The Dilemma of Casting an Esports Grand Finals

No matter the game, whenever an esports grand finals rolls around, there’s contention as to the best approach for commentary. What is the best style of casting for the later stages of a tournament, when the audience tends to be the largest and the matches themselves tend to be the most high-level?

I don’t think there’s one true answer, because it really depends on the objective of a given tournament. Rather, I want to highlight to the esports-viewing audience what makes this such a difficult balancing act, and why commentary that does not cater to their own tastes is not necessarily bad or inferior.

The Top 8 and above matches of tournaments tend to get the highest amount of viewers. This means there are more non-experts watching. They might still be fans, but there’s a good chance that they’re not going to know the nitty gritty of the game. Things that a more experienced player and ardent viewer might recognize with little effort might fly completely over their heads. In this case, one sensible solution would be to cater to a relatively more casual audience. You might have to explain some of the more complex aspects of the game, or perhaps ignore or simplify them so that these viewers aren’t overwhelmed with information they can’t understand.

However, those final matches are also typically where the highest amount of skill is displayed between competitors. While earlier rounds might be filled with one-sided victories or lesser players making mistakes, by the time it hits grand finals there is a strong chance that the play will be on another level. If the accompanying commentary aims more for the larger, more casual part of the audience, it potentially alienates the more hardcore fans who want to know the small details. If a tournament wants to show the full depth of their game, it might be necessary for commentary to be more complex and high-level.

If going by a pure numbers game, the “obvious” solution is to aim for the larger, more casual audience, but there are a few monkey wrenches that need to be taken into account. The casual-hardcore dichotomy can be rather nebulous. Some fans who are casual might want to feel like they’re part of the hardcore audience, and the best way to give them that impression is through commentary. A “true expert” at a game probably does not need a commentator to tell them what’s going on, so they might find technical explanations tedious for the opposite reason that the casual viewer might dislike them. In that case, the dry delivery of top-level knowledge of a player like Mew2King can be more appealing, especially to fans of those players.

Depending on the game, there might be no such thing as a “casual fan.” After all, esports has a general issue with not being as obvious in terms of goals and objectives as traditional sports—compare looking at the score in basketball vs. trying to interpret who’s ahead in League of Legends without having any prior knowledge of either.

Professionalism is another factor. As esports scenes grow, a lack of professionalism might drive away new viewers, but at the same time a slick, polished product might come across as too sterile to maintain interest. Suffice it to say, different people want different things from commentary. There are so many conflicting values that some tournaments have even tried having alternative streams to cater to casual audiences, but that potentially leads to an inconsistent presentation for a tournament.

Any tournament, big or small, wants to put its best foot forward. The problem with reconciling all of these different factors is that no one commentary can possibly cover them all, not even a team where each commentator specializes in something different. Some consider play-by-play to be the most important. Others believe that emphasizing the human drama between the players is key. Others want deep analysis of every situation. Ultimately, it requires some sort of compromise, and I think it’s important to see it not as a concession or a loss of quality. Criticism of commentary is justified and should even be encouraged, but it should come with the awareness that one’s own perspective exists among many.

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The World is My Canvas, and Competition is my Art: Splatoon 2 Thoughts

The video game that has most occupied my attention lately is Splatoon 2. This comes as no personal surprise, seeing as I loved the hell out of the first one. The gameplay is mostly similar to its predecessor. The changes are mostly about quality of life. But even though both games are so similar, for some reason I find myself experimenting with the different weapons more in Splatoon 2.

My preferred weapon hasn’t changed since the first game: the N-Zap, modeled after the classic Zapper light gun from the NES. For me, t’s gone from a tool for Hunting Ducks to a jack-of-all trades tool whose relative lack of power can be made up for with smart movement and positioning. It’s also just accurate enough for me to effectively focus my fire, while still being forgiving enough to compensate for the fact that my aim is not that great. In Splatoon 2, the ability for it to quickly ink the ground synergizes well with the Ink Armor special, which temporarily lets the entire team take a few extra hits and survive. The N-Zap lets me support allies up close and from afar, and it fits like a glove. Finding the right weapon is just plain satisfying.

But much like characters in a good fighting game, the variety of weapons available, many quite different from each other, is part of the allure of Splatoon 2. Even if some weapons feel counterintuitive, there’s a certain thrill to trying to get into the right mindset for any given tool. When you’re using the Sloshing Machine, a bucket that launches spiraling volleys of ink, the focus is on using its overwhelming power and arching property to quickly kill, er, “splat” your opponent in unexpected places. Dualies are relatively short-range John Woo pistols that allow for unique evasive maneuvers. The Splat Brella is like a shotgun with as defensive shield, allowing players to pick off opponents while guarding allies.

Even weapons of the same class can be wildly different. The Dynamo Roller is the equivalent of trying to Falcon Punch everyone all the time, while the Carbon Roller focuses on mobility and turf coverage at the expense of battle strength. Sometimes using a different weapon means almost playing a different game, and every time I turn My Splatoon 2 on, I think, “Do I stick with the familiar, or try to transform my mind with another item?” Both ways are fun, doubly so when patches try to make everything worth using.

One of the major changes between Splatoon and Splatoon 2 is that the new special weapons–super moves, in other words–are significantly weaker. Where once they could flip a game upside down due to their sheer power, now they influence games in subtler, less pronounced ways. I think this might end up putting more emphasis on the main and sub weapons themselves, which contributes to weapon experimentation also being more fun.

In the end, gameplay is great, and all the modes are worth playing. My only complaints are shoddy Wi-Fi on the Switch (a common problem for the console), and the lack of the Squid Girl promotional outfit from the first Splatoon shirt.

No, really, give me my Ika Musume threads.

“Every Game Has to Be Entertaining”

I’m happy to live in a time where large numbers of people can watch competitive video game competitions. I love that fans can appreciate the skill, effort, and thought that is present in both the games themselves and the players who are vying to be #1. I’ve even grown fond of Twitch chat as the English equivalent of Nico Nico Douga’s scrolling text, for the way that it can provide a shared experience for esports enthusiasts. However, there inevitably comes a time when whatever is on streams is deemed “boring” by its viewers, and the chat starts to turn against the game. If done often enough, it can drag down the spirits of others, including those invested and excited in what’s going on who might start to be convinced by the Twitch chat that what they’re watching is indeed better suited for chronic insomniacs. What I find is that it creates this culture of expectation that demands that all competitive matches be super entertaining or else.

To be clear, some games are less exciting than others, or at least do not require as much investment into a game to get hooked on or appreciate its adrenaline-pumping qualities. Some games are more prone to slower paced matches. Almost all games will at some point have bad players fighting against other bad players, and when two players clam up and don’t do anything, then it becomes boring. However, I find the need for constant excitement to be rather unfair to esports as an entity. If we look at traditional sports, even big, exciting things like basketball or soccer, not all games are going to be nail biters, or have people jumping out of their seats.

In some cases, I think the demand for immediate gratification in terms of excitement also causes viewers to actively prevent themselves from enjoying what might be an interesting and engaging match that’s not as overtly electrifying. The Simpsons once even made a joke about this:

Compared to high-pace, high-scoring games common in the US, soccer might seem slow and full of people doing “nothing,” when in fact the strategy, as well as the ebb and flow of moving the ball back and forth across the field is something that can appeal to soccer fans who understand the game. Of course, some soccer games will also be more or less exciting than others, especially if you factor in the personal investment or national pride of something like the World Cup, but I still don’t believe that people expect every single game to be action-packed.

I think good commentary can play a significant role in helping people to appreciate both those games that are actually just boring, and those that are exciting provided you understand what’s going on. For the lower-level matches where the players aren’t quite skilled enough to show a game at its best, commentators can (and the best often do) highlight the depths of these games that these inexperienced competitors could be accessing if they brought up their skills. For higher-level matches where two titans (or groups of titans in some cases) are coming up against each other, conveying the fast-paced, involved decision-making and physicality of a match can only do good things.

Fighting game commentators should be praised in this respect, because I find that the best have been able to accurately convey tense situations that might not appear to be exciting on the surface. The best example I can think of is Grand Finals of Ultra Street Fighter IV at Canada Cup 2015. Commentators UltraChen work to emphasize that the simple act of walking back and forth in Street Fighter at the highest levels is filled with intensity:

That said, people will think what they want to think, and trying to convince them that a game is actually exciting might not necessarily mesh with how they view the very idea of “excitement.” At the end of the day, this isn’t inherently a bad thing—people should be able to hold opinions of their own on what they enjoy and don’t enjoy. This also isn’t to say that commentators should just fake hype all the time in the hopes of deceiving someone into believing that a game is exciting all the time, and in fact I believe that potentially adds to the culture of demand for excitement. Rather, what I simply want to see is everyone who loves a game, from fans to commentators, strive to grow appreciation for a game in various forms while resisting the ravenous need for action and excitement (without necessarily abandoning those factors).

Ash Ketchum and the Case of Filler Arc Character Growth

Ash Ketchum (Satoshi in Japan) is an ageless character. Whether it’s 1998 or 2017, Ash will always be 10 years old, will always be traveling with Pikachu, and will always be just not quite good enough to win a major championship. When he’s fighting through Kanto or Kalos, he won’t dominate the competition with his massively powerful Pikachu, and he’s perpetually more of a learner than a master in spite of his experience. It makes sense, because that’s how his character’s supposed to be. When he points his Pokedex at the same Pokemon for the 10th time in 10 years, it’s not because he’s supposed to be dumb but rather for the sake of a young audience who might be watching Pokemon for the first time.

Ash doesn’t always act as the impetuous rookie, and at times he’s allowed to shine as the battle-hardened veteran. Curiously, however, these mainly come when the Pokemon anime is not trying to go through its main narrative. During the filler arc that was the Orange Islands (taking place between the first and second generations of games), Ash was allowed to have a 6 on 6 battle and even defeat the Orange Islands champion. When Ash was participating in the Battle Frontier, post-game content within the context of the games, he would call upon his entire previous roster. The opening video during that arc reflected the full range of Ash’s experience by showing every Pokemon at his disposal (and even cameos by ones since released such as Butterfree). Ash eventually won the Battle Frontier, again showing how strong he was, but only within the between-games storylines.

Perhaps the biggest exception to this rule was when Ash finally got to face Gary in a full on 6-on-6 battle in the Johto League finals. The context behind this was that Gary’s Japanese actor was taking on less of a role in the series so they wanted him to go out with a bang and they succeeded. Just like his eventual Battle Frontier victory, Ash was allowed to show just how much he had learned over the years, at least for one climactic confrontation. It reminds me of how the Archie Sonic the Hedgehog comics kept running even during the years-long lull of no new Sonic games, and it was during those times that they dared to go as far as killing Dr. Robotnik. To a lesser extent, it makes me think of how during the infamous Naruto year-long filler arc, characters such as Hinata were allowed to get new techniques and grow more powerful.

I find Ash’s situation this interesting because it reflects both the realities of making an anime based on an wildly popular game and a desire to provide continuity or growth when the opportunity arises. Ash has to be eternally youthful, yet his viewers grow up and remember all of his adventures. The anime’s creators likely also have to mindful of the source material, especially as the series has grown to such international success (the earliest seasons played rather fast and loose with the rules).

What do you think of this balance? Do you wish Ash could be 20 years old by now, training atop a mountain like Red in Pokemon Gold, Silver, & Crystal?

Icons: Combat Arena and the Social Establishment of Character Archetypes

The desire to create competitive games in the vein of Smash Bros. often comes with the intent to court the existing player base for Smash Bros. Melee—the hyper-fast entry of the popular Nintendo franchise with the most storied tournament history. This is evident in the recently named Icons: Combat Arena. With its EVO 2017 gameplay trailer showing off attack animations and characters a little more than reminiscent of Smash Bros., the comparisons are more than inevitable. One of the consequences of this courtship is that, not only is the intended character roster inspired by high-level Melee play, but there is also a clear assumption from the creators of Icons that how the strongest characters have emerged from within Melee‘s environment have shaped the very foundation of the genre of the platform fighter subgenre.

The name of the studio behind Icons, Wavedash games, is by itself sufficient evidence for the team’s reverence for Smash and Melee. It’s named after the most well-known of the “hidden techniques” of Melee. The developers have even released videos over the past year detailing their design philosophy and inspirations. However, the fact that the Melee top tier is virtually replicated in the Icons roster revealed thus far is the biggest indicator of Melee‘s influence.

Take, for example, the character known as Kidd, an anthropomorphic goat character who’s also an homage to Joseph “Mang0” Marquez. One of the “five gods” of Melee, Mang0’s nicknames include “The Kid” and “The GOAT” (in reference to his numerous achievements). According to the creators themselves, Kidd is purposely patterned after the characters Fox and Falco from Star Fox, two of the top tiers. More than simply taking cues from these two, Icons considers the “space animal” to be a mainstay character archetype for platform fighters, the way that the “shoto” (a balanced character with fireball, anti-air uppercut, and horizontal movement special move) or the “grappler” are in traditional fighting games.

The positioning of the space animal as an archetype is very telling because, while there are shared qualities between Fox and Falco (the latter being a “clone” built directly from the template of the former), what really defines the significance of “spacies” to the platform fighter is their dominance in Melee and the reputation of superiority that precedes them. No character embodies competitive Melee more than Fox—his speed, incredibly good tools, difficult technical requirements, and overall role as “master of all trades” helps to define that high-pace action Melee is famous for. In other words, the reason the space animal is an archetype is because they’re so absurdly strong in that environment, a notion which extends to many of their archetypes listed by Wavedash Games in one their development vlogs:

The eight archetypes are: space animal, swordsman, speedy brawler, floaty, duo, projectile master, alternate weapon, and grappler. Of these, the first four can be found directly in Melee‘s upper echelons. The fifth, the projectile master, is arguably best seen with Solid Snake in Smash Bros. Brawl.

From 1 through 8: Space Animal, Space Animal, Swordsman, Speedy Brawler, Floaty, Floaty, Duo, Speedy Brawler

To be clear, this is not accusing Wavedash Games of lacking creativity. While certain attacks shown so far are quite obviously taking cues from Smash Bros. and especially Melee, there’s also a clear intent to innovate. Ashani the speedy brawler is supposed to be “30% familiar, 70% new.” Even so, Ashani is clearly assembled from the building blocks of Captain Falcon in Melee. This makes sense, given that Captain Falcon is arguably the most beloved Melee character due to his flashy, up-close combos, and the fact that he’s good, but not so overwhelming as to be stigmatized for it. Another Icons character, Zhurong, is a sword wielder clearly modeled after Marth (another Melee top tier).

If not for how competitive Melee turned out, it’s highly likely any of these categories wouldn’t even be thought of as archetypes in the first place.

That might seem like an obvious point. After all, why wouldn’t a genre grow based on the successes of past releases? However, I still think there’s a vital difference between how Icons defines its archetypes and how other games, including other competitive ones, have gone about it.

Look at Street Fighter, for instance. In Super Street Fighter II Turbo, the Spanish ninja known as Vega/Balrog/Claw is one of the best characters while also possessing a unique fighting style. Yet later fighting games inspired by Street Fighter didn’t consider “Claw” to be a foundational character style. They were more likely to go with archetypes that, while based on Street Fighter‘s success, aren’t necessarily based on tier lists—the Zangief-esque grappler, for example, fluctuates up and down the tier lists from one game to the next, and wasn’t especially strong in Street Fighter II. At this point in Icons, there seems to be no indication of a “Mewtwo”-esque character, possibly because Mewtwo is a low tier in Melee.

The archetypes established for Icons: Combat Arena do not come from the success of Smash Bros. and especially Melee as competitively viable games alone. They also derive from the collective Melee community’s perception of what is assumed or expected of a game that is trying to exist within not just the same world, but practically on the same city block. If Melee didn’t have the space animal or the swordsman, its history would’ve been far different, but the lopsidedness of its tier list also means that many of the characters who could’ve been archetypes are perceived as otherwise due to their ineffectiveness. For a competitive scene so firmly built on the top being home to only a handful of characters, it is arguably the best way for Icons to say, “I am familiar territory, don’t be afraid to try me.”

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Pre-Evo Thoughts: Video Games vs. Chess Analogies

Introduction: “It’s like Chess, but…”

One of the most common ways to try and explain the appeal of competitive video games is to make a comparison to chess. Starcraft is “real-time chess.” Smash Bros. Brawl players used to explain the importance of decision-making by saying the game was more “chess-like” compared to Melee. While I haven’t seen it myself, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone called Dota 2 “chess where each piece is controlled by a different player.” Making the connection is essentially shorthand for highlighting a game a “thinking man’s endeavor.”

The accuracy of the comparison is often limited to the most basic similarities, and tends to fall apart under greater scrutiny. Despite that being the case, however, I find that there is another kind of chess comparison that can open up greater understanding of how we view competition through games. Namely, if we think about not just the western version of chess, but also the many variations of chess and chess-like games that exist in the world, then it can help us understand and appreciate the unique qualities of video games that are from the same series but have differing gameplay.

As a note, I am not an expert on chess or any chess-like game. There will not be any high level examples, and most of the comparisons will be based on descriptions I’ve found from others. I’m also knowledgeable but not amazing at any competitive games I mention, so keep that in mind as well.

Chess vs. Shogi: Similar Games, Different Dynamics

Chess and shogi (“Japanese chess”) have a lot in common. Both are turn-based games played on large, tile-based boards where the goal is trap the enemy king in an inescapable situation. Both have different types of pieces, each of which have different rules for moving, with the most common pieces (the pawns) having the fewest choices and the strongest pieces being much rarer. However, there are differences of opinion as to which game is better, and they hinge on a few key elements.

The queen: chess’s mightiest warrior

Chess pieces have more freedom of movement compared to ones in shogi. Chess has two rooks and two bishops on each side, who can move as far as the board (and any interfering pieces) can take them. It has two knights who can jump in that characteristic “L” shape. And it has the queen, which can move across the board in eight directions. In contrast, shogi pieces can cover much less ground. Not only is shogi board bigger (10 x 10 as opposed to chess’s 8 x 8), but players get only one rook and one bishop, and there’s no such thing as a queen. Shogi has pieces that chess doesn’t, but all of them are much more restricted in terms of their mobility.

The gold general in shogi is extremely powerful, but no chess queen

The result of this difference is that chess emphasizes the center of the board as a major point of contention because the pieces simply have more movement options. Shogi pieces take more turns to get from one place to another, but this also means skirmishes can happen all over the board. Also, whereas the king in chess is seen as a relatively weak piece because it can “only” move one space at a time, in shogi the king is a fearsome fighter because of its relative versatility.

Example in Esports

In spite of their similarities, chess is a game where greater range and possibility of movement produces one range of play, while shogi’s shorter range per piece produces another. They’re actually different enough that a person can love one but hate the other. One can find a similar relationships in other games in the same “families,” of which I’ll be listing a couple below.

Take the Street Fighter series and the Marvel vs. series, for example. Movement in Street Fighter games are traditionally very restricted. One walks back and forth and maybe has the ability to do a small dash, but jumping is a risky commitment and the game stays very grounded. In Marvel Vs. games, however, characters can make massive leaps, fire large beams that cover most of the screen, and dismantle each other quickly. Even though they’re both fighting games, tweaking certain elements means one could be great in the former type but awful at the latter.

Even games within the same series can be as dissimilar as chess and shogi. When discussing what makes Smash Bros. Melee such a beloved game among its fans, one common reason given is “movement options.” Not only do platforms allow for vertical movement, but a plethora of advanced inputs exist for players to practice—wavedashing, dash dancing, ledge dashing, etc. Other games in the Smash Bros. franchise, such as the more recent Super Smash Bros. for 3DS & Wii U (aka Smash 4) have nowhere near as much range of movement, but small steps matter more. Melee top player Mang0 has mentioned in the past that walking (as opposed to dashing or wavedashing) is under-utilized in Melee. When looking at Smash 4, walking is incredibly common.

Is larger range of movement and prerequisite to a better game? The answer is that it’s largely a matter of personal preference, as opposed to any sort of objective standard. Take this 2007 post from the chess blog The Only Winning Move:

I do think [shogi] is probably more complex than chess …

Naturally, “more complex” doesn’t necessarily translate into “more fun” …. I much prefer Chess…. My favorite Chess game, in fact, is one of Bobby Fischer’s, which he describes as a “lightningbolt,” in which he absolutely castrates a fussy opponent who spends so much time setting up the perfect defense net that Fischer is able to just zap him with an unexpected sacrifice. That kind of thing happens a lot less often in Shogi, and this makes it less thrilling … Chess seems more integrated and elegant to me. It’s a beautiful thing in the hands of skilled player. I never get the same feeling of being in the presence of beauty watching Shogi players at work….

All the same, at the end of the day I would rather play Shogi – and that’s simply because it’s mindfood….

Chess is more fun to watch, and more fun to play for amusement. It’s a truly beautiful thing when done right – and thus better appreciated as a spectator sport. But I ultimately like Shogi better.

And Still More

If the chess vs. shogi comparison seems too simplistic in terms of how games of a similar genre can differ, keep in mind that there are many variations of chess-type games out there as well. Xiangqi (“Chinese chess”), for example, is famous for having a very explosive mid-game, as well as obstacles to get around in the form of rivers. Perhaps your preferred game resembles xiangqi more than chess or shogi.
Let’s Appreciate the Differences

Games can be “chess-like,” but it’s potentially better to bring that up relative to other forms of chess so that discussion can be more fruitful. The examples I’ve given do not map perfectly to chess and shogi, but the point is less to find a perfect analogy and more to show how games that can look the same on the surface can produce very different games that can carry different appeals to their respective player bases.

 

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Normal Girls Ascend to the Throne: School Idol Festival Perfect DREAM Project

In the world of Love Live! and its “school idol” setting, there have traditionally been stars that shine brighter than others. This is by design—in the Love Live! School Idol Festival mobile game, for example, a sharp distinction is made between “rare” characters, i.e. those based on the main eighteen characters of the franchise, and “normal” characters used to level up your stronger cards. Over time, however, the “normal girls” have increasingly encroached on that hierarchical barrier. Their artwork on the cards has improved. They’ve received special gag comics dedicated solely to them. Now, thanks to Love Live! Perfect DREAM Project, a new School Idol Festival endeavor, three of the “Normals” have crossed over to become part of an actual school idol group.

The trio in question are Osaka Shizuku (a yamato nadeshiko type in the drama club, sixth from left), Emma (a Swiss exchange student, first from left), and Konoe Kanata (a perpetual sleepyhead, second from left). Along with six brand new characters, they’re receiving the star treatment: distinct profiles with blood types and ages, more extensive details on their backgrounds, and even voice actresses to play them. They even have a school to call their own, Nijigasaki Academy, instead of just being “students at your school!” in LLSiF. It’s a major step up for characters who started off as experience fodder.

A comparison to The iDOLM@STER Cinderella Girls is inevitable. Cinderella GIrls originally began as a mobile game that expanded the number of idols dramatically, but restricting their format to something more simplistic. Over time, certain characters gained popularity, and when the Cinderella Girls anime was made, a lot of them gained voices and more firm identities. However, a major difference is that all of the later iDOLM@STER characters that began in Cinderella Girls and on were designed to be someone’s favorite, instead of having the sharp distinction between “rare” and “normal.”

Perfect Dream Project seems to be a middle point between the older Love Live! philosophy and The iDOLM@STER‘s. It’s not as if all of the Normal Girls are getting upgraded immediately, after all. This could change over time (as is implied in the phrase “and more…”), but for now only three have reached the other side, as far we know. I have to wonder if they’ll end up in a similar position as the three main girls of the Cinderella Girls anime—aspiring idols who are being thrust into a new and exciting world.

One question I have is why Shizuku, Emma, and Kanata were chosen. I have nothing against them or any particularly strong opinion, but it’s just curious that these would be the first. My initial assumption is that they’re the most popular, but that’s not necessarily guaranteed either. Do they hit upon various elements that have not yet been emphasized in Love Live!? Perhaps the unqiue appeal of Emma that, while she’s of European descent like Eri and Mari, she isn’t half-Japanese and she isn’t blonde. Or maybe they’re directly trying to compete with Cinderella Girls. Kanata’s state of constant tiredness brings to mind the master of sloth, Anzu Futaba.

I find the potential future of Love Live! to be quite intriguing. At the same time, I wonder if going too far off their original formula might lead the franchise to lose its core appeal. Having a smaller core roster to work with has its benefits. As long as Love Live! doesn’t lose sight of itself, I think this will turn into a net positive.

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