The WSL has it figured out.

The WSL has it figured out.

The World Surf League, or WSL, has made some strategic design choices that make it a blast to watch.

I’m sitting here watching the Margaret River Pro, an event that takes place in Western Australia, south of Perth. There are two different waves there: one that’s big and scary, and one that’s big and terrifying. Right now they’re running the contest at the wave called The Box, which is the latter.

My friends and I have been sending texts about it–what our heat predictions are, how Kelly Slater is going to do, Americans vs. Australians vs. Brazilians, and so on. In other words, we’re really into it.

It Didn’t Use to Be This Fun

Professional surfing didn’t use to be fun to watch. I remember how bored I was when it came on tv when I was a kid (and I was really into surfing then). But watching two guys sit in the water waiting for waves to roll through in terrible conditions was pretty much like watching rubber ducks float around in a bathtub for half an hour. No thanks.

But it doesn’t feel like that anymore. I think that several good decisions about the format of the contests, magnified by several excellent decisions about the UX of watching surfing, have made the WSL as exciting as any other sport I watch.*

The WSL lets you choose to watch an event live, or replay it without spoilers.

Dealing with Timing

The first thing about surf contests is that they can’t really run on a specific date. Each contest has a certain window of dates when it can run, depending on if there’s waves or not. So a contest may run for two days, then be off for a few more before they finish it. On top of that, timezones and geography almost always mean the contest is running at odd hours for fans somewhere in the world.

I think the WSL has turned this problem into one of their biggest advantages. They know that almost nobody will be watching the contests in real time, so they were able to shift to a model that caters to online, on-demand viewing. It seems fairly obvious that this idea was the kernel that they built their entire UX strategy around.

Because of the somewhat fickle nature of waves, each morning a decision needs to be made regarding whether or not they should run the contest. The WSL is excellent at letting fans know when that call will be made–helping them deal with time zone issues. When a contest is on, the native app sends a push notification letting users know it’s live.

Choose Your Starting Point screen
Choosing the replay experience gives you several options for interacting with the content.

If you choose to watch a replay (as opposed to watching live), extra attention has been paid to ensure that spoilers don’t bubble up for you before you’re ready. To me, this is where the WSL really shines.

The UI is the same whether you want to see results or not, but spoilers are toggleable. There are even more granular controls too, so you can toggle results for specific heats, while still being able to keep others hidden until you watch the matchup you’re most interested in.

I also love the choice of full or condensed heats. Condensed heats generally become available an hour or so after the heat ends—I always imagine a video editor somewhere frantically cutting up the full heat to get it out soon enough. But it makes a huge difference: watch full heats for competitors you’re interested in, fly through the condensed versions of the others so you’re up-to-speed.

Small Extras Make a Big Difference

There’s 1000 or so other small choices that have all added up to create a super fun viewing experience. Things like allowing fans to pick who’s going to win each heat is pretty minor–but it absolutely does its job in making you care about a heat you otherwise wouldn’t.

Overall, I wanted to spend a few minutes giving credit to some really intriguing strategy decisions that have paved the way for UX that really makes a difference. I guess I’m just shocked to find how much I enjoy following professional surfing now.

*I don’t really watch enough sports to know how common these approaches are. I’m not super interested in figuring out who was first to implement any of these concepts. I just think it’s important to note when something comes together well and works.