IPL5 Interview: TotalBiscuit on Axiom, Shootmania, and the state of pro StarCraft 2

TB_and_Apollo

John “TotalBiscuit” Bain is one of gaming’s premier video personalities and an increasingly prolific caster and eSports commentator. He was at IPL5 to cast StarCraft 2 and a bit of Shootmania, but also to support the brand-new eSports team he recently started with his wife Genna “Intricacy” Bain: Axiom eSports.

While Intricacy and Axiom’s players unfortunately eluded me at IPL5, I did have a chance to talk with TotalBiscuit shortly before the finale to the IPL5 StarCraft 2 tournament and get his thoughts one where things stand with Axiom, whether Shootmania can put FPS eSports back on the map, and what the future holds for StarCraft.

PCGamesN: So the first thing I wanted to talk about was the launch of Axiom. I know that Genna is team manager –

John “TotalBiscuit” Bain: Yeah, Genna is manager and my role is sponsorship and promotion.

PCGamesN: But I imagine you work fairly closely on managing the team. So after the collapse of SlayerS, you picked up a few of their players and in particulary Ryung has done really, really well since joining you. It sounds like when he joined you, he was pretty unhappy. Can you talk about the role of management in helping him realize his potential and find his passion for the game again?

TotalBiscuit: Well, I think the SlayerS situation for Ryung was a little bit awkward. He’s known as the forgoteen son of BoxeR for a good reason. He’s always been overshadowed by other players on the team, including BoxeR himself, as well as MMA. He’s been putting on good results for ages. He’s been a constant Code S fixture, really. When he dropped out of Code S, he immediately got back in there by beating Flash, of all people. So he wants to stay in Code S all the time and he’s got the determination and work ethic to make that happen.

My perception was that – Koreans are very humble about their results. And they’re also not necessarily looking for fame and fortune. But they are looking for a little bit of recognition. And he wasn’t really getting it. Which is really not fair, because this is a guy that is a TvT god. He’s arguably the best TvT player in the world right now. And his other matchups have improved dramatically over the last few months. His Terran v. Zerg is really strong, his TvP is stronger than it was. It was considered his weakest matchup. I don’t feel that he was close to hanging it up per se. But he was certainly frustrated. The SlayerS situation was bad for everybody. We saw plummeting results from a lack of team coherency and the fact that everything was shattering. And they could see it coming to an end.

PCGamesN: CranK was kind of painted as a bad seed.

TotalBiscuit: Right, and that’s what was painted anyway by Jessica. Other SLayerS players not so much. The impression that I got of the overall player relations is that CranK is definitely not considered that at all. And every time we’ve seen him come to foreign tournaments, he’s always sort of looked-up-to. He’s one of the older players. He has a long history in Brood War, and he’s considered to be a very trustworthy individual. He’s also someone that has already been through his military service. So he’s considered a very responsible, very disciplined individual. So to hear that about CranK was grim, actually. And honestly, it seems like there was just this massive slash and burn thing going on as Jessica essentially burned-out and will not have any further role in the StarCraft 2 eSports scene.

I feel honestly that stuff is kind of behind us now. It isn’t really referenced anymore.

PCGamesN: Having recruited from that experience, does that affect team management? How you effectively lead, counsel, and motivate your players?

TotalBiscuit: It actually is, yeah. From a sponsor standpoint, that’s not something I personally organize, but I know how it works. The way we actually run our team is pretty hands-off from a player management standpoint. They go to the tournaments they want, they get their accommodation flight, and then everything runs nice and smoothly so they can focus on the game.

And the people who are experts in the game, not us. Certainly not a coach or anything. Nothing along those lines. So honestly, it comes down to their personal work ethic. It also comes down to the way we recruit. We’re incredibly selective. We consult all of our players about each potential recruit. We do extensive research in Korea. We don’t just look at western results. We have people on the ground in Korea and we look for the story behind the results. We’ll see a player doing really well, but then we’ll do our research and find out: this guy’s actually difficult to work with, and he wouldn’t fit in with our team dynamic.

So for us, our management role is kind of as facilitators and as protrectors, as well as employers to these guys. And the way that the house works is determined by the players themselves. And so far, it’s been very successful. We’ve seen the best result from Ryung ever [Ryung made it to the Code S Semifinal].

And that all happened, including the preparation in the house the guys are currently in, not in the SlayerS house. So I feel that while the Korean practice model is the dominant one, and rightfully so because it consistently produces the best results, I feel that some players can benefit from a different approach. And if they have a strong work ethic and, more importantly, belief in the team’s idea, and the notion behind what the team represents, if they believe in that that will actually drive them forward and give them the motivation they need to succeed and excel.

PCGamesN: Do you have a goal for a certain team size?

TotalBiscuit: Yeah, Genna stated we’re looking for six and I would tend to agree with that. Our primary goals are to compete in GSL as well as foreign tournaments, and also to be a presence in GSTL and IPTL. But in order to make that happen, what we have to do is have a squad of six. Because you just can’t register for this stuff otherwise. So we’re looking for six eventually. It’s taken some time to get there. We don’t anticipate to have six – at least I don’t, as a sponsor, because I’m looking at the finances and seeing what can we afford, what can’t we afford – I’m not anticipating six for at least another six months, maybe even longer than that.

So we’re going to build this squad slowly, we’re going to continue to test in foreign tournaments, we’re going to continue pushing in GSL, we’re going to get Miya back into Code A, we’re going to make sure that Ryung succeeds again in Code S, since his participation is now assured, and as regards to CranK, he can do what he wants. He’s obviously having to manage his play time carefully because of his injuries, which are not getting any better. So he has to be careful how much he practices, and focuses on very specific tournaments. He has a lot of interest in foreign events, and has been performing very well at them. So he may very well be the guy that we bring to all of the foreign events.

PCGamesN: Speaking about this weekend, I saw you had a chance to do a bit of Shootmania casting. Can you share your impressions of that as a casting experience and a spectator sport?

TotalBiscuit: I think it’s really interesting. I think that it’s going to take an awful lot of work to get people to connect with it because the game mode is very unusual.

[Note: Shootmania’s tournament used Elite mode, in which two teams take turns attacking and defending. The twist is that while the defender used all three players at once, there was only one attacker each round, who had only a minute to either kill all three defenders or capture the point.]

For me, as an eSports spectator, I actually really like the game mode. I think it’s great. It’s very different. It’s all about clutch plays. It’s all about these really short rounds. It’s almost like micro-games. A game ends in a minute. That’s actually really cool! Because everything starts again, and you go through the various rounds. It’s actually a high-octane, very, very tense game mode. I appreciate it because I appreciate the skill that’s on display.

Unfortunately, I fear that some people won’t because the game is quite simplistic on the surface. You’ve only technically got two guns, and you only have one depending on which side you’re on. You’ve got the rocket or you’ve got the rail. And at the end of the day, the objective is the same in every round. You kill the defenders or the defenders kill you. It’s really that simple.

So I don’t know if Elite is going to be the competitive mode going forward. It seems to be the one they’re pushing right now. But Shootmania has the possibility to build anything. That’s the cool thing about it. Same thing with Trackmania. So if the community takes over and finds a better mode that everyone likes to watch, I suspect that’s what will happen. They’ll move into watching that one.

PCGamesN: Do you feel Shootmania is so pared down and focused on that pro experience that it might be a little exclusionary for more casual players?

TotalBiscuit: That’s possibly the biggest risk. I don’t think it’s exclusionary for casual players, but it is for casual viewers. It’s not that exciting for some people because thereisn’ta lot of variety in it. And it’s funny that eSports fans need that variety. They need like a hundred champions, they need three races with all sorts of units and compositions. Whereas someone watching soccer or American football – it’s the same players with a ball. And the same pitch every single time. So it’s really odd that we see that divide there.

But from a player’s standpoint, the simplicity of Elite modeisn’tactually relevant. Because they’re probably not playing Elite mode. They’re playing free-for-all or — There’s all sorts of modes that they can participate in, and new mods are being created all the time! And some of those do have more than two weapons. You can build as many weapons as you want in the game, in theory, as long as you actually create the game mode to make that work.

So it comes down not to how inclusive it is to players, but how inclusive it is to viewers. And whether you can sell that idea to viewers. But I would agree that there is the potential that it is too simple for a lot of people. And that’s actually some of the feedbackwe’vegot when I cast the first tournament. They said, “This is boring, because there’s nothing to it.” And unfortunately, it seems like people don’t just respect pure skill as it were. They need to see more variety.

PCGamesN:Obviously this is a major tournament for IPL. How have they stacked up next to like MLG, DreamHacks, etc.?

TotalBiscuit: I think IPL5 is arguably the most stacked tournament we have ever had in the west. And it’s pretty competitive with MLG Dallas. MLG Dallas falls slightly beneath it. The only reason, though, that IPL has managed to stay ahead of it is just the fact that they had such an amazingly stacked bracket from the very start. Because we don’t have an open bracket, it means that even the guys being knocked out in the first round are really high caliber players.

MLG has the open bracket. Which often means there are some rises from the open bracket that are pointless to follow, because they usually involve guys going up against silver leaguers, gold leaguers, mid-tier foreigners, or even terrible foreigners. And thatdoesn’twork out well for spectators. But IPL5 has been stacked from the start. MLG Dallas had the advantage of KeSPA players. And that’s the biggest thing.

But I feel that IPL5 does edge it out, and from a production standpoint, from a lack of downtime on the main stage, there’s no question that IPL5 blows every other tournament this year out of the water. You can’t argue with that. And if you do, you’re silly. Because they’ve done it so well. GOMTV [the Korean StarCraft 2 broadcasters who produced IPL5]knows what they’re doing. Better than anyone else in the industry.

PCGamesN:It seemed like just a couple months ago with the Destiny post, it seemed like the StarCraft community was ready to start chiseling its epitaph. Do you think that fear has subsided? Do you look forward to Heart of the Swarm reinvigorating the scene?

TotalBiscuit:We’vehad the great fortune of having two amazing tournaments which have hit record viewers. MLG Dallas and IPL5 have been great tournaments. That reinvigorates the community. When they see an amazing tournament, they come back and say, “Oh, you know what? This doom and gloom? It’s actually not so bad. This was just a guy, one would argue a mid-tier pro, some would now argue a League of Legends players, saying SC2 is dead and gone and — and hedidn’teven say that. That’s the funny thing. People from both sides took his comments out of proportion. His fanboys went crazy with it, and then his haters. Of which he has many. As many as he has fanboys. They said, “He’s completely wrong!”

And the truth is somewhere in the middle. His concerns were valid to some degree, but I think the biggest concern right now is there’s this really big spectator perception of imbalance. This must be addressed in some way. Because the Zerg situation right now continues to hurt tournaments. And a great example — Correlation doesn’t equal causation, as any scientist will tell you, but consider this: they were looking at over 100k concurrent viewers just on one stream for MLG Dallas when Flash was playing in the semifinals. As soon as Flash was eliminated by Life and a Zerg v. Zerg final was assured, viewership dropped by tens of thousands. It was huge.

And the players in the finals were good players! GSL Code S champion Life was playing! It was just an incredible series. But people don’t want to watch that. They want to watch Terran v. Zerg, Protoss v. Zerg, or Protoss v. Terran. That’s where the game shines at its best. And they haven’t had the chance to do that because of this balance issue. So Blizzard has to address it in some way. As for how they intend on doing that, well,we’vebeen waiting to see for the past five or six months. And the last major patch was a long time ago. So I think they’re trying to hold out for Heart of the Swarm.

I feel HotS can fix things, but it can also break things even further beyond recognition. At least it will break them in a different way, though, and that’s important. It gives them a good few months of people being interested in what the new metagame is before they realize, uh-oh, it’s really imbalanced. It’s worse than it was before.They’vegot to fix it. And of course, if they don’t do it properly, yeah, that could be the nail in the coffin. It’s in Blizzard’s hands. But I think the community will support these great players, and these great tournaments, and the sponsors that are making them happen. And I think we can rely on them for that as long as we don’t keep having this status quo go on for the next year.