I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
A Different Time
I never expected to cast at The International. Back in 2012, when I first sunk my teeth into commentary, it was only ever a hobby to me. I had a full-time job, friends/family and a life in Philadelphia.
I did it for fun, I did it for love of the game, and I never expected anything more than that. I relished the opportunity to share my love of DOTA with fans around the world, and I was happy.
Everything changed for me at the International 2012. Was it luck? Fate? Hard work? Some strange combination? Something else entirely? It's hard for me to say. Whatever it was, I was invited to cast the main event. I had never worked a live esports event in my life. Hell, my only real experience with public speaking was running for class president in my freshman year of high school. My hands shook so badly I could hardly read the speech I had written. (Needless to say, I didn't win.)
Suddenly, I'm on stage in Benaroya Hall before a crowd of 2000+ with millions watching around the world barely 6 months after I began my casting journey. At the time, my Twitter following was a mere fraction of pretty much every other person working the event. I was beyond terrified. But I had worked my ass off to get there, studied the teams day and night since the invite, and together with Lumi I was determined to show the world what we could do. I'd like to think we did.
Since that fateful week three years ago, the DOTA landscape has changed in ways that none of us could have possibly imagined back then. Beloved teams rose and fell like ancient empires. Legendary players have retired, gotten married, left DOTA entirely, and returned in search of former glory.
For commentators and other on-camera talent, much has changed as well.
A Shift in the Landscape
TI4 marked a watershed moment in Valve's approach to talent and production staff. At TI2, we had a 4 person desk, 3 teams of 2 commentators, and a few interviewers. That was it. At TI3, Valve introduced a floor reporter with Kaci Aitchinson, but otherwise everything remained more or less the same. But at TI4, they expanded the invites and their overall approach to coverage dramatically. For the first time ever, commentators were brought to Seattle for the group stage. Casters who had never worked a live event before were thrown in front of a microphone / camera for the first time. Hell, we even had dedicated observers!
It wasn't the smoothest process, and perhaps some of the people who were invited last year were out of their element. Still, at long last I felt like Valve 'got' it. You see, over the two years since I was invited to work TI2, the scene had changed. Commentators who had a certain following were no longer just casting a few hours here for fun, as a hobby, for love of the game. By that point, they were all chasing the dream. The game had grown, and with it they saw opportunities to build lives and careers for themselves doing what they truly loved.
By expanding the list of people invited to work the event, by including workshop creators more with the event, I felt like Valve was finally starting to understand that TI shouldn't be just about running an awesome event for the fans, that it shouldn't just be about rewarding players, but that it should be about rewarding EVERYONE who contributes to this game we all love.
Long Days and Longer Nights
There is a small list of established talent who have worked enough large events and built up personal followings to the point that they generally don't worry too much about getting invited to work TI. Nothing is EVER guaranteed in this world, and I don't think anybody takes for granted that they will be invited back. But for those established people, even not getting invited to TI isn't the end of the world. They have other opportunities to fall back on, be it casting gigs, sponsorships, personal streaming, or for some even a shot to play competitively again.
For pretty much everyone else, there is virtually nothing BUT worry. I can't even begin to tell you how much stress most up and coming casters/hosts/analysts are under from ~April through June. An invite to work TI can make a career, and a snub can just as easily break one. Younger casters sometimes have the luxury of living at home or attending university, in which case they may be able to reset and try again next year. But many people don't. They have bills to pay, families to feed, and in many cases not being invited can mean having to give up the dream in favor of a more stable path.
You see, for casters, there are no open qualifiers. There are no second chances. If you don't get invited to work TI, better luck next year. So after a year of crazy hours, little sleep, and a whole lot of flame, these people line up and wait for Valve to be their judge, jury, and executioner. The process is especially brutal because just like team invites (and perhaps most things Valve), it's a total black box. Nobody knows why they were chosen, and for those who don't make the cut or get their preferred assignment, there is no direct appeals process.
Of course, you can always speculate, and that's what those who aren't invited are reduced to doing. Was that one off-color joke a dealbreaker? Did I offend someone at Valve in a Tweet? Should I have cast more games? Was I not funny enough? Did I get one too many Reddit hate threads? You just don't know.
Now, TI invites aren't the only place where this dynamic exists. Look at movie/theatre auditions for example. People who don't get the gig generally are just told that and nothing more. In interviews and director's commentary, you may very occasionally be able to glean bits and pieces of why certain people were chosen and why others didn't make the cut, but that's quite rare and usually happens only long after the fact anyway.
DOTA is different in one important respect though. In cinema and theatre, there are lots of big-budget films and productions. There isn't one singular opportunity that is massively more important than all others in those arenas, but in DOTA, there is TI. Just as TI is *the* event for players, so it is *the* event for folks who work on shows full-time.
Unleash the hounds
Anyways, fast-forward to the TI hub this year. Rumors were circulating that Valve was cutting down on the list of talent. Supposedly, they wanted to trim the fat and reduce the number of people invited to work the event, and everyone was panicking. People were speculating where Valve would draw the line. Casters are a gossipy bunch, and everybody was talking.
Me, I reserved judgement. Rumors abound in our line of work, and more often than not in my experience they've turned out to be unfounded or exaggerated if not entirely false, especially when they come to a company as enigmatic as Valve. I still remember after TI3 when the vast majority of players and casters were 100% convinced that TI4 would be the last International ever. (Yeah, about that…)
Over the past week, the invites have quietly gone out. Last year, talent were allowed to announce their invites as soon as they got them, but this year Valve asked pretty much everyone to keep them quiet until they got the official go-ahead. When I heard about the change, I assumed it was because Valve wanted to avoid the drama and stress everybody went through last year and just do a single official announcement revealing all the event talent at once.
Boy was I wrong.
Today the floodgates opened, and the announcements of invites poured out. For those who had heard about Valve's request, most assumed that invites were finished and that everyone who was going to be invited would be. In stark contrast to how most events handle talent and production staff announcements (ESL One, the Summit, Starladder, Dreamleague, etc) and how Valve itself handles team invites, they didn't say or publish a single thing publicly.
After a few hours, the community naturally begins to speculate. "Was Draskyl invited, or is Dad still sleeping?" "Is this the year LD doesn't get to work TI?" "Where’s KOTLGUY?" “Who’s hosting the desk at TI5?” "WHY AREN'T THEY TWEETING YET?!" For every second the average fan spends wondering, the talent who haven't heard from Valve yet spend hours clawing their eyes out with anxiety and frustration. I know because many close friends went through it last year, and more still endured it this year.
Not knowing is the most painful
I won't deny there are certain cold and hard realities about this line of work, and anyone who signs up for it generally does so knowing exactly what they are getting themselves into. The line always has to be drawn somewhere for casters, just as it does for team invites for the main event and qualifiers. This is an inherently competitive industry, and that means somebody's going to be left out.
Still, it's painful to bear witness. I was suffering in silence today, wondering if some of the more borderline candidates would make the cut. Contrary to what the community usually sees, the casting community is for the most part a tight-knit group of kindred spirits, especially over the past year. Studios and organizers may have their rivalries, and occasionally you'll see a public spat between well-known personalities, but those are small fry in the big picture.
I thought of Pimpmuckl, who went from a relatively unknown caster to a world-class observer since DotaPit began. Kpoptosis, the author of the Antimage diaries and inventor of the now prolific fight recap. Maut, the voice of North American Dota and a dear friend who's been grinding for years now. Blaze, a caster who covered more games than almost ANYONE over the past year and a veritable encyclopedia of knowledge about teams' playstyles. Basskip, one of the few commentators who truly knows the SEA and Chinese scene beyond the few big dogs. Durka, who's quietly been grinding for joinDOTA at the home offices in Berlin while Cap/Blitz/Toby were away at the big events. Shane, the best damn sidekick on any panel. SUNSfan, a comedy act with some of the most devoted fans in the scene and driving force behind the biggest DOTA 2 Youtube Channel in the world. Xyclopz, for me the funniest DOTA caster who’s ever picked up a mic.
To be honest, I expected Valve to do it like last year. I expected a wide net, and the vast majority of deserving talent to make the cut. I wasn't even considering the possibility that KOTLGuy might not be invited. This guy is the real deal. Absolutely committed to what he does, a trained actor who's more natural on camera than anyone else I've ever seen in eSports, and one of the most professional commentators I've had the pleasure to work with.
Dakota spends more time preparing for one cast than some casters do watching competitive DOTA the rest of the year. When just about everybody else was having fun playing Mafia and Mario Kart at the TI Hub, Dakota was taking notes and researching for his next cast. When he started with BTS, he had roughly 3-5k followers. In less than a year, he's climbed to 15k, and I can only imagine how high he'll soar over the next two years. To me, he was a shoe-in.
But then he didn't get the invite, and I started to get angry. I thought back on all the sacrifices Dakota had made over the past year for this game. Quitting his old job, moving across the country to work full-time in California, having to be separated from his wife and family in New York all the while. Tackling pretty much any region we threw at him, researching teams day and night, taking meticulous notes, burning the midnight oil to cover Chinese/SEA Dota when it was asked of him. It wasn't always easy, and he's certainly not a saint. He cursed and vented and let off steam like the rest of us, but Dakota kept at it and never stopped hustling.
Need for Change
Originally, this blog was going to be about KOTLGuy and how it's a crying shame that he wasn't invited to TI. Fortunately, for him, there's a happy ending. Since TI4, he grew and built his reputation enough that Reddit got angry when they found out he wasn't invited, and I can only imagine that Valve saw that outcry and realized they had made a mistake.
Over the past few years, we've seen increased efforts from Valve to find ways to reward people who contribute to and help grow the game. At past TIs, top workshop contributors were flown out to Seattle. This year, anybody who's EVER been attached to a workshop item that got published gets a chance to attend the event.
Still, there are talented and dedicated folks working both on- and off-camera who were really close but didn’t quite make the cut. For those people, right now there is nothing. There's no rewards program, there's not even a friendly "thanks for everything you do for DOTA 2 the rest of the year." There's no acknowledgement of their hard work. Nothing but the stress of praying Icefrog just hasn’t gotten around to you yet, followed by the eventual crushing realization that all the invites are finished and you aren't invited to TI this year.
Personally, I'd like to see a little more compassion from Valve. I'd like to see the honorable mentions, some basic acknowledgement for people who were really close to making it but didn't quite get there. The line has to be drawn somewhere, and not everybody can be invited. But even if these folks who were so close can't be invited to work the event, can't they at least be offered a VIP ticket (if not a hotel room and a flight)? Haven't they earned at least that much for their hundreds, sometimes even thousands of hours of sacrifice?
At a bare minimum, can we please get a formal news post announcing talent invites? Why should talent be left playing the guessing game for days or even weeks? While I'm sure there is no malicious intent, the system is downright cruel the way it works now.
Why the silence
Many of you have been wondering if I was invited to TI and, if so, why I wasn't announcing it. Three years ago, I jumped with joy and posted the second I got the good news. I was nothing but smiles for an unexpected blessing and opportunity.
This year, I announce with a heavier heart. Yes, I was invited to work TI. I didn’t announce it right away because I didn’t feel right celebrating my own invite while other deserving people were left out in the cold. Rather than trumpet my own invite, I wanted to take this opportunity to speak out on behalf of those who I feel are getting a raw deal.
In closing, I still see quite a few uninvited folks that deserve the opportunity to work at TI, and others still who deserve at least a pat on the back, some kind words and encouragement. It's not too late for you guys as a community to advocate for those folks publicly, just like you did for KOTLGuy.
Even if Valve won't acknowledge them, we as a community still can. Please have some compassion and show those folks who weren't invited your love; this truly is the hardest time of year.
A parting thought
EDIT: One important point that I forgot to bring up is that there are practical considerations as well for talent with invites happening barely a month before the event.
People who are potential invites don't want to buy their own tickets / book hotel rooms if they don't have to since that's something Valve provides, and it's VERY expensive given the duration of TI as well as how nice the hotel where everyone stays is.
As a result, if someone holds off on bookings and ends up not being invited, they have to pay much steeper last-minute rates on flights + hotel just to attend the event, not to mention potentially could struggle even finding a ticket to the event itself.