I was excited to hear about PokerGo when it launched. Plenty of people, myself included, have complained in the past about the lack of online streaming poker content and have indicated that we’d be happy to pay for such a service, so as not to have our access to content limited by the whims of traditional broadcasters like ESPN. Having on-demand access to major events is great for poker fans, but even more important for those of us in the media.

At launch, plenty of people complained that the cost of the service – less than $10 per month if you sign up for a full year – was too high, but I’d actually be willing to pay quite a bit more if it meant PokerGo could do more. Unfortunately, the public’s attitude towards content in the modern internet age is such that it’s very hard to offer such niche products profitably. The general feeling is that anything you can read, listen to or watch should be extremely cheap if not free. That makes it all but impossible to produce high-quality content for a target audience not measured in millions, or at least hundreds of thousands.

It should be apparent at this point that I’m quite sympathetic to what PokerGo is attempting to do, so I hope the critique I’m about to make won’t seem too harsh, or dissuade anyone from becoming a subscriber. I’ve enjoyed the broadcasts overall, but as I watched Tuesday night’s $3,000 Pot-Limit Omaha final table, it was painfully apparent that there’s going to need to be some serious rethinking of how to present poker content in 2017 if PokerGo – or whatever comes after – is going to be a viable business.

No one knows how to commentate poker

It’s not that PokerGo is offering an inferior product; in terms of polish and professionalism, their broadcasts are up there with anything else out there, and certainly better in substance than the treatment the Main Event has tended to get from ESPN in past years.

Whatever stream one is watching, however, one always gets the sense that the commentators aren’t entirely sure who is watching, or why, and what they want to hear. Over the years, a de facto standard style of poker commentary has developed – a mixture of extremely basic explanations, straightforward calling of the action, forays into deeper strategy, and a lot of simply filling dead air by any means necessary.

We’ve become used to that as the norm, but it’s hard to believe that could possibly be the best approach. The fact that Tuesday’s coverage was of an Omaha, rather than No-Limit Hold’em event just exacerbated the problems and made them clearer to me.

The good news is that if the problem has to do with approach rather than polish, then money isn’t the limiting factor. If, collectively, we can figure out what sort of discussion best accompanies live poker action, then even with poker’s limited audience, the dream of affordable paid streaming worth watching needn’t be an impossible one.

The Moneymaker Defect

The inclusion of veteran WSOP commentators Lon McEachern and Norman Chad as core members of the broadcast team is a clue as to the origins of the problem. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with them or their commentary, but the choice makes it clear that the decision-makers behind PokerGo are looking to 2003 for inspiration. That’s proven time and again to be the wrong approach for online poker sites, and it’s almost certainly the wrong approach for online poker media for the same reasons.

The boom was a one-off affair brought about by a perfect storm of factors, novelty not least among them. The nature of crazes is that it’s very hard to say how and why they happen, and the same craze is almost never repeated. They’re also inherently irrational once they get going, and will tend to run their course no matter what you do.

Creating a sustainable business in a post-craze market is entirely different from cashing in on the craze while it’s happening. Looking at the style of commentary used during the poker boom for inspiration, then, is a bit like studying the most popular colors and materials for fidget spinners in an attempt to develop the next must-have trinket. When you go looking for patterns in chaos, what you tend to end up with is superstition.

The basic problems

Here are the problems with the current style of commentary, as I see them:

  • Repetitive, infantilizing explanations: Fortunately, a decade and a half after the boom, we’ve come to assume that anyone watching poker knows how No-Limit Texas Hold’em works. Not so with other games, even ones as popular as Pot-Limit Omaha. Explaining the rules isn’t the problem, though, because the rules can be summarized quickly; even if we do need to go over them each time a non-standard game is broadcast, it’s only a minor annoyance for more veteran viewers, similar to the way UFC broadcasts go over the way the judges’ scorecards work.

    It’s the endless rehashing of extremely basic elements of strategy that becomes tedious. It’s probably the case that someone who has never played or watched Omaha will find it interesting to know that big pocket pairs aren’t as valuable as they are in Hold’em. However, the goal for a sustainable broadcast can’t simply be to get first-time viewers to tune back in a second time; you need people who’ve tuned in twenty times to be interested in tuning in another twenty. If every broadcast is approached with the assumption that most viewers are tuning in for the first time, then anyone who isn’t quickly ends up with a sense of “haven’t I seen this episode already?”

  • Idiot/expert dynamics: Along the same lines, the idiot/expert schtick probably needs to disappear from the commentary booth. During the boom, when many viewers were in fact clueless about poker, it made sense to have one commentator essentially step into the newbie’s shoes and ask questions about the game for his more veteran partner or expert guest to answer. Not only are the questions themselves uninteresting for the audience, they also become a transparent act once you’ve heard them asked several times already.
  • Pointless digressions: During the boom days, the norm was for poker to be pre-recorded and edited, so that only the most dramatic hands were witnessed. This also made life easy for the commentators, in that they always had something interesting to be commenting on. That has led to the situation that now, with things being broadcast live, a lot of the time during a broadcast is spent with the commentators attempting to fill dead air while waiting for something dramatic to happen.

    Aside from the aforementioned rehashing of basic strategy, the most common tactic during slow periods is for the commentators to digress into personal stories or opinions, often about things unrelated to poker. Occasionally these are interesting, but even then, they create the problem of taking the viewer’s head out of the game. Sometimes, even the commentators themselves miss the beginning of an important hand because someone is rambling on about something different.

    Naturally, we don’t want dead air, nor do we need to hear why one player is going to raise Ace-Five out of the small blind when it’s folded to him and why the big blind is going to fold Seven-Three offsuit. But it’s important to find a way to continue talking about the game at hand even when nothing is happening; for the spectator a game or sport is all about the narrative it produces, and when lulls in the action result in digressions, the sense of continuity is disrupted. It’s much harder to care about the progress of a final table when the impression given off is of hands being played in a vacuum, separated by unrelated anecdotes.

Look to experience

If the problem is that a boom-era approach to commentary is poorly suited to a more mature game with a more seasoned viewership, then the answer is to look to better-established industries for inspiration, rather than at poker’s own past. We’ve been treating poker like a sport since the boom, and there’s no reason to move away from that. The questions, then, are what do sports commentators do that poker commentators don’t, and which sports most closely resemble poker in terms of information content and pacing?

  • Approaching the fundamentals: Imagine trying to be an American football fan if every broadcast included explanations of what a zone defence is, why you usually want to punt on fourth down, what “offside” means, and so forth. It would be unbearable. Conversely, imagine trying to follow a game as a newcomer if the commentators assumed you could see what was happening and dove straight into technical discussions of quarterbacking strategy.

    How do sports commentators balance the two sides of this equation? By applying the standard writers’ advice to show and not tell, specifically with regards to the game’s fundamentals. Rather than explaining basic concepts like punting and field position, they’ll say things like “they’ve got to be tempted to gamble on fourth here, but they’re a little too far in their own end. If they turn over the ball here, it puts the [opponents] in scoring position, so they’re going to have to punt and leave it up to the defense to get it back for them.”

    Describing the situation like that accomplishes both goals at once. It simultaneously gives a novice listener enough contextual clues to understand roughly what’s going on and why, yet by referring to the specifics of the current situation, avoids lecturing an experienced listener on something she already knows. The former gets to follow the action and learn about how the game works, while the latter is posed with the more interesting question of whether they think it’s worth it for the team to take a gamble.

  • Play-by-play vs. color: This brings us to commentary booth dynamics, and the “idiot/expert” dynamic that I’d like to see disappear. It’s definitely more interesting for the listener if there are multiple people in the commentary booth, and if they’re not all attempting to play the same role. The classic play-by-play vs. color dynamic is useful here, and doesn’t require one commentator to pretend to be clueless about the game.

    Providing play-by-play narration of the action may seem redundant, given that all the necessary information is displayed in the graphics on-screen. However, televised sports commentary evolved out of radio broadcasts, and the experience for sports viewers is that they’re often watching the video and ignoring the commentary, or listening to the commentary while turning away from the video.

    It should be possible to follow poker the same way, especially streaming online to an audience which will often be multi-tasking. Ideally, the commentary and video should each be sufficient to follow the action on their own, while still complementing one another when taken together.

    Going back to “show don’t tell,” the color commentary needn’t always be strategic analysis per se. Joey Ingram was a guest on Tuesday night’s broadcast, and he mentioned that he prefers to avoid commenting on whether he thinks a given play was correct, and prefers to guess at what the player was most likely thinking and/or feeling to make that choice. I think this is the correct approach, because it fits with the idea of spectatorship as following a narrative, rather than engaging in a study session.

  • Fill the dead air with stats: From a pacing perspective, the sport that poker most closely resembles is probably baseball. It takes place in discrete units of pitches, plays, at-bats and innings, like the hands, streets and blind levels of poker. It also consists of stretches in which not a whole lot happens, interspersed with moments of extreme tension or unexpected excitement.

    These two factors are high on the list of reasons that baseball culture and commentary is even more focused on statistics than other sports. Not only does the structure of the game make it easy to track a large variety of numbers and produce derivative statistics from those, but its pacing more or less requires commentators to have access to that sort of data in order to have something to talk about between innings and while waiting for a pitch.

    PokerGo and other streams already have systems in place to keep track of stack sizes and the action within a hand, display cards and player positions on-screen, and so forth. It should be possible with a little extra effort to add some functionality similar to the HUDs players use online, to provide the commentators with some numbers to discuss during slow periods. For example, a boring, run-of-the-mill situation like a blind steal could spark 20 seconds of discussion about each player’s blind defense frequency, and what that means for table image. This would help keep the viewer in the narrative, which is preferable to pulling them out of it with some non sequitur.

    If you don’t look back, look forward

    With all that said, even conventional sports commentary is often criticized for certain tropes, like pretending that certain statistics are far more relevant than they really are, or repetition of meaningless clichés about how “fired up” the teams are, and how they’ve “come out here to win.”

    Though there are certain lessons to be learned from the traditional approach to sports commentary, there’s certainly room to innovate. Internet streaming rather than conventional televised broadcasts helps a great deal in that regard.

    The UFC, for instance, has experimented with allowing viewers of its live streams to act as their own cameraman, switching to the angle they’d prefer to see rather than those chosen by the broadcast team. They likewise provide commentary in multiple languages, and allow viewers to switch between those at will.

    Something like that could be a huge improvement for PokerGo as well. You could, for instance, have three commentary streams: one straightforward play-by-play with a bit of color, one taking a more explanatory approach for beginners, and one for high-level strategic discussion of the play.

    Streams for some sports also include interactive elements for viewers who want access to the statistics themselves. If PokerGo were to add HUD-like statistical tools for its commentators, giving the user access to the same tools while watching would be a huge experience improvement.

    Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada.