Passion, preparation, practice: How to make it as an esports commentator

ESL UK's Joe Fenny

After deciding that he wasn't very good at playing videogames, Joe "Munchables" Fenny turned to commentating on them. A stalwart of the UK League of Legends scene, he was snapped up by ESL UK (Electronic Sports League) in 2015, becoming its first in-house esports commentator.

In many ways, Fenny is living a dream familiar to aspiring gamers, YouTubers and commentators everywhere. He began commentating (or casting) in his bedroom, uploading videos to YouTube and honing his craft being before being asked to lend his dulcet tones to companies and bodies including GiffGaff (a UK mobile network) and the National University Esports League.

He believes that passion and preparation are crucial to make it in his particular field, and due to the opinionated minds of esports contestants you'll need a thick skin too. Techradar spoke to Fenny to find out what else it takes to make it as an esports commentator.

Techradar: How did you get into casting?

Joe Fenny: I started doing it just in my bedroom when I realized that I was terrible at videogames and wanted to do something within esports. I'm an opinionated guy, so I thought I'd maybe talk about videogames on YouTube rather than play them. Slowly but surely I started doing events and working with companies, and it went from there.

TR: When was the moment you realized you wanted to take casting from a hobby to a career?

JF: Probably when I did my first live event for Giffgaff. I was also at the Insomnia gaming festival commentating on some non-competitive community games into a camera while sat on a sofa, having a bit of fun with it. Nobody knew who I was, but people were watching and I felt a bit famous. I thought it felt cool and it made me want to be a famous and international superstar casting video games - it was that imagination of what it could turn into that made me want to pursue it further. Just to clarify, I don't feel I've got that point - I'm not remotely famous. I've gone from around 100 Twitter followers to more than 1,200, but I can't say I've ever been spotted on the street. "Look! It's the real Munches!" they might say one day.

TR: Why didn't you fancy becoming a YouTuber?

JF: Good question. I was watching a lot of League of Legends and Starcraft and was listening to the commentary a lot. I realised that the commentators were the reason I enjoyed watching it so much. I was inspired by it and thought that I could do it, and that it sounded like a lot of fun.

TR: Have any other esports commentators inspired you?

JF: My two main inspirations were Joe Miller and Deman - they're really good. They're both from the North of England and have similar accents to me - esports isn't like the BBC where you need a perfect English accent - it's something anyone can get involved in.

TR: Did you listen to television sports commentators when developing your style?

JF: I didn't really watch a whole lot of sport, but I did listen to a bit of radio football commentary. TV commentators don't need to say everything as it's on the screen and obvious, but with radio commentary you have to describe absolutely everything so that listeners know what's going on. Radio commentators are very talented and are able to tell you what's going on in a fair bit of detail while keeping up with the action. It's about making sure your sentences are concise while relaying the information and not cutting out the good stuff.

TR: What's the single most important quality to have to be a caster?

JF: Passion. You have to get super excited and care about what's happening in a game.

TR: What games do you cast most? Do you have a genre?

JF: It's changed a lot recently as I was the only caster for ESL UK, so I'd pretty much cast anything. But now we've got more guys and I'm a senior caster, so I get to decide who does what a lot of the time. Most of the time it's down to who would be the best fit for the game being played.

TR: Can you describe your commentary style?

JF: There are two types of commentators - play-by-play ones and then color commentators, or analysts, who know lots about particular games. Play-play-play commentators aim to make games exciting and shout when there's action going off, and they also host the shot to some extent. I'm definitely that one as I'll do the intro and outro to shows, whip up excitement, host the conversation and try to pull information out of my co-casters.

TR: How do you prepare for games? Do you have fact sheets like TV sports commentators?

JF: I always take notes in with me, such as what games are coming up, and run through all of the different bullet points I need to cover in the intro. I'll also have a list of match-ups and under each match I'll write what storylines I want to be talking about during games. It's not just talking about what's happening in the game, it's also about the players' stories, how they got there, what they're fighting for and what that game means to them. What are their odds to win the game? How big a deal would it be if they won? That's all stuff that makes people invested in who's going to win the game.

TR: You've previously said that the UK esports scene suffers from teams chopping and changing players frequently. Does that make it difficult to establish a narrative during games?

JF: Yes - that's something that has plagued the UK esports scene for a long time. In terms of a narrative it's fine so long as there are at least a couple of teams that stick together and you've got blocks to build on. When it's a new team you can run the story of them needing to prove themselves, but if every team is a new team then you can't do that for the entire show as you'd be repeating yourself. It can be difficult to find something to say if the new players don't have history.

TR: Do you ever talk to teams before a match to research information?

JF: It's dependent on the situation - I basically know everybody in League of Legends as I've been doing it for that long so I can get in contact with anyone and interact with the community, as it were. That's harder to do when it's newer players, but I do it where I can to pick people's brains.

TR: When you've been asked to cast a new game do you play it beforehand?

JF: It depends how old the game is. Some games already have an established community and you can learn a lot more by watching Twitch and YouTube than playing it yourself. When you're playing a new game you don't know what you're doing and are probably playing it wrong anyway, so you're learning the wrong information to some extent.

Generally speaking it's about mastering the tools - so in a shooter you need to know how much damage you expect to deal and how quickly you're going to get kills so that you know what to expect when casting the game. It's also important not to get excited over kills that are just run of the mill every day ones. It's about getting a feel for games and getting excited appropriately.

TR: Gamers and people who watch gaming footage generally know their stuff, so it's about sounding convincing to your audience...

JF: You have to learn what you're talking about and use the right terminology and jargon. Something I learnt early on is don't pretend you know what you're talking about unless you do, as it's easy to spot a fake a million miles away. When co-casting with somebody who knows a lot about a game it's better for me to be looking for questions I can ask rather than seeking information I can give on a cast. That way I'm pulling information out of my co-caster and not saying anything stupid.

TR: Can you take us through your process when commentating?

JF: There are three big things for me in how I commentate on a game. The first priority is what's happening on the screen - you have to relay that to the audience, hyping it if there's hype and making it tense if it's tense. In-between action you can't repeat yourself and keep saying what gun a person has, for example, as that's flavorless. At that point I'm looking for storylines, such as what a win would mean to that team, how they might go about winning and what their standing is compared to their opponent and how that relates to the game. If there's a player at the bottom of the scoreboard who's stepping it up, that would be a topic to talk about and if I bring it up near the start of a game I can revisit it at the end to see how it's developing.

TR: What tools do you have in the commentary box to help you commentate on games?

JF: It depends on the event. Every caster has a cough button which mutes the mic so you can cough, sneeze or take a drink which is super important. Some studios have a talk back function which mutes the stream and lets you talk to the producer. I also cast Guild Wars 2 where I can direct the camera, as opposed to other games that use the audo directed camera which is usually pretty terrible.

TR: Has anyone ever confronted you after a game to call you out on something you've said?

JF: Quite a few times I've had players tell me off for something I've said in-game, but generally they abide by what I say. I don't think I'm biased - I just say what I think about it which is part of what this job is. It's a lot to do with my opinion and what I think of a situation. I don't care who wins - though I like it when the winning team makes a better story. If a player comes up to me and says that they think I'm wrong about something, then fair play I might have to talk about it.

TR: How will VR affect esports in the future?

JF: VR is a really interesting topic. If there's a way of getting spectators into the game using VR then it could really revolutionise esports. It could be used in a similar way to CS: Global Offensive and Dota, where you can spectate the gameplay and control the camera youself. VR is cool because you can control it yourself, so it feels like you're there. If it was just a cinema screen attached to your head I'm not sure it would be any different from watching it on a computer screen. VR would also work by letting viewers sit in the studio virtually watching the game on a cinema screen and seeing the players on the stage.

TR: What's the state of UK esports and where can it go from here?

JF: It depends on the game. You can see by prize pools and viewership counts that it's continuously getting bigger and better. In League of Legends we've had the most competitive season in the Premiership to date, and in Counter Strike some UK players are being recognized on a European basis which is great for the UK scene. Hearthstone is going really well for the UK and we have some really good player, which is fairly rare for the UK. I hope that will continue to snowball and we'll inspire other UK-based players and nurture more talent to rise to the top.