Earlier this week, I was able to chat with Gabriel “Lyrical” Cruz. We had a great conversation about casting, the evolution of DotA as an Esport, among a lot of other things. Huge shoutout and thank you to Lyrical for taking the time to chat with me. You can find his Twitch and Twitter accounts at the links provided.
You can also listen to the audio of this interview at our new DotA Podcast “Secret Shop Talk”. Part of The Game Haus’ Soundcloud lineup.
Without further adieu, enjoy!
Eli: Well we’ll start out with just an easier one. So when did you know that you wanted to make Esports casting a career specifically in DotA 2? And when did you know that it was something that could actually take you somewhere?
Lyrical: I think it was always going to be DotA probably if I was going to be doing anything. I didn’t really have an idea that I wanted to do something until it had kind of already happened. If that makes sense? I was casting in-house leagues just for fun with my friends because they would, you know? They have these matches that would go on every night after work I would come home and play some DotA. Or I would like sit in the lobby and watch those people who would be casting them just for fun because you know you want to make it feel like the game has a little bit more meaning.
Somehow it feels like that’s the case; people are casting it and talking about it it feels like it kind of elevates it something beyond just a regular game that you’re playing. It’s cool to hear people talk about stuff. And so from that I kind of just started casting. And then people said I should keep doing it. And it kind of just grew from there so it was never really like a conscious thought of what needed to happen. It was more just something that happened.
And I think the first time that I realized it could actually go somewhere was when I had been doing it for a little bit. And there are a couple different points but probably the first time I had made you know that it could be something was around the time that I started to get noticed by this company called HeflaTV which I put out a big reddit post saying that I was going to cast these games for TI5 because I wanted to cast the group stages for it and I just wanted to see if people would be interested in it at all and then I got in touch with HeflaTV which is somebody that used to do the Tier 2 scene. And they brought me on for some more stuff so that was probably the first time.
Eli: You’ve been around the scene for how long would you say then?
Lyrical: I think that it was October. Around the time that 6.20 came out. When I first started playing DotA. Actually like being a person in the scene the first event I ever went to, the first time I think anybody really heard my name, was the Frankfurt Major Qualifiers so however long ago that was. I’m not exactly sure how long ago that was.
Eli: And yet it really just with every patch that comes out every tournament feels like years and years ago when it might not even be that long.
Lyrical: So the fall of 2015. And that’s like two years ago I guess.
Eli: Where the scene’s at right now, you’re almost a seasoned veteran.
Lyrical: Yeah, I guess!
Eli: How have you watched the scene change over those two years and how do you think it might have changed for the better and sometimes for the worse?
Lyrical: Let’s see. How has it changed. Probably the biggest thing will be the implementation of the Major-Minor system. That was obviously something that had just gotten started with the Frankfurt major because that was the very first one that came around, and it was an experiment. They kind of made a first iteration of it that it had its ups and its downs.
The ups was that there was, you know, these big tournaments that everybody had kind of plan around. The downsides with those big tournaments is that everyone still has to plan around. Where it kind of ran into trouble with third party events, then they made the new iteration of it which is the next year where there are just two majors. That was a little bit stronger I think because you were planning around the big tournaments that were happening but there was more room for third party events and now we’ve moved on this year where it’s very different in that the third party events have become the majors.
Also they’re more marketable. So it feels like each time we’re kind of moving in a direction that’s aiming to fix the problems that happened before and it feels like we’re getting closer. I just want to see what the next round of iteration is. Besides that there’s not really a ton outside of the game specific things. You know obviously has been a ton of changes to DOTA. But that doesn’t really affect the macro sense of what’s happening in the scene.
Eli: So moving on. As a caster, how have you had to adapt specifically this year with all the increase in Tier 1 events?
Lyrical: The biggest thing for me is all the qualifiers. There’s a ton of them going on right now. And in some ways it’s kind of tough and in other ways it’s good. On the one hand you get a lot of new opportunity for up and coming casters. For instance I know that today was some Moonduck stream games going on that they couldn’t have the main Moonduck casters on it because they’re all coming back from Dotapit so they had other people that were filling in for them. That’s really cool because it gives a lot of opportunities for up and coming people that you know try out their hand. From my point of view it’s really tough because if I’m going to some events it means that I’m not able to cast as many of the qualifiers. And I kind of just go from event to event when they’re happening and that can be tough to keep up with what’s going on in the rest scene.
But it just means that it’s more opportunity to put in hard work and grow from that. The other big thing is that it’s sometimes a little bit nuts. So for instance during the games that I was casting today it was like Vega versus Empire which normally is this absolutely huge event but because there’s like three other tournaments that are going on. It also means that the viewership is split between those three whereas before it would just be like one main headlining stuff. So it means that there’s more opportunities for viewers to pick and choose from what they want. And also it’s less clear that this tournament is going to get this amount of viewership which can be kind of tough, I’d imagine, for tournament organizers.
Eli: Do you think with all the planning that went into doing all these majors this year is that saturation going to show up in the marketing numbers. Like the business side of it. How do you think that saturation might affect the scene?
Lyrical: I think whenever you have competition, I mean really because that’s what it is that you’re talking about, is saturation, is mainly just competition. So you’ve got tournament organizers that are competing against each other for viewership and the tournaments that have the best or the most work put into it are going to get the best viewers so that at the end of the day can only be good for a tournament.
The problem becomes if you have so many high class tournaments that then like I don’t know I think that it can only be good. But it sort of also depends upon what teams go to which events because of a lot of viewership is also based on what teams are going and which teams are playing. No matter what if it’s a South American tournament or a North American tournament the North American one is going to be getting viewership regardless of production value.
Eli: You also do a little bit of streaming on top of being a caster right?
Lyrical: A little bit yeah.
Eli: Do you think that with the scene going right now are you going to have to move more towards casting or are you going to be able to stream? How do you think that’s going to affect what you want to do?
Lyrical: I mean I’m always going to like the idea of playing games on my own stream but I know that that’s also not what people are going to be as interested in me for I’m not as good of a player as these other people. So I think that it’s just going to be more casting which is understandable and makes me happy I love casting Dota. That’s when I first started streaming before I started playing games on my own. So I think that it’s just going to mean that I’m going to be playing a lot more which I’m not upset about at all. Like I said love casting so it’s not like I’m losing much.
Eli: On this thread of of casting and streaming. if I’m wrong correct me but I remember seeing something about you casting people’s pubs for them?
Lyrical: I do that every now and that. It depends on what it is that that’s going on. If I haven’t had like a lot of stuff going on for a while an old cast goes. There was a time recently when I was doing it for charity stuff because I was just thinking thatd be a cool thing to do. It was right around the time when all the hurricanes were coming through the Texas and Florida area. So I said if somebody donated 10 bucks to the Red Cross that I would cast their pub. So I did that for a couple of people. And also there was some for a Reddit charity thing happened too.
Eli: Would you be interested in doing more of these like charity based kind of events? Because that’s one thing that I think is lacking in the scene in form of identity of corporate social responsibility so to speak. Would that be something that you’d be interested in?
Lyrical: For sure. I think it all depends upon working around the schedule because at the end of the day if there’s something where I’m going to need to be able to pay my rent because I’m casting games versus being able to do charity stuff that I’m going to pay my rent over it. But there’s usually a good amount of free time. I certainly wouldn’t blame anybody for not wanting to do it. Sometimes the hours that people work in Esports are pretty ridiculous. At events it’s not unusual for it to be a 12 to 14 hour day and that’s all like the whole time you know being on camera and being in front of lights and stuff like that. And then when you’re doing the same thing for casting online qualifiers 14 hours isn’t uncommon either and afterwards you do need to take time for yourself as well. But it’s also tends to be like seven days a week. But you know if you have downtime and I think some people should be down.
Eli: That’s something I’ve always wondered. What’s it like being in those super long days where it’s 14 hours of casting and you have to be on your A-game and you have to be in front of the camera and you know people are watching you. What’s that like? How do you motivate yourself to push through those?
Lyrical: It’s not too hard because we’re doing what we love. I think for everybody that’s doing it. So it’s just about making sure that you’re going to be excited and it’s tough to do that. The thing that’s toughest about it is that it’s just like remembering what the stakes are because if your casting, particularly you meet somebody who still, I wouldn’t say by any means I’m established in the scene, that people sort of know me, I think generally speaking. But there’s going to be a lot of people from casting on a big tournament are going to be like “Who is this caster?”.
It doesn’t matter if it’s the end of a long day or if it’s the beginning and I’m completely fresh. Their first impression of me is going to be what they run into when they hear. So you have to keep in mind like what the stakes are in that if you have a bad first impression that’s the impression that you’re going to leave with these people forever. So. Just sort of like reinvigorating yourself drinking caffeine a ton and that type of thing. I don’t know it’s sort of you go through stages of sort of where your beginning casts are really really really really good. And then it steadily drops off as you become more and more tired and your casts become worse. Then eventually it hits this point weren’t like suddenly spikes up and you’re so exhausted the kind of don’t care what you’re saying anymore. You just kind of run off of instinct and that’s when casts become really good for a little bit and then they really drop off the deep end and they become terrible. But if you sort lose all of your inhibitions that’s when the coolest moments come out.
Eli: Could you give me an example of one of those moments that just kind of happened upon you? Maybe in a game and all of a sudden you’re going back and forth and there’s this huge teamfight that comes in and you just kind of run with it.
Lyrical: Yeah I think I have some that are on my YouTube channel actually. Let me see if I can find them because one of the things that came up was that there was this period of time where I was doing, it was like maybe a year ago or something, I was casting from midnight until like 8:00 in the morning and then I was sleeping for four hours and then I was casting for another seven hours. And then I would sleep for another four hours and then it was midnight again. I did that for like two weeks. And it was just insanity. It was like in the throes of all of that when I started to cast this one game that was for WESG Europe.
Eli: I was going to say was this during the WESG stretch because I remember listening to you on a ton of those games and you were just so entertaining. It was just a great run for you right before TI, too.
Lyrical: You know I think that’s what it was. And the one that it was I think was Alliance versus Horde. No no no. It was the SingSing stack, yeah. I don’t remember all of it . I literally don’t remember this game except that there were like a ton of kills right at the start. And beyond that I don’t remember whatever else happened. It was just insanity.
Eli: That’s wild. Do you want to try and play it?
Fight for First Blood right at the beginning of the game.
Lyrical: Wow. That’s pretty good. It was a good couple of games.
Eli: I mean that’s a great sound clip though. I mean just overall, you’re flying around. You can just tell. I’ve taken on to listening to some of these streams and listening to stuff like this and not even watching the audio because I think the casting is at such a high level right now. Do you think there is an avenue for DotA to go to a non-visual? Like there’s a lot of podcasts and stuff out there right now but there’s not a lot of like audio streams for matches and stuff.
Lyrical: Maybe. It’s tough. It’s really tough. There is this thing that was a while ago that came out called “DotaRadio” which Toffees did.I think it kind of fell by the wayside. It was an experiment to try and be exactly what we’re talking about there. But I don’t know. I like listening to a lot of podcasts usually because, you know, cleaning up around my house or something and you know I’ll need something to do during that time. But it feels to me like it might. It’s never going to be as strong as the visual aspect but it could be and it’s sort of a problem that you run into with like you know sports talk radio or something like that or a radio broadcast of a basketball game or something like different styles where you have to say what’s happening visually describe it visually see paint the picture and somebody else’s head which you can do in DotA.
I could say something that describes the picture that formulates in somebody’s head. But I have to use all these key words that are saying where exactly the person is relative to each other and allow the person to visualize the map in their head. And then I’m helping them direct through it. That’s not what’s important when you’re doing an audio cast. So I think it’s harder to do an audio cast it’s a different skill set to an audio cast only. Versus doing a cast of a game that h as the picture there as well. So you need to specialize in it yourself and I don’t know what the market would be like for that.
Eli: No I agree I think DotA is an extremely visual game that a lot of points there’s a lot of visual cues and stuff happens so fast that it just feels kind of difficult to be able to encapsulate it in just audio. Moving on from that, what do you think of the new patch so far? We talked a little bit that you’re going to you know dive into it, I’ve played if I play a bunch of it too. I just kind of want to pick your brain. What do you think’s going on right now?
Lyrical: I still don’t have much of an idea. I don’t think you can take much from the Dotapit results. Or rather that the Dotapit meta that was formed because it was literally like the day before. And so teams didn’t have fully fleshed out ideas. I don’t think of what was happening and what the what should be happening. But I do think that if you get towards probably the Perfect World Masters I think is going to be the next big tournament that’s going to be where a lot of the meta evolves. You’ll be able to get to see some of it during the qualifier events. And I’ve got to see some but it’s still team specific what everybody is doing. So as far as which specific heroes are important it’s kind of hard to tell. Also the teams that are playing in the qualifiers that surely aren’t going to be as good as the top tier teams.
The meta that evolves there’s going to be different anyways. So the biggest thing to me is what I’ve seen hasn’t looked that different from what we are seeing at the end of the last patch. But that’s also because teams haven’t developed their own strategy yet. There are a couple of heroes that feel very strong to me. I saw Chen today looked really really good. What he was doing was they ran Chen/Sand King dual-lane and then Chen would send back the ranged creep in the Sand King offlane that way the wave would naturally push because you can send back a level one with Holy Persuasion and Chen’s not doing anything during that period anyways. And then what would happen is Sand King would naturally get towards about level 2.
He could basically expend his whole health and mana pool onto the safe lane, bringing him down very low. And then Chen would send back the Sand King and then Sand King can TP back to lane his free TP. He would basically be really far ahead in the lane. I think that’s possible with a lot of other heroes. I think that maneuver might need to be nerfed in some way but I’m not exactly sure how you can do it. But the big thing there is that it feels like it enables your offlane to get a good start and then he can roam mid.
Chen feels like a very strong hero to me. And also I’ve seen other times where Chen feels completely terrible. So it’s like which specific heroes are actually good in which instances. I think it’s going to be like a really long time before we get a clear picture. Maybe the end of Perfect World Masters. Even after that there’s going to be new stuff being discovered
Eli: You have Chen 2.0 with the level 4 Call of the wild on Beastmaster you just get a random creep now.
Lyrical: Oh yeah. I mean he’s he’s actually the best hero in the patch right now. Beastmaster. And I don’t think we’re going to be seeing him at all. I think he’s going to be first banned every time.
Eli: What do you think adding another ban to both sides is going to do for the meta?
Lyrical: It just means the teams have to be more versatile. That’s the biggest thing. And for specific teams that’s really important. You think about Liquid, they had three heroes and you had to ban or pick them and get them away from Liquid and you just couldn’t do that every game. Or else they would be able to run strategies that were just so strong that it didn’t matter. So to me it feels like it’s making sure that teams have to be able to beat you with more than just you know the things that they’re very comfortable with.
Eli: Right it just takes a lot of that comfort picking out of the game and makes you kind of adapt in-game. It seems like in Dotapit a lot of the series kind of formulated into these micrometas almost depending on how they played each other.
Lyrical: Yeah definitely. It’s just sort of to be expected but I think that Perfect World is probably going to be the big instance where we see a lot of the top teams getting together and these metas have been resolved and some issues have been figured out. Like people understanding a little bit better what’s happening. I was looking I’ve only played 23 matches so far on this patch and most of those are Turbo Mode so I don’t have a ton of familiarity with it yet. I have been casting more DotA than I’ve been playing. But it’s been it’s been good. I’m excited to see what it brings. I think that there’s a lot of cool changes.
Eli: Turbo Mode is interesting. I’ve only played one Turbo Mode game and I’m not going to lie, I hated it. I thought it was terrible. DotA is already so hard for me that a Turbo Mode game, there is just way too much going on.
Lyrical: It’s a lot going on but I think that that’s what’s cool about it. It is a game mode that’s different and it’s for people that have trouble getting into DotA. You’re not going to be able to come at the game as tactically as like sort of you know; you go here, you take down this tower, then this tower, then go for Roshan. It’s too chaotic for that and that chaos also means that everybody is kind of on the same level of “What the hell is happening? What do I do?” Because you’re not used to those timings that are sort of built into your brain.
It means that it’s an environment where you can get people into the game more easily. I really like the mode a lot because it it feels like it’s an answer for casual fans that want to enjoy pro DotA like they can watch pro DotA themselves. They don’t have to invest like an hour into the game if they’re like not going to have fun with it. And you know sometimes games suck and it’s cool to be able to have turbo mode where you sort of have that out.
Eli: I do see a lot of utility there for having the casual DotA 2 pro fan come in and just being able to interact with the game in some form where they don’t have to worry about their positioning or going to what shop. And it just seems like a lot of quality-of-life stuff for the casual player base.
Lyrical: Yeah and it doesn’t take anything away from people that enjoy a more hardcore experience.
Eli: Very true, very true. So do you enjoy the more hardcore DotA experience? What is your role in pubs? What do you like to play?
Lyrical: I have switched off a lot. When I first started I was like strictly a hard support. Then I switched over to playing a lot of mid. Then I became an offlaner. I would say right now probably my most comfortable role is either offlane or carry. As far as like more casual/more hardcore, the main reason I’m playing turbo mode is because I’ve been playing a lot of the new heroes and I’m playing a lot of heroes that have been changed really heavily. Because I want to get a feel for what those heroes are like. And that’s really sort of the crux of it is as a caster you got to be able to understand. I don’t have to understand the intricacies of like high level DotA. But I do need to be able to understand DotA enough to make a call in the middle of a teamfight saying this fight is going well for this team and if I say that and it’s wrong and it’s actually not going well for them that’s not as good. That’s pretty bad.
Eli: What do you what do you think of the new heroes? Because I hear a lot of “Oh, Dark Willow is super OP right now and then I hear a lot of why isn’t Pangolier as good as it should be?”
Lyrical: I think it’s just getting used to the vector targeting. Pangolier feels very strong to me. People aren’t either playing him right like understanding the potential from him. I think that his “Q”, I need to learn all the spell names still, is quite good. Swashbuckler? I think?
Eli: It’s Swashbuckler or Swahbuckle. But yeah I would agree with you I think Pangolin is very strong played correctly.
Lyrical: Yeah ad his ulti is quite good as well. I think that [Shield Crash] moving forward now is a pretty good answer for some of the problems that he was having before. Just gives him more maneuverability. He can use swashbuckle now and then afterwards jump out with his “W” and then he’s like in a little bit of a better spot. So I think he’s fine. I think Dark Willow is very very good. And it’s not surprising. It feels a lot like Puck when I play her. Just not as maneuverable. Illusory Orb. You really miss a spell like that on Dark Willow, but it still feels like it’s a pretty frickin good hero.
Eli: Touching back on Pangolier since people are kind of split on him. What do you think the right way to play him is?
Lyrical: I am not entirely sure about that. I think you can’t play him offlane. He’s got some escape. And if you get levels on him that ultimately becomes really really strong especially with how low the cooldown is. So probably offlane right now is where I put him as the best role. You don’t need to get a ton of farm on him although you can and it becomes quite strong. But, you can use them as more of like him fight hero and maybe pair him together with a Lifestealer or something and do some Lifestealer bombs. Who knows.
Eli: Yeah that’s kind of what I’ve been doing. I’ve been getting a Diffusal Blade, getting a Skull Basher, and “Q” my way straight into a fight. Pressing “W” getting all that damage reduction. Then just kind of being a pain after that is good. Anyway, let’s talk a little bit about TI7. You were there as a caster. What was that like?
Lyrical: It was awesome. You know everything that I wanted. It was really cool like being a part of the event and being able to do so many things. Obviously casting at it was the was the very very fun part of it because you know it’s casting TI. But I was only casting in the group stage so it was very low key. Actually I brought four suits with me and I brought like maybe 15 different shirts and maybe like 20 different ties before I found out that I was never going to be on camera the entire time. I did like casts in my sweatpants when we were in the hotel because that’s all we had to do. We were like in a hotel room just chilling during the group stages which works well I think. The group stage casting was fine.
I did the newbie stream during the main event which was also really cool. I was working with Torte De Lini and I would switch off where he would take like the first two games of the day and I’d take the next two and then he’d take the next two and I would take the next two and we just sort of run it back and forth that way. Then I also got to work with a couple of people from Valve that I got to work with pretty closely and they’re really cool. That was probably the coolest thing about TI, outside of being able to cast it, was meeting the people behind the game. Like everybody from Valve is very very competent and really really cool. I don’t know. Sort of you build them up in your head as the sort of this mythical faceless thing, but they’re actually people. Which is sort of a strange realization to have.
Eli: What do you mean when you say they’re competent? Like in their knowledge of the game or just kind of in general?
Lyrical: In everything. I mean I don’t want to reveal too much about any one person in particular, but in talking with people they have very interesting backstories, places that they came from, things that they’ve done. If you look at valve and some of the stats behind it there’s some of the most productive people monetarily in the world. I think that the dollar that they make per person or something is like the highest in the world or something. Might be talking out of my butt here but I feel like that’s the stat that I read somewhere. But they’re there. They know what they’re doing and they do it well.
Eli: You said before you don’t really think that you’re that big time of a caster yet. Getting to go to all these events like TI7 and StarLadder that you’ve done. I remember even listening to you cast a lot of like Mineski games and stuff. I had no idea who they were and then I come in and listen to you because I see you’re on the cast. What do you think your name brings to some of these tournaments? Do you think you have that power yet of “Oh, Lyrical is casting this game. I want to go listen to this”?
Lyrical: I think I might have some fan base that feels that way. I have always gotten pretty positive perception. There’s some people that don’t like my cast. I think that, if anything, is more indicative to me that I’m sort of making it. The worst thing that you can have is somebody that’s indifferent. If they actually know you and then they hate you. That means that you must be doing something right because there’s probably an equal number of people if not more that really like what you’re doing as long as you sort of get a variety it means that your overall numbers are going to be increasing.
I think that there are some people that definitely tune in because it’s me casting but I think for anything it’s just…there is the thing that’s been cool it’s that I think that there are people that know the scene and people that understand the industry then are starting to recognize that I have something of value to offer. I think that’s the coolest thing that’s happened over the last year for me.
Eli: How would you classify that? What do you think your style as a caster is? What do you think you bring to the table specifically?
Lyrical: Authenticity. I feel like I’m very authentic and when I get excited about stuff I think you can hear it and feel it. When the cast happens I would I would agree with that as somebody who is partial to your cast. I would agree.
Eli: Yeah. So I wanted to kind of ask for some of your favorite players some of your favorite teams to cast is there a certain style that you find better suited to kind of the way you like to cast teams players.
Lyrical: I always get into trouble with those because I feel like I think that the natural implication of biased caster’s something like that that always gets thrown around. It’s so frustrating to hear it right. I don’t think any caster has a stake in any team. There might be a couple here and there but it’s really very very rare that a team with B or a cast would be like really rooting for one team or another to win to the point where it would affect the way that they cast. It’s like subconscious. But that would only happen if like they really eat somebody or really dislike somebody and even then I think that I’ve tended to notice that caster’s who really like certain players would tend to be more harsh towards them than they would be otherwise. But I would say that for me I tend to just really enjoy action packed though.
Lyrical: I think that that’s you know the normal you look at it. See I don’t know that was a classic. I’ve really come to love SEA DotA throughout the past year or so since I started casting like one of my first tournaments was the BTSA Series Number Two and it was like it’s just there’s so much action that happens particularly like one of the things that always feels like it comes around is as a puck played in the offlane where they play these off winners in a one 1-v-1 matchup. So you basically have to one of the ones that are happening the off lane. And then 1-v-1 in the middle lane and then it’s like a 3-v-3 bottom and that always feels like very cool.
Eli: Yeah there is that period of games where you were casting a lot of like Raging Potato on Puck and that was just wild.
Lyrical: There are definitely I think probably one of my favorite players is KuKu. I really like him a lot from TNC just because he’s always he’s either like he’s either going to win the game or he’s going to lose the game but he’s definitely going to do one of those too. He is not going to be a neutral party in any game.
Eli: Yeah he’s a very he’s very high impact guy on well otherwise man that’s really all I had for you. I think this went very well this was a lot of fun definitely for sure.
Lyrical: Thanks for the interview!
Eli: Of course, man. I really appreciate you and all you do and I’m going to enjoy watching you this year and I just want to say again thanks for coming in taking the time out of your day to do this.
Lyrical: Yeah definitely hope that it all goes well for you.
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