moses: "What people don't see is that there are other parties [other than BLAST and ESL] that are also trying to sign teams to exclusivity" (Part 1)
In the first of a two-part interview, Jason "moses" O'Toole talks about exclusivity and its possible effects on the life of talent and the quality of broadcasts.
We sat down with the American commentator on the afternoon of one of the group stage days of DreamHack Masters Malmö, which took place over the last week. But it wasn't the Swedish tournament that the 32-year-old discussed as we instead focused on the current state of affairs as Counter-Strike talent before moving on to the topic of exclusivity.
With rumors flying around about various tournament organizers pushing for exclusivity, we asked moses about his point of view on the subject and discussed how its effects on the scene could change the lives of talent, as well as the quality of broadcasts and the talent's influence over them.
It's been about two years since you transitioned fully into casting, partnering up with Anders. What was the goal when that happened and have you achieved that? You've remained at the top of the talent, casted Major finals and everything else you could have. Is there anything else that you would like to achieve in this job?
The way I look at the job is: we're trying to create a sport here. That's the end goal. And we still haven't gotten over that hump where I feel like we have accomplished that. When I partnered up with Anders to cast, there wasn't any specific goal for us two in mind. Just in general, everyone in the talent team has that goal of elevating Counter-Strike to be one of the first games that can actually be called a true sport in that sense and build up a whole ecosystem around it. Obviously, Counter-Strike is very unique when you compare it to some of the other games like Dota, League of Legends, and Overwatch, and all that kind of stuff.
It's hard at the moment because we are essentially just mercenaries. We go from event to event and we don't really have any input on how the show flows. We can come up with suggestions at the time, but in terms of actually changing something — we have so many ideas we'd like to implement, but just by the nature of being a mercenary you're not in the conversations, the production meetings leading up to the event, able to actually input ideas a week ahead of time, two weeks ahead of time. That's been frustrating and I think that's the next goal, being able to find ways to have more direct impact on how production and how broadcast can change to bring in different elements that can either increase the entertainment, increase the amount of analysis and the effectiveness of the analysis. I think that's the next step, being able to use our experience over the last five years of doing every event to be able to help in that fashion.
Do you think the only way for that to happen, for you to have more input, would be to stop being freelance and commit to specific broadcast, specific organizers?
That's one way. It's not for a lack of trying, we've been trying as freelancers to have that, so maybe yeah, maybe that is the answer, to go exclusive or lean in one direction. Certainly, I think the big thing would be just in general cutting down the number of events we can do, because, even if it's not for a broadcast, one of my biggest regrets is that I've never been able to turn that "Greatest Games" video into a full-blown series. Even if it's not that series, just some kind of content. We're so fortunate in Counter-Strike that we have a 20-year history of this game and we still have players like pasha, NEO, TaZ, who have been playing until just recently, we've got guys like FalleN, who go back 10 years, we've got f0rest and GeT_RiGhT, who just ended 10.5 years of playing together, there's so much history.
I find it almost criminal, the way that in Counter-Strike we have failed to tell those stories and emphasize those stories and bring some of those stories to the public light. There are some very cool stories out there that haven't been told, some very cool player backgrounds that should get out there. As good as Counter-Strike has done at building up the structure and this whole scene around it, one of the areas which we could be so much better at is helping players build up their brand. That's the big thing, fans like to identify with players first, and then maybe you go to a team after that, but you build those stories so people can identify with them. The whole Plopski thing that is coming out now, he was here three years ago, cheering on NiP, cheering on his idols, and now he's playing next to them. Those are the things that help build up the player brands that bring more value to the players, that can bring more value to the tournaments, to the different leagues that are around, and it's been a massive failure, I think, over the past five years that we haven't done enough of that.
One of the other things with commentary that we have if you look across all the TOs, and this isn't necessarily a fault of the TOs — it is a little bit but it's also a fault of ours in a way —, none of our shows feel like they've changed in the last three years, everyone's using the same format. Desk, casters, game, break at halftime, game, back to desk, it's the same format and we haven't been able to change things up. That's the big thing with talent life, at times, especially if you do four events in a row with the same teams, the same format, the same broadcast, it gets a little bit monotonous and you look for ways to mix it up, there are so many times you can hype up the first match of a group stage. It's especially rough on analysts. Having been an analyst, those are the guys that I feel for the most, just having to go on the desk and introduce the same five players and everything in the same fashion. That's where I think we can probably do the most adaption, the most change to a broadcast, to help those guys, whether it's to give them more tools to use to analyze, or whether it's to create segments that are a bit more focused on some point that can allow them to make the one defining point of what this matchup is, what this matchup is going to decide.
A few years ago there was a need of saying yes to everything in order to stay relevant and make sure you had a future as talent. Do you think that is still the case or has that changed now and you can be a bit more picky about what you do?
You can definitely be more picky, but only to an extent. We can be more picky now because we still do every event throughout the year, so we have the money to be able to turn down an event. Time is becoming more and more valuable, wanting to be home is becoming more and more valuable, so we can be pickier in that regard. Personally, when I started doing all this on the freelance circuit there was kind of a sense of doing everything you could and, at some point, there would be a tournament organizer that would win, and that was when you were going to get picked up by them. Do every event you can, make as much money as you can on the freelance circuit, where there is a higher ceiling for money as a freelancer, and then eventually you'll get signed to a TO and be exclusive again. That was always my idea, a year or two as a freelancer and then maybe it'd be back to ESL, or back to DreamHack, or whatever organizer won, like ELEAGUE if they had stuck around and actually had a little bit more influence in the scene. But that never happened, so now we've been stuck in this cycle of having to do every single event. It's fun, it's just a lot.
Speaking of exclusive leagues and reports of potentially multiple entering the space in 2020, what do you make of that situation and how do you think it's going to affect talent? Could we see them commit to specific organizers? Or do you think Valve's stance against exclusivity has been effective in stopping the push for it?
In terms of exclusive leagues, a lot of the exclusivity conversation around leagues is a bit overblown. It's very strange, seeing how our community reacts to the word "exclusivity." As soon as that's in a headline, everyone loses their f**king minds like the sky is falling. I agree, Counter-Strike is not a game that is going to be fit for an exclusive calendar because of the way that we like [to watch it] and the cool events throughout multiple different organizers. But, if we're so afraid of that word, we can never have the conversation about what kind of benefits exclusivity brings, or what kind of benefits maybe not even full exclusivity, but some kind of loyalty or priority to a league or division can bring. That's the conversation that needs to be started having. I can't really speak for any of the other guys, but I know that I made a little bit more of a push this year to be more vocal about how much help the TOs actually do need. I think the only thing that's going to be more disastrous than potentially going exclusive to one tournament organizer is all the tournament organizers just saying "we can't make any money" and then they all pull out and we're back to ground zero. I think that would be a disaster, that would be way worse than just saying "let's all get behind one league and see what happens."
In terms of talent, I'm going to be honest with you, as I get older, at 32 years old, I can feel the toll on my body of what all this traveling is doing. It's unhealthy eating in airports, it's unhealthy working a 14-hour broadcast and then trying to find food, ordering a pizza because you get done at midnight, that's just not a healthy lifestyle. And then I want to be home, I want to be with my girlfriend, with my family, my brother and his kids, and all that kind of stuff. Just in general, this is not a lifestyle that is sustainable for too much longer. For me, I would love an opportunity like that to pop up where it would be realistic in terms of what it can provide me, the kind of work, the kind of career opportunities, the money. The stability is the biggest thing; instead of being signed to an event two weeks before it begins, knowing what my year is going to look like so I can plan on going to the weddings I've missed over the past three years, being at the birthdays or anniversaries, whatever it might be. I think everyone is going to get there at some point depending on where they are in life, that's just the reality we're facing.
The Valve thing is tough. I'm not a part of those conversations, I don't have any great insight on what the Valve thing has changed. I know it's such a weird PR battle, to see some of it from behind the scenes, and I only get pieces of it from people I talk to. I know we vilified BLAST last year for trying to lock teams down to some kind of exclusive tour, ESL just got a bit of that vilification, as well, and they had it in the past. I think what people don't see is that there are other parties that are also trying to sign teams to exclusivity, so you have to fight fire with fire. If you're one of these guys and some third party comes in with a bunch of money and it's trying to sign eight teams exclusively to their tournaments, the only option you really have is to try to lock them down first so that they can't leave. It feels like there's a weird behind the scenes battle going on that no one is really privy to.
Would you be okay with that risk, which is something that Valve is trying to avoid, of everything ending up in the hands of one company?
No, I actually agree with Valve on that. I think it's way too scary of a prospect to just put everything in one TO's hands. But I think we need to do a better job of lessening the amount of professional Counter-Strike that we have. Like I said, there's not enough time to build content and actually hype up any of this stuff, it's just event-to-event-to-event and we're missing out on so many different parts, so many different aspects of a sport that can be benefitted by having more time to create these projects. There's so much more cool stuff that can be done throughout the scene, there are so many creative people who just don't have the time to create some of these projects. There are so many different pieces that just don't have the time to come to fruition in a way that is actually beneficial to all the parties involved, and that's what the scene is really struggling with.
The scary part is that it's not even the biggest disaster. If you look at what we have now — forget for a second this whole debate about what sponsors are looking for in terms of Terrorist/Counter-Terrorist terminology or blood or bomb planting — a lot of the conversations I hear on sponsors at the moment are that the ones that are going to be coming next are some of the bigger fish, and they're not coming in to say "I want to give you $50k to do this, this, and this," they're going to be coming in with millions of dollars, but those companies need to know what they're putting their money into. We as a Counter-Strike scene don't even have a foundation that we can properly explain to them, we don't have any kind of structure, we don't even know what teams are going to be at events like four months from now, and those companies that are coming in are not comfortable with that much uncertainty around where their money is going. We're going to miss out on opportunities if we don't start straightening out some of these issues with our schedule, with our scene. That's a scary prospect to me, as well. There are just so many areas where we have to start doing better and there are so many conversations that aren't being had because we're afraid of this idea of exclusivity. It can just be a little bit more exclusivity, it doesn't have to be full-blown one-company-gets-everything, but a little bit more loyalty to some of the TOs, a little bit of help to those TOs to be able to create the schedules and create the structures that we're going to need moving forward.
Part two, which will be released on Saturday, will shift focus to the lacking grassroots scene in North America, the region now having two teams vying for the No.1 spot, and the state of the in-game economy.