An open letter to Valve on the first (messy) day of its historic DOTA 2 tournament

So, it's happening. The biggest esports tournament in history by purse size started today, eclipsing some traditional sports tournaments. Hundreds of thousands - maybe millions! - of people will watch live.

And the first day was a disappointment.

The games were great; there was some real competition, a few twists, and plenty of action. But the quality of the broadcasts were unacceptable for something of this scope and stature. Valve really needs to take note and step up its game if it wants to be taken seriously by newcomers outside of its fanbase. Third-party broadcasters and announcers should also take note, but I'm putting the ball in Valve's court as the organizer of this event.

Here are some observations.

1. Technical issues

This really shouldn't be a problem, but somehow it is. The familiar cohort of announcers that cover most of the DOTA 2 tournaments have returned this year to cover the games, but it appears that they're still either doing it remotely or they brought their own gear from home. In any event, it's clear that technical details were not managed by Valve.

Today I heard:

  • Nuclear-hot microphones
  • Barely audible input
  • Echoes
  • Noise

No professional broadcaster would let any one of these out of the gate, and some of these problems persisted through entire matches. This kind of stuff has to be fixed immediately. (Edit: I recognize this playoff phase includes qualifying teams and is not part of the "main event," so conditions may change as the LAN phase begins. I hope.)

2. "Beginner's" Broadcast

This year, Valve is conducting a "multicast" with several live streams of all the various games that will be happening. One of these streams is new this year and is specifically designed for beginners. It's a really, really great idea, but lacking in execution. The beginner's broadcast was filled with jargon and a lot of the same kind of conversation in the main broadcast. Future beginner's broadcasts should strive for a much better balance.

Suggestions:

  • Announcers should develop a basic script to exploit as the game progresses. A beginner's broadcast should revisit some of the same topics at specific points (the draft phase, the beginning phase, midgame, etc) to explain the game's core mechanics. Assume that every game - or at least every few games in a packed day - you are getting a brand new person who's never seen a game of DOTA and needs a very basic primer on how the game works - as basic as what DOTA is, how a MOBA works, what "lanes" and "ancients" are, and the game's primary objectives.
  • Find a friend or family member who has never seen a game of DOTA and have them watch a rebroadcast. Note every time they ask you what a piece of jargon like "ulti" or "farm" or "creep" means. The beginner's broadcast used DOTA jargon, and even video game jargon, too liberally. Use metaphors and analogies to convey concepts. This is a crude example, but if we imagine DOTA is like a game of chess, the draft phase is like each team picking which pieces they get to have on the board before the game begins.
  • Use the drawing ability more liberally to highlight important places. In a Liquid vs. MVP match, the announcers had a great segment explaining the difference between Observer Wards and Sentry Wards. More bits like this would be very useful.
  • Practice explanations of heroes and other concepts. It's obvious that announcers on the broadcast were explaining things on the fly, and it's very confusing to hop around quickly between concepts or to backtrack. For instance: if you're explaining Sand King, don't do it over the course of 20 minutes and keep revisiting the subject. Explain the hero's background, basic strengths and weaknesses, and give a *basic* overview of its abilities. Again, try to minimize jargon here (AOE, right-click, etc.). Find ways to explain what the hero does without relying on technical terminology.

3. Style and substance

I've had a big gripe for a long time with DOTA 2 broadcasts, and it's particularly noticeable on the big stage. In short, announcers are generally poor at balancing analysis with play-by-play information. In a game like DOTA 2, it's easy to see why: the possibilities in any particular match, and the game in general, are impossible to comprehend. Unfortunately, this leads to a lot of on the fly speculation by announcers that's often repetitive, uninteresting, or pointless. "Well if Dendi does this, X could happen, but no, maybe he should do Y - but then he'll have to deal with Z." This kind of commentary is overwhelming and unnecessary and even in regular non-beginner's broadcasts should be kept to a minimum.

Announcers should focus on the most important analysis; play-by-play information is generally more interesting to follow. Announcers can also borrow the playbook of the traditional sports broadcaster and fill space with other details, like information about players or teams. A little off-topic banter is okay, too.

Some other thoughts:

  • Unwanted phrases, like "rape," "base rape," etc, should be eliminated. You don't hear NFL announcers saying that the Giants raped the Eagles. It's juvenile, disgusting, and should not be present in a professional broadcast.
  • By the same token, excessive cursing doesn't sound great. I don't mind it, but it will turn away some of the broader audience and make the sport seem juvenile.

4. The Camera

Right now it appears that one of the game's announcers (or both?) control the in-game camera. This is a terrible idea. Instead of focusing on commentary, the announcer is forced to jump all over the map. Broadcasts end up looking very inconsistent and are sometimes even nauseating when the camera operator decides to warp all over in a frenzy.

Valve's automated AI camera director is actually much better than any human operator I've seen. Its choices may not be perfect, but the camera's focus and movement is much easier to watch.

Camera operators should also take more advantage of the bird's eye view.

Finally, Valve should consider a specialized broadcast interface that gets rid of the traditional UI in favor for a scoreboard-like interface with contextual animated popovers. The in-game UI looks tacky in a broadcast.

Final Thoughts

I'm very excited to see what happens to DOTA 2 throughout this tournament and beyond. I hope Valve recognizes the opportunity to make something truly special and compelling by infusing the technical portions of the tournament with some desperately needed professional polish. A huge prize purse is a great hook, but it's the details that will really sell the show.