Casting Tournaments: A Learning Process


As a prelude to this post, I'd like to point out it's the first one on the website so far, and may not be formatted optimally for your fragile eyes. If that's the case, I apologize; I'm just very eager to finally get something up on here, and the topic at hand is one that I've been mulling over for a while now: tournament casting. So let's get into it!


As you may have noticed (or not), I have been invited to cast a few tournaments over the past year. From my "kick-off" in Hearthlytics and Battle of the Best, followed by the Kinguin Pro League and a few smaller gigs leading up to the recent Archon Team League Championships, I can say one thing: I've been having a blast. Somehow, like most Hearthstone-related things, I didn't think I'd become involved in commentating. When I made my first YouTube video in 2013, I had no intent of maintaining a long-term content flow on the channel, yet people were interested enough that I kept at it. I didn't intend to stream at first either, but a friend convinced me to stream "for the lulz" in Closed Beta, and I still do it to this day. Likewise, casting wasn't something I had in mind; rather, I was approached to commentate a tournament and, since it sounded fun, I accepted.

This post is more of a "report" on my experience so far than anything else. If you're looking for a "How-To: Cast Videogamez", this isn't the resource you're looking for! But I hope you enjoy it nonetheless.

1. SELF-AWARENESS

"Why the hell did I just say that? Can we just rewind 5 seconds?"
- Typical caster thought

The nature of Hearthstone casting is very unique; the pace is slow and the casters' role isn't simply to follow the action and describe it. If you've watched other games being cast, the emphasis is primarily on the action; Starcraft, DOTA, League of Legends, WoW Arena are all arcane to new viewers and, for the most part, almost impossible to understand and follow unless you have prior experience with the games. Hearthstone is unique in that way due to its pacing. This requires the involved commentators to not only understand but capitalize on this distinction.

I was probably horrible at first; I don't have the VODs anymore, but I clearly remember the hundreds of times where I asked myself "Why am I the guy they asked to cast this?" After all, there were a great number of much better players, all of which would've probably been able to offer more insightful commentary than me. It was all a bit confusing, and even scary since I'd be exposing myself to an audience that would, without a doubt, tear me apart if I made a mistake. Unlike a personal stream where goofing about is acceptable, commentating someone else's event and messing up affects a much wider network of people than yourself. In an odd way, commentators have the potential to ruin viewers' enjoyment of an event and are therefore partially responsible for its success. After each event, I was afraid that someone would end up taking the brunt of my eventual fuck-ups. I wanted to become more competent and I took it more seriously then.

After each session, I'd search for feedback and read it, negative or otherwise. The positive comments were there, but giving yourself a slap on the back and ignoring your shortcomings is no way to improve. So I dug through the negative feedback, and believe me when I say that there were a lot of harsh words which sometimes hit their mark. However, if I ignored the form and focused on the content (of which there was sometimes none), I could generally understand the criticism and, from there, figure out whether this was something I'd be able to address in the future.

One of the most frequent criticisms had to do with my voice and attitude, which were often brought up alongside one another; on the other hand, the comments about the irrelevancy of my commentary were often met by other people who said the exact opposite. It's hard to decode what the actual message is when you're getting contradictory feedback, so the best I could do as far as the complaints about the content of my commentary was to try to take more time before speaking.

As far as those who simply disliked my personality, the feedback was often packaged in a way that forced me to deconstruct it. Example: "When I see Noxious is casting, I just turn the stream off. His voice annoys me so much I can't stand him."

At first glance, there's not much to it. Reading this, it seems like there was probably nothing I could do. After all, it's my voice; I can't suddenly change my voice type to a smoothy and silky baritone, right? Right, but there's more to one's voice than its natural inclinations. The vocal range of anyone is wide enough not to be forced into higher pitches, and it certainly didn't help that I never kept my excitement in check, though. If you've watched any of my content, you have a vague idea of just how easily excited I can get when stuff happens. I just had to be calmer about it, and the bulk of the problem would probably fix itself. Mind you, I still get excited now but less extravagantly than before, which leads to less squealing and a lot more relaxed experience.

I've also learned that dead air can be a good way to reset a casting's pace. After ramping up to excitement repeatedly, the speed of the commentating can need a quick reboot in order not to become overly frenetic. Overall, I think I've become easier to listen to and less grating on people's ears. I still occasionally flashback and go crazy again, but it's the exception more than the rule.

Self-awareness goes a long way when you really want to get better.

2. GAME KNOWLEDGE

"Hunters go face, Patrons cheat, Priests are thieves, and Shamans roll dice."
- Knowledgeable caster

Now, that's a broad topic.

Not every caster needs to know everything about the game. All of them need to have a good grasp of the bigger picture, certainly, but each caster has their own strengths and blind spots. Since we usually have at least two commentators on any given event, it's ideal that they complement each other on some level. I often hear that there are two types of casters: analysts and entertainers. I think this is a very binary way to look at individuals who are commentating. As a general rule, casters will have a solid grasp of game mechanics, but that doesn't mean they're "either funny or knowledgeable". In my eyes, the entertainment and knowledge spectrums are rather separate; there are very knowledgeable casters who also happen to be entertaining, and very dry personalities who also happen to be average or bad at the game.

This is such a subjective evaluation that I've been categorized as both, and more. Some people tell me I am entertaining and have good insight, where others find me unfunny and clueless. These are binary "all positive" or "all negative" opinions, but the nuance is what I'm interested in, because I think it usually helps you determine what your casting personality is. For instance, rarely am I ever described as "boring yet insightful"; rather, people tend to find me "entertaining but not particularly knowledgeable". As a result, I know I need to work primarily on my game knowledge, which is important in order to stay relevant.

This point is one that I've had to struggle with since the earliest days of Hearthstone. For someone who's as involved in the wide Hearthstone scene as I am, you'd assume I would have kept myself informed of the state of "the metagame" at every stage of Hearthstone's development. However, I'm not a tournament player. I know the archetypes, broad and specific, and I know what "tech cards" people include in their decks and for what reason. I have a decent understanding of decks and their win conditions; their game plan is clear to me, and their general playstyle always felt intuitive. When someone talks about a deck, I can probably recall it from memory along with some of its iterations.

I know the classes and their respective decks, and I understand the way they relate to one another in terms of win rates; I love learning about a deck's strengths and weaknesses in a broad sense, as it helps me categorize it on the wide, cycling map that is "the metagame". Looking at player line-ups and their relative strength is something I find really compelling and, probably more than anything in Hearthstone, I love looking at ALL the decks and how they interact with each other. I've always had a tendency to care more about the "big picture" than the details...and I think it very often shows

In fact, it's a big weakness of mine when I'm involved in a game instead of watching it. Whereas I may enjoy learning about the "macro" scale of Hearthstone, games are played in the realm of "micro". When a game kicks off, I immediately get lost in the branching possibilities. What to mulligan in every matchup, and why? How likely is it that going all-in on a Velen's Chosen play will work out? Do I play Shadow Word: Pain on this Mad Scientist or am I going to run into a Knife Juggler? And if I do, is it better to simply drop a Dark Cultist now to try to trigger the Trap, or do I just wait to get a greedy Holy Nova later because he might play a Bow and get an extra charge? In the mind of a typical tournament player, these decisions are probably somewhat clear-cut because they've gone through that scenario countless times.

In my less experienced head, possibilities just keep branching needlessly. I can't help it; once I get started on that Shadow Word: Pain on Turn 2, I'm already worrying about the Savannah Highmane that might come out on curve and how I might want to save the Shadow Word: Pain to trigger Wild Pyromancer alongside a Power Word: Shield to clean up Hyenas. Or, hey, that Shrinkmeister in the deck? I could keep it too in case Houndmaster comes alongside another Beast 5 turns down the line. It's probably irrelevant to even consider, but these useless trains of thought impose themselves. I repeatedly make mistakes "now" because I can't filter out all the meaningless "thens" and end up overthinking myself into a rush and horrible plays. I am the absolute antithesis of a competitive player, and I know it.

That's where being a caster has been a relief for me; the stakes are lower, and I can take my time to go through the players' options without getting sidetracked by irrelevant possibilities. It deepened my understanding of the game more than playing it would have, and I now appreciate Hearthstone even more than I previously did. By watching matches between some of the best players in the scene, I feel like I'm a small part of the experience. As I gradually became more comfortable commentating, I found it easier to empathize with the players' perspective and understand their lines of play.

Commentating both taught me the game and made me love it more.

3. CRITICIZING AND EXPLAINING

"What on Earth did I just watch?"
- Perplexed caster

Albeit Hearthstone is no Magic: the Gathering, it has become more complex over time as more and more variables have entered the game. As more cards are released in the future, the complexity is likely to increase alongside the size of our collection. This has many implications of course, but one of them is that it's becoming less likely that a given line of play during a match is statistically correct given the amount of possibilities. I can't stress this enough.

A good example is that of Equality. When facing off against a Paladin player in this post-Grand Tournament environment, it's assumed that you will only run into a single copy of Equality. When you've seen the first one, you can often overextend safely without fear of being punished with another complete board clear. However, that's obviously an assumption and nothing more. Does it mean you should play it safely and slow down your play to accommodate for a second Equality and give up the potential for a crushing board advantage, or that you should play aggressively to capitalize on the opportunity? The decision varies based on the players involved, and this is I think where commentating can go wrong.

Typically in Hearthstone, casters have the gift of perfect information; we know player's hands as they develop, and we know what someone ought to not be playing into. However, they need to assume their opponents could be holding a much wider range of cards, and consequently play around things that may or may not even be in their opponent's hand. If a Druid player smashes a Darnassus Aspirant on the board on Turn 5 and clears your board, does this mean he's ramping to a 7-drop next turn or that he has no better option? The threat of Dr. Boom, Ancient of Lore or Ancient of War can be enough to make someone expend a precious removal tool to get rid of the Aspirant. From our caster and viewer perspective though, we can incorrectly label these moves as "misplays", but a little bit more analysis would have shed light on the reasoning behind the play.

Having often been in the position of the listener rather than the commentator, I've been able to self-correct through realizing what I liked and disliked about certain casting styles. I understand better now why it not only can be erroneous analysis to call a given move a "misplay", but I also relate to how detrimental it sounds to the entire viewing experience. I've toned down my own tendency to call misplays, but this isn't to say that there aren't clear mistakes being made at times and that you should defend them. Rather, I make a conscious effort to stay mindful of easy-to-fling criticism since I've come to realize that positivity is largely underrated in this era of cynical, elitist gaming attitude.

Explanations are harder to come by, but they're also a lot more interesting, even when speculative; whether or not your explanation is accurate can't be "tested" without asking the players themselves. At times, what seems like an explanation or justification may seem way off, or simply wrong. For instance, a player with a Haunted Creeper in hand up against a Warrior may opt not to play the card before his opponent equips a Death's Bite; this would guarantee that the ordering of Deathrattle triggers leaves two extra 1/1s alive at some point for the Warrior to deal with. From the viewer's perspective, it might seem as though the player is opting not to develop his board to deny Frothing Berserker, Acolyte of Pain, Armorsmith or Grim Patron triggers. This certainly would be a side-effect of the play, but in this case it wasn't the reason behind the player's decision. But it doesn't matter: an explanation is better than none.

Truth is, casters don't have to be right, they are there to accompany the viewers while the event is ongoing. It took me a long time to understand that, but I consider it a lesson learned. Regardless of whether or not you're correct, an explanation or the suggestion of one moves the commentary forward positively and brings constructive points to the talk. In contrast with a systematic and critical deconstruction of a player's decisions, I think the clear winner will often be a middle ground leaning heavily towards the explanatory side.

There are ways to frame mistakes in a humanizing way, and a positive attitude trumps a negative one.


CLOSING THOUGHTS

There's a long road ahead before I listen to myself and think there's nothing left to work on, but that's no reason to stop doing it. I frequently wish I was better able to articulate my thoughts or, in some cases, keep them in check. As productive as it may be to try to fix your flaws however, I think there's a point where it's fine to look at yourself in the mirror and feel some sense of happiness about what you've done.

It helped that I cared about improving, I assume, because there always seemed to be another opportunity for me to get involved, small or large. I like to think that I progressed as a commentator, and if anything I can at least say that I feel a lot more comfortable doing it now than I did then. The caster role is one that I'm happy to occupy in the community, and I hope my passion keeps me going forward.

And as usual: may the fun, and the luck, be with you!


About Author Noxious

Noxious