An Old Friend
It was the late summer of 2010, slowly going into 2011. Word of Twitch was abound and buzzing in the insider scene; discussion of how it was going to run and be structured was abundant. StarCraft II had just dropped, and the scene ushered in a new age of esport passion.
No one could fathom how large Twitch, once codenamed Zarth, would become. How would it be received after the transition from JTV? All Kevin Lin knew, was that it wasn’t going to be called Zarth when he called Scott Smith at an MLG event:
I actually told him that it was going to be Zarth, which was Twitch’s project name that almost became the final name. Scott just paused on the phone and was like ‘you’re out of your f-… you’re out of your mind’ and I said I was kidding and it was going to be Twitch.
Justin and Kevin reached out to an esports personality who had become a crowd favorite during the early Starcraft II days: Marcus “djWHEAT” Graham.
Without Marcus, who knows where we [Twitch] would be. Marcus brought everything from product ideas to ultimately policy on how we handle the site. The community.
At the time of the transition, JTV had roughly 1 million fans around the globe. The question everyone wondered was, how many of those 1 million fans were going to ride the wave?
Justin on the pivot during JTV’s lull, where they went all-in on video games:
I don’t even think Emmett knew that it would blow up as it did; I think it was just content that he enjoyed watching. StarCraft II had just come out and he really liked the StarCraft content. I was pro-pivoting towards it [gaming], while our other co-founders were pretty skeptical. I don’t think any of us knew this would be huge, you know? It was a learning experience for all of us. Thinking that we just built something people really liked.
Now, back to Marcus.
We arrive at 2010 when StarCraft [II] is released, you begin casting MLG tournaments, and we head into 2011. You then join Twitch at the end of 2011.
Yes, I did join in 2011, I’m actually about to celebrate my 8 years, and I was the 19th employee at Twitch.
I was not even on JTV [Justin.tv] yet. I was still on Ustream.
Me, Sean [Plott], Justin [Ignacio, widely-known as Gunrun], and a few others were still over there and at the time, Ustream was not hyper-focused on gaming. They said like they were going to support us and be there for us, but then they went the route of a lot of the livestream platforms at that time, which was the need to get celebrities on the platform.
Gamers ended up taking a backseat and that was an opportunity for JTV. Michael Seibel, Kevin Lin, and Emmett Shear basically did everything they could to bring myself, Sean, and Gunrun over.
They ended up hiring Justin Ignacio. That was an easy one.
I think I was the last one to come over and it wasn’t because I didn’t believe in JTV or didn’t like what they were doing. I think the act of moving everything that I was doing without knowing the certainty of the future was a little daunting to me. At the time it was myself and Scott Smith [SirScoots] and we had conversations with Kevin; we made it really clear like “Hey if we’re going to come over, you know, we’re going to have to redo graphics and do all that stuff, it’s just going to be a lot of work on us,” and he’s like “yeah, I got that, I totally understand that. However, I can help out.”
I went hard on JTV. At the time there were some issues with Zuffa and Justin TV because of some unauthorized stream rebroadcasts that were happening. One of the things I was scared about was wondering, what happens if Zuffa wins? What if I switch over, or and we all switch over, then suddenly there’s not a platform anymore? Emmett, Kevin, and even Jacob at the time, they made it clear that it wasn’t going to happen. We understood and they mentioned they had other things in the works, which would benefit the gaming community and broadcasting community as a whole.
At the time they were also starting to talk about the partnership program. That was one of the big things that everyone was looking for at the time. It’s like are we turning this hobby into something that we can sustain ourselves on.
We finally made the switch.Everything was done from audio work to graphical work and whatnot. Probably one of my favorite stories about this era was a few months later. They made the announcement that “Justin.tv” was changing to “Twitch” [rebranding].
I remember calling Kevin and being like: “Dude… You fucked us!”
[laughs and recollects]
We just spent a month changing all of our graphics and redoing all of our audio.
[recounting his sentiments, running through the conversation verbatim]
“You didn’t even tell us about this, and now we have to do it all over again? This is exactly what we didn’t want to have happened. You said that you were going to communicate with us and that you were going to look out for us.”
We were genuinely upset and and you know, I think Scoots had his conversation with Kevin, and I had my conversation with Kevin. This was also the time where I probably earned some points with JTV, and I mentioned that this wasn’t the way you handled partnerships/partners. They’d split like this.
I brought a lot of awareness to it that, making them realize it’s just more than providing some bandwidth to these gamers. Right? They wanted to create a community. They want to have a personal touch. Kevin said “I will pay for everything. I will like pay for you guys to redo your graphics and the redo everything. We will make this right.”
It was really that point where I was thinking “Holy shit. Kevin Lin, Emmett Shear, Jacob Woodward… they all really do care.”
I realized that they genuinely do care about gaming. I never got those types of phone calls from Ustream or or any other platform that I might have streamed on previously. That was a big deal that the CEO, COO, and company president were calling and having these discussions with me. It was two and a half months after Twitch became Twitch that then I joined full-time. I originally joined full time to focus on bringing as many esports teams and organizations to the platform as humanly possible.
This is right at the peak of esports being revived, right? Perhaps a year into it where you have these games coming full force with tournaments and you see a shift.
The revival, right.
You had StarCraft [II]. It was League of Legends. It was Street Fighter 4. Those three games the games in my opinion were the triad that brought esports back in 2009, but for me personally, it was also the triad that gave me content for Live On Three. It allowed me to do a lot of hosting with Riot that probably I wouldn’t have done otherwise.
Scoots [Scott Smith], myself, and a few other folks from OneMoreGame including A.J. Papa and FishStix and Gunrun did a fighting game community [FGC] event called Devastation 2009, because we wanted the fighting game scene to be seen in the same vein as other esports events as well.**
Sure, we didn’t realize some of the difficulties that there would be in that as we were kind of outsiders coming into it, but I think they’re also people were understood what we were trying to do and realized we that there needed to be more of that.
I mean, the FGC has done an amazing job from a streaming perspective. For us there were all of these opportunities to get OneMoreGame up, and to turn that into at least from our perspective, a revival of esports and the part that we played in that.
I remember meeting so many people there from the FGC; Aris Bakhtanians, Alex Valle, Robb Chiarini. There were a great deal of fighting game legends even at that event.
You came back following the crumbling of CGS. Now you’re at Twitch. Are you more confident in your ability at this point of your career, in 2011? Are you growing as a broadcaster, still at this point? Are you feeling like you really really have the hang of it all and are ascending the ranks?
At that point, I had 10 years of broadcast experience. Let’s break that down.
That was almost five years of doing audio/radio style casting, starting up Epileptic Gaming started up, all of that aforementioned hosting work, getting up in front of a camera and whatnot. That also included three years of live television with CGS. That was my training ground right there, that 10 years.
I felt really comfortable in my role at Twitch and my ability, as a professional. I also had all that IT experience like I felt like I was bringing a lot to the company. Not only my background of esports in my background as a broadcaster, but also I’d managed teams before, managed budgets, and dealt with contracts as well as legal [documents]. I would say that I had a leg up on a lot of folks because I had some additional skill sets going into that.
Then, of course, I had, like, the esports Rolodex.
That was a perfect job for me. It was a different time back then, man. I remember having conversation with esports people to be like, “so you’re telling me that I should practice and stream my practice but then everyone will know how I play and the types of strategies that I use?”
It was harder than you might think, right? Getting the organizations on different esports broadcasting. That was a solid 2-3 year project.
This was also when Valve started to drip-feed insiders information about CS:GO.
Pros being “secretly” flown out to Valve HQ to balance the game.
Given Valve’s track record at the time, were you anticipating the tidal wave that would be CS:GO to overtake esports the way it did?
I don’t think anyone was. I still think CSGO is one of the most amazing rebounds of all time. Think about [the transition of] 1.6 to Source, that was rough? People were all:
“Fuck this game. This isn’t 1.6. It’s like the Fisher-Price version.”
So we already knew it had an uphill battle, right? People already had a pretty bad taste in their mouth with Source. What was going to be the solution to that? Bringing the pros and listening to them wasn’t an overnight change. CSGO was out and had pretty negative sentiment for a while, but doesn’t mean people didn’t play it. They had to buckle down and make it the game people wanted to play. Look at where it’s at now. Counter-Strike now has a legacy that is just completely bonkers.
[laughs and reflects briefly on its arc]
There’s not a whole lot of esports titles that can even come close to having the history or legacy that Counter-Strike has, and I do not believe that anyone was thinking, “You know what? They’re going to turn this around.”
Even at the time, Alex Garfield was developing the 1.6 ProMod for Counter-Strike was going to make it. Thank you to all the pros that finally yelled enough to actually make it happen. It’s going to be really hard to beat the rebound that was Counter-Strike it when it came [transitioned] to Global Offensive.
CSGO is an esport which is easy to spectate and understand. Other games, such as SC2, are much more complex. Do you think this contributed to the success of the revival at all?
I actually don’t think that has anything to do with it, in my opinion. There’s enough Counter-Strike fans. As long as the game was there along with competition… right?
So, I would say that the true reason for the rebound is a [the] community that has been built over 16 years that love Counter-Strike that was playing in college or playing in high school, and just needed that next version.
They got everything right from the crates to the skins to the competitions.
I don’t think it has anything to do with the ease of viewing. I think it has everything to do with the fact that you’ve got hundreds of thousands of people who had watched competitive Counter-Strike up to that point and were just ready for the next era.
Let’s talk about the acquisition of Twitch by Amazon in 2014, and what ensued between 2012 and that day.
That period was kind of where I think I started to put a bow on like my first well, I don’t even know if I’d caught the first era but… I call it the
Third Eraof esports, because I was casting SC2 pretty regularly, but then WCS started and, I think Blizzard was looking for individuals who wanted to make that their full-time job and that was not me. I was at Twitch. I was very happy and frankly that was fine with me because there were a lot of other casters who only focused on Starcraft who basically needed that work to support themselves.
I got a lot of flack for it because people were like, “Oh, he’s turning his back on SC2,” when the fact is that I still watch an enormous amount of SC2 esports. I had an amazing 3/4 years casting SC2. I want to continue to do other things and frankly, there are individuals who are much more suited than I am because they have a lot more time, right? My availability to travel was lessening as I was taking a larger role within Twitch.
Honestly, the bow was Amazon purchasing Twitch. Eventually right after that came GoodGame acquiring OneMoreGame, which meant OneMoreGame was owned. I had to put the shows on hiatus due to conflict of interest.
I couldn’t do those shows under the Twitch umbrella.
It was a strange spot, I remember that.
If Live On Three comes back, it’s because Wheat, Scoots, and Slasher own it and bring it back. Not because Twitch, who employs Marcus, brings it back, you know? Like that’s not what that show is.
I’ve never truly left esports.
If I’m not there front and center hosting or doing interviews or desk whatever, I’m watching. I am reading, I am following the news. I am talking to people within the industry. I am still doing a lot of interviews; I did the Netflix: Explained series and whatnot. Even in 2014 when I stepped back, I was still there.
In many regards, Marcus had found and fulfilled his dream—a mission of creating community and connection.
Even three decades later, he was still, internally, the same kid who was willing to do anything for a computer. The hunger was still there; the only thing that had changed was his status and reach. He was now one of the most respected figureheads in the world for esports, and his impact was being felt on the scale of millions.
He had finally made it.
Now, the question was this: How had everything changed up until this point, for better or for worse?