Clowning is serious business if you're a professional idiot like Jake "SirActionSlacks" Kanner, or Slacks as he's commonly known.
Kanner didn't exactly set out to become famous among millions of Dota 2 viewers. But he's now known for his weird antics in front of the camera and his intensive knowledge of Dota 2 lore.
His career began with a video on YouTube, in which he made stupid voices while playing the game. From there he's moved on to signing up with a Dota 2 studio before co-hosting The International Dota 2 championships in 2016 and 2017. So it's fair to say that Kanner's life as an online personality has been a crazy ride. These days, Kanner creates mini content segments for tournament downtimes, engages with fans and also does interviews with players.
In person, Kanner is slightly more serious, but still full of manic energy. And while he goofs around, you have a feeling that there's a lot of intelligence behind the professional idiot persona he usually projects, though he's quick to downplay this.
"A lot of people tell me, oh you know, he's got this act and it's so good but it's really different kind of intelligences I guess? I'm pretty stupid in a lot of ways -- I can't spell, I can't pronounce words correctly. It's less of an act, it'd be nice if it was an act," said Kanner.
He added that plenty of others have put in hard work, but for him, it was "falling upwards, idiotically," and added that most of his work is going into maintaining and growing his status as a talent in the scene.
In contrast, economics professor Alan "Nahaz" Bester takes a more professional approach to the scene. Bester is often found on analyst panels, the same type you'll find on traditional sports channels. He can easily throw out in-depth statistics off the top of his head. If you want to know why a particular player has a 9-0 winning streak, Bester is the guy you'd look to for an explanation.
Bester's interest in Dota 2 was piqued when first heard about The International and then started playing the game with his brother-in-law. He soon discovered the huge amount of data involved in the game its similarity to mainstream sports such as basketball and baseball. It quickly become his new hobby.
Since then, Bester has appeared on many panels at major events, including Valve's annual The International, where he provides game analysis based on the data he's already memorised beforehand. He's now so well established on the scene that he's taking a year-long career break to hit the talent circuit.
"That was something that felt natural at the time, I was running a Masters program for a couple of years, got a bit disillusioned with some of the aspects of academia and felt like I needed some time away," said Bester.
"I was going to give this esports thing full time for a year, it's kinda like my scheduled mid-life crisis."
With his background as a lecturer, it's easy for Bester to explain the data behind a game and what it means for players. He admits there's more than data at play in the five-versus-five game, but he insists that "stats don't lie."
"A good statistic is much more often the beginning of a conversation than the end of one," said Bester.
He says people often think of statistics as answers, but they're more of a guide for what to pay attention to in a game. And with Dota 2's complex strategic variables at play, his stats allow other panelists to dive deeper into game analysis. And if the statistics don't go in way he expects, that can still be a story worth telling.
Labor of love
Kanner with his ill-fitting suit (a problem he says even tailored suits can't solve due to his broad shoulders) and Bester the clean and slick professor, are worlds apart in appearance. But one thing both personalities share is the love of the game. It's something that comes across when you talk to them -- Kanner even has organized his own tournaments as a labour of love.
"Organizing teams for my tournament, I had eight, and it consumed major parts of my day, six hours was spent talking to them, making sure their schedules are okay, and fixing conflicts, while making sure they could still do the event," says Kanner.
"I had four teams trying to drop out in the last week before it started and it was madness and that was just one aspect, and that was an online tournament. Imagine doing that at a LAN with sixteen teams, it's insane. There's so many moving parts, millions of them."
The 40-year-old Bester is full of energy and so dedicated to esports that he lost his voice almost completely when he hosted an event. He limits himself to one long trip a month to placate his wife, though he added that she has been pretty supportive of his career switch so far.
If there's one thing the western Dota 2 scene and esports in general lack, its diversity when it comes to casting events. Apart from the most recognizable female caster, Jorian "Sheever" van der Heijden, the lack of female talent is glaring. It's an issue that's not easily solved. The community can be perceived to be misogynistic at times, though they are quick to be supportive once someone proves themselves.
"Is diversity needed? I would say it would be appreciated and encouraged, but needed is a strong word. To say that we need diversity is to say we need to go out and find it and I think it's a pretty dumb way to do anything," said Kanner.
Bester favors a longer-term approach. He says the aim should be to make game environments as friendly as possible and take a more aggressive stance in combatting toxicity, something he points out that Blizzard's Overwatch League does. Valve's Dota 2 recently implemented a six-month ban for toxic players, a move that was well received by a community sick of playing with griefers.
"I would definitely love to see more diversity in the scene than we have but it's a very tricky thing as the worst thing you can do to advance diversity is to put somebody up there that doesn't belong, that hasn't earned their way there. Because esports viewers, they know what's good and you can't really fake it in this business right now," says Bester.
Getting your foot in the door
While both Kanner and Bester feel that they lucked out when they got into the scene, it's a lot harder now, especially with the huge prize pools helping tournaments gain recognition. That's not to say it's impossible to become a Dota 2 personality, but you'll have to put in a lot of work and have a thick skin to succeed in the "hardest scene in esports," said Kanner.
"You got to be strong willed to make it in this industry," he says.
"There are a lot of casters, both male and female who want to get in, they look at Twitch chat and it tears them apart and the quit, it sucks but you have to have a thick skin in this industry to make it."
On the other hand, there are a lot of other options to consider if you really want in, but it may not be the front facing role you're hoping for. Bester points out that as the industry grows, there will be need for all sorts of roles, from marketing, business or even programmers, and that's opportunity for those who want to get in on the action.
"I don't think you should set out to say I want to work in esports, you should set out by saying, 'hey this is what I want to do and if there are opportunities in that, great!' The big thing is to look at yourself as a marketable asset and build that asset value as fast as you can," said Bester.
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