StarCraft Broadcasting and the Excellence of Nation Wars

Hey folks,

Today I’ll be talking about the Nation Wars StarCraft II tournament and discussing some of the ways it stands out from other tournaments in the scene. I’ll then use this as a jumping off point to analyze StarCraft broadcasting more generally.

Any critical examples in this piece are used only to illustrate my points, not as negative feedback toward anyone involved. I have nothing but respect and admiration for creators in the StarCraft community.

Nation Wars

nationwars-zgfunka
FunKa and ZombieGrub (source)

Nation Wars is an annual StarCraft II tournament organized by OGamingTV. Fans vote for their favorite top players from different countries – the top three vote-receiving players from each participating nation form that country’s team (with an optional fourth acting as a substitute). The tournament then runs in a fairly standard fashion, leveraging an all-kill format, a single revive, GSL-style group stages, and so on.

It’s a great program – its viewership numbers are comparable to the recent IEM Gyeonggi. The novelty and hype of an annual Olympics-style event notwithstanding, Nation Wars’ real excellence lies in its broadcasting fundamentals – in other words, “the boring stuff”.

Consistent Tone

Here’s Red Letter Media describing the concept of tone in feature films:

Tone is how a movie feels. Movies are either, like, comedies, or dramas, or action movies, or thrillers. If they waver on the tone, then you don’t know what it is and your brain starts to hurt.

I’d argue that the same general principle applies to effective broadcasts. Shoutcraft Kings sets a dramatic tone – it’s brutal, invents dramatic storylines at every opportunity, and offers rewards for every single game. The GSL focuses on the relentless drive to be a champion – it features detailed statistics prior to every match, showcases fan dedication with its camera cutaways, and plays music about fighting and being the best during its breaks.

When the tone is inconsistent, it interferes with the viewer’s ability to enjoy and become immersed in a cast. I’ll illustrate this with an example from the SSL, where I routinely observed this issue with the camera work.

Put yourself in the shoes of a viewer watching the SSL finals. The stacked bracket has at last culminated in this final match- two of the very best players in the world, fighting it out over a huge prize pool. Game 1 is just getting started. How would you expect this to be broadcast?

Take a look at about thirty seconds of this clip and see for yourself. The casters are building up tension, analyzing historical data, and getting the viewer excited – exactly what you’d expect. Yet suddenly, the camera cuts to a completely inconsistent shot – three people sitting quietly, in the dark, awkwardly waving a sign around. The shift in emotional tone is jarring. Maybe it makes sense in the context of the Korean cast, but I doubt it – even the audience members themselves seem surprised that the cameras chose this moment to focus on them. When the GSL does camera cutaways during tournament finals, it typically highlights people who are hyped and visibly emotional, maintaining a consistent tone with the rest of the broadcast.

Those times when you subconsciously reach for your phone, those times you’re introducing a friend to a new program and suddenly need to explain what’s going on, those times you find your attention has shifted to something else – I’d wager that oftentimes these things happen because the emotional tone of what you’re watching suddenly changes and your brain doesn’t understand what’s going on, which shatters your immersion.

Nation Wars is consistent and relentless in its tone of light-hearted hype and national pride. The best example is the detailed historical data that FunKa regularly provides. FunKa takes his analysis – something that most tournaments would automatically turn into a graphical overlay without really thinking about it – and blends it into the conversation and banter with other casters, because that aligns with the tone of the event better than tables or graphs. The handful of statistics that are shown on-screen are rarely explicitly discussed, because that kind of analysis is not part of what the tournament is trying to accomplish.

Another subtle detail is the way the desk is shot. Between Counter-Strike and StarCraft, the most common approach I’ve seen to shooting an analysis desk is what I’ll call a flat shot: the only thing that stands out is the analysts while everything else remains static. This is great for detailed analysis because the viewer has little to distract their attention and can focus on what’s being said. For instance, the sound levels in the former example allow just enough crowd noise to maintain consistent hype without interfering with the analysts.

Other approaches, like the wide shot that was routinely used at Blizzcon, have different goals and therefore do things differently. The Blizzcon approach allowed viewers to see the big stage and catch glimpses of the crowd, important for maintaining hype and shifting focus toward storylines over deep analysis.

(These aren’t formal categorizations by any means.)

The flat shot doesn’t work when the casters are simply discussing something casually or passing time until the next game, things which don’t benefit from and are usually hurt by an analytical mindset (it’s best not to think too hard about memes). In other words, the camera angle encourages a mindset that is inconsistent with the emotional tone of the broadcast. Since Nation Wars doesn’t focus on deep analysis, it adds a simple graphical animation behind the casters and leverages a polished, modern studio with a non-StarCraft related color scheme to make the shot more vivid and less boring:

2016-01-08_rottiTod_annotated2.jpg
Minor adjustments to the shot go a long way in keeping the viewer engaged. (photo source)

Contrast the above shot with this one from IEM – the difference is night and day.

I could talk about the tone of this tournament for days, so I’ll just focus on my core point: the consistency of the tone, more than just the tone itself, creates an enjoyable viewing experience. It helps the viewer settle into a comfortable mental state and understand and appreciate the program from that angle. Viewers enjoy deep analysis, viewers enjoy banter, viewers enjoy inside jokes and funny stories, viewers enjoy high-level gameplay, viewers enjoy drama – but viewers don’t want all of those things at once, or even worse haphazardly sprinkled randomly throughout an entire broadcast.

Casting is Consistent with Gameplay

Different moments in a game call for different tones from broadcasters. Here’s ReDeYe discussing the concept of over-projection in his book on broadcasting in electronic sports:

Over projecting – a common issue for new commentators as they often try to inject an almost false level of excitement by being loud at the wrong moments. Focus on bringing as honest coverage as you can provide and over time you’ll understand when to project and at what points they are valuable.

Personally, I would broaden this idea to inconsistent tone more generally, in that the content of a game’s cast generally needs to align to some degree with the underlying gameplay. Light-hearted banter produces one kind of emotion while a battle between two maxed out armies produces another. Put these on top of one another and the viewer has a hard time engaging with the experience, because their brain can’t reconcile what they’re seeing with what they’re hearing.

StarCraft is difficult to cast in this respect because games flow in a very unpredictable manner – high-action to low-action to moments of brilliance to weird mistakes can all happen in a matter of minutes. It can be difficult for casters to keep up, which produces what I call “sudden breaks” – the decision by a caster to abruptly shift the emotional tone of the broadcast in order to align with the underlying gameplay. This usually happens, in my experience, because a passive moment accompanied by a caster’s personal story intensified faster than the story could end, so there wasn’t enough time for a proper transition. Here’s one example.

A comparison with Counter-Strike is helpful here. Rounds flow in a tonally more predictable way, allowing casters to consistently make a smooth connection between passive and active moments. The tension of a team moving on a site rolls neatly into the high-energy shouting of a big play. “Sudden breaks” are uncommon.

(I don’t think sudden breaks are always bad – sometimes they’re a good way to inject excitement and drama into a program. However, too many of them and a cast begins to feel erratic.)

The ability to transition smoothly, in my view, is one of the biggest differentiators between casters, and I think it’s one of the key reasons for the success of Artosis and Tasteless. They intuitively understand how to blend gameplay with their broadcast. One of the ways they stand out is how they handle sudden and unexpected shifts in emotional tone – for instance, if a play they were building hype for ends up flopping. This will lead to a minute or two of passivity in the game: the casters use a quick joke to transition into a personal story, or a quick analysis of what went wrong to transition into a general strategic discussion.

Here’s a typical example of the duo handling a sudden, unexpected increase in action:

  1. One caster moderately steps up the emotional tone by remarking about a “big play”.
  2. The other caster steps up the tone further as the attack continues and a lot of things are happening at once.
  3. As the attack ends, the first caster steps down the tone by remarking about his disbelief that the attack took place.
  4. As the attack is fully cleaned up, the second caster steps the tone down completely and jumps into calm strategic discussion.

The result is that the viewer doesn’t notice that the tone of the game is constantly and somewhat erratically shifting because the casters are smoothly bringing them along for the ride. It feels exciting and fun instead of random and all over the place.

In my view, doing this requires at least two things: strong interpersonal rapport so that the casters synergize with each other and meld the tone in the same direction, and deep insight into the game to understand what kind of tones to prepare for in the next few moments.

Nation Wars enables this by relying on a relatively small group of English-language casters – only four. It’s easier for a smaller broadcasting team to build a rapport with one another and synergize effectively. By comparison, here are the numbers for the WCS 2016 Circuit Championships:

Event # of Casters (English Broadcast)
2016 WCS Winter Circuit Championship 6
2016 WCS Spring Circuit Championship 6
2016 WCS Summer Circuit Championship 7

(Blizzcon, on the high end of the spectrum, had at least nine.)

Readers may argue that smaller events typically have fewer casters than the championships mentioned above, but that seems backward to me. A small, tight-knit casting team is the ideal setup – it’s what tournaments should strive for when putting together a major event. If anything is going to be heavily staffed, it should be smaller events – there’s less at stake if something goes wrong, meaning they’re a good opportunity to bring in more people and allow newer casters to get more experience.

Nation Wars’ casting team is also well-considered: ToD and Rotterdam have long been casting international tournaments together, and their rapport is augmented by their shared background in WarCraft 3. FunKa is well-versed in the history of Nation Wars and has an intuitive insight into game flow from his experience working as an observer. ZombieGrub has cast thousands of different players on a huge skill range at BaseTradeTV, giving her much broader knowledge of the game’s top players and their styles than most casters, as well as plenty of experience in casting people who are completely unknown – critical to a tournament that features many participants who have either retired or are not professionals.

In other words, ignore logistical concerns and try to imagine the ideal four-person casting team for this tournament – you’d probably end up with the same people who were actually hired.

Storylines

Here’s ReDeYe again, this time discussing the importance of storylines:

Storylines are ultra-important to an esports broadcaster – they add more intrigue and interest to matches and tournaments, and are often easy to find if you know where to look.

A storyline acts as an anchor for viewers – it’s a lens to view a broadcast through, a concrete idea to focus on throughout the program.

Tournaments that lack storylines rely on consistent, high-quality gameplay in order to keep viewers engaged. This can be pretty difficult to execute: competitive 1v1 games are very sensitive to differences in individual skill, so even minor skill gaps between two players will produce lackluster blowouts. A good storyline, melded into the underlying tone of the broadcast, can effectively offset this.

Nation Wars structures itself such that storylines are built into every single game – countries compete to defend their honor, national pride is on the line. This is combined with Twitter banter and historical data to give viewers something to follow along with. Viewers are invested into each and every match because they have a storyline to focus on, even if the underlying gameplay doesn’t always hold up.

Readers may argue that this is inherent to an Olympics-style event and not the result of any concerted effort by the OGaming team. I’d disagree with this:

  • Engagement and storylines were established early on by opting for a fan vote instead of formal qualifiers.
  • On-going hashtag votes are periodically raised throughout the broadcast.
  • Casters are encouraged to be biased, giving them a reason to bring their own excitement into the broadcast and organically raise the most compelling storylines as part of their banter.
  • On-screen tweets are not chosen randomly: they’re used to reinforce the storyline presented in the program, not only maintaining a consistent tone but also allowing viewers to tune into the show at any time and understand what’s going on immediately.

My point is that the original good decision to found a tournament around storylines is helped along by a consistent trend toward strengthening and reinforcing those same storylines. There is a pattern to how the production is constructed that makes it easier for the viewer to engage with the storylines, far beyond the basic premise of what the tournament is.

Final Thoughts

Nation Wars is an excellent tournament, not only because of its unique premise but also because it gets the fundamentals right – it understands how to put together a solid broadcast. It thinks through what it’s trying to accomplish and who it’s trying to reach. The result is that a production put together by a relatively small company competes in both quality and viewership with some of the largest professional tournaments in the game, and acts as an example to others as to how to do StarCraft broadcasting well.

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this post, please consider following me on Twitter or Facebook to receive regular content updates, or checking out my game-design videos on YouTube and Twitch. All the best and see you next time.

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