OWL caster Hex talks the Summer Showdown and his journey as a caster
Speaking with Overwatch League caster Robert “Hexagrams” Kirkbride on, by his account, “the most productive day of his life”, you would think he’d be too exhausted to even consider sitting down for an interview with such a packed schedule. But souped-up on coffee and a good work ethic, Hex made the time to talk with GGRecon over Discord to discuss his reactions to the Summer Showdown, and his journey so far as one of the most prominent casters in Overwatch as an esport. With the miraculous tournament that was the Summer Showdown still fresh in our minds, we asked him his thoughts on the results of the matches.
“Everyone will remember it as the Weekend of Upsets, especially in the early North American brackets, some upsets there, and then the finals. I mean everyone expected the San Francisco Shock and the Shanghai Dragons to be the favourites in both regions and to have those upsets was really fun. I'm always a fan of upsets. One reason I’m a fan of sports and esports is that you always get to be surprised. On paper, it looks like one thing, and then, you still have to play the game. I was really happy with being surprised all weekend, that’s what made it the most fun for me.”
For a lot of people, the resurgence of Genji (after a two-year-long absence since the death of the Dive meta) is what made the tournament. Watching incredible prowess on the hero from players like Sp9rk1e, EQO, and Eileen, sold them on the experience, and the upsets we saw from teams that could utilize the strongest heroes to their highest potential, only added another a scrumptious to the sweetest cake Overwatch League fans have had the luxury to enjoy.
However, for some in the community, the dominance of Genji in this meta only highlighted how over-tuned his most recent buffs were, citing the weekend as further proof that Genji was too over-powered. The most prominent narrative from most of the casters, at least the one’s on the most recent Plat Chat, was that Genji was enabled by a lot of the other heroes in the meta, that are now gone with this week’s hero pool. I was expecting Hex to express some of those same moderate ideas but that was a grave mistake, as I was talking shop with the OG Genji hater.
So yeah, Fuck Genji, because I love Overwatch.
“I might be the worst one to ask about that because I've been saying Genji is OP since the day he was released. I'm bad at playing him and I'm bad at playing against him, so that's my personal bias, but in my opinion, he was the first over-kitted hero. He's got escape, he's got burst, and then Dragon Blade on top. He’s got defence, he’s got offence… I do think some of the changes made to the game and how the game has come to favour burst damage, makes him look a lot stronger than he is, however.”
“The Boston vs Washington series is a great example of how bad the meta could be when you don’t have super top teams playing. ‘Well they have nano-blade they’re going to win the fight’, that basically sums up all of what that series was. I think it's fine to have an over-powered hero for a bit and have a meta revolved around that. My opinion on balance has always been its’s fine if it doesn’t stick around too long, I think that’s when people start to really feel frustrated. To let Genji have a weekend to have some of the best players in the world really show you how it’s done, it was fine."
Short answer, is Genji over-powered? I’ve said for four years Genji is over-powered. I’m consistent at the least!
However, for the next two weeks with bans on Orisa and Ana, two of the biggest Genji enablers in the game, we could see Genji, at the very least be traded out for different heroes this time around. And that sparks a larger conversation on the nature of hero pools, and whether or not this increase to two weeks is good for the League. I asked Hex on how this relates to the League’s enjoyability.
“I think they're better than one-week hero pools for sure. You'd love for teams to figure out their style, what works best for them, you allow teams to get comfortable. I think the level of play overall just ends up being higher gameplay. You have people playing their best heroes and playing the best that they can in the meta that's been established.”
On whether or not Hero Pools stifle team’s ability to deviate from the meta and get creative, Hex added:
“I think that's sort of the red herring of an argument that it stifles creativity. You've seen the meta completely be stagnant when we didn’t have role lock. Teams are going to figure out what’s the best and then every team is going to run that. That's the nature of competitive gaming. Eventually, it’s going to stagnate. So, when people say, 'Oh it stifles creativity!’, not really, not when we had GOATS for five stages. I've always found that argument to be silly that it stifles creativity. I think it makes it easier to watch and much easier to compare teams to each other. Like oh, this team is based around their damage players and this team around their support players. To have consistency helps with watchability for sure.”
HE'S BEEN AROUND THE BLOCK A FEW TIMES
An interesting thing to note about Hex is that he’s one of the most storied casters still working in Overwatch. His resume includes Contenders Season Zero, the Overwatch World Cup, his work casting the Overwatch Premier Series (the Miraculous Youngster era), and of course three seasons with the Overwatch League. One of the things that always peaks my interests about casting in Overwatch is the dynamic between the two broadcasters, how they play off each other. For the first two seasons of the Overwatch League, Hex was paired with Auguste "Semmler" Massonnat, a veteran CS:GO caster, but who didn't really have a lot of experience casting Overwatch when he first started. His newest partner, Jack "Jaws" Wright, has been perfecting his craft on the grindstone of Contenders Europe since early 2018. Not only them, but he could regularly be seen paired with other notable talents like James "Jamerson" Lee, Andrew "ZP" Rush, and Jason Kaplan. I was curious to see how he had to adapt his style, and who he felt he had the best chemistry with.
“I think my strength as a caster, and this may sound like hubris, but I feel like I can adjust my style to bring out the best in the other person. I can enable them to do what they do best… When we did the Overwatch Premier Series, I would do more play-by-play with Jason or I would do more colour casting with Jamerson. I was like whatever you guys need, you do you and I'll adjust to it, being able to morph into whatever makes the best broadcast product. So, I don't think it's any specific chemistry, with any one caster in particular, they’re all my friends. Semmler and I are still very good friends, me and ZP go all the way back, and me and Jaws have forged a friendship as quickly as humanly possible. So it’s not about the best chemistry it’s about the different chemistries, allowing them to play to their strengths and say ‘oh okay I’ll do this then’ and it’s about changing my style to fit other people for the most part.”
To further elaborate on his point, I questioned him on the difference in chemistry between Semmler and Jaws.
“Semmler is such a good, technically sound caster. If there’s going to be a big play by play moment you just let him do his thing. We kind of catered to a casual audience pretty early on, where we’d explain a lot and that upset a lot of the hardcore fans, ‘this is dumb this is terrible’. Well, it’s not for you, we’re doing it for other people. We goofed off a lot, much to our detriment, if we weren’t into a match, you could pretty much tell and I kind of regret some of the times we did that. But if we were into a match, we would get you into it, even if you’ve never watched Overwatch before. We got a lot of compliments from people who were like, ‘I have no idea what this game is about, but you guys make it so fun and exciting, so I’ll watch it.’”
“With Jaws, he’s probably the best player I’ve ever casted. He just has such good inherit game knowledge that he incorporates in his play by play. So, a lot of my analysis is already done by the time it gets to me, so it allows me to really put context around things. I kind of lean more onto a traditional sports broadcast, here’s the time left, here’s what I have to do. It also just lets me not have to super worry about breaking down a play or what you didn’t see was this, because Jaws catches everything. It allows me to really have fun, and because he does so much heavy lifting and so much work during the play-by-play, I want to remind people how fun this game is. A lot of times you’ll hear me laughing or I’ll crack a joke because there’s nothing more to say. ‘You guys saw it! Jaws you said it! Here’s the next fight!’”
“It’s just different styles, Semmler I felt like he hyped it up and he got the plays going, and I had to do deep-dive analysis, compared to, a lot of the time Jaws had already done that. It’s my time to just enjoy the game and have fun. Hopefully, whether people like me or not, they can tell I love the game and I’m having fun, and I think that’s always an infectious product no matter what.”
Of course, which such a wide array of matches to choose from, from silly and scrappy head-scratchers to incredible battles of attrition. I had to ask on what his best cast has been over his four years as a caster. To my surprise, he didn’t really have one.
“I honestly don’t have an answer for that. I try to make every cast what it is. If it’s going to be a toilet bowl, well then alright we’re just going to have fun. I think some of those are my bests casts. I’ll hit a really good joke or there’s something I saw that no one else did. But there isn’t a match that stands out as the match of my life. Even when I’m going to matches that I know are bad, I say “your job is to make this good”. I get this question a lot in AMAs and you know my favourite cast is the one I’ll have next week.”
THE GREATEST MATCH EVER
As a fan of Overwatch esports, I had obviously seen a lot of Hex’s casts from a fan’s perspective. So, I prompted him with what I thought was his best match, one that sticks with me to this day. The 2017 World Cup Quarter Final, South Korea vs. the USA.
“That was like my big break, I guess. I had done tournaments before, but that was like the biggest match of my life so far. It’s Blizzcon right? No matter what anyone says you want to cast a Blizzcon and to get that match… Looking back on it, it is sentimentality, for me and ZP to have done everything that we did and just to be in the booth for that one, together, it was a special moment for sure. I don’t remember the broadcast a great deal because it was such a big thing. I just went into autopilot and I couldn’t tell you a single thing I called. As far as moments in my career go, that one was a giant one. It just felt like the culmination of all the work put in. Just all the 12-hour work weekends we put in for zero pay, just to finally be at Blizzcon like holy sh*t it was all worth something. If it all ended tomorrow, I got here, no one gave me anything, I worked my ass off for this. I got to the biggest stage, with the biggest match, with my bro who I’ve been doing it forever with. As far as moments go, I’ll always remember that.”
The way Hex talked about ZP, how close they seemed and how much of a journey Overwatch has been for the both of them, I wanted to get a clear answer as to why we haven’t had that combination return for the 2020 Overwatch League season, now that both of them are finally together on the broadcast team.
“That one was so complicated. When Semmler was going to leave and I knew that was going to happen, I was just talking to the guys who do the hiring and I was like, ‘Okay what happens now’? They said, ‘Well who do you want to cast with take your pick’. They liked ZP and Jake together though, they saw them work together at the World Cup so that was established. Also, despite it being somewhat hubris, because I’ve worked with so many people, no one’s ever really worried about can you work with this guy. There was hesitation early on with Semmler, but he’s the one who put in a word the wanted to cast with me. We had never worked before, but he looked at a couple of casts, and when he got the option he immediately said ‘Hex, I want Hex.’”
“The off-season was like, they liked Jake and ZP together, they definitely wanted to bring in Jake and ZP enables him so well to do his best. ZP is just as good as anyone at adapting to their co-caster too. If I really pushed for it, I could’ve gotten ZP, but a lot of people were saying ‘Hey Jaws is really good, you should talk about doing it with him. They gave me a bunch of options on who I wanted to cast with, and I said, “Jaws is good, just get Jaws”.
With that, I wanted to get his final thoughts on one last thing, something for the fans to take home. Who had the best homestand that he had been to?
“They all had something going for them it would be really hard to pick!”
But here’s his list of praise anyway:
“Dallas was our first homestand and that organization put on a show. Great event, pyrotechnics, you had Houston playing Dallas, half of that homestand were Houston fans and it was fun just for that rivalry."
"Atlanta, they did it right as well. A beautiful venue, the ownership there treated everybody so well. It was a baller time. The Atlanta ownership was taking everyone to baseball games, and all this really cool stuff. I felt very pampered, it was super fun."
New York to kick off the year, you can’t ask for a better crowd. New York fans are something else. Even back in Season 1 with the NYXL’s homecoming party before the finals, it was amazing. Those fans, they’re crazy.
"Washington, it was such a beautiful venue. The team didn’t play well in front of their fans but the location of that homestand was awesome. Right on the water, right in the middle of downtown D.C, it was absolutely beautiful.”
Hex assures that there had not been a single bad homestand (that he had been to) and that if the world gets back into shape, we can continue to expect amazing things from the 2021 homestands. You can catch Hex and his casting partner Jaws, this Friday for the Paris Eternal vs Vancouver Titans at 12pm PST / 3pm EST, and the Battle for Texas taking place afterwards at 2pm PST / 5pm EST on the Overwatch League YouTube channel. You can also find him on his Twitter, @hexagrams.
All images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment