I love watching any sport played at an elite level. Seeing the best of the best go head-to-head is its own reward.
But every sport needs its commentators. Even the Go tournament between Lee Sedol and AlphaGo was brought to exciting life with the help of some amazing commentary that brought us into the sport and explained the beauty and creativity of what was happening in the game.
Esports is no different. It takes a skilled commentator to follow the chaotic action of a MOBA or team shooter and present the excitement to both devotees and the less initiated.
Thankfully, Mitch 'Uber' Leslie is one of the most energetic and vivacious casters around, plying his trade across a range of major titles before now shouting up a storm full-time in the Overwatch League.
Click through for my exclusive interview.
An Australian ex-pat who wears his Aussie colours proudly on his sleeve, we caught up before the Overwatch League inaugural season playoffs to find out more about what makes him tick - and get his insights into the state of the industry and what others eager to walk the path of the caster should do to find their niche.
How's the shift been from more of a touring caster-for-hire to a gig firmly planted in LA and super focused on all things Overwatch?
To be honest, I never really worked as a truly freelance caster. Prior to the Overwatch League, I worked for Turtle Entertainment's head office in Cologne (Germany) as an esports broadcaster.
However, moving from a multi-game caster to just Overwatch has been a good switch. It is far easier to stay on the pulse with just one title. Being able to dedicate my bandwidth into improving at the casting style Overwatch demands has helped with my improvement.
I love the game, I was making informative content on it when it was in closed beta, so I am stoked to be working so closely with a title I am so passionate about.
From a caster perspective, how has the city-based team structure shifted a sense of fandom and rivalry? Has it given you new ground to mine for audience engagement?
Some fans follow players, some follow teams. Prior to the Overwatch League, only the former kind of fandom really pervaded the esports space.
With a few exceptions, many team brands didn’t necessarily command the long-term loyalty of their fans.
The localised structure does a good job of anchoring a brand to a place, instead of just an idea or a set of values (most of these in esports are often the same anyway).
Giving people another reason to cheer can only be a good thing, and I was definitely surprised at how quickly these fanbases sprung up.
Most of these new fans are not the 'hardcore' gamers that I am used to interacting with, so discovering and interacting with the new fans we are now reaching has been an enlightening experience.
It sounds like the casters have grown more and more comfortable and confident as the season has progressed. Having more fun, letting yourselves be a little crazy. Is that a fair assessment? What's the journey been from your perspective and the casting team around you?
Absolutely. Many of us are generally fairly comfortable around a broadcast but when we come around to covering a new game, there is definitely a period of adjustment.
My style specifically leans on my excitable nature; channelling the Aussie trait of not taking oneself too seriously not only allows me to channel more humour into my craft, but also helps me enjoy the job a lot more.
Us casters have all come from different titles, with different expectations and work ethics – unifying those into what we have now was not such a tall order; it’s easy when you all want the Overwatch League to succeed.
Getting parochial – from your behind the scenes perspective, did the Aussie fans at the World Cup event in Sydney last year help firm up the quality of Australian esports fans to the worldwide audience? And how fun was being a part of that World Cup journey?
Absolutely. Australians are awesome fans. Gregarious, loud, engaged and passionate. I was pretty proud to 'show them off' to my foreign colleagues while we were in Sydney, and being on stage with the lads after they beat Japan still remains a favourite memory of mine.
Following another esports event in Sydney this year, I don’t think there is any uncertainty as to the quality of Aussie esports fans.
Were you already contracted for the season during the World Cup, or was that an 'audition' of sorts that you passed with flying colours? What did you expect going in at the start and what has surprised you through the journey since then?
My first conversations about the Overwatch League began a year prior to Sydney, at the inaugural Overwatch World Cup in 2016. I had already been casting the game for a year before that and had been in talks with Blizzard about a future opportunity.
Fortunately, I had managed to get my foot in the door pretty early on! I'm not really sure what I expected, but I did know that the first year especially would be hard work.
We had a lot to prove along with great expectations and I think all of us from talent to production, to everyone else, felt the weight of those. So far, so good!
Has it been a nice thing to have the likes of Gunba and Custa out there in the teams too? Are there any signs that more Aussies could be waiting in the wings off the back of Contenders Season One? Any tips on Aussies to watch that are yet to make their splash?
Absolutely. Gunba is very busy and we don’t often get to chat, but I always enjoy having a chinwag with Custa in the moments before he heads out on stage. We lived about ten minutes apart back home and we both miss Adelaide, so there’s no shortage of nostalgic chats.
With Overwatch Contenders Australia adding more structure to Aussie Overwatch, it’s been good to see a few more endemic orgs pick up teams and begin to support them, this is a good sign for the future development of the scene.
The Sydney Drop Bears, Masterminds GC and Dark Sided have all had excellent Overwatch Contenders seasons.
Inaugural Aussie World Cup member Yuki is still grinding away along with last year's representative Kiki on Masterminds, and Termo from Dark Sided is a player I am particularly fond of – good head on his shoulders and a strong work ethic.
There's some great Kiwi talent in the mix too!
For Aussies who have no skin in the game yet – any tips on which team or teams they should throw their support behind?
The LA Valiant is a pretty easy choice, featuring two Aussies in Custa and Gunba. They’re pretty good at the game too!
I personally enjoy the Philly Fusion. A very diverse (like Australia!) and scrappy team, they’re rowdy, they love to indulge in healthy gamesmanship and they’re a good shot in the playoffs. [He wasn't wrong!]
Any tips for others who are keen to explore the caster path into esports?
Getting started is the hardest but most important part. I always direct people to go and follow @BroadcastDotGG on Twitter – it’s a community focused around providing resources and opportunities for upcoming casters.
I am part of their Discord group along with a bunch of top level casters; we always try and make ourselves available to help out if needed. Outside of that, get your content out there.
A YouTube channel makes for a good portfolio these days and you’ll want a fairly built-out one to show to prospective employers down the track.
You've clearly not had to disguise you're an Aussie – is owning who you are a big part of succeeding in this space?
Taking yourself too seriously in the gaming space is a very good way to not be taken seriously by viewers, ironically enough.
A while back I realised that the best way to make it in this gig is to ditch the front and try and channel my own self-expression through my work. It helps to distinguish you and you’re going to have a lot more fun.
Naturally, you should keep it professional but if you can relax and have fun with the job, you're going to come off far more relatable, something that many people turned to esports for in the first place.
Seriously, how much work do you put into finding wild new analogies, similes and metaphors to throw into your commentary?
I have always had fairly good information recall. I read a lot in my younger years and was able to retain a lot of the vocabulary that I picked up along the way.
As far as metaphors and similes go, a big part of this is not being afraid to be creative and relaxing on your filter a little bit.
Sometimes a one-liner will stick, sometimes it will flop. For me, that comes with the territory of being unashamedly myself behind the mic.
For better or worse, most of the one-lines occur to me on the spot. Getting some of them to work without shoehorning them in is definitely a challenge!
Tune in for the Overwatch League Grand Finals this weekend as the Philadelphia Fusion take on the London Spitfire for the inaugural season title.
Best place to watch is on the official Overwatch League Twitch channel.
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