Ep. 21 - First Dissent: Six Requirements for a Comp Livestream

First Dissent is what I'm calling episodes where I just talk for a bit...it's funnier when you say it out loud.

As livestreams become standard fare for mid-tier and top-tier competitions, it's time to identify the shortcomings of current streams and figure out what's required to bring our broadcasts to the next level.

Read the full episode below.

 Climb with me at Grand River Rocks (Kitchener, Ontario) on November 30th to help raise funds for Ludovyk!

Climb with me at Grand River Rocks (Kitchener, Ontario) on November 30th to help raise funds for Ludovyk!

 

Six Requirements for a Comp Livestream

Livestreaming isn’t a perk that people are just pleasantly surprised to hear that you’re offering for your upcoming competition. Livestreaming is now something that people expect from any mid-tier or high-tier comp. And while that costs some money, it’s the greatest thing to happen to your comp in a while. Not just because your first place qualifier’s distant family can watch the event from their summer home in Sarasota, but because more of your members can watch the event, and your event will gain more exposure, your gym will gain more exposure and most importantly your sponsors will gain more exposure!

Competition climbing has a lot of problems but the biggest one for organizers and athletes is the lack of sponsorship dollars available, and the only way to grow the amount of money we can make is by proving that there are eyeballs paying attention. All of our gyms are limited by the local fire code to a few hundred spectators at most, so broadcasting our events is the only way to increase our number of viewers and create extra value for the companies who support us.

So hosting a livestream is a great first step. And it can take a few events to figure out how to do it well in your facility, or how to work with the broadcast company you use. But now that livestreams are a little more prevalent, I want to make sure we’re raising the bar on our broadcasts. We should be trying to make sure that our broadcasts provide the best viewing experience possible, and make sure the viewers who start to watch our streams don’t turn it off. We want to entertain them so much that they share it with their friends. We need to do these things really well to make comp climbing a viable sport going forward. So in this inaugural episode of First Dissent, I’m going to list the 6 things that are required to call something a top-tier stream. Some of these are a matter of attitude, some of them are a matter of technology, and some of them just cost more money. But these are the next milestones that broadcasts should be hoping to achieve, so let’s figure out how to do it and then make it happen.


1. If there’s a climber on the wall, show the climber on the screen.

This sounds obvious, but unfortunately it isn’t. Whether it’s cutting to a shot of the commentators or switching over to a live interview with an athlete that just finished their climbing, this cardinal sin happens not only at little local events but at gosh darn IFSC World Cups, and that’s just ridiculous. 

The NFL would NEVER cut from a live play to talk to a coach. No director would EVER switch the cameras to look at the commentators while a golf ball is in midair during the Masters Tournament. From here on out, if a climbing event ever cuts away from a climber in action it should be seen as an act of disrespect towards the climber and the viewers and the sport.

We all know that climbing events can be long, especially if we’re talking about a qualifying round or semifinal round in bouldering or difficulty. Maybe we’re complacent and have started to think it’s okay to look away for a bit. And yes, the viewer absolutely has the right to stop paying attention, but we can’t decide what they can and can’t watch. Each viewer is rooting for a different climber, and there’s always going to be someone out there who is interested at any given moment. And this isn’t to say the commentators can’t go off on a tangent, or that we can’t do athlete interviews during climbing - both of those things can be informative and entertaining. But the camera has got to stay on the climbing. 

So what about when you’re showing an IFSC finals format and there’s a man and women on the wall at the same time? Well, here’s where we start talking about values. There’s no reason one camera can’t watch both Men’s 1 and Women’s 1  if those problems are set side by side. Maybe that’s not how you set events at your gym, maybe you spread problems out. Maybe its because you don’t want fallzones to be an issue, maybe you like different angles happening at the same time, maybe the geometry of your wall is so dramatic that two problems near each other aren’t actually visible together from the angle of the gym audience. Well, it’s time to consider the bigger audience. It’s almost certain that, for any mid- or top-tier event, more people will be watching your event from their computers than from inside your gym. There is definitely more opportunity to grow your online audience than your on-site audience. And because of that, I think the experience of your online viewers should be a priority over what you may have done in the past. Get your routesetters and crew together, and start figuring out a layout that makes it possible for the men and women to be climbing adjacent problems. If you can do that, then you’ll be able to show every moment of the event with as little as one mobile camera.

Maybe you’re asking “Well, how do I make sure that we don’t miss any action when it’s a qualifying round and there are 5 men and 5 women on the wall at the same time?” Yeah, good question. I’ve seen events use multiple streams, where each stream covers maybe two problems but all streams share the same audio and commentary. If you’ve got a director working for you, they might be able to switch between cameras and catch as much action as possible. 

But honestly, I don’t watch the qualifiers or semis because they’re long as hell and not very entertaining. When I watch sports, I want to see the best going head to head, not hundreds of scrubs chuffing their way through the starting moves of a a World Cup qualifier. I’d personally prefer moving your resources away from showing these rounds and using them to make the finals broadcast better. More people are interested in finals, and that’s where the potential for growth is. The general public will never be interested in watching 20 hours of Munich bouldering qualifiers, so don’t bother paying a crew to work all that overtime. Use your money where it’ll be valued.

I can understand that people may disagree, especially when we’re taking about youth events. Yeah, for the kid stuff it’s generally parents and coaches watching, so sure, go for it. And if you stumble upon a great way to show lots of climbers all at once, let us know. 


2: Make your stream easy to find.

Different communities rally around different platforms. If I want to know what’s going on in politics I’ll hop on Twitter. If I’m trying to watch a CS:GO LAN I’ll check out Twitch or Reddit, if I want to fall down a rabbit hole of memes I’ll get on Instagram and if I want to talk to my friends then I’ll find them on Facebook Messenger. It makes life a lot easier when I know where my community lives, so I can easily find the stuff I’m looking for. On the other hand, it makes life really damn hard when I want to watch a climbing event and I have to pluck some weird URL out of an old instagram post made by the host gym’s head routesetter. That is no way to reach your audience.

Comp climbing media is mostly shared via Instagram, and a lot of streams are broadcasting over Youtube, and that means you should be on there too. If your broadcasting company is offering “personalized hosting solutions”, make sure they know that you want your event broadcast live on Youtube. Don’t let them put out your content on some unique portal that we all need a special URL for. 

At any given time, there are thousands of climbers browsing Youtube from around the world, and there’s a very good chance that your stream will be suggested to them just based on the previous climbing videos they have watched. Don’t miss the opportunity to get these people watching your stream. As a viewer, I don’t always know of every single competition happening around the world, but I’ll definitely be on Youtube a couple times a day and if I see a live competition is happening right now, I’ll click on it and watch! And that’s one more viewer for your event who you’ve never met, and who never saw your advertising. 

And for your sake, don’t just be on youtube - host the event on your gym’s channel. If you don’t have a channel, make a channel! If I hear about a live competition at say, the Windsor Rock Gym, I’m going to hop on youtube and search “Windsor Rock Gym.” If your event stream isn’t hosted on your channel, it could be pretty hard to find. Make it easy. Make it obvious. You will be rewarded with more viewers.


3. Show The Clock

Sometimes it’s been said that the climbers aren’t competing against each other, they’re competing against the routesetters. I think that’s a neat turn of phrase, but I’d add to it that they’re also competing against the clock. Any climber in finals knows that they can send the problem in front of them, but can they do it 5 minutes?

From a viewers perspective, the struggle of the athlete is only put into context if we know how much time is left on the clock. Without knowing the time, we don’t know the consequence of that mistaken beta or that long rest. We also don’t get to savour the tension and sweetness of a getting both hands on the finish with only two seconds remaining! . Without the clock on screen, you’re throwing away the pressure cooker that creates the opportunity for last minutes winning goals and touchdowns. Without the clock, you’re trying to create a hero without a villain.

Now most of us aren’t familiar with broadcast technology, so we might not know how to make this work. I know for sure they I don’t know how to create a clock graphic that is someone synced to the official timer, I have no flipping idea. But climbing is scrappy, so let’s find a work-around. And this idea actually comes from a World Cup event, where they aimed a camera at one of the official timers, zoomed in all the way, and the inset that video image onto the screen. It was kind of funny cuz they applied a blur around the edges so it looked like some really old school special effects of a floating alarm clock on the screen, but what matters is it worked! The broadcast team  didn’t need to work with the judges in control of the timer, and there was no specially graphics or programming needed, they just had a camera, pointed at a clock. And although I’m not experienced in broadcast technology, I already know how to inset one video feed on top of another in some different types of streaming software, so I know first-hand that this is an easy fix. Maybe some bigger companies with soon be able to do a sweet ESPN-quality clock graphic, but until then, this works. And like I said before, having the clock visible is the only way that comp climbing actually becomes exciting. It’s the only way people will feel the emotions that only swell up when you know it’s down to the wire. So show the clock.
 

4. Lighting

I know that it’s really cool to walk into a gym and be impressed by a dark atmosphere with loud music and trippy coloured lights illuminating the wall. It’s a new environment for gym-goers, and it’s really fun for a minute. But coloured lighting is a disaster on camera. If you’re broadcasting your comp, use bright white lights.

First of all, cameras need a lot of light. Everything will look better on screen if you make the walls as bright as possible. Secondly, I want you to consider the difference in viewing experience between one of your gym regulars who watches your comp on site, versus someone who’s never been to your gym watching the event online. The camera’s perspective is further away than your audience, most likely. So, things will be smaller. Holds will be smaller, and harder to see. Unlike your regulars, they might not have seen these holds before. Also, video images are 2-dimensional, unlike the 3-dimensional view your on-site audience gets to enjoy. When you add all of this together, it is significantly more difficult for a viewer online to see and understand each route or boulder. It’s harder for them to judge angles, to see textures, to identify incuts or notice small screw-ons. 

This gets even harder if you wash your walls with coloured light. I understand that it’s initially striking, but it’s terrible for broadcasting. If you’re not convinced, watch some recent events of the USA Climbing National Bouldering Series. Strong climbers, great routesetters, but hard to watch. Use white light.


5. Start showing ads.

You’re already in the habit of putting your sponsors logos on your poster. And giving them a shoutout on instagram, and plastering their logos on your walls. It’s the logical next step to start offering to show their logo or ads on your stream. This can be as small as overlaying your sponsors logos in a row along the bottom of the screen, or rotating through logos in a top corner or something. Or if you want to go big, you’ve probably seen the 15 second ads that Teknik, e-Grips and others show at USA Climbing national events: there’s no reason you can’t do the same!

All of this requires some coordination with your broadcast provider. They’ll need the image files of your sponsor in advance, as well as time to sort out how you want everything to be laid out on screen. If you’re going to show midroll ads, you’ll need to coordinating between the officials on the ground and the broadcast director to make sure there’s a gap between climbers to show those ads. But all of this is definitely worth the added value that you can start to present to your sponsors. I wouldn’t ask for more of a sponsor for your first year of running ads, but I’d bring it to their attention that you’re trying it out, and I’d send them a clip of it after the event so they can see what you’re doing. Long term, figuring out how to give your sponsors more screen time is a huge deal for your event, and for the industry all together.


6. Scores should always be visible.

This is my last requirement for making your broadcast a top-tier show. It’s also the most difficult one, it terms of technology, event coordination, and also in terms of how hard scoring is within climbing by itself. But it’s something we need to figure out, so let’s talk about it.

My argument is pretty simple - your broadcast exists to entertain and inform. A viewer should be able to turn on your stream and have a near instant understanding of the state of the competition. If I tune in as the first climbers come out onto problem number 3 of a bouldering finals, I shouldn’t have to wait until the end of all six climbers before i know who’s in the lead. Without knowing the score, I won’t understand the importance of how the climbers perform on that problem. I won’t be able to get excited about my favourite climber trying to hold onto their lead. Just like trying to watch without knowing how much time is left, watching without the score removes important context for the viewer.

Finals rounds should have a simple table on one side of the screen showing the current scores, while semi-finals and qualifiers could go the way of racing and use a scrolling ticker along the bottom that shows all of the climbers current results. Now the ticker doesn’t currently exist in any way that I can think of, but I know that a service like CRIMP has a pretty decent live scoring system, which can be viewed easily on a smartphone screen. If you end up using CRIMP or a similar service for your event, it’s easy to, basically overlay a narrow window that show the results from your scoring service. So as the viewer, the right 5th of the screen would be a column of scores. I know CRIMP, or crimp.rocks, however you pronounce it, I know they offer an API for a scoring overlay for livestreams, but I think it’s a full-screen graphic that you wouldn’t want to have on the screen all the time. Maybe they’ll develop something along the lines of what I’m thinking, something that would fit in the right 5th of the screen, but for now I’ve managed to make the overlaid narrow browser window work in my software.

And while that’s a neat idea, I know that scoring is one of climbing’s biggest challenges. Everything I just proposed assumes you’ve got a team of judges all manned with smart phones, let alone judges that know what they’re doing. It also assumes you’re using a system based on tops and bonuses - if you’re using the new USA Bouldering scoring system, good luck finding a public scoring app. Scoring on screen is full of issues we need to solve, but I think it’s time to start figuring it out. And if you’re a viewer, start asking for it! It’s kind and gentle of us to appreciate whatever livestreams we can get. As viewers, we know they’re expensive and since we’re not paying to watch, we can’t claim that we are owed a livestream. But as a sport, the only way to sustainable support competitions and competitors is to make the viewing experience so good that more people start watching. Not just more climbers, but non-climbers. Seriously, how many people watching the Super Bowl actually play football regularly? We can’t just use livestreams to entertain our own community. Livestreams need to reach out, entice strangers, and expand our community. And I think these 6 requirements: 1, always showing the climber, 2 making your stream easy to find, 3 showing the timer, 4 getting rid of bad lighting, 5, showing we’re serious about advertising, and 6, making scores easy to see, are the ways we can start fostering a bigger audience.

 

Footnotes

Climb for Ludovyk - Grand River Rocks website
Floating IFSC clock (more recent, less ghostly) - Youtube
CRIMP.rocks scorekeeping system