The Dota 2 amateur casting system needs change if community wants new talent

Author’s note: Before you read this article, let me disclose that as a caster myself, I would stand to benefit from the desired increase in wages for amateur and semi-professional casters. Because of this, I sought reputable sources and let them give their opinion on the issue, so that their feelings can serve as a counterpoint to my own understanding. As casters, we are likely to have our own inherent biases about how much we should be paid for our work, but I am adamant that such changes would benefit the Dota 2 esports environment as a whole.

Dota 2 has an issue with casters, and it is not what you might think. Rather, casters have a problem with Dota 2.

Sure, there are plenty of complaints from the community about casters’ professionalism (whatever that means),  too many jokes or pub anecdotes, and lack of knowledge. Sometimes the complaints are the opposite, as we saw with the community’s response to James “2GD” Harding being fired from the Shanghai Major.

The core issue behind all these complaints, in my eyes, is that the community wants better talent. So why is it so difficult for new talent to emerge?

Feast or famine

Casting in Dota 2 is largely dominated by Beyond the Summit and joinDOTA, with moonduckTV representing most of the rest of the biggest names. Some other notable exceptions choose to remain unaffiliated for their own personal reasons.

Owen “ODPixel” Davies recently left moonduckTV and is one of the highest profile freelance casters in the game. Chances are any Dota 2 LAN event fans watch will feature members from any of those casting studios or groups.

Paul “ReDeYe” Chaloner (right) and Jacob “Maelk” Toft-Anderson host the 2015 Frankfurt Major. Photo by Steffie Wunderl/ESL|eslgaming.com

To clarify, there’s no begrudging any of the “top tier” casters; they have worked hard to rightfully earn their positions. They are success stories in a difficult field that is constantly changing and growing, and that should be celebrated. But below the professional level exists an entire group of people whose work is severely undervalued, and it affects the rest of the professional scene.

An entire second world exists of amateur and freelance casters who work for anyone who will take them. It’s a “world” instead of a “tier” because multiple tiers exist within the amateur world. At the top, for example, you’ll find dedicated personalities like David “Blaze” Dillon, who has worked for years as a staple of freelance Dota 2 casting. It was “about six months” from when Blaze started casting to his first paid gig.

“My first paid event was The Premier League Season 4, which started in February (2013), even though the payments were a couple months later,” Blaze said.

Like most other casters, Blaze recognizes that doing the job correctly includes a lot of preparation work that isn’t often seen in the finished product viewers see.

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“It’s extremely variable based on how many events I’m working on at a time,” Blaze said. “I’ve had weeks where each day’s combined production, casting, and research times exceeds 10 hours without weekends or days off, but I’d say six to eight hours (two best-of-threes) is much more common.”

Pay vs. exposure

The key difference that sets casters like Blaze apart from the next few tiers of amateur casters is that – now – he gets paid. Talented amateurs have to fight for recognition in the amateur and semi-pro tournament circuit. The traditional mentality in esports is newcomers should start out volunteering instead of looking for payment, which is fair. People with no previous experience or work to show in casting should be expected to start out working for no pay because otherwise they would never get work in the first place. Esports is built in part from dedicated volunteers working their way up the chain.

The problem is that the further up the chain you get from the bottom, there are still casters expected to work for free, which impacts their ability to dedicate the time needed to keep improving.

“Unless you already have a following, you can’t really cast part-time and expect to progress,” Blaze said. “Casting is an extremely competitive field and trying to rise above the ranks of other casters who are committing full-time becomes very exhausting and doesn’t offer much to show for it.

“If you’re just starting out, you’re likely to be covering at most amateur tournaments with little to no prize pool and shouldn’t expect much compensation for yourself. After you have months of experience, however, the opportunity to promote yourself becomes less acceptable as your payment and sponsored events should absolutely be expected to compensate the broadcasting talent.”

LlamaDownUnder, a caster who recently made her debut with Beyond the Summit at its in-house event for the Shanghai Major qualifiers, had a lot to say about the expectations for a caster in the current circuit of smaller tournaments.

“Everyone is underpaid in esports,” she said. “Dota 2 makes so much money and as everyone just found out from James’ post, even the top casters don’t always make enough to get by. So yeah, amateur casters make nothing. And it sucks because you can’t just ask to get paid, since a lot of tournament organizers don’t care about the quality of the casting, just that a game gets casted.

“So if you turn down a gig, there are at least five casters willing to do it for free.”

This was actually a common theme between both Llama and Blaze, who said it was difficult to complain about poor pay or other issues without the fear of being replaced.

“There are a lot of concerns on the subject. Most of them can be summed up with the simple fact that unknown casters have no leverage over the organizers that hire them,” Blaze said. “If a caster is unwilling to settle for things like non-contractual minimum wage payments that are paid as much as several months late (if at all), another caster likely will and the difference in the end product will often be only slightly worse.

“For the talented few who can make the cut, but don’t yet have the community’s support behind them, they can find acceptable standards by working with joint casting organizations such as HeflaTV and, hopefully in the future, moonduckTV. The rest, unfortunately, don’t really have a solution.”

 

Keeping promises

Shannon “SUNSfan” Scotten publicly mentioned the idea of a talent union in a tweet after 2GD was kicked from the Shanghai Major. SUNSfan seemed confident that most personalities would be behind the idea of a union, but Blaze seemed conflicted.

“From the perspective of a caster trying to prove his worth and make it to more LANs and, hopefully, major events in the future, it’s difficult for me to remark on,” Blaze said. “On one hand, the top tier talent, who more or less are expected to be at every major, are within their right and power to set and expect certain standards from tournament organizers. On the other, anyone outside of that bubble (talent who might or might not be invited) are put in an awkward position of risking their potential invite in order to have solidarity with their colleagues.”

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More than a union, Blaze said, talent and organizers need to have better communication and transparency with their expectations going into an event.

The fact is that things aren’t as simple as perhaps they should be. A Dota 2 talent union sounds great in theory, but for those on the edge of receiving an invite to The International, the question of whether or not they will join can become fraught with peril.

But the problems don’t end with simply getting a paying casting gig. The payments don’t always come on time. If ever.

 

“I generally assume I’m not getting paid and other than the big organizations, a lot of groups don’t offer pay,” Llama said. “I just had a horrible experience with this. Horrible organizer, constantly changing game times, giving casters the wrong overlays, expecting us to host even though they’d told us there would be admins, so games were starting late. I waited 30 minutes for a game for this tournament because one of the admins just left and I was scrambling trying to get the info for the lobby I made out to all the players.

“When the games are good I don’t mind casting, but when your only viewers are from idle bettors and even the teams don’t care, the games aren’t good, so I quit. Then [the tournament organizer responsible for payment] made some show of ‘I’ll still pay you’ and sent me way less than the agreed upon amount.”

Where does the money come from?

There are, in fact, tournaments that promise to pay their casters but pay far below what many would consider fair; well below the minimum wage in any state in the America. Sometimes tournaments promise to pay money they don’t even have yet.

Brad “Kairos” Kapica, an amateur caster who managed caster payouts for Season 2 of the American Cup, said the organizers he worked with did not have any money when organizing the first iteration of their tournament; they relied on sponsor deals and ad revenue paid to them after the tournament ended in order to compensate the teams and talent.

“We were almost into Season 3 when one of the players asked me ‘When do we get our prize money for Season 1?’ I’m not even an admin. This question just came up during an interview,” Kairos said. “Typically a two-game series is three to four hours of total work, including research on teams. The sheer amount of work we’re putting in is not worth it. When it’s one or two matches a day it’s not that big a deal. When it’s a full-time job 10 days straight, yes it is.”

Things are even worse for Spanish-speaking casters, according to Ramón “Swadow” Beltran, who started the Spanish coverage studio Direct eSports this year.

“South American casters were working for free until a couple months ago. Right now, a normal caster here gets $50 per month from 40 to 50 hours of casting,” Swadow said. “The most popular South American casters can make $100 to 200 per month. Most tournaments [don’t pay us], but when they do, it’s a fraction compared to what English casters receive.  I understand why, but it’s hard to keep a studio running without money.”

Swadow said many tournaments did not think paying Spanish-speaking casters was worth the investment, despite South American viewers commanding “10 to 30 percent of the English viewership” and representing a growing market in esports.

“The South American economy does not help us at all,” Swadow said. “Azubu supports my personal stream, so with that money plus a part time job I pay all the casters employed by Direct eSports. In fact, my personal income is 90 percent of the income of the studio at the moment.

“This means I usually have four hours to sleep and 20 hours to work. I have no college degree because I dropped my education to pursue this career, so right now casting is the only thing I have. Some people might say dropping out was a dumb decision, but it’s the dream I want to chase.”

 

Swadow’s dream is echoed by talented individuals in every region where Dota 2 is popular. Even when working long hours for little or no pay, many amateur casters say that they keep at it because they love the game.

Is the dream worth chasing?

But the flip side exists. Promising new casters might choose traditional employment instead of following the esports dream because casting doesn’t earn enough to pay the bills. And it’s the esports viewing community that loses out.

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Professional gaming has been consistently driven forward by talented personalities who poured their heart and soul into the game despite little recognition or monetary gain. Now that more money and sponsors are entering the scene, the hardworking people who drive smaller events deserve to be paid. Casters, stats people and hosts should be able to dedicate themselves to their craft instead of being forced to give up their dreams because they can’t pay their bills.

 

Once again, this does not mean that volunteer positions have no place in esports. This industry was built off volunteers and will continue to use them for years to come. If viewers want quality from online tournaments that aren’t covered by professional casting studios, something will have to change soon. The smaller tournaments are the training grounds for the next big talents in esports and are vital to Dota 2’s growth.

“[I get asked to work for free] all the time,” Llama said. “The majority of stuff I cast has been for free. When you start out casting it’s almost expected that you work for free. And a lot of tournament organizers will take advantage of this or say they’ll pay and never deliver. Of course I wish we lived in a world where everyone got paid for their work, but we don’t. No one should have to put up with just getting exposure, but we also don’t live in a perfect world.

“Anyone getting involved in Dota 2 casting or any video game content creation needs to be OK with the fact that they will work for free at some point. It’s not fair, but that’s how the current world works until we can change it. Additionally, just because you’ve put a lot of time into casting or other content creation doesn’t mean you’re owed anything. The world’s not fair, and no matter how much you work, you might just not make it.”

Chris “WakeyPixel” Wake gave plenty of insight into exactly what keeps some established personalities from pursuing esports commentating full-time. He was the second half of the Pixel Pipeline studio based out of the United Kingdom. After Owen “ODPixel” Davies became an international sensation in early 2015, many involved in casting expected Chris to be next.

 

Instead, he decided to step away from casting entirely, completed his college degree, bought a house and became a marketing executive.

“Constant source of income. It’s ruthless. I could be casting a UK LAN for 2 days and get £200, then I might be invited to Sweden to cast DreamHack for 2 months and be offered £3000. Great! But then if I don’t get another gig for the rest of the year I lose my house,” Wake said. “Obviously I’m pretty irrelevant in the whole scene so I don’t really know what the top people working at BeyondTheSummit, joinDOTA and Moonduck have in terms of contracts[…] The reality is [… a] tournament organizer or studio might see some potential in a young caster and may give them a platform to perform but the financial backing to help them pursue their dream isn’t in place at the moment.

“If somebody said to me, ‘We’ll pay you [X amount of British pounds] per annum and give you bonuses based on the tournaments you are invited to,’ I would quit my job and do it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that because Valve pays individuals and won’t pay organizations. It’s pretty ruthless.”

So how does this effect viewers? Simply put, fans want the person behind the microphone to be good, whether it’s The International, the Shanghai Major or the smallest of tournaments.

Both esports viewers and fans of traditional sports can testify that the right person behind the mic at the right time can make a moment unforgettable. It’s why I still go back to Saahil “UNiVeRsE” Arora’s Echo Slam in The International 2015’s grand final. Sure, the play is sick, but Toby’s build up and reaction make it so much better. These moments are iconic for esports fans.

They’re also why it’s important to give talented casters an opportunity to make their hobby and passion work for them.

Cover photo designed by Slingshot. Other photos by Robert Paul/ESL, eslgaming.com

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