eSports Update: Interview With Marcus 'DJWheat' Graham

This interview is from 2011: The Year of eSports. Read on for the full version, or return to the original article.

Marcus Graham is an eSports commentator, personality, and self-described "evangelist." He provides commentary for several major eSports organizations, including Major League Gaming, across multiple games and genres. He also hosts several gaming-related podcasts at djwheat.tv.

How did you get started in eSports?

Marcus 'DJWheat' Graham (Image courtesy of sk-gaming.com)
All of this came about from the thirst for Quake III competition. In my day, the $25,000 prize pool was $800. We'd win a tournament and pay for our gas--and we were thrilled, because we won.

Eventually I started working full time in IT, and I realized that I had no more time to play. So I got more heavily involved in coaching, helping my team, covering events online, and eventually one thing led to another and I started recording commentaries for my team to help them get better. And they said, "This is really good. You should try to do this." Next thing I knew, I was in Korea covering the World Cyber Games.

How would you characterize your role in the professional gaming community?

Most importantly, I fill the role of educator and evangelist. I want people to know that it's out there, and if you're part of the Street Fighter community, I want you to at least acknowledge that the Counter-Strike community is going through the exact same thing you're going through, and so on.

Who watches professional gaming competitions?
I think it's a good mixture. I've had an audience for as long as I've been broadcasting, and I still see names I remember from the early Quake days. I know that there's the hard-core guys out there.

I think that the less-involved audience is still growing. Sites like Ustream, Justin.tv, and Stickam have done a great job in growing our audience because there are lots of people who use these sites who stumble across a tournament that Day9 and I are announcing. So yeah, our audience is growing every week, it's not remaining stagnant, and that's exciting.

The popularity of eSports seemed to jump over the past year. What do you think caused that?
What I think has happened is timing. 18 planets are aligning all at once. What are the planets? One is the live streaming sites. Another planet is Street Fighter, and the exposure it gets. Yet another is StarCraft II. And those are the big planets. Small planets like Quake Live are sharing in the limelight from the big planets. And so this giant vortex is forming, where each community is getting involved with each other community, there's a lot of cross-pollination going on, a lot of streaming going on.

The other thing is awareness. People know, now, that you can come online and watch a stream. We'd do a big event, promote it for two months, but there wouldn't be another one for six months. Now I guarantee you that every weekend, I can turn on my Ustream and watch some Street Fighter or some StarCraft. Awareness, knowledge, and timing.

You've worked in the Korean pro gaming scene. Why do you think it's so big there?
For Korea, it was a lot about timing. You had this game, and no one really had PCs, so the PC baang (Internet cafe) scene got really big, and people got really competitive about it, and they see "Oh, wow, this is like a cool version of chess." The timing was right, people were ready for a competitive game, and someone put it on television and it was all over. And they had the game that made sense for them. For Korea it was StarCraft. For the U.S. ... maybe it's StarCraft II. Maybe it's Street Fighter.

Are the game companies themselves involved with the eSports world?
Blizzard Entertainment has been involved, id Software has been listening to the community and hosting events like QuakeCon, but otherwise, not so much. In the status quo, there still aren't many companies involved in the competitive side of gaming. However, I believe that 2010 is the last year that that is going to happen. People are taking notice. Valve is one of those companies that kind of knows what is up, but they aren't ready to commit to throwing a massive TF2 competition and throwing a load of money at it. I don't think these big companies care about fostering community around their games, I think they care about making a dollar.

Who pays for these competitions to happen?
The money is coming from the sponsors. For some of the major teams today, you have companies like Intel, SteelSeries, a lot of PC-based computer peripheral companies, but you also have some lifestyle companies--one of Team Evil Geniuses' sponsors is [the clothing company] Jinx. At Major League Gaming Dallas we were sponsored by Dr. Pepper, Hot Pocket, and Old Spice. You go to any event, you'll see the sponsors actively involved, maybe they'll have a booth.These are tournaments, but they're also kind of like small conventions--there's usually other things going on.

Are eSports watchable for people who haven't played the games? How often do you get complete newbies watching your shows?
I do scour the chat on my channel, and I do get people who simply come in and ask what's going on. There might be only a handful every now and then, but there are a few people who come in that way.

When you have good commentators in game, maybe participating in chat, then you can absolutely get sucked in and want to know about the minutiae of what's going on in there. But you can't just look at a StarCraft screen and get it any more than my son could just look at a chess board and get it--someone has to teach him what the pieces do. I believe that people could tune in to Quake, or Street Fighter, and instantly understand. They don't need to know about all the other stuff going on between the players--the mind games, the footsies, you know--they just need to see that the other guy's health bar is going down.

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