What It’s Like To Be A Professional Video Game Commentator

What It’s Like To Be A Professional Video Game Commentator

Lauren “Pansy” Scott is a professional eSports commentator with the ESL. Once upon a time, she was a pro gamer before you could really make a living off that sort of thing. Now she makes Counter-Strike and other games understandable for the masses. Despite what you might think, it’s not an easy job.

Scott is a play-by-play shoutcaster. That means that, as a game progresses, she calls out what’s going on moment-to-moment and breaks it down for people watching in the crowd and back home. I sat down with Scott during a recent event featuring Valve’s popular terrorist-vs-counter-terrorist team shooter Counter-Strike to find out more about her history, how she approaches commentating (and avoids messing it up), and why some CSGO fans seem almost violently opposed to her. Here are some highlights from our conversation:

Origin story

Kotaku: How did you get started shoutcasting?

Lauren Scott: Originally I played Call of Duty 4 professionally. I say “professionally”, but I guess that’s a sweeping term. Back then there wasn’t really “professional” levels of play. But it was a hobby I did relatively well in. I travelled to events, mostly in the UK. I loved it. I was nerdy. I was introverted. I wasn’t really going out with my friends all the time. So I got into gaming. I went through several games. Enemy Territory, then Call of Duty 4. I found a team, so I got to go to events. Those things have very social atmospheres, so I ended up meeting people. Eventually I got to known the casters shoutcasting my games. One of the first people I met was [renowned commentator] ReDeYe. I met all these big people in the scene.

I had a job back then, and even being a semi-pro player, you didn’t necessarily have time to focus back then. You didn’t get paid the way you do today. It was a hobby. So eventually I just stopped playing games altogether for about a year. I missed them, but it was fine. But then somebody gave me this offer that was like, “Have you ever thought about doing analysis casting?” So it was kinda sheer luck, getting to know people through being a player myself and meeting some people who were mostly doing it as a hobby themselves.

So I started casting for these tiny little crowds — like, 100 people in them max. But I came to love it. I started with Call of Duty and then transferred very early into Counter-Strike: Global Offensive — still relatively as a hobby. But eventually ESL was like, “You’ve been doing a lot of work for us for free. Have you thought about doing a proper event for us?” So I was like, “Sure!” [laughs] “I’ll try it out.”

Kotaku: Why’d you make the switch from CoD to CSGO?

Lauren Scott: The Call of Duty I played was very specific. It was Call of Duty 4 Promod on the PC. And you know, when you have a game like that, it’s your whole life. But the scene died down. We didn’t have the support, we didn’t have the events like you do these days.

And then CSGO came out, and the old teams I played Call of Duty with decided to try this game out. And back in the CoD days, we played a little Counter-Strike Source, and we got to know the people in the scene because there were always Source events going on too. So I’d known of [Counter-Strike commentator] HenryG for years before I ever casted with him. Or like, one of the people I just casted with; I remember him playing in Counter-Strike semifinals when I was playing Call of Duty semifinals. It’s kind of this weird overlap in the scene early on.

So Call of Duty 4 just kinda fizzled away. Activision and those companies continued on with a console focus. And you know, that’s grown, and it’s huge. Those games have their own leagues. But I was a PC gamer at heart. I started in Quake and those kind of games. So I just went to the next FPS I enjoyed, which was CSGO.

On controversy

Kotaku: When you first started casting CSGO for ESL, you faced a lot of blowback. Even other important people in the scene were talking about it. It seems like it became kind of A Thing. Why do you think that was?

Lauren Scott: The way I look at it is, I remember what it was like to be a player. You put thousands of hours into your game. You wake up, you go to work — but all you’re thinking about is the game you’re playing. That’s so much dedication to your craft.

Counter-Strike has this prolific history, right? There’s 1.6, Source, CSGO, and even stuff before those. And I mean, I played them, but I was never exceptionally great at them. I was OK. And I never casted them either, because I was doing Call of Duty. So when I came into CSGO, they already had some casters over there. ReDeYe was still doing a bit. You had Corey Dunn. Some really classic names out there. And I was like, “This is gonna be tough.”

Breaking into a community and trying to establish yourself is always gonna be difficult no matter who you are. Showing that you’re willing to put in the work to get good is a huge part of it. I don’t see gaming and eSports as the same thing in my mind all the time. I see eSports as being this very elite, small bracket that takes exceptional amounts of work for what’s not always a big reward. When these guys started playing CSGO, there wasn’t these stages. There wasn’t much money in it at all. There was one or two big teams — NiP and Epsilon, which sort of became some of Fnatic now.

So these guys work hard, and the fans have been there from the very outset as well. So when somebody new comes in, they’re a little cautious. It’s that instant [knee-jerk reaction of], “Do they deserve to cast my game? Can I like this person? Have they done the work to warrant this?” Especially in the case of Counter-Strike, people are very protective of their game. So even with me coming in like, “I was pretty good at games. I won money! I promise I’m not here just to soak up the glory and fame. I’ve worked for it,” people are still cautious.

You’re always gonna get blowback, right? People know the scene and love it. But also, I’m easier to spot out from other people in the scene. That’s a simple way of putting it.

Kotaku: Right. Counter-Strike is played by, well, a lotta dudes.

Lauren Scott: But everyone gets it. It doesn’t matter who you are. The players get it. The amount of times I’ve heard, “But do you think it’s because you’re female?” Sure, that does make it easy to identify me as someone away from the pack. But I see some of the stuff players get when they have even one bad tournament. It’s like, “You’ve let yourself down. How could you do this to me?” Torrents of abuse. Don’t get me wrong: I get my fair share of people being that way, being cautious, but players get tons. And they’re the ones who live for this game.

I think it’s kind of an eSports thing, too. Fans have this niche that they’re very protective of.

eSports vs the mainstream

Kotaku: The eSports niche is quickly coming into contact with the mainstream world. There’s a lot of mainstream eyes on eSports now, but it’s a very surface level thing. Like, “What is this? Is it even valid? Should we even accept this?”

Lauren Scott: Yeah. But I think people will eventually warm up to it. You get your community darlings, you get your favourites, you get a lot of support. But there’s gonna be a downside as well. There’s gonna be people pushing back. Mine’s very obvious. I stand out a little more from the pack, I guess.

But it is what it is. At the end of the day, if someone doesn’t like my casting, that’s fine. They might not like my voice. Not many traditional sports have female commentators. So I think it’s a matter of people getting used to it — it becoming part of the scene and the culture that surrounds it.

Kotaku: So there’s this opportunity here, and that’s cool. And the CSGO and eSports communities are super passionate and do some awesome stuff. But at the same time, they create a high barrier to entry precisely because they’re so passionate. In some cases, they gatekeep, try to keep people out. From your point of view — having dealt with a lot of people pretty vocally opposing you — how can we ease that tension? How can we make it easier for outsiders to come in?

Lauren Scott: That’s the question, isn’t it? And how do we introduce women to gaming as a whole? Is it part of the culture that’s gonna be welcomed? It’s a very sensitive subject, obviously. For me it’s a grassroots issue. I think eSports fans are cautious about whether people deserve what they have got or not. It’s such a high echelon. You don’t just go, “I’m an eSports player now.” And it’s the same for commentators. You’ve got to be dedicated to your craft. And if you make it, great. It’s super hard to get there.

I think it has to start grassroots to encourage people to kind of open up. I think it’s opening up and maybe creating some all-women leagues, if people feel maybe more comfortable playing in that to start with. I think the key is to invite people in and encourage them in the process of how to go further. But eSports is a place where you don’t necessarily give out helping hands. You don’t give many legs-up. If you get there, you deserve it.

So to me, it’s about encouraging people at very early stages. After that, you kinda have to define your own path. Sometimes you’ve gotta have thick skin, too. I mean, the Internet’s a harsh place. Anonymity makes people feel more comfortable being a bit more of a douchebag.

Kotaku: I think CSGO is an especially tough sell in some ways, just as a game. It’s really exciting and unpredictable to watch, but it’s hard — at least, at first — to latch onto from the outside looking-in. For example, League of Legends has all these characters and backstories. These things that appeal to people who might not fully understand the game. CSGO has Terrorist A and Counter-terrorist B, locked in their eternal dance.

Lauren Scott: [laughs] Forever Dust2, right?

I’m always interested in that kind of stuff — which kind of scene transfers over more than others. But this is game design, too. Maybe diversity in game design [as well as community initiatives] would encourage it. But this is stuff I don’t see much of, because I got started at that grassroots level. I’m someone who’s competitive. I used to play sports. My dad was like that too. We used to play Doom together. So I just grew up playing these games. I didn’t need a character’s lore to latch onto. But it’s also interesting to see other people’s roots to getting there.

Image courtesy of HLTV.

What it takes to be a professional eSports shoutcaster

Kotaku: What sorts of things do you do to improve your ability as a shoutcaster? What do you study? How do you study it?

Lauren Scott: I have a couple things, but it varies per person. I know some casters who come in cold, and they are so perfect at it. I’m jealous. I’m not the naturally talented caster. That’s not me. You look at traditional sports, and you get the naturally talented guy and the guy who works hard. I’m kind of the second. I have to sit there and write it out. I am pretty introverted most of the time. I’m kinda quiet and kinda shy. And it’s like, ‘How do you go on the stage like that and cast?’ To me, I just see the game in front of me and the camera. I don’t really like looking behind me and seeing thousands of people.

For me, though, I had the golden age of classic casters in eSports to listen to. Your Joe Millers, your Stuart Saws, your Paul Chaloners, your Leigh Smiths. These guys — some of them are still at it, some not — were phenomenal at what they do. I used to listen to what they did, how they told the story. Because we didn’t always have the visuals back then. Sometimes it was an audio broadcast. So I’d listen to how they’d describe something, how they’d set the scene, what adjectives they’d use, how they linked them together, what verb they summarized that with. And what were their traits, how did they build the hype? What was their pacing? What was their tone?

I tried to do analysis on their casting and break it down. Then I’d figure out what each person was good at and try to assimilate it myself. So I do practice casts. I sit down back at the office and go, ‘This is the game I didn’t cast, the other semifinal. Let me give that a go, see how I can do it.’ So I’ll do a cast and listen pack, and maybe I’ll realise my pacing was too quick. We’ve got a global audience, so if I’m firing off words at a million miles an hour, a non-native English speaker might be like, “What the hell is she saying?”

I personally have a notebook that has a list of, like, three pages of adjectives. It’s just in case I feel like I’m repeating a word. I’ll be like, “OK, I’ve said ‘devastated’ two times in a row. I need to find something new.” Then it will be like “annihilated,” “crushed,” and I’ll just kinda go through it until I find myself back in the flow.

It’s things like that. Pro players watch replays of themselves playing, and I feel like if I can apply that sort of structure to my commentating, you’ll get a benefit from it. I like to do that to refine what I do.

Then I’ll also do written prep. Like, if I’ve got a match-up involving Na’Vi, well, their previous match-up involved one of the American teams, Team Liquid, so I have to research: OK, have these teams met before? They have played twice. One went to Team Liquid, one went to Na’Vi. Then you kinda go through and look at who are their big players, have they been playing well recently, will they have that same impact — just kinda write down these little notes so if I feel like there’s a pause in the action, I can give some flavour, some background.

Normally I have an analysis caster. I like to do the play-by-play, the big hype moments. Whereas the person next to me will be the expert player, specifically for this game. So he’ll be the guy to break down these scenes on an analytical level. So I try to set him up to sound smart. I might ask a very basic question like, ‘Oh, so why did they play toward A and do this split?’ Maybe I do know the answer, but my analysis caster can go super in-depth with it.

So that’s generally how I do it. But I know other casters who don’t do that written prep. They have it mentally. It’s insane. They have it all nailed down, and you couldn’t tell for a second. I have to make up for it a little bit with my written stuff. At home I have a stack of notepads from when I started casting to now. I’ve refined it a little more, but it’s always been there. It helps me out so I never get stuck. Because I’ve always been terrified of “What happens if I don’t know what to say?” Like, I end up in front of thousands of people and I’m just like, “Uhhhh, how was your day?”

I just want to make sure I’m doing the best I can. Because I remember being a player and being a fan as well. I remember the excitement I had watching, and I want to be able to create that for someone else.

An example of Scott’s commentating.

Kotaku: Let’s dig into pacing, specifically. How do you build it? What kind of arc do you like to have? Do you like to be really analytical and wait for big moments to suddenly be like, “OH MY GOD”? Or are you sort of constantly in the process of building hype, even in the smaller moments?

Lauren Scott: I think it’s kinda game-dependent. I’ll pick the two polar examples that come to my mind. So in League of Legends, you can see a big team fight coming from a mile away. You see players heading toward the same lanes. You end up with this kind of Mexican stand-off. You’re like, “OK, it’s about to happen.” So your analysis casters will kind of build it up, be like, “OK, if this happens, that fight’s gonna pop. Everyone’s gonna pile in.”

And then as soon as that happens, your announcers will build up, hand it off and add a little hype to it, and then your play-by-play caster takes it. At that point, you’re picking out the big moves, the ultimates, who’s picking on who, where’s the action gonna be — pointing people’s focus at what they need to be looking at. And then it will kinda come down a little, the fight will end. That’s when you pull the pacing back down a little and let the analysis caster break down what happened, what’s important, and how that will affect the rest of the match-up. That’s the League of Legends approach. It’s quite smooth. It’s got that nice flow to it.

CSGO, on the other hand, can have spikes. You never know what’s gonna happen, so it kinda changes things up. But you can still cast it the classic way. Analysis casters can do their thing in between rounds — kinda recap the previous round, explain what teams can do with their buys this round, walk through how a team classically tends to approach this round, etc. So they kinda give the possible opinions of what’s gonna happen. Then the play-by-play will fill the rest.

But the more I cast with certain people, the more we can do the League of Legends-style with the comfortable pacing hand-off [in CSGO]. For example, HenryG — who I’ve known for a little bit of time now through previous events — we’ve got a pretty good rapport. When you’ve got that going with people, you start to be able to trust them more with the hype hand-off. HenryG can always see when the big action is gonna happen, so he’ll build it up and be talking through it. Saying stuff like, “OK, if he lands this shot, everything becomes serious.” So he gives me that moment, and I like to leave a second — to let people wait with bated breath, almost. And then it goes, and it’s like, “Oh my god, this just got real.”

So it’s trying to create that ebb-and-flow, that back-and-forth. The play-by-play’s not too overbearing, the analysis isn’t too dry. CSGO is a very challenging game to get that flow into. I think community favourites have generally nailed that down. They have got the partnerships that work super well together, as well. Natural chemistry and friendships — you get that kind of back-and-forth. Once you’ve built that rapport with others, CSGO can be a beautiful game to cast. It’s just not the most simple one to come into.

Kotaku: So let’s say you don’t have amazing chemistry with another caster. How do you handle a moment like that? How do you make sure the flow is still solid — avoid stepping on an awkwardness landmine that the whole audience notices?

Lauren Scott: It all comes down to the game. I like to talk to my co-caster first. Because the analysis guys, sometimes they’re not used to being on camera talking that much. They’re used to focusing on the game. They play the game. So I like to find out what style of commentary they like. I want to make sure they’re comfortable more than anything. Once they’re there, it’s great. It’s them talking about the game they love. So I tell them, if they’re passionate about something and they want to take the play-by-play moment, go for it. Why would I take that away? If they’re out of their seat, going absolutely crazy about something, bring that to the cast. It’s genuine, pure excitement. You can’t beat that. I’ll see something that I find incredible and I’ll go for it, but those guys might see the most nuanced thing that people won’t understand the gravity of until it’s played out. And they will be like, “OK, this is massive.”

Once you have that pre-show chat — once you find that middle ground of, “Maybe that’s not quite my style, but I can accomodate” — the game is your focus. Your content takes over. I might not like the person saying it, but what they’re saying is spot-on. Everyone wants to do the best job possible for the audience, for the players, for everyone else. You find that balance in-game. You don’t want to be the person to ruin someone’s first experience in CSGO. You don’t want them to be thinking, “Oh jeez, these two don’t really get on. This is awkward. Are they arguing on air?” I don’t want to be that.

I’ve never really had any issues with other casters. I think everybody understands that, publicly, we all kinda get this negative side of it as well. So we’re all in the same boat, like, “How many tweets did you get saying you’re a complete douchebag?” “Oh, I got four.” “Well, I got six!” It’s almost a competition. But everyone gets it. It’s a good community I work with, and I’m really thankful for it.

The future of eSports shoutcasting and hosting

Kotaku: I saw that you recently re-tweeted something about an influx of traditional broadcast talent — as opposed to people who came up playing games and decided to cast in their bedrooms or what have you — into eSports. What’s the story there? Do you think eSports commentating is losing its grassroots side?

Lauren Scott: Well, for me it was about hosts and more of that side of things. Commentators, I feel, are still very much refined. You’ve gotta have that knowledge. But stage hosting and interviewers, you’re getting a lot more mainstream talent coming in. I think it’s awesome. It raises the bar across the board. I don’t see it as a downside. I think it just means we have to step up our game. So one guy who hosts on stage for ESL, he’s also done some BBC stuff, he’s done the lottery in England. One of the female hosts for League of Legends has done traditional TV stuff.

Every time I watch them, I just want to pick up what’s good. What do they have that I don’t? All these small nuances. I just want to learn. Stuff like how they hold the microphone, how they never cross over with their arm, they’re always open. People learn so much quicker through traditional TV because it has this huge history. In eSports we’re still learning. I think we look pretty good these days, but some of the nuanced stuff — how TV folks handle rehearsals, how they do camera work, how they prep — it’s worth learning.

As long as the opportunities are still there for grassroots people to take come in and do their thing — to watch these professionals do it and be like, “OK, what are they doing? Let me work on that and see if I can have a piece of it” — I can’t be against it.


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