From Asia to the world: the story of Bleh
We sat down with Sudhen "Bleh" Wahengbam and had a long conversation about his story and the struggle to break out into the international talent pool, all the while touching upon some of the topics concerning CS:GO as it was, is, and could be.
We talked to Bleh, who went down memory lane on the record with us in a long conversation, to soften the daunting daze of the off-season as we cross the days off the calendar until the CS:GO machine's engine begins to growl again.
Recounting his beginnings in gaming and esports, Bleh goes on to take us on a trip through LAN cafés in Bangalore, the struggles of casting to a near empty channel day in and day out, starting to work regional events after becoming "the Asian CS:GO expert," and breaking that stereotype to prove he can talk CS with the best of them at international events—something that saved him just in time as the grind was starting to wear him down.
Under the sweltering July sun in Spain, where DreamHack Open Valencia had just taken place, and after chatting about CS and music—particularly metal—for a while, we finally sat down with a recorder between us in a hotel lobby next to the Feria de Valencia, DreamHack Valencia's longtime venue, as a small army of sun-drunk crew, talent, and players made their way to and from the pool.
Let's start off with a bit of your background in gaming, where do you come from? What's your passion?
I started playing computer games when I was a small kid. The first game would be Prince of Persia, on one of my elder cousins' PC, as I didn't have a computer back then. After that, my parents bought me a console, so I started playing NES and SNES games—obviously all pirated stuff because it's back in India. The first games were like Contra and Mario and all that stuff. I played a lot of it. Fast-forwarding a few years to 1998, I discovered Quake. I think it was Quake III Arena, which had just come out. Also a bit of Unreal Tournament, a lot of single player games here and there, but I was more into the FPS genre.
I think it was in 2001 or 2002, when I went to one of these local LAN cafés, that I found out about this game Counter-Strike. I logged in and was asking myself, "What's the storyline? Why is nothing happening?" Then the café owner told me it was a multiplayer game and that I had to play with other people. At that point, I had never played a multiplayer game, so I was, like, "This is cool, let's do this!" It was Counter-Strike 1.3, that's when I got my first taste of CS. Loved it. Loved the MP5, had a lot of fun playing with a few guys, but it was very casual. No one there was any good at it.
Right, it's the LAN café days, you go with your buddies to have fun...
Yeah, I had no idea about the competitive scene at the time.
That's the thing, you jump in and you're all playing and shouting at each other across the café or whatever, without a clue of what you’re actually doing...
Yeah, shouting "What are you doing?!" to your mates, but there are no tactics, there's no nothing. I knew Dust, and random maps, like Assault and all that...
Assault at the LAN café... (both laughing)
Yeah, good times. So 2003 is when I graduated high school, and 1.6 and Condition Zero came out around then, so I had Condition Zero and I played the campaign. I didn't have internet at home, I got it very late and it wasn't that great, so I played the hell out of CS:CZ, all of the single-player missions and all that. I didn't know about the existence of Source. I really didn't follow it that much, I was young and pretty much just played whatever I could get my hands on.
In 2005, I went to college to study engineering. There, I met a friend, who is a close friend of mine to this day, and he asked me if I played video games. I was, like, "Yeah, man, Quake, UT, CS..." So we go to a local LAN café to play some 1vs1 and he completely wrecks me. I mean, completely destroys me. So I asked him how he’s even doing that, how he’s killing me like that, and this guy was like a semi-pro back then... That's when he introduced me to the competitive side of Counter-Strike and the world of esports. I don't even know if it was called esports back then, but it was the competitive side of video games. It was the GotFrag days, and that's when I started following HLTV as well. The first demo I watched was of HeatoN.
Ah, the SK.swe/NiP days...
Yeah, and I was, like, "OMG, what is this? How is he shooting 30 bullets and everything is proper?" That's when I started following Counter-Strike. Seeing Chinese and Korean teams like project_kr, wNv, and all of these guys made it a global phenomenon for me, and I was super into it, but I never considered esports as a viable career option.
Well, at that point it really wasn't viable for most.
There were some people, like my friend, who really wanted to go pro, but I told him, "Dude, look at it rationally, it's not feasible. Sure, you might win a few tournaments here and there, but you're not going to make money from it." I always had a very practical mindset, so I never looked at esports as a career option, but I did follow it.
Talking about esports in the early-mid 2000s is one thing, but then adding the fact that you were in India... How developed was it there?
It was fucking backward when it comes to esports. I wasn't that privy to the fact that there was a scene, but there was a scene. It was very LAN café based, though. It used to be in pockets in cities. Mumbai was the biggest center. There were teams in other places as well, but Mumbai had a lot of these cafés. It's the biggest city in the country, and the most developed, so they had a lot of players and teams coming out of there, a few of them even played in WCG qualifiers and a couple of them qualified. I don't really remember, but there were a couple teams like acid and ATE that made some finals. They were never that great, but they weren't bad considering the internet was terrible and they had no chance to really practice against other people, so they were never really able to develop.
Myself, I never played semi-professionally, I played a few tournaments here and there, but I never played professionally or semi-professionally, I never followed the Indian scene when it came to 1.6, although I was of course following the international scene and a little bit of the Asian scene. It was only in CS:GO that I started following the Asian scene more in-depth.
So what is it that got you into the Asian scene in CS:GO?
I was doing my master’s degree—which I never completed—in the USA at the time. This is 2010-2011, when the 1.6 scene was kind of dying out. I still played, but I never liked Source, I never got into Source. I was working part-time and studying, and then Valve announced that a new version of Counter-Strike was coming out, which I was really excited about.
When it came out, I realized I never really achieved anything in 1.6 because I never approached it from an extremely competitive mindset. I followed it, I was pretty OK at the game, but I never approached it, like, "Hey, maybe I can win some tournaments and play with a proper team." When CS:GO came out, I told myself, "OK, let's give it a shot. I have experience and I'm not that old, so let's give it a shot." When CS:GO came out I started playing it, but I quit after six months because it was complete shit (laughs). Then they made a few fixes here and there and I started getting back into it.
At that point I was back in India, working a 9-to-5, not really going anywhere, so I started playing CS again. I did that every day. That was my thing, for like three or four hours after I came home from work. I played matchmaking at first, and since it was a new game a lot of people from Southeast Asia and Asia were playing, so I met a lot of people and made a lot of friends, some of whom went on to be pros or semi-pros in the SEA scene. I also played a couple of LANs in Bangalore, where I started to get noticed by some of the ex-1.6 semi-pros and pros, and that's how I actually started networking—at least within the Indian pro scene. In turn, they were playing with a lot of other SEA people, scrimming with them, etc., so I got to know them as well.
So how did you transition from playing to casting? Or to the other things you do, because I know you're are doing stuff with SoStronk and so on...
SoStronk is much later down the line...
So where are you then, after playing. Where do you go from there?
I was working a 9-to-5 and I wanted to start streaming. I had a shitty internet line, but eventually, a really good line was brought to Bangalore and it reached my neighborhood. I took the line and started streaming, playing CS or single player games or whatever, and it wasn't really great. Like, no viewership, or whatever. I didn't really care about it, though, I was just trying to enjoy streaming and having some fun, but that's when ESEA launched in Asia. They had the ESEA Open league, and you have to remember that nothing was happening in Asia at the time. It's kind of dead right now, ESEA, but back then, that was the biggest thing. There was no Intermediate, no Invite, nothing, just ESEA Open. So people started playing and I used to, just for fun, during games, do those funny casts when someone was clutching or whatever. Some friends joked around saying I didn't sound that bad and that perhaps I should give casting a go.
Since I followed HLTV, I knew about the MSI Beat It tournament taking place right before the first Major. MSI Beat It was a tournament with a couple of Asian teams, BnTeT played there with nxl... I saw some of those teams were playing the ESEA league and no one was watching their games. Why was no one watching their games? So I asked myself, "Why try casting EU games, which are already being covered?" At that point, I didn't know anyone. I didn't know how to approach anyone, so I tried casting some of the Asian games to try and get some viewership and exposure.
Was there any motivation on your side to want to push the local scene, as well?
There was. I wanted the scene to be noticed. I wanted people to see that there is potential. I remembered wNv, I remembered TyLoo, the old TyLoo, I remembered project_kr, and WeMade FOX or redCode or whatever they were called over the years. It kind of sucked for me that you had your NiPs and fnatics and LDLCs and so on, but there were no Asian teams out there doing it. I wanted something to happen in Asia. I thought this would be a good thing to get them noticed, get some viewership, get sponsorships, whatever.
I wasn't paid for it, I wasn't approached by ESEA or anyone, I just did it on my own and over time I noticed that I was starting to enjoy it. I started doing it daily, two or three games... I'd even approach the orgs and say, "Hey, I'm going to be casting your match, do you mind putting it on your facebook page?"
And what year is this, 2013?
This is the beginning of 2014, like the first half of 2014. Right after ESEA launched in Southeast Asia. That's when I started casting these games. So I'd go to work, get back home around 6 or 7 in the afternoon, take a shower, have dinner, and then cast two or three games a day. I was not paid, it was just something I enjoyed doing, and it was all about the grind. I could feel like I was getting better at it. I was obviously a solo caster, although I did try to ask around, but I never found anyone to stick around, or anyone who enjoyed doing it, or whatever. So I ground it out for a while. I wasn't looking to get paid as I had my normal job.
It was near the end of 2014, and there was an ESWC qualifier in India which I participated in. I didn't get into the LAN, which was for the Top 4 teams, and I finished 5-6th or something like that. So I approached this company, Nodwin Gaming, who run ESL India. Basically, I asked them if I could go cast the LAN. No money, nothing, I just wanted to get some exposure, and to give it a shot to see how it goes. They were, like, "OK, send some VODs," so I sent them the VODs and they took me on.
I casted the Indian ESWC 2014 LAN on their channel from this small LAN café, and they offered me a job as the CS:GO product manager for India, as well as doing some broadcasting duties. Since they were partnered with ESL and had certain ESL rights, I thought to myself, "OK, that's a viable option..."
And it was an actual job.
Yeah, it was. So I went home for a few months and casted some online stuff and some show matches and small LANs in India and got a little bit of money. Nothing crazy. That's when the offer actually came, not during the LAN itself. I was bored of my job, anyway, so I took a two-month sabbatical to see if it would work. If not, I could go back to my old job or try something else. I had to consider it for a while because I had to move from Bangalore to New Delhi, which is a pretty extreme place when it comes to weather. It goes up to, like, 45ºC or 50ºC, and I'm not used to that kind of heat. But I took the offer, joined them, and that's where things really took off to a certain degree.
After I joined, I continued doing my ESEA casts and whatnot, I did the Indian stream for ESL One Katowice 2015, which we had the rights to, so they asked me to cast it. It was like an Indianized English version, with not many viewers, but whatever.
The second you said you casted a Major in an Indian channel I was curious to know about the viewership.
It was barely anything, except, if you remember, it was chaotic because there were many simultaneous games going on at the same time. I had a couple of matches in which the viewership peaked at like 3,000 or 4,000 because there were three matches simultaneously and there were only two official streams, and even though it was an Indian stream, it was still in English.
Around the same time, right before I left ESL to join SoStronk, who offered me a position as head of broadcasting, where I would only have to work in broadcasting whereas in ESL I had to juggle a lot of things, the ESL One Cologne 2015 qualifiers were going on in Malaysia. Leigh “Deman” Smith and Jason Kaplan were going to cast, and ESL India sent me along to cast with them. That's the tournament I met SPUNJ at. There was an Indian team, NeckBreak, that got 16-0'd by Renegades. QeeYou, MVP.karnal, a Korean team with XigN and HSK, skyred from Vietnam, who had crazyguy, they were all there... In the end, it was Renegades and Immunity who qualified. Anyway, that was my first international LAN before leaving ESL.
Tell me a bit about SoStronk. Working in Asia a lot of the greater public may not know what the company does and what you do in it.
SoStronk is a company that was started by a couple of guys who wanted to make a platform like ESEA, but with newer stuff. At that time they were running events and tournaments and trying to help the Indian scene. They wanted to be similar to ESEA and FACEIT.
And the company works in India, all of Asia, or?
Well, the company is based in India, but it covers all of Asia. They are also looking to branch out, eventually, but Asia being such a tricky market...
Talking about the Asian market, that's something I wanted to get into. How do you make such a large geographical area viable as a region?
Well, it's almost impossible. That's the magic ticket. If anyone figures it out, they got it made. The same thing that happens with teams, it also affects the system, it affects everything. When you talk about Vietnam, they have their own tiny scene, when you talk about the Singaporeans, they have their own thing, when you talk about Korea, China, all of these guys... And it's also the language. There is no common language. English? Sure, the Singaporeans can speak it. Indonesians? Possibly. Koreans? Chinese? Vietnamese? Thai? They can barely speak it. How do you start interacting with each other? Each scene is insulated and there is no cohesion.
One, there is no infrastructure. The internet lines, for example, even though the internet has progressed a lot when it comes to speed, the routing is still terrible. Let's say you're living in Singapore, and you usually have 5 ping to a certain server, some random days you'll have 200 ping because some routing got messed up. All of the underground cables and the routing is handled by so many different companies with no common understanding that it can all change randomly, which is always an issue.
Two, the size of the continent. You're talking about the Middle East to Japan and China, and then you have the Australians, to a certain degree. It's very hard to bring everyone under the same umbrella, right? We just say Asia, generally, but to be very honest, if Asian CS were a thing, I don't think it would be called Asian CS. It would be broken down. You would say Chinese CS, or Australian CS, or SEA CS, or Indian CS, or Middle Eastern CS, but because the scene isn't good, and there are no good teams coming out of it, people just say Asian CS, but it's impossible, it's actually impossible to have one single style of Asian CS come about. It's just so massive, with so many language issues, infrastructural issues...
And purely geographical...
Yeah, it's massive. It's impossible. But coming back to your question earlier, SoStronk is basically a FACEIT/ESEA server provider with their own matchmaking system and tournament hosting. I started working as a broadcaster, but then I moved more into building the product, so I started getting more involved in the business side of things.
Is this something you enjoy? Is it something you want to be involved in or would you rather stay as just a broadcaster?
That's the thing, I don't know. I really enjoy building the product, it's a challenge. Let's be honest, I never thought I'd be a broadcaster, I never thought that would be something I would spend the rest of my life doing. I don't even know now... I love doing it, now. It's cool and everything, but I actually do enjoy building a product with these guys. They're a very smart and dedicated bunch of people. They worked with PGL for three of the Asian Minors, and they also helped host the qualifiers for the Krakow Major and all of that.
To be honest, I think the SoStronk guys have the best understanding of the Asian market right now, as far as challenges and issues go. Here's the thing, even the Chinese guys haven't figured it out, you have 5Eplay and all of these guys, which sure, it may work in China, but it has failed miserably in the rest of Asia. FACEIT also has its issues. Sure, it's the best known right now, but it suffers. It's very fractured, you have people who play on FACEIT and people who play on SoStronk and people on 5Eplay in China and whatnot, so it's very challenging.
You talk about Asian CS:GO and you hear about all these people trying to get into China, but you can't get into China because of all of these government regulations and so on. A lot of challenges in Asia affect not only the scene itself, like teams coming out and winning events and so on, but they also affect companies like us and everything surrounding the scene.
Well it says something that CS:GO was only released officially in China last year, right?
Well, that's the thing, there was a lot of hype behind that, but everyone who is playing CS:GO was already playing CS:GO. They weren't official Chinese copies, but everyone could buy it and have it and play on third-party platforms like 5Eplay.
So did it really not change much?
Sure, they pushed it a lot, they put a lot of money into it and all that... I don't know, I don't have the exact numbers, but the guys who were already playing were just, like, "OK, big deal..." On the bright side, having tournaments like the CS:GO Asia Championship, which happened this year, in which you have top tier teams coming to play, I think that's going to help more down the line. It brings awareness and lets the kids see their heroes playing in their country. That may be more beneficial. But that entire official CS:GO launch in China? Nothing really came of it. We haven't seen some crazy prodigy come out or some crazy spike in players...
Do you think it may have happened a bit too recently to see that?
I think a big problem is that it coincided with the rise of PUBG in China. It's almost a meme, right now, Chinese players are everywhere in PUBG. I think people expected a bit too much from that launch, to be honest.
Switching gears, tell me a bit about your beginnings in the international circuit, how did you get in?
The first thing would be when IEM Taipei was announced, which was the Asian qualifier for the IEM Katowice 2016 Major. I dropped an email to ESL saying that I know the Asian teams well. I sent some of my VODs and told them that I would like to be a part of it. Since I had worked with them six months back for the ESL One Cologne 2015 qualifier, they replied letting me know I was in. I arrived literally four hours after the event had started because it had taken too long for me to get my visa, a never-ending nightmare for me. That's actually one of my biggest challenges, my passport not being very strong...
Yeah, we can talk about visas in a minute...
So yeah, I got to Taipei, where the teams weren't the greatest. You had Renegades, who were good, although TheMongolz were the ones who won in the end, and then there was TyLoo, who weren't that great at the time, ViCi, and Chiefs, etc. But there was Tier 1 talent. It was Anders, Semmler, Pansy, Vendetta, ddk, and moses. I got to meet them, a really friendly bunch of people. This was like the original talent crew for CS, right? And I built a pretty good rapport with them.
I think that was my biggest breakout event because now I had proof that I could do it, I had the VODs. It's funny that they brought me on as an analyst, though, because actually what I was most comfortable with was commentating, which is what I did in my day-to-day. But it did make sense to bring me on as an Asian expert due to all of those years working the Asian scene. It was like they didn’t want to risk me doing play-by-play because they didn’t really know how I sounded yet and they had people like Anders and Semmler.
And they didn't know the Asian teams as well as you did, so there you go.
Exactly, that was my thing. I was the first guy to really cover Asian CS before crazyguy and Skyred, before TyLoo, before TheMongolz, before all of these guys. That was my in, that got me the tiny little niche thing, I was the de-facto Asian CS expert. I met all of this wonderful talent, and that was my break. It took time, but eventually, I worked with PGL and StarLadder and all of those guys. I know as a matter of fact that my name was brought up by this talent for me to do Asian events or events a few Asian teams were attending. Sometimes, the organizers said no, but it all boiled down to the talent I met in Taipei pitching me, and that's how I got to where I am right now.
Did the tournament organizers listen to the talent trying to plug you, most of the time?
I don't really know. The biggest problem for me would be the fact that I was pitched as the Asian expert, and there really aren't that many Asian events happening, right? Even PGL, after Taipei, they did the next two Minors and didn’t call me. So it was PGL and EGG, in Malaysia, and the following one was PGL with KeSPA, in Korea.
Oooooh, yeah... I remember that was a controversial one because of the Korean slot.
Yeah, so Sadokist and HenryG went to cast the one in Korea, the really long one, and the other one was James and ddk. I did email PGL and so on, but they never really got back to me. Funnily enough, SoStronk was actually working with them when it comes to the actual execution of the event. I don't know, they probably didn't know me, or weren't confident in me, or whatever. During that time, there was a very long dry spell in which I didn't do any known gigs. There was Taipei and then PGL called me for the qualifiers to the Krakow Major, which was way later.
So, meanwhile, you were just doing your thing at SoStronk?
I also casted, like, every local event.
So you were still grinding.
Yeah, I was still grinding. I casted the ESL India Premiership, at times with like two or three viewers in the chat, but I was, like, "I don't give a damn’, I'm going to grind it out." So I casted all of the Indian games. I kind of stopped doing the ESEA Open thing, but I did cast some Asian events here or there, especially the ones SoStronk worked with, so I still casted a lot of Asian CS, but it was always online.
Right, and you wanted to do LAN, and you wanted to do bigger things.
Yeah, I actually watch more Tier 1 CS than local CS even though I have the local knowledge. So when Krakow happened with natu and all of these guys and PGL wanted to bring me on board I was, like, "Fucking finally!" So I went there, had a good time, came back, and just waited patiently for the next Asian Minor. For TOs, bringing me on for other events didn’t make sense because they didn't know how good my knowledge about other scenes like NA or EU was, right?
And flying you out, I imagine, isn't cheap.
Right, flying me out. It's money, at the end of the day.
Would you move?
If the opportunity were to present itself? Yeah, I would. But then again, moving with no plan in mind is risky. Let's say I get a two-month-long league and they want me to stay for the duration of that, I'd definitely do it. No problem. But back then it was just the Asian events, the Asian Minors. "Got a couple of Asian teams? Let's get Bleh." The next big thing would be when StarLadder hired me for the StarLadder invitational in Shanghai last year, in November, where VP and Renegades played.
Yeah, and where young sergej got his first international LAN experience.
Yes, that's the one. That was the first time that I was invited to an event where, yeah, there were Asian teams, they could have gotten me for TyLoo and so on, but at the same time, the majority of teams were from the rest of the world. It was the first time I was analyzing and being on the desk talking about, for example, VP, who were just coming out of their second place run at EPICENTER... I was excited about that! It was like my second break, so to speak.
Then, there was silence. Again. The ELEAGUE Major happened, and I was disappointed for not being called to do the Asia Minor. But then again, it was that invite only Asian Minor, with a lot of issues...
Yeah, it was quite a disappointing one.
I was really disappointed that all other Minors had qualifiers. Minors are meant to be the place to find the odd teams that make it through, so if you only invite teams of which, like, four are Australian, something is wrong. Yeah, it was a bad time. I was a little miffed about it.
As you should be, though, right?
There's a fine line where I really want to fight for the scene, but at the same time, some of the TOs might get pissed off at me about it and all of that.
Well, you have to be political, but at the same time you have to fight for the place you’ve earned.
I tried to do the balancing act, right? And many of these Asian guys look up to me and are, like, "Yo, Bleh, champion our cause!" And I try my best. So after StarLadder, I was kind of dry, but then in 2018 I started to get a lot of gigs—that was a surprise for me. SoStronk works with a lot of organizers, right? We work with ESL India and PGL, but we also do all of the DreamHack Masters qualifiers, so all of the Asian qualifiers have been casted by me.Then I got a call from StarLadder, again, for me to go to Bets.net with Fragsters, North, HellRaisers, and all of those guys.
So very similar to a DreamHack Open.
Yes, very much so, and with no Asian teams. That was my first EU event. For me, that meant breaking past the stereotype of being the Asian expert. That was a place I really wanted to get to, to break out of the niche, that moment I can look back on and say I wasn't just the Asian expert, but I was brought on because I can actually talk Counter-Strike.
At this point, they liked what you did at the Shanghai Invitational and they said, "OK, he's in the pool of people we can take." Great. Do you know why you were asked to join? Were other casters unavailable or did they just believe you were good, or?
I think it's because it was a smaller event, and there may have been some conflicting schedules, I can't really remember. But they invited me to two events, the Chongqing Invitational, which I couldn't take because I was taking my first vacation in four years, so I was like, "I would love to, but nope," and then they offered me to go to Bets.net, which I took immediately. I went there, had a great time, HellRaisers pulled off the win... Good stuff. Great stuff. Got back home, and that's when I got Marc Winther, nix0n, from DreamHack, asking if I wanted to cast the DreamHack Masters Marseille EU closed qualifiers with Vince.
And you were casting this from home, right?
So you're staying up at all hours of the night.
Yeah, so the Asian qualifiers weren't a biggie because we were also running them, but the EU qualifier was all one day. I had met Vince at a Minor and I really liked him. I had the opportunity to cast a couple of matches with him there, so I casted the EU qualifier and immediately after that I was asked to be a part of DreamHack Open Tours. That was the first time DreamHack approached me for an actual LAN event. I don't know why they did it, if it was because of casting the EU event with Vince or what.
I actually got Vince to cast the Asian closed qualifiers with me, as well, and we hit a pretty good number of viewers, like 20,000 or something like that. That was the qualifier that TyLoo won over Tainted Minds. So that happened, and then I was asked to do DreamHack, which was awesome. Bets.net is cool and all, but this was a DreamHack Open event. Yes, it's not a Masters, but, you know, I was getting into the grind.
Well, you have to start somewhere.
Exactly, you have to start somewhere! I went to the Open, came back, and again I didn't know what was on the horizon next. I was actually planning on stopping casting this year...
Yeah, at the beginning of the year, because I had been grinding for a while...
Were you thinking this before you broke out?
Yeah, which happened in April, to be honest. I think it was February or March when I was like...
So getting these gigs, is that making you rethink everything?
Mmmh... I'm cautiously optimistic, I'd say.
Well, in the case that you do keep getting called out to do these gigs. Would you keep casting, or do you still want to quit?
No, I've definitely changed my mind.
So you were grinding and felt like it wasn't going anywhere?
You get frustrated.
You felt burnt out, like you weren’t going anywhere...
It was, like, I had been doing it for a while and I wanted to bring it to the next level. When you're not given the opportunity, and when you struggle to find the opportunity...
You struggle to find motivation, so you're not giving it all you can, and you're not becoming better.
Yeah, and even after Tours... I was feeling a little motivated, but I was still, like, "OK, what's next?" I was very cynical about it, and that's when I got like three events in a row. They didn't take me to DreamHack Summer, and I'm very critical of my work, so I was thinking maybe I hadn't done a great job or something. Then Marc asked me to do Valencia and I immediately said yes. Immediately. Fuck yeah. I was pretty happy about them wanting me back, and that was immediately followed by the Asia Minor. FACEIT approached me and asked me to do it, which, honestly, I kind of expected. I'm not trying to be egotistical or anything, but the Asian Minor is the one thing which I'm pretty sure is a guarantee, I did it with ESL, with PGL, like come on guys...
That's that one thing you always have, right?
Yeah, exactly (laughs).
After like two-and-a-half years since working at ESL, they approached me for IEM Shanghai, and that was cool. These three literally happened back-to-back, and if you look at it, I've had more events this year, five, than in my entire career.
Well, that's the thing, now your name is in the hat, right? People first start to say, "Oh, Bleh. He's good for Asia Minors." Then, it's "He can do events with Asian teams,” then “He can do Tier 2 events…” and so on.
Right, and then since I had casted the qualifiers for Marseille with Vince, I was approached to cast the B stream with him, which to me, to this date, even though it was a reward cast, was the biggest event I've ever casted. That was literally all Tier 1 teams, so I was super pumped for that.
Then the whole Sadokist incident happened, and Vince got to go to the event. Unfortunate circumstances, but I'm very happy he got to go to the event, so I casted with Hugo. I hadn't casted with him before, but I had worked with him at Bets.net and StarLadder in Shanghai, so that was also a big thing for me, the fact that I was able to showcase myself. Like, sure, I feel I'm good at something, but it's hard to showcase it, so getting to cast DreamHack Masters Marseille... I obviously enjoy doing the desk a lot, as well, but it's not something I set out to do.
Okay, so do you prefer casting to desk work?
I prefer casting, to be honest. I love casting.
But you're getting all the desk work.
Yeah, and I'll do it! I enjoy it, don't get me wrong. I think it's a similar situation to Machine, how he loves to cast, but he's "stuck" because "unfortunately" he's the best host we have in esports, right? (we both laugh). I'd just be happy to get to half of his level on the desk. As far as analysis, I like doing it. I love talking Counter-Strike, and I've had opportunities to work with really good hosts and analysts, but casting is my love. I enjoy the wordplay, the speed, the hype, everything.
The funny thing is, apart from the international gigs, when it comes down to local Asian events, or Indian events, I'm the play-by-play caster, I'm not an analyst. But hey, I get to do two things, and I think that's good for me. I get more opportunities that way. The B stream in Marseille was something I really enjoyed because it was my opportunity to show that I can cast, as well, that I'm a chameleon and that I'm decently accomplished at it.
At this point, we had finished our drinks and decided to get refills before walking outside into the Spanish heat for a short break. After the reprise, we slowly shifted from Bleh's story to more broad topics of interest surrounding the game.
A little while ago we were talking about you living in India and having to fly out from there, and the classic Asian problem...
Visas, right? But, honestly, I've actually never had a visa denied. The problem is that there are very few countries where events happen that I can get into without needing a visa. Luckily enough, I've been able to get my visas… well, not necessarily on time, because, for example, I landed in Taipei for IEM, put on a jacket, ran to the venue, and two Bo1s had already happened, so I jumped in and Anders and Semmler and all of them didn't know who the hell I was. It was, like, "Hey, I'm the other analyst supposed to be here, sorry I'm late..."
It also happened at the PGL Krakow Minor, where I didn't make day 1. I told PGL to cancel my tickets, so they canceled my tickets, but then I got the visa the day before the event started. Of course, it takes 24 hours to travel, but SoStronk came to the rescue—and this is why I love working for them—, they told me to go for it and covered the costs of getting me a new ticket.
That's pretty cool... Not many employers would do something like that.
Yeah, it’s fucking amazing. I got there a day late, but I still had three days at the event, which happened at the PGL studio in Bucharest. So I've had late visas happen, but as I travel more, it gets easier to get more long-term visas. For example, when I went to Tours it was on a one-month, single-entry visa. The second time I applied for a Schengen visa, it was for Valencia. Again, it was one month only, but this time it was multi-entry. I'm hoping that next time I can push it to one-year, multi-entry. That would sort a lot of my issues out.
But yeah, it's an issue, so like you said, maybe shifting over to EU for a while might be beneficial. I am, of course, open to it, but then again, I can't risk shifting down my work at home with no clear plan in mind. When we talk about Tier 1 talent, they have their whole year planned out. We don't, Tier 2 guys, myself included, we don't know where we're going to be.
You're more like journeymen, in that aspect.
Yeah, and at my age... Well, I wouldn't say at my age... I'm still okay with taking risks, but this is something that, if it breaks, could come and kick me in the back, so I want to play it a little safe. But if, say, a league happens, or I have seven or eight events planned during several weeks or months, I'm up for it.
Is this a dream? Did you grind to get this? Is that what you were “always” hoping for?
Yeah, obviously. I would have loved for it to happen a while back. I'll be honest, I tried diversifying into other esports titles. For instance, I thought Overwatch would be a thing. I played the game, I tried to be in touch with the game, but I realized that casting, at least for me, is about passion—and I'm only passionate about Counter-Strike. I like Quake, I've always enjoyed Quake. The FPS genre, in general. But could I do it? If I applied myself, probably, but I just want to reach a point that when I look back in a few years, I can say I got somewhere in something I loved. Something I love. Something that I have followed for more than half of my life, now. I really want to get there, it's kind of a personal thing.
I would have loved for it to happen a year or two back, but hey, I don't think it's ever too late, and if things click and things work out and more events hire me... The rough part is that Counter-Strike is blessed with so much good talent. You have the Tier 1 guys, and yeah, we may have Semmler leave, but if you look at the Tier 2 guys, I hold them in very high regard, as well.
You talk about the likes of Harry, Hugo, and rizc, there are so many good casters and analysts. Former players like seangares, n0thing, and Maniac, ex-pros who are very charismatic. Counter-Strike is blessed with players that are very charismatic. I mean, we break the mould. I feel like Counter-Strike players are the rockstars of esports.
I agree with that, and I think what allows the talent to rise is the open circuit.
I think that's really important for the talent. You look at other titles, and we chatted about this a bit before starting the interview, if you go to certain games, it's very closed off because the IP owner controls everything...
And they want to play it safe!
Yeah, exactly. But in CS there's this ability to come out of the woodworks and make yourself. Are you a proponent of the open circuit?
Totally, I think that's the beauty of Counter-Strike. I know a lot of people would be against that and would argue that we've reached a state where we need to have everything regulated and only one or two leagues or Valve taking control and whatnot, which makes sense looking at the bigger picture...
I mean, you want a proper circuit, and the best teams to play at the top, with no conflicts and so on, and that's great, that's the ideal world, but let's not forget that Counter-Strike is one of the foundational esports and that it grew because of those tiny LAN parties and the small events here and there, and you get this kid in a LAN somewhere, destroying everyone, and you pick him up hoping he might end up being the next big thing.
Thinking from the talent's perspective, and I'm not Tier 1—I haven't casted anything close to a Major or a premier event or even a Pro League or anything like that—, but I am kind of making my name right now, and it’s thanks to the open circuit, so selfishly...
I don't even think it's selfish...
I think it really helps a lot of talent, a lot of players, a lot of content creators, and it makes the ecosystem of Counter-Strike be what it is, because in other esports I kind of feel like the endemic organizations, the grassroots people who are trying to make things happen, they die out.
They get squashed.
They get aborted, great band by the way, because everything is too controlled. I don't think that, being from India, I could have made it in any other esport. Or I wouldn't have made it to where I am right now, at least.
I think one of the great ideas that would make Counter-Strike have the stability of the closed circuit with the open circuit working concurrently, would be having all of the big tournaments give points to help teams qualify for the Majors.
That could work. I think that concept could trickle down from DOTA2, what they do with the Majors. The downside of that, though, is that top teams would most likely not attend the tournaments that don't have points, and the thing about Counter-Strike is that it has let so many tournaments rise up from obscurity... ESL, PGL, DreamHack, ELEAGUE, they got to where they are because they chose Counter-Strike as one of their foundational games, so they can get the top teams to come out.
If you have this Major circuit thing going on, the big guys have it going good for them, but the non-established TOs would struggle to get the top teams and they would probably get stuck with the Tier 2 teams, making it hard for them to entice top tier teams to come in. They'd just say, "We're only going to play these 10 events a year because they lead to the Major," and yes, it's a clean system, but it removes the opportunity for new TOs, and in turn for newer talent, to rise up, so it's kind of a Catch-22 scenario.
I see where you're coming from.
Everyone talks about it, we want to make it more linear and more proper for the pros, and we're getting to that level.
You could have it like in Tennis, perhaps, your ATP500, ATP1000, etc.
Right, where you grind from the bottom to the top. But who takes care of that? Who handles that? Is it a TO? Is it Valve? For example, take the CS:GO Asia Championship, it had EnVyUs and NiP and VP, but it also had Na`Vi. Considering how stacked the scene is right now, and that the tournament isn't quite Tier 1. Would you see a Na`Vi going there if they didn’t win points?
They wouldn't earn points, but they could still get practice if they need it, like G2 did in Valencia, or North bringing on mixwell to try the whole English roster thing... Are there that many premier tournaments that they wouldn’t want to go to smaller ones?
Well, there are quite a lot of tournaments, ESL Ones, Pro League Finals, IEMs, ELEAGUE, StarLadder, DreamHack Masters, just that is like 14 tournaments a year... I only see it working if smaller tournaments gave some points.
So the idea of a tiered points system could work. Medium Events give fewer points and Big Events give more points.
Yeah, that's fine, my main thing is just to not cut out the unknowns, the new organizers, if they can prove themselves someway, they should be a part of it.
Exactly, let the grassroots still be a part of it because that’s what made CS beautiful in the first place. I wanted to talk about legacy. I believe one of the reasons certain areas of the world, like Sweden or France or Denmark, are good, is because they have a legacy, they have people handing the batton to the newer generation, and the new players look to the people before them for guidance.
In the casting world, you're the first or one of the first to spring out of a very peripheral country. Looking at all the desks, the talent mostly comes from a very reduced region. Do you think being the first caster from a peripheral country, you could somehow be an inspiration to others?
I'll talk about two things very quickly. One is the legacy of players. I touched upon this a few days back when I was talking to someone about how Asian CS:GO has lost a generation. From 2010 to 2014, all of the old pros from wNv and TyLoo, the Chinese guys, and the Koreans, solo & co., they disappeared from the scene. That means there was no transfer of knowledge. There was nothing, unlike in the EU and in NA. More in EU than NA, but at least NA had the infrastructure. Asia had no infrastructure and no one to tell anyone how Counter-Strike was played and how it has evolved, so CS:GO in Asia is literally starting from scratch, and that is why it's so backward compared to the rest of the world.
As far as casting goes, a legacy is something I really want to leave behind, but it's hard. I kind of sometimes feel like I was in the right place at the right time. I have the neutral accent, and I'll be very honest about it, I think having the neutral accent allows international TOs to think that it's not going to be too jarring, that when I speak I can speak to everyone and not just one region, which is something that I have going my way. The other thing is that I targeted a scene which no one else targeted. Yes, it led to me being pigeonholed for two or three years, the majority of my time casting...
And you are now trying to get out.
But that was my in. That was my in to these events. I was far away, I had no contacts, I literally started from scratch, and I got here thanks to being the Asian expert, which, ironically, I'm now trying to break out of to do more mainstream analysis and casting. Generally speaking, though, I would like to leave a legacy, because many people have approached me saying, "Hey, I want to get into casting," and so on, but the biggest problem in Asia, and in India, is the fact that a lot of people get into it because they want the glamour, the glitz, and the money. I did it because I like doing it, I didn't see a dime for a year and I didn't give a damn’, because I liked it. For me, this was something that I enjoyed doing, something that was apart from my 9-to-5 job. It was about the love of the game, and if you don't love the game and just get into it for the money, it's going to be hard because there are so many moments when you feel like giving up. But I didn't, because it wasn't about the money, it was about the enjoyment.
Well, yeah, you just said you were planning on giving up on it before you started getting these gigs, so...
Yeah, and that was after almost three years going full-time until I hit a plateau in which nothing was really happening, but I still persevered, and I still love it. But I know for a fact that a lot of people are just getting into it for the money would be, like, "Oh, I'm casting shitty online CS for a year, I don't want to do this, I want to be on the big stage." That's not the mentality that will get you anywhere, and I've seen it in a lot of the guys who have approached me. But there are opportunities, just look at the new breed of casters right here in the DreamHack Open circuit...
What I like about DreamHack is that they don't just give opportunities to Tier 2 teams to make a mark, but also allow the talent to showcase what they've got. It's not like there aren't opportunities, but you're going to have to grind it out and put your name out there, and there's no replacement for hard work, for staying up until 3AM casting for 10 people... But every cast is an experience. Every cast is you learning. I think the grind is what most people are not ready to handle, but if they can... I'm not saying it's going to be easy, but it can happen.
I think this is the perfect place to end it.
I would actually like to give some shoutouts!
Right on, go for it.
Shoutouts to SoStronk for giving me the cushion to try and get where I am right now. If I were working a 9-to-5 job it would be very hard for me to take a random week off for a Counter-Strike event, but they have always had my back and I think they're doing a phenomenal job trying to make things happen in the Asian scene.
Second shoutout is to Jason "moses" O'Toole and Auguste "Semmler" Massonat, because they always tried to give me opportunities and tried to help me get hired at events. Everyone else in the talent scene as well, they’re great people. Anders, ddk, everyone. Even the new guys, they've always been trying to help me out because they recognize it hasn't been easy for me. So yeah, shoutouts to everyone in the CS:GO talent family, they are too many to name right now, but you know who you are.
Finally, thanks to you for this interview. I'm HLTV confirmed now!