eSports has been around for quite a while now. According to the Wikipedia Page the earliest known event was in 1972! There is also a fantastic image of a Space Invaders event in 1981 with a line of CRT Televisions and Atari 2600’s. It’s been growing steadily over the years but never so much as the last five or six years, when in 2010 it took a very sharp turn upwards. It’s not all Asia, Europe and North America though. Australia has been enjoying a steady growth in eSports and has hosted some large and impressive events over the last few years.
We’ve all read articles regarding our favourite eSports game, team and even specific players. But share a thought for the men and women who host these events – whose job it is to explain to you what is going on, to get you hyped, to ask the important questions, and to fill time when something goes wrong.
Recent controversy between Valve and James “2GD” Harding certainly brought casting into popular attention, sadly for all the wrong reasons. While there are certainly some very well known names in the casting industry abroad, what about back here at home? We were lucky enough to catch up with Ben Green, a gent who’s been in the local scene for a number of years and certainly seems to be moving up in the industry. He’s recently moved from casting to hosting and has participated in some of the biggest events hosted in Australia.
PPN: Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to speak with us Ben. Much appreciated.
BEN: No worries. I am always eager to talk about eSports.
PPN: Let’s start at the beginning. It’s usually the best place. When did you get involved in eSports casting? Was it a conscious decision or something that simply happened organically?
BEN: I got started back near the beginning of 2012 casting Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3 on PC. It was the first game I had really played competitively with a team of friends, and I was competing on the CyberGamer ladder. At one point someone else had shoutcasted (live broadcast and commentated) our game and I thought it was a pretty cool idea. I made a post on the forums asking if anyone would let me shoutcast their game, and one of the admins was kind enough to offer to help me contact the teams that were interested. It was something that I thought I might actually be OK at. I really had to make an effort to chase down my first few games to cast though.
PPN: Did you have any relevant skills or experience before moving into casting? Was talking in front of a camera something you had already been doing?
BEN: My income at that point in my life came solely from DJ’ing and MC’ing (being the guy who introduces speeches and makes announcements) at weddings on the weekend, so I had a little bit of experience on a microphone. I also had a bit of audio gear from that which I used to get my broadcast setup going. Although these days, there are a lot of cheaper options. Talking on a microphone I was always comfortable with. Cameras were a different story though. Fortunately, at the beginning of this, I didn’t have to show my ugly face on the screen, as it was all gameplay footage only.
PPN: So that first cast. What was it? When was it? How did it come about? How did it go?
BEN: The first couple of games I shoutcasted were not even broadcast live due to me not really knowing how to. Instead I recorded them to my computer and then uploaded to youtube. You can still find my first cast on youtube here. It’s just me casting by myself with no co-caster, and talking in a monotone voice about the game. But I’m glad that I have it here as a sort of memento of where it started.
PPN: With the benefit of hindsight, anything you would have done differently? How would you have cast that same event today?
BEN: Honestly, it could have been worse. I was lucky that I got some kind feedback from the people who watched, and that encouraged me to keep going. If I were to do it again today, it’d have a fancy intro, a camera and I would be casting it with someone else, so that I had a person to share the casting with. But I didn’t really know anyone else who was keen at the time and I’m just glad I gave it a go when I did.
PPN: How important is it to intimately know the game you are casting? We see a lot of veteran e-sports players moving into casting. Is all that knowledge advantageous or can a good caster simply ‘wing it’? On the flip side, I’d guess that just because you know a game inside and out doesn’t automatically make you a good caster?
BEN: I think knowing the game very well is quite important, but oddly, not the be-all and end-all. Someone who is good at talking and casting the ‘play by play’ (essentially, the action as it happens) can do that without knowing every intricate detail of a game, as long as they are supported by an analyst or ‘colour caster’ who can help to fill in the details on why things occurred as they did, and perhaps what the teams could do better. Finding a good balance between knowledge and the ability to express that knowledge to an audience in a clear and concise manner is certainly important too, and having all that knowledge is of no use if you can’t really communicate it properly to those who are watching. An experienced ex-player with the ability to talk well about their game can certainly find themselves doing a reasonable job in a relatively short amount of time.
To answer your question, a good play-by-play commentator can definitely ‘wing it’ should they need to, and some times you do just have to. The nature of eSports, the constant flow of new competitive games that you may not be experienced in (and the fact that for a game to be broadcast as an eSport, it really needs commentary), means that some times you will be asked to commentate on a game you don’t know as much about as you would want to.
Having said all of that, I think we can all agree that a good commentator with great game knowledge would certainly do a better job than one with only basic knowledge. But finding the best caster for a game often involves balancing all of the above.
PPN: To date (approximately) how many events have you casted?
BEN: I’ve shoutcasted what I consider to be a reasonable number of matches, though I’m honestly unsure how many. Two hundred? Three hundred? There are a lot of twelve hour days of only casting games in there, so it could be anything.
PPN: At what stage did things sort of go *click* for you and you started getting approached or called about casting events regularly?
BEN: Somewhere early along the line I created TeamDownTV with a friend of mine, Cyanide, which was essentially an organisation dedicated to shoutcasting and broadcasting Australian eSport. Probably six months after we created it, we started getting regular requests for us to broadcast tournaments; but for no money of course. It wasn’t even that we were particularly good, but we had a history of being reliable, doing as good a job as we could and doing it in a professional manner. Which in a world of volunteer positions got us a long way.
PPN: Can you take us through a normal casting day? I’m sure it’s pretty busy, but most of us only see what is on the screen. Are there early mornings and late nights? Lots of standing around waiting? Or is it constantly go-go-go?
BEN: A full casting day at a live event is pretty long. Normally we will be at the venue a couple of hours before the first game. We usually take that opportunity to go over the matches for the day, perhaps chat about the overarching narratives between the teams and players (rivalries, roster changes), and do some rehearsals for the initial introduction if we have the chance. From there, the casters have a lot of work to do. In a lot of circumstances, you may not get a break longer than half an hour until late that night. If you aren’t commentating, then you are watching the games that are being played, preparing notes for interviews and on the games in general, or getting something to eat or finding pain killers. It is not uncommon to be working 12+ hours in a day, and yelling about something for the entire day can really take it out of you.
PPN: During the progression and expansion of your casting career did you find that experience alone was enough or did you look at further education, tuition, studying other casters or the like to improve?
BEN: I personally find that doing work on personal development is important. Whether that be spending the time to go over your past broadcasts and take notes, analysing how other more successful casters do their job, or even looking outside of the world of eSports to similar areas with deeper experience; like in television. Whilst eSports is obviously unique in a number of ways, it is silly to ignore the work that others have put into similar endeavors in the past.
PPN: Ultimately you decided to shift from casting to hosting. What are the differences between the two and is there a separate set of skills required?
BEN: Hosting is certainly different, and in my mind perhaps harder in a number of ways. When shoutcasting, you definitely need that depth of knowledge we talked about earlier because you never know what will come up in the game. Whilst as a host, you can plan to a degree what you want to talk about, and can get away with knowing slightly less about the intricate details of the game. On the flip side, a host has no one to bounce the conversation off (no co-caster), no game in front of them to prompt discussion and you often have to work with players during interviews who may not be that comfortable talking to an audience. I’m certainly more comfortable hosting an analyst desk with other casters on it than I am by myself on the stage, and that is simply because I can ask people questions I know they will have a good answer to. Whilst on the stage, you are all on your own.
PPN: Was or is there any further education, training or study required or recommended for hosting?
BEN: I’ve taken a couple of hosting courses over the last couple of years, and am currently finishing off a television hosting and presenter course run by a media company at Channel 7 studios in Brisbane. Not surprisingly, habits and techniques that look good or bad on television also look good or bad when streamed over the internet, and I think doing these courses have certainly helped me to improve. Though I still have a long way to go.
PPN: So looking to the future, where would you like to see yourself personally in 5-10 years in regards to e-sports?
BEN: In the next year or so, I would be looking to find a full time role where I can hopefully get paid to host and do other eSport related work. Beyond that, I’ve no idea. I would love to still be involved in a decade, although I’ll be in my 40’s by then. But I would like to think I’d still have something to offer, whether that be by managing other commentators, or working with event planning. I guess hosting a stage at 40 isn’t outside the realm of possibility either.
PPN: eSport is changing, evolving and growing. Rapidly, it seems, at present. There have a been a number of controversies (which we won’t go into here) and a number of ‘big players’ such as ESPN showing interest. Where do you see e-sports in 10 years, and what needs to happen in your opinion to make the transition (if any) smooth and successful?
BEN: It is definitely going to be huge. I don’t think there is any doubt in that. “Gamer’s” are such a diverse demographic, and eSport reaches an audience that big business really wants to interact with – but up until recently has been struggling to find meaningful ways to engage with. In a decade, eSport will be a mainstay on television, in the same way that sports is now. We are already starting to see bits and pieces of it at the moment, even in Australia, where Counter Strike was live broadcast at 7pm on a Saturday on Fox Sports 1.
I think eSport organisations involved in broadcast need to embrace the knowledge of more experienced television professionals, and incorporate their years of experience into what they are already doing. I think players and teams need to start taking themselves a little more seriously, by building and protecting their own personal brands, and as a result, making themselves more marketable to a larger audience – thus making it easier for big brands not already associated with eSports to make the move over as sponsors, and bringing the big money needed that comes with that. With more money means more stability for players and teams, as well as binding contracts and the ability to spend more time practicing.
Essentially, we need to look at what sports does well, look at what it does poorly, and incorporate the good parts that fit our gaming culture. We shouldn’t change everything we do to fit in with the mainstream, but at the same time, we need to realise that money will be the driving force behind making eSports big, and it has to come from somewhere.
In ten years, we will be regularly filling Olympic sized stadiums with live audiences of fifty thousand plus people. eSport players in top teams will be viewed as professional ‘sports’ people with personal brands worth more than a million dollars a year with big name ‘real world’ sponsors, and gaming won’t have such a stigma attached to it.
PPN: On the global stage, where does Australia currently stand? Is there plenty of work for someone looking to get into casting or hosting or should they be getting that passport ready?
BEN: There are definitely more opportunities overseas, but that is because most other countries have much larger populations that we do. Having said that, Australia is a great place to start. 2016 is going to be a huge year for esports in Australia, and it is definitely not too late to get involved. If you make a real effort and are dedicated to improving, there is certainly still opportunity to succeed in the ANZ region as organisations are always looking for good, dedicated people to work with. If you do the work, you will be noticed in Australia.
PPN: So I’m a young person, possibly still in my teens and I’m thinking that casting or hosting is something I’d really like to do. What advice would you give me? Where should I begin? What should I be doing when I leave school? Who should I be talking to?
BEN: The great benefit of esports is that everything other than the huge live events is online. This means that the best thing you can do is to just start casting. I’ve heard all the excuses for why someone hasn’t had a chance to cast, and wants to cast the big tournament I’m involved with, without providing any history of prior work. But honestly, they are just trash reasons. If you have access to a computer and the internet, then you can start casting. Start casting games you can view through your in-game client, demos of games you have access to, low level tournaments, or even over other people’s youtube videos. Just get out there and start casting games and uploading them to youtube. Once you have done five or so and you feel you are getting into the swing of it, start asking people for advice on how you can improve. From there, start approaching esport organisations in Australia like CyberGamer and seeing if they have events you can stream, as there are almost always lower level events that don’t have coverage. The biggest thing to realise is that the train hasn’t left the station yet. There are still plenty of opportunities to grow as a caster and find yourself casting high level events, but don’t expect to do that without putting in the work before hand.
Something I would also consider myself if I was just finishing high school would be to take journalism at university. They have plenty to teach when it comes to being a presenter, and you will gain extra skills in media that could be useful down the track as eSports grows.
PPN: Thanks again for your time Ben. It’s been great to talk with you. Hopefully we can do a follow up interview in a few years and ask you more about hosting. Any events for you coming up that we can tune in and watch?
BEN: My pleasure. Hopefully I will still be around in the world of eSports in a few years time. As for upcoming events, nothing I can really talk about at the moment. But there is always stuff on the horizon and 2016 is going to be a HUGE year.
You can follow or even get in touch with Ben via Twitter – @SandManAU
Photographs courtesy of Jordan Mays.