How many times have you been curled up streaming pro-games and had the thought: How hard can this casting gig be? joinDOTA's Toby 'Tobiwan' Dawson, had pretty much that exact same thought eight years ago before embarking on his path to becoming one of Dota 2's most well-known casting voices. Red Bull gave him a call to talk casting, TI4 predictions and why SyndereN is great...
How did you get into casting?
Initially I was a player in the Call of Duty scene back in the United Offensive days. It was dying because this brand spanking new CoD game came out on the market and everyone was like 'We want to play this!' I sat there like the elitist I was saying the original was the best. I tried to keep interest in my community and one of the ways I thought about doing that was to start getting people to cast my games and the other games played at the tournament.
I approached a group called Gamestah and asked them to cover the competition and they basically said, 'Nah, it's not worth our time.' I ended up taking it upon myself to start casting. “How hard can it be?” went through my head. Little did I know how hard it actually was.
The first cast I did was with Windows Sound Recorder. It's all I knew how to use. I uploaded it to a website called Touchtek Gaming which was a place I was writing some game reviews for. We ended up blowing up their server load in one night because we had 20 people download that MP3 file and that file was huge.
After that GameStar was like, 'Hey, you sound look a good caster - come and join us.' I ended up joining them for a while until I moved on to something more international. It was through a couple of LAN events where I thought I was going to take it seriously. The first time was World Cyber Games in 2007. I travelled there initially to cast Call of Duty, but unfortunately there were already casters for that. Then they said 'There's this other game none of us know how to cast – this thing called Dota – does anyone know about Dota?'
I put my hand up saying I played three public games of Dota and that was the extent of my knowledge. I said anyone with more experience than myself should go. Turns out I had the highest experience of the group, so they sent me and I cast on the main stage of the World Cyber Games. I am really glad there are no recordings available for any of this! I had no idea about abilities, hero names, strategies, anything. I was describing what I was seeing on the screen – it was casting 101. But when I went there and saw just how big eSports was I thought this is something I want to do seriously. I want to make a career out of this if I possibly can. I ended up volunteer casting for another five years before I found myself a full-time position.
Is your energetic style partly because you were trying to energise the Call of Duty scene when you started or is it simply your personality?
It's naturally me. It's developed over time as I developed my love for gaming. If you listen to my initial casts, I sound like a dead drongo – it's so bad! I sound bored, but I still know I was really excited at the time. I was a very sheltered guy. I had my escapes where I could be very out-there and eccentric, but when I came to talking normally or in an eSports world I was very quiet. Over time I learnt to be a little more free and express the emotions I was feeling. It's the reason I can't just cast any game, I need to be able to enjoy it. What I express is my emotions so when I'm watching a game I'm not going to go 'That was amazing' when really it was crap. I'm not lying to myself or my viewers.
When you're not casting an exciting or dramatic game how do you keep the energy level up?
One of the phrases I never like to hear people say during a broadcast is the line 'There's nothing much going on right now'. If anyone says that they're not looking hard enough. There's always something going on. Sometimes it gets very repetitive but most of the time, especially in a game like Dota which is so deep, you're able to theorycraft and extrapolate what could happen in the future from what's happening now.
Has casting improved your own gaming?
I've improved my choices when I play, as far as skill builds and item builds because I watch a lot of pro play. But when I play pub games I try to replicate what [pro players] were doing so I can better understand what they were attempting to do and the pros and cons. You definitely don't get better at playing by casting more in terms of control of your hero. The less you play the less comfortable you are moving your hero. Even the way you move the camera as a caster is completely different to the way you move it when you play.
Now that Dota 2 is work for you, do you still enjoy it?
I can definitely say I need some time away now and then. When you do something every day you need a way to chill. I don't think it's harmed my love of the game, but you have to have some variety in your life. I now do things outside of casting. I finally have a second caster here at joinDOTA so I have a little bit more time to do other things, like web development and organisation things. I also used to play a lot of Minecraft to chill myself out.
What does a typical day involve?
The last two days: I came in at 11am and started doing organisation, prepping overlays for the night, checking what tournaments we're doing and a whole bunch of other things. Then at 6pm I started casting and finished around 11pm. I was here for about an hour and a half taking care of videos, YouTube descriptions, things like that. Then I went home and picked up some food on the way. I got into bed about 1am and wound down by 3am because after you cast you're pretty hyped up and running on a lot of adrenaline. I had to wake up at 6am so I could get here for 6.30am to cast ESL One China for two and a half hours. Then I meant to go to sleep, but had some talks with people in China and a meeting with my project manager. I fell asleep around 1pm, woke at 3pm, we recorded a YouTube show and then a little more work before talking to you!
When a patch hits do you try to anticipate how the meta will change, or do you prefer to see how it plays out in real-time?
A little of column A, a little of column B. Meta develops over time through ideas of people. I did a changelog talk with Bruno and Luminous. We thought KotL and Abaddon will be the new OP things next to Ursa. We're hardly getting these heroes so we sit there going 'What's going on?' when you've got teams like The Alliance picking up Silencer and PA – that's not the combination we were searching for! And now Rubick and Shadow Demon and Sand King are the newest hot things on the market as far as support heroes go. It's not what we were thinking would come from this patch, but it will change over time.
Have you started to form any predictions for The International 4?
People always ask that ,but in the space of two weeks a team can go from hero to zero and zero to hero. if you asked me a week ago I'd say DK hands down. Then you watch them play over the last three or four days with the new patch and it's horrendous. They just got knocked out of ESL One by Dreamtime. In no scenario should that happen, but in two weeks time they might have the patch down a bit more or have their own strats they want to run.
With team predictions I put it down to one thing – how well is the team coordinating. If you saw Alliance shortly before TI3, hands down you would put them as the winners because there was no other team in the world able to coordinate and synergise as well as those players.
The teams that coordinate best right now are EG with Mason and I still want to say DK because I'm pretty sure they're going to kick back up again shortly. It's just going to take a little bit more focus. Team Empire would be the only other major one I would flag. Their synergy is just beautiful. As long as they don't screw it up – they have a habit of not playing their style.
Do you prefer live casting to working in the studio?
Most definitely. To find hype inside a studio comes from yourself and the mental projection of who's watching. You know that moment when you go to theatre and the actor waits the perfect amount of time for the crowd to die down before he says his next line? You keep the energy and you keep the momentum. When I broadcast at a LAN event it's similar. You feel the crowd rise and you know how to manipulate it to keep the energy rising without them feeling nauseated by keeping them at a high pitch the whole time. You bring them down, you drag them up, you make it like a fun adventure ride. I can do that so much better when I have a crowd in front of me and can feel the shifts in energy.
How about other casters – who do you rate?
People like SyndereN are the hottest catch as far as commentators go. An ex-competitive player who's really good at explaining the thought process and doing it in a way that's entertaining and with good diction. A lot of us, like myself for example, I never got trained anywhere but I self-evaluate a lot and work through a lot of problems I know I have to try and improve. It's taken eight years of development to get me to this point. It's why I rely a lot on experience. Right now I'd say SyndereN is the best caster out there just because of all the elements he brings to the table.
When you're casting a match is there anything you're nervous about missing?
First blood. That's the only thing. I don't get nervous when I cast anymore and even though it's a running joke I miss a lot of first bloods I actually miss very few. I understand where it should be coming from. You do probabilities. You look at the three lanes and the jungles and say 'Where's first blood going to come from? Where's the team going to attempt it from?' and go from there. We can see everything which means we should be able to predict everything. The only problem is when you've got burst damage lanes.
Finally, what's been your favourite experience so far?
It's still DreamHack. There was one time before the StarCraft finals kicked in so we had StarCraft and Dota 2 fans packing the DreamArena. I always thought 'I'm never going to make it as a caster' and I walked into the DreamArena and the entire crowd stood up. I spent about 10 minutes walking up the stairwell shaking people's hands or saying hello and having short conversations before I got up to the casting area. I thought 'Now I can finally make it.'