April 27, 2020

The Legacy, Part 1: Forging Dreams

The computer that started it all, and the group that stuck with him for life.

The Legacy, Part 1: Forging Dreams

Marcus Graham has been at the core of esports and internet broadcasting since the very beginning. He’s had skin in the game for over two decades.

Since childhood, Marcus has been fascinated with the idea of what a video game could potentially be. He’s now serving Twitch as their Director of Creator Development.

It was a different story when all of this was merely an idea.

Opposed to having a limited interest, how did your passion for video games arise?

I distinctly remember my first experience with video games being in the late 70’s, early 80’s.

So, in a crazy way, they’re some of my longest memories. Some of the first memories that I have, which was playing the Atari, or at least trying. Hell, maybe even being “that kid” that has a controller in his hand, but maybe brother, or mom, or dad is playing. All I know is that I’m fixated on whatever this thing is on the television.

This was age 3-5 that I really remember this happening. The Atari was something that we got games for regularly. I guess what probably happened was, back in the day before there was Chuck-E-Cheese, there was Showbiz Pizza. Showbiz Pizza, and eventually Family Fun Center, would be my two big arcades. There’s a few others, like Aladdin’s, WC Frank’s, etc.

Even between the Atari Era and the Nintendo Era, there were the arcades. That is where I truly fell in love with video games.

The sights and sounds from this very chaotic and creative brain that I had growing up, that felt more like home than maybe even home did. Wasn’t into skiball or tickets; I just wanted to play every single game that was there [in the arcade] and always had a desire to just be good at that. I immediately recognized that the “score” was a measurement of in-game performance. It was all about getting a better score.

Admittedly, this is probably where my problem started, too. I’ll get more into that as I go on.

That’s when Nintendo was released; I remember Christmas Day, getting the Duck Hunt Gyro version of the Nintendo [NES], which came from grandma and grandpa, because mom and dad wouldn’t buy it. Who knows? All I knew at that point is that, I became a Nintendo kid at that point.

The important thing I need to express, since so far this sounds like, ‘alright this is the kid that had video games as a kid handed to him’, is that in reality, gaming was still very new. I don’t think there were ‘dangers’ to it yet, or people were worried about anything. One thing I feel like I have to convey is that my family is way more a sports family than they were a gaming family. Maybe that had something to do with it, but I did not follow in those footsteps. That was not necessarily what I was interested in.

They [my family] would go golf or play basketball, and I would say ‘nah man, we’ve got all these games that we can play’, and those were the games that I wanted to play. From an early age, I was already conditioning myself. I don’t even know what the fascination was, man, like… I think part of it was, this was just an amazing new thing. It was a whole different world; there was a feeling of accomplishment that came with it. During this era, you also saw constant evolution of what was being played and made. It just became… every kid just gets a “thing” — there’s no doubt about it that video games was my “thing”.

I was the kid wearing Frogger hats, Pac-Man pajamas, and I wanted Donkey Kong sheets. I just couldn’t get enough.

It was a movement.

Yeah.

It’s hard for me to put myself back in the shoes of young Marcus, of young djWHEAT, because I don’t necessarily remember why I was so drawn to video games.

What I know is that I couldn’t. Fuckin’. Get. Enough.

I had a problem as a kid; I had the problem of choosing video games over responsibility. Choosing video games over eating. Choosing video games over doing whatever. There was always something new to play, there was always a kind of friendly competition.

“Hey, I got X score in Y game, see if you can beat it!”

I couldn’t get enough of that.

Give me some years.

The Atari came out in the late 70’s. I was born in ’77, so the Atari was in our household already. The Nintendo was ’86. I would have been 9 years old when I got my Nintendo.

From ages 5-9, I played a lot of games at home, but I wanted to go to the arcade. When we went to the movie theater, or a pizza place, or anywhere, I wanted to play the arcade. If I got to choose where we’re going to dinner, then we were going to Showbiz Pizza, just so that I could play games.

I don’t want anyone to think that this is a bad thing, but there was no doubt about it: I was addicted to video games.

I’m pretty sure I probably took a 5 [$5 bill] too many from my mom’s purse. I would get grounded from video games, and my mom would have to call all of my friends’ parents, and tell them “Marcus is grounded from video games; he can’t play.” so I would scheme to play games. I would go to Shop Co., and they’d have a demo stand set up; anything to get the gaming fix.

At the same time, I would say that there’s no doubt about it: video games were my first creative muse. If I got grounded, I’d be like “…well then, fuck! I’m going to draw the video game I’m going to make, I want to create some concept for games,” right?

So I was just channeling any creative energy I could while I wasn’t playing games to try and do so. I thought “okay, this is what I want to do when I grow up, I want to be making these things, sharing my stories and ideas and thoughts with the world,” so from age about 3… that was the first time I was consciously aware “Ok, there’s an Atari here, we’re here, playing things” until now. It’s never stopped.

From 3 until probably… let’s just say 13, maybe 12, was my “arcade, NES, SNES, Sega Master System” days.
Frogger hat and Pac-Man pajamas, 1982

Were you aware during any time during those days of the gaming competitions happening, such as the Nintendo World Championships or names like Billy Mitchell, Steve Wiebe, or Todd Rogers?

I tried getting my hands on any gaming magazine they had out at the time. They’d be in there pretty regularly, since the magazines would post scores on certain games.

I wouldn’t claim that I was aware beyond that; this was a time where I saw Billy Mitchell’s name in, say, EGM or GamePro or… shit, maybe even in the Nintendo Powers of old, they would post “so and so beat this game in this time” with a picture of the guy taking a picture of his screen.

So, that kind of thing was definitely evident, but obviously not like it is now. I would definitely say that because of my friend circles, competitiveness was still a very [evident].

Dude, one of my favorite Atari games to this very day, is Combat. It’s one of the earliest form of death match I can remember myself playing. It’s tanks versus boats, ships versus planes, that was the beauty of it. It was such a simple game. Sometimes you were fighting against one another, sometimes it was almost PvE where you’d work together and see who can blow up the most ships or something.

This caused some fights in our house because of how competitive Combat got.

[laughs]

I would say that even on at the earliest, earliest, earliest phases of my life as far as gaming, scorechasing, which is what I call it, was interesting to me. When you had something that was truly head-to-head, competing against my brother or dad, that was it. That was where the fire started.

A Very Special Christmas

Then everything changed. Tell me about that.

At 12, that’s when my world changed, a lot.

All the video game stuff stayed the same, but that’s the age where I discovered PC gaming, and received my first PC. That was also when I discovered BBS (bulletin board systems). I was 12 years old, I remember it vividly, dude. I will never forget. Just one of those moments in your childhood that you’ll never forget.

I fucking begged my parents for a new computer. I begged them. I told them I didn’t want anything for Christmas except a computer.

“I’ll type up all your shit for you, anything. Please, please, please, mom and dad. I just want a computer!”

I remember it vividly. Omaha, Nebraska. Piedmont. I can remember exactly where I was sitting, and my mom turns to me, and she’s like, hey. I know you really wanted a computer, but… we couldn’t get you one this year.

And I was like you know, it’s all good, thank you, I appreciate that.

My mom said “…we really wanted to do it for you.”

“Nah, it’s all good.” I said.

Then, she said “Well, why don’t you go and grab the trash bag and lets clean up the mess here we’ve made from opening up presents?”

So, I go into what was our guest room at the time, and that night they had moved the bed, installed a desk, and there was a computer sitting there…

[takes a breather and becomes visibly emotional]

Take your time.

It gets me really emotional because, that single act of kindness completely changed my life.

I wouldn’t be where I am, right this moment, talking to you, or done any of these things, if my parents, my mom and dad, hadn’t seen that “…wow, this kid really wants a computer,” and you know, we can talk all day about the “…well, you probably would have ended up on that path, eventually!” and maybe I would have, but it was that moment that I feel like I truly feel like I can truly trace my career and every step, and mistake, and everything else I’ve made. It all came from that point.

It was very important as far as in the grand scheme of things in my career.

So as far as the PC went, it was another world to download Wolfenstein, download DOOM, play all the PC ports and games.

I was all up in it; then, I discovered BBS. That was just suddenly, just imagine, the internet. The asynchronous internet; I could send you a mail, but you couldn’t get it necessarily at the same time as I sent it. I would send you a message, log off, then you’d log in, send a message back. This became my secondary addiction, or maybe my second primary addiction, which was this idea that “….holy shit, I have the ability using this device, a modem, from my computer, to call other computers, so that I can find other people who are into gaming like I am, or into BBS like I am,” or whatever it may have been.

There was about a 2-year period from… hold on, let me check.

[mentally rechecks the dates]

Ok, so it was released in ’87, so I want to say it was ’89. I was 12.

Dude, I logged into a Spitfire BBS, I was like “…holy shit, this is amazing, I want to run one of these,” so I learned how to run a BBS, I learned how to start coding Doors, the scripting, the installation of the scripts, I couldn’t get enough. I just couldn’t get enough.

I think also at the same time, an underlying thing that was happening was that I was discovering community; I had a friend community, but this was the first time that I was discovering “…I can be apart of this community because I’m a sys-op,” or “…this community, because I really like Operation: Overkill, the BBS Door game,” because it was just a community that was built and eventually became a larger community.

It was the idea of creating a community, online.

Finding confidence in expression, the idea of creating an online community was an idea Marcus had since childhood.

It was evident how much this question meant to him, and how deeply he holds his roots in family and friends. He knew from the get-go that there was a movement happening. What that movement was, exactly, he remained unsure about. All he knew was that it was tangible.

A lifework, Marcus utilized these communities to his advantage. The restriction of limited PC time was more a blessing than a curse; it would allow Marcus to explore what would become another strong passion: broadcasting.

A cold winter morning, 1981

Makes sense. You’re communicating with people around the world. That opens an entirely new realm of possibility, at a very young age.

Correct. In a weird way, this is where broadcasting kind of merges in.

I was loving video games, loving BBS, and loving this technology of being able to communicate with other people that shared similar interests. I was quickly becoming incredibly proficient with computers. Almost dangerously proficient; got really interested into hacking, the culture that surrounded it, trying to understand it. Historically learning about the history of computation. I’d go to these meetups and exchange information; I was a sponge. I wanted to learn.

At the same time, I was a real piece of shit when I was a kid, growing up. I got into trouble mostly because of video games or because of computers or whatever. I would lie a lot to try and get my parents to get off my back so I could play more games.

Often times, my punishments became containment.

[laughs]

What I mean by that is, my mom would say something like:

“Hey, the only way we can keep you is, after school, you have to walk to your dad’s office and spend time in his office until he’s ready to go home.”

That’s how they’d [parents] limit my time.

Believe it or not, what that did was that physically put me in the car with my father, who listened to a lot of AM radio. My father is very conservative; Republican to the core, and so, he would listen to the local Nebraska 1110 KFAB [radio station]. He wasn’t listening to a ton of political stuff; he would listen to this guy named Bruce that would talk finance. My dad had mortgages and rental houses; he loved that stuff. To me, the subject matter was fucking boring, man. I didn’t understand what they were talking about. Mature stuff, interest rates; I’m just this teenage kid, wanting to listen to music or something.

Eventually, what ended up happening was that by not paying as much attention to the content, I spent time paying attention to the other aspects of it [the radio broadcast].

I started paying attention to how this individual comes out of a break into the introduction of his show.
Marcus and his younger brother, 1981

Observing Parallels in Sports

The technical aspects, sort of.

The technical aspects, yes, and maybe not in some cases.

I watch sports in the same way; I may not know what’s happening at all times, but I have a deep appreciation for the production. The way my brain worked was, if you don’t like that [dad’s radio], then find something you do like about it [the production].

I liked the way the radio host handled callers, and how he’d greet them, or the employment of a certain cadence. I admired the radio host’s ability to handle a conversation, and supply and keep the flow; if the caller started stumbling, how to get them back on their feet.

What I was doing, without realizing it, was studying the art of broadcasting, just due to the massive amount of time I was spending with my father in his car, being punished, because I was addicted to video games.

You can see how this is starting to stack up, a bit.

Mm-hmm.

My parents suggested to get more involved in things so I wouldn’t get in trouble continuously. I took up debate, and love it. Still one of my favorite things. After high school I stuck with debate, and I ended up coaching and judging debate for about 4 or 5 years. I did Policy debate; there’s two types of debate schools practice; Policy and Lincoln-Douglas. One is evidence-based, the other is more almost philosophical in nature.

Policy debate was almost like a public performance. Being able to state your case, obtain passion about your argument, and convince someone that what you’re saying is right, along with the evidence.

You’ve got public performance, broadcasting, this computer stuff… so, I’m almost to the part which bridges the gap.

There’s one other epiphany that happens, and that’s when I discovered the internet.

Yes, I had played DOOM and Quake, I was actively involved in no-modem LANs, but I discovered something called MUDs [multi-user dungeon games]. MUDs grew to popularity, for me, probably from ’92-’95, and well into even ’97. Most MUDs are fantasy-based; I played two, that were focused around deathmatch. One of them was called Rogue, the other was called Tron. Another called Genocide.

Imagine, hundreds of people, dropped into a virtual text arena, and then running around. Say I wanted to move 9 rooms to the east [E], I’d have to type, on my keyboard pressing these keys:
E
ENTER
E
ENTER
E
ENTER
E
ENTER
E
ENTER
E
ENTER
E
ENTER
E
ENTER
E
ENTER
…or if I wanted to pick something up, I’d have to create an alias, like:
pu GOLD
…or something, where you created your own efficiency. It was sort of like the Matrix. It was something where people would look over my shoulder while playing and think:

“What in the actual living fuck are you playing?”

[smiles]

To me, I was in this incredibly deadlock speed-based deathmatch that eventually ended up becoming Quake, these sort of games. I played the ever-living shit out of these games.

Again, reinforcing the idea, there’s something about competition against other people that there is nothing else like it. This was my calling.

From there I went to college and admittedly, put it on the back burner. I tell people that I majored in Tekken 2 in college. Loved Tekken 2. I was the room everyone went to, if you thought you were good at Tekken, and you wanted someone to show you that you were not. I love that game, played the shit out of it at home. I remember I had to have the Hong Kong version [1995] because the US version [1996] wasn’t out yet.

I continued to do a lot of internet-based stuff, around the same time the internet started becoming graphical. We were all playing more games, there were Quake 2 servers, and when I had my first house with 5 people.

Those 5 people in that house eventually became Clan 519, where my esports life was born.

He went by Styles519, a random nickname with the clan tag attached as homage. Following qualifying for an international Quake tournament, the group would anonymize themselves and break off from their 519-based names, which is where the nickname djWHEAT came from. A hobbyist disc jockey, growing up in the nation’s wheat production hub. It would end up sticking with him.

It was the during the creation of 519 that Marcus realized there was something larger happening. Determined to make the most of his ability, Marcus decided to discontinue academic studies and take up an IT job. Perhaps a result of perfect timing and dumb luck, it would act as the first stepping stone in his professional career.

Always one to make the most of what’s given, Marcus was steadfast to go forth and conquer whatever was to come.

The College Experience

What did you major in?

I majored in computer engineering and computer science, but I also was taking courses in broadcasting because I was very interested in that aspect of it. I was less convinced that I would ever get a job on radio, and more convinced I’d do something career-wise that had to do with computers. Again, it was interesting, so I knew that the campus had a radio station, but I only stuck with it for a year. That same year, RealAudio came out. Let me confirm that…

[mentally rechecks date]

Yeah, 1995. The player was released a bit later, where you could physically go into the BestBuy and purchase an actual audio player. I discovered this and I think that’s where really I was like “hold the phone, dude… I still can only listen to the radio if I am within this range of where I live” and sure, there were a lot of things that were syndicated.

One of my favorite shows and radio hosts ever, Art Bell, did Coast to Coast, was syndicated nationwide. The number of shows syndicated versus locally, was even harder [to achieve].

It made me realize that radio was actually not as big of a pawn as the whole world, considering the internet was about to hit. At the time, the internet was in a phase where you’d turn on ABC and they’d be like:

[vintage announcer voice]

"The World Wide Web!
Are you on it?
Do you need an email address?
Would you shop online?”
…and people would be like “I’d never shop online, that’s crazy!”


Even that early on, and I’m not taking any credit there, but let me tell you that I was an evangelist for the internet. I was convinced the internet was going to change the world, and probably walked away from a lot of conversations where people were like “That guy is out of his fuckin’ mind!” because I would get passionate about it.

Broadcasting something to the entire world; that was voodoo magic back then.

RealAudio and RealNetworks were an epiphany moment. If I want to pursue broadcasting, why wouldn’t I pursue it on the internet? There will never be a larger audience.

Nothing gets bigger than the internet; nothing ever.

That lit a fire under my ass, and I decided that it was what I wanted to look into. I started doing my research, how to use RealAudio, and how to use this stuff. Sure enough there was a server SDK. I had a buddy named Brad during college, he works at Oculus now, and he was like:

“Hey, man, we can throw that onto a server, you can have a 25-slot server, otherwise you’ll have to pay per-slot for a server.”

So, I agreed after thinking to myself, “That’s huge, 25 people?”

Guess what? 25 people came no problem.

In the first broadcast, I realized that the skies are really the limit. Again, at one point, people thought, “Well, television is the largest thing in the world, you can’t get more exposure than television!”

Guess what? That’s not true anymore.

Someone can get worldwide exposure on the internet, and have reach that a television network even the largest ones, can’t. Very early on, it started to spider out.

I was reading books like Neuromancer, where these concepts were being discussed. Suddenly, the university’s intranets opened up and everything was shell-based and text-based. There was no doubt in my mind, when people have asked me about esports, and I was the crazy guy that said “No, you watch, one day esports will be fucking massive.”

It was the same stuff with the internet. They knew the internet was the future; I would have put my life on the line that we were never going to be able to reach a larger audience than through the internet.

The other side of it was that I was a poor college student, and I wasn’t able to buy myself a radio console or microphone. I could DIY some shit for $29 at RadioShack, and that was super appealing.

College Days

Perhaps this is testament that even the most grand of journeys can start from something small. A tight-knit core, no different from family at this point, of friends in college coming together to play video games. Long before esports was a common term.

It was a different time. RuneScape was more than half a decade away, Neopets wouldn’t exist for four more years, Pokémon was still a few months from existing. Friends was the top sitcom, and Mariah Carey was on top of the music world with a Boyz II Men collab.

This era represented the adolescence of modern gaming as we know it. A time where technology was truly flourishing for game development, and game developers were focusing more on quality of gameplay than any finance-based motivations.

It was the Wild West, with anyone and everyone in the scene trying to claim their own plot of land to establish themselves, casual and competitive alike.

Marcus saw an opportunity:

It was all great, and I thought, ”Ok, now I want to do this with esports.”