Wednesday, June 26, 2013

My take on Magic Coverage

"Why do you watch that stuff?"
This was the one of the first things my SO said to me when she found me watching coverage of some Magic Grand Prix or Pro Tour (I can't remember which). While fully supportive of my hobby, she does not understand why I, as a fan of the game and a player, would want to watch.
In the wake of John Butler's series on improving Magic coverage, I have been thinking more and more about this simple question, both as it applies to me and the Magic audience at large. I wanted to hold off on voicing my opinions until after all four pieces had been published, but sometimes words just need to come out. 
First off, I am no expert when it comes to marketing or branding. I do not work as a data analyst. My job in higher education is to provide co-curricular experiences that help to develop a student in a non-academic manner. We do assessments, we revise plans, and we tinker with what we have until it works. I am coming at this not from an expert perspective, but rather someone who plays Magic, watches Magic, is a fan boy of high level play and a student of the history of the game, and a Magic writer.

Why I follow coverage
I'm a fan. I have been a baseball fan as long as I can remember and enjoy watching the nuances of the game. Once I started understanding the subtleties of hockey and American football, my enjoyment of those sports increased dramatically. My knowledge of Magic is deeper than any of those sports so watching players who are better than me play is a chance for me to better understand the game. Watching Magic allows me (and I imagine others) to play the game without actually playing. When the sequence goes differently from the one in my head I have to ask myself "why did s/he do that?" and it prompts me to get better.
I follow Magic because I like the story lines. I've seen many of the current crop of "best players" rise through the ranks and recognize names from events gone by. I also like watching these players compete on a level I believe I could achieve (if I gave up many other things in my life) but am not willing to do so. Watching people I have invested fandom in win is rewarding, much as watching the Mets eke out a victory is rewarding. It is much easier for me to be a fan of high level Magic play because there are no teams (in the major league sports sense), just great players.
I watch because I want to see what other deck builders put together. I watch to be inspired to brew new decks and write new articles. I consume media because I produce it. One of my more successful and well received articles this year is a direct result of me following the coverage of Pro Tour: Gatecrash.
And these are just some of the reasons I watch coverage. What are the reasons you watch it? Once we all understand why the community watches Magic coverage, we can have a better idea of the directions coverage needs to go.

Who coverage is for
How did you get into Magic? I saw friends playing the game on the ground at recess during fourth grade. If I had the ability to just tune in to the internet back then and watch Magic, I don't know if I would care. 
Watching my friends, I saw the cards and the art, and I saw they were having fun. Do you know how rare it is to turn on high level coverage and see people having fun? Sure, to an invested person, it might be apparent, but the emotions I most witness on coverage are stress and relief. 
I am not saying things cannot be done to coverage to cultivate fans, but without setting it up so people are actually playing the game and wanting to come back and play again, it is hard to create a fan, in my opinion.
GPs and PTs should be broadcast, but these should not be the only tools used to cultivate brand new fans. There needs to be more. Much like baseball coverage does not divulge the rules constantly (only in complex situations) neither should Magic coverage. Explaining what a 1-4-3 double play is every time gets old- people pick it up or will research what it means on their own.
I know this is not the best comparison since it is much easier to understand the base concept of a sport ingrained in culture than Magic. It is not perfect, and I recognize that.

My ideas for coverage
Can we all just agree to pretend we will have enough money to do all these things? Good!
Pro Tour/Grand Prix/high level event coverage should resemble coverage of the NCAA Final Four. To me, CBS Sports has it right. There is a home page with important statistics (which could include standings, pairings, list of Hall of Famers playing, format rules, match scores, etc.) with links to all the current games. Every feature match (4 for PTs, 2 for GPs) would have their own feed and their own duo of commentators. This would cut down on the awkward back-and-forth and pauses for camera set up and allow the booths to focus on one match at a time. It also allows a feature match to be used for something other than matches amongst the top players. Table four could be the Rogue Table (aka the Conley Woods VIP seat) or the table tracking a player in his/her quest to make Gold/Platinum for the next year. Or maybe one table could be for someone who got here via a PTQ. Having multiple tables  opens up the possibilities on what could be shown and does not make viewers a slave to a bad match.
Post-Match interviews. I do not mean right after the match, although that is fine, and I do not mean with just winners. If one of the reasons people watch coverage is to get inside the mind of the competitors, have and area off to the side where players have to answer questions (either from coverage people on site or cultivated/screened from twitter) about the match. Yes, it might create some awkward Greg Popovich, Bill Belichik, or John Tortorella moments, but it helps to create a connection between player and viewer. 
More Pros in the booth. This is obvious, but is hard to achieve. If a high level players is not qualified and has shown a deep level of understanding, fly them out and have them be the "coverage pro" for the event. It requires a cultivation of talent, but we cannot rely on having LSV miss top 8s.
Pre-record vignettes. Between matches and rounds there is often a large amount of time when there is just talking. Sometimes there will be a segment done in front of the screen that feels thrown together/ Recording some of these in advance would allow for some of the "ums" and "ahs" to be edited out and give the hard working coverage people a much needed break.  This can't replace everything (like Zac Hill's awesome play analysis), but it could help to fill up a long day. 
Turn into a channel, not coverage exclusive. This is the most ambitious part of my ideas. Rather than only have the channel on during events, have it on constantly. Have a regularly airing highlight show (a la Sports Center) recorded once a week that goes over the big events in Magic for the past week. Have Tuesday (for example) be Learn to Play day, where instructional videos are shown all day.  Air Walk the Planes and Friday Night's marathons. Have retrospective shows with commentary like NFL Films where you can recount the ten greatest top decks or all time or the greatest matches. Have Hall of Fame day where you just air the greatest matches on camera from the careers of different Hall of Famers. By turning the channel into something constant (and using old content) you can constantly expose people to the history oft he game and help them get up to speed as to why, say, Jon Finkel, is the greatest of all time or why they should care about PVDDR. Fewer talking heads, more replays, like mid-90s ESPN.

These are just my ideas, from my perspective. They are not perfect- they do not take into account the fact that Magic is a global game with non-English appeal and coverage is not confined just to my time zone. It does not deal with player/fan acquisition directly. Mr. Butler has some good ideas (although I wish his articles were shorter) and some not as good ideas. I also fully believe that the people who manage coverage at Wizards of the Coast know the direction coverage will take and are constantly working to make it better. The speed of criticism is faster than the speed of action, sadly. 
I 100% believe coverage will get better. These are just the ways I would like to see it go. Let me know what you think, because I am not every Magic player.

Thanks for reading,

1 comment:

Alexander Carl said...

Great analysis. Some of these changes would take a lot of money, but others would not. In particular, I like the idea of the post game interview--you can ask the player, while it's fresh, why they blocked a particular way or used their burn spell. With a small tweak you could even do interviews between games--how could would it be to discuss sideboarding strategy and expectations for next game?

One of the problems with coverage is that, frankly speaking, a lot of matches are boring. Mulls to 5. Manascrew. Unbalanced matchups. The coverage team should ensure that there is a compelling match on the screen at nearly every moment of the broadcast. Whether this is achieved through self selection (the CBS Final Four model) or by having a more active producer and access to more content is an open question, and will depend on cost and infrastructure. But one of the reasons I stay away from live coverage is because so many matches are dull; I prefer to watch pre-recorded SCG matches because I can skip over the less compelling content. Too much dead time in live coverage.

Finally, I love the idea of highlight reels and classic matches. I think Butler would say you don't want those on the premier channel but on a second channel, and he's probably right. But find a way to show, over and over again, the best moments in magic history and you will build and sustain a fan base.