Paul 'ReDeYe' Chaloner has been involved in e-sports for fifteen years as a shoutcaster, host, and presenter. He's seen every part of the business, from amateur bedroom casting to addressing thousands of people on stage. Next week, he'll be hosting his first Dota 2 tournament— ESL One Frankfurt . Earlier in the week I spoke to Paul about his expectations for the tournament, how he goes about preparing for an event this big, and how the business of presenting e-sports has changed over the years.
In the run up to presenting something like ESL One, what do you do?
As a host, as I am at ESL One, it starts weeks before, sometimes months before. ESL One for me started back in March. The reason is because I've never done Dota 2 before. It starts with playing the game, understanding the mechanics, the heroes. Generally getting a good feel for the game. I guess I've probably put in about eighty hours of gameplay since March, which is enough to give me a reasonable base of understanding. Alongside that is drenching myself in the community. Understanding the funny stuff, understanding the memes that they use.
Every community is very different. Starcraft is quite intellectual, while the Dota community is much more fun. You really need to be in tune with that. With Dota, it's really important to me that I'm connected to the crowd and the people back at home and I understand what they want from the show. I've found that to be part of a winning formula for hosting well at shows. ESL One's no different.
What stories are you looking forward to see play out at ESL One, given that this is the last big tournament before TI4?
Well we've got all three previous International winners and that's a storyline in its own right. iG are looking pretty strong right now but Na'Vi and Alliance—they're the big names but they've not been playing much and when they have been playing they've not been playing that well. For me it's intruiging whether the five that have not got an International title to their name, can they step up a few weeks before TI4 and give these guys something to think about? What does that do to them, going into TI? If Alliance win this at a canter, what signal does that send to everyone else? If they don't win it, and they crash out in the quarters, what signal does that send to them about how much harder they're going to have to work?
If Dendi reaches the semi-final—this a smaller, personal story—he'll become the highest-earning player in the world. He's currently third, but he's only a few thousand short. He'll become the most successful e-sports player of all time, two weeks before TI4 which will then change all that. It's ironic, really.
Providing that he gets to second place in the International again, he'll probably be fine.
He might well be the first guy to go over a million, as well. We look for stories like that—we've got a ton of them, but those are the key ones for me. The big ones.
E-sports presenting requires increasingly more professionalism and craft, but people still come into it through the hobby—from their bedrooms. Do you think that will change?
I think so. If you look at the early days of football on TV and radio, they struggled—they'd often grab someone who had a good voice or who just loved the game. Murray Walker for instance started in motorbike racing and went to Brands Hatch every weekend to do some commentary from the track. I see some parallels in e-sports. In the last 10-12 years we've got some people who have come from where I was, bedroom shoutcasting, but now we've also got Twitch which more like bedroom TV. That helps them an awful lot, but the entry level is still very low. Not every tournament has the means to pay people and because of that you end up with a potentially lower level of professionalism.
A lot of the guys that come in now get thrown in at the deep end. I was very lucky—I had a few years of doing bedroom shoutcasting and a few years of doing video to, er, not many people. These guys get thrown in on a giant tournament and it's their first time and they go out to 150,000 people and mistakes are very big in that environment. I think it's nice that the entry level is low but it does mean that we're still growing.
If you look at sports on TV right now there are a lot more presenters that have come from professional TV backgrounds. We're on that road, and I suppose my fear as an e-sports person is that we either step up or make way for the pros. We either need to help everyone get up to a good level or eventually when events have enough money they're just going to replace us with professional talent. I don't mind that so much—you get the professionalism—but I'd much rather have the people that are passionate about their game.
What's your feeling about the vast amount of money in Dota 2 this year? What are the ramifications not just for Dota, but for e-sports in general?
I think we have to wait another year before we figure out what it does to the landscape, but overall its a good thing. It's a sea change in how tournaments can fund themselves, because the majority of the money has come from us. It'd be interesting to see how that falls.
If somebody is trying to break into casting—doing the squirrel-league stuff—is there anything that people regularly get wrong that they could fix to move up a bracket?
This will sound really harsh, but the biggest problem is that most people see the low entry level and think "yeah, I could do that". In their head, it's like singing in the shower. I like singing in the shower and in my head I sound quite good—but if I was to sing publicly people would be crying and asking me to leave the area. Shoutcasting is like that. In your head, you think "I would have said this, or what was this guy talking about, he's talking rubbish." After a while you feel compelled to try it—you're probably quite good at it!
The problem is that 90% of the people who go onto Twitch or start up an audio channel have the passion—they absolutely have the passion—and love their game, but don't have the voice or personality to be able to project properly and entertain someone. What they do is maybe too in-depth.
As a play-by-play commentator, your number one job is to grab someone by the balls, hurl them in and make them love what they're watching. That would be my number one thing. Sometimes, people unfortunately aren't born with the right voice or the right personality to be able to do that. They're very good at knowledge, they're very passionate, but they're unable to project that via a microphone. It's the harshest feedback I can give someone, but I'm always very blunt and honest with people.
I think you can work on other aspects—you can be phenomenally good at nine or ten of the other skills that you need that may make up for it, but it's very rare.
E-sports' growth is extraordinary—but is that the pattern for the future? Is there a ceiling for how big it can get?
I can talk about what I've seen over the last couple of years. It's always been rises and falls. We went through the years of CPL in the early 2000s and they looked like noone could touch them. Then it fell apart, they lost a lot of contracts, their money didn't come in and they didn't pay people. Suddenly ESWC and WCG are the big things, and then they change their models and go more mobile and they fall off in e-sports terms. Then CGS comes along with $50m and it's all on live TV all over the world—Eurosport and Sky Sports—and we think okay, maybe we've arrived.
Then that falls apart and we're picking up the pieces again. For me it's always been peaks and troughs until the last three years. 2012, 2013 and 2014 have been always upward in almost every area. But specifically, more than anything else, the biggest change for me over the last fifteen years is the advent of Twitch. If we hadn't got Twitch when we did I'm absolutely certain that we would not be where we are today with the size and scope of e-sports.
To answer your question, it can get bigger—but I'm not sure that it can sustain quite the sharp rise that it's had in the last eighteen months. But we're getting the kind of viewership that NHL would be proud of in North America. We're way exceeding things like BMX biking at its peak. That's kind of how I look at e-sports as we've got bigger—how do we compare to other niche sports?
It also comes back to what we've been talking about for the last couple of years, which is the change in how we consume media. Most people watching Twitch don't even own a television, and if they do they link it up to the internet and watch Twitch on it. We just don't watch TV in the traditional way any more.
We always talk about the future of e-sports as a transition into other form of media—"maybe we'll see this on the TV some day!" Do we still want that?
No! CGS was that moment, it was 2007, we were doing live shows from the Playboy mansion. SXSW. We we're on Eurosport, ESPN, Sky Sports. "Hurrah, we've arrived!" But actually, we missed the point. We didn't need mainstream. The mainstream is now coming to us—they're looking at what Twitch is doing, what ESL have done. They're studying us, now. They're starting to understand that we're the forerunners. Gamers were the first ones to pick up social media. The first ones to do livestreaming. The first ones to do shoutcasting. The first ones to do internet radio. We're always the first to adopt new technology and do well with it. I guess we're starting to see our reward, now.
In that case, do we need to stop seeing television success as more 'legitimate' than online success?
In my mind, seeing e-sports clips on Sky Sports is still amazing. It would definitely add legitimacy to what we're doing. Do we need it to succeed, though? No. We don't. Five or six years ago we did, and that's what's changed.
Do you have any thoughts on why MOBAs particularly have picked up this head of steam? Pun not intended.
I think it's a coincidence that it's MOBAs in particular that have risen to the top. It's more the model that they're using—the free to play model. They were the first games to use it. There wasn't a FPS until Team Fortress 2, which wasn't a massive e-sports game in the first place. CS:GO will hopefully go free to play—I wonder how big that could get if it did. I wonder if we'd be seeing multi-million dollar prize pools for that game and I think we would. We've not had a free to play RTS game either, really.
But team games in particular have always gripped e-sports fans more. The success of Counter-Strike is proof of that. There's room for one-on-one games too, not just in RTS but in FPS. We've been waiting a long time for that—Quake Live tried but it didn't really work. Epic have just announced that they're going to bring Unreal Tournament back and that's going to be free-to-play. I'm interested to see what they'll do over the next twelve months.
But it's still the payment model more than the game that leads to this kind of success, which doesn't take away from the fact that MOBAs are terrifically fun to play!
Thanks for your time.
ESL One Frankfurt will run from Saturday the 28th of June to Sunday the 29th at the Commerzbank Arena. If you'd like to attend in person, tickets are available online .