Have mic, will yell

Have mic, will yell

An inside look into e-sports and casting

It's 8:10pm on a Saturday night. I can see my breath misting in front of me as I sit in my room getting ready. Outside in the cold Dunedin weather you can hear the mating call of the male Scarfie as they proclaim their readiness for town to passing freshers. I go through the checklist in my head: mic on; stream up; all settings ready. I walk into my living room to grab a drink of water and see my flatmates on the couch. They give me a wan nod and continue blasting Jolene on repeat. It's a pretty ordinary Saturday night for all of us. I clear my throat one last time before I sit back down at my desk. At 8:15pm the game goes live to its online audience.

"What's cracking ladies and gentlemen, FortyeniN [49] coming at you with another community shout cast for the OUSA DotA League Season 2 ..."

Now to many of you that last sentence made about as much sense as the capping show storyline and I don't blame you; the world of e-sports has only recently entered the spotlight. E-sports, or “digital sports” as some people like to call it, is the highly competitive world of online multiplayer games. In many ways it’s similar to conventional sports. You have two teams face off in a test of skill, reflexes, and coordination until only one is left standing. Just like in conventional sports, the top teams, and top players, possess an extraordinary talent cultivated through years of practice and training in order to compete at the national and international level.

While e-sports and conventional sports share a lot of similarities the fundamental difference between the two is that, in the former, the rules are constantly changing. Imagine if the next FIFA World Cup reduced the limit of players from 11 to 9, or if teams were suddenly allowed two goalkeepers (which might have helped Brazil), with each FIFA World Cup showcasing a completely different style of game from the last. E-sports – whether it be the RTS game Starcraft II or the MOBA League of Legends – exist in a constant state of flux because of balance updates that tweak the game every few months. These constant changes create what is known as the “meta game,” or the game within the game, as each balance update forces every team to come up with new strategies and counterstrategies in order to keep up. It is not merely enough to be good at the game; e-sports are as much about strategy and analysis as they are about mechanical skill and DotA2 serves as the flagship for the legitimisation of e-sports.

DotA, or Defence of the Ancients, originally started as a user-made mod of Warcraft III in 2003 until Valve (think Pixar but video games) released a sequel (DotA2) in 2011. The success of DotA created the MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) genre, leading to spin off games such as League of Legends and Heroes of Newerth. The goal of all MOBAs is relatively simple: two teams of five choose from a pool of heroes, each with around four abilities, and fight it out across a map divided into three lanes, until one team is able to breach the opposing team's base and destroy their throne. Each of these lanes is protected by three towers, strategically located in a relatively symmetrical map, with a wave of “creeps” (non-player-controlled units) spawning every 30 seconds. The player controls a single hero, starting at level one up to a max of level 25, for the duration of the game and is able to gain access to powerful abilities and items by killing the opposition or their “creeps” to gain gold and experience.

The complexity of the game arises from the sheer number of possible outcomes within the game. For example, DotA2 currently has a pool of 107 heroes (with five more currently unreleased), with each hero having around four unique abilities. That means that there are a staggering total of 106,308,566 possible hero combinations within a team. This isn't even factoring in the myriad of items available, or what role each hero performs within the team. Each of the 107 heroes falls into several categories that define what niche they fulfil within the team's ecosystem. A “Ganker” (Go Around aNd Kill) is a role for heroes that specialises in killing enemy heroes, while a “Pusher” specialises in destroying enemy towers and breaching their base. Most heroes in DotA2 can fulfil multiple roles depending on how you play them and what skills and items you prioritise, making it even more difficult to predict how things turn out. Because DotA2 is a team game the composition of heroes you have on your team can dictate how the game unfolds before you even move the mouse, which further deepens the strategy. All of this comes together to create a game that combines the mental alacrity of chess with the teamwork and coordination of five-a-side football.

Despite having a learning curve steeper than Baldwin Street and a community more toxic than that used condom you found in the bathroom of Monkey, DotA2 and its much friendlier cousin League of Legends remain the two most popular games in the world because of how challenging they are. Forget the stereotype of the player base being made up of nerdy science majors; from over achievers to mellow stoners, to athletes and true Scarfie rinsers, DotA2 and League of Legends players crop up about as often as black mould in Dunedin flats, with the e-sports community reaching over 80 million players worldwide.

A lot of this recent popularity can be attributed to the growing prominence of high profile e-sports events. Each year DotA2 runs the biggest international e-sports tournament (aptly named The International – or TI for short) from 18–21 July, with this year's prize pool being US$10.93 million. 16 teams from across the world competed at Key Arena in Seattle, with 20 million people watching the event online, and 17,000 people watching from the stadium. The event was commentated in four different languages, received coverage on ESPN, and made national headlines in Europe, South America, and China. Even in New Zealand DotA fans were out in force, with Auckland's Vector Arena selling out for their viewing party while Dunedin fans – not to be outdone – screamed at their laptops at four in the morning to show their support.

While OUSA doesn't have $10.93 million to splurge on a DotA tournament, under the guidance of 2014 Recreation Officer Henri Faulkner, OUSA has started running e-sport tournaments for both DotA2 and League of Legends. OUSA DotA League and the OUSA League of Legends Championship run for the first half of each semester, have around 14 teams competing for a $700 prize pool and end in a LAN finals at St David Lecture Theatre. Both tournaments last around six weeks and are commentated by “casters,” such as yours truly (FortyeniN) or, for the League of Legends side of things, Matt Ross (Smite), in the same manner of professional e-sports tournaments. Having casters for these tournaments not only amp up the intensity of the competition, but also provide a level of professionalism and coverage that ties in with the gradual acceptance of e-sports into mainstream culture.

Being a caster requires one to wear multiple hats. A caster is part encyclopaedia, part sports commentator and part clairvoyant. Just like how the multifaceted nature of e-sports requires you to constantly be thinking and analysing while playing, the caster has to think three moves ahead of everyone else. You have to know enough about the game to understand the overarching strategy of each team based off what information you have available, theorise how they are going to execute this strategy and then convey all that information to a live audience in small, easy-to-understand pieces – and that's on top of also covering the play-by-play action. Because both DotA2 and League of Legends are games that can turn dramatically from one team's advantage to another, you have to constantly be readjusting your own analysis with the tempo of the game and identify these crucial tipping points down to the last minute detail. The short and skinny is that it involves an awful lot of yelling, a lot of fast-talking and the ability to capture dozens of tiny details and prioritise them in order of relevance when things get heated. Good casters are therefore able to do all of the above, and at the same time, without getting overwhelmed and without missing anything important.

Since there can often be too much happening for one person to handle alone, a lot of professional casters employ a co-caster system and spread out the roles between two casters. Matt Ross (Smite), the aforementioned caster for League of Legends, works in tandem with his co-caster Pixie; with Smite doing the analysis, or the “colour,” and Pixie doing the play-by-play. Like piloting a Jaeger, having a co-caster helps share the load of having to constantly keep track of everything and gives you more space to focus on important things. Whether by enabling each caster to specialise in a particular role (analysis, play-by-play, stats, cameraman), having an extra pair of eyes to see what is happening across the mini map, or just having someone to banter with when things quiet down, having a good co-casting duo can provide a lot more depth.

Of course the flip side to this is that having an inept co-caster can often ruin the flow of the commentary. The ingrained fear of public speaking in many people can suddenly turn them shy when you're live, having a poor mic setup on your co-caster's end can turn the cast into a static filled mess, or they can detract from the cast by waffling and drawing attention to unimportant details while the game rages on. Because a lot of people can underestimate how difficult casting can be, you often find yourself in a situation similar to when your mate who can't sing insists on karaoke. Ideally you want to find a co-caster that balances out your weaknesses and compliments your strengths and then practice with them until you get a good understanding of when to switch on and off – something that you can't find without a lot of trial and error.

Good casting is one of those things that is so hard to analyse properly, leaving many people to just say, as Matt Ross (Smite) does, "You either have it or you don't." There really isn't any middle ground and this is part of the reason why it can be difficult to find good casters or co-casters. Apart from those who originally trained as radio hosts or sports commentators, the vast majority of casters simply picked up a mic one day and started talking. I went from a second-year English and History major with no real talent in public speaking to yelling “BLACK HOLE” into a mic on a Saturday night with people from all over the country listening in. Sometimes a perfect storm of analytical ability, passion, and the gift of the gab come together to elevate someone from doing it for shits and gigs to casting tournaments and breaking out onto the scene.

It's a job in an industry that has only recently started to become viable, with only a few succeeding because of how much energy it requires. Casting professional or amateur tournaments in New Zealand and Australia require me to talk, almost non-stop, for eight to nine hours a day over weekends, stay up into the wee hours of the morning on week nights and be available at a moment's notice for events in different time zones. Very few casters do it for the money because it is such a risky enterprise – so many are just driven by the fact that they truly love what they are doing. It is an incredible feeling capturing a perfect team fight on camera, breaking down each of the individual actions in order of priority, and then conveying all of that to your audience without missing a beat, before transitioning to an analysis of the strategy. When you can see or hear live audiences screaming and cheering with you as players pull off crazy strategies, or when you see a high-level play beyond your wildest dreams, you get caught up in the excitement. And with the adrenaline pumping you can realise that maybe – just maybe – we've entered an age where e-sports and regular sports can sit side by side at the same table.
But that could just be me.
This article first appeared in Issue 22, 2014.
Posted 11:52pm Sunday 7th September 2014 by Isaac Yu.