Julian Rogers goes behind the curtain for an exclusive look at the groundbreaking PokerStars EPT Live webcast
With its stylish art deco interior and 42-foot high arched ceilings supporting ostentatious chandeliers, the Grand Connaught rooms in Covent Garden is quite a setting for the £5,000 buy-in EPT London main event. All that spacious headroom comes in handy when you see a bulky HD camera attached to a 12-foot crane arm sweep high above the tables for a panoramic shot of the action. It eventually eases to a standstill directly above an oblivious Dave ‘Devilfish’ Ulliott, complete with his trademark gold knuckleduster rings. Meanwhile, half a dozen cameramen with cumbersome cameras lodged on their right shoulders scuttle around, each accompanied by a producer and sound recordists carrying boom microphones on long poles. Suddenly there’s an all in on a far table and a crew flocks to capture the action.
PokerStars employs 27 scriptwriters, producers and editors – as well as drafting in freelance cameramen, commentators and production engineers – swelling the crew to over 90. It takes three days to set up all the audio-visual equipment and create the glitzy stage supporting the hefty feature table, including ‘lipstick cameras’ to capture the participants’ hole cards. The crew then spends 15 hours a day on their feet to churn out over 90 hours of live coverage for the webcast at Pokerstars.tv. On top of this, the crew must also edit and add post-production polish for the segmented TV shows that are screened months later across the world.
‘It’s a mammoth job,’ says Neil Morris, head of TV production for PokerStars programming. Since arriving over three years ago, Morris has helped pioneer the webcast coverage, which can be viewed on smartphones and tablets, as well as Facebook and twitter. ‘We realised the future was online, where we could make more interactive coverage,’ he says. ‘The webcast was designed for the hardcore poker enthusiast, but as it has grown, more people are finding it and realising it’s interesting, especially as we add an educational layer.’
The webcast has been streaming at EPT London since the cards were shuffled on Day 1 and poker enthusiasts are lapping up the nine days of blanket coverage. ‘We were getting a lot of feedback from people asking to see the early days [of a tournament] but we didn’t know if it was just a minority,’ Morris explains. ‘We first introduced it as a test in Deauville and the viewership has increased dramatically over this year, so we know there is an appetite for it. In fact, the live stream attracted 245,000 daily unique viewings for EPT Barcelona – up from 98,000 for the Grand Final at Monte Carlo in May. ‘It’s incredible growth,’ Morris crows.
While on a tour of the set, we reach a closed door protected by a dapper security guard. The vigilant gatekeeper spies my pink ‘Media’ wristband and denies entry with an outstretched hand. Morris, sporting a green ‘TV Production’ band, darts inside and re-emerges with one for me. A quick nod of approval and we enter the inner sanctum of the TV production operation.
There are cables spewing out of unwieldy equipment everywhere, while the darkened main room is divided into sections by black drapes that touch the carpet. Inside each curtained capsule we briefly encounter various crew members beavering away on machines and glued to TV monitors. Stepping around a corner, we’re confronted by a barrel-chested security guard. After a cursory examination of the wristbands, we are allowed access to where the director and his team are surveying a sprawling patchwork of live feeds from the tournament floor and cueing up the next shot for the online audience.
Jake Cody appears and squeezes past us en route to the commentary booth for a guest appearance on the mic. There are English and Russian commentators on site for EPT London, although the webcast is broadcast in 13 languages. But rather than bringing all these far-flung commentators on site, Morris and his team came up with a cost efficient, multilingual solution. ‘We designed what we call the “remote broadcast device box”,’ he explains. ‘It comes in a suitcase with a microphone, some wires and a little encoder. As long as they have good enough internet connection, the commentators can be in any country, plug it into their computers, get a clean feed from us, and they can commentate in whatever language.’
Two commentators broadcasting live from the Grand Connaught Rooms are the inimitable double act of James Hartigan and Joe Stapleton (‘Stapes’ to his friends). Hartigan, a former radio presenter, and Stapes, a US comedian, have gelled to become a revered oratorical double act in the commentary booth. ‘James is running the ship and I’m trolling him while occasionally firing the guns,’ is Joe’s somewhat cryptic assessment of their Anglo-American relationship.
Hartigan says they strive to serve up a mixture of entertainment, humour and poker analysis. ‘But it’s live, it’s organic and sometimes it is going to tip too far in one direction but, for the most part, we create a good blend.’ Whether it’s the live stream or the subsequent TV highlights shows, there should be an underlying narrative and personalities, Hartigan opines. ‘It should never be about people playing poker. It has got to tell stories as well. You have got to have something invested in the characters that you are watching, otherwise who cares?’
He’s also quick to praise his commentary teammate, who he describes as being ‘awesome’ from the get-go. This prompts Stapes to retrieve a wad of banknotes bound by a silver money clip from his pocket and nonchalantly toss £20 in his partner’s direction. ‘A money clip is a true mark of an American,’ says Hartigan after catching the note. Stapes then proceeds to proudly read aloud a quote by Oscar Wilde engraved on the clip: ‘Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination.’
With Hartigan momentarily pondering this sagacious proclamation, Stapes explains how they prepare for a daily live broadcast. ‘We don’t have time,’ he reveals candidly. ‘The great thing with the live stream is that you do have enough time to organically find fun and entertainment and be genuine. However with the [recorded] TV shows, I prepare with a fine-tooth comb so that down to the second, frame by frame, I know what I want to say and where and when to squeeze in as much entertainment as possible.’
Often, though, ‘weird stuff happens’, as Hartigan describes it, with conversations shooting off on tangents and even backstories sometimes being invented for players. An example was at this year’s EPT in Deauville when Joe innocently suggested that French poker player Franck Kalfon sounded as if he should be a special agent. The joke snowballed and took on a life of its own, as he explains: ‘We created a series of movie titles for him, recorded a theme song for the movies and our viewers started photoshopping movie posters of Franck Kalfon. The PokerStars blog took hold of it and he was known as “special agent” Franck Kalfon.’
Stapes, who says he gets away with ‘murder’ with regards his repertoire of one-liner jokes, says there is no shortage of hysterics in the booth. ‘There is always at least one point where we have to put the mics down because we are laughing too hard. I know when something is really funny when I get told to bring it back to the poker.’
The duo also feed off the interaction with the audience via social media, especially Twitter using the hashtag #EPTLive. It’s the ideal communication tool, according to Hartigan. ‘It forces people to be brief and it’s instantaneous – as soon as they have written a tweet it’s there. #EPTLive is a community and we are seeing friendships, so I’m looking forward to our first viewer marriage.’ Stapes interjects: ‘If not, then just a one-night stand.’
Interspersed with the tomfoolery and actual commentary, Team PokerStars Pros such as Fatima Moreira de Melo and Lex Veldhuis are regularly invited into the booth to dish out their expert analysis. ‘I’ve never been afraid of doing live stuff or strategy segments, because it’s almost like a living room conversation,’ Veldhuis asserts while on a break from the booth. ‘I live and breathe poker, so talking about it feels natural’. Likewise, de Melo thrives on the mic. ‘I enjoy doing webcasts because it forces me to think about situations and makes me reflect on my poker knowledge.’
The webcast is aired live online and no hole cards are exposed, but when the tournament reaches the final table the players’ cards are relayed to viewers on a one-hour delay. This is to maintain the integrity of the tournament, especially when a prize pool of nearly £3 million is on offer in the main event. ‘The EPT is so big and there is so much money involved that everything has to be watertight,’ says Morris. ‘There cannot be a security breach.’
The aforementioned burly security guard is also blocking access to a sealed room where two staff members are observing and logging the hole cards on the feature table for the subsequent TV shows. There’s not a cat in hell’s chance of getting in there. ‘Only the two people in there can actually see card information live,’ Morris reveals. ‘They have no devices with access to the outside world, so no phones, no laptops, no internet. They are literally just there to log the cards so we can make the TV shows afterwards. And we have a security guard who sits on the door.’
As well as the feature table, a secondary table uses cards embedded with tiny RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) chips, while concealed card readers track the hands. The data is stored on a computer and hardwired (to prevent hacking) before being used for the TV shows. Yet despite security assurances, some players still aren’t comfortable with it. For instance, when Scott Seiver and Doc Sands clashed heads-up at this year’s PCA High Roller event in the Bahamas they blocked the cameras from seeing their cards. It divided opinion in the poker world. ‘I appreciate when you talk about putting hole card information out there that people freak,’ says Hartigan. ‘But the security on the PokerStars tours is so top notch. I do genuinely believe the information is secure and the guys running the tournament will put integrity first before TV.’
That’s a wrap
Once EPT London is over, all the raw footage is recorded onto massive hard drives and logged. Then the producers and a story editor meticulously piece together individual episodes for the TV highlight shows. Morris explains that each episode has to work as ‘an individual package’ for viewers who missed previous shows and also contain a ‘narrative arc’. ‘If Daniel Negreanu is playing in show one and gets knocked out in the equivalent of show four, we need to make sure we follow his journey through shows two and three to a conclusion. There are lots of these little stories that go on throughout the different episodes.’
In between EPTs there’s precious little downtime for Morris and his production staff as they toil away on producing TV shows for PokerStars’ other live tours, as well as formulating new programme formats and content. They also have to plan for EPT Prague in December where they do it all again. ‘It’s relentless, it never stops,’ he says. Likewise, Hartigan says poker commentating went from being a ‘sideline pursuit’ to almost a full-time job on the EPT. ‘If we aren’t doing the live stream, then we are on the road or in a booth in London doing the TV shows. It’s not a complaint, but this has become a full-time gig, which is awesome. And I’m a part of what I genuinely think is the best poker tour on the planet.’
EPT London: The numbers
20 – cameras capture the action
2.5 – tons of equipment is needed for the webcast
26 – guest webcast commentators are invited to the booth
2 – kilometres of cabling snakes around the sprawling set
4.7 – terabytes of data is transmitted
93 – hours of live coverage is aired online
You can read more great features like this in PokerPlayer magazine, available online here.