Jason Baker: "Turner want to do this"
HLTV.org interviewed ELEAGUE producer Jason 'Alchemist' Baker to get an insider's perspective on both the history of Counter-Strike production and the transition to televising the game.
We meet in a Starbucks on the corner of one of the many Peachtree streets that lace their way through the humid streets of Atlanta, with this one lying somewhere in Midtown and close to the Turner Broadcasting Studios that have brought both of us to the city.
Jason Baker blends in to the savoir-vivre crowd that always populate the inside of the coffee chain and his short stature, glasses, and checkered shirt might lead one not involved in esports to pin him as a roadie for a rock band that peaked in the mid-2000's. The man himself is meek about his involvement in the scene in which he works, declaring "I don't want to be famous" before rattling off a list of his contributions in a mild manner.
Jason Baker has been around since the CPL 2001 days and even earlier
And yet Jason Baker, also known as "Alchemist," is anything but irrelevant to Counter-Strike, both in yesteryear and today and his aptly chosen handle offers a clue into the effect he has had in changing early rules of the game and then taking his skills to the realm of production, where his philosophy is that the action must tell a story.
With our original goal in mind being to get a backstage look at how ELEAGUE were attempting to bridge the gap between the online streaming of competitive CS:GO and a televised spectacle, we ended up finding out the personal story of a crucial component in the production of it all. Read onward to get an inside look.
How did you get your start in Counter-Strike?
I started playing Counter-Strike back in 1999-2000. I didn't get DSL internet until Beta 5 so that's when I really started playing. I used to play Half-Life Deathmatch, Unreal, Unreal tournament, all those games, but Counter-Strike was the first game that just made me go, "I'm dying so fast this is amazing!"
So on a local server I met up with three guys: Mark, John, and Mike. They needed one other person to go to this event called "The CPL." I was like "Yeah, I don't care I've got vacation time let's go!" So I went to the Winter 2001 CPL which was the first really big push on HLTV...
And when you say HLTV, you don't mean us of course but the 1.6 equivalent of GOTV for spectating games? Just to be clear for newer readers.
Yeah right! Forgot to add that. So, we get there and start pubbing on some server and at the time we thought we were good at Counter-Strike, number one on OGL, but here it's just like "Headshot. Headshot. Dead. Dead." It was just a whole new level of Counter Strike for me and I started really watching the games, really getting enthralled.
And then we were watching the X3 vs. NiP final. Two maps, double overtime, amazing; but the electricity in the room convinced me that we had to show other people this game so they could see it the way we see it.
So that was the start of your desire to portray Counter-Strike to a wider audience?
Yes, but I still played. We came back in 2002 and already then Mark and John started filming the event. But I played that event and went out in the first round. But I chipped in and we managed to make a 30 minutes movie with game highlights and stuff.
Next event rolls around and everyone has quit competitively playing. Mike [Allen] starts becoming a CPL admin and my other two guys (Mark and John) were just filming all the time. I lost in that event to the old X3 guys, 13-11, so I come out all ticked off at my team and Mark and John ask me "Well, we're filming do you want to help us with this because we're out of ideas?"
So I just start grabbing people and interviewing them. We interviewed Shaguar, Volcano, Sir Scoots for the first time (that's when I met him). And that was the start of our conversations, between Scoots and myself, about how we would broadcast CS on TV if we could, what stats we would show.
So you slowly worked your way up from there?
That was how it began, from 2002-2006 I did all the seeds at the CPL's, I was anti-cheat admin for CAL, I did disputes for CPL, I did color commentary for TSN, wrote all the interviews for MFAVP.
And I had a day job, this was our hobby and all out of our own pocket. We'd go to Best Buy, and buy a video camera, come back after the event, and return it.
As I slowly comprehend the efforts and longevity of the veterans who were laying down tracks in the Counter-Strike sand back when I was still playing kickball on an elementary school playground, the conversation drifts towards GotFrag, the now defunct esports coverage website which was HLTV's spiritual predecessor in a way.
Many a current director, producer, and even team owner had their start back when GotFrag was the place to be. And Jason was right in the thick of it.
How did you end up on GotFrag then?
I got into a spat with TSN and just up and quit them. I put my focus back into making videos, but you have to remember that hosting videos was very hard back then as there was no YouTube yet. So we started working with GotFrag to host our videos.
We all hated doing interviews since we're not camera people. None of us want to be famous, I don't want to be famous. But we loved Counter-Strike, we wanted to show Counter-Strike.
I started working with GotFrag, writing articles and doing our videos as their videos. We did all that and then rumors started coming around about MLG wanting to buy us. CGS came out and then CGS wanted to buy us too. That was scary and we didn't want that so we went with MLG.
And MLG's acquisition allowed you guys to scale up in production?
It helped us with launching GotFrag TV in 2006, although it was already in motion a little earlier. First thing we did, it wasn't even broadcasted, it was a Half-Life 2 deathmatch on the beach for Verizon Wireless. Don't fucking understand to this day. There was slam poetry there too, I really don't get it.
So we did that. Then WSVG came in and basically stole everything from CPL for the summer and locked us out so we couldn't film that summer. So we bought the rights for Winter CPL to guarantee that we would do it, we finally got to do Counter-Strike how we wanted to.
With MLG we also started doing stuff from the studio. It was still very expensive to stream, it cost lots and lots of money to get 3,000 people to watch. It was like, "man I hope 4,000 don't watch tonight, we can't afford it." *laughs*
And by that point other games were starting to appear on GotFrag and CS was starting to disappear a bit am I correct?
Right around then, Sir Scoots and I were offered a chance to go to New York and work for MLG. We did not want to do that. I wanted to do Counter-Strike but it was dying, most of the players were at CGS and when that collapsed, they just went their ways.
And it was also an economy that collapsed around then, not just esports. The whole credit boom and the market just went up in smoke. So I just packed up my stuff, moved back to St. Louis and I went back to what I do: I fix copiers for a living and I did system admin work and I just played WoW and watched StarCraft, MOBA's. But I didn't care for those games.
So how did you return to CS:GO?
When CS:GO first came out it was better than Source but not better than 1.6. I played it a little bit but it wasn't as fun. Most of it back then was just chatting with Scoots, watching the first Major and stuff, I still kept up but mostly just the good matches.
Then I started noticing that it was getting played at a high level. Like "These guys aren't just dumb aimers, they're using good flashes and good smokes."
And eventually, I started coming to a few events in North America but not working. The first time I got my hands on buttons again was with MLG, this year at the MLG Americas Minor in January.
So what were you doing when you came back?
I had my own switch and we would get a replay. Something like "Hey get a shot of the guys running out of spawn," and I'd show the guys running out of spawn.
To me Counter-Strike, all the really good observers, they tell a good story. I think I was trying to capture the storytelling aspect of the game, building anticipation of a match-up and then showing it. Don't show me a CT staring at a wall, the T's are moving into position!
So what was your title at the Minor and then at MLG Columbus?
Gameplay director. But I also helped produce some videos at Columbus.
The final piece of the puzzle of course involves understanding how Baker transitioned from these early stints in CS:GO at MLG to being the producer at ELEAGUE, a venture where television executives and hardcore gamers would be meeting and melding for the first time in America since the disastrous CGS.
As I learned, the venture was not without its preliminary hitches, and was for Turner something akin to a modern day Columbian voyage to the Old World of esports, which is sometimes a festering and clannish place.
So how did you get involved with ELEAGUE?
That was amazing actually. It was like a week before Columbus and I got contacted by Turner and they flew me out for one day to Atlanta to get interviewed and chat with them. They asked three different industry people whom they should get to produce Counter-Strike and all three said my name.
So they decided to hire you and what is your official title and how has it been? Also are you here for all ten weeks?
I'm here for all ten weeks and I am the Producer of the show. It's been a struggle of course since I've had to convince Marketing that they can't put stuff where they want it and we've had to get the format right. It's been a constant process of letting them know how "we" do it.
So I spent a week on that and then another week on the show: getting the Observers set up, getting the replay guys (who usually don't know Counter-Strike) to relay correctly with the Observers, working with the Graphics people on the important statistics that we need to show.
I kind of plan out the day: what we're going to do and what features are going to get filmed. It's really nice that the talent are in so they can help with that now since it was first thrown at me. The RoomOnFire guys in particular, they love teaching Counter-Strike. We've moved away from that 1.6 elitist mindset and that's good.
Managing production cues is an alchemical skill in and of itself, as Baker has learned
You had a computer crash happen at one point, how did you manage that stressful situation?
Wait a minute! Can I go back in time? And then I'll answer that.
Yeah no problem.
Okay so in 2003-2004, since I was doing all the CPL stuff and media stuff, I kind of took both of them and forced changes. It's my fault: I forced them to implement fifteen rounds a half, which I think ESWC were already doing, since they used to do twelve rounds.
Another thing, the overtime rule of $10,000 start money, which is terrible for CS:GO, too low for CS:GO: the reason that is that way is because I was working with a config one time in 2001 on my listen server and I knew that you couldn't buy an AWP three rounds in a row and when I finally convinced CPL to raise the overtime money (which they had as $800), I wanted $16,000 and they said "No we don't want them to buy AWPs three rounds in a row, $10,000 will do it!" and that's how it got there today.
And the roundtime, Midway gets credit for fixing the bomb timer, Shaguar is responsible for getting the money system fixed. These are important things; I would say collectively as a group we got the round times lower, we went with data and stats to CPL and got them to lower it.
So what you're alluding to is how a lot of these rules were built up over time and are the way they are today?
Yeah I don't sit there and talk about it all the time, and yet people think Valve made these rules, but it's the community that made these rules.
So back into the present about the issues on the first day of broadcasting ELEAGUE to Twitch.
Oh, so we were on stream and one of the observer PC's got kicked from the server. I was on my "comms," and I have a great team around me but it's a lot going on at once, so I'm sitting there listening trying to figure out how to get the next graphic up and figure out who we want to interview from a team.
Then I just hear from the Director, "What just happened?" and I look up and I see the Steam home page and I thought the server crashed and I'm like "Go out to crowd!" and I hear "Go out to casters!" and finally I'm able to realise what's happening across all these monitors and I switch it to Observer Two. When I just looked up, my brain thought server crash and hence the confusion.
I bet you that happened about fifteen times at the MLG Major and nobody saw it because immediately you'd just hit number two. But it's not number two here it's "Roll C. Undercut C. Take Two" and then somebody else does it *laughs*.
Do you think the whole team learned from it?
Yeah we had a rehearsal day on the Friday before and I took one of the Georgia Tech players aside and told him "The fifth round your mouse is broken and you refuse to do anything until they get you a new mouse" and I didn't tell anybody and all of production had to sit there and roll with it. And they were really good with it: admins, everybody.
Did the observers struggle with Nuke spectating?
Heather [sapphiRe] was really nervous about it and she really worked hard at spectating Nuke. Even in the old days Nuke was hell.
Outside of that crash, what was your biggest challenge to date in terms of the production?
A lot of it is working with the TV environment, what they expect. They are more ADD than we are, they don't like sitting on desks.
But on second thought, the challenge right now is the marathon of ten weeks. Because doing one week events and maybe being in town for 8-10 days, you're pretty much done at the end of it. But going through ten weeks is going to be rough since we're already planning the next week by Thursday and Friday.
Turner want to show Counter-Strike the right way. To me it's now just getting that in-between of them wanting all those highlight packages and graphics and us incorporating that in the show smoothly. We improvise a lot, and they do too which is really nice. It's amazing how fast they work.
I'm sure there were plenty of other challenges such as when it came to dealing with talent and player reactions too?
That's another thing that we had to correct a bit. The first time I walked in here and saw the casters' setup and said "That won't work. We need two bigger monitors because the names are cut-off so we can't use that. They need their own PC's so they can check scores, money."
The players are so stoic a lot of the times that when you get that smile, that head-nod, you want to get it. And a lot of that we want to get live. *thinks* I don't know if I answered your question.
No you're good. But do you think some of those Turner executives who came by the studio are impressed with the product?
I don't think they would do it if they didn't think it was worthwhile. They're invested in it. One, it's smart, and two, I hope that they look at it in terms of bringing the audience to them for this growing sport.
They're definitely excited about it, I said this in a Tweet awhile ago, but every person I've met at Turner from the security guards to graphics people, editors, they're so excited about this. They want to do this. I would not be here if I did not think Turner were serious about showing CS the right way.
How many people do you think are involved on the whole project actively? Not including the players.
Just from the production side, sixteen to twenty people. Plus you have the engineers, the camera people, the stage hands, the sound, lights...If you said the number was over fifty, I'd probably agree.
I mean, there's a video team that does the highlights and then there's a whole other video team that does the CS 101 stuff!
As a closer, are you worried about the future of CS:GO?
I want teams to rise out of the ashes, I want open leagues, I want open tournaments. I don't want it to be like "Oh if you're good you better play on these sixteen teams or nobody will ever hear from you." Overall though, I would say it's in good hands
ELEAGUE action, both inside the studio and inside the game, continues this week with Group B already kicking off earlier today. If you wish to get a handle on some of the teams competing, you can read our preview here.
stich writes for HLTV.org and can be found on Twitter