The recently concluded SEA Games 2019 was home to many historic firsts, highlights, and moments. It was the first Olympic-recognized event that involved esports as a medal sport and it was easily the biggest esports event in the region in terms of sheer scale and scope. However, there is one peculiar feature that differentiates the SEA Games Esports event from other events of its caliber like say, Rev Major or Brawl Fest: No on the ground casting.
This means that within the venue itself, the live audience did not hear the caster’s analysis and commentary as opposed to what is usually typical in these types of events.
Meanwhile, miles away in Novaliches, a dedicated team of expert casters were hard at work providing commentary for the people who tuned into the livestream in their devices or TVs. However, the live audience who came into San Juan Arena to watch the games in person were left to discern the action for themselves.
From what we gathered, the decision to exclude casting within the venue was brought about by several factors. One reason is that having casters analyze the play-by-play in real-time might provide the competitors on-stage with crucial information that will influence their playstyle and potentially affect the outcome of the game. As an official Olympic-recognized event, the spirit of sportsmanship is its primary concern and must be preserved at all times.
A second factor to why the decision was made was revealed when we spoke to SEA Games Venue Manager Alvin Juban who also tied the reason into sportsmanship. He disclosed that if there were to be in venue casting the likely candidates for casters would have been Filipino and they were wary that they would sound biased in front of the hometown crowd when casting for our local esports athletes.
All in all, the decision to exclude in-venue casting was made to respect the integrity of the event and with the spirit of fairness and equality as its top priority.
So how was watching an esports event without Casting? In a word: Odd.
Sitting in the stands and trying to discern the action onscreen for yourselves is a peculiar and confusing experience. At times people were just left to guess what was happening on stage and on the many side stages on the event floor. A symptom of this was that crowd engagement was hit or miss depending on the game that was currently being featured on the mainstage.
The games that successfully engaged the crowd were the ones they were most familiar with, namely, Mobile Legends Bang Bang, Dota 2 and Arena of Valor in that order. Even if the MOBAs all had steep learning curves, a lot of the audience knew what they were and were familiar with the ins and outs of the game.
They cheered hard when their team selected their favourite hero, got a kill, took down a tower or destroyed the Nexus/Ancient. So audience participation was very high whenever a MOBA would take the stage simply because there wasn’t much of a knowledge gap to bridge.
Tekken 7 also successfully managed to get a hearty crowd response. This is not surprising as the action in the game is very easy to follow and it’s premise is relatively quite simple: There are two people beating each other up, first to 3 rounds wins. It’s very easy to get into and the action is satisfyingly flashy so the crowd response was incredible, remaining engaged throughout all the matches even without a filipino playing.
However, in games like StarCraft II for example, the action is highly technical and not that easy to understand. As such, the casual audience suffered through multiple lulls in their attention span, tuning out through most of the matches and coming back alive in the end when the victor was decided.
In a country like the Philippines, where interest and knowledge about StarCraft II had been waning in the recent years, much of the intricacies of the game soared above the audience’s heads. The game’s more technical plays such as denying an opponent’s expansion or scouting out a crucial structure were met with barely anything from the audience. Clearly, during this Discipline some insight and analysis from a caster’s perspective is an absolute necessity.
The same goes double for Hearthstone which by its very nature is a lot more static than all of the games in the roster. Without knowing the game, or the cards or the current meta, there were countless moments where the audience was nearly asleep, left staring at a screen with cards they don’t know the abilities of and a player contemplating the decisions of their turn. Clearly some degree of knowledge plays a lot into consuming Hearthstone as a spectator sport but without casters to explain the action to the casual audience, disinterest and boredom quickly rear their ugly heads.
As an additional side note, there was also just confusion in the audience in general no matter if there was a game playing on the stage or not. As the first event of its kind in the Philippines, a lot of casual onlookers didn’t know what was happening, where to sit or where to look. Oftentimes, cheers erupted from a section of the venue where a match on the side stage was going on and this confused other audience members on the opposite side of the arena.
Additionally, the ends of some matches, specifically the group stages of disciplines at the main stage also felt like they ended unceremoniously and players would just descend from the stage without much fanfare.
An easy fix would have been a dedicated announcer, like in traditional sports such basketball or Professional wrestling. This entity would be separate from the host or master of ceremonies and would detail what comes next after a match, what to expect on the main stage and revealing what’s going on at different ends of the venue through a consistent stream of announcements so that the audience isn’t left in the dark.
The announcer could also introduce the players at the start of the matches and announce the victor at the end ala professional wrestling, which gives the audience a clear moment to cheer instead of the scattered applause that met some games.
A bigger, more expensive fix would be to keep the in-venue casting but provide sound-proof booths for the players so that they wouldn’t hear the commentary and analysis. They could also wear noise cancelling headsets and monitored by the Tournament Organizer Marshalls in the booth at all times to remain fair and balanced.
As an observer who spent a lot of time in the stands, I wouldn’t say that the audience experience was bad without in venue casting. At the it’s weakest point, it was disinteresting at times. But when the crowd got going, the cheers and the applause were absolutely deafening. We also saw the rise of several chants that the crowd cooked up spontaneously on their own. This ranged from variations of “Pi-Li-Pi-Nas” and “Philippines! Philippines” to my personal favorite “Tapusin! Tapusin!” (a nod to the anime Yu Yu Hakusho or Ghost Fighter) and chants straight out of our love for basketball in “Defense! Defense!”
There were also some moments that didn’t need any explanation as the raw emotion of the game and the players forged the connection with the fans straight and true. For example, the devastating Tekken 7 Lower Bracket match between two filipino players AK and Doujin as well as that amazing last minute come from behind victory by Sibol Dota 2.
Definitely, one of the biggest revelations of the SEA Games Esports Event was that the country is ready for Esports to be it’s next big spectator sport. The decision on how to properly implement in-venue casters is just the latest in a list of growing pains what will inevitably lead to the esports long-term development.
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