Video coverage of Scrabble games has become a very hot topic in the Community. The expectation that people can see tournament games live on their computer or phone has finally started to become a priority, maybe even a necessity.
It is certainly an exciting prospect!
Against this recent flurry of activity, it may be difficult to remember that the concept of live “streaming” is not necessarily all that recent.
Soon after I restarted playing competitively, I managed to came across live footage of Scrabble from the UK: the annual stream from the National Scrabble Championship. The Final was held in a theatre with Brett Smitheram hosting to an audience of keen players - those that could not make it, could still view proceedings on Ustream.
Thankfully, these streams are still available publicly: for example, you can view the first game of the 2013 Final here.
Commentators Chris May and Jesse Matthews at Causeway 2016
It became very apparent that there were other broadcasts on offer. Scrabcast, and its successor SAB Live, used the Twitch medium to provide players who could not make an event to stream games live. WESPA reported on one such example for the 2014 Commonwealth Scrabble Championship.
Here is an example from SAB Live of an earlier UK NSC
In the meantime, MSI’s innovative RFID board and use of the LiveStream medium showcased a newer, more “tv-like” feed. Players who could not make an event, even one like the (then named) Scrabble Champions Tournament, had their opportunity to share in the atmosphere that was previously, for the most part, either enjoyed by the occasional photo or written reports.
And it was fantastic!
But these were not without their faults. The WESPA report noted the internet connection led to down times in viewing and the RFID board had issues with identifying tiles.
On a personal level, I enjoyed every minute of what I could get; the chance to play along with the world’s best and interact with fellow players around the globe who were experiencing the game as I was.
The reason for my enjoyment can simply be explained thus: video adds a “third dimensional” aspect to Scrabble coverage, providing sound to all the images that the written word conjures up and the feelings a photo evokes.
You can get excited when you read about the playing of BRACONID and it helping to win a World Championship, and it’s great to see the board photo from which it appears.
Nothing, however, beats the feeling you can get from SEEING it occur in front of your eyes.
And that is what streaming does best.
Amongst all this, though, there is a BUT, and it comes in the form of accessibility.
Where are most of today’s Scrabble players “located” when it comes to online viewing? And where would a potential growth market of those typically disposed to playing Scrabble more likely be? What do the numbers tell us?
The answers to these questions are stuck heavily in the more “mainstream” of media: Facebook is the social media drug of choice (with Twitter a very distant second before you go further down the ladder to Reddit or Instagram) and videos are best found on YouTube.
A happy discovery appeared in my Facebook feed last year… Facebook went live at the 2016 Kings Cup Final. It was very labour intensive - one person held a phone for three games straight and that was that.
However, it gave me the sense I was there… and, finally, the world’s biggest social media site, the one that had made a huge thing out of live video was starting to be used for Scrabble.
Later in 2016, Michael Tang gave us YouTube live streaming for Causeway, and again, the video coverage introduced excitement, enhanced by the absolutely brilliant commentary team of Jesse Matthews and Chris May.
Yes, it was not the first instance (NASCs of the past couple of years have had YouTube coverage with commentary - an example of which you can view below) but it seemed to herald in a period where finally we had the commentary quality, and we had the video coverage to get mainstream approval.
NASPA added innovative features to its coverage in 2017 with a Facebook Live show (NASPA Tonight) - and you could see the elements starting to build into the full package.
Watch the game and enjoy the commentary that comes with it; screen mini interviews as well as a “show” to end the day. It gives the feeling of being in attendance; of keeping those not there engaged and enthused to the point where they start to consider heading there themselves.
(Four years earlier, a similar taster of what was possible was done on a larger scale at the 2013 Scrabble Champions Tournament)
Causeway averaged high three figure average views for each of its games (and there were 45 of them), this year’s Kings Cup finals had around 2000 views on Facebook off the Poslfit Facebook page. An event like MISO screening on Poslfit achieved three figure viewing each time.
Surely, with all these opportunities, now we can start to grow this aspect of the game?
For me, there are two hurdles left to jump and both are in our control.
The first is the expertise. Thankfully, Craig Beevers has formed a Facebook group in an effort to publicise the "how" side of things and the cost is not as expensive as people would think.
In the Scrabble Online Facebook group
, Craig explains: “For those interested in streaming at physical tournaments, my gear is a Logitech C920 webcam connected to a Tencro Scissor Arm Boom (a microphone boom compatible with various webcams), which can be propped up higher with a chair/table on top of the table being played on. Along with two Genius WideCam F100s for the racks (not tested yet). Costs about £150 altogether. Regular webcams don't have a large enough field of view for rack cameras, unless you sit them about 15cm away from the rack (ie too far). I then use OBS to broadcast and Skype to add in commentary.”
You can view the discussions and discover, with a bit of experimentation, this side of the game coverage is not quite as abstruse as it may have felt.
There is support for the newer person to this, which all points to exciting times ahead!
The second obstacle is mindset: we need to get better here - and do it more frequently. Streaming, video coverage etc needs to become part and parcel of what is provided at tournaments of all sizes.
As Craig’s observation and group has shown, streaming coverage can be more advanced and we don’t have to spend too much to get it. On the other hand, Clubs and small scale domestic tournaments can live stream from a phone and it is neither difficult nor expensive.
Recent efforts to stream the game have concentrated on Twitch as a medium and this is a good starting point.
The higher profile national and global events, though, need to look at the more extensive coverage - and when we do so, the use of mediums like YouTube and Facebook should be our go-to mediums. And, if we use Facebook, the use of public Pages to stream rather than reliance on closed groups is a must.
Causeway and Kings Cup numbers support this: the vast numbers of players looking in these areas compared to Twitch support this.
Please, don’t misunderstand me: Twitch is a viable segment of the market we should be targeting and to have a presence there is nothing but extremely positive. Expanding our horizons in an effort to get more people playing Scrabble in clubs and tournaments is tremendously important and every effort to get out there needs to be supported and applauded.
It is also a great entry level medium where different events can be streamed. On the weekend of writing, a UK v US online tournament will be screened on Twitch - a great opportunity to showcase the game and a further example of what is now available once more people have the expertise.
For me, the key is that now we have started using Twitch, we need to expand to take on the more fruitful opportunities of streaming via Facebook or YouTube, the far bigger players in the grand scheme of things.
Further, we need to do more to cater for those who could not make an event as well as cater to those who can.
The equipment is there for more of us to do it, the support is there to assist us along the way. It is merely a case of acting on it.
And the sooner we do that, the better.
Nick Ivanovski is Chair of Promotions in WESPA. He has been streamed in tournaments twice and lost both games soundly. The opinions expressed here are personal only