Lessons From A First-Time Viewer Of The WSOP On ESPN

Steve Ruddock December 1, 2015 1504 Reads
WSOP ESPN review

Not too long ago, one of Casino City’s editors, Clare Fitzgerald, penned a very intriguing article that is flying somewhat under the radar in the poker world. Part Time Poker’s Alex Weldon also penned an article on the subject.

Fitzgerald, despite her employer, was a poker newbie who was tasked with watching every minute of ESPN’s World Series of Poker broadcast; the weekly edited down episodes, as well as the live stream of the final table.

Fitzgerald’s breakdown of the broadcast offers a really good glimpse into the motivations of potential WSOP viewers, and what would appeal to them, as well as what doesn’t appeal to them. Here are the more interesting takeaways I had from Fitzgerald’s column (I’ll expound on these points in a moment):

  1. She doesn’t complain about the boringness of poker, in fact she extols the ability to see what the players cannot see (hole cards) and seems to find televised poker somewhat interesting — the edited version anyway.
  2. She spends very little time talking about big hands, or exciting poker play.
  3. The broadcast failed at explaining the tournament format or strategies players were employing during the edited episodes.
  4. She felt a lot of the storylines, and heroes and villains, were being forced upon the viewer.
  5. She views poker as something much closer to a reality TV show than a sport.
  6. She seems to have found the broadcast as a whole, polarizing, with ESPN pitting the cool kids against the geeks and dweebs. On that note, she was also not enamored with most of Norman Chad’s sarcastic remarks.

*Author’s note: Obviously Clare is a woman (another demographic poker suffers to appeal to), but I set that aside for this column, and tried to focus solely on her newness to poker.

Is poker on TV boring?

The aspects of the broadcast Fitzgerald found boring (tanking and hands that took several minutes) weren’t present until the live stream. But then again, edited episodes aren’t without their problems either, as the live stream’s slow pace also allowed ESPN to focus on the content she most enjoyed, the character development.

This is something I feel ESPN has moved away from over the years, and I’d like to see them try to find more Moneymaker types (people who are not overly comfortable on camera), with less emphasis on the supposed “name” pros that appeal to the masses — Fitzgerald didn’t even know who Daniel Negreanu was, so highlighting Jason Mercier or Dan Smith is sort of pointless to bringing in new viewers.

“And while a lot of the players left are apparently well-known in poker, they were unfamiliar to me, so it was easy for me to get lost among all the short, disjointed character profiles and mini-storylines,” Fitzgerald opined in her column.

Furthermore, as noted above, she also doesn’t seem overly interested in high-level meta-game battles, great calls or bad beats. She’s more interested in developing a rooting interest for different players (like you would on a reality TV show) and seeing the people she is rooting for win their confrontations against the people she’s not enamored with.

For instance, Fitzgerald seemed less broken up that Joe McKeehen eliminated Justin Schwartz (who Fitzgerald took to calling the “Glorious Trainwreck”) than the fact that his rival, Negreanu, outlasted him.

Start at the beginning

Fitzgerald was fine with Antonio Esfandiari’s hand analysis later in the tournament, when hands took several minutes to play out, but as a first-time viewer she found the strategies, and even the tournament structure, a bit hard to follow during the early episodes.

“The earlier episodes were a little disorienting for me, not least because Episode 1 kicks off on Day 4, when more than 85% of the field has already been eliminated… so it was hard for me to appreciate that the people busting in the first few episodes are actually very good players who have done well in the tournament.”

It may be in ESPN’s and poker’s interest to do a better job setting the stage for the broadcasts and slowly building up to higher level commentary as the episodes wear on. This could allow new viewers to get up to speed during the first few episodes and expand their poker acumen in future episodes. In the age of DVR’s and OnDemand, a lot of people will start watching the WSOP from Episode 1, even if it’s a snippet of Episode 10 that captures their attention, so it’s important to make them feel comfortable from the outset, and let them know this is a show worth binge watching.

I don’t want to root for Peyton Manning

ESPN is no stranger to the “favorites” accusation, as the network is often criticized for fawning over the likes of Peyton Manning or LeBron James, but with poker being a fairly niche product, it’s a bit disconcerting that they’re employing (perhaps unwittingly) the same tactics.

As Fitzgerald notes, it was easy to see who ESPN and the commentary team wanted to win and who they wanted eliminated. Interestingly, Fitzgerald took a contrarian approach (the only “favorite” she cared for was Antonio) and started rooting for the “heels,” like Schwartz and McKeehen.

I think the larger point to learn from this is, the viewer (even a first-time viewer) is much smarter than you’re giving them credit for and will form their own opinions about which players to root for.

Some people will be drawn to the angst and social awkwardness of Schwartz, while others prefer the talkativeness and star power of Daniel Negreanu, and still others latch on to the hipster style of Neil Blumenfield.

Let the viewers decide, don’t try to tell them who they should like.

Upshot

If Fitzgerald’s column teaches us anything, it’s this: The WSOP on ESPN has already hooked the people interested in poker. But in order to find new viewers, the network needs to simplify its broadcast (at least early on), and be willing to celebrate the player dynamics and feuds, rather than the latest bad beat, cooler, elimination or high-level play.

Like a football fan rooting on a team, whether they win through skill or through a lucky bounce; a win is a win to a casual poker viewer who is watching TV to be entertained. Nobody is overly interested in Tom Brady’s throwing mechanics, and most casual viewers couldn’t be bothered to understand the reasons behind nickel and dime packages.

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