TJ Sanders: "Most Hearthstone casters need to loosen up. The game is fun in its core."
2016 was a big year for Hearthstone eSports. An increased prize pool and a renewed qualification system motivated players from all over the world to try their best to at least gain some fame, and ultimately reach the big stage at Blizzcon for the World Championship. However, it wasn't only the players that were given new opportunities. At the end of 2015 Blizzard announced the "So You Think You Can Cast" competition.
Aspiring analysts of Hearthstone had the chance to submit their casting video, hoping to be rewarded with casting on the big stage. Almost a year after the announcement we now have three names from that competition: Alexander "Raven" Baguley, Simon "Sottle" Welch and TJ "Azumo" Sanders. They have become inseparable from Hearthstone events.
Unlike most personalities in eSports, TJ is rarely ever called by his nickname Azumo (or even less by his Twitter handle, which adds "qt" at the end, presumably because of TJ's indisputable adorableness). Whatever you may call him, the Hearthstone community has come to love the Californian. Whether it's been the playful banter between him and Dan "Frodan" Chou or the analysis with Brian Kibler, TJ has made a name for himself across the entire scene. And let's not forget the interviews he conducts with players at official Blizzard events, of which the encounter with DrHippi is perhaps the best example.
After TJ had finished casting the World Championships, Tom "Matthieist" Matthiesen sat down with him and spoke about what TJ does best: Hearthstone casting.
I'm joined by TJ Sander, a.k.a Azumo! How are you doing man?
I'm doing great, my voice is gone a little bit after I cast the grand finals but it was so cool, so cool.
I didn't think I was going to cast the grand finals, because there are personalities like Dan and Kibler but they chose me and I was honored for that opportunity.
How did your journey from the start to the big stage go?
At the beginning of the year, I made it through the "You think you can cast?" program a little bit. They contacted me and told me "Send us your best casting VODs". I already knew Blizzard, I've been working with them as a creative producer at Blizzcon last year. One think I am proud of is getting along with all the other casters and also to show Blizzard that I work really hard and I think it really showed, because they chose me to cast the grand final with Kibler.
That was basically my road his year. I don't have a direct answer for how it happened, I just kept working, kept casting, kept trying to improve and now I'm here.
I kept working, casting, trying to improve
Hearthstone casting is way different than any other esport. Is this something you've always liked in the game?
If you've watched my casts, you will know I like to be a bit silly at times. That's one of the reasons I like Hearthstone casting, because you can have offtopic discussions and still be OK for broadcast. Having fun, being entertaining, those are the things I really enjoy.
Sometimes it does get dull. I actually started by casting League of Legends three years ago, which is a super action-packed game, but I enjoy casting Hearthstone more because of the fact that you have a lot more flexibility in how you can cast it. There's no right or wrong way to cast Hearthstone, which is also a little bit interesting, because it's a bit polarizing, you will never please everybody. There's unananimous love for casters in other eSports games. There aren't a lot of people in LoL that dislike Kobe. But in Hearthstone, half of the community will like you and the other half won't, becasue you're either more analytical or more joking.
Do you think that's obstructing Hearthstone casting in a way, because it's so polarizing?
I think so. I don't think Hearthstone casting is great yet. People haven't figured out a way to make it good for everybody. There's not a caster out there who everybody loves. Dan is the closest thing to it, Kibler's getting there, but there are still people very vocal about how they don't like their casting style.
Maybe someone will come along and figure it out. Right now, I do think that the people taking the liberty to cast however they want to might be obstructing people finding the best way to cast Hearthstone but there's kind of fun about it. The ones casting now are sort of paving the way - the game is still very young.
You mentioned Dan and he is, I think, a fairly authoritative figure in the eyes of the community. He's been around from the beginning and loved by many. Do you think that's helpful in this case?
Dan is kind of the leader amongst casters, a lot of people look up to him. He was one of the people who taught me how to cast back in Legendary Series. He was the one who taught me how to play Hearthstone, too. We go to him for advice. Having a figure like Dan really ups the overall level of casting not only in the group of HCT casters but also in all of the events that he attends. He's been incredibly helpful to everybody.
And yet we didn't see him casting this event.
That's because he's so good. He's too good at stage hosting, that they didn't trust it with anybody else. They said Dan, nobody else is good enough, nobody else can wear a green leopard coat with a fur collar on stage, roleplay as Barnes and host the world championship.
One interesting thing is Dan got sick, food poisoning on rehearsal day. So I stepped in as stage host and I was going to replace him if he was still sick on Worlds day. And I didn't do nearly as good job as he did. I respect a lot what he can do.
Is this something you consider, becoming more rounded, casting and hosting or would you rather stick to just one?
Hosting is definitely something I want to do because it's something nobody but Dan has done in Hearthstone. We had Rachel last year and djWHEAT but they moved on to other games, we don't have other host figures. I actually hosted the Summer Championship for Heroes of the Storm at the ESL Studios. There was a crowd of maybe 50 people but that was my stage experience.
I am getting better, though, I rehearse a lot. That's why I'm doing on-camera interviews and things like that, it's definitely a goal of mine.
The on-camera interviews are truly great. Is it something you pride yourself in?
Oh yes, I can honestly say the interviews with the players have been the hardest thing I've ever done in my career. I have to do tons of prep to know player storylines, the personalities of the players. You have to sit there and think how these interviews will come across on camera, not how they feel right now.
The player interviews are the hardest thing I've ever done in my career
There were moments during those interviews where I would have super awkward questions and super awkward answers but I would keep pushing and digging and that's really hard to do and I am super happy that they are well received and that the editors did such a good job on some of the pieces that honestly were not great interviews but made great media pieces.
Going back a bit about Hearthstone casting: The game has been around for three years, do you think the casting is developing too slowly?
Not necessarily too slow, but slower than casting in other games did. But that's because it took a while for Hearthstone eSports to become a real thing. This is kind of the first year there was an actual Hearthstone league-type thing, an organized structure to encourage casters to actually improve. In the past it was always companies that made big strides like Riot in LoL, their casters grew so fast because Riot put so much time and money into their infrastructure.
And Blizz are doing a good job with that, too. They tried to bring back the same casters over and over, they tried to grow casters instead of just inviting popular personalities. Maybe it started slowly but now I think that HS casting is improving at a rapid rate.
Last year they had the casting competition that allowed Raven, you and Sottle, among others, to grow so rapidly. Should Blizzard keep hosting these events or will there be a point where we have this solid base?
Eventually we will have a solid base but one thing is for next year, Blizzard have announced so many different programs - the Global Games, the Inn-vitationals, the TeSPA series - there are going to be so many more things for casters to cast. Those who are established will keep honing their skill on HCT, while smaller casters from caster programs, etc., can go and seize other opportunities. There are so many open positions for casters, that I think Blizzard will keep doing it, try to find new talent, because they were very successful this year.
In his book "Talking Esports", Paul "ReDeYe" Chaloner talks a lot about the different types of casting, in MOBAs, in CS:GO... One of the type he mentions is an analytical caster. Do you think that Hearthstone, because of the nature of the game, might be clogged with these types?
Unlike in other eSports, in Hearthstone both casters need an analytical mind
It really does. One thing about Hearthstone is that both of the casters need to have very high game knowledge. Both casters have to have an analyical mind, which is not the case in MOBAs. It's a little bit the case in RTS games, but even SC2 can get away with one caster not knowing as much.
In Hearthstone, that's not the case. There are casters that are more analytical because they are pro players, like Firebat for instance. But because of the thing I talked about earlier, how HS has a poralizing casting styles, there's not a right and a wrong way to have a casting line-up. A duo like Firebat/Admriable is very analytical because they play at the highest level. And then there's like duos like me/Kibler, who might not play on the highest level but have enough game knowledge to where we can get away with bringing a bit more hype and basic understanding.
Neither of those casting pairs are better than the other, they just provide different things, whereas in MOBAs you don't find that. Every pair has the same type of casting. HS is unique in that way. I don't know which one is best, nobody does. It will take a lot of growing to find that.
Do you think fixed casting couples are the way to go?
I think so, yeah. That's a big discussion we had earlier this year, that's why in a lot of HCT you saw the same pairs towards the end of the year. We generally kept the same pairs unless there were sicknesses. It helps you with the synergy, which is very important for HS specifically because there is a lot of downtime. People like me and Dan a lot, because we've cast hundreds of hours together.
We sat down to see what pairs made sense for Blizzcon and there was a good feedback about Firebat/Admirable, Sottle/Raven have casted for ages, and me/Kibler haven't cast that much but we were the odd one out. We worked really hard, though, and I think we became a good pair. Set casting pairs are definitely much better for the future.
Here at Blizzcon we only saw Western-focused casters. Do you think the scene lacks Eastern-focused casters, involved in APAC and China?
Yes, we don't necessarily have many English casters that know much about APAC. DTwo is the only one that comes to mind, he casts a ton of games. There's also Lorinda. DTwo almost made it to Worlds because of his expertise, but for the most part casters that are experts on that region just need to get more experience casting in bigger environments to get to the level the rest of us are on.
Look out for DTwo next year. He's a fantastic caster, he just needs more experience and he'll probably be seen a lot in 2017.
Do you think that's also something other casters need to improve on - getting to know the other regions more?
Yes, that's something I suffer from as well. It's really tough to keep track of all the regions. It's actually good to have a diverse casting line-up, because you bring multiple perspectives. When me, DTwo, Sottle and Firebat are at an event, the information we have on players is crazy.
Casters don't necessarily need to know all regions equally well but they need to work as a team to get all the information.
What's the major thing in HS casting that you want to see improved?
That's a tough one. There are two things: One, across the board, you have to play the game a lot. You have to get good at the game. Hearthstone casting is so hard when you're not playing on high level. The second thing is to have more fun. A lot of Hearthstone casters treat this as if it's so serious. Hearthstone in its core is a fun game. Hearthstone, more than any other game, is about fun and camaraderie, getting together with your friends and playing. Most casters just need to loosen up.
Most Hearthstone casters need to loosen up. The game is fun in its core.
SeatStory is one of the greatest environments for casters, because you are just in a room with 50 players. Everybody is talking about Hearthstone. It's fun but also a think-tank of analysis.
You are not on a team. I imagine you've had offers?
Not really ones that I would consider. It's hard for me to want to affiliate myself with a team without knowing that I am going to get a lot out of the experience. I don't really care about money or huge sponsors. If I am going to be on a team I want to get a lot out of the experience.
I am still open to offers but I kind of like being a lone wolf.
People have criticized casters in the past for lack of knowledge or inability to getting it across. The Hearthstone community can be very harsh on casting. Do you think that's healthy or should there be more understanding?
One of the things about being a good casters is good articulation. There are some pro players that aren't good at applying their strong gameplay to on-desk analysis. But I do think it's necessary. I am a good player but I am not that good at spotting things quickly and applying my knowledge to a broadcast.
I think the criticism is completely valid. It's definitely healthy for casters to have a fire lit under them by the community, because it really drives them to improve. I've had many reddit threads and comments with complaints. It didn't discourage me, it made me want to try harder to improve. Not to prove them wrong, but convince them.
To wrap up: What are we going to see from you in 2017?
One thing is I want to do more content. I worked on the Behind the Scenes of HCT a lot this year, which made me not have much time. I also had to travel a lot for casting. I don't know if I want to stream, because that's a big time investment but I want to make podcasts, I want to do my own interviews.