essays and pithy thoughts

Mailbag - watchability

in mailbag

Got a bit of a backlog that I thought I’d clear out today. I kept forgetting to do these on Monday as I wanted to, so I’m going to drop the alliteration for now and just do ‘Mailbag’ posts here and there unless I start getting messages at greater volumes regularly. :)


I read your two article on and I am excited about what you have to say. I should say upfront that I only follow the SC scene these days, but I have heard some about the scene in other big games.

I like your thoughts in “Taking the fear out of e-sports”, but for some reason I feel like they will pass right over most gamers heads. I guess I view most gamers a immature and relatively shallow thinkers, whereas your ideas seem well thought out and come from a more mature point of view.

In “The watchability problem” you mention the business of sport. It seems if you want to increase watchability, then you have to kill competition a little. You have to subtract some of a games leanings towards a chess competition, and add in more elements of the WWE.

Do you follow SC2? What do you think about Blizzards actions and how they are either helping or hurting SC2 as a sport?

The geography of South Korea is much different than the US, and I think this has huge implications on the way Starcraft as a game flourished. Seoul is the one main city in South Korea and one of the most densely populated places on the planet. The culture is homogeneous in many ways that the US is not, and this means every one is in everyone else’s business. Take 10 million people with the same color hair crowded into the same small city, and they notice when someone is doing something well. Anything well.

On the other hand, the space we find between each other in the US is enough that we either don’t notice or don’t care as much when our neighbor, or someone down in Texas, is being awfully successful.

If a sustainable league is possible in the US, what elements will be the same and what elements will be different from the currently established sports (like baseball or the NFL)?

Look forward to hearing from you.


A lot here, but I’ll try to address it cohesively.

I don’t necessarily think that esports needs to necessarily take a lowest common denominator approach in order to gain a greater following in the west. Wrestling is really more theatre than competition, and I simply don’t think that sort of semi-scripted, for-entertainment-purposes-only kind of show is the only approach towards growing professional league systems here. Wrestling federations deliberately water down the competitive aspect of wrestling and inflate soapy storylines and crazy acrobatics simply because without those things inflated, it leaves a sport that just is pretty boring to watch. While I think most leading esports suffer from different watchability problems I don’t think that they are inherently boring.

Most people don’t consider wrestling federations as legitimate sports anyway. The major sports here in the States all boast entertaining experiences for their fans without needing to insert artificial constraints on the competition’s integrity. I think an important lesson to be learned from the CGS was that modifying the core of a sport, simply to shoehorn it into a construct that seems more ‘TV friendly,’ had a very adverse effect on the way it was received by audiences.

I think we’re in vastly uncharted territory with Blizzard’s role within a burgeoning new sport. It’s really the first time that a potential new sport has an entity that essentially owns the said sport as part of their intellectual property; it’s hard to do that with a game invented in the physical realm. That said, I don’t think that I have much to nitpick about Blizzard’s approach to this point – they recognize the need for a forthright symbiotic relationship with any large professional leagues centered around games they’ve built, not simply to pad their bottom line, but to protect their own interests and reputation as the primary stewards of the game. I think it’s tremendously important that Blizzard seems to recognize this role; they have not demonstrated any eagerness to cash out on this position, and instead have recognized that encouraging the growth of an independent competitive ecosystem is beneficial to their long-term prospects with the game.

You have a very salient point there regarding the geography and culture of Korea and how it proved to be a perfect incubator for Starcraft as a professional sport. If only the executives of gaming leagues in the west were capable of grasping this lesson and applying it to their own business models; we’d be in a much different place today!

It’s precisely why trying to go national or global with a multi-game league has proven to be folly. Nobody has yet tried to make a regional league, focused on a single game, function to the point of profitability yet. Everyone’s wondering why these huge national gaming behemoths that try to incorporate every game under the sun can’t seem to make money; it’s because their audience is so disparate and spread thin across such a space that they land in a marketing no-mans-land. Their reach is too broad to be useful to most smaller businesses outside the gaming sector, and their broad audience is too small to be useful to large national and multinational corporations. The result is that the ‘pinnacle of professional gaming’ in the west has to beg for another round of venture capital just to stay afloat this year, crossing their fingers that they’ll land some sort of fat TV contract.

When someone decides to build a regional league around a single game, trying to build a new sport by embedding it in a local culture and growing it from the ground up instead of the top down, that’s when we’ll see individual video games start to take proper shapes as new sports.

Hey there,

this guy got some attention on the HoN forums a while back, for providing commentary that is entertaining despite the game quality being low. He is a former LoL player taking a look at Heroes of Newerth in his very first match, where he does horribly when disregarding the fact that he’s new and looking at the mere quality of play. If you have time anytime in the future, and feel interested, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it. I am still trying to form an opinion on the specific requirements for good shoutcasts of HoN games.

Some people drew similarities between this guy and Day[9]. I found that very far fetched, but when thinking about it, he did have a different approach to the cast than anything else in the hon-shoutcast scene. And that is not trying to catch the entire thing, but focussing more on one player (himself in this case). Yes some match information is lost through this, but I feel that that is completely acceptable, because too much at once will make it very annoying to watch. Especially if you fail to notice the little nuisances that make the difference. And that is also something Sean does, taking the time to pause a game, even rewind a game, to make sure, the point he was making with it came across.

I doubted for a long time that games settled in the DotA genre are somewhat counterintuitive to casting, because they essentially require you to be watching three places at once. Then I figured that I personally have not seen a single team game being shoutcasted well. But now I realize, what the DotA genre lacks is a user interface that makes it easier.

StarCraft/BroodWar was very shoutcastable, but imagine the possibilities had they had the unit counting station, or the production tab of SC2. This single piece of UI made not only active shoutcasting easier, but also passive shoutcasting. By that I mean, talking about one thing on the screen, but leaving the production tab open so that users can also get information independently there. Information that you don’t necessarily touch on. Such a UI treat is what is missing for the DotA genre in my opinion. Yes there are stats screens, but the important stats are most of the time hidden. Not only can’t you see the items all the time in all shoutcasts, there are other information that would make for a great addition to the cast.

What do you think?

Cheers, Franz Hahn

It’s…interesting. I didn’t watch the entire thing, but got enough to understand kinda what he was going for. It’d be better to see him try and do some replays.

The thing that I think makes good Starcraft commentary compelling is that 1v1 is the dominant playstyle, so there’s only two contrasting storylines that play directly against each other, setting up a clear path for both macro commentary (overall strategy) and micro commentary (blow by blow of a 30 second battle). Team games sometimes lack this macroscopic clarity.

Counter-strike lends itself to better commentary than most team shooters since all action is centered around the bomb. DotA and it’s clones lack this sort of mechanism that constantly centers the gameplay – instead it’s split amongst the three lanes, forcing commentators and spectators to try and keep track of three different storylines, and it can sometimes be very difficult to compile those together to create a cohesive narrative of a match.

Most commentators simply aren’t up to this task, and end up flipping into shoutcaster mode most of the time, digging their voice into their chest and just listing off every ability casted that they manage to catch. Oh this guys taking damage, oh now this guy is using this ability, that ability, punching that button, hitting that guy, blah blah blah. The entire cast is lived in the absolute present, sometimes taking a minute to predict what’s going to happen 5 seconds into the future; this guy is gonna do this, which is gonna let him do this, and the other team is gonna have to do this, and this other guy is gonna go ahead and, and, um… and force my head to explode by living in the near future tense for half the fucking show. What’s immediately approachable about the style of commentary exhibited here is that it’s taking a more tempered mid-level view of things rather than hovering over every last detail with a magnifying glass.

I agree with the point about little details in SC2’s spectator hud making it far easier to cover matches. It allows things to go unsaid because they’re simply on screen, freeing the commentator up to offer up less obvious insights and actually add to the visuals rather than competing with them as a means of conveying basic information about the game state. Whether commentators largely start to recognize and take advantage of it…is another story.

Hey, this might be interesting for your blog.

John Tromp made a bet with Darren Cook back in 1997, that Darren Cook will not be able to train his computer go program to beat him by 2011. The bet is currently being played out, with the constraints that the computer cannot cost more than 5000$. John Tromp was back in the day a player of skill 1 kyu, 10 kyu was the skill of good computers back when the bet started. 10 kyu is about as high as any human being can achieve in a couple months. The lowest Go Master rank is 1 dan, which is 10 ranks above 10 kyu. Many Faces, the program by Darren Cook is currently playing at the level of 2 dan (, while John Tromp is also 2 dan, going on 3 dan. Also, he has quite a good idea of how computer go works, and, according to the text on Darren Cooks website, will certainly try to exploit that.

The website with live results (first game was won by John Tromp already) is, the games are played out on KGS go (

Maybe this is interesting :)

Cheers, Franz

Passed along. Thanks for the tip.