Hearthstone’s competitive scene has evolved significantly over the last 12 months, thanks, in part to Blizzard actively trying to grow it as an esport. That has meant new competitions, globe-trotting events and higher production values. While all that changed, however, a handful of things stayed the same, such as the core casting personalities who provide insight into high-level play during tournaments, and keep the broadcasts entertaining when players are simply thinking.
Among those personalities is the UK’s Raven, who – usually paired with Sottle, also from the UK – has an easygoing style all his own. I caught up with him at the World Championship finals in Amsterdam (you can watch the final day of competition here) to find out how he became a caster, how he sees his role and what it’s like doing this for a living.
IGN: Can you give me a little bit of your background and how you got your foot in the door as a caster?
Raven: Okay. So, I used to help run an event called Manchester Barcraft, where I live at home in Manchester. And that was back in the day when I used to play StarCraft a lot. And I think I started in Gold or Silver league but I’m quite a competitive person so I ended up in Masters and ended up going to events, and competed, but within the U.K., it was a small scene so not really high-level but I was okay.
IGN: How many years ago was that?
Raven: Oh, that was maybe five to six-ish, around that time. So I tried my hand at that but the second I discovered esports through StarCraft, I was in love. That was it for me. I’ve played games all my life. Played WoW for like ten, twelve years or something. That was everything.
The second I discovered esports through StarCraft, I was in love. That was it for me.
But when Hearthstone got announced I was like, “Oh okay, this game looks awesome.” I like card games. And I played WoW for years, so obviously Hearthstone was very appealing. So I decided I’m going to play this a lot, give it a go. I enjoyed it a lot and then I started competing.
I had a full-time job so I used all my holidays to go to events, which was tough, but I managed it. I was competing in the U.K. tournament. It’s called Insomnia. It’s like a big LAN tournament, it used to be at least. And I finished, I think, third place. A player called Kaldi, who used to play for Fnatic, beat me in the semifinals and Greensheep ended up winning. But that was a pretty strong performance for some random person, knocking around playing some Hearthstone, so that was good. Won my first prize money there.
And after that a team picked me up and I was a player for a while, so I tried to compete. Unfortunately I didn’t do too well in qualifiers and stuff, but after a very short time, me and one of my teammates, Aquablad – I used to be team mates with Sottle as well – but we were running the UK Facebook Hearthstone page and then we started running many tournaments for UK players. So we’d play in them, then the next step was, “Should we just cast these instead? Just run it? Why not?” No one was asking us to, no one paid us of course. It was just, “Should we just do it?” So we did.
I sucked at casting, but I enjoyed it and I thought why not?
And then it was at another Insomnia I got knocked out pretty early, but then they asked me to cast the finals. That’s like a guest caster. One of my teammates who was in the finals was like, “Yeah. I like talking about Hearthstone.” So I did. I enjoyed it, and a few people were like that was quite good, you know. It was actually really bad. I sucked at casting, but I enjoyed it and I thought why not? I just like doing things, like I was running the Barcraft events at the time. I kind of want to be doing something at all times.
And then, after that, because I was on a team and because I cast on a broadcast before with a decent amount of viewers, the small organisations that were running a lot of online events at the time were like, “We kind of need someone. Do you want to do it?” Of course.
And then it kind of snowballs. I think the thing that really kicked off my career was kind of weird. I was going to play at DreamHack Winter 2015. Two days before I was due to fly out- I spent weeks prepping. I was still working full time and that was like weeks prepping. Then, Suede, the head admin and kind of organiser of talent and stuff over there messaged me and was like, “Do you want to just cast it instead?”
And I was like, “Yes. Yes, I do.”
Raven: And especially then, I was casting with, like, Frodan, Gnimsh, who is now obviously working for Blizzard. He was a great friend. Frodan, Gnimsh, Lothar– I think Firebat was there. So, I was like, “Yes, I want to cast with these people.” I’ve been doing like online casts with random friends and stuff. It was amazing, and from then- You do one DreamHack and as long as you don’t mess it up, people will probably need casters again. And then it started to snowball and then just two years ago, Blizzard did the “think you can cast?” I had already had some experience under my belt with DreamHack, and after Blizzard picked me up for HCT, which was insane – I just didn’t think it would happen – then it kind of went nuts from there.
IGN: What a dream.
IGN: So, how has your relationship with the game changed as a result of going from being an aspiring player to commentating on it and being a voice of authority in covering the scene?
Raven: Yeah. There’s a certain level of stress removed because I don’t have to sign up for qualifiers and get knocked out three times. So, you know, I don’t go to LANs and 0-2 out of a DreamHack.
So, there’s a certain level of stress removed, but also the breadth of knowledge I need is way wider. There is an extremely high level of respect for all the pro players because they know way more than I do in terms of intricacies, because they’re the pros and I’m not. Right? But I am expected to know so much. I think Hearthstone is one of the few esports where the casters are expected to be as good as the players for some reason in viewers’ minds. “Oh, the caster missed this intricate play,” but it’s like, it happens. We’re not as good as some of the best players in the world.
I think Hearthstone is one of the few esports where the casters are expected to be as good as the players for some reason in viewers’ minds.
But you really need to be on point. I feel like if I go on holiday for a week with some friends, I feel like I don’t know what is happening in Hearthstone anymore. I feel like it’s just constant. The meta can change in a day. Someone releases a list they got top 1 with and you need to know that list. If we don’t know up to date information and we don’t have a good knowledge of the meta, we look quite ridiculous. It’s my job to know.
IGN: So, to be good at this job, you need a serious work ethic. Like, what kind of prep-work goes into coming here, for instance?
Raven: I think it varies caster by caster. Everyone does their own thing. For me, one, it helps for something like this – I know all of the players quite well. Just because of pure experience. I’ve been to events. I’ve talked to them. Mainly, I like to work on storylines. What are the interesting stories for these players because we can talk decklists till the cows come home. We can talk about this player won this tournament in this year or that which is all good information. But, I’m more bothered by why is this player here? What does it mean to this player? What happens if this player wins? What does it mean to them? What does it mean to Hearthstone? Because the effect of who is the World Champion is actually pretty impactful on the scene. You look at the differences between Ostkaka being a bit quiet as a World Champion, and then Firebat, y’know, running tournaments, commentating, still streaming, still playing. The impact is quite huge.
So, I mainly look at what stories I want to tell, then when we get to the event and have a chance to sit down with all the players – I think we get just over an hour with each player just to sit and just go at them basically – I see what they think of things and then alter the stories just to see what they want to tell. That’s my main focus, but I know other casters look at tons of stats, look at tons of potential deck lists, line-up intricacies, what line-up is favoured with this percentage? It’s not that I don’t do that, it’s just that my focus is on the stories of the tournament.
IGN: Everybody’s got to have a different style, right?
Raven: And I’ve got Sottle for that.
IGN: The emotional, off the pitch narrative is really important in traditional sports, and obviously it’s important here too. And you’re also trying to bring people in, but your commentary has to be kind of high level at the same time as just explaining things. It’s a really delicate balance.
Raven: It’s really hard to walk that line. The second we- me, especially, I’ve had criticism a lot in the past – I don’t go in-depth enough, on a super high-level play. That’s completely fine criticism. I’ve listened to it. I’ve worked on some things, but in general, our commentary isn’t for the 0.0001% of the top. Pros don’t need us to tell them what the good plays are. They know. But, I mainly think of how can I translate some of this stuff Sottle says for new players? Sometimes, I literally explain what a card does, and that’s almost laughable to a strong player because of course they know what the cards do. But, especially the World Championships – people might just tune into this once a year and just say, “Oh, it’s Worlds. Okay. Click.” They won’t know what the card does, so why is that card important? I think it’s very difficult to tow that line whilst casting, but I think it’s the important one to hit because you don’t want to pander to players that obviously know things. You don’t want to be saying stupid things to people who already have the knowledge, but you need to understand that a lot of people don’t.
IGN: So, is that one of the advantages of effectively always being paired with Sottle? You can complement each other and work together.
I play the viewer in a lot of our conversations. ‘Why is this good? What does this match up look like?’
Raven: Oh, 100%, yeah. Can you imagine two Sottles on a desk? It would be horrible. We are two different sides of the same coin more or less. Just as much as Sottle is extremely good at analysis – I think he actually gets his points across in the most concise and easy to understand way – I kind of try and soften the analysis, right? Because someone can look at a spreadsheet. Some people like it. Some people can’t look at it. Right? And don’t want information displayed that way. So, I try to keep narratives going. I try and – it sounds really stupid, and again I have a lot of negative feedback about this, but, I play the viewer in a lot of our conversations. “Why is this good? What does this match up look like?” Yes, I know, but I’m not asking for that. I think we bounce off of each other pretty well. And we’re very opposite in a lot of ways.
IGN: Except in your belief that face is the place.
Raven: Sure. Of course. Yeah. You’ve always got to smack ‘em in the face. But yeah, we go very, very different paths, but I think we’ve cast together more than any other duo you could make in Hearthstone now, which is nuts in itself. And we’ve gotten decent at making it work between ourselves even though we’re both very different.
IGN: It’s cool to have the U.K. so heavily represented on the world stage too.
Raven: We’re taking over. The casting squad available now is very heavily U.K. We have L0rinda, I mean Falcone is here actually doing the panels, Darroch is one of the newer up and coming casters. Me and Sottle think it’s very important – as well as all the other casters – that we continue to get casters. Right? We can only physically be in so many places at any given time. There’s a lot of events going on, especially with the 2018 circuit. I cannot teleport, unfortunately, so we were always looking for new casters and new people interested in getting into it.
IGN: What’s the best gig you’ve had to date?
Raven: Okay. The best? I can actually probably put it down to a moment to be honest. Not this past BlizzCon, but the one before. That was my first BlizzCon ever. I’ve played Blizzard games since Diablo 2. So, for many many years. The fact that I can even do anything in esports is insane. Then, I got to walk out onto the Blizzard stage on my own and host something. It was insane.
I’m actually stepping onto a BlizzCon stage and hosting a Hearthstone event. It’s kind of stupid in the best of ways.
At first, I thought- I used to have really bad public speaking skills when I was younger. I literally couldn’t talk to people. Now I do this. It’s kind of laughable. But, at first when I got asked to host on the stage for a good chunk of the day, I was like, “I’m going to be very nervous.” There’s like thousands of people in front of me watching. When I actually got asked to do it, and I was like, “Yeah. Of course I’ll do it,” because you just don’t say no, then, instead of fear, I was excited. I’m actually stepping onto a BlizzCon stage and hosting a Hearthstone event. It’s kind of stupid in the best of ways. So, that was the moment where I was like – if this all ends tomorrow, I’ve had a very good run. I’m pretty happy.
IGN: How about this year? What are you looking forward to most? There’s a lot going on. I mean HGG is back and there’s all sorts of cool stuff happening.
Raven: Yeah. This year’s going to be really good. I think what’s going to be even better for Hearthstone this year is – we’ve got tons of tournaments, HCT is obviously carrying on, HGG’s back again for its second year – but for me, with the Master’s System, it’s more storylines, right? “Oh, hang on, if he wins this DreamHack, is he now this many points closer? And how many points away?”
And we saw, for example, the Zalae/Muzzy race this year for Last Call. Muzzy literally said in one of his interviews, “Yeah, I didn’t want to go to Montreal for DreamHack. I saw Zalae said he was going, so I literally just sat and booked my ticket and went.” Because he had to, because he’s got to keep up. Stories like that are very interesting. Knowing that we’ve asked all these players “are you going for three stars Masters?” They’re like, “Oh, yeah.” Seeing that develop, we see more players at live events. We see more players in qualifications. More players in general going for it. And the story of who makes it, who quits, who doesn’t get there, who has that final push at the end of the year to make it- very very entertaining.
IGN: I guess that kind of goes for the Pro Team Standings as well.
Raven: Exactly. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I wouldn’t be surprised – I don’t know if they exist at the moment – but Hearthstone fantasy leagues, I can see happening. I don’t know if there’s one. There might be one right now. There might not be, but that was something I definitely thought about. You could just build your own team and add up the points and see. It’s very entertaining, again. But, the fact that it’s not even at minimum the same again as this year. This 2018 is going to be the same again, plus this, this, this, this, this, and this. And even the events themselves, from Championships, from play-offs in winter to now, and then for the World Championships. The shows themselves are only getting better and I’m not just saying that because I work on them… the production team are amazing. I don’t think anyone really does Hearthstone as well as with this production team. There’s tons of stuff coming up this year. Can’t wait.
IGN: Awesome. Well, thanks very much for your time!