No matches

Nov. 10-11 saw the first televised competition in Valve’s Artifact card game: the Artifact Preview Tournament (APT). Hosted by Beyond the Summit, the tournament was supposed to hype the audience for the game’s launch later this month and give first glimpse into its esports and streaming future.

For everyone but the pro players watching, day 1 was confusing and overwhelming. The roles on the casting desks were mismatched at best and non-existent at worst. The experience was the farthest away from being novice friendly. Twitch chat moaned cries of confusion, as the camera slalomed between three lanes, trying to catch the multi-faceted, complex action of Artifact.

Yet, these issues were expected and even if they left a sour taste, they were far from the most severe drawback this weekend. It’s impossible to get casting and production right on the very first day of streaming a new game after all. These flaws will get polished with time. Casters will learn how to talk to their audience. Tournament organizers will find tools to make the game more “readable” by newbies. Visual aides will come to enhance the experience. In the grand scheme of things, these are non-issues.

No, the real problem this weekend was not how the product was delivered, but the very product itself. For an event that was supposed to lure people in and convince them Artifact is a cool game worth their money, the APT was ill-conceived in every way possible, as it took the shape of a 128-man double re-draft Swiss Gauntlet tournament.

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Lifecoach and Swim on the APT desk. Photo by: BTS Artifact

Every part of that definition is a broadcast nightmare. With 128 players competing at the same time, focusing on the storylines and personalities is challenging to say the least. Who are the favorites? Who are the underdogs? What are they known for? What’s their playstyle? Where do they come from? Esports desks sometimes struggle with narratives even in enclosed and controlled tournament environments, let alone with hundreds in attendance.

Without knowing the answers to these questions, viewers can’t establish a connection with the player pool and as a result stop caring. Instead of storylines, fans are now following random nicknames in a massive table, getting lost. Out of all 128 players, only four were featured on site and only one made top 8. We only got to know that one player.

The Swiss system is also horrible when you’re trying to build a newbie-friendly broadcast. There is no natural succession to the Swiss matches like there is in a bracket format or even a group format. You don’t know who will play whom in the next round, and you’re back to that same situation of hundred names meandering around a giant score table.

128-man Swiss is the pro players’ format. We didn’t need the pro players’ format on Artifact’s first weekend.

A second issue with Swiss is the matches being played simultaneously, which means if the featured game ends quickly, you have a lot of time to fill before the next round is drawn. What such tournaments then often do to salvage the situation is switch to another game, but that didn’t work for the APT. Instead of the coherence of one full match against the other, viewers were treated to a frantic game-hop. After the selected featured match was completed, on the broadcast went to the last few turns of another game. And then the last few turns of a third game, and then a fourth. Imagine struggling to understand the mechanics of an Artifact match, only to be treated to epileptic changes of scenery with no connection to each other.

Where the dissonance comes from is that on any other day, a 128-man Swiss is the perfect, most competitive format. Variety is intrinsic to card games and Swiss is a natural way to battle it. You’re not out after you lose one game to a bad draw. Sometimes, you’re not even out by your second loss, which would be the case in a double elimination bracket. You have chances to make a comeback and the format is rewarding towards consistency. Yet Swiss is so complicated to broadcast, that it took Hearthstone years to implement it and then some more to figure out how to make it stream-friendly and it still isn’t polished.

128-man Swiss is the pro players’ format. We didn’t need the pro players’ format on Artifact’s first weekend.

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APT should’ve played around the idea of having a dozen or so featured names competing their hardest. Photo by: BTS Artifact

Choosing a double re-draft Gauntlet piled on top of the issues. Drafting is another mode that caters to the pro player community as it’s a great test of skill, but it’s certainly not for everyone. The broader community will naturally flock to a format which allows them to play the cards and decks they want, even if what they want is replicate top players’ decks. That’s the Constructed format. When Artifact launches, players will want to know what the best decks and heroes are, how a certain strategy is played, what cards they should try to get. A Gauntlet tournament does not help them in any way. A Constructed one would have.

What’s more, APT’s double re-draft rule made an already complex tournament in an already complex format even more difficult to analyze. Which heroes and color combinations were successful and which weren’t? What stories and lessons can we extrapolate from the data? Allowing players to re-draft twice muddies the metagame storytelling and as a result, you can’t even use this Gauntlet tournament to teach players how to be good at Gauntlet.

The Artifact Preview tournament felt — and probably was — a tournament made by the pros for the pros.

It’s a common behind-the-scenes knowledge that the inner circle of Artifact invites has been playing way more Gauntlet than Constructed since the mode’s release, which is why APT feels — and probably is — an event made by the pros, for the pros. If that’s the case, someone missed the mark on what the purpose of this tournament should have been.

Allow me a side-step for a moment. For all the critique, mockery and ridicule Hearthstone experienced throughout the years, it got it right in terms of launching its scene. Initial Hearthstone tournaments were concerned with a handful of players and personalities and used them as the fundamental platform to build upon. Around these players, the game built a streaming scene on one side and a competitive scene on the other, and then bridged the two.

Hearthstone understood that in order to become the leader in such a niche market, it had to appeal to as many layers of fans as possible. By starting simple, Blizzard’s game offered a natural, step-by-step entry into the card game world, even for those who never had interest in the genre. Hearthstone’s year-by-year progression was logical, even if the hardcore fans deemed it too slow and constantly complained about the invitational nature of its tournaments. In the end, the early ESGN Fight Nights, which were essentially 4v4 team exhibition matches, did more for the game’s ascend in those first days than any other “competitive” format.

Hosting one viewerbase-unfriendly tournament isn’t the end of it all for Artifact, of course, but the game will have to make some changes going forward.

Even then, the Artifact Preview Tournament did a lot of things right. The social media coverage was outstanding, zooming on decks, cards, mechanics and game moments. Ken “Hot_Bid” Chen’s arrival to the casting desk carried it into a much needed improvement on day 2, and the playoffs were a genuine pleasure to follow. The organizers were clearly perceptive to community feedback and did their best to accommodate changes on such short timeline. While this did improve the experience, it couldn’t abolish the fundamental flaws of the product.

I applaud Valve and BTS for committing to a polished competitive experience, but they were way too early with that commitment. As a former colleague of mine so eloquently put it, there’s a time and place for competitiveness. Right now, it’s neither.

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