StarCraft Live: Spectator Experiences at MLG Dallas vs. Korea
Walk into the Hilton Anatole convention center main room, and after about 30 steps you could turn left and see Day9 and djWHEAT's 10 feet high faces smiling at you from a huge projector screen, surrounded by faceless bodies in darkness closer to the ground. This was the StarCraft II tournament at the Major League Gaming national finals in Dallas, Texas.
If you'd ever been to a live StarCraft event of note, the fundamental participants of MLG's tournament would've been familiar to you - the SC2 competitors over in a gated section set up with tables and PCs, the commentators sitting at a podium with cameras and lights aimed at them, the fans and passerby watching the show from chairs, bleachers, floors, or mobbing the better-known players as they emerged from practice or play. There were also the familiar unexpected technical difficulities and other surprises that audiences have come to expect from most eSports events. But lurking right beneath these superficial similarities were huge differences between MLG and other events (namely, Korean events or Korean-style events like BlizzCon) in venue layout and tournament presentation which significantly affected the audience experience. I'd like to take some time to analyze these differences and discuss how they might be better understood by tournament organizers to improve on for future events.
Here is a diagram I've created (using Inkscape, which is a great open source SVG editor) comparing the layout of each venue from a birds' eye perspective.
If you put yourself in the shoes of someone in the audience at MLG vs. Korea/BlizzCon (the two are lumped together because the venue layout is basically the same), you'll notice some significant differences right away. For me, the biggest disparity was that, at MLG, there was no stage, and no way to watch the commentators and the game at the same time. The audience at MLG was essentially expected to watch the screen only, with glimpses of the competitors (or, farther away, the commentators) beyond the screen simply a side effect of venue space and physical convenience. In effect, from an official presentational standpoint, the experience of someone at the event and the experience of someone watching the HD stream at home were the same.
In Korean eSports stadiums (as of 2008) and at BlizzCon (2008 and 2010), the commentators are front and center (the players whose game is being casted are also visible via the player booths, but this is secondary). The game footage is visible from different perspectives on the screens behind the commentators, which is of course essential for the audience to understand what's going on visually, but it is clear that the commentators are the main focus presentationally. They are the live guides to the tournament's events, and if you're up near the front of the audience you can see every gesture and grimace they make. This layout difference also differentiates the live experience from the HD stream experience - the audience can switch their focus between the game footage and the commentators whenever they choose to, which is not an option if you're watching at home. The commentators are also much more aware of the reactions of the audience, which leads to more interaction between the two groups, and also makes fun stunts like the one below possible because of the short distance between the audience and the commentators' podium:
The MLG setup reminded me a lot of professional American sports events like baseball and basketball games. About a month ago I saw one of the division playoff games between the Minnesota Twins and the New York Yankees, and, like at MLG, it was much easier to see the actual players than any commentators or sportscasters. Since the baseball players were involved in their own activities and there were no visible people announcing the game and interacting with the audience, it was very easy to sit back among my friends and chat with them about the state of the game, what we'd eaten last night, etc. This kind of continual socializing during the game itself didn't really take anything away from the experience of watching the game, since it's pretty easy to see what's going on by just looking up and checking out the movements of the players. The same audience chatter effect happened more often than not at MLG - without having anyone physically in front of the audience interacting with us, many people on the bleachers continually commented on the game themselves or engaged in discussion of other topics.
Picture from http://blogs.targetx.com/sbm/KyleSawdey/.
While I think this setup complements baseball's event structure well, I don't think it's an ideal situation for StarCraft. StarCraft arguably has the most developed commentary scene within all of eSports - with individual commentators like Day9 often much more popular than all but the most recognizable pro players - and there's a good reason for that: it's hard to watch and enjoy high level StarCraft without commentary. StarCraft is a very complex and fast-paced game which is, as TorcH noted in his stint on CollegeHumor's Bleep Bloop, "like playing 6 games of speed chess at the same time." Without knowledgeable guides to engage the audience and explain the story of each game to us, the subtleties are often lost and the whole experience becomes less exciting. While it's great to have audio of the casters' commentary and even better to have gameplay footage synched to show you what they're talking about, there's something lost when the commentators themselves are not physically the focus of the audience. The result is that audience members are less likely to give the commentary their full attention and instead dissolve into personal commentary and theorycrafting with their neighbors, which can interfere with the experience of the people who want to just listen to the professional commentary. At BlizzCon, the audience tended to be silent along the lines of an audience at a theatrical play as opposed to a professional sporting event, and it seems to me that this was a direct effect of the commentators' proximity to the audience.
BlizzCon: from the front row of the audience at the RTS stage.
There is certainly no doubt that the quality of commentary and presentational media at MLG were top notch - Day9 and djWHEAT were very informative and entertaining, and it was a pleasure to watch the pros take StarCraft to new levels on the projector screen. However, as a dedicated StarCraft fan, I personally enjoyed my experiences in Korea and at BlizzCon more than at MLG because there was more high quality commentator interaction with the audience and, by extension, a different feel to the event in comparison with those watching from home. I would highly recommend that MLG take these presentational differences and their effects on the audience experience into consideration when planning future events. But, in the end, it was great live StarCraft, and I was not disappointed.