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11 Inexpensive Ways to Improve Magic Coverage


Magic coverage has been a hot topic lately in the community. As a result, I've been thinking about it quite a lot. One thing that brought the topic to the forefront was the lack of coverage for Grand Prix New York last weekend. Normally, companies do everything they can to break into the New York media market. It's the biggest in the country, which makes it especially noticeable when Wizards has a Grand Prix in the city and decides not to cover it. After digging into it, only two of the next fifteen Grand Prix are scheduled to be covered. Although it later came out that ChannelFireball will be covering Grand Prix Los Angeles, it's still disappointing that Wizards doesn't view a Grand Prix in Los Angeles (another huge media market) as worth covering. 

The second thing that brought coverage to the community's consciousness was a Reddit thread that (unfairly) blamed some of the on-air talent for problems with Magic coverage. While the original post was unnecessarily personal and offensive, the discussion that took place in the comments was enlightening. One of the things it reinforced was the fact that everyone knows Magic coverage has a problem. From the people doing coverage, to the players getting covered, to the viewers watching at home, everyone wants coverage to improve. 

From talking to people who do coverage, one thing that's clear is that they want to improve coverage just as much as everyone else, but there are some issues holding things back. First, it's somewhere between hypocritical and downright insane for Hasbro to spout off about being Magic being a "Top 5 Esport Brand" to its investors, while not properly funding coverage. I don't know if the higher-ups at Hasbro are lying to themselves or everyone else, or just happened to come across the word "Esport" and decided to use it, even though they have no idea what it means, but the assertion that Magic is a top-five Esport is laughable. Secondly, the fact that Hasbro isn't interested in funding good coverage while the game is "stronger than ever" means the rest of this discussion is going to focus primarily on improvements that can be done without adding significant costs. While a couple more expensive items need to be addressed, a huge percentage of what we'll talk about will add very little to the budget. 

This list is far from all-inclusive. If you have ideas, make sure to leave them in the comments. Be realistic or give your Magical Christmas Land suggestions—(almost) anything goes. The one thing I ask is that you refrain from attacking individuals. A ton of talented people work in Magic coverage, and the problems with coverage are not about the people doing coverage; they are systemic. Let's keep things positive and try to be constructive. Anyway, without further ado, here's my list of eleven (mostly) inexpensive ways to improve Magic coverage. 

1. Have Coverage Every Weekend

 

This one is simple. Wizards needs to create an expectation that you'll be able to watch some high-level Magic if you sit down in front of your computer on a weekend. "Every" weekend is a little hyperbolic; there are weekends on the schedule without any events. That's fine. But if there's a Grand Prix (or multiple Grands Prix) happening on a weekend, one of them needs to be covered. 

Just look at the NFL. If you want to watch a football game, when can you turn on your TV? Even if you're not a huge football fan, you know it's Sunday, Monday night, and now Thursday night as well. If I want to watch a football game, I don't have to ask Reddit or check the halfway functional Mothership webpage to find out when it's on. I already know when football is on. Imagine if, on some Sundays, you turned on your TV and found reruns of Futurama and cooking shows but no football. Then, the next Sunday, there was football again, followed by two random weeks without football, and so forth. How long would it take before the expectation of "Sunday football" was ruined? Not very long.

Wizards needs to (re)create this expectation. Having to guess whether or not a Grand Prix is being covered is unacceptable. Having to browse through Reddit threads to find that coverage starts at Round 14 is insanity. I can tell you from streaming on Twitch that consistency is key. It's how you grow an audience. So, this "sometimes we cover it, sometimes we don't" attitude is the biggest thing holding Magic coverage back. People love to point to Cedric Philips and Patrick Sullivan for the success of the StarCityGames stream, and while it is true they are special, I think the fact that SCG's coverage is consistent plays a large role in their success. Note that Grand Prix New York coverage was announced to start at Round 14, but actually started at Round 10.

Cost: Expensive, but necessary if the "we're-an-Esport" claim is to be taken seriously. Consistency will pay off in the long-haul. 

2. Start Coverage on Round 1 (or Round 4)

I don't care if the broadcast starts at Round 1 or Round 4. I understand the reasoning behind waiting for big-name players to come off of byes, so do whatever works best. I will say that covering the early rounds is a chance to feature people who don't get covered very often, which is appealing to Wizards in its push for more diversity in the game. What I do know is that Round 10 is unacceptable. 

To reiterate, this isn't a blow to ChannelFireball regarding Grand Prix New York. It shouldn't be its responsibility to make sure there's coverage. It should be Wizards' responsibility, and I'm thankful that ChannelFireball took the initiative to cover New York, as it did so at its own expense. However, Wizards simply can't have coverage of Magic tournaments starting on Round 10. 

The problem with starting coverage at the end of the tournament isn't so much about the game itself but about the perception it creates. If Wizards wants Magic to be taken seriously, it needs to act like every other spectator sport. Could you imagine if a Yankees broadcast started on the eighth inning, or if we only got to see the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl? What message does that send? 

Having a Magic tournament start on Round 10 sends a few messages, and none of them are good. It says, "We're too broke to cover the entire tournament." While there are substantial costs to setting up Internet in a convention hall, it's also incredibly scary. You mean that Wizards of the Coast, the company that runs Magic Online and makes hundreds of millions a year selling Magic cards, is basing its decisions around "Internet costs?" It's 2016! I live in the middle of nowhere, and for $60 a month, I can get Internet service that is good enough to stream, upload videos, and do basically anything I want, but Wizards of the Coast is basing its decisions around paying for Internet to broadcast an event? 

The second message it sends is, "We're weak." Everything we've heard from the past five years says that Magic is doing great, but when I see coverage starting on Round 10, it makes me question whether any of this is actually true. If Magic is doing so well, why can't Wizards afford to cover an entire event? Companies that are "strong" and "doing better than ever" can afford to pay for coverage. Full stop. 

Maybe most depressingly, it sends the message that "Hasbro doesn't care about coverage." While I can deal with bad decisions and poor choices, thinking that the issue with Magic coverage comes from an attitude of "I simply don't care" is far worse, because it means that fixing the problem will be impossible. Decision making can be improved, but making these types of changes is going to require some willpower, and if Hasbro simply doesn't care, it's not going to happen. 

Cost: I don't know. There's a bigger cost (in perception) to starting coverage on Round 10. 

3. Let Chemistry Develop with Consistent Caster Pairings

I tweeted about this one early in the week, but you don't end up with Cedric Philips and Patrick Sullivan (the gold standard of Magic broadcasting) by accident. You can't just run ten different people in and out of the booth on a seemingly random basis and expect them to live up to their potential. If you watch something like a Pro Tour, you get the feeling that decisions about who will be broadcasting any specific round is based on a coin flip, rather than on what's best for coverage. Rarely do we get the same people in the booth together for more than a round or two, and which individuals are in the booth at any given moment seems to be the product of happenstance, rather than well-reasoned decisions. 

Pick teams of two or three casters, give each a specific role in coverage, and keep them together. I understand that an eighteen-round tournament may be too much for one group to cover, so make two different teams. Switch off every two rounds, and then reconfigure for the Top 8 so your A team is in the booth for Magic's biggest moments. From my perspective, the biggest flaw with the Reddit thread on coverage (apart from being poorly written) was underestimating the casters themselves. While I do believe that we need new blood, I also believe that every single person currently doing coverage is talented enough to succeed in the right role. 

I mentioned teams, so let's break them down. In an ideal world, here's what I want to see. First, every team needs a professional, and by this I mean someone like LSV, Reid Duke, Efro, Kibler, or PVDDR. One thing that was abundantly clear in the Reddit thread was that many high-level pros are begging for this opportunity. And we're not talking, "I played on one Pro Tour in 2009," we're talking about faces of the game. 

Second, every team needs a color person, and this is where people like Gaby, Numot, Tim, and Marshall come in. This isn't a knock against any of them as players, but their role in coverage shouldn't be to explain complex lines of play. Their job is to be entertaining, keep the conversation going, and bounce questions off the pros. Entertaining personalities add a ton to coverage, and we should always have one of these people in the booth. But the color casters should refrain from trying to explain the more technical aspects of the game, or worse yet, randomly guessing at what someone might do. 

Third, we need the insider/historian. This includes people like Ian Duke, Randy Buehler, and Brian David-Marshall. These are people who either work (or have worked) in R&D and therefore have inside knowledge of things that neither the pros nor the color casters are likely to have, or they are people who have been around the game, covering matches, creating content, and running tournaments for a long, long time, which gives them the ability to add a historical context that may be missing from other casters. It's unreasonable to expect LSV, Reid, or Kibler to talk about how "New York 2001 was the greatest Top 8 of all time," while also explaining what's happening on the battlefield in a digestible manner. It's also unreasonable to expect Gaby or Numot to have all of the Top 8s in Magic's history memorized. This is where the insider/historian comes into play. 

Finally, keep people paired up consistently. Figure out who works well together. If caster X and caster Y really click, keep them together! While having a full-time coverage team would be ideal, if Wizards can't pay for Internet in convention centers, paying a coverage team a reasonable salary is likely off the table. That said, keep good teams together as much as possible. The more the teams work together, the more chemistry they will develop. There will be less complaints about coverage in general, which is good for Wizards of the Coast. The casters will look better, and the finished product will be better for the audience. 

Cost: Free!

4. Clearly Define (and Enforce) Coverage Roles

 

While it might sound harsh, the idea of having a coverage team means that everyone in the booth can't just say anything they want at any time. I don't mean any offense to anyone, but I really believe that whoever is running the coverage of an event needs to sit down with the coverage team and say, "Here's what you are allowed to talk about." For example, I don't want a color caster trying to explain in-depth lines of play. This is the "pro's" job, and we don't need two people trying to do the same thing and stepping on each other's toes. Second, this isn't the strength of people like Tim or Gaby. Third, Marshall, Gaby, Tim, and the other color-analysis types are really entertaining, so having them focus on trying to explain technical play is a waste of their talent. 

In the same way, I don't want Tom Martell focusing primarily on being entertaining. Hearing Reid Duke on coverage last weekend led me to this revelation. I want someone in the booth who is really, really good at Magic and can explain Magic in a way that is not only digestible for new players but also enlightening for the enfranchised viewer. Now, putting this type of person into the booth isn't enough; you need to make it their job to explain Magic! Having a pro in the booth telling jokes is a waste of talent. The Rock says, let everyone know their role beforehand. 

Cost: Free!

5. Have Some Sort of Critical Evaluation 

Maybe this already happens, but someone should sit down with the casters between rounds and after the tournament to talk through not only what went well but what went poorly and can be improved. If the insider or color person was spending a lot of time breaking down lines of play, let them know! If the pro was being too in-depth and going over everyone's head, let them know! As someone who spends many hours each week talking on videos and streams, I can tell you that, at the end of a stream or video, I usually have no idea what I said. Sure, I might remember a couple of moments, but odds are I have no clue. I assume this is the same for people doing coverage at the Grand Prix or Pro Tour level. As a result, there needs to be someone on the outside who is watching and evaluating, and letting people know where they can improve! Just to be clear, Twitch chat doesn't count.

Cost: Free. Ideally, someone who is producing the coverage would be playing this role. 

6. Let the Pros Do Commentary

 

No reason to go too in-depth here—many pros are literally begging to do coverage. Plus, things like the Grand Prix cap means there are windows where even some of the game's best don't really benefit from playing in an event. While being great at Magic doesn't necessarily mean you'll be great at commentary, we've seen enough examples of pros who are very good at commentary that it's worth giving these players a shot in the booth. 

Cost: Unsure. Would it cost more to have a pro do coverage than it costs to have someone else do coverage? Probably not, but I have no idea how commentators are compensated. 

7. Put Talent in a Position to Succeed

For me, the biggest example is the "Let's have BDM run around the convention center until it sounds like he is about to keel over" segment at Pro Tours. After talking to BDM about these segments on Twitter, it became clear that he is fine and his health is not failing. The problem is that whatever microphone Wizards uses for the segment is really, really good at picking up breathing noises, which makes it sound like BDM is about to keel over. At least for me, instead of focusing on these interviews, I find myself worrying that I'm about to see one of the game's great ambassadors collapse on Twitch. Apparently, the solution is as simple as getting a different mic. While it would be nice if Wizards saw the problem and fixed it before going on air, there's no excuse for having it happen again. 

This thinking also applies to other on-air talent. Do you have someone who is really, really good at limited? Maybe they should broadcast the limited rounds. If a caster's primarily a constructed player, maybe having them analyze a draft isn't the best idea. The commentators aren't the problem. The problem is that Wizards is essentially drafting their seat poorly when it comes to coverage by miscasting the talent they do have outside of their comfort zones and strengths.

Cost: Mostly free. I mean, if the mic is making BDM sound like he is about to have a heart attack, there's probably some cost in changing the mic, but a lot of this is simply about putting the talent to the best use possible. 

8. Embrace the Game's History

I strongly believe that the Reddit thread not only took the wrong approach, but it was also misguided. As I mentioned before, I don't believe that any specific member of the current coverage team is unfit to do coverage. As for the two people called out by name—Brian David-Marshall and Randy Buehler—I want these voices on coverage. The idea of skewing commentators to be younger sounds good, until you realize how much of the game's history we'll be missing out on. One of the things that differentiates Magic from other competing games is that it has been played for 23 years and has 100 Pro Tours under its belt. Much like baseball, Magic needs to embrace its past. Hearthstone doesn't have conversations about how a current Top 8 compares to the best of all time, or about LSV's mystical run at Berlin in 2008. History (and complexity) is Magic's competitive advantage. Brian David-Marshall and Randy Buehler have an immense knowledge of the game's history, and this knowledge is invaluable to coverage. It should be highlighted. 

Cost: Free! 

9. Make the Card Overlay Evergreen

One of the biggest complaints from people about Magic coverage in general (and this holds true for Magic Online) is that viewers don't always know the cards on the battlefield. The easiest solution is to have an overlay featuring various cards. Wizards does this overlay for the Pro Tour, but it hasn't really caught on at the Grand Prix or SCG levels. 

Currently, it takes between two and three people to make the card overlay work. This means it is a significant expense, which is likely why we don't see it on the Grand Prix level. However, this begs the question: isn't there a better way? There has to be a way to make the overlay a one-person job. Watch the game; when a card hits the battlefield, click a button, and boom, you get an overlay of the card image. Better yet, perhaps there is a way to make this a zero-person job. I mean, Quiet Speculation has its card scanner program available for MTG finance purposes. Couldn't there be a way to adapt this scanner to Magic coverage? 

Another interesting suggestion from @mattystudios is an app you can pull up on your phone that will show the cards, similar to AutocardAnywhere. While this is more of a long-term idea and likely prohibitively expensive, the idea itself is awesome and takes care of a really big hindrance for getting new players to watch Magic. Even better is some sort of virtual reality (from @largebrandon) to make the experience more immersive. Imagine watching a Grand Prix and literally being able to touch the cards, or at least zoom in on any part of the board for a better look. It would be amazing!

Cost:  Between somewhat costly and very expensive. Obviously, there is an expense to the overlay and even more of an expense to an app or virtual reality program, both of which are probably no-goes in our current environment, unfortunately.

10. Fill the Gaps between Rounds with Content

This stuff all seems so simple. Anyone with a semi-successful Twitch stream has figured it out. When a round ends, putting up a blank screen with a twenty-five-minute countdown time is going to lose you viewers, especially less-enfranchised viewers. Think about it: you are some random person browsing through Twitch for something fun to watch. You click on Magic: the Gathering. You start watching, find the cards interesting and the casters entertaining, and then the round ends. Up pops a screen with some cheesy "on-hold" music and a clock telling you that coverage will be back in twenty-five minutes. What are you going to do? Click over to another game! Are you going to click back twenty-five minutes later? Probably not. 

On the other hand, if this gap was filled with some sort of relevant content, especially focused on players, fans will be more likely to stay on the channel and keep watching. Wizards already does a decent job of this at the Pro Tour level, but at the Grand Prix level, the between-round content is severely lacking. 

Cost: Minimal or free. I have to imagine that live interviews with players are free. Sitting down with some locals and asking them about the Magic scene in their city? Also free. Deck techs? Same deal. On the other hand, there's definitely a cost to producing the "Inside the ChannelFireball" or "Team EUreka House" bits we see on the Pro Tour, so we need to keep expectations realistic. That said, producing relatively high-quality filler content for a low cost is achievable. 

11. Create a Sense of Place

Magic loves the slogan, "Play the game, see the world." The problem is that the sense of place hardly ever comes across during coverage. If you are going to spend the money to bring Grands Prix and Pro Tours to exotic locations around the world, take advantage of the location! Send a crew out with one of the teams to eat some New York-style pizza while in New York, or give us a shot of the Eiffel Tower while in Paris. Have you ever watched a professional sports event? Almost every cut-away is focused on the city where the event is taking place, whether it's some random fish market in Seattle, Buffalo wings in Buffalo, or the city's skyline. In 2016, it wouldn't cost much to take some video footage of the city to splice in between rounds. Showing only the inside of an often-crowded and noisy convention center takes away from the very thing Magic is trying to sell: the ability for Magic to take you places! It's not "Play the game, see the inside of a smelly convention center." 

This goes for the actual coverage as well. The location of the event can and should be worked into the narrative. Talk about other events that have happened in the same city or state. Who won the last Grand Prix held in New York? What deck did they win it with?  What famous pro players come from the area (which could also provide some nice filler segments between rounds)? Are there some big local gaming stores that are important to the local scene? Tell us about them! 

Cost: Minimal. Yes, having a skycam from a blimp showing the convention center is probably outside of our budget, but adding a sense of place to coverage doesn't have to be expensive at all. Send someone outside with a video camera for an hour to take some shots of the location. If even this is too expensive, at least take a half hour to look up past events in the same location and work them into the coverage. Show the world that Magic is bigger than the inside of a convention center and that playing the game lets you see the world.

Conclusion

Anyway, that's all for today. This list is clearly far from inclusive, but I think it includes quite a few improvements that are either free or at least inexpensive that could massively upgrade Magic coverage. I'd love to hear some more ideas, and if there are enough good ones, we'll revisit the topic at some point in the future. So make sure to let me know how you think coverage could be improved in the comments!

As always, you can reach me on Twitter @SaffronOlive or at SaffronOlive@MTGGoldfish.com.

Update #1: It has been pointed out that we used the term "color caster" incorrectly. The main Wizards coverage person (who we incorrectly called the color caster) is the play-by-play or the host. The guest pro player is considered the color caster.
Update #2: Grand Prix New York coverage was announced to start on Round 14, but actually started on Round 10.


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