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Jason “Alchemist” Baker reflects on ELEAGUE Major production, his decade-long career and the challenges facing Overwatch

Jason “Alchemist” Baker is one of the best known behind-the-scenes workers in Counter-Strike.

Baker is a freelance producer and has been in the scene for more than a decade. He’s worked a multitude of events under various titles and has seen Counter-Strike, events and production all progress significantly through the years.

He stepped away from the industry for a few years before working with ESL and then doing the MLG Columbus Major last April. From there, he started working for ELEAGUE as producer for its two Counter-Strike seasons, the Overwatch Open and January’s ELEAGUE Major.

Slingshot’s Vince Nairn caught up with Baker to go back in time and talk about his early days in the industry, what the ELEAGUE production was like and observing in Overwatch.

Vince Nairn: First of all, you’ve worn a ton of different hats and done so much in the game of Counter-Strike. What have you found the most rewarding and why?

Jason Baker: I would say live streaming is the most. Your feedback is immediate. When we were doing daily videos for MFAVP, I kept on wanting to do live, and that’s why I started doing some stuff with TSN, the radio stuff. We kept trying to do video and it was so expensive and hard to do back then. When we finally had the resources to do it, we kind of got locked out by WSVG. I’d say live. The immediate feedback. Get everyone seeing what I’m seeing at once. Making a feature and seeing in that moment how people react. That’s a lot of fun.

VN: One of your earlier forays was with GotFrag. How did that opportunity come about, and what was that atmosphere like at that specific time?

JB: Originally, we were doing videos at the CPL with MFAVP and originally I had talked to them about hosting our videos. YouTube wasn’t there yet in 2004, so to get a host for your video was a big deal. I started working with TSN at that time, and I started writing for GotFrag. That kind of grew from there, and coincidentally, SirScoots started working with GotFrag on their media side. I hired Scoots to do interviews for me in 2003 — and when I say hired, I mean bought him lunch. The early days, there’s lots and lots of manual labor that would go into going to an event. They would bring 12 people to an event and somebody, his entire job would be getting demos from all the matches and making sure they were up. One person wrote a script to get all the POV demos from a game.

We’re doing stats and demos and interviews. I only had one event I went without doing video. The MFAVP guys were kind of tired of doing events, so I went and just did articles once in 2005. Then I got them to come back to do the GotFragTV because it was live. Videos back then would be 18, 19-hour days, and you’d kind of stagger your sleep a little bit. GotFrag, it was fun and rewarding but lots and lots of work. Lots of manual labor as far as interviews and transcribing them and getting them up. Keeping track of scores.

VN: It’s a lot different now

JB: It’s all simulated. And you’d have people watching the score bots that we put in or they’d be checking in with the admin for official rulings. And even back then I would show up at an event a few days early and help them set up the monitors. I did the CPS from 2002 to like 2006. I would do all that beforehand. So I knew all those things like the back of my hand.

VN: And you eventually went to MLG from there, but eventually you kind of left the scene entirely for a little while. What led you to that decision?

JB: It was a weird time. It was right during the economic crash. There was a lot of (Counter-Strike) stuff going on in Europe but there was nothing going on in the United States. MLG wanted us to move to New York, and Scott and I didn’t want to move to New York. Before all the stuff with GotFrag, and all the stuff I did over the years, I had a full time job. I fixed industrial copy machines and printers. That was my full time. All (esports) work I did was in the evenings or on my vacation. Then when MLG bought GotFrag in 2006, I went out to Phoenix and started doing it full time. They closed down in 2008, 2009, somewhere around there. I tried to find other outlets, and no one was interested. This was right before the rise of Twitch. It’s just starting to bubble up. League of Legends made some waves. But Counter-Strike in the United States was dead. And I do other games besides Counter-Strike, but this is what I was most known for. So I just went back to working on copiers. They hired me as if I never left, gave me all my raises. Because not a lot of people can do that. So I went back to doing that, and after a while I started just getting tired of it. I was doing the work of three people at the end. And I know this for a fact because it took three people to replace me when I quit. I just up and quit one day. I couldn’t get any help and was like four days behind on wok. I just said I was done. And I had no other job.

I started working on being a computer programmer. Started doing some QA work for this other company. Next thing I know I’m doing some system admin work for them and I’m doing a lot of system admin work. So I’m doing that as a contractor, and ESL reaches out to me. And they’re gonna do one of the World of Warcraft arena tournaments. And they wanted someone to come in and do it. I’m not at ESL even one day and MLG reaches out to me and says they got the Major and they want me.

VN: So you went from nothing to being busy just like that…

JB: Everyone forgot about me for a few years and then everyone remembered me. So I went to MLG and redesigned how they were doing their observer stuff, and I started working with a few things to add to the broadcast and some of the live cast. Nobody was using a delay HLTV to get replays, and that just blew my mind. And I knew other events were doing it. Other events were doing a lot of things correctly. (And when I’m critical), I have private channels with everyone, so I just reach out privately. Public criticism isn’t always productive because the end goal is a better product. So I did that and so for MLG for the Major I game directed, so I basically switched between the observer feeds and camera setups. Just tried to get a little more storytelling, a little bit more interesting view.

VN: And then, of course, you went to Turner and ELEAGUE. What were your initial impressions there? How did your role differ to what else you had done to that point?

JB: Would say I spent probably the first two weeks trying to get them to do things the esports way, or in my eyes, the correct way. Just to get everything working. The player desks, the players can see each others faces. The caster desk setup was terrible. It took me almost two weeks to get them into our world correctly. I was only there two weeks before our first show. It took that, and after that, the very first run of show I handed Turner, they looked at it and said “Not good enough.” And it’s the best thing that ever happened to me. They hand you this thing you worked your ass off for and they say it’s not good enough. So how do we make it better? I spent a lot of times going to their other productions. I’m going to other shows. Always learning from the best. So like an MLG or ESL, if the graphics aren’t made five minutes before you go live, those graphics aren’t getting made. Video has gotten better with making video content over the year, but usually once you’re live, that’s it.

VN: And that wasn’t the case elsewhere?

JB: Turner, the producer lays the track and the director drives the train. I’ll do the run of show. There’s way more sponsors and commercial plugs that you have to do. We have to do two pregames this event because we have two pregame sponsors. And so designing the show around that is a lot harder. And then during production, for an ESL or MLG show, if there was a delay, I would mostly use “Something went wrong. What can we do here.” Here, I’m involved with the minutiae of the show. The director doesn’t call a graphic until I tell him where the graphic’s at. I’m responsible for every single thing that goes on a screen during the show and the flow of it.

So a show’s going on, and say a player is 0-7 and I say “Give me a lower third that shows this guy’s 0-7.” Or “This guy has more pistol kills than anybody. Can you check the stats and see if he has more pistol kills than anybody this week?” Or sometimes it’s “No, he doesn’t, Jason, you’re an idiot.” But we have the flexibility. Then I’m responsible for talking to the talent during all of that. Richard (Lewis) is really good at listening while he was talking. He might have to talk about this, then I’m told we have to swap out a computer. So I tell him “Talk about this player,” and he’s getting a camera shot of that player. It seems like this seamless planned out thing, but it’s not. But we prepare for it.

Way back to my earlier questions, one of my favorite things to do is to figure out how to make all that work.

VN: And how does all of that work you’re doing translate into the product we see on the screen?

JB: I think it translates really well, and the best part is the audience doesn’t even know it’s extra. The audience just knows it’s part of the show. They don’t see that we’re at halftime of matches and talking about the history of North getting bought out and that this isn’t a planned segment, but somebody had to go to the bathroom. Or we have this two-minute video that’s not planned. I have this list of things just in case.

But my goal is to keep people informed and entertained, non-stop. And not just talking heads. Everything. Video. Stats. Graphics. We use tweets a lot because — some just to give the talent a hard time. They entertain us in the control room. Sometimes just to tell the audience that we’re paying attention to them.

In the old days, I was the producer, the game director and primary observer at the same time. I’d have lines or a com system to talk to the talent. I would do all that at the same time. Now that you can dedicate people to being observers or graphics people, you can have experts in their wheelhouse an kind of tie the whole show to it. Observing is 80 percent of your broadcast. They should have all the tools they need, and it should do the job. Nobody should leave a round and go “What happened?” It’s going to happen, but then I better have a replay to break down what happened. It’s the structure of having replays and those graphics and the ability to tie it all together. In CS, it’s that one round. In Overwatch, how did that (fight) just happen? And if you can’t show that, if you can’t tell the story of the match, you’re doing it wrong. Showing the kills is worthless. Showing frag movie clips is worthless if you cannot tell the story of why this team won at this particular moment.

VN: You mention Overwatch, and that’s been pretty fascinating to see. It seems there’s still a lot of uncertainty about how it will work best as an esport and how to produce it. What do you think about that, having worked on Overwatch for ELEAGUE?

JB: If you look at our broadcast versus any other broadcast — and I have not watched a ton in 2017, so maybe someone else has done better — but I watched how everybody else was doing it, just like in CSGO, and I realized everybody was doing it wrong. In Overwatch, I knew they were doing it wrong. FaceIt did a bunch of the Overwatch qualifier event. I got them to come in to do the observing, and I spent two hours discussing with them how it really needs to be observed. And I worked with Reece, the guy in charge of the whole show. I worked with Reece beforehand, and a lot — a lot of people told me what I wanted to do could not be done. So I spent some time getting everybody to buy in to how to tell the story of an Overwatch match. And rules of switching. You can’t be following a Reinhart moving up the middle of the red team then switch to a blue team’s Tracer on the other side of the map. Then switch to a first-person (view) of a guy staring at the wall and you don’t know what they’re looking at. You can’t do that. And that’s pretty much something we designed, and we got lucky. There was an event going on In Europe and…we had like six hours of practice working on this new system. Working on how to show the attacking team because what’s the story? The story is the attacking team. If the story changes, it’s “how is this team shutting them down.” The HUD is not very intuitive on on Overwatch. The gameplay is all over the place. You have to show red team moving into a trap. Wide view of the trap. First-person view of the trap happening on the other team. That’s a perfectly contained story. It’s so easy in Overwatch. So easy. And people still don’t do it.

VN: Does the ability to present the game the best way inhibit Overwatch’s ceiling as an esport, do you think?

JB: I would say bad observing would kill any esport. Imagine if you’re trying to watch a hockey game and the camera guys can’t follow the puck. Every esports game has a puck, you just gotta know where to look. And here’s something I told Blizzard. The biggest problem with Overwatch is it doesn’t have those full “Fuck yeah” moments. What happens is a team plays one side the next team plays the other side, and as the ending happens, there’s this moment of internal debate of “Did they just tie? What happens now? Do they play this map again? Do they switch to another map?” That’s not fucking confusing at all.

VN: You’ve been around long enough to see so many people come in and try to run events, and for one reason or another, they end up being disastrous. What is it that people haven’t learned from past mistakes? And what made ELEAGUE so different?

JB: It’s the game first, then the players, then the fan experience, then everything else. And I mean everything else after that — that becomes talent, what your stage looks like, what your prize money is, all that. Show the game correctly first. Take care of the players. Take care of the fans. And start building from that. Of course you need good talent for that fan experience, but do you need seven of them? Probably not. Where are you putting your focus? The other one is starting too big. ELEAGUE had the money and the expertise to start as big as they did. But they did one little qualifier event in Vegas. And I had nothing to do with that one. But they learned a lot. They learned what they didn’t know. And I think that’s important. We have people come in and go “We want to be the next ESL or MLG. Here’s this event.”

Maybe you should do this weekend online tournament first. Then maybe invite four teams out for a showmatch. Start small. It’s about constantly learning what you don’t know. Every single day I’m learning. I’ve been doing this for 17 years and I’m still learning new and better ways to do things. It’s also having the right people around you. Having people who will say no and having people that will say “It’s a good idea, but let’s do it a different way.” It’s just making a better show.

This is kind of a side tangent. But one of the hardest things working with ELEAGUE, compared to other events, is in ELEAGUE I have to explain everything. Not as much as I used to. But if I wanted a replay in the second round because of a smoke trick that somebody did, unless (I explain), I’m just gonna get a video of the first smoke they see someone throw. Whereas if I go to a production meeting for a baseball game, like for MLB, “Hey this guy has struck out his last five at-bats. Get me a clip of his last five strikeouts.” Immediately everybody in that room is nodding their head and is on it.

When I say something like that, I have to get the exact matches, find the footage. I have to go way more detailed. The big screens behind the players at the Major, where it showed their grenades and weapons and stuff like that. To CSGO fans that’s very basic and easy. But explaining when they build it, you have say it’s not important if all players have a knife. ESL for instance, the producer wouldn’t have to do that.

VN: What was your favorite part of the Major in January? And what was the one thing you thought you maybe could have done better?

Before the (main event), on that Wednesday at the ELEAGUE studio, they had to figure out the draw and do all that (for the playoffs). We knew that was going to take 40 minutes. In my brain, I said one hour. So I built inside our broadcast, after a very long week, a one-hour show. So we did a one-hour show that was, once again, informative and entertaining and chock full of stuff. The first thing you watch the tournament that Wednesday was the teams moving on. I had this beautiful show and I was most proud of that, which is a weird thing to say because the other thing is our show on Sunday for the finals, on TV and over a million people watching, was probably to the viewer 100 percent perfect. It went so well, to me there’s only three mistakes in that show, and I’m not sure people would see them. I know all three mistakes in that show, but besides that, it was perfect. From the opening, which we rehearsed every evening and sometimes in the morning before it. From the start of the show to the signing off was about as perfect as a live show can get.

Contrast that, I thought Friday’s show at the Fox was a complete shitshow. One of the worst experiences in my life. I have no idea how that show looks to the viewer. All that show is to me is pain. Nothing but pain.

You’re in a production truck after being in your comfy studio all week, so then you’re finding bugs. Even though you rehearsed the whole day before, some replays are not working. Or this observer feed got crossed with the audio of something else. All these things that can happen that you’re jumping around. We jumped around so many things. Trying to explain to the talent how much more time they had. Our graphics system crashed and we lost a bunch of our graphics. It was just a perfect storm of bad things happening. So that was one of the worst shows of my life. I was ready for it to be over at that point. Every single thing we did that Friday felt like pulling teeth.

Cover photo by Scott “Used to be OMGScoots, now sadScoots, please sub” Smith