More is LessThere is an aspect to professional tournaments that has irritated me for a long time, one that crept into and took root in StarCraft II casting a while ago—hyperbole, and the reduction of players to a few lazy narratives and stereotypes of their play or personalities.
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. BEST. STARCRAFT. TOURNAMENT. EVER!") or even maps.
We have seen a lot in StarCraft II's history. Eight years worth of games, tournaments, and maps, in fact. 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.
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.
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.
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.
Now, you may say that this is not exclusive to StarCraft II, but an esports-wide phenomenon. But that is not true. Over the past couple of years, I’ve watched a lot of Dota 2, watched and attended League Worlds, and even caught the occasional CS:GO match. One situation I distinctly remember happened at IEM Katowice 2017, when dupreeh made one of the most important plays of the grand finals by winning Astralis an eco-round with a Desert Eagle ace. It was arguably the turning point of the entire series and certainly a championship-caliber play, but not one of the casters or analysts went as far as to say that nobody else could have pulled it off. It just wasn't true—several players had the capacity to come through in the clutch, even players on dupreeh's own team. It doesn't mean that another player would have pulled it off, or that the play was by any means easy. It was simply an amazing play by an amazing player, and the casters called it as such. It made that moment feel far more genuine.
I felt similarly following the Dota 2 circuit this past year. When something amazing happens in other games and is labelled amazing, you know that it was, in fact, amazing. In StarCraft II, you often don't.
Less is not moreIn 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.
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.
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.
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.
Let’s say a player performs an impressive micro maneuver. Is it not enough to point out the quality of that move without going so far as to say nobody else could pull off the move? Go back to the dupreeh deagle ace, for example. The commentators’ excitement alone told me enough to know that this was an important moment, and I was able to come to my own conclusion myself that dupreeh was a good player, just from watching it and feeling that excitement—I was by all means new to CS:GO then. Even new viewers are intelligent enough to realize players’ traits and key strengths on their own rather quickly if they are true. ByuN, lauded for his great control, will surely produce enough good micro moves across a match for even newer viewers to come to the realization that he has good control. If he does not do this, then we should question whether he's deserving of that reputation in the first place.
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.
The purpose of analysis and commentary is to provide perspective that a typical fan cannot offer—insight that only experts possess. Commentary should enrich the viewing experience by putting single moments into context, explaining exactly why a player's actions are skillful and special. At the same time, commentators shouldn't force contrived narratives onto the game. To do that, the commentators and analysts must keep a nuanced, thoughtful perspective in the midst of intense matches, punctuating exciting moments without making unreasonable claims. Instead of asking us to live in a bizarro-world where target-firing slow banelings off creep is considered unbelievable, they can unlock the depth and beauty of StarCraft II for the audience.
It's a task that requires a lot of knowledge, discipline, and presence of mind in emotional situations—part of what makes casting a difficult job. I believe that all major commentators currently active in professional StarCraft II have the experience and talent to excel with this approach, but too often they succumb to the temptation of hyperbole and simplistic storytelling. I have no doubt they are doing this with good intentions, but it distorts the truth, detracts from the vast stylistic diversity in StarCraft play, and ultimately does the opposite of what commentary is supposed to do—it sells the players short.