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Spectating in Games

I've mentioned before how fighting games are the perfect competitive game for spectators because the action takes place all on one screen. There is no other screen or view to cut to. Also the basics of what's going on generally readable. There are two characters trying to hit each other, and you can see the lifebars and when one guy is knocked out.

Some people responded by saying that the slower pace of Starcraft contributes to it being even better of a spectator game overall. It gives commentators more time to talk about why a decision was smart, or what to look for, when those things can flicker by very quickly in a fighting game.

I recently watched the Starcraft 2 tournament coverage at MLG Providence and at Dreamhack. I have to say it was probably about the best spectating experience for a competitive game I can imagine. I'll qualify that by saying that for me personally, watching a competitive fighting game could be more exciting, but that's because I have enormous knowledge about the specifics. I'm talking about for a more general audience of people who are not extreme experts, I have to admit that the pace of Starcraft really does help tremendously to viewers.

The commentators at those events did extremely well, by the way. So special thanks to Day9, Artosis, tasteless, and the rest. Speaking of Day9, I really have to mention his episode #100. He feels like a kindred spirit who I've known forever after hearing what's practically his life story in that episode. Day9 is the real deal and he's doing e-sports a huge service with his skills right now. (Dear Day9: you know, I'm working really hard on an RTS-themed customizable card game right now. Might be up your alley. And if it isn't, you're still the real deal.)

Back to spectating. Another reason why watching Starcraft is exciting is the drama of hidden information. Now, fighting games have hidden information too, it's just that you probably don't realize it. It takes place at the time scale of 1/60th of a second, and it has to do with one player often not knowing the exact state of his opponent's character at the moment he himself executes a move. The reason he doesn't know is because the human brain can't even process the information and turn it into conscious awareness that quickly, so there are lots of guesses, instincts, and predictions that come into play. And it's all invisible to the untrained eye.

Not in Starcraft though. It's plenty visible and obvious there. Does player2 know that player1 is going for an all-in rush? Or does player2 know that there is a pylon hidden in his base? Player1 is expanding to a new base, but he doesn't realize that a pack of pesky flying Mutalisks is going to wreck it, and so on.

It's more than just hidden information, it's dramatic irony, to take a term from literature. Situational irony is the kind you probably are more familiar with, where the outcome is the opposite of what you intend and expect. Dramatic irony is when the audience knows something that the characters in the story (or the players) don't know. Starcraft is one big ball of dramatic irony. There is so much fuel for exciting commentary based on the abundance of dramatic irony from the fog of war, from build orders, from scouting, and from trickshot plans that players sometimes go for. During all that, we get to see all that hidden info and we have time to soak it in. We see it coming while in a fighting game, we blink and we missed it. (Note: I like watching fighting games, remember, because I can see all that stuff that fast.)

Dramatic irony was also the key ingredient that lead to the rise of poker on television. If you remember, poker wasn't really on tv at all, then suddenly it was everywhere. What changed? Answer: the camera on the hole cards. Once the audience and commentators could see those cards, it created dramatic irony that makes it a lot more exciting to watch.

The Yomi card game benefits from this as well. It's all about mental sparing, deception, and tricks that revolve around hidden information. It takes place at a slow enough pace to enable great commentary. That great commentary is coming from Aphotix, and here's an archive of his stuff, including last week's online tournament. It's amazing how much mileage he gets without even benefiting from dramatic irony, too. So far the casts have hidden the player's hand cards from spectators, but I think they will be even more exciting when spectators can see that info. (We just have to prevent cheating by delaying the broadcast stream, probably.)

Enjoy your Street Fighter, Starcraft, and Yomi spectating. ;)

Reader Comments (15)

Great article! Getting a game to be fun for players and getting a game to be fun for spectators are two separate (and hard) goals. It's always a pleasure to find a game that has done a good job at both.

November 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDustin

I've enjoyed Day9's show for a while now, even though I don't play much Starcraft. Did you know he mentioned you in an episode as well ? I can't recall which one, but he was making a point about something and brought out your "Play to win" book. The guy has mentioned other board games a couple of times, don't know if he knows about Yomi and such though.

November 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLuxon5

Oh, I didn't know that. I would love to correspond with him and meet him someday.

November 29, 2011 | Registered CommenterSirlin

I googled it and found the daily mention, for anyone interested. Day9 Daily #315 at about 3 minutes in. The overall theme of the daily is examining the Protoss vs Zerg strategy of Huk (arguably the best North American player).

November 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLadnil

I want to correspond with day9 lol! Could you imagine getting him to do just 1 broadcast about one of your games (in this perfect scenario, I'm doing it with him ofc)? Oh man, it would be soooooooo good. DAY9, IF YOU ARE READING THIS, YOU COULD CHANGE THE COURSE OF HISTORY! Oh yea, and his daily #100 is one of the best things I've ever watched in my life.

November 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAphotix

Day9 has a game design degree from USC. Sure he'd love to chat with you.

November 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDan

I cannot agree with you more. Starcraft is enough fun to watch that me and my wife usually follow the final few games of the major tournaments, despite her not having played a single game of it. And Day9 is just plain awesome, always.

November 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKdansky

You should check out the GSL Team leagues sometime, more specifically, the World Championship Team League (Korea vs The World). The team structure adds another layer of drama on top of things, and I found it way more entertaining than regular tournaments.

November 30, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterpkt-zer0

It's worth mentioning that for the Iron Man Exhibition, Aphotix WAS allowed to look at player hands via passwording the room so that only he and the players could join. The execution was flawed since the password was displayed, but it wound up working very well.

November 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMad King

Fantastic article :-)
You hit on so many of the same things I did in one I wrote a long time ago on the same topic -
My take for fighting games is that they need slow motion and replays etc. to make them work better for spectators & this stuff should ideally be built into the software.

November 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRik Newman (Remy77077)

" I'm working really hard on an RTS-themed customizable card game right now"
Just to make sure: You know what an RTS is, right? To catch the spirit of RTS, you need a way to change the power balance without actually interacting with your opponent. It's the layer of interaction that differentiates it from RTT. In an RTT, your only way of changing power balance (if at all), is destroying enemy units, for example.
So it's like a shooter without the skill requirement of actually shooting and gets boring fast in multiplayer due to that.
An RTS, in contrast, adds stuff like ressource collection and the ability to use these ressources to, for example, build units. Tech unlocking is another such features. This causes the player to have additional management to do besides battling the opponent.
This is obviously a concept that's directly linked to the fact that these games take place in real time. So how do you intend to translate it into a boardgame?
Or do you just want to make a game based on micro-management or something?

December 1, 2011 | Unregistered Commentervb

Day 9 is the most unfiltered and real commentator out there. Add to that, his immense knowledge of the game and past experience, and you can understand why lots of people can appreciate him. I shared his episode 100 with people that don't understand gaming so they can at least take in some appreciation of what we love.

Maybe this is a topic best left for a forum discussion, but since we are talking about spectating, what did people think of the heart rate metric they added to Starcraft at Dreamhack? Since my field of expertise is remote monitoring, I was very excited by this. Of course, i have concerns with the fidelity of the devices, but my team and I have been entertaining many applications of some of the sensors we use for gaming. I think it can be very powerful.

December 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterUthgar

I'm glad you pointed out the dramatic irony component in spectating RTS games. It blows my mind that so many people forget how prominent information asymmetry is between the competitors when talking about other aspects of RTS games, and yet it's the thing that makes watching the games so exciting. Maybe people are so used to watching games and having perfect information availability that they forget that the fog of war exists when actually playing?

December 4, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterbrized

Reactions of Players and Fans in GSL Final

December 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSc2Fan

I was the one who commented on Starcraft being a better spectator game due to slower pacing. The hidden information thing you mentioned is definitely something we all knew (knowing a surprise for one player creates drama) but I really think pacing has a lot to do with it too.

I do agree that fighting games have hidden information, in that you often don't know what the state of the game will be when your move exits startup frames, and often you can get tricked into thinking that the state is something when it actually something else. The problem with spectating is that it's really hard to know exactly what happened even if you know what's going on. When I watch tournament footage for whatever fighting game, I usually have to rewind frequently just to understand why someone got hit.

I think spectating fighting games would be better if it were more like football, where you'd spectate round by round and commentators would talk over the round after it was over, highlight key points and instant replay stuff. It'd be like football where you have a down, then the commentators go over what happened in that down and the various options available to the team, then you see how those played out. Obviously fighting game rounds are a little longer than football downs and have way more decision points, but current FG commentary is so shallow and geared towards experts that any sort of explanation of the actual dramatic moments (versus OOOH when someone hits a super) would be nice.

Going too far in the football direction would probably be bad (eg. Bushido Blade style very short "rounds") because a lot of the interesting elements of fighting games are about tempo control, and having match control reset frequently due to the game rules (rather than through expert play) is not something that is desirable for FG players as a whole probably. It might be an interesting experiment to have a game with very short lifebars and many rounds that is designed more for spectating.

December 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAuspice
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