Interview: StarCraft II casters Axslav and Axeltoss

T.J. Hafer

Maybe even more so than the players, casters are the public faces of eSports. Their engagement with the audience and the community has been a big part of growing and shaping the scene—even someone who couldn't name a single StarCraft II pro might recognize icons like Day[9] and TotalBiscuit.

We recently had the chance to pose some questions to two of the veteran StarCraft II casters who will be bringing you the play-by-plays at MLG's Winter Championship next month : Alex "Axeltoss" Rodriguez and Nick "Axslav" Ranish. Read on to learn how they got into the scene, which players are the hardest to cast, and where they'd like to see eSports in the not-so-distant future.

Nick "Axslav" Ranish

Axslav is a pro-level Protoss player for team Infinity Seven. He acted as an analyst at the first MLG 2012 Spring Arena, and has since come to be known as one of the more knowledgeable and in-depth casters in StarCraft II. He hosts Rules of Engagement , a nightly advice and analysis show aimed at all skill levels of StarCraft II players.

PC Gamer: How did you get involved in the eSports scene?

Axslav: Growing up, I always had a passion for strategy games. As I strived to become a better player, I naturally gravitated toward learning from the best and discovered the eSports scene. I started out watching/practicing, then competing, and now casting.

Can you identify a particular most surreal moment in the growth of the eSports phenomenon?

My most surreal moment was in March 2006. I made the final four of the Warcraft 3 GGL Trans-Atlantic Finals and got a free trip to New York to compete. While I didn't win first place, I still won a couple thousand dollars. I was in University studying computer science at the time and that was when I first realized playing video games could potentially be a career.

What has been your favorite event to cast so far?

My favorite event to cast was the 2012 MLG Fall Championship in Dallas. Leading up to the event, I worked full-time for MLG so I had the privilege of seeing all of the event components come together in the upcoming months to the tournament. When it finally all fell into place, it was a great sense of accomplishment.

Which player would you say is the most fun to cast? Which one is the most difficult?

While casting any world-class player is a treat, Leenock is the player I have the most fun casting. His intelligence and creativity is amazing to bear witness to. While many players come up with creative and unique strategies, Leenock's thought process in coming up with mid-game creative adaptations to the present situation is unparalleled. Flash is one of the more difficult players to cast because the casual observer won't notice his mind-blowing macro, and it can sometimes be difficult to convey just how amazing he is at the game.

StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm

Do you have a particular favorite player to follow?

I've been a fan of Stork for almost a decade, so while he's not currently one of the most dominant players, I still love to follow him. I also really enjoyed watching FanTaSy's play in SC1-Brood War and am hoping to see his multitasking harassment skill show in the upcoming release of SC2: Heart of the Swarm.

Where would you like to see eSports go in the next 5-10 years?

I find eSports to be extremely fun to watch. In the next 5-10 years, I would like everyone to at least be aware of eSports, and have the opportunity to enjoy watching as much as I do.

Where do you stand on the whole, "Is StarCraft technically a sport?" debate?

Whether StarCraft is technically a sport is not important to me. What is important, is that it is played professionally, and watching the professionals play is absolutely amazing and entertaining for the spectators.

Who do you see as the relatively unknown players right now who are going to be big in the future?

There are so many great players in the Proleague over in Korea that aren't yet known to most of the Western audiences. As they get more exposure I expect players like Soulkey, Hydra, Classic, Cure, and Effort to be really big.

What elements of eSports casting do you feel like aren't visible to viewers, but that they should be aware of?

I feel many viewers aren't up to speed with classic strategic concepts. Understanding these concepts makes a viewer able to be entertained not just by massive engagements, but also by watching the way the professionals tactically move their armies around the map.

Do you have a favorite new unit (or units) in Heart of the Swarm?

I really love the widow mines, and while Ravens aren't new to HotS, they've been changed so they're now super fun to play around with.

On the next page: Alex "Axeltoss" Rodriguez

Alex "Axeltoss" Rodriguez

Axeltoss is a protoss player for team ROOT Gaming, as well as a StarCraft II commentator and content producer for MLG. He will be casting alongside Axslav at the Winter Championships in March.

PC Gamer: How did you get involved in the eSports scene?

Axeltoss: I had no idea eSports existed when I first started playing StarCraft II a few months after the [Wings of Liberty] beta came out. After some light investment into the ladder, I wanted to improve to beat my friends, so I did some research on YouTube. From there, I realized StarCraft II as a spectator experience was a thing, and did more research to find out how I could get involved. A few months later, I discovered GosuCoaching.com had some writing internships, and that turned into a community relations role for NASL's (North American Star League) Season 1. I knew I wanted to get into casting eventually, and used my relationships locally, at my university and at the NASL, to advance myself to bigger and bigger casting stages.

Can you identify a particular most surreal moment in the growth of the phenomenon over the eSports phenomenon?

I was casting a non-stage match at the MLG 2012 Winter Championships. It was a match between the final two foreigner players in the tournament; Huk and Naniwa . It was the closest game I've ever had the pleasure to cast, and the energy was palpable in the venue and extended back stage. It was championship Sunday and the loser would be out, the winner moving on and deeper into the money. As the game approached the more intense stages I could literally hear the crowd from across the entire venue and was later told how massive it was. For that many people to gather around a non-main stage match blew my mind, and the fact that I could hear them from so far away truly helped me understand the passion that exists within StarCraft II and eSports, and enhanced my confidence in its ability to grow and prosper.

What has been your favorite event to cast so far?

My favorite event to cast was the 2012 Battle.net World Championships in Shanghai. It was my first opportunity to travel across the world as a StarCraft II commentator, and I soaked up the experience. It was a very emotional experience for me as I considered how far I had come from a year prior, when I was casting in my bedroom to 50 or so people for hours on end, to being on the biggest stage among the best commentators in the world. I had made it.

Which player would you say is the most fun to cast? Which one is the most difficult?

Leenock is definitely up there as far as the most fun player to cast. You never know what crazy strategy he's going to pull out next. You never think it's going to work, but then you realize, it's Leenock... of course it will.

Do you have a particular favorite player to follow?

I have many personal relationships with a lot of the players, so it's hard to pick a favorite. I am a member of team ROOT gaming, so I'm always super excited to cast players like Vibe, TT1, Catz, Drewbie, Major, etc. I am tremendously good friends with all of them, so it's always fun rooting for them and hoping they succeed.

Where would you like to see eSports go in the next 5-10 years?

In the eSports world, 5-10 years is such a long time. It might be more important to think about where technology is that stage. Will typical packages with cable/dish companies be exclusively Internet with 100up/100down around the world? If so, is TV even necessary? In 5-10 years, I'd like to see video games as an acceptable pass-time for the world's majority, rather than some niche that only certain people participate in... rather than something unhealthy, reserved for individuals with no social life... I want to see worldwide acceptance of video games as a spectator sport. I want to see parents encourage their kids to try out video games. I want to see gaming as a Friday night activity, an acceptable relief from the typical, "party, party, drink, drink" weekend mentality. I want to see an MLG weekend eclipse the Super Bowl in numbers by a magnitude of 10.

Where do you stand on the whole, "Is StarCraft technically a sport?" debate?

I think it's all fairly silly. (I understand I used the word "sport" in my previous answer.) To me, it feels like, okay, do these players work hard? Do they deserve what they are given? Is it worth someone's time to sit down and watch these players do their thing? I feel like there are arguments to support a positive answer to each of those. These players do work hours and hours of a day to perfect their trade. They have coaches, they have regimens, they make similar sacrifices as players in any typical sport. No, StarCraft isn't technically a sport by my definition, but why does it matter? Watch it, research it, possibly enjoy it, then make your own claims.

Who do you see as the relatively unknown players right now who are going to be big in the future?

Look out for the players focusing completely on HotS. They have a fantastic chance to blow people away and truly make a statement in Heart of the Swarm. A lot of the highest level players right now have obligations in Wings of Liberty, so they can't dedicate most of their time to HotS. This leaves an amazing opportunity open for those players who were on the cusp of achieving great things in Wings of Liberty. Those players can get the most practice time possible in HotS, and set a bar that will be very difficult to surpass. This is a great opportunity for North Americans to get some respect back from the worldwide community. Let's see who takes advantage.

What elements of eSports casting do you feel like aren't visible to viewers, but that they should be aware of?

The amount of work and discipline is actually pretty staggering, especially considering the current state of the community. One wrong move and you could potentially be fed to the wolves. It's a dangerous yet thrilling occupation. I have to stay on my toes and watch my every move. I can do a thousand things right but one step in the wrong direction and that's all I'm remembered for. It's honestly slightly terrifying.

Do you have a favorite new unit or units in Heart of the Swarm?

Hellbat! Widow Mine! Having been a Protoss player in WoL, I've been playing pretty much exclusively Terran in HotS. The new units are so much fun to play with, and I felt I've only skimmed the surface of the potential of the race.

Thanks to Nick and Alex for taking the time to talk to us, and to MLG for the opportunity. You can check out the casters in MLG's ongoing Winter Showdowns , and at the upcoming Winter Championship in Dallas . Passes are on sale now for $35, and streams will be available in 720p free on MLG's Official site .

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