Not Ready for Prime Time

A Protoss army of slinky devastation moves in with an impressive array of armed death, and the struggling Zerg defense of gangly roaches is quickly divided and isolated by forcefields that give the overwhelming advantage in the match to the aggressor. The specifics aren’t important, and even if you know nothing about StarCraft II, you could glance briefly and see clearly that the advancing force is poised for victory. It might even be called inevitable at this point.

And then the game stops, freezes in a fixed moment in time, the data stream suddenly ended as the losing player known as Idra ejects, unceremoniously, from the game. A game that had begun with some implied taunting, and a rather blunt expletive, now ends with no sense of love lost between the players. This unceremonious disconnect is a breach of custom and propriety in a largely civil community of professional gamers. It smacks of a temper tantrum, and the sudden cessation of all action from the cacophony that came a moment before feels abrupt, strange and amateurish.

This is the Major League Gaming circuit event from Dallas, and I am watching it all happen online—my first time spent at all interested in spectating professional games. It has been a rocky event, one I’m glad I didn’t actually spend any money on. Defined in many ways by unending technical issues that have left the event more often unwatchable than not, this has been a rare stretch of stability. And the games I finally was able to watch were highly entertaining, the kind of fare I’d have liked to spend a lot more of the weekend enjoying.

Then, as commentators DJWheat and Day[9] deconstruct the strange events that had just transpired, the feed suddenly ends—the discussion literally ended mid-sentence. For a moment I think the tech has failed again, but then the site assures me, and perhaps some number of thousands of other viewers that the stream will resume tomorrow. This is how they have chosen to end their broadcast day, and I can’t help but feeling like the MLG had just rage quit in the middle of its own show. The sudden cessation of the broadcast feels abrupt. Strange. Amateurish.

E-sports remain a concept that I do not fully subscribe to as viable. The efforts struggle to establish credibility, not at all unlike how gaming itself has struggled to be perceived as a legitimate form of media. There is no comparing the broadcast of a video game tournament to that of a major sport, or even to a better analog like a poker tournament or a really fancy spelling bee.

I understand and sympathize with the logistics of broadcasting an event like this. There are a lot of moving parts involved in staging a major tournament that’s been designed to attract the highest profile gamers across the planet, and then to actually be able to deliver that kind of experience on demand. I presume this is why the MLG secured ten million dollars in new funding, to begin to take that critical next step toward legitimizing e-sports.

So the unmitigated disaster that has been the user experience for the MLG’s first major event of the year, is an eye-rolling disappointment to say the absolute, very least.

Users who tried to follow the very first games of the 2011 season were met by a site that ceased functioning altogether. Bad certainly for those, like me, with a disposably casual interest in watching games of Halo: Reach, Call of Duty: Black Ops and StarCraft II; downright offensive to the many who had dropped $10 on a pass that was supposed to be providing HD video (an effort that was abandoned entirely by the third day). The event had kicked off with a plea to get MLG trending on Twitter—event organizers should be glad they never achieved this goal, considering the vitriol that populated most #MLGDallas posts over the next 3 hours.

As if that weren’t all bad enough, efforts to reinforce the stream on Saturday and Sunday remained insufficient, and again I spent more time actually trying to connect that watching any games. This was only compounded by further issues with, well beyond MLG’s control, that impeded play at the actual event as well as any efforts to broadcast when the stream was actually working. In short: If it could go wrong in Dallas, it did.

I’m not pointing all this out as any kind of rant or screed against MLG. After all, as a brand new interested party on the e-sports scene, I don’t have a dog in this fight, but unfortunately for MLG, their efforts stand in stark contrast to the work being done by organizations such as the Korean GSL, which put on a nearly simultaneous event flawlessly. When it comes right down to it, Korea doesn’t just know how to play StarCraft, they know how to produce an event around it, stream it to watchers half a world away and make it look like something made by people who actually have experience broadcasting to an audience.

The contrast between the two is almost uncomfortable to any depth. Though it is heartening on the one hand to see that e-sports can be shown in a way that makes for good viewing, it is equally disappointing to realize that the only place that seems ready to meet the challenge is serving an overseas market, not just because they can cobble together the technology but because they are putting on a show that can appeal to a broader audience.

Where Korea’s GSL had practiced presenters, professional presentations and pyrotechnics—all the important p words that go into making must-see-e-tv—the MLG Dallas broadcast teams universally lacked even the basics of direction, cohesion or polish. The stream would go live, some things would happen, and then it would all just collapse into darkness again. I might as well have been watching well intentioned people slapping together community theater.

This is all well and good if the goal is to serve a small, niche fanbase. When all you really care about is analyzing the relative merits of a 3-gate build with fast expand that transitions into a colossus push, then you probably don’t care that the fancy trappings and slick presentation are missing. You already know who’s who and what the stakes are, because you’ve watched every shoutcast on YouTube. And if that’s the audience, then MLG can probably cobble together a broadcast well enough that meets their needs, and lounge comfortably in the longstanding obscurity of e-sports.

To stop there, however, seems like missing such a substantial opportunity. After all, if there’s one message MLG organizers can take loud and clear into their June broadcasts from Columbus, it’s that there are people ready to tune in and pay good money for a high-quality broadcast. It’s going to require hiring experienced broadcasters in front of and behind the camera. It’s going to require continued investment and corporate partnerships/sponsorships. It’s going to require a hefty investment in infrastructure. It’s going to require a complete overhaul of the technology. And it’s going to require a level of organization that begins to approach what is happening overseas.

Unfortunately, the debacle of MLG Dallas leaves me intensely skeptical that Western e-sports is remotely prepared to offer a professional broadcast experience.


Good read. I'd like to imagine that these flaws are growing pains, but MLG has been around for nearly a decade. They should really have their sh*t together by now.

My hope and suspicion is that it's just MLG that isn't up to the task. There's going to be a lot of competition in the "big ticket" foreign SC2 tournament scene this year in the form of the NASL (N. American StarLeague), an IGN league, ESL, and an expanded set of Dreamhacks. The ones that put on a quality product will rise to the top. Those with performances like MLG Dallas should either improve fast or die.

Or they will all suck. In which case we can continue watching GSL with Tastosis.

Excellent article, Sean!

I too, was very frustrated at the technical issues during the MLG feed this weekend, which, aside from presentation/production issues that you make good points about, boil down to two issues:

1. MLG doing a poor job testing/implementing a network structure that made sense for the venue.
2. Blizzard not providing a LAN (non-Battlenet required) version of the game for major on-site tournaments.

Both are quite befuddling.

Throughout it all, I think the announcers did a great job recovering and coming up with interesting things to say while all kinds of problems occurred. Props to DJWheat and Day 9 in that regard (Tasteless and Artosis are also smooth and endearing during technical issues on GSL casts).

Having listened to Day9's casts in the past, there's definitely the potential there for a good sport, but yeah. The current MLG infrastructure is crap, and feels like a get rich quick scheme.

Props to DJWheat and Day 9 in that regard (Tasteless and Artosis are also smooth and endearing during technical issues on GSL casts).

For the record, I don't think the issue is talent. I think the problem is what they are given to work with.

Elysium wrote:
Props to DJWheat and Day 9 in that regard (Tasteless and Artosis are also smooth and endearing during technical issues on GSL casts).

For the record, I don't think the issue is talent. I think the problem is what they are given to work with.

Yeah, I agree. On the other hand, maybe this is sharpening their ad-lib skills beyond what they might otherwise be. Some of my favorite parts of the MLG and GSL events are the little bits of banter.

"Why would you want to only want to walk up stairs?"

As someone who has played competitively (the level between playing for fun--gaming--and playing for money--professionally), I'm continually disappointed by MLG's attempts to be viable entertainment. Why don't they simply carbon-copy and/or hire some South Koreans, since it's much easier to steal and leach from a talented system than to build one yourself?

I've always disliked MLG. They've represented the worst kind of esports. I much preferred something like ESWC or the old CPL up until around 2004. If you wanted something with a lot more production value, though a bit odd, even the doomed CGS was more palatable. Though, having SC2 now and Day9 at this MLG event does give it some points.

Though the GSL creates some quality content, they have their own problems.

I would have been far more forgiving of their issues with their first tournament this year if we'd not heard the MLG CEO on a podcast dedicated to Starcraft 2 saying all the things that were awful last year would be fixed this year.

The nasty delays in start time on the first day of the event from last year? Still there, and even worse this year.

The stream quality/reliability issues? Still there, and even worse again than last year.

Players actually hearing the commentators and having it effect game results? Yep, still happened.

GomTV has indeed had some problems with the GSL, but they've largely ironed them out. They usually respond directly and fairly quickly to common issues. Jinro mentioned hearing the crowd ooh in the first seconds of a game and sort of knew to scout for a rush. When the tournament resumed days later people noticed they'd installed actual doors on the back of their booths to block more sound. Dreamhack had an issue or two with sound and spectator noise last year and guess what, they're building booths to isolate their players, just like the GSL's.

Does MLG learn from the mistakes already made by the other big tournaments? Nah. Let's just park our players on a stage surrounded by people and hope nothing interferes with the game results. I mean, who actually thought this would be ok? Really?

Day9 and other SC2 community celebs on the State of the Game podcast covered a lot of what went wrong with the event on this past Tuesday's cast. They go over a lot of streaming issues, and if you really look into the details a lot of the stream problems were not, at least directly, the MLG guys' fault. It was a problem with the venue's ISP and some hardware down the line that essentially killed the stream on Friday and caused both the stream instability and game lag for the rest of the event.

I can forgive them for the freak accident disaster that was the stream. But that doesn't fix the larger lack of change in other areas that are actually more vital to the competition itself.

I'll give them their Columbus, OH event in June to get their event in order.

If it's a disaster yet again, I'll be skipping their event coverage from here on out. There's too many other options out there to bother paying attention to one that continually fails to live up to their promises.

The MLG debacle was pretty horrendous. The ongoing Team Liquid Invitational and the aforementioned GSL, however, give me a lot of hope for the near future. The big money entering the scene with the North American Star League (NASL) and IGN Pro League (IPL) shouldn't hurt, either!

It should be made known that GOMtv's ongoing GSL World Championship is available for free in favour of encouraging donations to relief in Japan!

A great place to start:

Thin_J wrote:

Players actually hearing the commentators and having it effect game results? Yep, still happened.

Wow, really? Gotta watch some PGA golf broadcasts and get it together. Whisper during putts or whatever.

Stele wrote:
Thin_J wrote:

Players actually hearing the commentators and having it effect game results? Yep, still happened.

Wow, really? Gotta watch some PGA golf broadcasts and get it together. Whisper during putts or whatever. :D

They shouldn't have to whisper. It's MLG's responsibility to make sure the players can't hear the commentators while the crowd can. In Dallas they had to just mute the commentators for the crowd too, which is a pretty crappy solution.

Hence all the other major tournaments building the booths for players to play in to block out a lout of outside noise.

It just sucks that MLG's first event of the year turned out like this. I can only wonder how many first time viewers became one time viewers. It's really bad for the whole scene when an event like this gets so much attention and then turns out to be one of the biggest failures we've ever had. If Elysium had stayed up to watch the GSL WC team match instead I think we'd gotten an article about how amazing of an event that was. You want to show people this great thing (competitive SC2) so they can see with their own eyes how exciting it is, but then when you do it falls apart and you lost your chance.

About the disconnects though, that's largely on Blizzard who simply refuse to implement a LAN mode. They had connection issues to BNet during their own tournament, at Blizzcon!

Less talking and more game would be nice as well.

Sparhawk wrote:

Less talking and more game would be nice as well.

I have that complaint about every televised competition I've ever watched, sports or otherwise.

With the possible exception of Iron Chef.

Funny, I remember having this same conversation on a podcast 10 years ago, that "professional" gaming was not ready for prime time.

Funny, I remember having this same conversation on a podcast 10 years ago, that "professional" gaming was not ready for prime time.

Which is disappointing, because 10 years ago you could make some really good arguments about the technology not being there yet, but now it seems to be that people just can't get their collective **** together.

To be fair, professional gaming IS prime time in South Korea, so some people apparently do have their collective **** together - just not North Americans.

Agreed. I'm looking at this from a Western perspective. Watched the finals on the GSL last night and kept marveling at the difference.

Depending on what you're taking to be Western the ESL, Dreamhack, and IEM stuff is all pretty damn solid.

Hopefully the NASL and IGN Proleague turn things around for the States SC2 productions. I have hopes that NASL will be good as the roster is stacked and they're really emphasizing their production values.

Thin_J wrote:

Players actually hearing the commentators and having it effect game results? Yep, still happened.

I didn't witness any of the MLG debacle (only really watched GSL myself), but this sounds nuts.

I'm sorry, say again, you want me to do what with my free time now?