On StarCraft Casting

Hey folks,

I’m brownbear. Today I’m going to respond to an article critiquing StarCraft II casting – specifically, “hyperbole, and the reduction of players to a few lazy narratives and stereotypes of their play or personalities.” I recommend you give that article a read prior to reading this one.

Special thanks to feardragon, Max, and Maynarde for their feedback prior to publication.

More Is Less

Too many times have I heard the phrase “[…] we have ever seen in StarCraft II’s history!”, whether it’s about players (“I’ve never seen an RTS player play as well as INnoVation“; “Rogue seems to be the greatest late-game Zerg that we have ever seen across StarCraft II’s history”; “I have never seen micro like [Byun’s]”), the tournament itself (the ubiquitous—”THIS. IS THE. BESTSTARCRAFT. TOURNAMENT. EVER!“) or even maps.

I’ll first work through the provided examples because I think several of them are fine as-is. In two cases – Dark vs. ByuN at Blizzcon and ByuN vs. SoS in the GSL – the commentator was hyping an upcoming match. Both matches featured ByuN, who at the time was famous for being a top-tier teamless Korean player. In combination with the fact that they were both the finals matches of a premiere tournament, I don’t find this type of pre-game hype off-putting or even unusual.

In two cases – Rogue’s late-game and ByuN’s micro – the commentators were building storylines. I’ll talk about that further when I address the “Less is More” section of the author’s original piece.

In one case – the description of the Super tournament – the commentator was offering a reasonable opinion. The games that day were very good – Rogue vs. INnoVation (3-2), herO vs. Dark (3-2), and Rogue vs. herO (4-3) – and the comment was made prior to the start of the final set. The commenter even specifically challenged viewers to identify a better day. I can understand disagreeing with this opinion, but calling it out as a mistake in casting doesn’t seem right.

In five cases – the description of INnoVation, TY’s IEM Katowice win, Maru vs. Zest in the GSL finals, Mvp vs. Life, and the description of Abyssal Reef – I can see the author’s point, and I agree that the commentator was likely too hyperbolic. I could see myself agreeing with a two-sentence tweet along the lines of, “Hey, that was absolutely fantastic, but describing it as the best ever broke my immersion as the viewer. If we use that expression too often, it loses its meaning.” However, I don’t agree with the larger premise of the article, specifically I think its arguments are overstated. I’ll talk about this in the next section.

We have seen a lot in StarCraft II’s history. Eight years worth of games, tournaments, and maps, in fact.

The first issue I have is a basic factual error. The author’s argument begins by noting that because StarCraft has had a long history filled with excellent games, the bar for “the best” is quite high.

The problem is that two of the author’s ten examples are from 2012 and 2013. They do not showcase a commentator describing a modern game as “the best” after eight years of StarCraft history, because eight years had not passed when the games were cast. This might seem like a minor point, but given that the author is arguing that this is a widespread problem – noting later that viewers often don’t know whether a moment was really amazing or not – then it should have been trivially easy to find examples from the past year or two. Tastosis (the commentators seemingly singled out by this piece) cast hundreds of matches a year; I would guess this translates into approximately 1000 unique sets.

I was astonished by the commenters on this article who claimed to agree with it 100%. It made me wonder whether any of them actually read it or bothered to review the evidence the author cited as supporting their point.

Suggesting that something seen in any given tournament is better than everything that came before is a big claim. Are you really sure that what we saw at IEM Katowice/GSL Code S/Tournament X is the best in this game’s long running history? Are you certain that you didn’t just get caught up in the excitement of the moment? Are you sure you’re not taking your responsibility to entertain the fans a step too far and blowing moments hugely out of proportion?

The best finals in StarCraft II’s history is most likely not the latest grand final you just witnessed. StarCraft II has seen a number of brilliant tournament climaxes. MMA vs DongRaeGu had the entire community talking for weeks. HerO and Polt played one of the most amazing PvT series to date at the criminally overlooked IEM Cologne. Life vs sOs presented us with a scenario we had never seen before on the biggest stage—two BlizzCon winners fighting it out in a nail-biter series to see who would become the first two-time champion. Mvp vs Squirtle is, to this day, commonly referred to by fans as the greatest final played in StarCraft II (an opinion that I share). Think about it for just a second, think about the story behind that series—Squirtle’s royal road, Mvp’s broken body. Think about the way it unfolded—Mvp taking a 3-0 lead, Squirtle clawing his way back in the series, that mass Battlecruiser game, that game 7. Think about the incredible tension in the air, the heartbreaking twists and turns, the constant edge-of-your-seat-excitement, and then tell me again that [insert the latest finals here] was the best we’ve ever had.

Live commentary is not an in-depth analysis of the game’s eight-year history. It is, by its nature, live, spontaneous, fluid, fast, dynamic. Sometimes commentators get excited in the moment and instead of saying that something is fantastic, they say that it’s the best ever. They just don’t have the time to comb through every sentence and ensure it’s perfect. Speaking personally, I’d rather a commentator be excited and make some mistakes than be subdued and kill the emotional tone of a broadcast.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t fixable flaws. Commentators are always working to improve their craft – here’s one interview with Artosis where he talks about his and Tasteless’s approach in-depth. There’s nothing wrong with offering feedback, and if the article had literally ended here, I wouldn’t be writing a response.

But the author continues:

When TY’s reaper distracted Stats’ mothership core in the grand finals of IEM Katowice 2017, so that his widow mine drop could come in unchallenged, Artosis claimed “no one can do that“. That’s absolutely, totally untrue (the links provided show the same scenario unfolding in front of exact same casters). Similar distraction maneuvers are performed by even Masters players on the ladder every day. That statement effectively devalued the skill of all the other players in StarCraft II. Imagine being INnoVation—arguably the best player in the world at that time—hearing that only TY could pull off a move as simple as that. Imagine being Maru—who spent years winning impossible matches through his superb unit control and ability to take immaculate fights—hearing that ByuN was better at it than you ever were. Imagine being MMA, GuMiho, Life or Liquid’HerO—who revolutionized and mastered harass-oriented playstyles using the clumsy tools of Wings of Liberty—being told that ByuN was better at it than you ever were, after two expansions that intentionally shifted the game toward harassment and multi-tasking.

Come on. You don’t need to agree with the way this moment was cast to recognize that it’s one moment, out of hours of casting. “Devalued the skill of all other players in StarCraft II”? This makes a mountain out of a molehill. The caster got too excited, sure – but no one hears this comment and thinks the intent is to tear down hundreds of thousands of competitive players.

No well-adjusted professional player would do anything if they heard the worst excesses of hyperbole from commentators, because they understand that it’s a few sentences in an hours-long broadcast. To make such a big deal out of it is to ultimately misunderstand the situation and hold the broadcaster to an unattainable standard. Do you think Maru is having an existential crisis because Tasteless made an exaggerated comment about ByuN?

These are merely examples meant to put into perspective the absolute nature of what it means to call someone or something the best of all time, and the amount of different players and factors it ignores. Of course, excitement and hype are a key part of a cast, integral in making a game entertaining for the viewers. Unfortunately, nuance is often the first thing to be dumped in favor of hype. Games, players, finals, tournament are either the best we’ve ever seen, or just simply bad. There is a lot of uncovered ground in between. Even bad games can be fascinating, and what on paper looks like a great seven-game series can be utter garbage. And sometimes a move—like TY’s reaper distraction—really isn’t all that special. And that is fine, too. More important moments will come, if you can identify them.

I don’t agree with this perspective, especially with regard to Artosis and Tasteless (who, again, are featured in most of the author’s examples). Here’s a nuanced, middle-of-the-road analysis of Neeb’s GSL Ro32 group. Here’s another one, of Parting’s group. Here’s a third example – the commentator opens with a strong statement, then supports it with three distinct data points.

These were, quite literally, the first three examples I picked from the VODs. To describe over-the-top commentary as the norm – to say that “games, players, finals, tournament are either the best we’ve ever seen, or just simply bad” – is hyperbole, and it’s not supported by the facts.

I decided to give the author the benefit of the doubt and research this issue, focusing specifically on Grand Finals matches (where hype casting is arguably most prevalent). I counted any “best ever” description in either the pre- or post-game analysis of Korean Premiere Tournament Grand Finals that wasn’t followed by a clear justification. For example, I didn’t count a comment stating sOo was among the most consistent or stable players ever because the commentator justified it in-detail by discussing his tournament history; similarly, I excluded the comment about the Super Tournament originally cited by the author. I did count, for example, the Abyssal Reef comment mentioned in the original piece. I further excluded any “current best” comments because the original article focuses on “best ever”; furthermore, voicing a “current best” take on a GSL Finals participant is reasonable.*

Tournament Pre-Match Post-Match Commentators
2018 GSL Season 2 X X Tastosis
2018 GSL Super Tournament I Tastosis
2018 GSL Season 1 Rapid / Valdez
2017 Blizzcon Finals X Tastosis
2017 GSL Super Tournament II X Tastosis
2017 GSL Season 3 X Tastosis
2017 GSL Season 2 Tastosis
2017 GSL Super Tournament I Tastosis
2017 GSL Season 1 Tastosis

Two things jump out at me: first, this problem is not as common as the author claims. Second, the commentators made explicit historical references in multiple cases, including references to MVP when discussing sOo and a reference to sOs’s tournament history when describing him as the best in a long series.

My biggest surprise is that I had to do this analysis at all – it should have been done by the author as part of the original piece.

Another problem that develops with hyperbole is that, at a certain point, once too many moments are claimed to be the best ever, that label loses all meaning and value. It becomes a platitude. Perhaps at some point, a move will be made or a game will be played that is so incredible it truly qualifies as one of the best of all time. Then, and only then, is that label is justified. Epic moments can never be truly appreciated if everything that came before has already been blown out of proportion. Context and comparison enriches the experience of watching StarCraft II, and makes certain moments in time truly exciting and unique. There is no light without shadow. No game or player can be the best ever if all the others are as well.

Look, I’ll reiterate that the core argument here is reasonable. As iNcontroL pointed out, casters even explicitly work on it. But the standards laid out in this article are unfair and fundamentally unattainable. The appeal to “what would professionals think if they heard this” is, frankly, absurd. The problem itself is exaggerated and built on top of faulty data points. The examples are not representative of the two commentators they seem to single out, let alone professional StarCraft casting more broadly.

Less Is More

In the same vein I’ve noticed a trend that, ironically, is part of the same phenomenon, yet results in the opposite effect. Commentators and even esports writers—I fully realize that we at TeamLiquid.net are at fault as well—tell stories by reducing players to a handful of core attributes. TY is strategically intelligent, INnoVation is a mechanical monster, Dark “bends the rules of Zerg”. BYUN. HAS. THE. BEST. MICRO! I criticized ESPN in the past, particularly for their coverage of ByuN during his BlizzCon run. Every single one of their articles seemed to read “ByuN has great control, therefore he is a great player”. For all the praise he received through continued repetition of that narrative, that did not do ByuN justice.

What commentators are doing here is creating and building storylines. Artosis and Tasteless have become particularly adept at identifying a storyline for each player in the professional Korean scene and building on it through each subsequent season of the year. These storylines not only make each season more memorable, they also make the Korean scene more interesting and keep viewers engaged in every single match.

Now I’ve never actually talked to Artosis about this, but I don’t think it’s an accident that all of the examples in this article stem from the Korean scene – I would guess that building storylines is an intentional choice on Tastosis’s part to make their show more engaging. And, as far I’m concerned, it’s a very good choice.

This is partly evidenced by the lack of equivalent storylines in the foreign scene. For a storyline to exist, someone needs to write it. I don’t fault the foreign WCS commentators for not doing so, partly because they approach casting differently than the Korean commentators, partly because the foreign weekender format doesn’t work as well for crafting long-running storylines, and partly because the sheer number of foreign players makes it a daunting and unenviable task. But for me personally, it does reduce the level of engagement I have with any individual match.

This is why I take issue with the characterization of storylines as “lazy narratives”. It’s the opposite – the commentators work hard to identify good storylines for each player and build them up as the season goes on.

Does this mean that every storyline is perfect, or even good? Not at all. For example, I have long taken issue with Dark’s macro storyline because I feel it overshadows the aggressive early-game attacks he mixes into his play. I even agree that Rogue’s late-game storyline might have been oversold given his two series against Neeb. But this is an issue with specific storylines – it’s not an indictment of a general trend of “lazy narratives”, nor is it a refusal to identify other good aspects of a player’s game.

Good control in a vacuum is not what made ByuN, or anyone else, a great player. It ignored his ability to read a game, his positioning, his execution of strategies and the thought process behind picking them, his army movement, his multitasking and his crisis management, even his ability to perform in high pressure situations—it’s the sum of all these and more abilities that made ByuN a player worthy of a BlizzCon championship. And yet we rarely heard those abilities talked about at length, if at all. It was perfectly fine to highlight his unit control as one of his key strengths—but his micro was almost all that that we ever talked about.

This is not reasonable. Every professional player is extremely good at every aspect of StarCraft II. You can’t build a storyline around every single strong aspect of their play without sounding redundant or confusing the viewer.

So, what you do instead is establish a focused, long-running storyline that spans a season or even a year of play. Then, when you actually cast an individual game, you focus your commentary on in-the-moment brilliance to ensure you’re never selling players short, and tie things back to your storyline when applicable. As the author goes on to say:

Not every victory is a function of a player’s most notable trait. If INnoVation uses clever mindgames to take a series, then ditch the ‘mechanical robot’ stereotype and focus on his intelligence instead. If ByuN routinely mows through a pack of slow-banelings off creep, don’t try to sell us on his incredible micro. Instead, tell us what he did to force the Zerg to resort to such a desperate move. StarCraft II is an incredibly difficult game, and you’re not giving players the credit they deserve when you don’t explore the many other skills they’ve mastered.

And that’s what all of the top-tier StarCraft commentators do. Here’s two examples – one from ByuN vs. SoS, another from ByuN vs. Dark – discussing ByuN’s decision making. In the latter case they even explicitly reference ByuN’s control storyline to draw a contrast. Here’s another example from the foreign scene – TY’s storyline that year was his strategic genius, but the commentators opted to focus on his control because that’s what was winning him that game. I found this example striking because Maynarde, if I understand correctly, generally focuses on color commentary and getting viewers excited more than other commentators. But even he did not commit this mistake (if you could even call it a mistake).

I am especially baffled by the connection the author draws between live commentary and written analysis pieces on TeamLiquid and ESPN. Live commentary is a very different medium from written text – it’s not nearly as information-dense. I agree that written pieces should progress beyond the focused storylines of live broadcasts. I can’t understand talking about the two mediums as though they should be held to the same standard.

Every time I criticize hyperbole and simplified casting, I hear the counter-argument that it’s done to cater to casual or new audiences. Having worked with Blizzard before, I know first-hand that they put a large emphasis on breaking down barriers of entry for new viewers in WCS Circuit tournaments and on establishing narratives anyone can follow without watching every tournament. On paper, that makes perfect sense. However, it assumes that newer viewers cannot appreciate complex analysis and commentary. I don’t entirely agree with that—even if a newcomer doesn’t completely understand expert analysis, they can still appreciate the deep foundation it’s drawing from. Furthermore, I disagree with the extent to which newcomer-friendliness is being pushed. The notion that these ‘plebeian StarCraft II viewers’ need the same narrative spoon-fed to them constantly throughout a series really does not hold up in my eyes.

I think this is hyperbole. Professional StarCraft commentary is already deep and complex. Artosis does this well across all three races, but his Protoss casting is particularly great. He will frequently dive into key build order divergences and talk about what he’s expecting next and why. Two of my favorite WCS commentators, PiG and feardragon (though they have only cast a handful of matches together, I am not sure if you can call that a duo – but they should make it one!), typically dive pretty deep into the underlying gameplay situation. Here’s a good example.

Do commentators sometimes oversimplify? Sure. I think the Olympics broadcast in particular may have gone too far. I can perfectly understand the author’s general point, and I agree that hyperbole can be immersion-breaking. I too feel that commentators could have done more to point out that ByuN’s real relative advantage in reaper play was his ability to macro behind.

But the author overstates their case. The storylines that come out of Korea are not lazy – lazy would be not having any storylines at all. Going as far as to say that commentators are spoon-feeding a narrative to viewers is absurd; it further misunderstands the difference between building a storyline around a year of tournaments versus casting the moment-to-moment gameplay of a single set. Mentioning written articles and live broadcasting in the same paragraph – as if the two mediums can or should be held to the same standard – doesn’t make any sense.

Finally, the author’s last point was confusing for me. He cites this video as a positive example:

This, to me, is a good example of amazing casting in such a scenario. At this point in the game, it had been well established that whoever won this fight was going to win the game. Kaelaris specifies during the fight that blink micro will be essential in it. herO wins the fight through that blink control. Any new viewer would have realized this. After the fight is won, Apollo and Kaelaris could have fallen into a frenzy praising herO’s blink control, but they didn’t. Instead, they got right back to focusing on the game to put into context what the won fight meant. Any viewer watching this game would have been left with the impression that herO won this game through great control, and come to the realization that he was a competent micro player all by themselves.

I don’t agree with this characterization. If you haven’t watched the video, here’s what the casters say after the fight is won:

herO finds himself in a position where he can go for that hatchery! OH MY GOD. OH MY GOD. Look at him, he doesn’t believe it! OH MY GOD! herO is able to push on forward! Nobody believes this! I don’t even know, oh my, what is happening?

“Nobody believes this”? “What is happening?” I don’t see a significant difference in hype or hyperbole between this cast and any of the examples cited by the author. There’s not much semantic difference between doing something nobody believes (the player included) and saying that they just executed the best blink micro. Maybe this is just a matter of personal taste.

Final Thoughts

I’ll summarize my overall argument here:

  • I agree that casters sometimes overhype games. I disagree that the problem is as widespread or severe as stated; I find the data points in the original piece to be both faulty and insufficient; and my own review of several finals matches found the problem to be much smaller than stated. I further find some of the points absurd, like the “what would that player think” examples.
  • I agree that casters can oversimplify storylines or fall back on them too much. I disagree that the storylines themselves are lazy; I argue that inappropriately falling back on a storyline is an exception rather than a trend; I point out that storylines improve the quality of broadcasts; and I am baffled by the discussion of written pieces and live commentary in the same paragraph.

In my view, casters taking feedback from this piece would drastically overcorrect and end up lowering the overall quality of StarCraft II broadcasting.

I would be genuinely dismayed if we lost the infectious excitement of your average Tastosis cast because they were afraid of overhyping the game. I would be genuinely dismayed if we lost the storylines from the Korean scene. I would be genuinely dismayed if commentators were constantly second-guessing their instincts instead of casting a genuine broadcast. I’m happy with the state of StarCraft II broadcasting – it could always be better, but I could easily see it becoming worse if the advice on offer were taken.

If you enjoyed this article, I’d love it if you followed me on Twitter and Facebook and checked out my game-design focused YouTube and Twitch channels. If you’re interested in my own take on excellent StarCraft broadcasting, I recommend you read my piece on Nation Wars. Thanks for reading and see you next time.

* A few additional notes on this analysis that couldn’t fit into my table. The 2017 GSL Super Tournament I best-ever comment was in regard to Rogue’s late-game Zerg storyline, which is justifiable from my perspective, but I counted it anyway. The 2017 GSL Season 1 Finals did claim it was “the best day ever”, but this was in reference to the StarCraft: Remastered announcement. The commentators also mentioned you “could not make up a better finals” in direct reference to the long history of the game and sOo’s multiple finals appearances.

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