Whether it’s Howard Cosell in boxing, Murray Walker in Formula 1, or John Motson in the sport most of us call football, our favorite sporting memories are usually tied closely to the commentators narrating those events. The announcers add the extra spice and seasoning that a sizzling encounter needs. The best among them keep us on the edge of our seats in anticipation, and deliver on the hype with erudite insight and undisguised gusto. Basically, the sports commentator is your one buddy that you do actually want to listen to during the course of an important game or match.
For a great many e-sports fans, that buddy is a man named Toby Dawson. Going by the handle of TobiWan, he has been the signature English voice of Valve’s Dota 2 since its modest beginnings as a fan-made Warcraft mod called Defense of the Ancients. Toby was the play-by-play announcer for the first Dota 2 tournament that Valve ever organised — the $1.6 million International in 2011 — and could most recently be heard commentating on the grand finals of this year’s International 5 (TI5, where, contrary to Donald Trump’s contestations that the USA is always losing to China, an American team triumphed over strong Chinese competition to claim the title).
Since the first International, the money in the game has grown exponentially, the teams have turned from groups of friends into professional franchises, and the announcers are all wearing suits and ties now, but Toby hasn’t changed much. He’s still yelling maniacally into the microphone and infecting everyone around him with a boundless enthusiasm. I caught up with him upon his return to Berlin this past week — as he was recovering from the three-week Dota pilgrimage to Seattle that was TI5 — to talk about his path to the top of Dota, and what it takes to become the pre-eminent voice of the game you love.
The tale of Toby’s involvement with competitive gaming began in his native Australia around 2003, at roughly the same time as the first Dota mods started emerging. But his gateway drug was actually first-person shooter game Battlefield 1942, which was quickly superseded by the original Call of Duty. Toby quickly progressed from joining Battlefield clans to managing them, and eventually even took over the running of small-scale Call of Duty tournaments. "I don’t like seeing things being done incorrectly, or not to their fullest potential," he says, which is what prompted him to take on the extra responsibilities. After a while, though, Call of Duty 2 showed up and people started transitioning to the newer game, much to Toby’s vanilla-COD-loving chagrin. He hated Call of Duty 2 and hatched up an ingenious plan to keep players interested in his preferred title: commentary.
It all began with a Battlefield clan
After being rebuffed by local e-sports commentary group Gamestah, Toby set up his own operation and got his first taste of what it was like to record and distribute game commentaries. Bandwidth was expensive and his methods were profoundly amateurish. "It was possibly one of the worst ways you could have ever recorded an audio file. We used Windows Sound Recorder, where there’s no way to throttle the levels, there’s no way to control it all, and you gotta do it in 10-minute blocks of recording." Such was the state of technology back in 2005. Predictably enough, he says, the whole thing was a disaster, but the community loved it, and Gamestah quickly rectified its initial error by putting Toby in charge of its Call of Duty section.
Only a few months into his job as a volunteer commentator — which he was juggling with a 40-hour work week as a retail manager — Toby got his first opportunity to attend a LAN event, the first tournament where he’d get to commentate live. And it was all a big mistake, he says. Gamestah were preparing to head out to the World Cyber Games in Singapore and they needed someone to cover Dota matches. Toby wouldn’t have made the roster as a Call of Duty commentator, but he had played three (exactly three) games of Dota and knew that it stood for "Defense of the Ancients" and that made him the most expert member of the crew. So he went.
"I’d never been to an event where that many people were crazy about Dota or about anything," says Toby. Despite the lack of any official developer support, Dota was already massive in Southeast Asia, and its fandom was nothing short of a "fanatical movement" in Toby’s eyes. Still, the experience was "scary as crap" since he didn’t really know the game, and his personal highlight of the show would end up being when he stepped in for a late-night Call of Duty commentary. Saddled with a disinterested co-commentator on the main stage, Toby took over the entire match and "got so hyped and made so much noise that people started coming from the lower level up, and actually coming to watch the game."
Toby’s reputation on the Dota 2 scene is built on his ability to hype people up and stir excitement. But the thing that often goes unnoticed is the incredible amount of work he has put in behind the scenes to put himself in that position of hypemaster number one. In the years after the World Cyber Games, things progressed very slowly, with the only highlights being a series of experiments at "residential hotwiring of rigs" (including a successful Hackintosh machine) to improve the production quality of the commentary streams. Well, that and a few visits by the police who were called out to quieten down the irrepressible Dota commentator screaming at the top of his lungs while covering European matches in the middle of the Australian night.
It wasn’t until 2011 that a serious opportunity opened up in Berlin, where Toby would set up the joinDOTA website under the auspices of Freaks 4U Gaming and turn live streaming and Dota commentary into his full-time profession. Fortuitously, that same year Valve announced its first International tournament would take place at Gamescom in Cologne, and Toby was already the most prolific English-language Dota caster out there. He was in the right country and had all the right qualifications, so Valve handed him the job. All those countless hours toiling away before an audience of mere hundreds paid off in a big way when Toby served as the main English play-by-play announcer at TI1. Dota 2 made its debut at that tournament, and was about to take off in popularity, and Toby was in the perfect position to rise with it.
And yet, Toby’s path from The International 1 to The International 5 was not a linear ascent. He earned widespread disapproval for his hubristic conduct during TI2 — demanding control over which games he would commentate on — and had to work hard to reclaim the esteem of the Dota community. "This is something which every caster goes through at some point, where you believe you’re immortal because there’s a couple of guys who loved what you said, and then there’ll be a couple more guys, and they’ll keep piling up. And you’ll just be sitting there going, ‘I can do anything I want to,’ and you’ll realize very quickly that when you do anything you want to, you will be shut down." Still, after a contrite climbdown and many months of humble work to rebuild his viewers' trust and favor, Toby earned a second chance from Valve and the community. He’s now back at the top of the commentator hierarchy, emoting every moment of the game with an untarnished zeal.
If he was based in Silicon Valley, Toby Dawson might be thought of as a new media entrepreneur. He’s certainly done as much to advance his field as anyone else, whether it be in the methods and machinery of how live commentary broadcasts are made or in stirring and augmenting a community of dedicated gamers and viewers. Game commentary is easy now, at least logistically, exactly because guys like Toby worked out all the kinks and issues during the harder, earlier times. Like most success stories, his is one where hard work and passionate commitment are necessary but not sufficient preconditions, and it took a serendipitous confluence of events to propel him to where he is now. To get an account of it in Toby's own words, read the full interview below.