The International, DOTA 2's annual flagship tournament, is currently underway from KeyArena in Seattle. While the popularity of esports has exploded in recent years, qualifying it as “mainstream” remains a tough sell. Folks will likely spout the “I can’t believe people watch other people play videogames lol” narrative for years to come; a narrative that probably one day long ago applied to traditional sports. A major area where sports and esports offer an interesting comparison is the means through which we consume them, and examining the underrated talents of esports commentary can tell us quite a bit about the state of the great sports versus esports debate.
A traditional sports commentator typically falls into one of two categories: the pure broadcaster or the retired athlete/coach. The former, likely a graduate of Northwestern or Syracuse’s vaunted Communications programs, will often handle the play-by-play while the latter’s role is to offer unique insight that, presumably, only someone who has spent his whole life in the great game could ever know:
Commentary is a fantastically difficult trade. I struggle to speak to my coworkers for thirty seconds straight, much less hours on end with scant reprieves. A certain gregarious, effusive personality is required for excellence in broadcasting in both arenas, but by no means does it guarantee it. What then, as viewers, are we looking for in our commentary experience? What separates the legends from the intolerable?
In my experience, excellence is a cocktail made from insight, passion, and polish, which can be easily spoiled by being an intolerable ass (see Harrelson, Hawk). Beloved longtime Dodgers playcaller Vin Scully retired last year, resurrecting the debate of what we want from our broadcasters. But baseball is a different animal from other sports given how much downtime there is. And it is certainly a departure from esports, which, incredibly, has almost zero downtime, making it both easier and harder to call (the closest analogue to esports in traditional sports is probably the frenetic nature of hockey, at which Mike “Doc” Emrick does a terrific job).
Watching competitive DOTA, I am immediately struck by the skill and earnestness of casters like Tobi “Tobiwan” Dawson
and David “LD” Gorman. Most of DOTA’s 113 heroes have (for the sake of simplicity) three or four active skills. DOTA casters must be able to recognize these skills in real time and possess the knowledge to understand how they synergize with other skills and abilities blasting off all over the battlefield. Combine that with the dozens of purchasable items (many of which have active skills themselves), and it becomes clear why DOTA has a reputation of being one of the deepest, most impenetrable games on the esports scene. As a viewer who is far more familiar with traditional sports than esports but happens to be a DOTA player, I find Tobiwan and LD’s casting ability tremendously impressive.
In addition to a pure understanding of a fast-paced, complicated game, guys like LD, Tobiwan, and ODPixel stand apart from guys like Joe Buck and Tim McCarver through their unadulterated passion for what they see unfolding. Their lack of old-school broadcaster polish may be an asset in this regard. By freaking out as exciting things happen, viewers are invited to freak out alongside them. It feels like watching a game with your good buddies rather than some distant, disembodied voice piping into the living room.
As a relative newcomer to watching competitive DOTA, I find myself infinitely impressed by the quality of commentary. So, what did I miss? What other DOTA casters deserve props? What other competitive games have casters worthy of praise? Who are the best and worst casters you’ve ever heard and why? Why do all these casters seem to be dudes?
Let me know!