On broadcasting large Hearthstone Swiss tournaments

Teams in HearthstoneDreamhack Summer 2016 Hearthstone Grand Prix, a huge 200-player open Swiss tournament, was played a week ago and broadcasted on Twitch. While the overall arrangements of the tournament were fairly good, the broadcast of the tournament was not exactly the epitome of hype and excitement. Typical breaks between matches lasted for 20-30 minutes with no content whatsoever.

Why does this happen and is there something that can be done about it to improve the broadcasts? The general consensus at the Dreamhack venue seemed to be that if the organizers had just thrown in a bunch of player interviews, everything would have been fine. I believe the situation is a bit more complicated than that though.

The difference between small and large tournaments

Small invitational tournaments are much easier to broadcast. Often all the games are streamed, and each game starts after the previous one has finished, so you can really create an action-packed show that focuses on gameplay.

When you have a large tournament, things are different. Choosing the games to broadcast and arranging that with the players when there are 100 games going on simultaneously is no small undertaking. Nonetheless, if the tournament is arranged in single-elimination or double-elimination format, you can work around it and almost always have a game to broadcast, because all branches of the tournament do not need to proceed at equal pace and you can delay the start of some games in order to keep a steady stream of content going.

The most difficult situation is when you have a Swiss format tournament where pairs for the next round cannot be calculated until all the games from the previous round have finished. Sure, you could delay the start of some games, but you will then create even more downtime for players and extend the overall duration of the tournament significantly. Furthermore, if the featured match for a round ends up being one of the fastest matches, it will take a long time before a new round begins.

What did Dreamhack do to alleviate issues with broadcasting Swiss?

There were two actions taken at Dreamhack to reduce downtime: setting up a secondary match and interviewing players. Unfortunately, neither of these were used to a great effect, as the broadcast jumped to the secondary match after the main match only once – perhaps the secondary matches were finished faster – and player interviews were also few and far between. The winner of each feature match was briefly interviewed, but other than that there were only a couple of interviews during downtime.

Is that it? In order to look at how Swiss tournaments are broadcasted, we can also take a look at an organization that has been doing it for a long time: Wizards of the Coast and their Magic: The Gathering Pro Tour coverage.

Taking a look at Magic: The Gathering

The most recent Magic: The Gathering Pro Tour, Shadows over Innistrad, took place in late April, and was of course broadcasted on Twitch and is also available on Youtube.

What kind of coverage was provided there?

Pro Tours are always arranged shortly after a new card set is released, so Wizards of the Coast can use the Pro Tour broadcast also to discuss new cards, something that for Hearthstone would only be an option for Blizzard events.

That said, let’s take a look at the structure of the Pro Tour Shadows over Innistrad coverage:

  • Introduction, schedule, format
  • Draft, commentary
  • Team EUreka Open House – pre-recorded documentary material
  • Limited format gameplay, main feature match with three other matches set up in the feature match area, cameras being moved to a secondary table after the main one concludes
  • Live player interviews
  • Score reporting, also as rolling text at the bottom
  • Magic Online draft archetypes and statistics
  • Pre-recorded player interviews
  • “Live look-in” – showing another match in the feature match area while the main match is preparing for another game
  • Shadows over Innistrad R&D interviews and insights
  • Introduction to Enter the Battlefield documentary
  • Roving reporter in the general match area
  • Deck techs: player introducing the deck he is playing in detail
  • Announcement of upcoming changes to prize pools for the next season
  • Top 8 announcement
  • Awards ceremony

As can be seen from the above list, there is actually a ton of content included in a Pro Tour broadcast, and much of it has been pre-recorded, so it is a lot of work to put all that together.

The coverage of the second-highest level of competition, Grand Prix, is less polished but overall follows the same template: gameplay, player interviews, score reporting, and deck highlights, in this case also from the most recent Pro Tour.

What could a Hearthstone Swiss broadcast look like?

Let’s imagine for a while. Let’s imagine a world where major Hearthstone tournaments are mainly run in Swiss format (I won’t elaborate on why Swiss is so good here) and where they are broadcasted in a fashion that is engaging and does not have long breaks of no content.

It’s EU preliminaries time! We have a 150-player Swiss bracket going on for 8 rounds. The broadcast begins with an explanation of the rules and schedule. Players are ready in various locations throughout the continent, and the four pairs that have been selected as feature matches have clients set to observe their games, with the production crew able to switch between them at will.

The first round begins and the main feature match ends up being a quick 3-0 sweep with aggro decks. When the match started snowballing, the production crew took a good look at what was happening in the other matches, and chose the one that was looking to last the longest as the next match to broadcast. The broadcast jumps into that match at a score of 1-1 while the winner of the main feature match is interviewed in order to be shown after the matches are complete.

As matches are concluded, the winner of the secondary feature match is interviewed. While this is going on, the production crew prepares highlights of the main feature match, and a recap of that match is shown with analysis, followed by the interview of the main feature match winner.

By the time these are done, the draw for the second round is completed, and another four matches are chosen for the main feature match and the backup matches. This time the production crew is not as lucky: all feature matches are concluded way ahead of the rest of the round. Time to throw in some pre-recorded content! The team has prepared well and has recorded interviews with a number of known players the day before the show, and they can pick one of them to broadcast while matches are going on.

After that, several matches are still being played! Uh oh, no problem, this is a good spot for the casters to go through the results so far, any upsets or cool stories that have surfaced. The team also has roving reporters in two major locations who can provide live footage and impromptu interviews with players in those locations. This helps the team get through this content drought, and on to the next round we go!

The third round goes smoothly, as does the fourth. Some of the backup matches are amongst the longest in the rounds. On round four the team actually gets to feature all four matches that they were prepared to feature, catching bits and pieces of action on multiple fronts.

Fifth round is again a rough one. One match drags on and on, and the team needs some fresh content. It’s time to showcase some of the statistics available to the organizers as all the deck lists are in their possession. A presentation on statistics of decks brought to the tournament and the most popular archetypes has been pre-recorded, and it is broadcast now. As there seems to be a lot of time, it is also the time to drop in a deck presentation session the team has prepared beforehand, this time featuring Zoo, the common variants of the archetype and how it should be played. The team prepared four of these deck presentations based on the most popular archetypes players submitted to the tournament, and they help fill the downtime. If any are left unused, they are broadcasted after the tournament.

The broadcast team has to be alert and sharp at all times in order to minimize downtime, but multiple feature matches, roving reporters, live and pre-recorded player interviews, score reporting, and pre-recorded deck presentations and statistics carry the team through the show. They almost run out of material on round seven, but by that time they are able to present statistics of the current tournament and what decks have been successful there, as well as get a player with a highly unique and successful deck hold a presentation on how that deck was built.

Serious broadcasting is serious work

It has become somewhat of a running joke in Hearthstone that the casters only know the most famous players and are more or less clueless when it comes to anyone else. Pick almost any event, and you can hear casters telling that they do not really know this player, and as soon as the words are uttered there are several people on Twitter pointing out things about said player’s history, whether from Hearthstone or from some other game, such a Yu-Gi-Oh.

Still, casters are only the tip of the iceberg. While small tournaments can be covered with two individuals in their bedrooms – and I have seen some high-quality, enjoyable coverage done this way by a number of current top casters in the scene – covering a large tournament is a whole different ballgame. Proper coverage actually requires several people and a lot of work before the event begins. Actually, even the level of broadcasting at Dreamhack Summer 2016 required several people, but improving on that requires still a bit more. All the pieces to make it happen exist, for example in the form of our imaginary scenario above, if organizations see the financial investment in better coverage worth the cost.

1 thought on “On broadcasting large Hearthstone Swiss tournaments”

  1. Nice ideas, Guardian! I think Hearthstone could learn many things from M:TG in terms of broadcasting events, indeed. M:TG broadcasts always keep me entertained, even when I don’t play the game for years now.

    I watched the Hearthstone broadcast for Dreamhack, and the downtime really made me lose interest. I was catching matches at random moments, as I kept it in the background, and couldn’t follow things very well. Also noticed the lack of info on relatively “unknown” players, and even though I understand the challenge I don’t think is really acceptable at big events. There should be more focus on that part.
    Truth also is, people didn’t consider Hearthstone too seriously until what, the first big Blizzcon tournament? I remember everything I watched in the beginning were invitational tournaments, and comments that Hearthstone would never be a real eSport. That might have played a part in the struggle to gain support to actually deliver good broadcast quality at big events, as probably focus turns more into things like CS:GO or LoL, that already had a bigger demand and greater amount of viewers.

    In any case, it’s an interesting topic to explore. We’ll see how many of your thoughts actually become a prediction! ;P

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