Friday, January 3, 2014

Dota 2: Casting

What do you do when you're just not fit to play a game professionally? Start casting it!

Joking aside, I have (somewhat) recently been part of the casting crew in two Dota 2 tournaments. The first one was in August and the second one was in November. Since I still have no new games to write about, I decided to share some thoughts about casting.

1. Casting? Dafuq?

To start things off, here's an overview of what a Dota 2 caster does. This is mostly applicable to all eSports, but I have no experience outside Dota 2 so I'll just stick with what I know. On the basic level, casters follow the game and commentate what is going on. Since stream viewers will only see what the caster sees in-game, it is important for the caster to have their camera where the action is. Another important task is commentating continuously. This includes simply describing what is happening on the screen and more importantly giving some more insight on what might be going on - what the teams could do next, what is commonly done in similar situations etc. Beyond that, the primary caster's job is to raise enthusiasm, typically by being enthusiastic. They should also be able to inject bits of knowledge about the scene, teams and players into the cast.

This sets certain minimum requirements for casting. In order to show meaningful things about the game, the caster needs to know the game pretty well. Understanding hero abilities, items, roles and lanes is pretty much mandatory. Some of this knowledge must be obtained through playing the game; the rest must be obtained from following the scene (i.e. watching professional matches). Knowing what teams typically do helps in making predictions and overall evaluating the game situation. Even if the teams currently playing are entirely unknown, casters can draw a lot of interesting information from the current meta game. It is worth noting that a caster need now know these things as deeply as professional players do - after all, most of their audience doesn't know either.

Besides, the role of the main caster is to be the enthusiastic commentator. Typically casters also have co-casters - often professional players -  who are more intimately familiar with both the game itself and strategy. Co-casters typically lack the verbal expression skills required to be a good main caster and also because they are not constantly talking, they have more time to think about what's happening in the game. They can give more specific details about how a particular skill or item works, and they are better in predicting strategy and answering questions like "how can they come back from this situation?". Having a co-caster also allows the main caster to have some dialogue in the cast which generally makes it more interesting to follow than if it was just pure monologue. Sometimes co-casters can also be personally acquianted with the players, and have more intimate knowledge about how they approach the game.

2. More personal view

The previous chapter is a rough summary of casting in general, and something that is pretty obvious after watching a few casts. I want to talk more about my personal casting experience. First of all, without any doubt I am much more suitable to the role of a co-caster. In case you haven't noticed, I love analysis and I study games - especially Dota 2 - with due diligence. I'm certainly not a professional player but I have pretty good knowledge of high level play (I just lack the execution). While my verbal expression is solid, I find it really hard to bring the required level of enthusiasm into the cast. Unfortunately our entire casting crew on both occasions has been made of people who should be co-casters.

Whether you are a co-caster or main caster, the experience is quite significantly different from playing (obviously) but also from mere viewing. When watching a stream, you have the caster(s) to help you focus on the most important things. When casting, it is you who should not only figure out the important bits but also draw viewers' attention to it. The level of awareness required is almost on par with what the players need to have - but as a caster you have more information to process thanks to being privileged to lot of stuff the players cannot see. I mean you see both teams of course, but can also look at all kinds of neat graphs and statistics.

Combat situations in Dota 2 can be very chaotic and these are the toughest moments to cast. When a teamfight involves all 10 heroes on the map, each throwing their abilities, processing everything quickly enough to actually say something intelligent about what's going on is not easy. Sometimes it's not even possible and here's where a co-caster is really helpful: they may have noticed other things and can fill in more details after the fight is done - usually nothing significant happens after a big fight for a while so there's time to recap a bit. Of course in order to do that, decent short term memory is required. Memory also helps when casting a longer series of games - a caster can recall similarities between drafts etc.

3. Advantages

In my experience, casting is a great way to improve your ability to read the game. When playing a single hero, it is too often okay to just pay attention to things that have direct impact to you. It doesn't give optimal results, but there is nothing in particular forcing the player to pay attention to peripheral things. When casting, every single one of the 10 heroes on the map are equally important to follow. Likewise, keeping an eye on the minimap is crucial in order to be able to react to action anywhere on the map quickly enough. This widened awareness can transfer into gameplay as reduced tunnel vision, especially during fights. It's not an unexpected outcome really - in this sense casting is a lot like teaching: through teaching, the teacher also improves their own understanding.

All in all it goes to show that as a player, it is advantageous to approach a game from multiple perspectives. Although playing the game is the main activity, peripheral activities like spectating and casting can provide advantages that cannot be gained through gameplay alone. The experience closest to casting is most likely viewing replays and preferably analyzing them with another player. Overlooking things is much more common when viewing alone largely because our brains tend to fill gaps in thought quite sneakily. To put it another way, gaps in understanding tend to become apparent only when explaining things to another person. If something is truly understood, it should be possible to put it into words. When everything happens in the mind, it's easy to nod in understanding, although no real understanding takes place.


I started writing this article like a month ago, but kinda run out of things to say and left it to hang. Since I still don't have anything more to say about the subject, I'm just gonna put this out there as it is. The bottom line is: casting is yet another way to appreciate a game you love - and it can also make you a better player. I will definitely be looking for more opportunities to cast tournaments this year, maybe even work on that enthusiasm a bit. I could also try casting in English when I feel confident enough.

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