Taken by Matt Demers, 2013

Behind the Voice: The Craft of the eSports Commentator

As eSports grows, so do the crafts of multiple men and women who explain the action.

For many gaming fans, the concept of watching players compete isn’t foreign. Since the improvement of streaming infrastructure through services like Twitch.tv and the ability to watch recorded matches through YouTube, eSports broadcasts have taken giant leaps in quality; Riot Games’ League of Legends World Championship recently sold out the Staples Center in Los Angeles, bringing production values akin to TV sports networks.

Besides the players watching, though, there are often numerous voices behind them: as an eSports commentator, Erik Lonnquist often has the best seat in the house.

As a fan of StarCraft growing up in Minnesota, Lonnquist’s first foray StarCraft II allowed him to expand his work with the game’s community substantially. After well-received YouTube videos and gigs for Stateside tournaments, the 30-year-old was invited to the game’s Mecca: South Korea.

Erik “DoA” Lonnquist poses backstage in January 2013. Photo: Matt Demers

“As far as the eSports side of things goes, it was the most natural thing in the world to want to be [in Korea]. In StarCraft, at least, as everybody knows, all the best players are in Korea. I mean, without question, the highest-level games are going to be [there],” Lonnquist said.

“To be a caster for a Korean tournament is where you’re going to make the most money, get the most exposure, get to cast the best players… it’s like a dream job for any StarCraft caster to be out here.”

Along with his partner, Christopher “MonteCristo” Mykles, Lonnquist works for OnGameNet as the English voice behind their StarCraft II and League of Legends leagues. Working in front of an audience multiple times a week, they broadcast matches to fans all over the world. OnGameNet (or OGN) realized the potential for eSports broadcasts tailored towards an English-speaking audience, even though the time difference results in many events happening when North America is sleeping.

Along with his partner, Christopher “MonteCristo” Mykles, Lonnquist works for OnGameNet as the English voice behind their StarCraft II and League of Legends leagues. Working in front of an audience multiple times a week, they broadcast matches to fans all over the world. OnGameNet (or OGN) realized the potential for eSports broadcasts tailored towards an English-speaking audience, even though the time difference results in many events happening when North America is sleeping. The duo have called many a spectacular moment, including one of the most iconic moments in OGN's summer season, seen below.

“Like ‘Oh, this guy used to play StarCraft’, or ‘this guy has a grandma that comes to the matches’ or something. I try to connect to the players personally to learn more about them and find out nicknames they have in the Korean scene.”

In February 2013, Lonnquist and his partner discuss League of Legends over pancakes on their way to Hanyang University. In a few short hours, they would join the Korean commentators on stage to OLYMPUS Champions Winter, a culmination of a months-long league that would net the winning team ₩80,000,000 (a little under $75,000 USD). Part of Lonnquist’s job as the English gateway into the match is preparing a list of beats he wants to hit; both commentators compare notes and decide what they can use to fill time, and how to play off of each other.

“For me, with League of Legends, I do play by play, so for me that’s not necessarily hard statistics and things like that — it’s good to kind of have a general sense of those things for my role, but for me it’s more about finding little anecdotes about the players.”

“Like ‘Oh, this guy used to play StarCraft’, or ‘this guy has a grandma that comes to the matches’ or something. I try to connect to the players personally to learn more about them and find out nicknames they have in the Korean scene.”

Part of Lonnquist’s job involves playing both StarCraft II and League of Legends largely to get inside the head of a player. Especially during lulls in games, the ability to convey what a player might need to do in order to defend an attack or regain lost ground is invaluable, and it’s the experience of playing the games themselves that allows commentators to do so.

“In order to build excitement in your broadcast, you need to be able to feel some of the same tension yourself that the players do playing the game. And you can only realize that that tension is there if you’ve been in similar situations.”

Riot Games casters Leigh “Deman” Smith and Joshua “Jatt” Leesman call the League of Legends Season Three World Championship. Photo: Matt Demers

While your average Bronze-level StarCraft II or League of Legends player may have a grasp on the key concept of units and skills, there is a vast wealth of knowledge that comes from knowing how they interact with others. This goes double for fighting games, where a favorable matchup between characters can mean the difference between a slow uphill battle or an easy ticket to the next round of the tournament.

This knowledge usually comes from pure experience. A player that has played through a strategy hundreds of times will be able to analyze it on more than a base level; instead of blindly following a unit build list, item order or bread-and-butter combination, they will be able to tell you why it works, and be able to modify it on the fly without decreasing its effectiveness. They are professional players for a reason, often devoting years to their craft. The Evolution Championship Series, the fighting game community’s crowd jewel tournament, ran Super Street Fighter II — originally released in 1993 — until 2010 as a testament to the game’s longevity, and included pros who had played the game since its earliest days.

“Maybe something’s broken in my brain, but the biggest crowd I’m in front of, the happier I am.”

Though numerous resources online help players understand the game on a deeper level, they are often intimidating to get into. Sites like Shoryuken.com (fighting games), Team Liquid (StarCraft and League of Legends) and various subreddits serve as both a community base and a vast repository of information, but a fan’s initiative to dive in can be inconsistent. Like a hockey fan whose eyes may glaze over at an explanation of a neutral zone trap or a football fan who falls asleep while reading about a Nickel formation, eSports fans may have trouble delving into things like fighter frame data, or finding efficient items through formulas.

It’s a commentator’s job to relay this data through an inviting, easy-to-digest delivery, fostering knowledge and allowing players to become passionate at the same time. Like a traditional sports broadcast, they often commentate the games live, playing off the natural peaks and valleys of matches to build hype and keep the viewer from closing the stream.

Lonnquist’s audience has ranged subscribers on YouTube to thousands of people in a packed venue, but the pressure has not affected him. He describes himself as never having a problem with speaking in front of an audience, and despite his growth from indie streamer to full-time personality, he doesn’t get nervous.

“Maybe something’s broken in my brain, but the biggest crowd I’m in front of, the happier I am.”

“Whenever I’m out here, everyone assumes you’re a schoolteacher or military,” Lonnquist said. “In Korea, they’ve heard of StarCraft and they know about eSports. They’re surprised that you’re doing it, but they’re not surprised the job exists.”

When it comes placing himself in the player’s shoes,Sean “Day[9]” Plott can step up. Arguable the best caster in the StarCraft community, Plott’s resume is impressive: he regularly qualified for World Cyber Games events between 2004 and 2006, taking home their Pan-American Championship in 2007. Since then, he has built a brand around his online series The Day[9] Daily, where he analyzes high-level replays and breaks them down for the amateur audience.

Sean “Day[9]” Plott casting the After-Hours Gaming League. Photo credit: Zhang Jingna

He also provides commentary duties for StarCraft tournaments, like those held by Major League Gaming or Activision Blizzard, providing analysis through a down-to-earth, welcoming style. His personality is extremely infectious, mixing a genuine love for the game with an unending reserve of enthusiasm and positivity. The tagline of his web site reads “Be a Better Gamer,” and after listening to Plott regularly, it’s something that viewers can start to believe themselves.

“As time has gone on I’ve realized what the skill sets are for being a caster proper — you know, the shouting, during the live match, and getting all excited about that sort of thing — and how different and unique a skill it is with what I started with, [the Day[9] Daily],” Plott said.

“The commentator for StarCraft kind of has a unique position where the game that’s being played might not be immediately transparent as to what’s going on. And even when you’ve figured out the what of what’s going on, a lot of the whys and the points of tension especially are where there’s big gaps.”

“In [American] football, you look at the score, and you say ‘Well, that team’s down 3 to 21,” said Plott, who added that this representation of the progress of the game makes it easier for fans to get an understanding. By knowing the basic rules of the game, the spectator can deduct what the other team needs to equalize.

In competitive StarCraft, the actions needed to close that gap, or even knowing which player is ahead, may not be as obvious. In both StarCraft and League of Legends, this is compounded by the lengths of matches, as they can take anywhere from twenty minutes to an hour to resolve. Players are not always in direct combat with an opponent, so a commentator must need to be able to fill the time with an understanding of larger, broader concepts and strategy while still being able to call minute, intense action when it happens.

“Every day I’ve felt not funny and I’ve tried to force funny, it’s been bad. And any day that I’m feeling really funny and try to chill down, it’s been bad.”
Casters often amass their own fanbases, as with these signs of Jatt and Rivington Bisland III. Photo: Matt Demers, League of Legend Season 3 World Championships.

Plott says knowing how to find a balance is integral to the broadcast’s success. He also insists there’s three hurdles that a successful commentator needs to overcome: personality, playing the game itself, and understanding the craft of the broadcast. In regards to the first point, viewers can often tell when an enthusiasm is forced or faked to make a certain moment special. It falls to the skill of the commentator to be able to convey a genuine enthusiasm for the game that they’re viewing.

“You have to learn to resist all pressure and learn to indulge in how you feel at that very moment,” Plott said. “Every day I’ve felt not funny and I’ve tried to force funny, it’s been bad. And any day that I’m feeling really funny and try to chill down, it’s been bad.”

To the second and third points, the expertise at which the personality can draw from often comes from practicing both the action of commentating and by playing the game. Nonstandard play can throw the unprepared for a loop, but someone who embraces the fluid nature of the game can decipher it to others.

In a tournament setting, understanding the player’s mindset is key, as there are often many players watching who are performing at an amateur level. Despite the commentator having experience in analyzing a competitor’s strategy, being able to distill it down to key talking points is essential to keeping someone engaged. Viewers who are having fun and learning are likely to come back to watch next time, and those repeat fans form the foundation of eSports’ — or any sport’s — growth.

“There is just so much to consider and so much awareness that you have to have, and so much information coming at you, that you have to be very careful to sort through it properly,” Plott said. “Your goal always as a caster in a tournament setting is to convey the story and to convey the excitement.”

Plott likens the difference between a player and a commentator like that of a stage actor against an improviser. While players have a concrete idea of their strategy going into the match, a caster is guided by the match with little preparation beforehand.

The best example of this improvisation is in the fighting game community. The blistering pace of their players makes large amounts of expository dialogue useless, since by the time that the commentator has finished the sentence, the match might be over. Fighting games broadcasts can also be extremely different from real-time strategy or DotA-like games in that they’re mostly live, can feature many different commentators rotating positions, and will often feature active competitors taking up the mantle.

Mike Ross competing at Bar Fights x Cross Counter, Dec 2012. Photo by Ryan Kim.

There is no better example of this than Mike Ross. Ross is no stranger to deciphering a round of fighting to the casual viewer, having worked at the now-defunct IGN Pro League as a commentator and founding the CrossCounterTV YouTube channel.. He still routinely competes in tournaments, sometimes enduring the heckling of being a “fraud” if he loses.

“It’s the craziest thing in the world to me when I’m sitting down and playing and I hear somebody’s friend whisper ‘Dude, you’re playing against Mike Ross.’”

Largely avoiding the eSports label, the fighting game community generally keep to themselves and prefer community-run tournaments and events as opposed to larger affairs. Ross was part of an initiative to bring Capcom fighting games exclusively to the IGN ProLeague brand before that organization dissolved due the IGN’s sale. Ross, however, remains a gamer and community figure, and brings a genuine perspective to broadcasts. While other, more technical commentators exist, Ross’ expertise comes from being a player first.

“I remember sitting on a stool at the arcade machine and my leg was shaking so much I could barely sit, but I held my ground and still played fairly well. So when I’m commentating and I see these new guys go against these great players, I can almost put myself in their shoes,” Ross said. “And I can put myself in the shoes of the top player, too, because now I know what it’s like.”

“It’s the craziest thing in the world to me when I’m sitting down and playing and I hear somebody’s friend whisper ‘Dude, you’re playing against Mike Ross.’”

Ross’ commentary is often loose and informal, throwing in nuggets on insight into players’ choices while, in part, reacting to the game as a fan himself. A common thread in these commentators is that they are genuinely excited to be witnessing the game in front of them, and the ability to be genuine is important to their audience: like anyone who hates being pandered to, eSports fans will know when enthusiasm is faked, and the ability to present a compelling story from start to finish is important. The most exciting comebacks in eSports capture their audience not only due to the crazy action in front of them, but the commentator’s ability to give fans hope that not all is lost.

Part of the mood of that fighting game player is using that hype to your advantage. The live crowd builds to peaks and valleys; you can often hear them in concert with the commentators, bringing a sense of crowd interaction, even when watching over a stream. It’s up to the voice behind the microphone to decide whether to gear the broadcast to the hardcore or casual audience, but Ross believes that it can depend on the timing.

“If we throw a big major and we’re in the final set, or whatever, I have to assume that once it becomes the top 8, that these are people that are just tuning in — a lot of people skip the stuff beforehand because that really doesn’t matter,” Ross explains.

“Once you get down to the final games, that’s when you have to get your energy reset and you have to start over, because this is it. You’re pretty much starting fresh, and that’s when you have to get everybody’s attention, briefly explain everything that’s going on. Even people that have heard it a million times, they’ll be able to tolerate it as long as you don’t treat everybody like an idiot.”

[Matt’s note: you cannot embed YouTube videos on this site, but if you could, this is where I’d put this video.]

Like offline sports, it’s this balance that broadcasters are going to have to strike in order to satisfy both the hardcore users and the ones that still need to develop their passion for the game. With weekly events like Riot Games’ League Championship Series and Blizzard’s StarCraft World Championship series, many commentators are getting the practice that they need to hone their craft while keeping up with new developments in the scene.

The community is also doing their fair share to drive improvement, as easily-accessible, free streaming tools and spectator slots allow anyone to try their hand at publishing their own product. While Plott, Ross and Lonnquist are all professionals now, there are many other passionate people looking to climb the ladder as they did; their hope lies in their respective games’ eSports scene and their ability to mature as more opportunity comes with more fans.

For now, North America and Europe are undergoing a massive growth spurt in terms on infrastructure that enables athletes to grow and broadcasts to start making money. As potential advertisers realize the mass of eyeballs at hand — the LCS alone brings in 100,000+ concurrent viewers, four times a week — investments will hopefully allow for better production values, better salaries, and perhaps more importantly, more acceptance among the general public. Lonnquist explains that, one day, he’d like to see fans of eSports be able to explain their excitement over watching competitive gaming to their co-workers or friends without embarrassment.

“First and foremost, I see myself and my role being just to entertain people and help people have as much fun watching video game competitions as I [do],” he said. “I think all the really successful casters, one of the reasons they’re successful, is that they know how to convey that enjoyment.”


Matt Demers is a Toronto writer who hopes to make a living out of his passions. You can follow him on Twitter, Twitch.tv, YouTube and Facebook. If you’d like to read or watch more in-depth eSports coverage, consider donating to help with associated costs.