The Caster Meta

BY Andrew Miesner / July 10, 2016

By Simon “Sottle” Welch

Recently Frodan posted a thought provoking article on the state of Hearthstone casting, which you should read before delving any deeper into my response. Before I even get started I want to echo Dan’s sentiment that this is in no way a call out to any individual caster, or to the casting pool as a whole. This is introspective as much as it is extrospective. Furthermore, while Dan has earned the right to make this sort of analysis through years of work and experience, I, resoundingly, have not. So take everything I say with a pinch of salt.

The general sentiment of what he wrote is that casting in Hearthstone has fallen too deep into a comfort zone of high energy, positivity, and fluff/filler content, and fallen too far away from actually analysing the game in an insightful manner. Despite being someone that has moved away slightly in style from the latter towards the former, I do agree, but allow me to elaborate.

Frodan with the HCT Spring European competitors.

In the early days of my casting career, I went IN. I went in hard. I did not care who I offended or who I alienated. I had basically zero regard for player egos or whether or not the viewers would agree with me over the more popular personalities I was criticising. All I cared about was the integrity of the game and my conviction that a particular line a player took was incorrect. While this style helped me make a name for myself in the early days, I also faced heavy criticism for it. For every tweet or Reddit post I received telling me I was a breath of fresh air, I received one asking “who the hell are you to be telling [insert top player here] how to play?” On top of this I received advice from prominent community members who told me that even though they personally enjoyed my style of casting, it would end up burning bridges in the long run.

While the abrasive style was working for me to an extent, it wasn’t until I started working on the technical side of casting that I started to be hired to do bigger events. I can’t speak with any factual basis as to why, but I can guess that I was viewed as too risky, too dry to the average viewer and too likely to say something controversial. And yes, believe it or not, there is a technical side of casting, and it’s probably a huge reason why your favourite caster is your favourite caster. Frodan for example has an incredible delivery, his voice is warm and welcoming, but also authoritative when needed. He understands when to ride the energy of a broadcast and when to create it himself. He can effortlessly make transitions between different broadcast elements and is outstanding at both integrating himself into, and leading a conversation. These are things that come naturally to some people, and less so to people like me. These are the skills that lead to the criticism that casters are homogenised and all sound the same, but I personally believe they’re essential to the quality of an overall broadcast. They’re not things that you pick up on naturally as a viewer, but subconsciously, these are the things that are keeping you engaged.

superjj on the casting desk.

So, to address the first of Frodan’s points: “Casters, Be More Honest; Players Be More Open Minded” – Yes, I agree entirely. But I would also add two points to this. Firstly, production teams and tournament organisers needs to do the same. There are a lot of fantastic analysts out there who are not given the opportunity to show their stuff on the big stage because these events tend to favour the people that have been doing this for a long time, the familiar voices that everyone is used to. Competition is fantastic in any industry and the Hearthstone Championship Tour Caster Search initiative has been a huge positive for Hearthstone casting as a whole because it has introduced so many new voices, not only to the viewers, but to other casters themselves. When there are more voices with different styles, different knowledge bases, and different experiences, not only is there a greater pool to allow us all to learn from each other and improve together, but the competition for spots is higher meaning that we all individually have a fire lit under us to improve and be the best we can be. Secondly, honesty and positivity are not mutually exclusive. As I mentioned, I do think that presentation is a huge part of successful casting, or more generally, a huge part of communication in general. One of the reasons why Firebat has found himself in a position of receiving great acclaim as a caster in recent months is that not only does he have excellent game knowledge, he also has a great ability to condense complex points into layman friendly terms, and knows how to use his voice to accentuate these points and to make sure he grabs the attention of the listener. We, as a team can be more critical of plays without losing any of the atmosphere that Hearthstone has cultivated as a scene. The game, and the broadcast is supposed to fun, and that atmosphere is important. The balance is extremely difficult to find, and it’s very possible that I as much as anyone have gone too far in the other direction. While I don’t think for a second that Frodan is advocating a departure from the happy-go-lucky Tavern atmosphere entirely, I simply want to re-iterate the point that there is much more to successful casting than just talking sense about the game.

Of course none of this so far detracts from Frodan’s core point, that’s there’s room for more high level analysis. So why isn’t there more of it? Part of it is the fear from casters that too much heavy analysis will stray too far from the established dynamic of Hearthstone broadcasts, and sure, some of it is a lack of knowledge on our part, but before we delve too deep into the solutions to these problems, let’s address a couple of important points first.

Teammates Noxious and Sottle cast together. Image courtesy of multiplay

Do Hearthstone casters have to be as good as the players they’re casting to provide insightful analysis?

No. Emphatically no. If you’ve ever been to a large open Hearthstone event, you’re probably familiar with the experience of being sat around with 10 or more other like-minded people watching a game of Hearthstone and talking about the play. On almost any given turn, someone in your group is going to disagree with the play that is made and suggest something different, often, their play will be provably superior when you delve into it. But here’s the point: Is that guy the best player in your group because he spotted the best play that turn? Absolutely not. Firstly, that correct player will be different on every turn. Secondly, they’ve simply approached that turn in a different way and come out with a better solution to the problem because of it. Hearthstone is a game of divergent paths that open up based on the different decisions that each player makes on each turn. Each individual player might be examining a different one, two, or three of these paths depending on their depth of thought, leading them to think in a different way. Even the best players in the world can get tunnel visioned on one specific path and would simply benefit from another pair of eyes, regardless of whether or not they’re a weaker player overall. This is where the caster comes in. We can be that additional pair of eyes and provide insight into alternate paths that the player may not have considered. Of course, we have to be careful not to do this with “caster vision”, or the ability to see both player’s hands, but by focusing purely on the statistical likelihood of certain outcomes and counter-play we can sometimes divine a superior line that the player has overlooked.

Even if the casters were the best players in the World, would they spot the best play more often than the player?

Nope, probably not. The player only has one thing to focus on—the game. As a caster, you’re dealing with production talking in your ear, you’re listening to your co-casters to ensure that you’re maintaining the flow of conversation, you’re focusing on your delivery, formulating thoughts in advance so that they come out smoothly, and looking out for opportunities to fit in greater narrative points, or callbacks to previous important moments—and this is just scratching the surface. When a caster “misses lethal” or forgets a card has been played, this isn’t because we can’t count, it’s because our brains were elsewhere, dealing with some other important aspect of the broadcast. That’s not an excuse, and in a perfect world it wouldn’t happen, but it’s reality. So the player, fully engrossed in the game with the isolation of a booth or soundproof headphones is naturally going to be more focused on finding the correct play than we are, and it’s where the natural caution of objecting to a player’s line comes from.

So what’s the answer genius?

Okay, sure, so for the most part, this has read like a series of excuses as to why we all suck. But the simple fact of the matter is that we can and should do better. This is where the real meat of Frodan’s article comes in. The message that we should all work harder and strive to be better is a noble one, and I support it wholeheartedly. Where we differ however, is our outlook on the methodology.  I understand the argument, in other games prominent casters are ex-pros who have passed their technical peak and no longer have the reaction time or mechanical skill to compete, despite their mind still being sharp. In Hearthstone, there’s no such barrier, meaning why shouldn’t casters be competing at the same level as players if they’re thinking at a suitable level to be able to criticise them? But the point at hand is not a matter of “can we do it?”, but “should we do it?”. Is it the best use of our time in order to provide the best broadcast experience to a viewer? I don’t feel it is.

The Hearthstone Championship Winter Tour broadcast crew. Image courtesy of @PlayHearthstone

Personally, I don’t feel like grinding ladder and open tournaments is the best way to provide more insightful commentary, nor does it have any noticeable impact on you being an point of authority. Casting has its own skill-set and much like how many professional Hearthstone teams now employ a data analyst whose skills lie in data collection, evaluation, and meaningful output over actual technical and strategic skill, Hearthstone casters have different requirements other than simply being good at the game.

For one, the ladder experience is markedly different from the major tournament experience and putting a win-streak together with a meta-counter deck does not put you in a position to insightfully address a tournament format. I would rather grind out 100+ games with a deck I don’t understand fully, or a new arrival on the scene, than simply try to jam the best decks to a high ranking. That to me, seems more like progress. TJ hasn’t suddenly improved as a caster or gained more authority because he finished top 100 last season. He’s constantly improving as a caster because he works insanely hard. His level of research is unmatched, both prior to the event, and during. Prior to events he’s unparalleled at gathering player info, unearthing powerful lesser known decks, and understanding the current meta. During the event he’s meticulously collecting data on player’s winrates and deck success rates. This is what allows him to say insightful things about what he sees in front of him, not climbing the ladder with Yogg Zoo.

Furthermore, I believe there a lot of things that can be done that don’t even involve playing the game that have more of a marked impact on your ability to provide relevant analysis. The data and the tools are all out there already. Recently, Vicious Syndicate launched Data Reaper. This tool allows us access to real world matchup information on a scale we’ve never seen before and opens up the gates to an entirely new level of analysis. No longer is the question of “who’s favoured in this matchup” answered by one guy’s opinion, or the cringe worthy “it’s pretty draw dependant”. Now we have data, and cold, hard facts. Of course, the info provided by Data Reaper is tempered by various factors, not everyone who is sending in data is going to be playing the decks optimally, but it creates a new path for a caster to take. If you see a matchup number that you disagree with, think about why that is. What could they be doing differently from you? Is it because one deck is harder to play than the other? Do the matchup stats start to differ as you approach Legend level games? Think about all those factors and then go test them, now you have gained insight. On top of this, the pro community is a burgeoning cauldron of knowledge on high level intricacies. If you’re struggling to find something noteworthy to talk about in particular matchups, go talk to a deck specialist, ask them for their matchup stats, ask them what they’re doing in particular matchups that you’re struggling with, then again go and test. The deck guides I write for Icy Veins are also a huge positive for me, as it means I already have a bunch of relevant thoughts internalised in a presentable and succinct way and means that whenever i’m playing the game to test decks for these guides i’m playing with the mindset of how i’m going to present information i’m gathering to a devouring audience. The overarching theme here is that playing to learn is much more beneficial than playing to win for a caster.

So, to the point of whether or not tournament wins or a top 100 finish are beneficial for a caster as a trusted source of authority. Personally, I don’t think it is. When I started gaining some recognition as an analyst, it wasn’t because I was winning online tournaments or placing in a Gfinity major as I was at the time. It was simply because I was saying things that (for the most part) made sense and knew how to present them in a way that was convincing and authoritative. That for me is the final point here. It’s a simplistic conclusion to an overly wordy article, but the goal as a caster should be to put yourself in the best position possible to provide the most insightful and engaging commentary possible, if you keep doing that, people will want to listen to you and trust and value what you say—whether or not you have shiny badges of honour next to your name. We can all do more, we can all work harder, but the goal in my opinion, should not be to follow the path of the players that we are commentating on, but to put ourselves in the best position possible to understand, analyse, and yes, in some cases contradict what they do.

About the Author

Sottle is no stranger to the competitive environment. The compLexity Hearthstone player comes from an unorthodox background of being a Yoyo Champion in Great Britain, as well as virtually beating people up as a competitive fighting game player. Nerve-damage in his hand forced him to exchange the button mashing for the virtual card game Hearthstone. As a pro player he made his mark in the scene, as a caster he is a rising force, now the next step for him is to build up his name as a personality in the scene as well. Follow the Brit cast tournaments, play games, interact with his stream and have fun in Arena, the ladder or just Q&A sessions – Sottle is always the perfect mix between entertainment and education.