Just a week before the 2010 USA Ultimate Club Championship tournament, Mark Liu, a grad student at University of Wisconsin – Madison, released a new score tracking system onto the Ultimate community. What was unique about this system is that the only thing it relied on was Twitter accounts. Now a proven system, Leaguevine gathers live score updates from team and individual tweets and arranges them into an easy to understand presentation. With a media still in its infancy and live coverage practically nonexistent, Leaguevine has the potential to become an amazing tool for the Ultimate community.
Skyd Magazine caught up with Mark Liu soon after the 2010 Club Championships to learn how Leaguevine performed during the biggest Ultimate contest in the Western Hemisphere.
Please start by introducing yourself. Who are you? What is your ultimate playing background? How did you get interested in ultimate? Why do you continue to participate in it?
My name is Mark Liu and I’m a grad student at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. I began playing Ultimate in 2003 with UCLA Smaug, and played there for 4 amazing years. After graduating, I went to Madison where I spent my final year of college eligibility playing on the Pimpdags which turned out to be a lot of fun as well. Since then, I’ve spent the last 2 years playing in various Madison Ultimate leagues and on occasional mixed or open club teams. I really can’t seem to get enough of the sport, and I’m grateful that I live in a city where I can play just about as often as I want!
Tell me about Leaguevine? What is it exactly? How does it work?
I made Leaguevine with the core focus around getting real time updates to Ultimate players and fans who are following along at home. In its current state, it pulls in everything that people at the fields are saying on Twitter and organizes it nicely so that players and fans do not need to know anything about what Twitter is or who is using it to be able to still benefit from the updates.
Leaguevine focuses on user collaboration to make it work. Any user can create a free account and immediately add things like tournaments, teams, pools, or brackets to the site. More importantly, any user can log on and associate a Twitter account with a tournament, team, or game and then all of the updates coming from that Twitter account will automatically be placed in the appropriate places on Leaguevine. The site does all the work of figuring out which Twitter updates correspond to which games or tournaments by matching up the time the update was entered with the time of the game or tournament.
Thus, users don’t need to know anything about Twitter to receive updates, but have the ability to do anything they want on the site if they choose to.
What was the impetus for developing Leaguevine?
I got the idea for Leaguevine while I was tweeting updates for College Nationals in Madison and realized that it was incredibly difficult to figure out which teams or players had Twitter accounts and which Twitter updates corresponded to which games. It may have been easy for us spectators to use Twitter, but it certainly was not easy for users at home to follow our collective Twitter stream. Almost immediately after this tournament I began developing a solution to this problem.
Twitter updates have some advantages over just reporting scores. They report the game action in a human readable format which really engages the followers better than just numbers.
How long was Leaguevine in development? What difficulties did you encounter along the way.
I started on development for Leaguevine during June and July in 2010. In August I took a 1 month break from everything to go to Kenya for an Engineers Without Borders trip, and then returned to finish the site in September and early October. I’ve fiddled with web development for about 5 years now, but I’ve only gotten serious about becoming good at it for the past 12 months or so. The idea for this project came along at a perfect time, as I had a bit of free time and was itching to develop something useful.
The only really surprising difficulty along the way was when I had to use Twitter’s API. Don’t get me wrong, I think Twitter has done a fantastic job with it. But for some reason I had these overly lofty expectations for how easy it would be for me to simply query Twitter’s databases and get information. Before even looking at the API, it took me quite a while to just get to the point where users could enter tournaments, teams, pools, etc. Once I was at this point, I thought I was just about done with the site and that pulling in Tweets would be the easy part. It turns out that any serious users of Twitter data are expected to store all that data locally, so I had to write a lot of code to regularly pull new Tweets from the server and basically set up my own database of Twitter info. Plus, Twitter was in the process of making significant changes to its API… I remember writing a piece of code that worked perfectly for about a week before Twitter changed something on me that broke everything!
Why have so many teams turned to twitter as a means to communicate to their fanbase?
There are a number of reasons for this. First, it’s incredibly easy to give Twitter updates from a smartphone while at the field. Much easier than entering a score into a mobile browser. Plus, the number of smartphones out there is skyrocketing. Second, it’s actually pretty fun. You’ll notice that once a user starts doing this, they tend to continue doing it for a while. It’s rewarding to connect with your friends, update your followers, and make new friends along the way. Third, teams and players are trying to give the fans what they want. Twitter updates have some advantages over just reporting scores. They report the game action in a human readable format which really engages the followers better than just numbers. Some Twitter users even give multiple updates per point! Further, fans can get these updates not only from the web, but from their smartphones.
Another reason why Ultimate media hasn’t developed sooner is because there is hardly any equipment needed to play the sport – just a plastic disc and maybe some cleats. Other alternative sports like Lacrosse have a ton of equipment requirements so major companies are fighting over their share of the lucrative market.
Looking at USA Ultimate’s Score Reporter, do you see their system as being behind? Do you see Score Reporter utilizing Leaguevine’s functionality at some point?
I’d rather not say anything bad about the USA Ultimate Score Reporter. It has done a very nice job over the past several years serving as the central place for official scores. It has had a very good track record of minimal bugs and maximal uptime. Further, it has become increasingly easy for tournament directors to quickly add pools and brackets to a tournament.
Leaguevine is simply taking a different approach to following Ultimate. It is organized in a way similar to the mainstream sports websites we are accustomed to browsing such as ESPN or Yahoo Sports. Thus, I hope that a typical sports fan can visit Leaguevine and already know how to navigate it. Another core difference between Leaguevine and the Score Reporter is that Leaguevine does not attempt to be an “official” repository of scores, but instead focuses on bringing the best experience to Ultimate followers. Anyone at all can log on and add scores, and Twitter users can say whatever they want in their tweets. Regardless of its accuracy, Leaguevine hopes to get as much information as possible to the users in as little time as possible. Thus, it is hard to compare Leaguevine to the USAU Score Reporter because it has the burden of making sure all the final scores are perfectly accurate and thus can’t rely on what the crowd is saying.
As for USAU’s Score Reporter utilizing Leaguevine functionality, I would be happy if they decide to do this in the future. One thing on my long to-do list is to make widgets where teams can plug something into their team’s website which will show their recent game results. Similar to this, it shouldn’t be too hard to construct a widget that shows the twitter feed for a particular game or tournament. These may be useful to the USAU Score Reporter, but it is up to them.
When did you see as this being a viable trend to develop with?
I actually wasn’t 100% sure this concept would work until the 2010 Club Nationals rolled around. I was worried that there wouldn’t be enough Twitter users to really make the games interesting to follow. However, all those concerns were washed away this past weekend as Leaguevine collected over 1700 tweets from the Open Division Championships alone! The highlight for Twitter coverage came in the Revolver vs Doublewide semi-final game where there were about 170 tweets during this one game. That comes out to over 6 Tweets per point, giving the fans a really nice way to follow the action.
Another nice trend I noticed was that after announcing Leaguevine, a whole bunch of people went out and created brand new Twitter accounts for their teams. I’m hoping that this trend continues and real time updates become the norm.
Why do you think it has taken so long for ultimate media to develop?
I believe Ultimate media coverage has not been the most attractive market for a long time because of the small size of the Ultimate Frisbee fan base and the lack of money in the sport. The number of Ultimate players is increasing rapidly which is a good thing. However, without a solid fan base for the sport, it is tough for a media company to enter the Ultimate marketplace. I think the reason that the fan base is still lagging behind is because it is difficult for the casual fan to follow the sport. There are a ton of amazing bloggers, photographers, and videographers out there, but finding this information is such a mess that most people don’t even bother looking most of the time.
For instance, lets say you are really excited about that Revolver vs Doublewide game. If ESPN had it covered, you’d just go to the site, get a live box score, look at the uploaded photos, listen to the radio broadcast, and watch the streaming video of it afterwards. However with the current state of Ultimate media, to find information on the game, you’d have to look at a million different sources that are hard to locate. Several bloggers might write about the game on their blogs, photographers would upload the photos to Flickr, facebook, or their own photo albums, for the final score you would go to the USAU page, to find video clips you’d go to a totally different page on USAU or on Ultivillage, and to find real time updates you’d have to figure out who was tweeting at the game and what their Twitter names were.
While Leaguevine has no plans to provide all these different types of media, it does hope to organize links to everything so following the game will be as easy as it is with other sports. I really hope that Leaguevine can help improve the fan base and make Ultimate a more attractive market to big time media companies.
Another reason why Ultimate media hasn’t developed sooner is because there is hardly any equipment needed to play the sport – just a plastic disc and maybe some cleats. Other alternative sports like Lacrosse have a ton of equipment requirements so major companies are fighting over their share of the lucrative market. These companies put a lot of money into advertising which allows media coverage companies to be much more profitable. Without all this money, media coverage in Ultimate will naturally develop a little slower.
I would like even more for Leaguevine to have a full on Ultimate Fantasy League. Not just +/- with D’s and goals and all that, but a real fantasy league like you see on Yahoo Sports or ESPN. Where you draft a team, set your lineup each week, add/drop players, and have access to detailed player statistics. How cool would that be?
You released Leaguevine right before the Club Championships. Did you see that as an opportunity to test its functionality? If so, how did it work out? What went right? What went wrong?
Yes, I did release it right before Nationals. I really just wanted to have it ready by Nationals so that fans could follow the Twitter updates easier. I had a bunch of beta testers so I wasn’t too worried about its functionality. I was curious, though, as to what kind of response I would get from users and how exactly they would use the site.
I am really happy with how that weekend went. The site had no problems holding up even though the traffic was higher than I anticipated. Around 70,000 page views on the weekend. I was most pleased with how the users spread the word about Leaguevine without me having to do anything. I posted a couple links on RSD and talked to Lou, the owner of the Ultimate facebook page, who liked the site also posted a link. Besides that, I didn’t really market the site. Lots of people wrote about it on their blogs, their twitter accounts, or on other forums which generated a substantial amount of traffic.
I was also happy with how many teams and fans ended up giving Twitter updates at Nationals. I was away from my computer for most of Saturday and was really enjoying using Leaguevine on my smartphone to get the updates on my favorite teams!
One thing I was a little disappointed with was how infrequently users contributed anything except Twitter accounts. Yes, the real time updates are the main focus, but users can also submit links, score updates, or their own tournaments. Only a couple dozen users ended up adding stuff. I have a bunch of ideas of how to make this much easier for people, so I look forward to rolling those out in the coming months to see if it helps.
Leaguevine is entirely user-powered. All content is entered by the users. What’s to prevent scores from being doctored?
One of the core philosophies of this site is that more information is always better, even if some of it is irrelevant. Thus, for most games the hope is that multiple people will submit Twitter updates or scores and thus people on the site can determine for themselves what the correct score is. Twitter updates add a lot of trustworthiness because of their human readability. It is a lot easier to trust that Machine won a game if you are reading “15-12. Game over. Huge win for Machine.” than if you only see a final submitted score that says “15-12”.
That being said, anything that a brand new user enters into Leaguevine needs to be approved by a moderator before it shows up to the public. This adds at least some protection against obviously wrong or spammy submissions.
Because Leaguevine is beginning to gather a database of information, do you see it becoming a historical tool for examining league histories?
Yes, I do. Right away it is already useful at examining the twitter updates for a certain game. Without a tool like Leaguevine it is impossible to go back and figure out what tweets corresponded to which game. You’d have to figure out who was tweeting at which game and then find all the tweets from those users from that specific time of the day while matching up the timezones correctly. I’m glad we don’t have to do that anymore…
Once Leaguevine has more information that spans different seasons, it’ll be fun to be able to browse team histories like you would on ESPN. In every league I’ve been in, the league has never used a website that made it easy to look back on the past. This is definitley something I’m hoping to improve upon.
How would you like to see Leaguevine evolve in the future? Facebook apps? Are there any plans to create the same tools for individual player stat taking?
You read my mind on the stat tracking. Before I started on Leaguevine, I had envisioned a stat tracking program that would provide real time box scores to the fans. This was a much bigger task to implement than I realized and it may have been a little pre-mature. However, now that Leaguevine is up and running, I can use this foundation to make the development of a stats program much quicker and easier.
This idea is still a bit off into the future, but I would love for Leaguevine to have a record of every touch in a game. I don’t just want the simple counting stats like assists, scores, turns, D’s, etc. but want to keep track of absolutely every aspect of the game for both teams involved. It would be incredibly easy to then produce box scores with not only assists, scores, turns, and D’s, but tons of other useful information. Because every touch is stored in a database, any statistical metric is possible, even if we haven’t thought of it yet. Even very obscure things like completion percentages on dumps between each pair of players, determining how a player’s D to turn ratio is affected by the number of consecutive points he/she is in, calculating the most effective defensive lineup depending on how well players play together. You name it and it’s possible!
Beyond this even, I would like even more for Leaguevine to have a full on Ultimate Fantasy League. Not just +/- with D’s and goals and all that, but a real fantasy league like you see on Yahoo Sports or ESPN. Where you draft a team, set your lineup each week, add/drop players, and have access to detailed player statistics. How cool would that be?
There is a progression of events that need to happen before we can get to this point though. First, many more people need to buy into this real time updates thing and show that they are willing to update scores or at least give Twitter updates. Next, there needs to be widespread adoption of a stats program. And finally, we can all have our fun playing Fantasy Ultimate. That being said, I should admit that I’ve already kind of begun on development for this stats program. It isn’t at the top of the priority list right now… but it is just too much fun to pass up :)
Do you foresee Leaguevine being applied to other sports besides Ultimate?
This is a possibility. However, I’d much rather focus on Ultimate. This sport is just too awesome to have such a small fan base so I want to make following the sport much easier for the casual fan. Once the site is built up though, if other sports have a need for something like Leaguevine, it would not be difficult to replicate the code on another server and help them out as well. That’s way down the line, though, and right now I’m focused purely on Ultimate.
All of the positive responses I’ve gotten on this site have really motivated me to continue to make it better. So to anyone reading this interview, be sure to follow me on twitter (@Leaguevine) to stay updated on these changes. Thanks!
Check it out @ Leaguevine.com