Slingshot’s Andrew Kim had the chance to talk to Chris “PapaSmithy” Smith at the League of Legends World Championship semifinals in New York’s Madison Square Garden. They talked about his thoughts on casting worlds, what makes him different than his fellow Korean scene casters and how he worked his way up to this level.
Andrew Kim: As a person who’s now been to worlds and casted your fair share of games, how has the biggest stage in league of Legends treated you so far?
Chris “PapaSmithy” Smith: It’s been amazing, honestly. It’s my second ever experience casting League of Legends on the live mic. I did IEM Cologne last year. Well, I guess also PAX back in the day, but (counting) since I’ve started with the Korean scene. Especially in Madison Square Garden in front of 15,000 people, it was ROX vs. SKT. So the teams were familiar, but the setting, being on the desk, being mic’d to the live crowd was a very different experience. But a super amazing one. I know the venue. I think everyone knows Madison Square Garden, how famous it is. Just the marriage of the great games we saw, the venue, the crowd being loud, it was something special. Something I’ll never forget.
AK: Something that’s going to be brought up, especially for this worlds, is the absence of MonteCristo and DoA. In compared to Monte and DoA, what is something you bring to the table that separates you?
CS: I think about the game in a different way than Monte. He’s very strict on his opinions. He feels like he knows what’s good and what’s bad and he’ll kind of revert to those things. I kind of approach League of Legends a little differently. I prefer to look at and really pride myself in understand how every champion plays. What their strengths are, their weaknesses. What the item strengths and weaknesses are. Where balances are at in terms of a certain patch. And then, when something comes forward, I like to focus more on what does this do, and what do I expect from picks. Why is this the pick? What does it do? How does it compare to the meta and what other teams in Korea and around the world are doing? It’s about establishing a baseline and a narrative and checking in from there. That’s how i like to approach it, and most casters sort of their style and what they like to hone in on. And that’s what I like to do.
AK: Let’s go a little bit back in time. When did you first start to get the spark of “I really wanna be a caster.” When did that start?
CS: It’s a bit heresy, really, as a Korean caster not really following things like the StarCraft scene. A lot of League of Legends casters in Korea and esports casters in general in Korea, come from the StarCraft scene. From Brood War, StarCraft 2 for the Johnny Come Latelies. But neither of those were actually things that I followed. The first time I even considered casting was watching Jatt and Deman do Kings of Europe back in 2012, end of 2011, something like that. Just the idea of color casters (was appealing). My voice isn’t really suited to being a hype caster. I’d struggle to be a Rivington or something like that. The idea of there being an expert, in a broadcast sense, someone who did a lot of things I did. For Jatt, it was that he was a pro player but also had that mind for the game when it came to looking at deep dives into the game. That’s what Jatt was good at. That was kind of the first part and I went, “OK. This is something I feel like I could do.” I was playing semi-professionally at the time in Australia. Very much a scene in its infancy at the time, and the first game I ever played was cast. It was cast by a group called GameStar, which Pastrytime was a part of. And then Pastrytime would continue to go on and do casts, and he would want pro player guests to come join him. So I just put my hand up one day and got good feedback. I went from there, and four and a half years later, here I am at worlds. So, if you find something that you’re interested in that seems fun and could be a hobby and you stick with it, who knows what could happen?
AK: Coming from a semi-pro perspective of League of Legends and now being behind the desk: Which do you think was more fun?
CS: For a time, I was doing both. And again, the scene was nowhere near LCS level. Again, it was pub LANs and smaller prize pool. But there was an expectation of practice, scrims, solo queue. And I was working a full-time job at the time and trying to cast when I could. The work part was going to stick for that time period, at least. So I had to give up one of playing — at a high level, at least — and casting. The clarity came pretty clearly for casting. The moment the feedback got a little better, and I was lucky in that we were in the same time zone as China. Pre-LPL time, so we’re talking 2012. There were actually a lot of opportunities to cast Chinese League of Legends in English, and people were starting to take notice with World Elite making it very far in Season 2 worlds. So the Australian scene, we snowballed toward the Chinese content and also some Korean content. We were doing stuff like IEM qualifiers, things like that. Back when the circuit was more open. So the opportunities got bigger, and I had to choose one between casting and playing. Casting won out because I’m someone who likes to talk. Whether that’s a caster and I’m talking about what’s strong, what’s weak, or just normal conversation. And this just seemed like a way to facilitate that dream. People like to listen to me, and even this day that’s still surprising a little bit. And yet here we are.
AK: As you were trying to find your way and all that, did you have like a “Eureka!” moment where you found your voice? The voice you wanted to go for and wanted to perfect that only you could do?
CS: I think there are a couple of different layers to that question. On a simple level, what I learned working with Riot and doing the LPL last year was a literal development in my voice. If you go back and watch famous casts, like the Heimerdinger jungle cast that Pastrytime and I did, very low energy. I needed to listen to that and really develop a casting voice. Because when I speak, in an interview like this, I don’t speak like I do on the desk. Just like personalities heighten themselves on broadcast, I needed to find a new voice that was just a bit more commanding. So that was one initial challenge. I think color casters, it’s not spoken about a lot, but I think color casters do struggle. Even PiraTechnics, a real energetic dude, it can be hard when it comes to the analysis side to bring that. So that was an initial struggle for me. When it comes to how I approach analysis and stuff, I guess that I’m lucky in that I always thought about the game in a certain way and talked to people about it. And that’s just how I approached analysis, and people seem to enjoy it. You find your technique from there, You look at what other casters are doing and pick up things, and you get feedback from different areas. I’m lucky that the way I thought about the game translated well to broadcast commentary, and I just refined it from there.
AK: You mentioned some difficulties in your career, from balancing playing casting and your full-time job and having to make a choice. Was there any point in your career that you thought you might be on the verge of quitting? That you might want to give up at some point?
CS: Yes. That definitely happened for me. What happen was at the end of 2013, I quit my job. I had been doing gigs for Riot Oceania, casting Australian scene stuff, and I wanted to make casting my full-time job. I had a couple opportunities, and I had a lot of money saved up, so I went back to live with my parents, and I thought “These are my opportunities.” I wanted to give myself a year to really make or break when it came to casting. I reached December and things weren’t happening. And that’s the point. That’s the reality check. I wasn’t doing a lot of casting that year, just a few things here and there. It had been 11 months, and it was like, “OK.” Just like everyone who goes to Hollywood dreaming of being an actor or an actress doesn’t happen, maybe it’s not gonna happen for me. When Pastrytime and I were at our peak in early 2013, the scene was still very small. I kind of felt like a big fish in a small pond. Things kind of moved on and I wasn’t getting an opportunity, and it was only until January, when I had plans to go to the UK to do a Masters, that a Richard Lewis news story came up about Riot Oceania potentially doing the LPL. I reached out. I already had a plane ticket ready to the United Kingdom. I was like, “Look, I saw that you guys are doing this. I don’t know the veracity of this, but I’m interested in coming on if you’re interested.” Heard back a few days later, and four days before I was supposed to go for my Masters, I was on a plane to Sydney. It’s funny how the world works, and I’ve been very lucky in that things don’t always happen exactly when I like them to, but they happen before I need them to. Things would’ve gone very different if that did not happen.
AK: So when you were cutting your teeth as a caster, did you have a mentor or an idol you looked up to? Or someone you kind of admired?
CS: Jatt was the first person (who led me) to even open my mind up to the idea of casting. He was very good at his craft from a very young age, so he was definitely someone I looked at. He was more of a looking to become like him, not really a peer, because I didn’t really get to know him until later on. By the end of like 2012, coming into 2013, I had a great platform to cast things, but there was no payment involved. I was very much casting for the love of the hobby and developing a resume, rather than getting paid. So I did things like the IEM World Championship B stream that we did, just other content in 2013. Other people took notice of us. I took to MonteCristo a lot via Skype, just chatting about the game and stuff. By that point I had a lot of peers I very much respected and looked up to. My casting was at a good point, but again, the scene was smaller. There weren’t people looking to hire you full time to cast things at weren’t North America, Europe or Korea. The Chinese side, Tencent, was not interested in having English casters back in Season 3. So it was an interesting situation. There was a lot going on, and it was only much later that the income and the possibility to become a full-time caster really became a reality for me.
AK: So now at your current career, you’re very well liked and popular among fans. You have this manner of being an approachable, almost family member, because of the way you cast on the desk. What is a legacy that you want to leave behind? When you leave, what do you want to be remembered for?
CS: I actually never thought about that. Even though I’ve been doing it a long time, I feel I’ve been developing and gaining a following here slowly, just rolling along. Worlds is obviously the biggest indication people are taking notice, whether that’s Riot Games or fans and new people coming on. When it comes to my legacy, I really haven’t thought about it. When I set goals, sitting there in 2012 doing Skype casting, I wanted to cast in Korea. That was my goal, and I reached that goal last year. Worlds is something every caster aspires to, the biggest platform, and I’ve achieved that. Maybe that’s my next goal: Working out what my legacy is. Because I’m comfortable with where I am as a caster. Always looking to improve, of course. I did the analyst desk at semifinals at worlds, so clearly I’m doing something right. When it comes to what I leave for the future, I guess the one thing I’ve always strived to do is — and it applies in everything you do in life, but especially in an industry like esports: If you grow the pie for everyone, you grow the pie for yourself. So it’s about doing the more selfless thing, being inclusive. I always try to be a keen ear for people who have issues, whether it’s casters working out direction or new people coming into casting. I’m always happy to help develop the industry because every time a good person gets a job in esports, it’s a good sign for everyone because that means our industry is growing more and more. I guess if I’m remembered as someone who worked hard but also took time to ensure that the continual development for everyone in esports happened, that would be a pretty damn good start for me.
Photos courtesy of Riot Games