goes.

In his sophomore year, Kibler finished third in the 2000 “‘Magic: The Gathering’ Pro Tour” in Chicago, a feat that he considered his first major competitive accomplishment. It was there that he received the nickname “The Dragonmaster” after winning two rounds with dragon-type card Rith, the Awakener and the enchantment Armadillo Cloak, an uncommon combination in major competitive events.

Dan Chou, a Twitch operations manager and Hearthstone broadcaster, said the dragon combination encapsulates Kibler’s playing style, which he described as “pretty flashy, very big, very epic.”

Kibler said that when he graduated from Emory, professional gaming as a potential career path seemed neither fully developed nor sustainable. At the end of the 2004 season, he retired as a professional gamer and began working as a game designer at Upper Deck Company, a trading card company.

In 2009, Kibler decided to make a comeback as a professional gamer because of his desire to be inducted into the “‘Magic: The Gathering’ Pro Tour Hall of Fame”, which was established a year after his retirement. That same year, he placed in the Top 8 during the Pro Tour Honolulu and won the Pro Tour Austin, Texas. The latter remains Kibler’s most treasured win. In 2010, just a year after his comeback, Kibler was successfully inducted into the “‘Magic: The Gathering’ Pro Tour Hall of Fame.” Throughout his decorated career, he has won the Pro Tour twice and the Grand Prix, another professional tournament, thrice, receiving a total of $292,247 in prize money.

Kibler opened his Twitch account in 2011 and began streaming as a full-time job in 2015, after retiring as a senior game designer. In contrast to most streamers, who use Twitch as a means to gain popularity, Kibler began streaming for his already established fan base. 

“I literally had one of the head tech people at Twitch remote my desktop … and set up my stream for me, because there were people at Twitch that were ‘Magic’ fans that wanted to watch me stream,” Kibler said.

In 2014, Kibler launched his YouTube channel, which has since garnered 432,000 subscribers and 243 million views. After more than two decades of playing “Magic,” Kibler began to shift his attention to another card game, “Hearthstone,” citing a larger online following.

In addition to creating his own content, Kibler is a live broadcaster for major “Hearthstone” tournaments, including the BlizzCon, an annual gaming convention held by Blizzard Entertainment. Chou, who often casts alongside Kibler, said many viewers really enjoy Kibler’s commentary. 

“[Kibler’s] very good at weighing in his analysis while also being able to be fair to the competitors and making everything light-hearted and fun,” Chou said. 

Chou believes that the proficiency of Kibler’s commentary can be attributed to his wide range of experiences in the gaming industry, which Kibler believes is important for professional gamers to have. He notes that technological advancement has added an unpredictability to the future of the gaming industry, so professional gamers must be able to constantly adapt to new environments, such as with the creation of YouTube and Twitch in 2005 and 2011, respectively. 

For students looking to enter a similarly competitive and unorthodox field, Kibler advised, “The best thing you can do … is not just tell people that you’re passionate … but show people that you are.”