In any hobby, a transition from a casual observer to a full-on fanatic occurs when you actively seek out information instead of just letting it come to you.
This involves not only learning which sources can give you the most accurate details, but which ones update at a frequency that will keep you up to date. For eSports, much of this has fallen on Reddit: the community rewards content submission with karma, providing an incentive to submitting something first.
However, stats, schedules and stream locations are not always readily available. Especially for less-publicized or non-English tournaments, it can be difficult to sift through secondary websites in order to plan your viewing habits.
Strafe, a free app for Android and iOS, is looking to change that.
Strafe wants to solve a problem when it comes to viewing eSports in that not everyone has access to a second monitor. Many will tell you that optimal viewing consists of the stream on one screen, while having a number of other sources of information on another. This includes Twitter for other people’s reactions, or a wiki for quick background checks.
While not everyone may have the convenience of screen real estate (especially on laptops), it’s a safe bet that a lot of people will have a smartphone or tablet to serve as a surrogate.
Strafe provides match schedules, notifications, updates and scoreboards for many popular games. At the moment, it services League of Legends, Dota 2, Hearthstone, Starcraft 2 and Counter Strike: Global Offensive.
An average match will show the rosters of both teams, their statistics after its conclusion and the current score in a “best of X” series. Strafe also keeps track of the overall standings of the tournament, giving you greater context to how the teams are doing. These tournament pages also track the date range of the tournament, prize pools and the default stream link for where these games are being broadcast.
Strafe also lets the user filter games that they want to see: for instance, I can follow all five of the titles provided, while someone interested in only League of Legends can mute the other four. This provides a gateway to broadening your horizons to other titles or harder-to-watch tournaments: Strafe does away with the excuse of ignorance.
However, it’s important to note that Strafe will not launch a Twitch window or app for you. The idea is that you’re going to do that by yourself, and keep Strafe handy to see things that the broadcast may not show, or that you may miss. Essentially, it’s that friend that knows way more about that game than you do.
“As we see it, Strafe is not a replacement for watching eSports, it’s a second screen. A companion app to use while watching. Or, if you’re unable to watch a match while in school or at work, still keep up with the results in a tournament”, said Jonathan Liberman, CMO of Strafe AB, the app’s parent company.
If nothing else, Strafe has ambition.
Strafe enters a field of competition with a number of other news sites and services that want to command your attention as an eSports fan. However, a common problem with these start-ups (I’m looking at you, fantasy leagues) is that they underestimate the amount of work needed to keep their information current.
Especially when it comes to in-game data, information is rarely automated. There are no RSS feeds for head shots.
Instead, Strafe relies on a volunteer crew that updates their app manually. This means that someone needs to be on hand in order to update picks, bans, end statistics and match results across five large, global eSports titles.
It’s a bit of a daunting task.
[Edit: Liberman has clarified that the editorial team are paid, and not volunteers. The story has been changed to reflect this.]
The pressure to be current is exacerbated by the nature of start-ups in eSports: because Reddit serves as a convenient way to gauge interest in something that you’re building, a front page hype topic (especially before work starts) is kind of a double-edged sword. Sure, it gets exposure to you, your company and aspirations, but, sadly, it rarely results in something that gets finished. Whether the attention from the thread satiates the team’s ego, or the group lacks experience to deliver on what they promise, there is a disappointing trend in that these projects disappear.
Strafe subverts that by having something that eSports as a whole sorely lacks, sometimes: experience in building similar products in a real-world environment.
“I started my career in traditional television, working at a Swedish national TV station as a producer. I quit to be able to work with my own projects and passions,” said Liberman. “I got involved in eSports as a freelance producer back in 2010, working for a company that produced web broadcasts for Swedish national television from DreamHack.”
Liberman’s favourite games include DreamHack favourites Starcraft II and Counter-Strike, something he shares with the group’s technical advisor, Andreas “bds” Thorstensson.
Fans of Counter-Strike should recognize Thorstensson’s name: he has a large portfolio of developing multiple proto-social networks for gamers, programs for viewing game replays efficiently, and helping to build SK Gaming as a giant of media in the Counter-Strike world. He also is the creator of Frag or Die, one of the most-viewed CS videos in history.
Rounding out the team are Robert Samuelsson, who has a similar production background to Liberman in Swedish TV, and Einar Ahlström, the group’s CEO, who has a background in telecom and company management.
Besides the team’s leadership group, there is also a development team of “around eight people”, and an editorial squad of three. Liberman explains that the editorial team are deeply versed in their assigned eSports, and work to observe matches, input data, and push it towards the app.
“They are mostly the ones reporting live, but no one can work 24/7, so we all help out as much as we can. We also try to get help from friends for when it’s get really intense during big events,” he said.
Strafe’s large team and professional background gives them an advantage that experience affords: the design of the app is extremely modern, and can stand similarly beside traditional sports and news apps. Its interface is clean, readable, and avoids the cliches and stereotypes of “gaming” in general. There are no Doritos or Mountain Dew ads to be seen. Thank God.
“Our ambition on the design of Strafe was to make an app that would appeal to a broader [gaming] audience without alienating the core,” Liberman said. “The gaming audience is growing more mature, even as new generations join.”
“We believe gaming could and should be able to look as good as every other good-looking app out there, and put a lot of effort into [Strafe’s] design. It’s a step in the direction of making eSports legitimate to a world who still see this as a niche or an underground movement.”
Despite a promising start, Strafe’s chief challenges are keeping its momentum. Being able to scale to demand and to keep a consistent product is something that many start-ups struggle with in their early days. They must be able to demonstrate value to an audience that does not have a reason to be loyal to their app: in short, there’s a lot of winning over to do, and any lapses in content generation may lead to a dissatisfied audience.
Describing Strafe as a “small company with limited resources”, Liberman explains that their main challenges are to integrate new features that users want while being able to keep information flowing. He was unclear about a roadmap when questioned about many features, which may simply be a case of not wanting to promise dates that may need to be moved; however, Liberman was clear that Strafe’s priorities are to have both a fast development cycle while committing to stats updates 24/7, year-round.
While Strafe wants to be able to deliver on enough eSports content, they must also take care to avoid trying to cover too much. Naturally, they will be covering the LCS, The International, Blizzcon’s Hearthstone Championships, Dreamhack Counter-Strike tournaments and Code S Starcraft; however, what about amateur events? Semi-pro? Locals?
“When it comes to games, we chose what we consider the major eSports titles today. There are some games that could be considered major that’s not supported today,” Liberman explains. “But we had to draw the line somewhere.”
“We continuously analyze the market and listen to our users to bring them entertainment. For tournaments, the aim is to cover major and premier events first hand, games that can be deemed streamworthy.”
Especially in the early stages of the app, Strafe starting small allows them to scale without overloading themselves. Taking on too much means there’s greater chances of burnout or unreported matches: it is better to cover some events completely than even have one missed match.
On the topic of scaling, there’s also the question of monetization. Making money from apps and web sites requires a balancing act: does a company make more money and possibly annoy their audience into leaving with their methods of doing so, or focus too much on user experience and fail to make enough to cover their costs?
There are a number of ways that other apps have attempted to find a good fit: in-app ads, either in banner or interstitial form (like, say, playing a video ad when clicking into a tournament page), selling individual features that users can unlock, or allowing sponsors to re-skin the app as needed.
“Our ambition is for the app to always stay free of charge. Of course, ads [are in] our scope of monetization, but we want to be sure to be able to implement it in a non-intrusive way for the user. Also it’s important to always have relevant ads,” said Liberman.
“We have a few other ideas we’re experimenting with for the future.”
While this roadmap is a little vague, it’s important to realize that Strafe is not something that’s been thrown together in a weekend hack session. Liberman and Strafe AB have been working on the app since 2013, drawing wireframes and plans to make the best possible impression. Below, in a small review, you’ll see that their work has not gone unnoticed.
Strafe has the benefit of having a very strong start into the market which is craving more mobile options. Twitch.tv’s Android app has been downloaded over 10 million times on the Google Play store, and while Apple doesn’t disclose app download statistics, it can be assumed that they are in the same ballpark, if not larger.
Consumers are getting a lot of their eSports information from their mobile devices: they follow pros’ Twitters, Instagrams and Facebooks in order to connect with personalities. They check Reddit from apps, and question why isn’t there the ability to manage their LCS fantasy teams or bet items on matches. They’re watching tournaments while on treadmills or lounging in coffee shops. Ignoring this niche in favour of a more conventional one would be just as bad as shutting out the casual viewer because they require more work to onboard.
Strafe isn’t a total solution for every facet of eSports life, it does what it wants to well enough to warrant attention. They have the drive, the team, the concept and a concrete design: many eSports projects are lucky to even have one of these things.
However, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for improvement.
The rest of this piece will focus on how the app works from a review standpoint; I have experience reviewing mobile apps from writing for Android Police and Droid-Life in the past. This section will naturally be more subjective and opinionated than the above piece.
I was first pointed in Strafe’s direction by Alex Penn, who has found it as part of a thread on the Counter-Strike: Global Offensive subreddit. My first reaction to when I viewed their site was “damn, this actually looks like something I wouldn’t be ashamed to use in public.”
Then, “let’s hope this actually works.”
As part of this review, I installed Strafe on three different devices: my Nexus 5, my ageing iPad 2, and my Nexus 7 (2012 model). Each of these devices installed the app fine, but iOS gave me the most problems: Strafe is not a tablet-native app there, and will have the same ratio as any other iPhone window when opened.
This produces some problems when it comes to the set-up window, as selecting which eSports you’d like to follow looks a bit awkward with misaligned assets. However, the issue isn’t bad enough to keep you from getting started.
It should also be noted that searching “Strafe” in the iOS App Store will not result in the app showing up. I had to go to Strafe.com from my tablet’s browser, then click the appropriate link to be taken to the store page. This did not occur on Google Play.
After performing a brief set-up, which includes an option for a spoiler-free mode (which I thought was a nice touch), Strafe plops you down on a “today” view, which shows the current competition that’s scheduled. I had a bit of an issue where the time listings did not properly adjust to my phone’s clock: this was quickly fixed a few days later on Android, but iOS app updates require a reapproval from Apple’s store team.
From this screen, you can click into any event in order to see the default match view. However, before you do, you have the options of accessing an options menu with the same choices as the set-up, along with a feedback form. You can also filter matches in a chronological order, instead of grouping by game.
I have no real complaints about the design, as recently I have come to appreciate readability as the most important part of any app that wants to show you content. The white background with a fractal pattern allows you to read text easily, and each event is color-coded with a horizontal bar so you can see groupings.
Each team and player (for Hearthstone and Starcraft) is represented by a country flag in lieu of team logos; their absence is a bit glaring, but Liberman informed me that this was to maintain visual consistency with teams who don’t have logos available.
Clicking into a match will give a line-up of the players participating, an option to share the match on social media (perhaps to report that you’re watching it), and then a summary of the game itself.
This summary includes picks and bans (for Dota and League of Legends), team stats, the match format and its overall score. This is the data that is manually added, and often will be when the game has finished. You also have the option to swipe to go to other games in the match for easy and quick reference.
Once the game has completed, you also have the option of voting for an MVP, as well. This was not an expected feature on my end, and I was happy to see a little bit of anonymous community participation, if even for fun. These polls are lacking a bit of participation now, but I can imagine they’ll become bigger as Strafe’s audience does.
If the match is in the future, a few other options are presented: you can set a reminder for the match (either at its start, or 5/15 minutes before), and it will also give you the three previous matches the teams have participated in. This information seems to be populated automatically as other match results are updated, which is great: we want it as soon as possible.
Where Strafe Succeeds
At the beginning of the review I hoped Strafe would work as well as it looked, and I can say with certainty that it does. I haven’t run into any issues with the day-to-day usage of the app, and the way it’s constructed feels solid, well-planned and functional.
Nothing feels half-assed: this is a product of a team that knows both how the modern world designs its apps and the information that eSports fans crave. I would not hesitate to show someone a scoreboard from Strafe in order to share results or give an idea of how similar eSports statistics can be to hockey, basketball, or baseball.
That in itself is a breath of fresh air, especially when it comes to the tournament overview. Being able to see a no-bullshit look at the standings of the competition, as well as things like the prize pool, tournament site and stream page (where available) save us from having to hunt them down ourselves.
I crave more apps and sites that are designed for an older and more mature audience; it’s really easy to notice how dated some designs look, and their functionality seems to suffer along with their ignorance to current design trends.
This isn’t to say that all sites and apps should just clone what they see elsewhere; there’s reasons why they work, though, and those should be taken into consideration.
Where Strafe Lacks
While Strafe deserves praise for delivering on its current feature set, I could not help but wanting more out of its depth of information. Despite wanting to be a one-stop shop for eSports’ fans statistical needs, there is a distinct lack of information that would deliver a more complete experience.
A few curious absences are a lack of separate team or player pages. When looking at a match, I kept tapping on players’ names, expecting to be brought somewhere with, well, more. As I mentioned above, Strafe does a good job of keeping me in the app when it comes to tournament information, but it fails to do so when I’m curious about players’ real names, social media, recent results, playing habits, highlights or other miscellany.
Also, without the ability to progress past “Yesterday”, “Today” and “Tomorrow” in a date range, the ability to plan far in advance or see history is lost. It would be amazing if our Strafe calendar could integrate with iCal or Google Calendar, but that may be a bit tough depending on how they’d be able to be generated.
Finally, some matches remain unfilled, but usually this is fixed within hours of the games being over; you will very rarely find matches in the “yesterday” tab that are blank. Also, while screenshots did indicate a space on a match page to view VODs, I was unable to find it implemented within the app itself.
The type of fan who wants a second-screen solution for their eSports viewing habits will want to explore beyond who is playing and what the scores are. This is what makes them fans, instead of just casual viewers.
This is also true when we are watching the match unfold, as opposed to catching up to something we missed later; right now, there’s little reason for me to use Strafe while watching because I can often find the information I want to know on the stream itself.
I know this criticism may sound harsh, but it’s important to make the distinction between use cases. Right now, Strafe does a great job of telling me when matches are, and I enjoy being able to set alarms for time-shifted start times without having to do the math in my head. It also lets me keep up to date with games that I don’t want to commit to hunting down VODs for.
However, when it comes to a true second screen, it does not replace my second monitor, or having to leave the app for a Google search on my phone while watching from a couch. And from what I’m reading, the app wants to be able to do as good a job (or better!) than both of those.
What’s important to note about those criticisms is that Strafe is doing something smart: it is not becoming over-ambitious in its design too early in its development. It is doing as much as it can with its current development and employee bandwidth, especially for a service that is generating no revenue.
As I said earlier, it is better for Strafe to have a consistent experience than take on too much and have that core functionality suffer. I highly suspect that the reason we don’t have photos, profiles and biographies is because that stuff takes time to collect.
Imagine how hard it is to populate one wiki with accurate and useful information, then multiply that workload by five and divide it among a team who are already manually inputting match data.
In short, I’m willing to cut Strafe a break on the lack of features as long as they get there eventually, and continue to deliver on the foundation of great quality that they’ve provided.
While I may not use Strafe in my day-do-day, the main audience I could see it reaching right now is the eSports fan who wants to broaden their horizons. One of the most intimidating things about getting into a new game is finding out what matches are worth viewing and where they’re being played. Strafe will allow players to connect the dots, see common winners, and keep histories in mind when big tournaments do occur.
That alone makes Strafe one of the best eSports apps you can have on your phone today. Having a pleasing design and a team that seems dedicated to actually making something good with purpose just contributes to something I want to see improve.
Normally, I don’t like saying “wait, and watch it grow” for apps. However, I’m very comfortable saying that about Strafe.
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