Q&A: esports photographer Robert Paul talks Smash, favorite events and usage rights

There are many people who work behind the scenes in esports. but Robert Paul is one of the most recognizable.

Paul is one of the premier and most well-known esports photographers in the industry. The East Coast based Paul has shot some of the biggest esports events across multiple titles, and Slingshot’s Connor Smith caught up with Paul at Apex to talk about his career, the Super Smash Bros scene and some of his favorite events of all time.

Connor Smith: Can you start with what you were doing before you came into the scene?

Robert Paul: Before I was doing esports photography? Right now I’m a full-time photographer. Before I was doing that, I was working in IT for about 10 years, doing a variety of stuff: help desk, database administration and all that.

I’ve been gaming all my life, all the way back on Commodore 64 when I was a little kid in the 80’s. When Street Fighter IV came out, that’s when I started going out to events. I was getting my ass kicked. After a while of that, I kind of got tired of going out to events and getting my ass kicked.

In 2011, I had just bought a camera. I was like, “I need something to do with this camera. Why don’t I take photos at the event and see how that goes.” I had seen photos come out of EVO and I had seen photos come out of some of the other bigger events on the west coast, but I hadn’t seen any photos come out of events on the east coast. I figured I’d take some photos over here and see what happens.

At the time, I was going out to Local Battles — which is sort of a LAN gaming center in New Jersey — and I got to know the owner. He liked my work and had me come out and shoot other events at the store.

The short version of that story is that it sort of blew up from there. I did APEX 2012. In 2012-13, it was still kind of really small stuff, like locals. 2013 I did APEX 2013 and I did East Coast Throwdown and maybe a couple other things. Still, mostly on the grind.

2014 was when things really started to take off. I did EVO and BlizzCon and Red Bull Battlegrounds and a whole bunch of other stuff. After another year, I was like, “I can probably take this full time.” Starting this year, I kind of made that jump and doing full-time photography now.

CS: Working at all these big tournaments, do you have a favorite moment you captured?

RP: The one that I always have to come back to was from APEX 2012, which was my very first big event. I had only been shooting for seven months, at that point. I got a shot that became known as the “Ocean” moment where this low-seeded Japanese player beat Mew2King in Brawl. It was off on the side-stream and everyone was like “whatever, M2K is gonna wreck this guy.” Nobody really cared about it. As the match went on and it looked like Ocean was gonna win, more and more people just gathered around and gathered around and gathered around. People were stacked eight people deep, standing on chairs, hoisted up on each other’s shoulders. When Ocean won, this entire stack of people blew up. For a few years, nobody talked about APEX without including that photo in a video or an article.

That’s my classic shot.

More recently, the Genesis 3 hype shot of Smash 64, I think that’s pretty cool.

Photo by Robert Paul/rmpaul.com, @tempusrob

Photo by Robert Paul/rmpaul.com, @tempusrob

One, because that’s the first time an event like that was in a theater, instead of a ball oom or a convention center. Just to see a game like Smash 64 in that environment. I mean, that game is 16 years old? 17 years old? To see, not just the game in that environment, but the crowd going crazy for it and all that. It speaks a lot to the scene, I think.

CS: Which event organizer treats you the best?

RP: MLG really spoiled me! (laughs) I did MLG Columbus for Counter Strike: Global Offensive. It was a super well run event. All the staff and the talent were taken care off. The day after, we all went out paintballing. Really just an amazing crew and a really good time. Blizzard is great to work with. EVO’s great.. there’s so much great stuff out there. MLG, Blizzard, ESL — everyone’s good to work with in their own way.

CS: Speaking of MLG, I recall your photos were used without proper sourcing. How tough is it dealing with misues such as this?

RP: It’s a huge pain. One because I’m not making that much money off of photo licensing to begin with. Now I have to take my time and chase it down and be like, “Look, this is how this is supposed to work.” The return I get is so small, but it’s one of those things that I have to go after because if I don’t, then it just happens more and more.

Once I go to a publication and go like, this can’t happen, then they kind of straighten out. It’s a pain in the butt in the short term, but long term, it helps myself and other photographers, too. Now they know not to go to other photographers and not grab whatever.

Esports is one of those things where it’s a young industry and there’s a lot of young people in the industry. You run into a lot of people who have habitually, for their own sites or whatever, go on google image search and grab whatever is the first thing they saw. There’s this continuous process of educating people not to do that.

As you see more and more bigger sites, now you have the Yahoos and the ESPNs, there’s less and less of that because people are paying attention and seeing what’s really going on.

CS: Do you talk to other esports photographers?

RP: We have our private Skype chats and all that fun stuff. Everyone’s so busy, we hardly talk anymore. The chats are so dead. We keep in touch. We poke each other when there’s events going on and the odd chances we have to meet up.

CS: Where do you see yourself going from here?

RP: Very few organizations are hiring photographers to staff. ESL in Europe has Helena working full time. I always keep an eye out and see if ESL US is hiring one for the US-side, as well. For the most part, it’s gonna always be freelance, nonstop. It’s really just a matter of doing more. I’ll probably do about 20 events this year. The goal is probably to be doing 30-plus. The work is out there, I just got to get it. Stuff like the NA LCS is super tough to crack into cause Riot has their own staff. It’s just a matter of doing more and doing bigger.

CS: One of the reasons that the Smash documentary was so popular was that it gave exposure to events that would’ve otherwise gone undocumented. What is it like capturing these moments and documenting a game’s history?

RP: It’s always an honor to be brought out to an event. Whether it’s something local or across the country. I think about EVO or even here, I’m the only person on that stage, taking these photos on that stage with these angles and this access, with the ability to do what I do. You have the people who are the best in the world at what they do, coming out and playing. You want to do that a justice. I put a lot of pressure on myself to really do well and capture these moments.

These are THE photos that, hopefully, years from now, people are gonna be able to go back and say, “I was there. We saw this. I did that.” I would love — and I’m not sure how I would ever make it happen — more documentary-style photography. Not just on-stage at the events, but more behind-the-scenes with the players. It’s tough because they spend so much time in front of cameras already. Between streams and events and documentaries, I sometimes feel weird approaching players outside of these spaces and be like, “Hey! I’m gonna continue to be sticking a camera in your face while you’re trying to hangout and warm-up.”

I would love to see, if not me then someone, doing that kind of thing.

CS: I understand you released a book for Genesis 3…

RP: For a long time, I’ve wanted to do physical photo albums from events. Genesis 3 kind of seemed like a good one to start with. It was a really iconic event. It was the first time an event had been inside a theater and so the photos were kind of unique. I put together a book, and it’s a pretty simple book. There’s no crazy design. It’s just photos on pages. Super straight-forward. It was a start. It was a way to put something together and see what the reception is. (The easiest way to get it is to go here.)

It depends on how this does. Right now, it’s not doing that well (laughs). The price point is also a little high. I need to look at the balance of what people are willing to spend and the demand. It’s very experimental, still. If I can find that price-point and the product itself that people are willing to go in on, then I would definitely do more.

Cover photo by Robert Paul/rmpaul.com, @tempusrob.

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