We often use vague catchall words to describe careers in gaming: developer, designer, producer. But the talents and pursuits of the games industry are far more diverse than the clumsy terminology might lead you to believe. What’s Your Line? is an interview series designed to demystify the people who make their living in games.
Professional gaming competitions—also known as e-sports—are big business, or so I’m told. The industry’s public-relations reps insist that with attendance growing, social networks spreading awareness online, and big corporate sponsors showing interest, the e-sports scene is at a tipping point—ready to transform from a niche concern to a mainstream phenomenon. Of course they say that. And it may prove true. The thing about a tipping point is that it’s hard to see it until after the tip. If you were watching this broadcast of the Super Bowl in 1978, would you have predicted that the NFL championship would one day become a de facto national holiday?
E-sports faces major challenges, though, like fragmentation across a handful of leagues and the general public’s relative unfamiliarity with the rules. The games played by the pros range from twitchy first-person shooters like Halo to intense, complex real-time strategy games like StarCraft II. But if e-sports does break through, there’s a good chance that Marcus “djWHEAT” Graham will be part of the surge. He has been broadcasting live from gaming competitions for 13 years and has become one of the field’s most venerated voices. He took a break from a recent gig to speak to The Gameological Society about his start, his storytelling approach, and an online community that’s more welcoming that you might imagine.
The Gameological Society: What’s the career path to becoming a video game play-by-play commentator? Were you always the guy watching over your buddy’s shoulder, commentating on the action?
Marcus “djWHEAT” Graham: Actually, I was a player first. Growing up, I would say probably late high school to my early college years is where a lot of my PC gaming took form. I was playing a lot with friends, and of course with the dawn of the internet, we could play with people from other universities.
I traveled around the United States with [a pro gaming] team, just trying to win competitions and having a good time. It was actually around that time when I was sitting there reflecting on life and going, “Hey, it’s probably a good idea that I grow up a little bit. And I need to get a job.” I just didn’t want to give up gaming. I was doing a lot of coaching at the time, and I just stumbled upon commentary when I would record audio files of myself speaking to the team, explaining to them what I did and didn’t like about their play. One of my own teammates came to me and said, “Hey, you know, Marcus, I think you should try to do this live. Maybe there’s something there.”
So we tried it. Eight people enjoyed the hell out of it. Of course, eight people doesn’t really turn it into a career path, but I just kept doing it and I just loved doing it. After doing that for two years, just out of sheer love for the game, that’s when I started getting invited to places like China and Korea to commentate at major competitions. I was just so stubborn that I didn’t want to give up easily.
Gameological: Who is your audience? Are you talking to people who are already hardcore fans of the games, or are you trying to make the events on screen accessible for a broader audience?
djWHEAT: There’s a very, very important mixture that has to happen, because for years, my audience has been the very dedicated and hardcore individuals who are very much aware of what’s going on. But of course it is very important for me that all of our content is accessible to new people.
We don’t have the luxury of having someone in our ear, or a giant database of stats.
You’re going to hear me say this a lot—and I’m a big, big advocate for this in the professional gaming world—and that is education. And when I say “education,” I mean it is important for me as a commentator to not assume that every single person who’s tuned in knows what’s going on or knows the name of every unit. Even though a more hardcore crowd may not particularly like that style of commentary, it’s very inviting to anyone who wants to sit down and go, “Oh, this is something I’ve never seen before.”
Also, it’s a lot of storytelling. We get the ability to say, “This person has a rivalry with this person, and the last three times they’ve met, they haven’t been able to reconcile.” Instantly, whether you know something about the game or not, you can create these sort of human-interest rivalries and stories behind it all.
Gameological: I picture a sportscaster watching film and doing research on the players’ backstories. What’s your prep-work for a match look like?
djWHEAT: Pretty much the same thing. We watch players’ styles. Some players are very aggressive; some players are very defensive. Some players like to be a little bit more unorthodox and show off. You learn all of these things. We don’t have the luxury of having someone in our ear, or a giant database of stats, so a lot of this is stuff that we have to collect on our own. For me, my biggest and best stats database is the one in my head. I’ve been casting now for going on 13 years, and I have the added benefit—because I have been involved in gaming for so long—that I can tell you that in 2002, the World Cyber Games Counter-Strike champion was M19 from Russia.
Gameological: How big of a phenomenon is it right now?
djWHEAT: Right now, I’m looking at about 5,000 people that are ready to get in and cheer for their favorite player in this competition. This whole event will probably see 50,000 to 70,000 people go through the doors over the course of the weekend. That’s a live event.
But honestly, the real audience is online, where my audience basically can be anyone who has access to the internet. Our daily shows receive anywhere from—depending on the content and the size of the show—anywhere from 5,000 to 20,000 people viewing the program live. And then we do rebroadcasts for the European audience, and we have [video on demand] available, so any given show any given week, we’re reaching an audience of 100,000 or more unique people. That continues to grow.
The demographic is typically anywhere from as young as 13 and as old as 50. That’s one of the reasons I think we’re seeing pretty epic growth of gaming right now on the professional level, because a lot of people that grew up with gaming in college are now salaried employees that have money to spend, and they still love games, so what do they do? They seek out these competitions, or maybe buy a pay-per-view to watch their favorite player. Or maybe they buy a season pass to an online gaming league.
Gameological: This generational thing is interesting to me. I’ll admit, I was talking to someone about this interview and they said, “Wait, ‘e-sports’? That’s a thing?” They weren’t even aware of it. And I said, yeah, I’m a little skeptical of it, too. But I guess as we grow up, there’s going to be a demand for these things that people didn’t even conceive of 20 years ago.
If you watch a master of the craft play Quake, you’re almost seeing a dancer.
djWHEAT: Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right. Again it comes back a lot to the exposure, as well. If I go back to the years of about 2004 or 2005, when there wasn’t online video streaming, there wasn’t Twitter, there wasn’t Facebook—the social-network phenomenon hadn’t really hit the internet—as far as exposure went, it almost had to be a word-of-mouth sort of engagement. Now that’s all changing once I can tweet to my followers and suddenly have the audience of 50,000 people tuning in to a match.
Gameological: You’re a multi-sport guy within the e-sports world. You broadcast a number of different games. I think of Al Michaels—he can broadcast any sport but his bread and butter is football. Do you have a bread-and-butter game?
djWHEAT: I would say my two bread-and-butter games are the Quake series, which is pretty much what I grew up on, and then as of late, StarCraft has certainly been added to my résumé of bread-and-butter games.
Gameological: Those games have been around for a long time. So what is it that give them such longevity, over any number of other similar games?
djWHEAT: Honestly, I think it has to do with these games all having the ability to translate skills into something that is very easy to see. If I watch an unexperienced player sit down and play Quake, I will be watching another video game. If I watch a master of the craft play Quake, you’re almost seeing a dancer who is able to bust out these insanely ridiculous moves. You’re seeing a whole side of the game that you just wouldn’t see, even if you as a player sit down and play.
It’s no different than asking “How do these guys jump so high?” or “How are they dunking that?” People sit there in awe of what these athletes are prepared to do. It’s a similar thing [in e-sports]. If your game is not able to truly have that deeper skill level to it that people can watch and go, “This guy is so much better than me that I’m blown away,” then you’re automatically not going to be a contender in this field. We’ve looked at the best games, like Quake, StarCraft, Counter-Strike. These games are enjoyable to play for anyone, but if you are the best of the best, then you are able to play the game in a way that puts other people in awe.
Gameological: Do play styles change over time? Do people play StarCraft differently than they did five years ago?
djWHEAT: Absolutely. It’s funny because we were just talking about that, comparing some of the players and games that took place a year ago at this event, and it’s night and day.
Gameological: Really? Just one year?
djWHEAT: One year, yeah. Because you have to understand that first off, there’s the mechanic side to it, how well can you control your keyboard and mouse. And then the other side of it is, there’s a meta-game. It’s “What is the popular unit?” “How are people reacting to this?” Maybe one guy is developing a strategy that no one’s quite figured out how to beat yet, and so he saves it. Then he comes to an event, and he unleashes it on everyone, and everyone’s like, “Oh my gosh, look at this new stuff that he’s doing.” And then what happens is suddenly, someone else takes that strategy and that becomes a larger part of the meta-game. So, yes, there’s constantly evolution in the way that players play. From one tournament to the next, you will never see the same game twice, ever.
Gameological: So what event are you at right now?
djWHEAT: I’m at the Major League Gaming Winter Championships in Columbus, Ohio.
Gameological: Set the stage for me. Who should we be watching, and what are we watching for?
The Koreans had players who were more popular than movie stars.
djWHEAT: One of the major storylines that exists in StarCraft in general is the storyline of the foreigners versus the Koreans. The Koreans had a very—I mean they just had a cultural phenomenon with the original StarCraft. They had players who were more popular than movie stars. It was a part of their society. The StarCraft players were having to be bussed around in tinted windows and vans because of how popular the game actually was. As a result, they created this really, really interesting ecosystem that just fueled the competitive spirit over there and created this army of super-gamers. That has transcended to StarCraft II.
With the global appeal of the game, however, this constant storyline exists of, “Will the foreigners finally be able to best the Koreans?” It’s happened before, but it’s still pretty common consensus that the Koreans are the best players in the game right now.
Gameological: Say someone reads this interview and wants to check e-sports out. Where do they go to get a primer and get into it?
djWHEAT: One of the best places that people can go is Twitch. TwitchTV is the way that most of our professional gamers are able to interact with their audience and showcase what they’re playing and their own play styles.
Are you familiar with skateboarding? One of the interesting things about skateboarding is when it first started, before the X Games, before people started to identify skateboarding as this actual professional sport, the skateboarders had no name for themselves. The Tony Hawks didn’t necessarily have an outlet. But what these guys would do is create skate videos, and that’s how a lot of these guys got popular—by their skate videos getting popular. This was all done before the dawn of internet technology. People then started really getting acclimated to them because they were like, “I love this guy and the way he skates.” Twitch is like a live skate video all the time for these players.
You’re also learning something from the interactive element, which is the chat—the other audience [members]. If you come in, and you say, “Oh I’ve never seen this strategy before, what is he doing?” Then suddenly you’ve got this very involved, interactive audience who are like, “Let me tell you, he’s doing this special 16 Gateway build.” And then you ask, “Can you explain to me what ‘16 Gateway’ means?” “Yeah, it means when you build this building at this Supply.” “Well, what is Supply?”
Gameological: It sounds like the spirit is very welcoming, and there’s not really a “Go away, noob” type of response.
djWHEAT: Very much, yes. The interactive element of Twitch and of the competitive gaming scene has absolutely been a thriving factor in getting more people involved. I can’t tell you how many girlfriends I see at these events who will say, “I knew nothing about this, and it was watching the players that got me into it. I still don’t know the names to all the units, but that MarineKingPrime is so cute, and I love it when he wins.” That’s the type of fandom that we’re starting to see that we did not see even three years ago.