Writers, here’s why you should learn Markdown

As a writer, I’ve become painfully aware that we don’t get many “toys.” Artists have stores devoted to different tools of their trade, while we have… keyboards — maybe some fancy notebooks.

Over the past couple years I’ve come to appreciate Markdown as something that makes my writing more efficient and better for the web. Markdown is a language that parses formatting a lot easier, and makes it simpler to type in code.

Why is this important, you might ask?

Let’s put it this way: the less time you have to worry about how a post is going to look on a site when you’re done with it, the more time you have to work on actually relevant things. Markdown lets you write in plain text to avoid all the stupidity that comes from copy/pasting from a Word or Google Docs document, and lets you control exactly what shows up while being easier to type than HTML.

The other thing about Markdown is that if you use Reddit, you’ve already used it: apart from some syntax that Reddit doesn’t like (namely, inline images), Markdown is the main tool for post formatting.

I simply like it because it minimizes the amount of keystrokes you need to do something, and because it allows me to make posts with confidence, instead of needing to worry about what will copy over.

If you want to make text bold in Markdown, you would surround that texts with two asterisks on either side. In HTML, you would need to type out <strong> tags on each side, and remember to close. Four keystrokes for Markdown (all the same key) versus 17 for HTML.

**Bold text**
vs
<strong>Bold text</strong>

Simple, right?

This gets even better when you either work with a CMS (like Anchor, which this blog uses) that supports Markdown; since the syntax is easy to remember, you can craft a whole post in Notepad and then just copy-paste it over. On CMS’ like WordPress, there are tools (like Showdown & Highlight) that will quickly convert your Markdown to crisp, clean HTML, so you can post it to the source.

The above paragraph, in Markdown.

Limitations

Like any other system, there are going to be some drawbacks with Markdown. The main things for me are images and HTML options.

Images, since they aren’t being integrated into your CMS, need to be added in WordPress, or hosted somewhere beforehand. Since Anchor’s image system doesn’t work very well, I host all the images for this blog on Imgur and reference them with Markdown. However, because of the next problem, I need to make sure they’re the exact dimensions to show up properly on the blog.

HTML options like <a href="http://google.com/" target="blank"></a> or <img src="http://i.imgur.com/008NFf8.gif" width="100%"></img> aren’t possible in Markdown, so you need to go in and manually do them. It’s nice, because any HTML you add to a Markdown document will be translated as normal, but if you’re counting on your CMS to do this stuff for you, you may have to do some memorization.

These shortcomings don’t really keep me from writing every post I do in Markdown, because there’s just a good feeling in knowing that what you write down is what’s going to show up. If you press Enter twice to get to a new paragraph, you will know that it will be surrounded by the proper <p> tags, instead of two <br />‘s.

While that last bit sounds ultra nitpicky, it’s something that tends to matter when you want your blog or site to look consistent and work across multiple platforms.

I’m a big fan of Tinyletter for newsletters, and one of the things a friend brought up to me was that the editor was absolutely terrible for inputting text. Every “Enter” press would be a line break, not a new paragraph, and it could break depending on the platform viewed. With Markdown, I never have to worry about how bad a CMS’ editor is, as long as I can paste HTML somewhere.

This kind of freedom helps so much when it comes to knowing I can write anywhere, and have what I format carry over with no questions asked.

If you’re a writer or blogger, I really urge you to learn Markdown. It will speed up your writing, and give you a degree of control that you probably never knew you valued until it’s taken away. Go nuts.

Word editors that support Markdown:

MarkdownPad is a free Windows program that I use and love. The paid version will even upload images to Imgur for you and fetch the link to use automatically.

Byword for OSX ($5.99) does many of the same things as MarkdownPad, but allows for greater syncing with Dropbox.

Markdown support can be added to Sublime Text for people who use that in their day-to-day.

Showdown & Highlight is a simple Javascript port of Markdown, and is amazing for beginners because the right pane can show you a cheat sheet, a preview of what your text looks like, or the HTML code for easy copy/pasting. Great for converting Markdown to HTML for your blog, if nothing else; doesn’t allow saving, though.

Dillinger.io takes elements of Showdown & Highlight and allows you to save/sync with Dropbox, which might be useful for people on the go. A bit more difficult to get the HTML conversion of a post, though, so I don’t really like it.


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The real winners of The Summit 4: Team OG

The real winners of The Summit 4: Team OG

Like many Dota fans, I had the chance to watch The Summit 4 this past week. The Summit, produced by studio Beyond the Summit, tends to be a bit of a gift to the community in the sense that it’s a casual environment for pros to compete with eachother while interacting with the audience through commentary. Whether they take that chance, though, depends on them.

I had the chance to go to The Summit 3 back in May of this year, and had a great experience. However, I noticed that there were definitely a couple different types of pros: some were content to hang around the house, while some decided to leave for the hotel immediately after winning or losing their sets.

Even though Evil Geniuses won The Summit 4, and Team Secret won The Summit 3, I believe that the true winners are the ones who take the time to put in the extra hours in a comfortable, inviting setting to increase their presence on camera.

If we go by that metric, I think the real winners of The Summit 4 were Team OG.

A bit of history: Team OG were formerly (monkey) Business, a Western team formed in August 2015 after The International 5. Johan “BigDaddy” Sundstein reunited with former Fnatic teammate Tal “Fly” Aizik, who competed with David “MoonMeander” Tan with compLexity Gaming at TI. Andreas “Cr1t-” Franck Nielsen was picked up after ping-ponging around multiple mid-level European teams, and Amer “Miracle-” al-Barqawi brought the hype and uncertainty that comes with being a ladder star, but having relatively low competitive experience.

Considering the calamity that comes with the post-TI atmosphere, I was ready to see (monkey) Business become another team that tried something new, then broke up when the going got tough. BigDaddy had had a middling time with Cloud9 at TI, and his shift back to the mid lane role that he excelled at in Heroes of Newerth was an uncertainty. Fly and Moon’s TI went better than most people expected, but coL crumbled in the lower bracket. Cr1t- and Miracle- were unknown factors, and could easily be duds.

As with most things in these cases, I was pretty happy to be wrong.

It turns out that in esports it’s standard for the best orgs to own the rights to the players they contract. There’s so little transparency, if any, between the players and the organization. Players are often never consulted on what brands they will be promoting. They’re never included in decision making.

This is why we’re launching OG.

(monkey) Business turned into Team OG at the end of October. They announced that they would be “bankrolled” by Hitbox.tv, a Twitch.tv competitor that I primarily know as where games Twitch doesn’t like go to stream. Games like Hatred (violence porn), Huniepop (porn porn) or Project M (dubious legality) find homes and fans on Hitbox, and while the viewer numbers rarely compare to Twitch, the company seems principled and committed to getting better; hell, they even have 4K streaming now (RIP bandwidth).

Team OG joining Hitbox meant that they would be given a degree of autonomy, but would still be leashed to streaming on the platform. For many people reading this, you know that similar arrangements rarely work out for the teams involved unless they receive a large enough contract amount to offset the lower discovery rate and the “inconvenience” of an audience having to leave Twitch.

Ironically, BigDaddy was involved in a similar agreement when he was part of Fnatic, as he was obligated to stream on Azubu. His once-high stream numbers dwindled without the same exposure, and his partnership with them ended when he left Fnatic; the team have since returned to Twitch. [Disclosure: I worked at Azubu as a contract content writer during the time Fnatic were at the company. I had no interaction with the team during that time.]

Many of us know that the digital consumer can be finicky and lazy; if they can’t consume content in a way they’re used to, it can be difficult to convince them to change venues or put in extra work to find the same content. OG ran a huge risk in going to Hitbox: would their audiences follow them? Would they even have audiences at all?

The Summit 4 banner

This brings us back to The Summit.

Team OG took some initiative at the event, casting multiple games from the couch when they probably could have spent the time preparing for their matches. The matches went so well that many Reddit threads and social media matches praised them, asking for more. Beyond the Summit must have liked the experience, because they actually labelled the games they cast as “OG Casts,” like the video below.

In the casts, the players showed both their expertise and their personality, which is essential for any eSports player wanting to expand their audience. Those two facets of a player are main drivers in follows, engagement, and spending: you either think the player is amazing at the game they play, or you think they’re entertaining as hell.

For Team OG, this is absolutely crucial in their stage of development, because if they want to keep control of their brand, they need to be able to have numbers that bring leverage. I didn’t have the foresight to track numbers from before the event, but I can only imagine how much their personal Twitter numbers shot up during that time.

We all want to have more control over the content we put out. We love streaming and see it as by far one of the most important ways for us to kick back with our fans and soak up the DOTA2 universe. The guys at Hitbox believe in making sure players are on equal footing with the organization; they will continue to guide, sponsor, and help us every step of the way.They’ve been incredible to work with in getting us here. Go check out Hitbox.tv, register and prepare your bodies for our streams.

Looking at the team on Twitter, it’s clear which players have the bigger following: Fly and BigDaddy have momentum from their time on Fnatic, a huge name in eSports in general.

  • BigDaddy – 85.8k
  • Fly – 36.6k
  • Moon – 22.2k
  • Miracle- – 18.3k
  • Cr1t- – 14.2k

However, I can imagine that both Cr1t- and Moon got a big boost from this event, as they spent their fair share of time on the couch. Fly got a lot of positive feedback from being the “straight man” to counteract jokers, which is a great position to be in: like the boy bands of the late 90s, having a social niche helps cater to the individual tastes of fans, but it doesn’t matter at all if you aren’t trying.

OG may have won the Frankfurt Major, but the team stands to lose a lot of momentum if they can’t keep their winning ways up. Even worse, if one member of the team stands out in a specific way, they risk getting picked up by a team with a bigger budget. Team OG’s strength is in their unity for the moment, and being able to give themselves an injection of fan support is crucial to their continued success.

Being able to show initiative in investing in a team’s stability is a good sign for a brand; while I doubt they all had a meeting and said “we’re going to try to be on the couch as much as possible,” it does nothing but good things to put forth the effort.

Speaking a little to other teams, I really hope that more recognize that this kind of interaction should be part of their job. The gameplay is the core foundation, sure, but the fan support is the reinforcement and safety net. If you suddenly get injured, kicked, or your results fade, having a secondary form of support (the entertainment) means that you will be able to try to fix your problems in a more comfortable environment with less pressure.

This isn’t to say that a team should get too comfortable, but knowing that you’ll be able to keep the lights on while you grind your way back to the top definitely removes a lot of stress.

So congrats, OG. I hope you’ll be around for the next Summit, and that your player-led focus works. God knows we could use some new variance in the way organizations are run.


Matt Demers writes about eSports from Toronto, Canada, and catalogues his attempts to improve at Dota at BetterDota.com. Check it out, and subscribe to his newsletter if you like his writing.

First impressions: Xenoblade Chronicles X

Note: the gfys in this post are bugged due to something on the end of Gfycat. They should display at the proper crop after a loop or two.

I’m likely going to be doing a video on this later, but I thought I’d write down a couple thoughts on Xenoblade Chronicles X, since I picked it up yesterday.

So far, I’ve played four hours of the game and gotten past the first few story missions. I’ve just unlocked the main “go off and have fun on your own” portion of the game, where it lets you pick the main story back up at your leisure. It’s also just opened up the ability to do co-op missions with friends, so I’m about to dive into the meat of it.

After going through the character select screen, I basically tried to make my guy look un-anime as possible. I was a little disappointed to find out that our protagonist is silent, but I’m starting to enjoy his ugly mug.

If you’ve played the first Xenoblade Chronicles for the Wii, you’ll know that a large part of the game is the expansive environments that feel alive. This is the Gaur Plains/Bionis’ Leg intro from that title:

The same thing exists in Xenoblade Chronicles X, but things have been enhanced due to a greater draw distance and detail that the WiiU can provide. To be honest, I’m not going to hide that the WiiU is very underpowered compared to the other consoles in its generation, but at the same time I haven’t experienced any major slowdown when viewing scenes like this:

Xenoblade also boasts a “if you can see it, you can go there” system, which I haven’t quite had a chance to explore yet. This kind of exploration is a huge contributor to my enjoyment of JRPGs, as Dragon Quest VIII has a similar system and I really enjoyed that game.

While I haven’t got any of the Gundams/Skells that the cover of the games boasts, travel has been great in the sense that you can sprint without any repercussions and jump around like Spider-man due to the (presumably) lower gravity of the planet Mira. This makes traversing around the map really fun, and the speed at which you can do it, combined with the awesome vistas, gives me a number of moments where the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

This article seems a little overly-praising so far, but while streaming there were a number of moments I noticed where I was genuinely grinning ear-to-ear. I know that sounds a bit corny, but I need to highlight how absolutely rare that is with AAA titles for me these days.

I feel like I’ve fallen out of a lot of mainstream games because they just do nothing for me. There’s no sense of wonder or catching me unaware: either I know pretty much what the game has to offer, or the premise doesn’t interest me to the point I’m cool about missing out.

However, Xenoblade Chronicles X surprised me because I expected some kind of trashy anime of a JRPG. The writing is surprisingly funny and sharp at times, and the voiced characters have a decent enough cast behind them that they aren’t reduced to blob stereotypes that you’d find in a hastily-translated English offering.

The character of Lin looks like someone I would dislike a lot in a video game. As a 26-year-old dude who isn’t a complete weeb, you’d have to forgive my first negative impression:

However, despite her being a huge ball of sometimes-annoying pep, her lines have been delivered in such a way that she seems to have way more personality than a typical demure little-sister stereotype. When I figured this out I was so happy to be wrong about my impression, because it means I wouldn’t be spending the game wishing she wasn’t there.

When you can immerse yourself in all of the game, it makes it so much better than clawing through parts you hate just to get to a part you actually want to play.

Perhaps what I’m looking forward to most is the massive amount of distractions that the game seems to have set up. Expanding the map requires finding sites to bury probes in, which in turn look to make hunting monsters and mining that much easier. As someone who loves the exploration/climbing sections the Assassin’s Creed franchise has you do to expand the map, I can see this inflating my play time considerably.

It looks like Monolith Software has set up for players to experience a “single player MMO” with a lot of side elements that involve other players in small ways, like contributing to daily rewards or co-op quests. As someone who doesn’t have enough time to dive into an MMO proper, I’m definitely excited to give Xenoblade a ton of my attention.

I’ll likely be doing a video about my thoughts on this game as I get deeper into it, but for now, I’ll be happy to experience more moments like finding this huge-ass monster. I just wonder how long it’ll be before I can take it down.


Matt Demers is a Toronto writer who enjoys eSports, hip-hop and tea. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Twitch.

Tutorial: Free telestrator for Open Broadcaster Software

One system I’ve definitely wanted to use in analysis is the telestrator, or video marker. For those not familiar with the term, it’s what sportscasters will use to take a free-frame of an instant replay and draw own it. We’ve seen it used by Riot Games and other eSports companies as part of a smart TV, but that can be expensive: I wanted to try to find something free and usable in a home/casual environment.

The big problem is usually making sure what you draw is visible to streaming/recording; usually, these type of programs will project a drawable layer on top of whatever you’re annotating, and sometimes, depending on the capture, this can be hidden.

I’ve found ZoomIt, a freeware program, that works with Open Broadcaster Software as long as certain conditions are met. Here’s how I got it working for my Dota analysis on Windows 7:

Step 1: Download ZoomIt

ZoomIt is a freeware program created by Mark Russinovich. You can download it here on its home site, or on the mirror I made on Mega.nz.

After installing it, you should see a window like this.

What you’re looking for is under the Draw tab. I have the hotkey set to Ctrl + 3.

From here, any time you hit Ctrl + 3, the game or window will freeze, and your cursor will turn into a drawing cursor. You can change the colour of the marker by pressing the “O”, “Y”, “R”, “B”, “G” or “P” keys on your keyboard to change to orange, yellow, red, blue, green or pink, respectively.

You can then draw on whatever you want to show off. You can hold down shift while drawing to draw a straight line, and hit ESC to erase what you’ve drawn. Hold down CTRL and scroll up or down on your mousewheel to increase or decrease the width of the brush. Press T and type in order to get text.

ZoomIt essentially lives in your taskbar minimized, like similar screenshotting programs like Puush. I usually close it when it’s not needed, as the hotkeys tend to conflict with others.

Step 2: Set up Open Broadcaster Software

OBS is a software that lets you capture multiple elements and arrange them for streaming or recording. I’m assuming that you know how to use it already, as there are multiple other tutorials for setting it up.

However, the important thing here is that whatever game you are running will need to run and be captured in windowed mode. This includes in OBS, where you will add a source for “Window Capture”, not “Game Capture.” The good thing about this is that if it’s scaled properly, most people won’t know the difference, as it usually captures the Inner Window by default.

This is because when the game is in Fullscreen or Windowed Borderless mode, the game gives priority to the cursor as it behaves inside the game. However, when in Windowed mode, it allows for a greater degree of control by outside forces like ZoomIt; when you trigger your Draw command, the game will freeze and continue in the background. When you hit ESC after drawing, the game will go back to “live.”

This process is likely not to work for console games streamed via capture cards, as those are piped in as separate sources to your PC, not as a window that’s influenced by the Windows OS. This system would likely work on emulators, but for console play you would likely need to have recorded videos.

2017 Update: This method doesn’t seem to work on certain games when it comes to Window Capture; it WILL work on Display Capture, which means you can use it for YouTube/VLC.  Might just be a Windows 10 thing, so it’s kind of up to you to see if it works for you.

Step 3: Workflow for Replay Analysis

In games with replay systems like Dota 2 or Starcraft, or with videos like YouTube or VLC, the standard workflow is to pause the game where you want to annotate. Then you would draw, explain your analysis, clear the drawings with ESC, then unpause the replay/video and continue on.

Note: I generally recommend using VLC as a video player for VOD analysis without a replay system, as you can hit the “E” key on your keyboard to advance the video by one frame to the future. This is an improvement over loading videos up on YouTube, as they tend to lack the fine frame-by-frame control that is often necessary.

By streaming this sequence with OBS, you will be able to provide analysis of moments to your audience in either a live setting or recording for local editing.

Hopefully, this will allow for a more easy jumping-on point for those of us who want to analyze both pro and personal play. By using free tools like OBS and ZoomIt, the barrier to creating broadcasts with value to the viewer should be smaller.


 

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On the (possibly grim) future of Overwatch

Blizzard’s FPS title Overwatch is probably one of the most hyped titles this year due to a couple different factors:

  • Vibrant characters give personalities for players to gravitate towards
  • MOBA-like mechanics mean that there are cool things for players to do besides aim and shoot well
  • People saw the success that first movers on Hearthstone were able to get with streaming and eSports

Naturally, this led to a bit of a gold rush and disappointment when Blizzard first handed out closed beta keys. Targeting streamers and YouTubers, the focus on marketing left a bad taste in a lot of peoples’ mouths, but this past weekend Blizzard opened up a stress test to a larger amount of applicants.

While not everyone got in who wanted a key, I did.

Basically I spent five hours with a group of five other players in a Skype channel playing in a fully-stacked group. Here’s what I found:

Learning is easy

Blizzard has learned from the design of Team Fortress 2 in the sense that there are a lot of prompts to do things in order to limit the amount of learning that needs to be done beforehand and the information that needs to be remembered.

Routes to attack and defend are highlighted on the ground before the map starts, giving people a chance to see where enemies might come from. This is great when learning new maps, as you need to be able to move between points of interest at a moment’s notice. I found that playing as a Defender meant that I needed to go through all areas of the map from the initial spawn, giving me a chance to familiarize myself with where I’d eventually be falling back to.

Things like hovering icons on the UI let you know where important objectives are, and a flashing marker on respawn re-contextualizes where your current objective is as a gentle reminder. I liked this because the last thing I wanted to think was “what am I supposed to be doing right now?” when winning or losing the map could be on the line.

A quick hit of the F1 key also gave me a screen that showed me my key bindings and the skills assigned to them. This was great for learning new heroes easily; I also loved how when you died to a hero the game gave you tips on your death screen for beating them next time. Getting mowed down by a hero who could turn into a stationary turret prompted a reminder that that hero can’t turn 360 degrees, meaning he could be flanked.

The game also reminds you when your composition of heroes lacks a certain role, meaning that you (in theory) won’t be completely steamrolled because you won’t have a tank.

All in all this is really important from a design perspective, because Blizzard wants to be able to introduce new and casual players to a traditionally unforgiving gametype in an FPS. The last thing they want to happen is for someone to balk at the amount of learning to do when starting up, or dismissing a good opponent as “cheap” and not booting the game up again.

Teamwork is important

I probably had the best time with Overwatch due to the fact I was playing with five other competent FPS gamers. I cannot imagine the chaos of solo queue, and preferably, I never want to.

Being able to co-ordinate class balance is amazing, because I never ran into the Team Fortress 2 problem of five people wanting to play Sniper and no one claiming Medic. Sure, the opening few games were just people trying out a bunch of classes, but once people found their comfort zones we actually went on a fairly huge streak due to being organized.

Having at least one healer is so essential due to the length of spawn times and the travel time getting back to the main warzone. Tanks soak damage and often have valuable disruption abilities that let damage dealers or assassins to work. Even snipers have a role due to Widowmaker’s completely broken Infra-vision ultimate that lets you see a red outline of all alive opponents for a short time.

I can see this game being similar to Counter-Strike: Global Offensive where communication is essential, but for a different way. You need to be able to adapt to information on the fly and feed it to teammates who may not be in the know. Things like being the only one to notice that someone snuck behind us to capture the point directs the whole ship to success.

Like I said, I did not spend any time in solo queue, and sadly I ran into a friend as an opponent in a match who was doing so. We steamrolled them particularly badly, mostly because we could co-ordinate mass revives, pushes and defenses where they couldn’t.

Depth is needed

The one thing that worries me about Overwatch is that need to balance the new player’s experience with the ability to actually have long-term fun. Despite 21 heroes, I feel like there will be a tier list that develops soon enough, and optimization is a quick way to kill the experimentation that lengthens a game’s life.

I can hear it now: “Why did you pick Reaper when McCree is so much better? We would have won if you had picked Mercy, she’s so OP right now.”

I want to see more game types, more map designs that favor multiple approaches, and strategies that benefit from having a distinct hero composition. That’s the kind of depth you usually see from a MOBA like League of Legends or Dota 2: creative risk is rewarded.

Right now, I can see Overwatch running into a pitfall where as new heroes get released, they will either succumb to the same MOBA power creep problem (where old heroes are not adapted to new playstyles, and fall out of favor) or maps will become painfully exploited as new mechanics are introduced for which they were not originally designed.

In trying to combine a FPS base with MOBA elements, Blizzard may have introduced themselves to a combination of problems inherent to both genres, as well. I hope they have the talent on hand to recognize and fix those problems.


I had fun with Overwatch, but with a $40+ price tag without the promise of free map packs or modding tools, I don’t see myself investing into it as heavily as if it were free-to-play. I do not have faith in Blizzard to not charge high prices for new heroes like Heroes of the Storm, and I honestly don’t feel like grinding for access in order to have the fluid lineup you need for success.

Edit: I’ve been informed that Overwatch devs have said they won’t be pursuing a HotS-esque pricing model, and that they don’t want to restrict people’s access to the 21 heroes. However, the wording is very specific to the “original 21”, so the strategy when it comes to new heroes may change.

Seeing that stationary hero turret from before and realizing that I haven’t unlocked or paid for the hero that is his counter is going to suck. Seeing pubs or casual players being limited to a free hero rotation (invariably leading to very bland lineups) is also going to be a problem.

These are all assumptions, but I wish that there were more information to keep me from making them. As it stands right now, all I have to go on is previous business practices and the tendency for games to try to nickle-and-dime as much as possible for add-ons, even when you invest for the base product.

I hate even calling it a “base” product because I feel like I’m resigning to the fact that multiplayer games can’t just be games anymore; they have to be franchises and money-mills for their parent company. While some monetization methods are okay, they’re accepted because they make a relevant, “fair” trade-off: the game will be free with only cosmetics buyable, or essential stat-boosting elements won’t be accelerated by payment.

However, I’m really nervous Overwatch is going to just say “screw it, people are hyped enough for our game already, we’ll just do all the monetization and the majority won’t complain because we’re Blizzard.” Then people will buy it anyway in order to play with friends, fueling the perception that that kind of model is fine as long as you can weather initial outcry.

Gamers are impatient and their passions are fleeting. They’ll find something else to complain about by another company tomorrow.

Maybe this whole wrap-up has been a bit unfair to all parties involved. I’ll try to keep some optimism for Overwatch, because in the end, I’d like to enjoy it.


Matt Demers writes about eSports, gaming and culture. You can follow him on Twitter, Twitch, Facebook and YouTube. He writes a weekly newsletter about the above topics every Monday.