The Game Haus
Esports Overwatch

Overwatch – Chasing the Dream: The Story of Sideshow

Sideshow Interview

If you tuned into the Inaugural Season of the Overwatch League, then you are likely familiar with Josh “Sideshow” Wilkinson. Known for his insightful reading of the game on the analyst’s desk, Sideshow has consistently shown that he has both the brain and the personality for Overwatch.

However, Sideshow’s broadcast talent and love for esports did not develop overnight. Through 8,000 hours of Team Fortress 2 (TF2) gameplay, years of writing and the (almost) constant support of his parents, Sideshow has always chased his dream with an unrelenting drive.

Chasing a dream is never easy but Sideshow is living proof that it is worth it.

 

Before we get to your story, would you mind sharing a bit about your parents, or whomever your primary caregivers were?

My parents are simple folk, hobbit-like you could say. Appreciative of the simple things in life and able to make them seem excellent. Despite my Mum’s interest in technology and puzzles (and a passion for Pokemon when I was a child that led to my Ruby save file being overwritten in one horrific incident), they are definitely not video game players and my Dad can barely navigate the power button on a computer, so I don’t think I got the gaming bug from them.

Sideshow Interview
Perhaps this is a bit of that confidence that Sideshow claims is so important.

They both encouraged my academic side as an incredibly nerdy young kid (seriously, I used to wear big red glasses that I did not need and go recite poetry to my painfully working-class neighbors) and I generally got discouraged from playing too many games. They pushed me more towards social and sport-driven hobbies as I got older, and I slowly developed that incredible ability known as “confidence” in my early teens. Turns out it’s kinda important.

There was conflict between us when I spent so much time playing TF2 in my teen years; that hobby dominated my non-school hours from the age of 16 or so until I moved out for university. They weren’t happy with the amount of time I spent plugged into the internet—and to be fair most of what I did was totally useless in those years, but it did open my eyes to a whole new world of information and possibilities. I met people from all over the world, made friends who had totally different life experiences to mine, learned about careers and hobbies which I didn’t know existed, etc. At the end of the day, I was still doing fine with my schoolwork so they didn’t have too much room to argue, and I continued spending all my free time on the PC while doing exams.

British families are, for some unknown reason, obsessed with their children being doctors. Without knowing exactly what I wanted to do in life, I got pushed along that conveyor belt because I was good at science and could talk to people without pissing myself in fear—a surprisingly small cross-section of the Venn diagram in my school. It became difficult to tell them, three years later, that I had decided (or rather, I had been advised by the faculty due to my behavior: a story for another time) to abandon medicine and give up on my degree in order to pursue some kind of career in esports.

After a few months of being harangued about finding a ‘real job’, I persuaded them that a career in esports would be viable for someone with my skills. Skills which I had studied and developed while at university rather than learning about Asprin’s suppression of prostaglandins and thromboxanes via permanent inactivation of the enzyme COX and other such scintillating topics. Who can blame me for chasing the dream? Apparently not my parents, as they’re now happy that I’m enjoying my job and finding success in a field that doesn’t bore me to tears. We have a very positive relationship and I owe them a lot for raising me so well. God help my future children, I’d be lucky to do half as good a job.

You mentioned playing a lot of video games as a child, especially during the years of the big red glasses. What were some of your favorite video games growing up?

My first memories of gaming were at my friends’ houses, grinding co-op story games on the hardest settings late at night. When I was 13, my parents bought me a PS2 and the titles I played then remain some of my fondest gaming memories. I was literally a human god at Jak and Daxter or Ratchet and Clank.

Despite now being a PC-only player, I only played my first PC game when I was 15. Two years after its release, I eventually bought Assassin’s Creed, having been blasted with tales of how good it was by my friends. It was okay. From there, I bought my second ever PC game, TF2, which I played from my living room sofa on my Mum’s computer and then from the dining room on a rig I pieced together. It utterly dominated my gaming hours from the ages of 16-22.

I recently watched the TF2 documentary, “Ready Up.” It was wild to see you, Bren, Clockwork, and Seagull not around Overwatch! Can you walk us through those early years in TF2 and go more into how this helped you develop as a caster and an analyst?

To answer this in a roundabout manner, something people often don’t realize at first is how many hours people tend to put into TF2. It wasn’t a game that anyone made a living from playing, and yet it’s not unusual to see prominent players with 8-12,000 hours in the game. Yes, I got the game eight years ago, but my personal 8,000 hours in the game is like 11% of my entire time spent alive during my young adulthood.

That’s a long-winded way of pointing out that a lot of the natural development anybody would have during those years was, for me, influenced in some way by the people I met or the experiences I was having in TF2. It taught me a new spin on communication, both in terms of live calls during a match—which differs vastly from sports that I would play—and effectively communicating with people to ensure tasks were completed or to deliver tactful criticism. It was also the first challenge in my life where networking was an important element; though it felt natural at the time as simply ‘meeting new people’, I was essentially befriending my way into higher skill tiers and a position of being notable in the community. I was also unbelievably, sickeningly talented, let’s not get the story twisted, but I definitely focused on the holistic approach.

Sideshow Interview
Sideshow cheering alongside Bren and other members of the TF2 community.

All of that was essentially useless, though. It was fun but it didn’t teach me anything unique and it was all an outrageous waste of time, practically speaking, until I got into casting. Since Valve treats TF2 esports with the same cold indifference one might show towards a beggar at a royal wedding, the community developed in a very self-sufficient way. If something needed doing or creating, it was on the players or fans. As I was a top-level player who spoke English fluently (albeit with a horrendous Northern accent at that time which I have since eradicated), I was approached to do some casting for the league matches. I accepted and, despite being nervous and quite awful, I developed a taste for it and decided to try and become better. During the next two or three seasons of European TF2 I casted a few matches per week, gradually improving and learning from those around me.

At the same time, I was trying to propel the TF2 scene forward into becoming a bigger game. Almost everybody who has been involved in TF2 at some time or another will talk about how the game deserved to be bigger, deserved more viewership, deserved more players; once you understood the dynamics and had an appreciation for the skill floor, it was an excellent game with great esports potential. Many, many things stood in its way, most notably the marketing of the competitive side and that aforementioned skill floor, but it didn’t stop us trying to take it to the next level. I spent many nights debating the formats, the organizations involved, various marketing attempts to get newer players into the game—just thinking about the core concepts of the game to see if there was some gem of insight we’d all missed.

Then instead of reflecting, I decided that in order to learn more about how to push TF2 (and my casting) forward, I’d need to dive into the wider esports world and take lessons from there. Podcasts, talk shows, written historical pieces, format debates, opinion columns: I devoured content from experts in the industry wherever I could find it. For anybody trying to get into esports as a career, I would recommend this approach as it did wonders for me. There is a wealth of knowledge if you go and look for it; experienced esports sages talking about their thought processes, their workflows, their philosophies, their mistakes and how to avoid them. It was thought-provoking, enlightening, and formed the backbone of my understanding of the esports scene, how to cast and engage viewers, how to model and think analytically about performance, how to craft a story around the games and players, etc.

From 2014 to 2016, during the two years that I was casting TF2 and learning about esports in detail, I also picked up other responsibilities in the community and used them to hone specific skills. Teamfortress.tv, the competitive broadcasting hub, required people to organize production for each of the matches and write articles, so I took up that mantle, wrangling people to make sure matches had coverage and writing up news, roster shuffles, and announcements of upcoming events. Some of those upcoming events were ones that I had arranged, as I put my spare time into organizing online and LAN tournaments, liaising (sometimes successfully) with sponsors to get prize money, and casting/administrating the tournament once it was live.

Of all the roles I tried out during my time in TF2, I was best at casting and writing. By 2016 when Overwatch was released and players were flooding towards it, I felt confident in my ability to do either of those to a professional level within the scene.

If I’m not mistaken, you got your first big Overwatch casting gig at the iBUYPOWER invitational in 2016 alongside none other than Bren and Bloodsire. Was is at that event that you knew Overwatch would be something you pursued further?

Sideshow Interview
You can find a link to some of Sideshow’s writing for Overwatch League by clicking on this photo. Image Courtesy of Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment

Bloodsire met us at the Overwatch League Grand Final in New York actually, as Bren and I were working the desk and he lives nearby. It was strange to be reunited with the trio that did our first Overwatch broadcast in July 2016 and see how much things had changed in two years. Bloodsire has a successful career doing far more important things than me now!

We had all known for a while that Overwatch was something of a promised land. We’d seen players from TF2—people I’d played with and against, people we’d casted—have early success, get signed to top teams, earn salaries and compete for solid prize pools. There was a big buzz about the game as well because it was backed by Blizzard, and everybody expected that the esports scene would be supported.

It was difficult at that point to get any opportunity to cast games though, as there were few tournaments and the broadcast opportunities were hotly contested. We knew the production company hired to run the iBUYPOWER Summer Invitational so we had an in there, and decided to try and transition our skills into Overwatch.

We were pretty awful, it must be said, but it was our first time and it’s a struggle learning a new game without many matches to draw on. Without a good way to practice casting many times before going live, and without the experience of playing it at a high level, it was a long time before I felt comfortable communicating my understanding of Overwatch to a live audience.

That’s understandable. I couldn’t imagine casting a game I had hardly gotten to watch at all. Did you continue working as a commentator before moving to the analyst role for 2017 Contenders? Can you talk more about that time and what led to the role switch?

Well, actually, I worked mostly as a writer during that time rather than any kind of on-camera talent. Because I had spent two years in TF2 diversifying my talents, I was in a strong position to go for a shotgun approach with regards to a career in Overwatch and just try everything. I wrote news and opinions for over.gg and GosuGamers, made youtube videos giving my analysis and thoughts on changes in the scene, tried to commentate whenever possible, traveled to LAN events to do on-site video interviews before anybody else, and spent hundreds of hours learning the game.

This was during the time that I had dropped out of university and was living back with my parents again. I was lucky enough to know the owner at over.gg who was willing to pay for my articles and video interviews, a rarity at the time, which let me live on funds from my Overwatch writing. It was about half of a minimum wage salary for a year but I had confidence that I would be able to transition it into something larger in time.

After the iBUYPOWER event, the next tournament I worked on was 9 months later, and by that time I felt confident that I knew both the game at a reasonable level and the teams and metas at a strong level. My mantra for work has always been preparation above all else: preparation breeds confidence, and confidence in your analysis or knowledge is key. I was very confident that I would be able to tell the stories of the European teams I had been following and talking to for months, and I was very confident that I would be able to show viewers how these players navigated the meta (triple DPS dive at the time).

Sideshow Interview
Image Courtesy of Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment

While learning the game I had not been practicing play-by-play commentary at all, however, and so I was far more suited to the color role or even an analyst role. Events at that time simply didn’t have the budget or the infrastructure for an analyst desk until Contenders 2017, but once that came around I like to think I was a natural pick for the broadcast. I’d carved out my niche in the scene by being the person with the most knowledge about teams, results, meta shifts, etc. while also being able to give good analysis of matches.

In total, I casted only four tournaments in the first 17 months I was doing Overwatch full-time, so I was really more of a writer for the scene that occasionally casted. The step into analysis for Contenders and Overwatch League was very natural.

Learning about that writing background is fascinating, and I think it shows up in your thorough analysis. Most of us have come to know you through this analysis for the Overwatch League. Now that Season 1 is long over, what are your thoughts on the Inaugural Season of the Overwatch League? What was it like day-in, day-out as an analyst?

I came away from the Overwatch League Grand Finals with an immense feeling of pride. The inaugural season was more successful in terms of viewership than expected, drew in incredibly attached fans, sold out the Barclays Center, was aired on live primetime TV, and put out a product with a huge amount of hours and a high production quality all season long. I was very pleased to be part of that inaugural season and I learned a huge amount working with such talented and experienced people.

Sideshow Interview
Image Courtesy of Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment

There were, of course, things that we could have done better and things that we want to improve, but I think Overwatch League Season 1 was a great start and there is plenty of time in the future to hone the product. Though I won’t go into detail here, the improvements we can make have dominated my thoughts in the off-season and I am excited to try and implement some of them next time around.

In terms of the day to day, working for the Overwatch League as an analyst was excellent. To say it was a dream job would not be an exaggeration; I went from being a total amateur to working with a large production team on a groundbreaking project, learning from some of the best in the business. I’ve absorbed a huge amount of knowledge about producing and writing for shows, and I feel good about continuing to improve my on-camera work. The format also protected us against burnout and let us really focus on preparing for each day of matches, so I never felt that I was overwhelmed by the workload despite having to stay up to date on styles and trends of over 100 players in 12 teams across four different patches. It’s been a joy to work on the Overwatch League.

You and Bren made the return to commentary during the Overwatch World Cup Bangkok qualifier. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that you both did an excellent job and provided a lot of entertainment value (especially during Sweden’s games). What was it like getting back in the thick of the matches, alongside Bren, no less?

I’m glad you thought we did a good job!

Bren and I were rusty with our casting going into the Overwatch World Cup. Despite knowing the game and most of the players very well, the technical side of casting was never going to be our strength straight out of the gates after we’d been on the analyst desk for a year. Instead, we decided to lean heavily into the entertainment aspect and showcase the rapport and synergy that makes us a good duo in any situation. Especially for a tournament like the World Cup where the matches are not life-or-death, and a roaming production company lends itself to interruptions in the broadcast, I think this was a good tone to go with and one that let us have a lot of fun.

Being in the ‘thick of matches’ is also awesome for breaking down interesting details and the story of a game. On the analyst desk, we get a maximum of 2 minutes to break down one individual fight or play, and we can only focus on the things that were most relevant to victory or defeat. Some of the most interesting parts of the game—some of the most entertaining or informative parts—might not have been important to the result and so we can’t reasonably spend time on them.

It’s very useful as a caster to be able to direct viewers to important things before they happen. For example, telling them to watch Boombox’s ultimate charge to see if he gets Transcendence in time to block the push, or directing their attention to the positioning of a Winston as it’s clear from a bird’s eye point of view that he is going to flank and initiate. These moments can really help a viewer interpret the game in the same way as I do when I watch, and it’s an impossible task from the desk.

Shifting gears a bit, just recently, you helped put on the 2018 Tip of the Hats fundraiser alongside Bren, Harsha and many others from different Esports communities. Would you mind talking some about what Tip of the Hats is, and what it has meant to you over the years?

Sideshow Interview
Image Courtesy of Tip of the Hats

Tip of the Hats is potentially my favorite event of the year. It’s a charity streaming event that uses video gaming to raise money for children with cancer (via Children’s Oncology Services, Inc.), and it’s an opportunity for various gaming communities to come together, be entertained, and show their altruistic rather than hedonistic sides. It combines my love of creating a production from scratch—brainstorming segments, setting up the area, having real ownership over every part of the product—as well as my love for entertaining in an on-camera role. It then rolls all that into a package that positively impacts the mental health of children affected by cancer in a real, measurable way.

This year we were able to take the event and adapt it from its TF2 roots to become a true variety stream. We incorporated a range of Overwatch professionals and Fortnite streamers to create segments that were very popular with their audience, while still keeping some of our fan-favorites like the Jump hour and Dota Fortress events within TF2. It was our best year yet in terms of entertainment and audience outreach, and that translated wonderfully into donations; we raised over $250,000 for COSI, making our lifetime donation total over $1M through Tip of the Hats.

It has been lovely to take what I’ve learned over the years and be able to apply it to helping Children’s Oncology Services, Inc. Whether through organizing segments, helping refine the format by researching other productions, or just joking around on camera, it feels like a truly worthwhile use of my skills and time.

Daddy Reinhardt and the little Torblets was one of the more entertaining things I’ve ever witnessed, so great job there. Finally, looking ahead, what are your plans for Overwatch League Season 2? Can we expect to see you and Bren calling some games next year?

I can’t talk too much about the specifics of OWL Season 2, as they haven’t been announced yet. Personally, I am fully open to working as a caster next season but, for now, I assume my place is on the desk. There are many talented people working on live commentary for the Overwatch League and they’ll do a stellar job.

Sideshow Interview
Image Courtesy of the Los Angeles Valiant

My responsibility should be to make the desk segments as enthralling and informative as they make the live matches. That doesn’t mean you’ve heard the last of the Sideshow/Bren combo though. We covered the California Cup’s opening match for the LA Valiant last week, with another leg of that tournament in San Francisco being run by the Shock on November 10th. As more teams plan events like this in their home region, I imagine you’ll see more diverse casting combinations and some regular power duos as well. Next stop for us though is the Overwatch World Cup finals at Blizzcon, where we will be bantering on the desk alongside Reinforce!

 

The Game Haus would like to thank Sideshow for choosing to share his story with us. You can keep up to date with Sideshow on his Twitter, Twitch, Instagram or simply by tuning in to various Overwatch-related events.

 

 

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