Top level eSports is a young person’s game. As evidence, look no further than the fact that Choi “Bomber” Si Jung, one of the participants in this weekend’s Red Bull Battle Grounds New York event, is considered a graybeard of the professional “StarCraft II” scene even though he’s several years shy of his 30th birthday.
To find someone in the Hammerstein Ballroom who has seen more than Bomber, you’ll probably need to look to where the casters are calling the action. That’s where you’ll find Marcus “djWHEAT” Graham, a familiar sight to anyone who follows eSports on a regular basis. One of the true trailblazers of his craft, Graham’s involvement in top level gaming dates back to before the turn of the century.
That’s not quite before the Red Bull Battle Grounds competitors were born, but it’s eons in eSports time. Graham got his start as a “Quake 3″ player, forming the premier team in North America back in the late 90s. Reality eventually intervened in the form that it often does—meaning the need to get a real job−and he gave up on competitive gaming.
When he couldn’t get it out of his system altogether, Graham started coaching his team, advising them on what they could be doing better. That was his start as a caster, though to hear him tell it, some convincing was necessary to get him on his way.
“After doing this for about two months, my guys came to me and said, ‘You should really try to do this live,’” Graham said to GameSided. “‘You should try to do this like it’s a sports broadcast. You’re kind of already doing it, even though you don’t realize it. You just kind of need the play-by-play and excitement and you like the game, so go for it.’ And I thought, ‘This is actually a fantastic idea. I’m going to do that.’
“Back then we didn’t have video, so we fired up a RealAudio server, and we had like 25 people tune into ‘Quake 3′ broadcasts, and I was hooked. We could probably go back and pinpoint that exact night, the night where I turned around and said this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
Casting was more of a full time hobby at first than a career for Graham, who had to sink plenty of his own money and hundreds of hours of his time into his craft while waiting for eSports to catch on. With no conventions to follow, he was free to create his own style, adapting some bits from sports commentators and others from talk radio hosts like Art Bell.
In 2002, Graham traveled to South Korea to call the action for an international “StarCraft” tournament for the first time. Though he says he had faith that eSports would continue to grow, he also admits that he couldn’t have imagined it would reach the point it’s arrived at today.
“What I would have considered ‘eSports big’ is probably a small percentage of what it is now, and I was content with that,” he said. “To me, I didn’t care much about the failures, and I only focused on the successes. But in reality, I don’t think anyone could have predicted where we are at now. I’ve been in eSports for 15 years, and the growth that we’ve seen in the last two has been more than we saw in about nine years total.”
That growth has resulted in events like Red Bull Battle Grounds New York, where eight of the world’s top “StarCraft II” players will meet with a total of $50,000 in prize money at stake. But it’s also meant an evolution of Graham’s role as a caster. Where once he could be sure the people watching were experienced players who knew the game, he and his partners are cognizant of the idea that today’s high profile tournaments are attracting new fans as well.