Inside a Coverage Team

Posted in Competitive Gaming on July 21, 2016

By Greg Collins

After starting his career covering college football and basketball for ESPN.com, Greg Collins found a way to merge his love of sports and games into one job. He's been in charge of Magic event coverage since 2004.

Live event coverage evolves every year. I realized that providing some transparency to bring Magic fans up to speed on what goes into an official event coverage team was long overdue.

That's the operative word—team. While we do mix and match people across events, they operate under the same guiding principles. Having everyone on the same page for every show is critical to the success of coverage. As the size of the official event coverage roster grew over the last couple of years, we have drifted away from having a tightly focused team.

Our recent coverage summit allowed nearly all of the widespread members of Official Event Coverage to get together in Seattle to delve deeper into those principles and share best practices, something we hope to make an annual occurrence. With that foundation re-established, the coverage team is moving forward, more aligned to deliver quality productions.

We at Wizards know our fans want as much coverage as possible, and over the first half of the year we weren't able to satisfy that appetite. As Hélène Bergeot mentioned to in her State of Organized Play article last month, we are augmenting our Grand Prix video coverage this year. I'm happy to announce these additions to the schedule:

  • Grand Prix Indianapolis: August 27–28, Modern
  • Grand Prix Warsaw: October 29–30, Standard
  • Grand Prix Dallas: November 5–6, Modern
  • Grand Prix Denver: December 3–4, Standard

Looking at a calendar year with more than 50 premier play events to cover over 35 weekends, that's a lot of moving parts to fit together against a weekly schedule that can feel relentless. So how does it all start?

Months in advance, coverage teams are assigned from the 40-plus freelancers located around the world. Prep work for a given weekend begins a few weeks before the events, as people inside the walls of Wizards as well as the external freelancer staff identify storylines we want to follow, iron out new features to the look and feel of the stream, and lay down the coverage schedule. Heading into Pro Tours, metagame changes are anticipated with the help of R&D members who were active in the Future Future League. Limited archetypes are analyzed, pulling data from Magic Online for the first few days of a set's release to see trends among the wisdom of crowds.

Our coverage approach varies by the type of tournament we're covering, the time of year, and the proximity to a set's release. The base of any approach starts with our coverage writer-reporters. We send at least one writer-reporter to every Grand Prix to ensure a permanent record of the event is posted on the Magic website.

That means that even before players start making a splash at the Pro Tour, we can trace a trail back through their Grand Prix performances that helps paint a fuller picture of them as players and people. When Seth Manfield won the 2015 Magic World Championship, we knew that the first trophy he hoisted in Magic premier play was back at Grand Prix Daytona Beach in 2007 as a seventeen-year-old, defeating a 20-year-old Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa in the finals. Did you know we learned back then that both played bridge?

Text coverage's evolution over the past ten years mirrors the change in overall media consumption. The coverage staff writes fewer feature matches from the Swiss rounds at Pro Tours and very few at Grand Prix anymore; the value of those stories, both in readership numbers and lasting impact, has clearly decreased over time. What we do focus on are the elements of a tournament that are most valuable to be included in that permanent record. Match coverage of the finals, Top 8 decklists, metagame analyses, a few human-interest stories, and photos form the backbone of our written coverage to tell the story of that event, whether you're reading the day after the event or ten years from now. That commitment to preserving the legacy of Magic's tournament scene is an important part of why we do what we do.

When our community team elevates a human-interest article from the Magic site to social media—such as Hallie Santo's piece about a father and daughter playing together at Grand Prix Los Angeles—and it gets 22,000 likes and is seen by over 600,000 people, that's tremendous exposure to the great stories that come out of our events. We have to remember that the compelling stories from Magic events are not always about what's happening at the top tables, and our writer-reporters are the eyes and ears around the hall able to chase down any story that materializes.

When it does come to those top tables, that is the strength of the video coverage at both the Pro Tour and Grand Prix levels. As the flagship events of the season, Pro Tours have larger coverage teams and are able to serve more purposes than GP video teams. Pro Tour video teams have separate commentators for match coverage and news desk features, along with multiple producers, spotters, sideline reporters, and graphics operators. Because of the number of events and their relative importance compared to Pro Tours, Grand Prix don't get the luxury of having teams of that size.

Grand Prix get the job done with four commentators and four technical staff—a producer, a technical director, and two people who run cameras and manage life totals. One of the writer-reporters takes on the role of showrunner, acting as a nexus for coverage needs across video, text, and social media. This team's mission is to produce Grand Prix video coverage without breaks or replays. There is so much going on at a Grand Prix, we want to use all of our time on the air to show fresh match coverage, player stories, and analysis.

In following conversations across social media over the last couple of months, I recognized that a little clarity on our commentator positions would be worthwhile.

  • Play-by-play commentator: At its heart, Magic is a game about conversation—between players in-game, friends after a round, fans across social media, and countless other combinations. The responsibility of the play-by-play role is to bring you, the viewer, into our conversation about this game we all love and the excitement of watching the very best play it. They narrate round-by-round action, stay on top of the life totals, introduce you to players and their lives inside and outside of Magic, and handle all transitions between rounds and segments. In journalism terms, they handle the who, what, and where of the story. This role is also referred to as the host.
  • Color commentator: This role is 100% focused on the Magic. While the play-by-play commentator may be juggling lots of data inputs in a given round (watching gameplay with a director in their ear and a producer passing on player info), the color commentator's attention is locked in on that overhead shot. A match of Magic can be extremely complicated, and the color commentator needs not only a high level of expertise to understand what's going on, but also speaking skills to convey that info clearly to the viewers. The color commentator handles the why and how of what just happened—and what may be happening in the future. This role is also called the expert or analyst.

As we reviewed our approach to Grand Prix commentary teams, we recognized that the third commentator—who would spend half the show doing play-by-play and the other half doing color commentary—was not a viable role. It created confusion among viewers for what that person's role was, and the skills to excel at both roles within the same show are very hard to find in a single person. The answer was moving a commentator slot from being dedicated to feature content into a fourth booth commentator, setting up two pairs.

Moving to the dual commentator pairs with Grand Prix Prague allowed us to focus more time on match coverage in as close to real time as possible. Not only does the "Time Walk" match get more Magic on the screen, but it cuts down our need to create original feature content...which means that we can move up the start time for GPs because we don't need to spend the early rounds creating content.

That two-team approach will be our standard setup for Grand Prix going forward, starting with Grand Prix Sydney. This new focus at the GP level will allow us to provide more feature match content each round, focusing on strategic content, star-power players, and tier 1 decks. Above all, it allows us to maximize the on-screen time of live Magic, while continuing to bring you the best stories from around the world of premier play.

As we head toward the release of Eldritch Moon and its debut in premier play, here's the rundown of the teams you can look forward to in July and August. The last Pro Tour of the season is always my favorite event—it provides so much drama as players compete for World Championship and World Magic Cup invites as well as Pro Club levels. The two events in Sydney should be fantastic to watch. I'm also excited to add fan favorite Reid Duke to the team for Grand Prix Portland.

Grand Prix Sydney/Stockholm/Montreal: July 30–31

  • Format: Eldritch Moon-Shadows over Innistrad Sealed Deck/Booster Draft
  • Play-by-Play Commentators: Brian David-Marshall and Tim Willoughby
  • Color Commentators: Frank Karsten and Marshall Sutcliffe
  • Writer-Reporters: Marc Calderaro and Neale Talbot (Sydney), Tobi Henke and Craig Jones (Stockholm), Corbin Hosler and Josh Bennett (Montreal)
  • Producer: Rich Hagon
  • Technical Director: Rashad Miller
  • Cameras/Graphics: Neil Rigby and Steven Leeming

Video coverage of Grand Prix Sydney begins Saturday, July 30, at 11 a.m. Sydney time (Friday 9 p.m. ET/ Saturday 1 a.m. UTC).

Pro Tour Eldritch Moon: August 5–7

  • Format: Standard, Eldritch Moon-Shadows over Innistrad Booster Draft
  • Play-by-Play Commentators: Marshall Sutcliffe, Tim Willoughby, and Gaby Spartz
  • Color Commentators: Randy Buehler and Ian Duke (with a possible Sunday cameo by Luis Scott-Vargas)
  • News Desk: Rich Hagon and Brian David-Marshall
  • Feature Match Floor Reporters: Rashad Miller, Tim Willoughby, and Gaby Spartz
  • Feature Match Spotter: Neil Rigby
  • Writer-Reporters: Marc Calderaro, Ray Walkinshaw, and Chapman Sim
  • Content Managers/Editors: Blake Rasmussen, Mike Rosenberg, and Chris Gleeson
  • Social Media: Trick Jarrett and Nate Price
  • Executive Producer: Greg Collins

Video coverage begins Friday, August 5, at 9 a.m. Sydney time (Thursday 7 p.m. ET/11 p.m. UTC).

Grand Prix Portland/Rimini: August 13–14

  • Format: Standard
  • Play-by-Play Commentators: Marshall Sutcliffe and Brian David-Marshall
  • Color Commentators: Reid Duke and Jacob Van Lunen
  • Writer-Reporters: Marc Calderaro and Meghan Wolff (Portland), Tobi Henke and Frank Karsten (Rimini)
  • Producer: Rich Hagon
  • Technical Director: Rashad Miller
  • Cameras/Graphics: Neil Rigby and Steven Leeming

Video coverage of Grand Prix Portland begins Saturday, August 13, at 10 a.m. Portland time (1 p.m. ET/5 p.m. UTC).

I hope this deeper look has shed some light on our approach to official event coverage. We'll continue monitoring your feedback over all social media channels to constantly look for ways to improve our coverage.

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