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Shouting about games: When e-sport commentators turn pro

Video games are now watched online by hundreds of millions of people. We speak to one "shoutcaster" about his path from passionate fan to professional e-sport commentator for the online game League of Legends.

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There's a very good chance you won't understand this next sentence:

Last hitting creeps is critical for your AD Carry to succeed in the laning phase of League of Legends.

But to a fan, this is rudimentary. Like any other sport, e-sport video games are dense with insider jargon. And they should be considered a sport. What it takes to bring a newcomer up to speed is a quality commentator who can deliver blow-by-blow insight for existing fans while providing new viewers with the knowledge they need to bring them into the fold.

E-sport shoutcasters prepare for a live event

Shoutcasters Jake "Spawn" Tiberi and Max "Atlus" Anderson warming up before the League of Legends OPL Grand Final event.

Dylan Esguerra / Riot Games

This can all seem amazing, or amusing, to people outside the gaming sphere, but to more than 100 million e-sport fans worldwide this is the new normal. The TV is almost entirely for playing games or watching others play games, hooked straight into streaming services like twitch.tv. And the voices that enhance the gameplay on screen have the potential to become the Bob Costas, the Martin Tyler or the Richie Benaud of the 21st Century.

Developers such as Riot Games, the company behind League of Legends, are supporting a network of fan commentators, known as shoutcasters, and helping some to turn pro and give the game the extra colour, excitement and explanation that good commentary should offer.

In a League of its own

No e-sport is more played or watched than League of Legends. According to developer Riot Games, this 6-year-old game is played by 67 million different players per month with 27 million playing every day. Some analysts put its player base even higher, at over 90 million. According to e-sport analysis site Goldper10.com, the game was watched for 86.4 million viewer hours in June 2015. In a competitive space with billions of dollars at stake, Riot Games has built a base of players and fans almost ten times the size of its nearest competitor.

League of Legends is a "multiplayer online battle arena" (MOBA) game, where two teams of five face off with the aim of destroying their opponents' base. It is free-to-play, making its money primarily by selling players access to a list of more than 100 champions, the heroic characters players control in the battle arena.

Every champion is unique, with different style, powers, strengths and weaknesses. Through the game each team earns gold by killing computer-controlled enemies and the opposing team. Add to this a playing area designed with an array of defensive turrets and wilderness to hide in for surprise attacks and monsters to defeat for team bonuses, and you quickly realise a guiding hand (or voice) is a great way to ease new players in.

League of Legends e-sport crowd at OPL Grand Final

Even in its smaller markets like Australia, sell-out crowds feature at League of Legends tournaments.

T5 Photography / Riot Games

"All sorts of things are going on on the screen. Lots of explosions and pretty lights," says Max "Atlus" Anderson, one of Riot's team of full-time professional e-sport commentators. "If you're not keyed in on what you're focusing on you can be completely lost. But it only takes a couple of games to know how everything moves around and to understand how it works. If we're doing our jobs correctly, we can explain things as well."

Anderson likes to use basketball as an analogy. Another five-versus-five game where each player has a known role to play and the team builds certain strategies to underpin its attack and defense. At first, you can watch the basics and let it wash over you and enjoy the show. Then, as you watch more often, the details start to sink in, as well as a sense of the big match-ups across professional teams and star players.

Having watched the Oceanic Pro League final take place in Sydney, Australia, recently, I saw more similarities between League of Legends and ice hockey. When you first watch hockey it's just so fast you can hardly even see the puck. But after you understand what's happening you stop seeing the action as hectic and start to see the player skill required to execute manoeuvres at that speed of play.

Shouting from virtual rooftops

"I really enjoyed League of Legends, but I wasn't very good at playing the game," says Anderson, who is based in Australia. "So I wanted to do my best to channel my passion somewhere. I found shoutcasting is a brilliant avenue for that because I can yell and scream and get excited."

E-sport commentators are most widely known as "shoutcasters," a reference to the Shoutcast Internet radio software used to broadcast game commentary. Whether particular commentaries still use this software or not, the nickname stuck.

Just as an elite band of gamers have turned professional over the past two decades, making real money for being the best at the games they love, so too shoutcasters have been moving into the professional arena. Any serious broadcast of an e-sport event will have a team of commentators calling the match. Some deliver the in-game live commentary, others provide the analysis during breaks in play.

Shoutcaster commentary desk for League of Legends

The official broadcast desk, where online events and matches are hosted by the League of Legends shoutcasters.

Attila Szilvasi / Riot Games

Anderson points out that just as players emerge through the quality of their play, new commentators are found through the many fans out there now shoutcasting amateur games and sharing their work online.

Riot Games supports its team of professional commentators by offering vocal and presentation training, helping to bring raw talent up to a polished broadcast standard.

"It's about molding the strategies and methods of other disciplines and adapting them," says Anderson. "Which so far has been working but we can always do more."

Serve the niche, welcome the new

Basketball, hockey, baseball or football. Whatever the sport, every commentator must balance explaining game concepts with serving the passionate fans who already know the game inside out. For well-established sports, new fans will often be surrounded by friends and family who already know the game and can explain as things happen. Here in e-sport, while there are tens of millions already watching these games, there's still a desire to help new viewers become dedicated fans.

Anderson has ideas to do more than just keep new players in mind during commentary. One idea is to rebroadcast big games with fresh commentary recorded to suit new viewers just coming to understand the game.

League of Legends shoutcasters in action

Anderson and Tiberi analysing a match during an online broadcast.

Attila Szilvasi / Riot Games

On the flip side to welcoming new viewers, e-sport fans will often nitpick every word said by a shoutcaster, sharing their real-time opinions about what the commentator is getting wrong. But Anderson says you have to roll with it and take these sometimes harsh comments as a way to get better.

After his first experience commentating on a stream with 270,000 people watching live, Anderson felt the heat.

"Half of them are saying I love the Australian accent, half of them were saying we sounded like idiots," says Anderson. "Some said I was repeating things way too much and that was very relevant. I went home, read through and said 'Well, I'm not going to do those things again.'

"We can get instant feedback from millions of people. I actually see it as a benefit. There are so many ways to approach shoutcasting, and how to go about getting better" says Anderson.

Whether games shift into broadcast television or just keep building their online viewership, it's an exciting time when passionate fans have more than one path to success and stardom in the professional gaming world.