Professional Fortnite gamers Nate Hill and Faze Sway – ages 25 and 16, respectively – laughed as their characters smashed walls with golf clubs and hopped on flying unicorns. Veteran broadcaster Joe Buck could only shake his head.
“I feel like I’m 140 [years old],” joked Buck.
The unlikely group teamed up earlier this week for Verizon’s Pay it Forward Live, a weekly stream that raises money for small businesses affected by covid-19. Hill and Sway, two prominent members of professional gaming franchise Faze Clan, played Fortnite for an hour while Buck provided commentary.
Although Buck’s performance was relatively tongue in cheek, the event represented his first announcing gig in months. Buck is arguably the highest profile traditional broadcaster to dip his toe in the world of gaming – though he is certainly not the first. Even before covid-19 struck, veteran sportscasters had been exploring esports as a viable career path.
Case in point: Josh Lewin. After spending more than 25 years calling thousands of professional sports games, the prominent broadcaster branched out last year to try a familiar, yet distinctly different, role: play-by-play man for EA Sports’ Madden Championship Series – his first foray into esports.
His pivot could not have come at a more opportune time.
“Just two months ago, I would have smirked and told you that esports was only an experiment for me,” said Lewin, who has served as a broadcaster for teams like the New York Mets, Boston Red Sox, San Diego Chargers and UCLA basketball. “Now, suddenly, it’s all my income.”
Lewin has been busy the past few weeks calling the Madden Bowl, which began in April and runs through the middle of May. To make the broadcast happen, EA Sports shipped Lewin thousands of dollars worth of video equipment. Nine hours and multiple calls with IT later, Lewin had assembled a makeshift studio in his living room, complete with a professional soundboard, lights, camera, and a massive backdrop resting across his Yamaha keyboard.
“I keep thinking my dog will knock something over, and this whole thing will go to hell,” he said.
Lewin’s transition to Madden highlights the unique challenges that traditional broadcasters face when making the switch to esports. Most notably, he had to study the nuances of the video game and learn the features that distinguish it from real NFL football. Lewin had not actually played a Madden game in six years – “I’m one of the only broadcasters here who doesn’t even own the console,” he said – so he spent hours watching YouTube tutorials and chatting with other Madden analysts to get up to speed on the game’s unique features, like ‘X-Factors’ and ‘Superstar Abilities.’
“At first I was pretending like I was back in the saddle calling a Chargers game,” said Lewin. “But I had to remember that it wasn’t Lamar Jackson scoring the touchdown – it was Joker, the guy with the control stick, and he used cap space to give Jackson the ‘Escape Artist’ designation in order to score. But what exactly does that mean?”
Additionally, Lewin had to artfully segue from on-screen action to human-interest stories focused on the gamers themselves – stories that were unlike anything he had previously related in a broadcast.
“You’ll be talking about Patrick Mahomes one second, and then shift gears to talk about the guy pulling the marionette strings,” he said. “Many of these players are teenagers, so I’m telling stories about a guy who just broke up with his high school girlfriend, or another guy who’s still waiting on his college acceptance letter and now has to somehow focus on this big Madden match.”
The stories might be different, and the action virtual, but Lewin finds that the games themselves are just as compelling as the real deal.
“At the end of the day, anything competitive is fun to broadcast,” he said. “Whether that’s a team of 53 hardened athletes against another team of 53 hardened athletes, or one gamer from Queens against a guy from England, it’s still the spirit of competition. The more I did it, the more I got sucked into the vortex.”
Scott Cole is another traditional broadcaster who found new opportunities through esports. He currently serves as the lead play-by-play voice for NBA 2K League, but his journey to becoming an in-demand broadcaster was far from straightforward.
“Personally, there are doors that have opened for me that would not have opened had I stayed on the traditional route,” said Cole, who worked for the Dallas Mavericks and Dallas Stars in the early 2000s. Frustrated by the lack of opportunities, he quit broadcasting altogether to work in digital marketing for more than a decade, but Madden came calling in 2015.
“Back when I first started doing esports, no one thought of it as a ‘career move,'” he said. “In fact, most people were losing money doing it, so I just got into it because I loved gaming.”
Having a background in traditional sports, Cole recognizes the unique challenges esports broadcasters face: a fixed camera angle, limited stats and manpower, and a lack of ambiance, requiring sportscasters to amplify their excitement at a higher level to compensate – a style known within the industry as shoutcasting.
“In esports, you have to be like Gus Johnson all the time,” he said, referring to the Fox broadcaster known for his over-the-top calls. “I compare esports to a small-town high school game. There’s no crowd, no band, no cheerleaders, so you have to bring all the excitement. It can be exhausting – and I sometimes call 12 games in a single day, which is more than some traditional guys do in a month – but you get better at it the more you do it.”
But perhaps authenticity is the most important aspect of esports broadcasting, and few exemplify that more than Alex “Goldenboy” Mendez. A former competitive Halo and Call of Duty player, Mendez rose to prominence as a grass roots esports broadcaster, eventually landing professional jobs with Fortnite, Rocket League and Overwatch League, to name a few. He currently serves as a commentator on NBC’s Titan Games.
“Typically, esports broadcasters are also a part of the game’s fan communities,” Mendez said. “They have a deeper understanding of those communities, more so than a traditional guy like Jim Nantz or Joe Buck might. And the fans can tell if you’re just there for a paycheck – they’ll call you out on it and never let it go.”
Mendez had no official training as a broadcaster, and when he first started commentating, he viewed it as a fun diversion from his stressful job as a social worker. Over the years, he has seen the broadcast landscape shift, with traditional broadcasters making a transition to esports as well as a younger generation growing up fluent in it.
“I definitely wouldn’t have made a dent in this space if I were coming up now, given how talented the next generation is,” said Mendez. “People are training to become esports broadcasters now, and that’s been awesome to witness.”
Indeed, esports broadcasting is slowly coming into its own as a dedicated field of study. Syracuse University – which has churned out famous alumni like Marv Albert, Bob Costas and Mike Tirico – began offering courses specifically about the topic in fall 2018 under the guidance of Olivia Stomski, director of the university’s Newhouse Sports Media Center.
“We teach an ‘Esports & Media’ class where we touch on the similarities and differences between play-by-play and shoutcasting,” Stomski said. “This industry is like a whole new world opening up, and whether you’re a journeyman broadcaster or just getting into the industry now, there are so many opportunities out there.”
With so many aspiring shoutcasters working their way through college, is there enough room in the esports landscape for traditional broadcasters? Cole thinks so but cautions that the window is closing.
“Any traditional guy looking to get into esports has to do it now,” he said. “I recently spoke to a sports broadcasting class, and I was amazed that most of them aspired to one day call League of Legends. These kids are growing up on esports and training themselves in this style.”
As for Lewin, he looks forward to broadcasting the rest of the Madden Bowl and hopes to further immerse himself in the esports community. What started out as a fun experiment has quickly transformed into a key part of his livelihood, and while he does not see himself calling Overwatch or League of Legends any time soon, he is open to trying his hand at most other esports.
“I’ve always said that the appeal of getting into pro sports was that I get to be like Paul Revere,” Lewin said. “I’m the guy on the horse telling people what’s going on. And with esports, it’s the same ride – same horse – but just indoors instead of outdoors.”