We caught up with the 31-year-old at the end of his six-day stint at StarSeries i-League Season 8, where the American had the opportunity to return to Counter-Strike commentary for the first time since being part of the on-air talent at BLAST Pro Series stops in Copenhagen and Lisbon late last year.
While we were sitting by the poolside in a holiday resort in Belek on the night before the Turkish event’s final day, Semmler explained the radical changes he has gone through since taking a step back from CS:GO to join the Overwatch League and discussed the franchised model versus the free-market approach of Valve in the first part of our interview with him.
You’ve been over at the Overwatch League for a couple of years now. How has your life changed since your CS:GO days?
Pretty radically. Getting away from the freelance vibe and getting into the focus-on-one-project kind of vibe and not have to worry where the money is coming from and just focusing on one project, it really gave me quite a bit more time to just think about myself, in a way, to be introspective and try to figure out what it is that I’m doing. I’d say my state of mind has pretty radically changed since my days of CS. I come back and it’s an interesting experience after two years of doing Overwatch because I’d see the guys every now and again, they came by Stockholm for DreamHack and I was at BLAST twice, but those were just one-off events and you don’t really get to soak it in. Having a whole week here to see the change in my mindset versus their mindset and how we’ve drifted apart in a way, it’s been really interesting. Learning how to function in a corporate environment has been a real eye-opener, and especially in a corporate environment like Blizzard, it’s a massive California-based corporation with a culture there, that’s been really interesting because I think it goes completely in the face of esports and everything that we’re about. So I’ve had to learn quite a few lessons on how to mind myself and how to function in that kind of group.
Having a whole week at StarSeries to see the change in my mindset versus the mindset [of the CS talent] and how we’ve drifted apart in a way, it’s been really interesting.
And work around social media, as well, right?
Work around social media. Three years ago, when Reddit turned on me and my world was blowing up, I pretty much ditched social media. I think that was pretty much the last time that I really used social media. This year, I think I uninstalled Twitter and Instagram from my phone for six months and didn’t even think about them, didn’t even miss them, wasn’t even checking them. I haven’t been to Reddit in two years. I do it every now and again, just to hit headlines, but not deep-diving in the way I used to where I’m checking all the comments and I’m trying to keep my finger on things. Now I actually tend to visit sites, like HLTV, I tend to just have a selection of news sites that I hit and I tend to avoid Reddit and social media in general. There have been changes like that where I’ve been trying to take a step back and focus more on myself than to be really plugged into that whole hive mind.
Three years ago, when Reddit turned on me and my world was blowing up, I pretty much ditched social media. I think that was pretty much the last time that I really used social media.
What about from the schedule perspective? I imagine you prefer it being a bit more predictable.
There is that aspect of the comfort of knowing when your paycheck is coming and knowing that you just work with this. In the first season of Overwatch League — and the second season, but a little bit more in the first season because we added more people in the second and that destabilized the caster group a little bit — the caster group was really chosen to fit together and so we had this crazy group where there was no bulls**t, no drama, no nothing. Everybody was on the same page, everybody was focused on the same thing, and you lacked that weird atmosphere where you’re all friends but you’re still competitors when you’re freelancing. Whereas over there [Overwatch League], there was no competition because we’re all on contracts and we’re all getting paid for the year regardless. It was a totally different mindset of functioning in that environment, that was really quite interesting.
You’ve returned again late in the year just like in 2018 when you did those BLAST events, is this the only time that the OWL schedule allows you to work other games?
Yeah, pretty much. I’m free to work other games and do other things during the season, but the season is so heavy. This second year it was so heavy because they added an extra broadcast day, so it was a lot. You just got burned out. It wasn’t a heavy workload in a sense, but it was long. So instead of it being condensed, like StarSeries, six days, by day six you’re feeling pretty frazzled, over there by week four or five you’re starting to feel pretty frazzled because it’s the same thing, it’s relentless and it’s there. Again, that’s a totally different aspect to some of the stuff we do with CS, where it’s a weekend or a week for an event and you’re done, you’re going back home or you’re going on to the next one, you had a shift.
There are weeks off between stages […] I could do CS events then, but I just don’t want to, I just want to have that week and a half off to just hard-reset and regenerate for the next stage.
With Overwatch League, you really think in the long term and grind. This is a thing that lasts eight months and, for me, I was living out of a van in LA this year, it was on the road for eight months for me. So I just had to think and put my mind into that long term, you had to think of it as a marathon and not as a one-off event. It was really interesting to have that experience, trying to plan out a year like that and live like that, but, at the same time, it is me putting my life on hold for eight months out of the year for Overwatch League. My wife is in Stockholm, my house is in Stockholm, everything is in Stockholm, so it really was me putting my life on hold for eight months, do Overwatch League and then go back home for four months and have that life. It’s just that now I get to have some CS peppered in… What was the original question again?
Whether this was the only time when it’s possible for you to work other games.
Because the schedule is so heavy during the season, you don’t really think about it. There are weeks off between stages and, in those weeks off, I’m flying back home to Stockholm or my wife is flying to LA to spend time together. I could do CS events then, but I just don’t want to, I just want to have that week and a half off to just hard-reset and regenerate for the next stage. Yeah, it’s in the off-season where I’m one of the guys who’s free to just do whatever I want, so that’s why I’m here doing StarSeries and BLAST next week.
A conversation that keeps popping up, especially this year, is about pushes for exclusivity. You’re obviously coming from that world, from a franchised league organizations have bought into and it’s the only thing happening all year long. Could you imagine that working in our scene?
It could. If somebody shows up with enough money and the gumption and Valve were to sign off on it, sure, it could. I’m just glad it has not. I’m glad Valve stepped in because I like the idea of different experiments. Valve are always concerned — and this is from me talking with the devs years ago — about the player base and the player base first. They’re running a game, it’s not a charity, they want to make money and they want to try to make the best game possible while still respecting that goal. It’s a juggling act on their side. But I think they also want to run the experiment of having that mostly free-market approach to CS:GO where they let the TOs handle it. We’re very lucky to have Valve, I think, because they are unique in the sense that they don’t want to just hire people like, “We need an esports department and we’re just going to hire people to run it.” That’s completely against Valve. I think they actually regret doing TI with the level of involvement that Valve needs to put in to make TI happen with their employees. I think Valve want to just stay in the back, develop new stuff, focus on that, and they want to let the games do their thing.
I’m glad Valve stepped in because I like the idea of different experiments. I’m really happy that we have those two worlds coexisting side-by-side in esports, where you have the Valve freedom and then you’ve got the other side.
I’m really happy to have that because, now, I’m working with Overwatch League so I have a face-first view on what a monopoly looks like and that kind of system. And then I get to come over here and see CS and still have that free market, TOs can compete against each other, they can compare the products against each other, I think that’s the fastest route to improving production and the conditions for the players, teams, casters. The viewers benefit because they’re always going to have TOs trying to come up with new cool things to add to the stream, and that’s through competition. So I’m really happy that we have those two worlds coexisting side-by-side in esports, where you have the Valve freedom and then you’ve got the other side. We can see where it’s going to go. If it keeps going like this, we’ll have the franchised league running side-by-side with the free-market league and we get to see which one is better down the line. Five years from now, which is still standing, will it be CS and DotA or will it be Overwatch League, CoD, and LoL? It’s a really interesting experiment, I think it’s a really exciting time for the market to see which is the better model. I’m glad that Valve put their foot down because I was really starting to get depressed at the thought that CS would go the same way because then it would just be bland, it would all be the same and you would have no comparison between the two.
Eventually, TOs will have to figure out how to find a business model that works. It’s the only thing that I think leads to real longevity for esports if these guys can find a sustainable model that can actually work in this day and age.
But what we keep hearing from the organizers is that running events isn’t making them money, they’re living off investments, and those things are going to go away if the investors start thinking that we will never get to a self-sustaining environment. What do you think about that, the longevity?
I think it’s good. I think it’s going to force the TOs to come up with a model that is functional in our industry. If you live off of subsidy, let’s say you’re living off a government subsidy and you’re running off government money, it’s fake. It’s like investors, it’s fake. So what’s going to have to happen is that, eventually, these TOs will have to figure out how to find a business model that works. It’s the only thing that I think leads to real longevity for esports if these guys can find a sustainable model that can actually work in this day and age. I think it’s a good thing that we still have these TOs in the mix, they’re the ones having to figure out how to turn a profit, how to make any money at all. At some point you have to figure out how to monetize the fans, otherwise, you’re right, this whole thing falls apart and we’re left with our dicks in our hands. The first TO that finds the model that works where they can significantly monetize the fans, they might win and take over or the other TOs will catch on and it will keep pushing the product further. I think it’s very exciting. On the other hand, the monolith at least concentrates everything, so when you are talking about investors and mainline into the fans, they have one place to go, so there’s a bit of power there, too. Both models have really interesting perks.
On Friday, we will release part two of the interview, in which we jump over to Semmler‘s commentary at StarSeries, getting his take on the current meta and his frustration with the level of discipline within teams.