Monthly Archives: July 2016

Casting Call #2: The Current State of Hearthstone Casting and Why It’s Sorely Lacking

Introduction/Disclaimer

Before we start: I know this title is quite the click-bait and comes off as inflammatory. it’s intentional. I’m not trying to call out specific individuals, I’m calling out everyone. I want to light a fire in every professional and aspiring commentator. Even further, I want to hold myself accountable too. Many things I am writing about even applies way more to myself than others. The things I bring up aren’t about everyone nor am I passive-aggressively saying someone should quit casting. These are my thoughts alone and this is my personal conviction.

I watch a lot of hearthstone. I watch a loooooooooooooot of hearthstone. Sometimes in full screen with speakers on blast, sometimes on mute while I’m multitasking or between transfer flights at an airport. I also cast a ton of Hearthstone and at times, when the meta is figured out and stabilized, I feel like I can cast Hearthstone with my eyes closed.

And truth be told, there have been moments were I feel like I have done events like that. I say the same things every time. I analyze the situations the same.

Druid wants early ramp. Shaman is looking for the early board. Rogue wants the coin/spells. Freeze Mage mulligans for card draw and survival. Well, I guess he didn’t draw Reno Jackson. Turns out Fiery War Axe is pretty good! Lifetap is an amazing hero power.

And while these things aren’t incorrect and quite important to mention, this is the limit of the depth we force upon the viewer. Another way to put it is that I feel like casters make Hearthstone sound less interesting than it is. We can do so much more.

The Current State of Hearthstone Casting

Casters are the only consistent entity at a Hearthstone event. The top 8 results and meta decks will always be shifting and rearranging, but the voices that guide us through the plays and stories are the same. In fact, due to how conversational Hearthstone is without a natural visual climax (nothing like defusing a bomb or a huge team fight), you might argue that good commentary in Hearthstone is more vital than any other eSport on Twitch these days. The fact that we can debate every single decision from card choices to lineup preparation to in-game plays makes this game extremely fun on a competitive level. There exists thousands of different outcomes and each of them are fascinating to discuss.

As such, it’s no surprise we as a community tend to be brutally honest with our talent. While these days, the heckling is more of a meme fiesta more than actual outcry for action, it’s not really as evenly split as half-joking as one might think.

Now there’s a lot of good things casters have done in recent times. I noted in my previous blog that positive energy goes a long way talking about the importance of finding the narrative, build up what’s happening on screen, and focus on the exciting things that are happening on screen. We’ve largely done this across the board and I feel like Hearthstone broadcasts has actually grown because of this trend.

However, I think we’ve gone as far as this horse can go. It’s been mentioned countless times over the years: variety is the spice of life. If every caster sounds like this then not only will the voices drown on in a sea of monotonous praise, but it also makes all the casters collectively seem like actors. That they’re shills for Blizzard/Dreamhack/whoever else they represent.

This shouldn’t be the case. Our talent pool is actually diverse should it should reflect that.

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HCT Winter Championships Talent — LtR: Savjz, TJ, Sottle, Reynad, Cora, Rob Wing, Old Gods Amaz

So while we’ve done a lot of great stuff pushing things forward this far with Hearthstone commentary, let’s talk about the problem that’s starting to show in recent broadcasts.

For one, it’s starting to get increasingly more difficult for casters to differentiate elite players in Hearthstone. This is because Hearthstone competitions are more open and growing with each season. HCT is the biggest tournament in the world and the amount of people fighting tooth-and-nail for ladder points and qualifying spots gets larger by the event. With so many new faces coming in and out, it’s getting increasingly harder to care which is why HCT works so tirelessly to do fun/memorable player profiles.

Another aspect that coming into play is that casters have no statistics-driven narrative in Hearthstone. There’s no official rankings outside Gosugamers, but their system is imperfect and also lacks consistency. HCT points should be meaningful, but as far as I know, Blizzard does not wish to push elitism in Hearthstone through a ranking outside of legend finishes.  We don’t have access to player profiles for win percentages or tendencies outside of what’s provided by Blizzard.

Speaking of which, we also lack a centralized information base that contains player history and data. Liquipedia tried to do it in the early stages but they’ve largely trailed off to focus on only the big events. Since we lack this information, when a new player shows up, the casters do a ton of research to tell you about all the cups and tournaments they’ve played in, but it’s a tough sell considering to the viewer who is watching them for the first time. The only way we can reliably build reputation is through name association. “He is a practice partner of Thijs and Ostkaka” would instantly perk your ears as opposed to “He has 50 HCT points.”

I could talk about these problems more in depth but it’s starting to get off-topic. The reason why I bring it up is because these things all center around one glaring issue: it feels like players are having an even more difficult time setting themselves apart despite the ecosystem become more accessible.

While casters can’t fix this problem singlehandedly, we contribute towards the difficulty of distinction. Our jobs at its core is to tell a story. Right now it’s not that interesting because of the way we tell it.

 

#1 — Casters Still Lack Substantive Game Knowledge

I’m not nitpicking on the small details that Twitch chat picks on. Yes, sometimes we miss lethals, we read mana crystals incorrectly, and we sometimes even forget that the 2 cards of a deck were played already. All of these things are actually play-by-play moments if you think about it. That’s not lack of analysis, its lack of attention to whats happening on screen which will eternally be a problem in a game with so many numbers fluctuating simultaneously all over the screen while juggling dialogue with your co-caster/audience.

That’s not what I’m talking about. It’s only human to error in this department.

What I’m referring to is how casters need to step up their understanding of WHY things happen in Hearthstone.

If you look at some of the biggest accolades given to an on-air talent, in sport or esport, one of the most appreciated attribute is the ability to dive into the mindset of a player.

As casters, we’re resorting to generalizations of topics because we’re afraid to be wrong. We tend to stick to tried and true basic notions as opposed to understanding the intricacies of the game/series at hand.

Now here comes the very legitimate counterargument: “Well not everyone is an advanced or even intermediate level player. Why are we making it so complex? It makes it inaccessible.”

I used to think like this. Hell, this was the primary reason why I cast the way I do for years now and perhaps why many commentators have followed suit. I want Hearthstone to be accessible, welcoming, and most importantly, fun.

But I don’t get why we as a community act like we can’t have it all. Does Hearthstone really need a play-by-play guy and an analysis guy like other games? As mentioned in my previous Casting Call post, Hearthstone is very unique in the eSports broadcast space. Tournament setup, atmosphere, and pace is very different. There’s no obvious climax a lot of the time. Is there a particular reason why we need to explain what cards are hitting other cards? Part of what makes Hearthstone intrinsically fun to watch is that it’s easy and simple to grasp. A 2/3 visually bumps a 2/1 and survives with 1 health remaining. That makes logical sense.

 

#2 — Casters, Be More Honest; Players Be More Open Minded

This is sort of two points in one, but they go hand-in-hand. A large reason why Hearthstone is as fun to watch is because we get access to full information and we can debate better plays until we are blue in the face. I would argue this is the most important thing about being a commentator in Hearthstone — the ability to help sift through what’s good and bad. Yes, bad.

There’s a great video put out by Thorin who verbalized an important intellectual concept that “If everyone is good, no one is.” Take a moment to watch at least the first 3 minutes.

It’s different with a game like Hearthstone because the card game variance does lend itself to having closer matchups which either player had a realistic chance to win. But this is not the point.

As commentators, we are often trying to sell the players as being vaguely “great” and their plays are “excellent”. And by doing so, we actually cheapen the value of actual fantastic plays. Even more, we also make the result seem insignificant.

Let’s boil it down in more simple terms. If no one ever makes a mistake in a game and it’s truly evenly matched, then luck plays a large factor. This applies to any game, but especially so in a game that has as much random outcomes as Hearthstone. Thus, if we make it seem like players are on the same level and their plays are always good, then what is the audience led to believe? That one player got luckier than the other.

No matter how salty players lead you to believe, the truth is that there are tiers of players who are playing at a significantly higher level than your average legend player. In fact, it tends to benefit the elite into convincing the majority that skill doesn’t truly matter at the top. Thus, they remain in the top strata by allowing others to think that, similar to Poker.

So it’s important the caster can feel like he can explore discussing things in the truth. Player A played badly. Player B played okay, but since he outplayed Player A he still won. By saying both players did equally well, we de-legitimize the series as well as the game/tournament itself.

However, there comes associated risks with it. First, the audience doesn’t like to hear excessive negativity, especially with someone who has power over the microphone. It sounds condescending, arrogant, and that constant criticism can feel like a mood killer. This is exacerbated when a popular player comes onto camera since many of his/her fans will rally behind them.

But I think that players need to be more open-minded as well. Many of them are as oftentimes you hear in interviews “Man I played like crap” or “That was so sloppy and I’m unhappy with how I played.” Why are the commentators unable to say this? Because we fear the inevitable battle that we have to struggle with once we declare war on someone’s play. It’s not that it will happen every time, but even one time where it goes disastrously may leave a bad mark on the caster’s reputation and relationships, which may have damaging effects further on.

However, there’s a simple solution I feel that ties in all 3 points.

#3 — Casters Need To Affirm Their Authority

Credibility goes a long, long way in Hearthstone, a game of opinions. And simply put, when you get an opinion from an unreliable source, you kind of want a second opinion.

I don’t find it a surprise that people really enjoy commentary from Savjz, Brian Kibler, Reynad, and most recently Firebat. What do they all have in common? They actually have history to back up their words from strong ladder/tournament results. All have finished top legend and placed high in events before. So when they discuss a match up or a decision tree, you feel like it makes more sense since they’ve done it before.

It doesn’t mean they are always right in their analysis. Actually, they’re arguably wrong many times and they readily admit it. But their words carry weight. More importantly, other players trust them to be able to see their perspective and reasoning behind decisions because they’ve been there before.

So to follow up on the previous section, how do we go about bringing analytical criticism to games? I think the key is hiring casters that have a good reputation and can eloquently break down the who, what, and why.

That’s why I personally have been striving to get top 100 each season. That’s why we need to appreciate guys who are putting in the time to do so such as TJ Sanders (Top 25 NA June 2016) and Raven (Open cup grinder, Most HCT points out of any caster iirc).

I’m not saying this to cement the existing group of casters and deny entry of new talent. In fact, this should be encouragement to any aspiring commentators to git gud to get noticed. The old timers need to keep up as well. As much as I love Kibler and that this post doesn’t really apply much to him, he still needs to actually sit down and grind freeze mage games to understand this insanely complex deck. Savjz is a fantastic analyst, but he hasn’t played a serious game of Hearthstone in months and would be better prepared if he took time playing some meta decks. Reynad regularly admits he’s falling more behind the meta and is in a constant state of playing catchup. The cream of our crop can improve. We all can.

Hearthstone is a card game that doesn’t require intensive mechanics or fast reaction time unless you count the days of OG Patron Warrior. Outside of crippling healthy problems (anxiety, for example), there is literally no excuse for people who call themselves professional Hearthstone casters to assert themselves with some results on ladder or in tournament.

Conclusion

I feel like this post was probably a bit too brutal and no doubt some people mentioned or implied will message me privately/publicly to explain why I am right or wrong.

But I welcome it!

This post is supposed to serve as an example in itself. Similarly to how I attempted to dissect Hearthstone’s current commentary trends in 2500 words or so, perhaps we should also try exploring Hearthstone plays more honestly with vibrant discussions. After all, we are there to entertain you guys. Hopefully with less than 2500 words. But don’t put your money on it. I’m a Talkstone caster.

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