Smashing the competition:
what it’s like to be a professional
video game commentator
D'Ron "D1" Maingrette is one of the premiere commentators for Super Smash Bros. competitions. He has been a caster since 2009. We spoke to D1 when he was recently in town for New York Comic Con.
eSports as a spectator phenomenon has exploded in recent years and Smash, in particular, has come back from the brink of death to find a massive competitive audience. Just as traditional sports commentators guide uninitiated viewers through the complexities of the game and different narratives behind individual players, eSports “casters” are crucial to the experience for a spectator. An enthusiastic, funny, knowledgeable commentator is necessary to take the competition and audience of these sports to the next level and make them more accessible.
Differing from traditional sports commentary, eSports at the professional level are still in their nascent stage, and professional commentators have to serve dual roles as both community leaders and decoders of game knowledge and history. D1 is an example of how infectious enthusiasm for a community can affect others and help it grow.
Below, D1 explains how he found himself traveling the world giving play-by-plays for the best Bro Smashers in the business, as told to Hopes&Fears.
Super Smash Bros., known in Japan as Dairantō Smash Brothers (Japanese: 大乱闘スマッシュブラザーズ), is a series of crossover fighting games published by Nintendo, directed by Masahiro Sakura, primarily featuring characters from franchises established on its systems, including Mario, Fox McCloud, Link, Kirby, Samus Aran and Pikachu. The gameplay objective differs from that of traditional fighters by aiming to knock opponents out of the stage instead of depleting life bars.
Coming up in the game
I always had this dream that there would be a fighter with Nintendo characters, even before Super Smash Bros 64 came into existence.
I didn’t set out to be a caster [game commentator], I started off as a player. Soul Calibur 2 was the first competitive game that I became a participant in, but I always came back to Smash.
At first, I got into the scene for practical reasons. I got waxed in a Soul Calibur 2 competition in New Jersey. At the same time, I was tired of traveling to tournaments. I needed something more local. I found out there were Smash Brothers meetups in Manhattan and events being held in February 2005 at Mutual Grounds, an art stop that was hosted by this NYC crew that was really good at the game. It's then that I realized Super Smash Brothers actually has a competitive scene. Once I attended that event (lost 2 and 0), my life changed.
Instead of getting discouraged, it actually lit the competitive instinct in me. I traveled to events, linked up with players, did my research. I printed out a 13-page thread on how to play Fox McCloud. I would read the techniques over and over on the train to school. I got on a file exchange client that allowed me to join this chat room where all the Smashers had file shares with videos. Back then, it wasn't as accessible. We didn't have Twitch or YouTube. We'd go into each other's file shares and download instructional videos or the latest videos from a tournament that just happened. That's how I learned. People would go out of their way to make stuff on Windows Movie Maker to just teach us the game.
I still remember taking time off or even playing hooky from work just to go to a Smash tournament, just to support. Even if the attendance would be low, I just wanted to show people that, "We're still here. I'm still going to attend and show support to the events."
For a brief period, I got tired of Smash and decided to branch out into the Fighting Game Community (FGC). I was playing Street Fighter. In the FGC, Super Smash was sort of the red-headed stepchild. People didn’t take it seriously and insisted that we were playing it wrong because, in a Smash competition, we turn off the randomly generated weapons in order to make it more skill-based. Smash wasn’t allowed on the main stage of the biggest fighting game competition, EVO. It was always off to the side for amateurs. I liked the FGC scene and traveled to events, but I was really missing the Smash community. It felt like a family, way more familial in comparison to the FGC. It's more intimate. With Smash, you could actually get to know your opponents, speak to them before and after the match, become friends potentially. If you want to be exposed to different play styles, you have to go out of your way and travel to matches; you can't just go online.
"Destruction was actually coined by a good friend of mine, Warrior Knight, back in 2007 whenever I trained with the Smashers in Queens. They had many sayings. Some of them I can't repeat.
It's something we would say if one of us just absolutely demolished someone or got demolished at a Smash-Fest, something that signified that someone got wrecked. Warrior Knight would just scream, "Destruction!!!" really loud. It would make the other person feel really bad. After a while, people just started laughing.
I was on the mic, someone get beaten really badly, and, out of nowhere, I didn't know what else to say other than "Destruction!!!" Apparently the people loved it. I didn't think it was anything special. It was something that my friends and I had just been saying for years. It just slipped on the mic. Ever since then, that became like a catchphrase." -D1
One of our favorite spots, Wonder Zone, shut down in 2008. Ever since then, we'd started seeing a decline in attendance for Smash in New York. When I came back in 2009, I said, "Alright, I'll try to help find the new venue." I helped host events there for Brawl and Melee, and I also cast there with Prog and others at tournaments. I just did it for fun. There was a laptop there and a microphone. It was a hobby. I never knew that it would blow up like this. I'd say between 2009 and 2012, I just kept trying, and I found myself being taken seriously as a caster alongside people like Homemade Waffles, Phil, Prog, and others. People really liked what I did.
Prior to 2013, Apex was Smash's EVO and Apex 2010 was my first ever opportunity to become a professional caster. I made sure to dress the part and did my homework. The main focus was to not only hype up the matches and excite people about the game, but to also educate. Everywhere I go, I always try to learn about the game, because it's always evolving.
I give people a reason to be excited about it. There are a lot of times people will watch a sport or eSport and the person might sound like Ben Stein. It's really tough to want to get into it if they don't sound enthused. Audiences actually want investment.
Professionalizing to thrive
In order to create a viable competitive world for Super Smash, we’ve done our best to make it really accessible. Since 2012, we’ve really tried to make it more inclusive for everybody, and one thing that I’ve had to do as a caster is to choose my words more carefully. When you work with a major competition, they’ll straight up let you know, "Hey, we have sponsors. Don't say this, that, and the other." It’s also about the fact that you just end up alienating people who could be part of the community.
I'd say between 2009 and 2012, there were a lot of words that I probably used in my casting that I shouldn't have, including slurs. We’ve really focused on trying to be progressive and omit words from our vocabulary, because everybody from different persuasions, people of different persuasions are watching and playing. We have to be mindful of them and don't want them to feel like they can't be part of this big family of Smashers. That’s just growing up. Some might see harsh language as a part of the competitive fighting game culture that started in arcades, and they feel a need to preserve the culture they love, but a changing culture allows it to survive.
We’ve had rifts in the community over different versions of Super Smash, some people like SSB Brawl, others prefer Melee. When Brawl came out, die hard Melee fans were like "Woah. Brawl is moving backward." But Brawl, overall, was a good thing because it brought in new players. I wouldn't want to blame a scene die-down on a new game. Instead of sitting back, being a bystander, you have to do something about it, which is what a lot of us started to do.
In 2013, after years of Smash being relegated as a sideshow at EVO, a competition was announced to raise money for breast cancer. The gamer community that raised the most would be allowed onto the main stage at EVO. We all got together and kept inviting people to the "Melee It On Me" podcast to try and spread the word, that it was to get inside the EVO but also that it's for a good cause. Once people realized we were doing something for a bigger purpose, they were like, "Okay, cool, why not." The two camps, Brawl and Melee players, suddenly put their rivalry aside and came together. After years of hearing Melee players basically say, "oh your game is the inferior game," Brawl players stepped up and said, "You know what, we're just going to try to help Melee get in. We're going to work together and see if we can make this happen."
We did it. We raised close to $100,000. We had this big spirit bomb and we won.
And we didn’t stop there as a community. Everyone said, "Alright guys, so we made it this far. Now you have to put your best foot forward. Let's make a good impression with the EVO team, because we've been at EVO numerous times, but never on the big stage." We put on such a good showing that a lot of people came with support. Viewership was really great. It was close. We rivaled Marvel and Street Fighter. We went Smashing at EVO. It was amazing. After that, there was a man named Sandbox who put together the documentary, First Match. When that hit on YouTube, it exploded. People from all over the world realized, "Wow, the Smash community exists." The community is changing. Working together is how we made it, and it changed a lot of people's lives.
D1’s PLAN TO TAKE SMASH TO THE BIG TIME
"This goes far beyond just not saying the wrong words on the mic and making sure that the production quality is high at these events. We want to make sure that there's good audience retention, that we keep people watching, because if they notice the quality is low, they're not going to want to watch. Look at all the other major sports. The production value is through the roof. We have to do that in order for our game to be recognized as an eSport.”
“This is one thing that we definitely struggle with when it comes to FGC and Smash. There are a lot of times where, at an event, one tournament organizes the sites to host an event on this weekend, and on the same exact weekend, another tournament organizer wants to host an event. Things like that will split not only the audience— spectators online—but the attendees.”
“People need to know what's going on in the scene. What are the latest events? What are the new techniques that are coming out? Who are the people that I should care about in this scene? We always have to be on top of that, making sure people know what's going on with that game. Why should they care?”
“This, in my opinion, is the main thing that people have to focus on. If you look at all the other sports games—sports in general—they have one rule set that everyone follows. One league. We're trying to do the same thing in the future, where we get in touch with all the community leaders in each region [and] tournament organizers, and agree on a rule set. For the most part, we do have a standardized rule set for Melee, which is great. That's why Melee is where it's at right now.”
D1's favorite moment
"My favorite moment as a commentator was the opportunity to cast E3 2014 in the Nokia Theater in front of tons of people. Then seeing Mega Man's final Smash hit. When I saw that, the first thing that came to mind was the intro to Mega Man. I went crazy, I was like, "Super fighting robot, de de de de de Mega Man!" The moment I saw that I had to scream at the top of my lungs. I actually lost my voice for the rest of that week. They wanted me to cast at their booth because there was a lot of buzz about me on the Internet after that. I could not get on the mic. I absolutely destroyed my voice. Screaming at the top of my lungs, voice cracked and everything, but the crowd absolutely loved it, because they knew it was pure non-manufactured, unadulterated hype." -D1
What it takes to be a caster
If someone wants to know how to get into the commentator game, I’d have to say that my path was primarily just being part of the community and helping it grow. But as far as necessary skills go, I definitely think that having good voice control is important. Being able to articulate yourself is key. There are a lot of people who will get on the microphone and it's really hard to not want to press the mute button. It's not really their fault. English might be their second language for one thing. But there are a lot of people who use, "Umms, uhhs, likes" or they stumble over their words. You have to practice public speaking. You need great voice modulation, pausing, perfect control, great breathing, so you have to do breathing exercises. Things that voice actors and actors do.
Even before that, a potential caster has to play the game first. You can't just jump into the commentary booth and not know anything about the game. No one will want to listen to you. Invest a lot of time into the game, do your research. Understand the basics, like conditioning your opponents, stage positioning, pressure, baiting, footsies, all of these things. Knowing when to forego going for an optimal punish in favor of a punish that will yield a 50/50. All of the technical particulars. After that, everything else will fall into place.
You don’t necessarily have to be a great player to be a great commentator, but you should be studious. I feel like I'm intermediate. I try to keep myself rounded. I let others let me know if they think I'm a great player. I never want to say, "I'm a great player" myself. There are a lot of top players who, when they hop on the mic, probably might not be the best speakers, but they can break down situations for you better than a person who is not on their level. They'll see a situation and, boom, they'll tell you three steps ahead what can happen if the opponent does this or that. They'll have an answer for everything.
Once you’ve got the voice and technicals down, personality comes in, but it shouldn’t overshadow the narratives, the storylines letting people know who these players are and who the characters are on the screen. When I was a younger caster, I used to fall back on a lot of catchphrases and inside jokes, but now that I want to make the commentary more accessible and more inclusive, I try to stay away from that and focus more on just the game. I feel like ever since then, I gotten more reverence as a caster and more respect from everybody in the scene. They realized, "Hey, this guy, he's not just a one-trick pony. He actually cares about what he's doing. We can see he's making the necessary changes to become a top level caster."
Super Smash documentary
"After the documentary especially, people started realizing Smash was getting bigger. Smash blew up. Right after that release on YouTube, it exploded. People from all over the world realized, "Wow, the Smash community exists." There were so many narratives. It put a face to a lot of the names of the top players. Ever since then, Smash became more mainstream." -D1
I feel like people still don't recognize eSports as a legit thing overall. Yes, there are more and more people that are warming up to it, but there are still people out there that might regard us as basement dwellers. I do see things changing for the better. ESPN has hired a full-time eSports contributor. Counter Strike is going to have a weekly on TBS. League of Legends held their tournament at Madison Square Garden. That was a big thing this year! People were talking about it all over the world.
People actually make careers out of this. Not only as players but as community managers. [There are] people who are doing outreach, content creators, casters—the list goes on. I do believe that eSports are going in the right direction, and I'm happy to see there are companies that are more open to actually doing eSports shows or hiring people that specialize in eSports.
I feel like, in this day and age, a lot of casters that took a break are coming back. Smash is getting bigger than ever, and there are so many opportunities for everybody in this game to get picked up by some eSports company or get sponsored by a team. Now, because of all the momentum that Smash has, no one is stopping.
How much do casters get paid?
$500 - $2,000
“It's all dependent on the budget of the event, of course. There are certain events that are small scale where you know they can't pay out four figures, but you want to work with them. There aren't that many people out there that have opportunities to become affluent casters. They can't make it; not too many people are able to make casting a sustainable thing. Once you prove yourself, once you have a nice portfolio, people see, 'Hey, you've done all of these jobs and you have a great outreach.; That's when people start giving you the high breaks. People realize that a caster with a following will not only draw more people to the event, but it will also have more people want to tune into the stream."