BLU: "It's what I love to do"
With the rise of Counter-Strike: Global Offensive into the ascendency of esports, one aspect in which fans have been blessed is the amount of talent at the play-by-play and commentary desks. Fans who have been around to see the development of the professional scene have also witnessed the rise of popular casting duos, such as the iconic combo of Anders Blume and Auguste “Semmler” Massonat, who's voices are synonymous with some of the game’s biggest moments. Despite being cemented in the game’s history, they certainly aren’t the only voices the game has to offer nowadays. One such person who has established themselves as a mainstay in the scene is John “BLU” Mullen.
BLU serves as the everyday play-by-play commentator for the North American iteration of the ESL Pro League in its fourth season, as well as traveling to do the same work for ESL and ESEA-hosted events in Europe. He is in a rather interesting position compared to his European counterparts; due to the lack of play-by-play and color commentary that is otherwise abundant in Europe, he is the go-to option for play-by-play in NA, but has been unable to find a consistent partner to aid in his casts. Still, he has been incredibly successful, having worked the finals of the last two seasons of the ESL Pro League and attending ESL One Cologne 2016, his first major as a caster. In this interview, I asked him about casting in today’s climate, his own experiences behind the desk, this season of the Pro League, as well as some thoughts on the NA scene.
You've been quite busy lately: you attended PAX West* with the likes of LeX, Sapphire, and boq, but more importantly, you actually solo casted the ESL New York qualifiers. How was that?
Solo casting is always an interesting experience as you have to sort of find a fine line between not leaving too much dead air and also not entirely exhausting your voice. It’s also very hard to sort of have a conversation with yourself, but it can work. The little event I did at PAX West [which occurred on 9/2-9/5] was also just a fun side event, but I like doing those every once and awhile. It definitely breaks up the monotony especially when you have to do multiple events in the same 24-hour period.
You’re becoming one of the faces, or should I say, voices, of NA CS along with Moses. What is casting like now, as opposed to when you were just starting?
I think the biggest change has just been how busy I am now compared to a year ago. When I was just starting in CS:GO, I would cast maybe two or four times a week at most, but now in the past two and a half weeks, I’ve been doing Pro League from ESL’s Burbank Studio, the ESEA event in Poland, back again to LA, a few smaller casts online in my apartment in between, and over to PAX for the small ESEA event I did recently. It’s certainly fun, getting to go to all of these different places, and the work in general is what I love to do, so I don’t mind being that busy.
As someone with relatively little experience with the game and the scene compared to people like, say, HenryG and Moses who are former pros, what convinced you to make casting Counter-Strike your normal thing?
I was at a crossroads near the end of 2014 as I was sort of losing faith in the game I had been casting previously [Guild Wars]. I had already been playing with it every now and then and started to track the scene, but in the break between semesters at college, I started playing a lot more CS:GO. After meeting a few people in the CS:GO community over the next few months, I was offered a decent chance to fully transition over and make a run at being a CS:GO caster around April of 2015.
One of the discussions that’s arisen this year was the oversaturation of events, notably in the period between IEM Katowice and the last major in Cologne. As a caster, how have you gone about dealing with it?
I don't feel like the oversaturation problem affects casters that much besides just adding more events to our schedules. In a certain way, you could say more events are a good thing, especially for freelancers if they can handle the workload. However, the adverse effects of this long-term have started to show up a bit with the viewership of recent events, and are certainly something the entire community should be thinking about.
I think the death of skin gambling will help with this to a certain degree by knocking out funding for events that shouldn’t have really existed to begin with. Organizations like RGN that were propped up heavily by skin gambling seem to have already disappeared. But there are other factors besides just the pure volume of events, such as the general lack of variety when it comes to the way events are run. Most tournaments seem to be the same show repeating as of late. Even subtle changes, such as the format used, can mix things up every once and awhile.
Speaking of Cologne, you had the privilege of casting FlipSid3’s historic upset over NiP in the group stage. Where does that rank among the games you’ve casted?
That was probably the most memorable cast I’ve ever done. Just in terms of the adrenaline rush you get casting matches like that, it was certainly the most exciting moment for me so far.
Let’s focus on the Pro League now: whereas your European counterparts have several casters to choose from and rotate, you have been a daily go-to for the NA Pro League this season. I imagine it must be tiring, but are you enjoying the challenge?
Like I mentioned previously, I love casting, so regardless of how much I’m asked to do, I’ll always find it fun and engaging. Thankfully, in comparison to normal LAN events where the talent will work for 12-16 hours depending on the length of the games, the Pro League broadcasts are quite short, four to five hours at most, and me living in Los Angeles basically makes Pro League broadcasts the normal work day for me.
He’s the newest face in the NA CS talent pool. How has his sudden transition into casting been?
Erik “da_bears” Stromberg is someone who comes from a rich history of CS. He’s also a very good friend of Moses. We actually had him on for a game during the last season and it went really well, so I was super pumped when we were able to bring him onto the broadcasting team for the full season. It’s been an interesting journey with him, but over the past couple of weeks he’s been transitioning into the role very well in my opinion.
In the same manner, we suddenly had LeX thrust onto the commentary desk and he’s also done a good job. It seems like ESL is trying very hard to get more play-by-play talent out of the NA region?
In the case of dabears and Alexander “LeX” Deily, it’s actually looking for more color talent that’s locally available in NA. The best combo in a cast is almost always going to be a play-by-play commentator (what I focus on) and a color commentator, so we’ve been wanting to try and keep that combo as consistent as possible across the Pro League this season in NA.
LeX has done a great job of providing more in-depth insight into the current NA players and teams, as someone who has been very recently playing amongst the NA pro scene, and dabears brings in a lot of history as well, which can make for very detailed discussions of points to be made in the midst of a cast, especially if there are delays or longer drawn out moments.
Let’s talk about the people you’ve worked with throughout your time casting GO. You’ve worked with many people ranging from seasoned veterans, like Pansy and Moses, to helping bring in new faces, like da_bears and LeX. Not to stir the pot or anything, but is there a casting partner you’ve grown fond of, or perhaps built a good chemistry with?
The few times I’ve been able to do it, I’ve really enjoyed working with Vince “Metuz” Hill, as he’s very easy going and it makes the cast a lot easier to maintain. Amongst the Pro League talent, however, I’ve also found working with LeX to be really interesting and different. Some people may find it an odder combo as I let LeX do a majority of the talking, but in theory, so long as action isn’t happening, he is way more qualified to make judgement and analyze the current situation in the game than I am, so I feel at the moment it’s working out really nicely.
That being said, seeing as you have worked with quite a few people, we also see that you don’t have a true partner a la your European casting compatriots. Does it make casting harder, not having another person to rely on or bounce off of, or do you actually enjoy solo casting just as much?
I certainly think not being an established part of a duo makes things harder as you’re almost always working with different people at every event, and often times these are new people at every event as well, so you sort of have to relearn how to throw between each other, when the other person likes to talk and for how long, etc. Consistently being able to work with the same person is a huge boost since you already know these things going into a cast with that person, and I think it’s a large part of why some of the established duos work so well beyond their other unique merits.
How much CS are you playing nowadays?
Certainly not as much as I’d like. Over the past couple of weeks, I have not really had a lot of time between traveling and casting itself. Thankfully, my schedule is normalizing once again, so I should be able to put some more time in. In general though, it always sucks being restricted from playing due to travel or workload because you feel like you should be better at the game, but because of how limited free time can be, it’s impossible to retain any mechanical skill, at least for me personally.
Now that we’ve talked in-depth about the Pro League commentary desk, let’s take a look at the players too. Who has been your favorite player to watch that switched orgs after this last roster shuffle?
There’s quite a few interesting individual storylines to look at this season. Timothy “autimatic” Ta has been forming himself really well into Cloud9, despite the small amount of time he’s officially been on the team. Wilton “zews” Prado has also been performing surprisingly well, at least in online matches, for the Immortals after being out of the competitive scene for such a long time.
The other big story this season has to be Enkhtaivan “Machinegun” Lhakgv coming over from Mongolia. His first couple of games weren’t amazing, and the communication problems will definitely be an issue. Regardless of how well he actually ends up doing, by the final weeks, I still want to see how well he eventually melds into the team on Splyce.
Are there any teams in the Pro League who have really caught your eye this season, or exceeded your expectations?
Cloud9 has certainly exceeded expectations of how well they seem to be playing together all of a sudden. I was expecting Team Liquid to be the NA frontrunner as far as domestic rosters were concerned, but it seems like Cloud9 is stealing that pretty quickly.
There’s a lot of time before the next major, but that also gives a lot of time for these teams to refine their strats and forge better chemistry. Considering Liquid is the only NA team with legend status, what other NA team(s) do you think have a chance to qualify for and make an impact at the major?
Bouncing off of that last question, certainly Cloud9. Beyond that, I expect it to be tough for other NA teams to even make it to the major considering the amount of threatening teams already going to be present there. At the moment, Echo Fox and OpTic Gaming would be my other frontrunners, but I do not expect them to qualify considering NiP, mousesports, EnVyUs, FaZe, G2, and others will also be looking for spots.
Personal question: any spots, food or otherwise, you’ve been frequenting lately in Los Angeles?
Not really. Without a car, it’s been tricky really being able to explore the city.
Yeah, it is. What about college; how is balancing it out with your workload right now?
As of May 2015, I’m no longer in college. In theory, if I hadn't become fully self sustained from casting, I would have been returning to my old college, RIT, for this semester, but thankfully I’ve been able to reach that goal. I do plan to return at some point in the future. However, it would just not be possible at the current time with how often I am away from home.
Finally, with all you know about casting and all you’ve learned about Counter-Strike, is there anything you can suggest for anybody trying to get into casting?
I can certainly say with the loss of the betting community, it’s harder than ever to get yourself noticed as there are no longer going to be small scale events for new guys to get themselves seen or heard on. Try to make your schedule as open as possible and stick with it, and never say no to a job, no matter how small it is. The two most important things are without a doubt consistency and luck. Keep casting, and eventually, with luck, you will get that bigger shot at a medium-larger event.
What do you think about what BLU had to say? Let us know by commenting below or tweeting us @GAMURScom.