My Take On Improving Magic Coverage
"Nothing great in the world has been accomplished without passion."
—Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
Gamers are wonderful. Our unrivaled passion drives us to want the absolute best for our community in everything we do.
Last week Cedric Phillips wrote an article on Magic coverage and why it needs to change; I'm totally on the same page and want nothing more than for this game to be the best whether you're playing or watching. Today I'm going to talk about my opinions on the subject so please read Cedric's article before starting mine.
Before we get started I really want to share with you guys the reason why I care so deeply about live streaming and why I am writing this in the first place.
Three weeks ago I found myself sitting at home watching the World Magic Cup. I didn't know many of the players and the matchups all seemed to be the same. Delver and Zombies in Standard and Delver and Jund in Modern.
I got bored after a few hours so I started to explore Twitch.
Wandering the streams I started digging into the StarCraft 2 archives. I played StarCraft before I was introduced to Magic and that's where the name FFfreak was born. Obviously Magic is more important to me now but I used to love the game.
Not knowing any of the new units in StarCraft 2 I looked for streams that were more casual/informative. That's when I came across Day or Sean Plott. Sean is a StarCraft streamer who focuses on helping the player "be a better gamer." That doesn't just mean being the best at playing a game. Many of his lessons translate to other aspects of life. He has shows that are just about having fun and informative ones where he breaks down the strategies of some of the best players in the game. I was instantly obsessed with his work.
I spent the next two days watching his archive. I wasn't trying to learn more about StarCraft; I was just 100% entertained by him. Then I stumbled across his 100th episode.
Please watch this. It was by far the most moving webcast about gaming I've ever seen. This video made me cry and smile uncontrollably all at the same time. Most importantly it made me reflect on how much my life has changed for the better because of Magic. Games have this in common: the passion of the gamers and the sense of community.
This video opened my eyes. I wanted to be more of a part of this community and start producing my own content via stream. Within two hours of starting back up I was shocked by the jump in viewership from the last time I'd streamed: from 600 to 1300! I could see there was a larger demand for this type of content. I started spending a ton of my free energy and time on streaming and on producing quality content. I also put a lot of thought into improving coverage—both on SCGLive and at the Pro Tour.
Cedric talked about why he thinks coverage should be bigger and better and he isn't wrong. We have a huge player base and it seems like there should be a larger number tuning in especially when you compare to other games that get upwards of 100k viewers at their major events. Magic might not have the same number of players but it's not that far off. So why are the other games so much more successful when it comes to coverage viewership?
These are my opinions on this matter. I don't know if I am right on all of these so please comment below if you feel I got something wrong. I am not just writing this to educate but to better understand it myself.
Different Company Goals
StarCraft and League of Legends are either free or a one-time purchase. They stay in business by producing content that keeps people invested in the game. If tons of people watch their stream then non-players will want to watch out of curiosity and potentially get hooked. The games are fast-paced and enjoyable to watch so they can accomplish this by having high production value entertaining commentary and storylines for people to follow.
Magic: The Gathering is a collectible card game that comes out with new expansions quarterly. The company sells booster packs to stay in business. What this means is that Wizards must promote the cards more than the players. The Pro Tour model is designed differently from other major gaming events since it's all about promoting the cards first. Not surprisingly Pro Tours are scheduled a few weeks after a set is released because that is the time when players are most excited about Magic and the new expansion. This means star-building is secondary.
However that does not mean it doesn't exist.
Many players produce content for websites that allows them to build their own unique brand. They create their own storylines.
Wizards does focus on the players when it's convenient but not at the level other games do; this is not a bad thing because the game changes so often that the viewers at home crave information on the cards and the players' opinions on them.
On the other hand StarCraft and League of Legends remain largely the same game from month to month. The strategies change but you don't need to spend a lot of screen time explaining how. The real stories are the players and teams. Who are these people? Why do they play and for what stakes?
The World Magic Cup had almost double the number of viewers over the Players Championship. Part of the reason is that it was a team event where each team represented a different country. The real story was the players and the teams. Wizards knew this and did a great job promoting the faces behind the cards.
Similarly Pro Tour Avacyn Restored in Barcelona had a number of teams that Wizards could put in the spotlight. Up until that point Team ChannelFireball was the only team with a strong brand like that of teams in other games. Then StarCityGames.com came out with two teams for this event #SCGBlack and #SCGBlue. People instantly jumped on board; one team was stocked full of the biggest legends of the game and the other was a ragtag group of misfits. This created a slew of storylines that people at home could get excited about. Wizards ran with it and put a lot of focus on these teams as well as the other teams at the event.
Fans could finally get excited about the players and root for their favorite teams.
The Player of the Year playoff between myself and Guillaume Matignon was another great moment in coverage that focused mostly on the players. It had people excited months leading up to the event because it was the first of its kind and had great stories behind it.
In my opinion the solution is for Wizards to invest energy into finding out more about the players at their events. Find out who is testing with whom and learn as much about the teams as possible before going into the tournament. Then they can produce articles leading up to the main event about the players or hype videos the night before the tournament.
This could be very difficult though. Other games still have the advantage because they don't have to spend as much energy informing the viewers about new formats and cards. They can skip this step and move right to the players strategies and action. They spend less time educating and more time entertaining—something difficult to do in Magic while still achieving the main goal.
Another thing that could help promote the players is to do mini-interviews with the players right before they play their feature match. They would be live and might hold up the tournament over the course of the day but it would let viewers become more attached to the people in the match.
Obviously not everyone speaks English or is comfortable with speaking English in front of a camera and that's a problem. But this is something other games are not afraid to promote and even if the interviews are bad at least the audience gets to learn more about the players.
Almost every card game has some level of variance. Variance is essential to the success of Magic because it lets anyone win a match regardless of skill level.
The gap between the best in the world and the other high-level players is very slim. Yes Luis Scott-Vargas Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa Yuuya Watanabe and Shouta Yasooka are some of the best in the game but their win percentages still don't go over 70%.
To me this makes it less exciting to watch the best play. StarCraft and League of Legends have no variance and thus there is a much larger gap between the players. Sure there are upsets but the players can find their errors when looking back; they don't come away knowing that a timely Bonfire of the Damned lost them a game.
The knowledge that I could never play at the level of the best players in these games makes them more impressive. I just don't have the dexterity and speed those players have been honing for years. They're just so good at what they do and it readily shows. They make it into an art form.
The Speed of Play
Last year Rich Hagon came to North Dakota to write Grinder. We spent many hours working on the book and the rest just talking. One conversation we had changed my perspective completely on this subject.
I told him a story about my quarterfinals match against Kai Budde. It was game one and it was a tough matchup where the board was cluttered within the first couple turns. This meant the decisions were difficult and the game would be over instantly if someone made a mistake. This was the purest of technical Magic I'd ever played.
Halfway through game one a judge came to tell me I had to play faster. Kai gave him a look that I can only describe as disgust. Kai and I were playing a match of Magic but more importantly a match we both wanted to play. I wanted to beat the best and he wanted to show the new kid how this game should be played. Even though we were in a room full of cameras and people it felt like we were alone. How could a judge come into our domain and break us away from that just to tell us to play faster?
Rich had a different opinion.
This was a very hyped match. I was the new kid on the block who was dominating Magic and now I was facing the biggest name in the game. The cameras were on us and everyone was excited to see it unfold. The commentators created a ton of excitement leading into the match but all of that was destroyed by the snail pace. It was supposed to be amazing video content but instead it was two people making a play every minute or so—and very boring.
Rich believes that professional Magic should be played at a fast pace. "We are not trying to find the best players but the best players who can play under pressure" he told me. This made a ton of sense not only as a player but a fan of the game.
Let's compare Magic and StarCraft. Each decision in Magic can take as long as ten seconds five minutes or even more—some solutions are never found. To find the right decision players take as much time as they're allowed.
In StarCraft the gameplay is in real time and you can't even pause to think. Players have to find the best line and do it immediately or else they'll lose. Not only does it make it harder to master StarCraft but it's more fun to watch. The pressure is higher the action denser and the tempo more consistent.
These differences mean it's harder to produce great live video content. Not only do decisions take longer but there are pauses from shuffling sideboarding tracking life and adding counters or tokens.
There is no real fix to this. We could force the game to be played faster in tournaments if we really wanted to but that would cause way more problems for most players. We cannot inject pressure into competitive Magic; it wasn't designed to force people into quick decisions.
Miracles changed the coverage game in Barcelona. They created some of the best moments on camera and excitement built up before each draw step; the whole moment was unforgettable from upkeep to draw to reveal. It wouldn't have worked so well if we couldn't see the card off the top immediately.
One of the biggest hurdles when commentating in the booth is not knowing where things are going because I can't see players' hands. Perfect information would make live content so much better. Gerry and I have hand cams in our videos on SCG and they make the content better. Maybe it's too difficult to have that much equipment around a match but I feel it would improve the quality of the production.
Now this is the big one since commentators are the first line of entertainment on coverage. Commentary is one of the most important jobs as well as one of the hardest when producing live coverage. Not only do the commentators have to be informative but also entertaining. They need to have chemistry with each other. They need energy. They need information from the game. It is a tall order.
StarCraft and League of Legends are very fast-paced games so most of it revolves around play-by-play. This helps a great deal since it lets the viewers stay informed. In the early stages of the game play-by-play isn't needed since the games start the same way every time; the commentators get an opportunity to discuss strategy and the players. Once the action starts color commentary is rarely needed since the gameplay is so fast. The main concern is keeping up with the action and keeping it exciting.
Magic doesn't have it so easy. The action goes on and off. The early turns are always different. Commentators never know when they'll transition from play-by-play to color since they never know the speed at which the players will be playing. This creates a choppy flow and fewer opportunities to elaborate on storylines.
I personally watch StarCraft streams to watch the action and learn how to play on a higher level even though I don't play. The Spike in me wants to know what the best strategies are and how to implement them EVEN THOUGH I DON'T PLAY! I don't even play the game and I want to get better at it. That is seriously impressive!
I feel Magic's audience is broader in scope and has a wider variety of reasons for tuning in. It has so many different cards and formats and Wizards also wants to appeal to new players who want to learn more about competitive Magic. This means the broadcast has to focus on the bottom level of skill.
While that's not a bad thing to me personally this slows down the stream because I'm listening to commentators tell me things I already know. Even if a large number of viewers already know what the cards do and how they interact they can't skip over the basics because it will leave people confused—without any explosions to fall back on. If they lose track of the match they'll lose interest.
There's a specific checklist of goals Magic commentators have to follow.
- Be entertaining.
- Keep everyone informed regardless of skill level.
- Promote the new set.
Note that high-level analysis has been left off the checklist. Wizards doesn't focus as much on this as other games do because it's not what fuels the game.
While I don't know the skill level of the viewers watching Pro Tours I assume they're in the more competitive spectrum. If this is true then the players watching are already hooked and invested in the game. It wouldn't make sense to me if it were mostly kitchen table players watching the coverage because it's on such a different level of play.
Thus I suspect training high-level players to do commentary would be a good move. More people would be interested in watching for longer periods of time. I'd still want most of their current team to commentate because they're all exceptional at what they do; I just want them to split up more to allow players to get involved and improve the content of the broadcast.
Thank you for reading this today. It's a topic I'm passionate about and I'd love to see Wizards of the Coast continue to prove how awesome they are. I wrote this article because of my love of the game and because I have faith they'll continue growing into something better.
If you feel I missed something or got something wrong please comment below. I will do my best to stay active in the comments and talk about any of the ideas you guys have. Please keep things constructive since we can really use this as a way to hash out ideas.