Saturday, July 14, 2012

Livestreaming Worlds Part IV

In my last installment of puffery I wrote about the necessity for the game announcers to get the correct names of players on the field during play and pronounce those names with accuracy and elan.

You can call an entire ultimate game and do nothing right but get everyone's names and you will have done a good job.

The next part I touched on was research: knowing the teams, their offensive and defensive sets, their tendencies, their personnel, injuries, game plan heading into the finals and the team's history.

All of this is done by watching, learning, and talking to team captains. I think the announcers for NexGen for Worlds accomplished this well although I was somewhat dismayed when Chase and Lou in calling the Open Final implied that the Great Britain team was a bunch of nervous newcomers to the World stage. I get it -- they played like nervous nellies but this team has guys that have some decent tournament experience under their belts. A close loss to Sweden in the 2011 EUC finals is one example, a loss they avenged a day earlier in the semifinals 15-14.

I never heard mention of that game or GB's history at Beach Worlds, Paganello, the World Games and other major international tournaments. GB is easily one of the top eight international programs and has been for awhile (USA, Japan, Canada, Australia, Sweden, Germany, GB and maybe Finland or Colombia make my list).

In the end GB played awfully so in some sense maybe their observation was spot-on but there is no doubt they needed to set that table more and reveal just where this GB team came from and what GB has done internationally.

I digress. Some things that Chase and Lou did quite well in both of the games they covered (Women's final as well, which was again the superior game, much like it was in Prague 2010) was provide just the right amount of insightful commentary and keen sports phrasing.

Two examples come to mind: Lou's phrases like "coffin corner" (facing a crosswind head on from a trapped sideline) "bankroll" referring to Open Team USA collecting GB's opening half drops and turning them into points and "cash it in" when a D player gets a D block and then banks the turnover by getting the goal.

Chase's commentary after halftime of the USA-GB final was keen. He noted (and you could tell he spoke from experience as a veteran elite Worlds player) that GB needed to relax, have fun, realize this is the last time they will play together as this particular unit, and go out there and play loose.

Both phrasing and insightful yet concise commentary is good to have. I am guilty at times of over-commentating. You can do this as the color man -- think Jeff Van Gundy calling the NBA finals -- but you have to be careful. You don't want to over-opinionate without a dose of humor that lets the viewer realize you're talking jive talk for fun. This has been a problem of mine -- talking with conviction about things I wasn't 100% on. It's part of the trap of commentating -- be careful!

Lou and Chase did fine here, although they erred perhaps too much on the conservative side.

A major problem with ultimate and one that we, the loose-knit community of announcers, has yet to solve is the game's fundamental sway of "holding serve." Tennis and golf commentators are quiet. Basketball, football, hockey and baseball announcers can be chatterboxes. Soccer is somewhere in between, as is ultimate. You want to bring excitement to the broadcast (listen to a Tom Styles-called game again) but you don't want to get over excited about that sweet layout block when tend seconds later the D team turns it over and the point becomes a 15-minute marathon rendering that sweet D block useless. You have to know how to balance the nature of a game like ultimate that tilts it's value toward offensive precision and conservatism (and thus a reserved announcing style) with the genuine excitement of something like a three-goal run or the aforementioned D block.

Lastly I will say that timing is important. The interplay between the announcers has to be flawless. Speaking over each other or calling out field action while the other announcer is riffing is a real problem. Everyone runs into this problem I feel. Tom and I for Beach Worlds tried to map out who would talk at what points in the game -- color commentary, play-by-play and points in between. I'm not sure we ever quite mastered it, especially with the difficulty of calling play-by-play without knowing names and mastering player identities.

Again I think Lou and Chase did this well and Bryan and Mario needed work. They stepped on each other a few too many times. It's the nature of the beast, really, hard to find fault, but it can't happen.

After so much praise however I will mention that Lou and Chase were probably slightly too USA-centered in both of their broadcasts (and by this I mean not pointing out USA's faults and foul calls as often as they should have) and certainly a little lacking in providing a strong historical background for the teams and the sport -- how many finals for USA? This was Japan's first Worlds win, yes or no? Etc. Generally speaking their commentary on the overall state of the sport and the place of these teams could have been stronger.

And I will say that Chase's end-of-game analysis of the Women's final was just silly. He actually said that the USA "just missed by inches" in referring to their chances. In reality they made buckets of unforced turnovers, many not even close, and were destroyed after the opening quarter, 13-6 (USA had gone up 7-4). More astute words might have been: USA missed by kilometers.

Overall you have to like what both of these announcing teams did and what NexGen is bringing to the table. It's amazing that we even get to comment on commentators in a positive light.

Next up for the announcers: set the historical place, set the stakes of the game, have a spotter if needed down on the field to radio in names of goal throwers and ESPECIALLY to relay foul calls if possible.

More work is needed for some of the announcing teams on timing and color versus play-by-play and for others how to not make the game sound boring, like golf or tennis.

Looking forward to more.

Livestreaming Worlds Part III

If you can read upwards from the bottom and/or scroll down you'll hopefully figure out the ordering here. We are watching Worlds live on the internet at 1:30am and currently waiting for the final game: USA vs Great Britain in the Open division. Watching on NexGen's high quality, well-packaged broadcast. But what can they do better?

First, the stream is very good. The camera work is solid. The replays are there. The graphics are quality. The feed-switching is very good -- all the things that make a broadcast invisibly awesome are finally in place thanks to NexGen (and maybe Tushar, dear friend?)

So now we come to the section I can opine on: the announcers.

First, game announcing is not easy, that has to be evident by now. If you're a fool go up there one day and try it. You'll be hated, first, and you will probably be terrible at it. It takes a mix of public speaking, phrase-finding, name-pronouncing and impeccable timing to make it right and all of that is hard to do.

Also you probably shouldn't be playing at the same tournament you're commentating on. Although it can be a plus, I found out the hard way in Prague when I went straight from playing in a 5th place game (we won) to the broadcast booth for the finals of Open and Women.

There's two things every announcer needs to do, at least two things. I learned this the hard way of course. An announcer needs to do homework and an announcer absolutely has to get names right.

Names names names. That player going for that disc isn't "Canada" or "Red hat, Japan". That player has a name. And you should know it.

When Revolver won Worlds I knew maybe 2/3rds of the players, just from being in the scene so long. Same with their opponent, Sockeye. But the names and faces I butchered I was deservedly butchered for.

It's not easy -- 25 person rosters. Several games you have to cover. Players look alike. Numbers are hard to read when you're in stands far away from the field. That year the women's final was UNO from Japan versus Fury from San Francisco. I was handed a sheet with names and numbers of both teams about 20 minutes before the game started. I couldn't properly pronounce half of the Japanese names so I relied on a Japanese speaking cohort for that. On the Fury side they wore white uniforms with gold lettering. I never, ever saw a number and only could identify players I didn't know by sight when watching a monitor with the replays.

Lesson here: no excuses. An announcer can't blame the uniforms or the unfamiliarity of a foreign team. Hard fact.

Listening to Lou Burruss and Chase Sparling-Beckley they figured out this lesson, Lou especially. His Japanese name-pronunciations are butter smooth and he's always on the case both quickly and accurately IDing players. Grade for Lou here is an A.

Bryan Jones and Mario O'Brien in the Canada-Australia mixed final were very disappointing in this regard. I like both of those guys as announcers. But they've been in Japan for a week now? They don't have the excuse of having to compete with a team. I believe they are there solely as broadcasters. Not only that but they get the cherriest of cherry teams with names to pronounce and identities in two duchies of the Queen of England. And they can really only get to 70-75% accuracy? Not great.

But also not entirely their fault. One of the next steps for NexGen? Spotters and statisticians. Maybe they have them in Japan right now? Maybe not.

Open final is starting up so Part IV next and last.

Livestreaming Worlds Part II

So everyone always knew that livestreaming over the internet was the way it was going to work for ultimate. Kerr and I knew it in 1999 and we couldn't have been the only ones. So why did it take so long? Bandwidth? Audience? Money?

None of the above. It was initiative, or the lack of initiative.

I think having a live software-based switching program was also key. Back in 1999 you needed a Tricaster. In 2004 I think they had a sat truck. At the 2010 College Championships in Wisconsin I saw that CBS Sports (which bought CSTV and eventually re-teamed with ultimate after a hiatus) had a suitcase switcher program that was half-hardware and half-software.

In 2010 I was one of the announcers for the World Club Championships in Prague. The Czech internet company that did the live broadcast for the finals used a sat truck with an experienced director calling out the camera feed switches and instant replays.

And they did it quite well and the broadcast was really the first professional-looking live internet broadcast I had witnessed. How was it that the tiny Czech Republic had the capabilities, know-how and resources to do this and back home in ultra-wealthy USA we had nothing?

Nationals coverage that year was disappointing as it had been for awhile. UltiVillage, god bless 'em, was livestreaming miserably with inexperienced camera operators, cheap cameras, disappointing commentators and really just a boring broadcast overall. I don't want to demean UltiVillage -- they filled a need for a number of years and did it extremely fast and inexpensive which was all the UPA and its members seemed willing to pay for.

But finally last year sometime good ol' American initiative buoyed by capitalism kicked in and the ever-fervent Pacific NorthWest produced a unique product: a tour of top college players called NexGen that was flashy, well-produced, well-organized, high-quality and came with video. And it wasn't cheap video -- it was good.

And amen the people rejoiced.

And NexGen succeeded that summer and that fall did the live broadcast for the USAU Club Championships. And again the people rejoiced.

So what finally did the trick? I think it was the initiative by NexGen founder Kevin Minderhout. But then again there was also a significant investment someone made... NexGen couldn't support itself nor could the high-quality broadcasts, web design, graphics and so forth appear for free. I don't know for sure but someone put up some real money to make NexGen work and that investment was a wise one.

NexGen is making a name for itself as a premier ultimate broadcasting netwok. Watching the broadcasts of USAU Club Championships last year was great (disclosure: I was initially invited to join the announcing/commentating team but it didn't quite work out).

Watching coverage from Japan tonight has been rather pleasant. But now we get to the next step in NexGen: doing it better.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Livestreaming Worlds Part I

It was sometime in the fall of 1999 when Charles Kerr, the father of the Callahan Rules, Callahan Award and godfather of NC State's 1999 College National Championship, kicked around an idea to me of an online national newspaper for college ultimate. Eventually we teamed up to write and produce the College Ultimate Reporter which basically had no chance.

Kerr did a lot of work on it and I wrote some stuff and we tried but 1999 was just too early to fund an unfunded sport with an un-sponsored magazine.

One direction we wanted to go was live internet streaming of Nationals. It made so much sense for ultimate to go there -- tech-savvy players who graduated from college, niche market, lower costs.

But lower costs in 1999 meant thousands of dollars, maybe tens of thousands. And the bandwidth wasn't so favorable.

About 7-8 years later USA Ultimate (then the UPA) finally got lucky in broadcast when a small niche cable television channel based in New York (Chelsea Piers, to be precise, I visited a few times and even pushed the idea as best I could) called the College Sports Network contacted the UPA with a pitch to shoot and cover the College Championships in 2004.

This wasn't an internet thing -- it was broadcast television, shot mostly live-to-tape but not live. And the UPA paid for it, an estimated $50,000 in fact. But the UPA's player-base had been pining for this sort of thing for years so the money wasn't a problem.

Failing to watch live was a problem however -- watching sporting events days or weeks later is a deal-breaker.

Internet was always the solution... part II next, I swear I have a point here and some analysis of NexGen's Worlds Coverage.

Well it's happening again: high quality live ultimate broadcast/streamcast. It's the quadrennial World Championships, this one in Sakai, Osaka, Japan and live webstreamed by the NexGen network. You can watch it here. Once again the commentary is good, the camerawork is excellent and the quality of the webcast is very good -- so this is all good. And most welcome -- the question I have to wonder is: what took us so long? Halftime is Japan 8, USA 7 in women's final -- I'm going back to watching and will try to kick in some opinion.