Slingshot’s Vince Nairn had the chance to catch up with veteran Counter-Strike caster Jason “Moses” O’Toole at ELEAGUE Group B two weeks ago. They talked about changes to this season’s format, displaying the chemistry the group of casters seems to have and summing up the year as a whole.
Vince Nairn: Season 2 of ELEAGUE. Y’all have tinkered with the format and some other things. What are your overall thoughts on the changes?
Jason “Moses” O’Toole: That’s definitely something that had to get played with. I think ELEAGUE overall with their first trip into esports and first attempt at it, especially in Counter-Strike, a scene that can be picky on how things are, there’s always learning experiences. I think this is one of those things where we had to find some middle ground and something that fits where they want to put the product on their end and where our product can fall into that. People are always gonna want to see as many BO3s as possible, but this is just one of those concessions.
VN: You guys as a caster group have always had good chemistry, whether it’s Anders and Semmler on the call or you, Duncan and Richard on the desk. How have you guys been able to display that chemistry to this audience?
JO: With Anders and Semmler, they’ve been together for so long. And even me, Richard and Duncan on the desk, what you see on the desk is just how we are in the green room, even away from Counter-Strike when we’re all going out for a drink or at dinner. We just have fun together, and we’re silly. When we came to Turner, the first thing they said was, “Just have fun on the desk. It’s our job to capture the right camera shots. Don’t think about any of that. It’s our job to provide you guys with this. And if you go on a tangent and start talking about a player, it’s our job to put the graphic up on the screen with whatever you’re talking about.” They don’t do anything to guide us; they just give us free will and trust us to be able to have some kind of entertainment. In terms of entertainment, it gets much, much easier when you have someone like Thorin on the desk. He’s just hilarious.
VN: One thing that Christina said, even going back to last season, was that she and the rest of the staff have really leaned on you guys for input, and it seems like a real open process. How has that open-mindedness made the entire thing more fruitful?
JO: It’s really cool for us because we love being involved in that creative process. On-air talent, you’ve gotta be an open-minded person to a certain extent. So it’s fun for us from that aspect, but it’s also something where this is a really awesome place to work in that sense because they do come to us as like their closest stability of all the experience of tournaments we’ve went to, of all the things we’ve done on a broadcast, of all the things we’ve wanted to do in other broadcasts but haven’t. They’re always asking for those ideas. They want to be the ones who are pushing the envelope, so in that sense it’s phenomenal. And just being able to come to them with any ideas. They’re already starting to look toward the Major in January. I know we have plans to start making content for that in a couple weeks. It’s always them looking at what more they can do, and in every creative meeting we’ve been in, it’s always pages of notes they’re taking. The Turner people for the most part don’t talk. It’s like “What can we do this week with these four teams?” And the entire broadcasting talent will just sit there and talk and argue and talk about all the different storylines there are and opinions we have. And you’ll just see the people there writing notes. It’s cool those to have and be able to go back and look at, especially from Season 1 to Season 2.
VN: It seemed like people thought it kind of dragged on last season. How has the new format just kind of made it more crisp and concise?
JO: It’s obviously great for the talent. The crazy thing about it is that schedule for last season, I don’t think a lot of people thought about it, but it was basically a tournament every single week. It was like 12-hour days for three days and then a TV day. It was actually pretty draining, despite being treated very well by Turner throughout this. I think the big part of it is how many of these leagues and tournament we have. So when you have another league that has that many days per week, all of the sudden, every week just feels overloaded with Counter-Strike with multiple different leagues. From that perspective, it’s cool to cut it down. And the other big thing, obviously, is the 16 teams instead of 24. Cutting out some of that fat. Cutting out some of the games you went into and kind of looked at them and already know who’s going to win. There were a lot of those last (season). So this season has far less, which is good.
VN: Seeing some of these sponsors come in and have non-endemic brands come into esports and be received pretty well, what does that mean in terms of the greater appeal of this industry beyond just the people who are in it?
JO: I think in that way, ELEAGUE is really pioneering that. The one thing you always hear from non-endemic brands and sponsors if you talk to them is “We have no idea how to get involved in esports. We don’t know anything like it.” It feels like Turner and ELEAGUE have really bridged that gap. They took the dive. They were like, “We will learn esports. We will get involved, we will learn it, and we will go to the brands we already have relationships with and we will show them what we’ve made from esports.” They’re the ones coming up with, “This is how you get your brand involved.” That’s a very trusting entity, right? Because some of these brands might not want to go to someone they don’t know about, who has grown up through esports as their only experience. They wanna go to someone they’ve had business with in the past, and that kind of bridge Turner has created is obviously working very nicely, with Snickers coming on board this (season).
VN: What do you think about the game in general right now? We’ve had one undisputed team on top for a while, whether that be Fnatic or then Luminosity/SK. Now it’s kind of wide open. What do you think about that kind of unpredictable nature to the pro game right now?
JO: It’s awesome in that sense. It’s the unexpected, that there are no favorites going into an event. What’s cool from an analyst perspective is it allows you to have so many different opinions and theories on why Team X is better than Team Y. It allows for much deeper discussion in that sense. There’s a less clear right answer, which is always fun being on the desk and being an analyst. It’s something crazy like the last seven major tournaments have had seven different winners, which is just insane to think about. It’s really cool because at the time, there’s teams who you see performing far above what you thought they were. And there are teams you’re expecting to be great who are performing below their level. But I think heading into a Major, that’s such a sick place to be in with no clear-cut favorite. Even the team most would consider the best in the world, Virtus.pro, we know and we’ve known all along they can win an event and then go and lose the next one, go out in last place. Even the consensus almost No. 1 team still has some question marks. I think that’s so cool, the unpredictability that we have in Counter-Strike right now. And it’s unpredictability and a high level of Counter-Strike being played, which is even better.
VN: And it’s kind of a fine line, too, right? Because we think about and there’s a group of people who want to see that one dominant team. And then there’s another group of people who after three months are tired of it and want it to be fresh.
JO: Look at the two best No. 1 teams who had their “eras.” It was Fnatic, who won just about everything last year. That Fnatic lineup was one of the most vilified in history. They got booed at every event they were at while being the best in the world and most dominant. Then you have the next one, which is SK, they had their mini era, and people thought it was so boring because their style of play wasn’t the most exciting, but it was efficient. I don’t think people really appreciated that aspect of their game. Now it’s in that sweet spot because we have so many teams who can rise up and meet that challenge. A lot of star players emerging as well, with guys like autimatic and Stewie from Cloud9, and then you have guys like k0nfig and (Magiskboy) from Dignitas. A lot of star players are starting to really pop up.
VN: It’s interesting the fans kind of turned on SK quickly. For a while they were these Brazilian upstarts, and people were happy to see them win. Then all of the sudden it’s like the entire community turned on them like two months after that.
JO: Yeah, I think that’s the nature of the community, I guess. They’re very fickle. When you see that, it’s obviously going too far one way. I personally don’t think SK is too far out of it. It’ll be interesting to see where they can go. But even at the height of their best performances, they weren’t winning everything. They were still dropping tournaments. So they’re a team I expect come Major time to be in good form. They’ve obviously won the last two Majors. They’re reigning champions and would obviously love that three-peat. I don’t think they’re gonna give it up that easily.
VN: This year has really been big for Counter-Strike, whether it was Valve upping Major prize pool or things like ELEAGUE coming in. Where do you see Counter-Strike at as an industry, and what is the next step to help it really get to where a lot of people think it already is?
JO: I think it’s at a little bit of a crossroads. 2017 is going to be very interesting in that sense, especially when you look at organizations like PEA and WESA. What exactly are these organizations actually going to do for the community? Are they going to be good? Are they going to be bad? Is it just another division we’re gonna have in this community on top of all the different leagues that are competing? The over-saturation question: Which leagues? I know looking ahead to next year, there’s gonna be two months where we have ESL Pro League, ECS and this new PEA league all running at the same time, for like weeks on end. That’s going to be very confusing, very interesting to see how it all plays out. It’s at an interesting spot, but I think next year is really where it’s gonna get wild because I think that’s where we’ll have to start seeing teams make decisions and have to actually cut events or leagues out of their schedule. I think that’s what we’re gonna see: some change in the community, for better or worse.
VN: Being somebody who’s been in the scene for a while and has seen this grow the way it has, what do you think about the ability to pivot or be versatile when it comes to games?
JO: It’s definitely important to be a little more versatile. The thing that I want to do in 2017 is maybe get a couple one-off events in other games under my belt. I know I have one planned — nothing that will interfere with Counter-Strike. That’s kind of the hard part for me. It’s been a talk I’ve had with other guys in Counter-Strike broadcasting. But the game is still just too big at the moment for me to worry about (it going away). It’s still there in the back of my mind for the future, but we all figure there’s at least a year to two years left before we have to start considering that. But I don’t know. It’s definitely important to have (versatility) as a skillset and that’s one thing where, in broadcasting, I have tried to get experience in everything. I’ve been on desks. I’ve commentated. I’ve really focused on when I get chances to commentate — because I’m on desk more often now — to improve my play-by-play commenting, if I ever wanted to transition into that. The one role I haven’t had much experience that I would like to is just hosting, which I think could be fun. Anders says it, and I think it’s a little easier for a play-by-play commentator to transition than a color, right? My entire playing background is in Counter-Strike. That’s what gave me kind of a leg up when I got into broadcasting is my experience as a professional in 1.6 for years and then CS:GO for like a year and a half. It would be interesting to transition to a new game and having to learn it without having competed at a professional level. I think there would be some difficulty in that, but the good news is there are people who have done it who you could always look to and ask for advice, what’s the best way. Even some of the old school casters like Joe Miller, who had to when he was commentating we’re not at the level we’re at now. So he had to cast like 75 games or something, so he had to learn the intricacies of the game very quickly. So I’m sure those are guys I know I have good relationships with I can hit up and get some good advice on that.
VN: Were there any details about broadcasting or adjustments you had to do adapting for cable TV instead of just being on Twitch?
JO: I had to be a little more cautious about swearing on broadcast (laughs). It’s crazy. I think we were all very surprised, even looking back to Season 1 and the first television broadcast we did. We all went out to lunch that day, and you could tell everyone was a little bit on edge, a little nervous. I think the big thing we realize very quickly, just after the first broadcast, is there’s no difference to a twitch broadcast and a television broadcast outside, like, the swearing. You’re still looking at a camera. Even when we’re broadcasting an event, you don’t consider you’re broadcasting on Twitch at that point. You’re just kind of going through the routine. The big difference for us was sitting at studio where the desk moved, where there are six cameras on the stand pointed at us. There’s the boom camera that has the crazy shots from above. There’s two sets of teams of cameramen running around the studio. I think that was the big surprise, just the sheer amount and what Turner’s able to provide because of all those cameras. The first thing they said was “If you ever want anything, if you ever need anything on a specific camera shot, just get on talk back, and we’ll have a guy pointed wherever you want it within 10 seconds.” And that was what kind of made us think of all the different possibilities we could do with that. Just think of the amount of times you want to see a player’s reaction. If you just say on the broadcast, Turner’s going to catch on to it, and they’ll get someone on that reaction. If you want a specific shot of anything, they’ll be able to get it. So that was kind of a new realization, that we had so many different options that we could explore to do at a broadcast.
VN: What’s your favorite meme that’s been created on the desk at ELEAGUE to this point?
JO: Thorin in lingerie was good. Bardolph as well and that creepy bodysuit, whatever you want to call that. That was really funny. There’s one actual meme that we have that we always joke about behind the scenes, me, Richard and Duncan. For whatever reason, we’re always amazed it never caught on, that nobody clipped it or anything. It was a segment where there was just a massive blowout, one of the games, and no one really had anything to say about it. You could tell we were starting to run out of steam during the analysis portion. And Richard said something like, “They certainly didn’t live up to the billing.” And Duncan just goes, “If you want something that has a big billing, how about a pelican?” And it was like the dumbest joke ever. And you hear immediately the producers in our ear going “Alright, they’ve got nothing. Just go to commercial as fast as possible.” And ever since then, every once in a while, Duncan will sneak a bird joke into whatever he’s saying, just randomly. So that’s funny. That’s kind of a long-term one. Since no one caught it, he just throws bird jokes in there. I think he said something about Shazam being an owl at some point, which is just insane. So yeah, look out for bird jokes, I guess.
Cover photo courtesy of Turner Sports/ELEAGUE