From back row to backstage: impressions of the world of eSports

Hello there! For those of you who don’t know me, my name is SirActionSlacks (AKA Jake Kanner), content creator, aspiring caster/analyst and overall buffoon in the world of Dota 2. Typically I don’t spend my time writing long-winded blog posts about my emotions and experiences, mostly due to the fact that I have better things to do with my precious time (sleeping). However, I believe that what has happened to me over the last few months would be something that might interest someone out there in the world, so I thought I might as well write it down for that one person to enjoy - could it be you?

So what, if anything, is interesting about me? Well, besides my rippling biceps and handsome visage, I have done something pretty unique in the last few months in the world of eSports. Due to some very strange circumstances, I went from sitting in the back row at the world’s largest Dota event (TI4) to working backstage at the next biggest (ESL One) in the span of about three months. This blog post is about that transition, sharing with you my thoughts and experiences as a normal fan turned employee in the strange world of eSports and the crazy things that happen behind the scenes.

About me

Who am I? Here's the short and dirty version: I am a content creator for Dota 2 who does a variety of videos and other forms of media centered on bringing comedy into the stressful world of Dota. My goal has always been to ‘lighten up’ the mood in the game due to its sometimes inherently toxic nature, and try to spread that goodwill in the community.

Sometimes it works, sometimes people get even angrier at my shrill and annoying antics, which I  in turn find hilarious in itself, so aggregately the world is turned into a better place. In one such video series, I went to TI4 and snuck around interviewing people and going places where I was not meant to be, which was seen by the right people who were gracious enough to give me my first real gig in the world of eSports. The offer was simple: come to New York, do what you do, and enjoy the ride. The stakes, however, were high - succeed in this first event and my life-long dream of working in the world of gaming could become a reality.

First impressions

After finally deciding that the person who sent me it wasn’t trying to scam me out of my Dota 2 Rares somehow, I accepted the offer to work at ESL One. First thing was first: I didn’t know anything about eSports, so I went to work getting prepared. I found all the names and pictures of all the players, personalities and other important people who might be at the event and went to work filling out a spiral notebook with as much information as possible (with some big help from the community, especially a man named Sitting Duck). This is impossible, by the way - there is absolutely no way you will be able to know everyone and what they do unless you spend time with them in the field. Here is a fun example: at the event, I met a high-up at a very important Dota 2 website for what was apparently the second time and he was shocked I didn’t remember him. Isn’t that fun? I got to burn a bridge before I even found it - wonderful!

Anyhow, when I felt confident that I knew everything about each person (this never happened), time was already up and I got on my plane to New York from my home in Colorado. I had never been to New York before, and it is pretty much exactly what TV shows and movies make it look like: people everywhere, as far as the eye can see, yelling and cursing and horns everywhere - my God, the stupid honking horns, they never stop. Furthermore, why is there constantly a police siren going off? You will get about five to ten minutes of silence (read: honking and yelling) and then another emergency siren goes off. Why? Right, I’m getting off topic: in short, New York is a rad place with great people and pizza - think Spiderman New York rather than CSI New York.  

Back to the story: first impressions. Now, I am a poor man, and I grew up in filth and squalor. I have about $200 to my name at the moment, and I have never experienced ‘the high life’, as people call it, so when I was walking down Times Square looking for my hotel, I thought there was some kind of mistake. I imagined the world of eSports would put me up in some cockroach-ridden cesspool where you would sleep in your clothes on a filthy bed (what I am used to - home sweet home, baby!), but good Lord was I wrong.

The hotel was, literally, in the middle of Times Square, a 10-minute walk from Madison Square Garden. I was blown away, and thus my first impression was: the eSports life is fancy! Staying in a swanky hotel room 10 minutes from the venue, living like a king? That was the world I was preparing to work and live in, and it blew my mind. They had soap in the room. You didn’t need to bring your own soap! I threw out my soap and smelled like lavender for days. Anyhow, rather than regale you with my adventures of finding lotions in my hotel, let’s move on. Last note, though: the hotel was expensive as heck and it was like 400 square feet. Welcome to New York, I guess (but they had HBO so whatever).

Meeting the personalities

I am not good with names. Or faces. But at ESL One I didn’t need to be, cause these dudes were the best in the world at what they do. Tobi Wan, commentator at every International and the most well-known caster in the world. Capitalist, rising star and heartthrob to ladies everywhere. Synderen, player-turned-caster-turned-analyst who is better at being all three than most are at one. Merlini, whose list of accomplishments are so long I won’t even bother to type them out. Soe, the magical leprechaun whose wit and charm was only surpassed by her annoyance at my inability to say her name right. Pyrion Flax was also there. These were people who, at TI4, I was too terrified to speak to, but now there I was working side by side with them. Where to begin…

As a viewer turned employee, your first instinct is to fanboy out - go up squealing, ask for autographs, tell them how much you love their stuff and how no one knows them like you and how they’re amazing and oh my gosh will you take a photo with me? “No. NO. DON’T DO THIS!” I would say to myself, eye twitching as I remained calm. These were people I needed to work with, no longer my gods and heroes. I needed to treat them with high respect, but as equals. “Pleasure to meet you,” I said to Maelk as he shook my hand for the first time. He didn’t notice the sweat or the fact that I held on a little too long, the fanboy deep inside crying out for just one more moment of his touch. No, he didn’t know the insanity within, and they never did.

I managed to chill, relax, and actually get to know these kings of their field, and you know what surprised me the most? They were legit. I absolutely expected to get the cold shoulder from at least one of them, because why not? These were people who had been working for years to get to where they were, become the best of the best, and here I was potentially posing a threat to take a gig that might be offered to them in the future, after about a month in the scene. By all means they could have been a little quiet, a little reserved, but no. Every single person had nothing but warmth and encouragement. It was weird. Every one of them, when asked, gave incredible insight into anything you asked them about, and were completely laid back and awesome.

Perhaps it’s because we all have something in common - a love for the game that we express in our own way - or perhaps they were just being extra kind due to it being my first event, but the guys and gals were just amazing. You ever wonder what it would be like to eat at the worst-looking food stand in New York with Synderen at 2:30 am? Or tell dirty terrible jokes with Soe? Or ask Tobi what makes a good caster and him going off for almost 20 minutes on the subject? It was that. It was real, and it was amazing. Here I go fanboying out, but seriously, when you expect to go into something as the newb and everyone there treats you like one of them, it shows you what a wonderful community this scene has, and how amazing the people in in really are. Even at the afterparty, where dudes I didn’t even get to work with met me, AKA Cyborg Matt and Sunsfan, there was not one jerk in the lot of them. Everyone I have come into contact with in the world of Dota 2 personalities is amazing. It’s weird. I am waiting for at least one person in this line of work to be a jerk. I’ll keep you posted.

Meeting the ESL One crew    

Now the Dota 2 personalities are one thing, but hoo boy are these guys crazy. The men and women behind the scenes at an eSports event should really have some kind of recognition, because they work the hardest - I say this after watching Tobi and Cap work from 7am to 2am screaming their lungs out and almost falling asleep singing to stay awake in between matches.

The ESL One crew worked harder than that - the guys are like animals. Before each match they went to get the camera feeds and pictures of the players, ran around solving any problems, sat on their computers for hours upon hours on end making sure every level was right, every camera angle was correct, every commercial ran on time. These guys were machines. James Lampkin and ReDeYe, the big dogs of the crew, were unstoppable. Never missed a beat. Every second there wasn’t something they needed to do, they made their rounds making sure everyone was happy - players, staff and personalities - with a huge smile on their faces. When is the last time you sat in a chair working for nine hours, got up and went to go see if anyone wanted a Red Bull with a smile on your face? Never? These dudes did just that.

Most of the crew is German, by the way, and despite the language barrier everyone I talked to made a great effort to make sure that I knew what was going on and that the show was going smoothly. No one pretended they couldn’t understand me or asked me to talk to someone else, just big smiles and thumbs up. Every night I had blisters on my feet and shuffled around like a zombie on the way to my bed, and these guys were running around (literally running) after 14-hour work days doing stuff when I went home. I seriously don’t even understand how that is possible. In short, you or I will never know in our lifetimes all of the cogs that it takes to make an event like ESL One run smoothly, and the fact that it does is incredible. James and ReDeYe are like comic book supervillains - there is no way a human could control all those little parts of a plan so flawlessly. Amazing.

Meeting the players

Here, friends, is where things get weird: the players. Now, you think you know about life as a professional gamer: wake up, game, hang out, laugh and talk new strats - a pretty laid back and easy life. No - this is not the case.

It was my dream to see Aui_2000 and Universe at the event and shake their hands, and the only time I saw them was when they were in the practice rooms with a bunch of PCs. I thought: “I’ll just talk to them when they come out.” THEY NEVER CAME OUT. The dudes walk in the building, go into the practice room and play. And play. And play. And come out and play in front of a roaring crowd. And then they go back into the room and play again. You nor I cannot fathom the amount of work these professionals put in.

When the practice rooms were full, they would all chill out in the dining area laughing at the current match and talking smack, but still all eyes were always on the screen. “Why would he do that?” “That was smart.” “That was dumb.” “I would have done this.” The game never ends for these guys. On top of that, they have reporters, managers, fans and idiots like me all pestering them at every moment asking for something or other, and they go do it. I think the biggest insight into the life of an eSports player I witnessed was before a game when I was relaxing with some of them. It was late, really late, and we were all dragging our feet, and the team was sitting in the room with me watching a game. They made a line of chairs into a couch and were taking turns getting about 10 minutes of sleep each, barely able to function, and then they got called in to go play their next match. The guys had been awake for I believe 18 hours, and they were called in to go play a game against another team who was feeling the same for $100,000 with one chance. That about sums up the life of a professional gamer - loveable, dedicated and worked to the bone. I don’t know how they do it, but after seeing them talking to their fans after the 20-hour work day with smiles on their faces, I can certainly see why.

I will say that the thing which surprised me most was how each player stacked up to their online persona. When you walk into a room and ask “Hey, who can do an interview real quick?” and the guys you thought would be warm and happy blow you off while the ones who make themselves look like arrogant jerks are the first to get out of their chairs, shake your hand and say “Let’s do it.” It’s weird to be able to talk to these guys and hang out with them, and hope that each of them can win. It’s actually really hard. Before the event I studied these guys and wrote down jokes about their past performances, what they’re good at, what they’re bad at, and when I met them it all changed. Somewhere along the line you forget that they aren’t numbers, they aren’t just their names, but actual people. You hang out with them all day in the dining area cracking jokes and swapping stories then you watch them lose, and it feels like you lose with them. I dunno why it affected me so much, to be honest, and I’m sure it’s not being conveyed with these words as I would like it to, but to be reminded that these guys are human beings is just an eye opening and humbling experience.

The venue

So, let’s talk about things you never get to see. Directly behind the stage you saw were the casters, sitting at a little booth. To the left of them were the hosts and personalities, and to the right was the production area, a place filled with about ten to fifteen computers, audio equipment, servers, spare cameras - the works. Everyone wears special noise cancellation headsets (the same ones the players use), and you can’t hear someone yelling at you from next to your ear with those things on. Above the desk there was the makeup room - which was a strange experience, I assure you - as well as the editing/viewing room where more ESL One dudes worked tirelessly to make all the clips and movies you guys saw. This is also where the desk guys would go to watch the games and take notes. On the other side above production was the player practice room, dining room, private player room, etc. Spacious setup - no problems with space whatsoever. It was also clean, organized and very well made (thanks to the work of James and ReDeYe, I assume).

We got fed twice a day with an assortment of treats: sandwiches, pizza, Chinese food - the works. Everyone freaked out when the food came, and for good reason. You had the tech guys, players, personalities all dropping everything for some of those sweet, sweet treats, and by God you needed them. I only ever ate like that during a brief stint in construction work, where the sight of a sandwich is more heavenly than any other sight you can behold. Food was good.

The event was well-stocked with Red Bull in the back - you couldn’t go ten feet without another cooler of Red Bull. How much Red Bull can one man drink? The answer is a lot. I drank so much Red Bull my wings got wings. They had water, too, but that dried up quickly, by the end of the day it was drink Red Bull or drink nothing. We went with Red Bull. I’m home and still drinking Red Bulls and I don’t even particularly like the stuff - I don’t know what happened. Also, despite the constant barrage of bacon-stuffed pizza ads, there was no Pizza Hut. I was quite upset about this but kept it to myself. Where was the bacon? Day 149: still no Pizza Hut.

Other notable things were the chairs, computers and other tech. I have never stolen anything in my life, but when I saw all of those fancy mice, keyboards and chairs, all I imagined was how I would be able to acquire them via any means necessary. My God, sitting in those chairs was like sitting on a cloud, and the mice and keyboards looked like they were made by the Forerunners from the Halo series - I don’t even know what the hell that was about, but it was so tight-looking.

Other than that, it looked like your typical high-class high-tech back of house - really well organized. Loved the event and loved the front of the house, too - nice leg room on the chairs and the lobby had some nice swag. I thought the Secret Shop was well done this event as well, but $7 for a hotdog? Come on, man - I get that New York is pricey but there ain’t no hotdog that costs $7 to make it a hotdog.

On problems

We all think we know what happens when something goes wrong behind the scenes: People screaming into headsets, red in the face and sweat pouring off them, thousands of people watching as they run back and forth trying to fix a problem weighed down by their own crippling embarrassment.

When the problems on day one of ESL occurred - Valve servers kicking the players and computers failing - I expected to see this, so I went over to production when I saw we were having problems in an attempt to help and diffuse the situation. When I got there, I saw a bunch of guys calmly working - no sweat, yelling or anything. Pretty disappointing, really. I went to the head honcho James and asked him what was going on, and he calmly explained the situation while talking to the guys about how to fix it.

And then after day one we didn’t really have many other problems aside from some drops from the computers. James said that there would always be problems, and what makes a good event is how fast, effectively and calmly you can solve those problems. They are going to happen, no matter what. So, no screaming, no panic, nothing. It was a disappointment - I was hoping to see someone cry, but alas, they seemed like they had dealt with it hundreds of times before, so we just fixed it. Not a tear or fetal position in sight. 

So what happened to you?

ESL One was, to me, the big break. It was my time to show the world that I wasn’t all goofiness and laughs, but that I was prepared to do more - to be a good, hireable personality and make my first step on a long and amazing journey.

They gave me a camera guy from the event who could run around with me in the middle of games (the cameramen were needed pre-game and post-game, after all, and were always editing footage) and try to get some content. We had about 15 to 20 minutes to find people to interview, get the interviews and get to the next one, all while trying to be funny and insightful. Not easy, but I rocked it. We were like SEAL Team Six out there, running around getting what we could and then getting back to the show in very limited time.

Overall it was a hoot - I estimate I got about 15 legit interviews with fans, personalities, cosplayers, the works. However, what I was most excited about was talking to the players for the first time. At TI4 I didn’t work for the event, so anyone could easily blow me off - it was only Dendi and iceiceice who were kind enough to talk to just some dude. Here, however, the players were all mine - no escape. So I went out to get some awesome interviews with them and show the world that I could be something more. We got some great ones, and I talked to about six or seven pros. Overall, it was a hell of a lot of fun to work professionally and under time constraints with prepared questions and people telling you what worked and what didn’t - I hope to do it again.

But fate, my friends, had other ideas. My segments were designed to be played during ‘downtime’, in other words in between matches to take up some time. With near two-hour delays on day one and the rush to complete day two, only three of my spots managed to make it into the show. Rather than go with the player interviews they chose to go with what I was known for - fun and entertaining stuff with attendees and fans. Even Soe, one of eSports’ best of the best, got the same screen time as I did, and it was all due to the unexpected delays that can come with a live event.

When I found out that’s what was going down, I decided to stay busy and help out by pumping up the crowd, making sure the staff were alright and keeping spirits up with jokes and the like. It also let me go and hang out with the Dota fans a ton, which is always the highlight of these events for me. Some people asked me why they didn’t just give me a camera and microphone and let me rock those downtimes, but James made a very good point that we would have needed to get back to the action as soon as the game was back on - it would be pretty strange to just cut mid interview to go back to the game. I couldn’t agree more - the guy had everything thought out.

So was I upset? Good Lord no. Who cares?! ESL One still rocked! I got to show my content to a gigantic audience and hear them laugh at it. Have you ever been in a stadium full of people laughing at your jokes? Even the bad jokes?! It was insane. James, ReDeYe, and the rest of the team were EXTREMELY supportive and wished that it didn’t go the way it went, but to me it wasn’t a big deal at all. I got to talk to pros and make friends with players - I got to meet people who were the best in the world and make friends with them. I did something that maybe one day I will be able to do again, but next time use the skills I learned and experiences I had to make it even better.

I got to live a dream.

So, if you were wondering what it’s like going from a face in the crowd to a man in the show, that’s about it. It’s humbling. It’s terrifying. It’s challenging. And it’s exciting. It’s eSports, and it’s only gonna get bigger and better from now on.

It’s ESL One, baby. Hope to see you again soon!

Check out our interview with SirActionSlacks before the event here.


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