CBS Sports fumbles its first attempt at videogames coverage

Yesterday at noon, CBS created history by being the first major network to air coverage of a videogaming tournament. The results were underwhelming. The coverage ran at noon on Sunday, not exactly a prime time slot. The two lead-in programs at 11:00am and 11:30am were paid infomercials. The first infomercial was for a tome of medical knowledge that supposedly contains cures that “they don’t want you to know about”, while the second infomercial was for a scam product called Light Relief that, according to them, cures just about every ailment simply by shining light from LEDs in the portable device onto your skin. They say it’s used by Navy SEALs in the field, so it must work! These two infomercials didn’t leave me with high hopes for the quality of the videogame coverage. Can we get some better lead-ins the next time, please?

The broadcast included coverage of three different games, Guitar Hero II, Fight Night, and World of Warcraft. The coverage of each consisted of showing a single match (some of which contained multiple rounds) between the two top teams after a long series of unaired qualifying rounds. Guitar Hero and Fight Night were 1v1 events, while World of Warcraft was 3v3.

The Guitar Hero coverage was thoroughly uninteresting. Two nerds alternated prancing across the stage, strumming away on ridiculous miniature plastic guitar peripherals. It didn’t look cool at all, but they acted as if they were rock stars. I’ll admit, they were good at the game, but I just didn’t care. I’d much rather watch real live concert footage with musicians that are actually making music. I couldn’t help but laugh when one of the two contestants smashed his guitar peripheral on the floor of the stage after a particularly difficult song. The way it crunched up rather than shattering into pieces was most unsatisfying. And then, after their “performances”, the two players were judged by a panel of three, each judge responsible for one area like “Style” or “Technical Skill”. One contestant ended up beating the other, 28-27. Yawn.

The Fight Night coverage was even worse. The game is a “realistic” boxing simulation, and as such, it shows two fighters on screen with no displays indicating health or anything else (although the way the boxers jerk around during combat is really artificial-looking). Thus it was pretty impossible to figure out what was going on or who was winning. At the end of four rounds, either one of the boxers fell down and couldn’t get up, or the judges called it for the winner of the most rounds, or something. I couldn’t have cared less. It didn’t help that each round was introduced with a stare-down, with the two opponents donning boxing gloves (???) and getting about an inch from each others’ faces and staring. One contestant was a skinny black nerd and the other was a fat white nerd. Not only that, but they were friends in real life. The stare-down had about as much intensity as a basket full of Hello Kitty dolls.

I was hoping I would enjoy the World of Warcraft coverage, but alas, it was lacking as well. The only camera view they used was direct video capture of the participants’ screens. This made it very hard to figure out what was going on, especially with all of the numbers and icons coming from the players’ battle interface mods that were streaming across their screens. The announcers didn’t seem to do a particularly good job of explaining overall strategy. They were mostly reactive, simply stating the obvious like “Oh no, this player just got cornered by all three members of the opposing team and he’s about to die.” Thanks Einstein. How about next time you explain how it was that he was maneuvered into such a disadvantageous position?

The coverage of the event was pretty much exactly what you would expect if you told someone to go cover the event on a minimal budget. No effort was made at all to make it suitable for television broadcasting. Watching video capture from Fight Night or World of Warcraft just doesn’t really explain what’s going on. I couldn’t really puzzle out what was happening in Fight Night, though I’ve never played that game. More embarrassing for the broadcast, however, was that I couldn’t even puzzle what was going on in World of Warcraft, despite having significant experience with the game. They should have used a modified version of Fight Night that actually showed how much damage the players were taking and where. That way the announcers could have been more analytical. Sports fans love data and statistics (just try watching a football game), but in the one “sport” where it would make the most sense, videogaming, it was curiously absent. Unlike other sports, you wouldn’t even have to have a human tabulate the statistics — you can just modify the games to do it for you.

The World of Warcraft coverage really needs to be re-thought-out. Given that it was broadcast on television to (theoretically) millions of viewers, they could have gone to more effort to produce good video. They should have recorded the battles with a data capture program rather than a video capture program. That way they could replay the battle later when they were creating the broadcast, getting the best possible camera views and bypassing the unhelpful and confusing (to viewers) interfaces. The hardware they used to make the videos they aired wasn’t even top notch. It suffered from slowdowns, jaggy graphics, dropped frames, and poor frame rates. It was pathetic, and utterly unworthy of being aired on television. By capturing the battle data, they would be able to re-render the scenes later on with an improved version of the engine that delivers top-notch quality, because it wouldn’t have the restriction of being rendered in real time. That would get the World of Warcraft fans tuning in: seeing the same kind of battles they fight daily, but rendered in an amazing, breathtakingly beautiful way that their own computers could never come close to. You could get FMV quality out of it.

The World of Warcraft coverage also suffered from a lack of a strategic view of the match. The announcers would repeatedly say that one team member had been chased down and isolated, but it just seemed like it was happening randomly, rather than being something that was planned. The coverage emphatically needed some kind of overhead schematic view of the entire arena showing where the players were. Think about football: they have the up-close views of the hike at the line of scrimmage as well as the far-out perspective views showing the entire field and every players’ position on it. Now imagine trying to stomach watching football if the only view you ever saw was the up-close view. That’s what the World of Warcraft coverage was like. It was claustrophobic, confusing, and impossible to really figure out what was going on other than seeing that the various players were wailing away on each other.

So, given the quality of this broadcast, I don’t think I’ll be tuning in for future broadcasts. At least not until they get their act together. This one was just a waste of my time. It is possible to do this right, to produce something that is genuinely interesting to watch (at least for gamers). But they totally missed the mark.

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