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TLDW - Uber On The Precarious Position Of Talent In Esports

TLDW - Uber On The Precarious Position Of Talent In Esports
Blizzard Entertainment

Written by 

Sascha "Yiska" Heinisch

Posted 

15th Apr 2022 12:17

The video game casting profession has been under attack. Several prominent casters have rung the alarm bell on declining caster rates and dwindling job security while experiencing a lack of transparency. As co-streaming appears to draw in a new audience, tournament organisers and franchised leagues seem to be reevaluating what their talent is worth. In the Overwatch League, the prominent casting pair of Brennon “Bren” Hook and Josh “Sideshow” Wilkinson had announced that they hadn’t been able to negotiate a satisfying solution with communication breaking down in December of last year.

One who has been a vocal advocate for casting compensation has been Mitch “Uber” Leslie, who sat down with us for a candid interview about the issues in casting compensation, career security, the merits of co-streaming, and where he thinks the Overwatch League is heading.

While we know that it can be hard to commit to an hour-long interview, we recommend watching it in full as the context may otherwise be lost on you. Nevertheless, we have summarised the main talking points. The interview was recorded on March 31st 2022.

The Overwatch League Off-Season Talent Situation

  • Uber felt uneasy about how talent negotiations went down which caused him to actively seek out and understand the position the league was in
  • The budget for talent was set last year by a person who has now left the Overwatch League. Their replacement had to work with that budget. Uber thinks it’s weird to have these set so far in advance without knowing the demands of the league. How these budgets are set remains a black box to Uber, but it appears to be a non-trivial issue
  • Uber cautions that there are more factors than publicly available to all those caster negotiations making the situations more nuanced. However, he believes that the communication between talent and the Overwatch League has been “absolutely horrendous” likely because of the gap left by leaving talent managers and the workload the people managing the talent are under

“The communication between the Overwatch League and the talent has been absolutely horrendous”

  • Uber thinks that if he had not been on a two-year contract, he would be in a similar position as the rest of the talent and would’ve likely been confronted with a correction of his salary

“I was paid a salary to be available at all times during the offseason. I worked three hours in the offseason for the Overwatch League.”

  • Uber felt underutilised and would’ve liked to do more for the League during the off-season
  • As per his contract, Uber is not allowed to cast FPS, MOBAs, or BR games
  • Some casters in limbo weren’t just forgotten about but might have been phased out by the competition. That said, Uber thinks that it’s unfair to judge last year’s performance of talent casting in the APAC region from a North American time zone
  • Casting can feel isolating during COVID with everyone at home. Uber says he had to dig deep to make it work as a lot of his motivation comes from the human element of connection

“Companies like Blizzard are mortally afraid of PR scandals”

  • The Overwatch League has conducted studies with focus groups to evaluate the impact of casters and Uber shared that who casts a game does make a tangible difference in audience opinion
  • According to Uber, the discourse on social media like Reddit and Twitter does significantly impact business decisions
  • Uber thinks that this method isn’t an exact science as the opinion of the vocal minority can be swayed and controlled by some talent
  • Talent has to work about four or five times as many hours outside the broadcast to prepare and stay on top of the action. Uber says that this is specifically problematic when trying to keep up with both Overwatch League regions and the number of games increasing
  • The rates for casters have been roughly the same since basically 2016 in the esports industry
  • Broadcast deals are a big part of sports monetisation but they are harder to come by in esports now. Twitch only signed a big contract with Overwatch League because Bobby Kotick threatened to take Activision Blizzard content off the platform and onto MLG.tv

Co-Streaming As A Competitor

“Co-Streaming, in my opinion, is designed and is used to place your product in a position of cultural relevance”

  • Uber will do co-streaming this year himself
  • 80% of VALORANT Champions Tour viewership comes from co-streaming
  • Sponsors are starting to wake up that those views shouldn’t count for the same as main broadcast views
  • Uber doesn’t take offence to co-streaming and appreciates that the caster audio is still part of the co-stream experience
  • It’s possible that Overwatch League could back to Twitch but the lacking revenue stream of broadcast rights would have to be made up for
  • There is a thread that big streamers will ask developers to pay for them to co-stream and based on influencer rates, it would be a tough expense to justify
  • Talent has asked if they could apply a more loose style to their work that would mirror the tone of co-streams that appears to vibe with the audience but it’s a tough sell from a business side. Uber says the Overwatch League was thinking of doing their own podcast but ultimately it was decided that a product with those restrictions wouldn’t be competitive. Platchat appears to be the logical conclusion following that consumer demand

Endemic Talent Finally Moves Up

“There has been a lot of fear at the Overwatch League about letting [talent] be spokespeople”

  • Talent was told at a PR meeting in the past that they shouldn’t consider themselves spokespeople and instead Pete Vlastelica was going to speak for the League
  • Uber only signed his two-year deal because endemic people like Soe and Mr.X moved into these positions. He initially wasn’t going to sign the contract (because he felt deflated by season 3) but Mr.X and Jon Spector convinced him

Overwatch 2 And Overwatch League Season 5 Outlook

  • Uber thinks because of more endemic talent moving into important positions that Overwatch League season 5 will become even better
  • Uber wants to work to finally get some respect for the work they do at the Overwatch League
  • He thinks that their broadcast team is better than 95% of the industry and he thinks that the perception of Overwatch and Activision Blizzard hurt how the broadcast team was perceived
  • Players are in active communication with the developers about Overwatch 2 gameplay and balance though sometimes a little harshly
  • Uber thinks Overwatch 2 is a better game from a player's perspective
  • Observers will be an important piece of the puzzle to catch the new action
  • Uber is really looking forward to finally cast in an arena
  • Uber humorously remarks that Overwatch 2 is fun but he’s getting dunked on by pro players in matches constantly which is exhausting
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