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Toby Dawson: the unabridged interview

Toby Dawson, better known by his gamer handle TobiWan, is one of the most prominent names and voices in the Dota 2 scene. He served as the play-by-play announcer for the Grand Finals of the recent Dota 2 International Championships in Seattle, and sat down with me this past week for a chat about his career and the game he loves.

Vlad Savov: Before we delve into how and when you first got into competitive gaming, can you summarize what it is that you do?

Toby Dawson: What I do is something that has evolved over the years. Initially it was running tournaments, then it was working with a group of commentators and managing them, and also being a commentator, and then I turned to working on a project. You only keep building and evolving in this industry, because it’s still developing, so you never really say, "I just do this one thing." Or at least I don’t like saying that. We have a couple of guys here who say they’re just here to commentate, but I never really accepted that. I always like to try and do a little bit more.

Currently, I would describe what I do as commentary and a lot of stuff behind the scenes for our project, which is joinDOTA.

What is the project?

joinDOTA is an online website, which basically covers everything in Dota 2. It’s been around since Dota 2 first began — but not since Dota first began, there’s only a couple of websites which date back before then. We were the first ones ever to actually run tournaments as well, so like the first thing we ever did was the BenQ Clash, which was directly after TI1 was done. So we had a $1.6 million prize pool [in TI1] and then we had the BenQ Clash for 500 euros. Because that was all the scene was capable of sustaining.

We also ran the first... what was then classed as a major, which was a $10,000 tournament sponsored by a group called own3D TV and the title of the tournament was The Defense. We kind of always were pushing the limit on that one, I was the primary stream for all of that (obviously, because it was our project), but I was also kind of the only primary English caster out there. There was a couple of other groups that started to appear just before TI2, but yeah, we were kind of like the only dog in the water for that kind of stuff.

How did you first come into the scene? What got you into gaming in the first place?

So you actually want to go back to the start of everything?

Yeah, we can go back to your childhood.

I don’t think we can go back to my childhood, because even in my childhood, my mom was very much against games. I had a maximum of one hour of games every single day.

Really? And she adhered to that?

Well, I pushed the boundaries whenever I could. But it was along the lines of games were a reward. They weren’t anything more than that, so do all your chores before you start your games. So yeah, I learned to use Alt-Tab from a very early age. I was also a Nintendo 64 boy, so I spent a lot of time on those games.

When gaming really started for me was probably back in 2003. I’d just graduated from high school and I started my studies at university. I was doing courses in education and I was like "okay, I still wanna have fun when I’m at home" and I ended up playing with my cousin in a Battlefield 1942 clan. We had some good fun there and I picked up Call of Duty vanilla as well, and I started playing in that, and eventually I ended up leading a couple of the teams. So I took care of the clan stuff, everything like day-to-day as well as even website creation (I still don’t know how I did that to this day).

These were Call of Duty teams?

Call of Duty and Battlefield, yeah. So I played a lot there. And I always like having more responsibility. I don’t like seeing things being done incorrectly, or not to their fullest potential, so then I started actually adminning tournaments. I took over a place called Garena and started working with a group called CyberGamer down in Australia. They were the two biggest leagues for Call Of Duty and Battlefield. I ended up fully taking over part of the Call of Duty section of it.

It was around that time that one of my games was dying. People were moving on from vanilla COD as Call of Duty 2 had come out. But I hated Call of Duty 2, so I tried to keep everyone back in my game, and one way I thought I could do that was by commentating the games. Not myself, getting other people to do it, because I didn’t know how to commentate. I was like "what the hell is this?" So there was a group in Australia called Gamestah and I went to them, they had a request section on their website, I asked "can you please commentate our league?" And the guy who was running the Call of Duty commentary section laughed it off and said, "no way, your game is dead." And I was like, "I am not accepting this," and I made my own group.

How did you go about producing your first game commentaries?

It was possibly one of the worst ways you could have ever recorded an audio file. We used Windows Sound Recorder — there’s no way to throttle the levels, there’s no way to actually control it all, and you gotta do it in 10-minute blocks of recording. And then we uploaded the files later on. It was guys that didn’t know what they were doing trying to just blindly move forward.

What year was this, when you created your first recordings?

This would have been 2005 or 2006. It was just before my first major event.

And you were still in Australia?

Yeah, there’s no getting out of that. Once you’re in Australia, you have to work very hard to get out.

So we did that, and it was obviously a disaster, but the community loved it. Then the marketing manager for Gamestah came over and said, "what the hell are we doing, these guys have talent, why aren’t they part of our site?" They invited us to join them, but I was like, "no, because you told us to piss off before." So they ended up just giving me the Call of Duty section. I took over from one of the other guys, and they passed on a couple of tricks of the trade on how to broadcast, which definitely increased our quality.

It was a very expensive path to go. That was when we had to have two sound cards in one machine and a special way to hook up male-to-male cables to make it work. It was residential hotwiring of rigs to get them just to do what we wanted them to do. And even then, we only streamed out for like a maximum of 250 audio viewers. So we didn’t have video, it was all on audio, and even then we had to pay for the bandwidth we used — it’s not like the modern days with Twitch where you get paid with every viewer you have that watches an advert and you don’t even worry about the bandwidth costs. We had to pay for all the audio we used and when we first moved into video servers, that was a very expensive endeavor.

At the time, were you streaming live alongside the matches?

Yeah, there were different ways you could watch it. Sometimes, it was just audio, so it’d basically be like a radio — in fact, one of the groups in Australia was called netGameRadio, and Gamestah, before it went into video, was called Gamestah Radio — because that’s all you really had. But what we would do, we would provide the replays of the games and during the game we would tell people the time of the match so they could sync up their replay to the audio being played.

With Dota, it was a little bit different because Warcraft had some third-party spectating options. Those you could actually watch live, but they were on a delay, so you could sync up the audio with the game itself and try and mesh everything together. So we ended up during every Dota game, every five minutes, giving a time mark. It’s a default thing that, even to this day, I now do by nature, saying something simple like "we’re 32 minutes into the game." That’s something I do just by reflex, because of how it all started.

What was your first experience of commentating at a live event?

Gamestah were the first group that took me to an international LAN. I went to Singapore for the World Cyber Games (WCG). That was my first time casting Dota as well, which was scary as crap, because I didn’t know the game.

What happened then? Why were you casting Dota?

It was a mistake. Because with World Cyber Games they do a whole bunch of different games, then they were just like, "we need some English commentators for this," and our group was full of a whole bunch of FPS casters, so Call of Duty, Battlefield, Counter-Strike, they did them all. But what they didn’t do was Dota, which in Southeast Asia was the biggest thing. While WCG never declared it an official event — because obviously it wasn’t [Warcraft maker] Blizzard’s creation, there was no developer backing behind it, so it never really got paid to be in the WCG — it always had an event because it was always what the crowd wanted.

I had basically played three public games of Dota with my mates, and that was it. Before the event, the Gamestah admin said, "we’re going to Singapore, we got hired for this event, and we’re gonna do our Call of Duty and CS stuff," so I was like "Call of Duty! Call of Duty! Send me!", but they’d already filled those slots. But they said, "do you know anything about Dota?" I said I’d played three games and knew it was called Defense of the Ancients, and they were like, "well, you know more than we do," as they didn’t even know what the name stood for.

So you wouldn’t have gone to the tournament as a Call of Duty commentator, but you made it there as a Dota caster?

Yeah, because I played three pub games of Dota and then they sent me. Because I had more knowledge than anyone else in the group. It’s still hilarious what happened. They put me with two other guys from Singapore to cast with: a guy called Kell who works for Jelly TV (really nice guy), and another, I believe his name was Rupert, who was our expert — but I almost couldn’t understand a word he said! Because it was my first time in Singapore. Now I can travel to Singapore and understand everything everyone is saying around me, but back then the accent was so strong that I just had real trouble understanding what he said on the stage. And we didn’t have headsets. We were literally holding one microphone each and having it going over the PA system. So the PA was blaring down and we were all trying to listen to what each other was saying. It was a nightmare. But it was what we were thrown into, so you had to do it.

I’m really happy that the audio recordings that we attempted to take at that event all failed. I basically commentated by describing what was in front of me, that’s always been a big strength of mine, so when I saw something like frosty coming across the screen, I would basically scream what I was looking at, and that was it. And then the other two would step in and give a little bit of analysis and I would just be like hype, hype, hype.

But then I actually got the attention of a couple of the Singaporean guys. It was late on one of the nights and Call of Duty was low on the priority list of almost everybody, and we were burning into the late hours, but they needed to play one of the matches on stage (because when you promise something to a sponsor, you’ve got to deliver). So we played one of the games, which I knew was going to be a stomp, because I’d been casting these guys all the time from Australia. I knew the COD scene better than anybody else at that point.

I was on the stage with a guy called Bob. That was actually his username, Bob, don’t ask me why; his real name was Neville. One of the very first commentators from Australia. He didn’t know Call of Duty at all. I was meant to throw to him all the time, but I ended up just casting so much that he felt he could walk away from the desk. Which was really bad as a commentator, but it kind of had an effect which for me was cool, because it told me what I was capable of doing.

There was a small function going on. We were in a place called Suntec [Singapore Convention & Exhibition Centre]. There was a convention going on downstairs, just one floor down. The PA was up. But I got so hyped and made so much noise that people started coming from the lower level up, and actually coming to watch the game. And all the sponsors were really, really happy, because they were actually shutting down their booths because they thought everyone had gone, but then everyone was coming in so they turned their booths back on. Because we started bringing more people in.

It was at that point when I was like, "okay, commentary is awesome when it comes to LAN events, because you can do so much with it." It’s so much fun. And that was when I understood it from the other point of view, the crowd point of view. I’d never been to an event where that many people were crazy about Dota or about anything. In front of the main stage, it was standing room only, and so many of the areas were taken up that you couldn’t see the game stage anymore. So the sponsors’ booths started putting Dota on their screens instead of their product ad rolls — just so people could watch from their box, and then they took pictures of all these people watching from inside their box. So they still got the exposure they were looking for.

It was a fanatical movement, basically. Watching that many people going crazy for e-sports.

How did things change after your first LAN event?

That was, I believe, in 2005. I had been a volunteer commentator for just three or four months, and then they sent me to do this. It happened very quickly. After that, though, it was very slow. Very, very slow. It was basically grinding out the casts down in Australia. We traveled to a couple of LAN events here and there, but I was balancing a 40-hour work week as a retail manager with commentating at night. So you’re balancing a full-time job against what you want to have as your full-time job. Initially, when I was at university and trying to juggle it all, it was university and a fish & chips shop that I worked at. It was terrific. I hate fish and chips as a result now. It’s the smell of fish that’s so bad for me.

But yeah, that was the first thing I juggled, but then I quit university because I wanted to pursue a career in gaming. I didn’t know where. At one point I even thought I could be a designer. I can’t draw for the life of me, but I thought I could get around that. I thought I could do C++ coding… hah! I read one book and I almost blew my own mind. And then I thought maybe I can make a career out of commentary. I saw that no one else was doing it at the time, apart from Joe Miller, who was one of the very few people that was paid — because he was part of ESL — to actually commentate. Then the question was how to do it and find ways to make it sustainable.

There were a couple of things that came up, but so many of them were like "three months here, six months here, gotta move to this country to do it, we just need you for a project, but it’s not a long-term project." I had to pick up my entire life from Australia, move it, and then come back to absolutely nothing just for three months or six months, it didn’t make any sense.

It wasn’t until I found this company, Freaks 4U in Berlin, where I thought, "this sounds cool." I get to build a project with a guy I already worked with, and they basically said, "we’ll support you for one or even two years when you leave the country, and we’ll take care of everything else you need." This was the most stable offer from anywhere, and even to this day, this company is one of the most stable jobs that you can get as a commentator. In Dota 2 at least.

I guess the financial support was basically getting paid a salary. That’s enough, right?

Yeah. I didn’t need much more than that. All I wanted was a roof over my head and an ability to cast 24/7. That was my only desire. Because I knew the thing I wanted to achieve, I could not do while working a full-time job. I had to be able to quit. Hence I came to Berlin because they gave me the ability to do so. This was at the start of 2011. The timing was actually really close, because I went from working here — and I was still streaming Warcraft 3 Dota — to The International, which happened at Gamescom in the summer. So I was working here for four months before I cast TI. And our company actually helped with that. Moritz Zimmermann, who was the project manager at the time, served as the tournament admin for TI1.

Did you do the commentary for the TI1 finals?

I did all of TI1. I cast every game. Every game you have recorded, it will be my voice and a guy called Slesh, who was a local German guy. He had very good knowledge of the Chinese teams so it made sense to bring him in.

It’s such a serendipitous confluence of events. First of all, you get your big LAN opportunity as a Dota caster, but prove yourself by commentating on Call of Duty, the game you were already passionate and knowledgeable about. Then you move over to Germany and Valve just decides to host the biggest e-sports tournament ever in the same country. Just dropping it in your lap.

Everything kind of worked nicely together. To be fair, though, it wasn’t just like I came here and Valve gave it to me. I cast more Dota 1 than any other English caster out there. Like I was casting every event from every corner of the globe. There was only one other person that came close to me in those early years and that was a guy named InvalidCola. Then Luminous did a lot from a place called DotaCommentaries.com, which doesn’t exist anymore, but that was one of the places where they’d record commentary on replays, they wouldn’t do it live. I was one of the only people that did it live. So with all that work, it was kind of a no-brainer for Valve to invite me.

Was it always called joinDOTA or did you have a different name at the beginning?

It was always joinDOTA from the start. Initially, the project was only my livestream on the website with a countdown. That was the original concept of the website. Then we thought we should probably have some forums, maybe we should do some news, perhaps a match ticker, and suddenly it built up. As I said before, everything has to evolve with the needs of the community. Because it all changes over time. Even some of the odd tournament formats that we used to have, none of them will run in this current day.

Where were you before you moved to your present studios?

We were in a place called WebTower. It was not as nice, or as nicely laid out, as this. My first studio here in Berlin was using the conference room, and there was no air conditioning, it was so hot, and I had lights on, I was stuck in a corner, it was so bad. But it was a room to cast in, and it was me doing it full-time, so I didn’t care.

How rapidly did the quality of your production evolve?

It definitely made a jump when I first came to our present studios. I finally had a real proper mixing desk, as opposed to my smaller ones that I had back at home. But it still took time. I was one of the few people that experimented a lot with gear; I was probably ahead of the curve most of the time.

With my initial setups in Australia, it was basically a $10 microphone plugged into a very cheap computer. And then a couple of years down the line, we started looking at upgrading the audio, so I got a DJ desk, so I could cue music in and out. Our software started to evolve as well because there were more options. Even the basic things like Windows upgrading itself, allowing us to isolate all of the audio inputs inside of the Windows software itself, you used to not be able to do that. It was volume up and down, that was all.

The ability to say, "Skype is too loud, let’s drop it down by a bit," we didn’t have that option, so you had to isolate all the audio channels out. So yeah, software evolved and gave us more options. We started using Audacity for local recordings, because it was good quality and we could chop and change and mix that up.

Did it crash for you?

It always crashed. We lost so many files that way. We actually had special Audacity recovery programs. I don’t have to use any of that anymore. I’m very happy.

Then we did something which was really stupid. We tried to make a PC / Mac hybrid. So we hacked Snow Leopard and put it onto a PC. Because Mac’s video gear was by far superior to anything the PC had. But we didn’t wanna spend $20,000. I was actually looking to take out a small loan from a bank to get a Mac that was capable of doing what we needed — almost signed the contract as well! But yeah, we chopped up this PC and found a way to add proper transition effects in. We got to a point where we made the production look basically like a news presenter’s desk. The only thing we didn’t have was a green screen. But it was really coolly done.

How much of an investment did all of that added sophistication require?

We had to have a separate machine just for that processing power. And then another one to record. And then another one to stream. It took so many resources, and so much money. I must have spent 50,000 Australian dollars in my time before I came here just upgrading machines and casting gear.

It was intense. Especially when you gotta lock yourself in a small room. We didn’t have studio lights, we had floodlights at the start, which we bounced off the ceiling to try and dilute the lighting. And then we had like recording machine, streaming machine, gaming rig 1, gaming rig 2, and then the monitors all around us as well. We had to close the window, because I actually had the cops called on me multiple times because I commentated so loudly during the night while I was casting European matches. I was casting at like 2, 4, 5, 6AM in the morning. My neighbors complained so much, they called me saying the TV was turned on too loud. And then I had the police come and knock at my door, saying "stop this," and then the complaint went on to my landlord and I almost got evicted at one point.

The impression I’m getting is that, at least at the outset, the casters were also the engineers. You had to be responsible for both the broadcast and the infrastructure around it.

Previously, I was a lot more. Not so much these days. Commentators are pretty spoiled these days where they can just sit down in a studio and just talk about the game. It’s a lot easier to be a commentator these days. Myself, I always like to know exactly what’s going on. If there’s something in the studio that I don’t understand, then I try and understand it. Because if it breaks, I need to know how to fix it. In this room, we still do our own production, which is why I have two mice in front of me while commentating: one is for my game stream and the other is for production.

Is it fair to say that you had no choice at the beginning — you had to perform every role, wear every hat — but now there’s more opportunity to specialize?

Yes, definitely. Though you’ve still got to understand that there’s not a hell of a lot of money in e-sports. So you need to find a way to justify hiring people to do production for you, it has to balance out. Why would I hire a second person if, with a bit of prep work, I can do something similar, maybe slightly lower quality, with just one? In a country with a required minimum wage, it’s more difficult than if you go to a place like Ukraine, where you can get a lot more people for the price of this one person here in Berlin. You can do a lot more in terms of manpower there, so it’s not as big of a problem.

You still have to be very efficient with your money until, I don’t know, someone like Coke starts throwing $1 billion to sponsor a can on your screen. That would be wonderful. And will probably never happen.

The beautiful thing for me is that there isn’t much advertising in your regular broadcasts, there’s no invasive marketing. How do you monetize your streams outside of the big events like The International?

We try to keep it as non-invasive as possible. It always depends on the partners. Most of the time just having brand exposure is good, some sponsors just like to have their stuff displayed on camera. I personally try to move away from that, because I feel like there are a lot more effective ways to do advertising. Most advertisers would probably get more exposure by having memes created of their products. So you have like some certain catchphrase that triggers with the people who are watching, and when you stream to a platform like Twitch, for example, they never let it go, they bring it up every single time.

Roccat experienced this with the "Extend" line that they had, and the entire chat would just basically spam out "Extend!" the entire time. And you’re sitting there as a sponsor and everyone is talking about your product, as opposed to the product just being there on the screen. The issue is justifying that then to a sponsor saying, "these guys are saying ‘Extend’, but how does that relate to my product? Are these guys buying my products? Am I getting really good exposure?"

Are brands savvy about that? It’s not a quantifiable form of marketing.

Every brand will probably be different. There’s not much of a chance of a 60-year-old executive at Coke, using that as an example again, seeing the value, but if you have someone that’s coming up through the ranks and is able to explain it, then you have better chances and you can form better partnerships. But you need to have someone who understands what they’re investing into.

Are tournaments a big source of revenue for you guys?

Whenever you can keep sponsors happy and keep sponsors involved, you can always keep yourself afloat. We work with multiple streaming platforms, because it gives more opportunities for either more tournaments or more avenues for revenue. Besides Twitch, we did some work with Azubu, own3D TV, and Dailymotion (they were willing to invest a lot more heavily than other groups). Right now, one of our strongest partnership outside of Twitch is with MLG, who sponsor the joinDOTA MLG Pro League.

How do you feel about YouTube streaming?

With YouTube, I am a massive fan of being able to stream to a new group of people. The ability to expose e-sports to people who haven’t seen it previously is perfect. You might know a couple of gaming channels with some weird guy who yells at a screen, and that’s the YouTube crowd, but they don’t really know about live content, it’s just video they can consume any time they want to. So showing them that there’s a live scene, that you’d actually book time out of your day because at this time this big game is going to happen and you wanna be there to watch it — to create that sort of mindset in a more casual community would be wonderful.

I’m not against it. I’m all for for pushing e-sports into new areas. How it affects other platforms is also a good thing, because competition is always healthy for business. It’s forcing other platforms to upgrade.

So I actually prefer YouTube over Twitch, because of its built-in DVR, and I’m not that enthusiastic about Twitch chat.

Twitch provides a feeling that people like. With live streams, people want to have the feeling of a crowd. If the crowd is chanting something in chat, you get the equivalent in text on the side. And that’s where Twitch kind of has a power, because they are the mob. It goes back to the Roman Colosseum days: the power is the power of the mob. The ability to just move people. Twitch chat can be cancer or it can be fairies. It can be polar opposites every single time.

Speaking of competition, how has the Dota commentary scene developed since you began?

After the initial TI, we kind of got bogged down with just trying to get through the daily workload, to the point where we got a little bit stale. Groups like Beyond The Summit came up and brought in a fresh perspective, they brought in new talent. That was our first point where we really had competition. Then we tried to find ourselves by running a lot of small cups, which were initially praised for supporting the community, but then joinDOTA got the reputation as only casting small stuff. So it’s definitely been an experience moving around with joinDOTA, and it will continue to be an experience too. Right now, I feel like we’re one of the strongest groups out there.

Why do people tune in to live streams, is it the games themselves, the commentary, or the players’ personalities?

Most of the people follow the players themselves. It’s why it’s difficult to keep high stream viewers up unless you’re one of the personal streamers. Like Wagamama, for example, or SingSing. People tune in because their personalities reek of awesomeness. The studios used to have that flair, like people would tune in because I was casting, or they tuned to BTS because LD or Merlini was there, but that feeling is moving away, at least from my perspective looking at the community. You never know what you’re gonna get with the players’ streams, it’s all random, and people like that. You have to know your audience.

How narrow is your audience?

That’s the funny thing. When you actually look at how many people play and watch Dota, beyond TI, it’s actually a very small minority. I learned this when I was working in retail — I worked in the games section — and every day I had people come in and they’d buy their 360s and PlayStations and they really thought that Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 was where first-person shooters began. And playing with their mates was what it was all about. So your gaming audience is huge, but your e-sports audience is still tiny — and then you realize how many people you could probably expose to competitive gaming. But unless someone pushes to get into a new area and a new bunch of people, you continue to remain this small.

ESL One Frankfurt 2015 was really terrific about this. They had a mechanical bull that families could come in and ride. They had a guy making balloon animals, Dota hero style, for the kids. You have all these different things that aren’t necessarily related to gaming, but you add a gaming touch to them, and that’s all you really need. That’s enough to where a mother can then bring like a 3- or 4-year-old and there’s some distraction for the kid to burn off steam during the day. It’s things like this that help expose e-sports to a more casual audience. In order for the scene to grow, the hardcore audience should definitely be catered to, but it shouldn’t be the focus.

Do you think that’s part of your responsibilities?

Initially with Dota 2, I felt like I had a lot of responsibility to push the scene forward because that’s what I did with Warcraft 3 Dota. There was never a developer behind it like Valve is with Dota 2, Blizzard didn’t even recognize Dota. So I kind of took it upon myself to try and shape the Dota 2 community into what I thought would be most beneficial. And then I realized that this isn’t my job. This is Valve’s job.

The highest profile aspect of your job is still that you’re the play-by-play commentator for the most lucrative e-sports tournament. What tips or advice might you have for aspiring casters looking to follow in your footsteps?

To somebody starting commentary? First, enjoy what you do. If you’re trying to cast a game that you don’t like, it’s going to show to your audience, and you’re going to start to hate yourself after a while. Be true to yourself and also understand who you are talking to. Understand that viewers probably won’t respect your opinion until they respect who you are and what you offer. The same thing goes with hype: don’t try and lie to your viewers with hype. Because if you do that, then they won’t believe you when there is real hype. It’s the "boy who cried wolf" scenario for commentators.

More importantly, try and control your ego. 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. Because you are not immortal as a commentator. A lot of us have learned that the hard way.

There were a couple of decisions I made, TI2 being some of the worst ones I made, where basically I hurt my reputation and I’m really happy I was able to work really hard to get it back again. But I was lucky. Not everyone gets a second chance, and I was given a second chance. I’ll have to live with it forever. There’s still people out there that remind me of it every couple of weeks, in Reddit threads and the like. That’s something I’ve got to live with, it’s the price of the second chance.