ESPN Broadcast Wraps a Rough 2020 for WSOP

ESPN Broadcast Wraps a Rough 2020 for WSOP

On Sunday night, February 28, ESPN broadcast four hours of World Series of Poker action. It summarized on film the two live final tables – one in the Czech Republic, one in the USA – that resulted from online play for the 2020 WSOP Main Event. And the final hour allowed viewers to get to know the two finalists and watch a solid heads-up match.

It was a fine way to put some ribbon around the WSOP in 2020 and wrap it up.

ESPN did its job and made the WSOP look very good. What had been a complicated layout of the 2020 Main Event journey came down to an understandable explanation as narrated by Lon McEachern and Jamie Kerstetter, with highlights from Jeff Platt.

Far more than in some past broadcasts, the 2020 WSOP Main Event delivered interesting player stories. Perhaps it was easier this time because so many of them were likeable. They started off with a player who donated everything to charity. And those two finalists were particularly affable and endearing, both with remarkable stories that led them to that point in their poker lives.

Unprecedently Unprecedented

McEachern and Kerstetter did a masterful job of commentating hours of poker television filmed during a pandemic without overusing words like pandemic and unprecedented.

As for the commentators, I would’ve liked to have seen McEachern address the absence of Noman Chad directly and early in the first hour. McEachern had said on Twitter that Chad was still suffering the after-effects of his 2020 bout with Covid-19, but it would’ve been nice to see a quick video from Chad or more of an acknowledgement in some way.

They did address Kara Scott’s absence in that she was in Italy and unable to travel due to pandemic restrictions. And she sent a video addressing the audience to say that she missed being in Las Vegas for the WSOP.

Platt provided key interviews and informational briefs, such as explaining the rule that disqualified Upeshka De Silva from playing the US final table due to a positive Covid-19 test. Platt also made the social distancing required during interviews not seem so awkward. He’s a professional who adapted to the situation.

As for the poker, McEachern started it fittingly by saying, “For fifty years, from around the globe, they came to Las Vegas to compete in the World Series of Poker. But in 2020, the World Series had to go to them, and that it did.”

WSOP on ESPN 2020

Filling in the Blank Spaces

McEachern and Kerstetter had to tackle voiceover work for poker tables that played quieter than usual. At the Rio, there were no audiences around the final tables, no family members and friends, no reporters circling for chip counts or even Jack Effel calling the action on stage.

Players were exceptionally quiet during the play, both at the US and international final tables, but Kerstetter and McEachern erased the silence with almost seamless commentary. They appeared to work well together, albeit virtually, and made the action flow.

Two players mostly dominated the US final table with their touching stories.

One came from Gershon Distenfeld, who spoke honestly about having made sufficient money earlier in life to be able to donate a lot of time and money to charities. He played specifically to win money that he would distribute to charity. Joseph Hebert also dominated coverage, not only because he came in as the chip leader and crushed the table, but he also had a story about his mother dying earlier in 2020. Following up on a Twitter campaign of #ForLinda, Hebert talked about his mom and her support for his love of poker.

By the third hour, when the cameras focused on the international final table, no one player emerged as a favorite during the action. There wasn’t much time to do so, and Damian Salas seriously dominated the action. Pictures of his family helped endear him to viewers, as did a WSOP bracelet that his young daughter made for him.

It was disappointing to see that the international players were slighted in the coverage of their final table, given only half the airtime of their US counterparts.

Making Heads-Up Exciting and Heartbreaking

The final hour of ESPN coverage of the 2020 WSOP Main Event was the heads-up match. They played more than 170 hands, which can be utterly boring to the average poker fan.

ESPN worked its magic, though. Salas and Hebert told more of their personal stories, their journeys in poker and life. Viewers could cheer for either player for different reasons. Mixing that with key hands worked for the hour-long episode.

The ending was disappointingly sad, though.

Salas won the match fair and square, and the two shared a warm handshake/embrace as they seemed to congratulate each other and show a lot of respect.

Then, Salas ran out of the ballroom, and the cameras watched him singing as he raced to the doors to find his family and friends. He wanted to celebrate with them. Instead of flashing to footage of that celebration, the cameras focused on Hebert, alone at the table, gathering his belongings and sadly preparing to leave.

Ultimately, Platt spoke to both finalists. Salas returned to the table to take pictures with the bracelet and piles of cash, and he answered some questions in an interview format. With that, the show did end on a high note, but it was difficult to get the picture of a despondent-looking Hebert out of one’s mind.

Overall Positive Review

For those interested in the play leading up to the ESPN broadcasts, Kerstetter and McEachern commentated on some of the online action. There are two episodes – approximately a half-hour each. (It would have been nice if everyone tuning in to the ESPN broadcasts this weekend would have known about these two videos prior. They could have seen the information about Norman Chad and acquired quite a bit of other information to preface the ESPN episodes.)

 

Kerstetter wrapped up the coverage with this: “This heads-up match had two heroes and no villains, two likeable family guys, experienced players who comported themselves with class throughout.”

It is rare that the WSOP is able to focus so much on heads-up opponents and find that both of them are as Kerstetter described. Both were passionate and thoughtful about poker, both motivated and competitive but friendly to each other despite a language barrier. Just as play started, Salas and Hebert both put on their sunglasses at the same time – a symbolic moment.

Even better, both players wore their hearts on their sleeves. Both men were extremely proud fathers and close to their families. Both were not afraid to let their emotions show, both in victory and defeat.

With Salas at 45 years old and Hebert at 38, both men had enough life experience to know how to handle themselves in such a situation, both authentic and respectful of each other and the moment.

From a personal standpoint, I enjoyed hearing a woman’s voice throughout the broadcast. I not only know Kerstetter to be a lovely person, I know that she is wicked smart. She brought her unique wit to the commentary and balanced it nicely with her intense knowledge of poker.

In a year when the pandemic turned everything on its head, including all aspects of live poker, the WSOP and ESPN put together four hours of solid coverage of the 2020 Main Event.

Stark Contrast to General 2020 WSOP

Let’s be honest. The World Series of Poker racked up many missteps and oversights in the past year.

I can start with some basics like marketing and public relations…

There were many points throughout 2020 that the WSOP website offered no – or limited – information about activities on the horizon. In addition, the WSOP’s social media accounts also lacked info. The Twitter account had been – years ago – a place to find series and tournament details, names of winners, and general reminders of upcoming events. That was often not the case in 2020.

As the most recent example, the WSOP website didn’t mention anything about the ESPN coverage. ESPN announced it last week…just days before the air date. It would be nice if the WSOP thought enough of its fans to give ample notice of broadcasts.

At one time, there were people (hi Kevmath!) who handled the WSOP’s Twitter account, at least during large events, to answer questions and post updates. Most Twitter requests and questions now go completely unanswered and unaddressed.

In my efforts to try to summarize WSOP news and action in small news pieces for this website, I tried to find information on the WSOP site throughout the year. I quickly found that tournament results either contained errors, were incomplete, or did not appear at all. PokerNews became my go-to site for all information beyond the tournament results that I could obtain from the WSOP.com downloaded online poker site myself. The company’s website became relatively useless.

The WSOP also claimed to track leaderboards for players in the various online series, both in the US and on GGPoker. However, they rarely updated the WSOP website in a timely fashion…if at all.

When the WSOP introduced its new sweepstakes in 2021 to offer the Ultimate Poker Champion Experience, the promotion’s page on the website noted that they will accept entries through April 31. (April has 30 days.) Someone corrected that at some point, but the page still notes that the winner will participate in a whiskey and cigar paring. (Usually, people pair those things instead of paring them.)

The bottom line is that the WSOP needs an editor, not to mention someone who can input tournament results and leaderboard points. They also need someone to manage their social media accounts in order to be informative, timely, and responsive.

I’m no business executive or marketing guru, but the aforementioned issues seem preventable. A brand that wants to continue to grow should make sure they take care of the basics and show that they value all of their customers.

 

About Jennifer Newell

Jennifer began writing about poker while working at the World Poker Tour in the mid-2000s. Since then, her freelance writing career has taken her from Los Angeles to Las Vegas and back to her hometown of St. Louis, where she now lives with her two dogs. She continues to follow the poker world as she also launches a new subscription box company and finishes her first novel. Jennifer has written for numerous publications including PokerStars.com and has followed the US poker and gaming market closely for the last 15 years. Follow Jen on Twitter

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