The story of how two friends made careers out of talking about video games.
Dan Stemkoski and Nick Plott patiently wait at the side of the stage, suit jackets buttoned up, eyes calmly scanning the darkened room. When they get their cue — a voice shouting, "GO!" into their earpieces, the cameraman making windshield-wiper arms — they'll climb the steps to greet a live audience of hundreds and broadcast to an audience of potentially millions.
Soaked with blue and purple lights, with music thumping and an audience watching their every movement, the two are cucumber cool. They've done this thousands of times before. On cue, they'll get up on stage, knowing exactly where to stand, aware of the location of every camera and every screen. They'll know what to say, teasing their audience with a taste of the nerdy and irreverent banter that's about to come. There will be no awkwardness, no sweaty palms, no hint of nervousness. They'll slide behind a desk between two soundproof pods — futuristic glass and metal cubicles each containing a PC where professional StarCraft 2 players can compete without noise or visual distractions. "Tastosis," as Plott and Stemkoski are called when they work together — the former's nickname being "Tasteless" and the latter's being "Artosis" — will don their headsets and microphones, flash the crowd a pair of cheeky smiles and launch into a dazzling performance.
Stemkoski and Plott are professional StarCraft 2 commentators. Based in Seoul, Korea, they provide commentary — also known as casting — for GOMTV's Global StarCraft 2 League (GSL), a StarCraft broadcasting network that attracts more than 50 million viewers globally. They're flown around the world to cast events together — in this instance it's the World Championship Series Australian finals in Sydney — and they do it for a hefty fee. They were the first English-speaking casters to go to and commentate from Korea, the StarCraft capital of the world. They've been doing this for longer than anyone else. Their commentary is humorous, effortless and turns StarCraft 2 matches into events worth spectating.
As casting partners are concerned, Tastosis is unrivaled.
Dial-up in New Hampshire
Long before the bright lights, dubstep and high-tech gaming pods, there was the sci-fi real-time strategy game, StarCraft. Dan "Artosis" Stemkoski was 14. He skated, he played basketball, he loved competitive strategy games. He competed in chess tournaments, had deck after deck of Magic: The Gathering cards and was willing to give anything a go.
Now 29 years old, he laughs at his first memory of StarCraft.
"It's actually really funny. I was brought up in southern New Hampshire, which is a place that's basically just Caucasian people. It's the whitest state in the whole country and as ridiculously funny as this is, there was one Korean family in town and I was best friends with that kid and he introduced me to StarCraft," Stemkoski says. "I was over at his house with another friend and he said, 'Look at this awesome new game!' and I just sat there and watched him and my friend play."
For his 15th birthday, Stemkoski got his own copy of StarCraft. He played with friends but was more interested in sports. That interest came to an end in September of that year when a trampoline accident led to a broken ankle that required a metal plate and screws to be implanted in his leg. Confined indoors with little to do, he gave StarCraft another shot.
"Pretty quickly I got really competitive," he says. "I got better than all my friends in school. Then they all quit and moved onto other stuff but the StarCraft bug had bit me.
"I thought it was such an interesting and complex game. No one else played as much as me. I was putting in way more time than any of my friends. With my broken ankle, I wasn't able to go out much, so I sat there, I grinded and I got pretty good pretty quickly. I'd say within a year of breaking my ankle, I knew I could be a tournament player."
In his first year playing StarCraft, Stemkoski says he clocked approximately 1,200 hours of game time which, as any serious StarCraft player will say, is nothing to write home about. At his peak, he played 16 hours a day. Most of America used dial-up internet, which meant online matches were slow and every time he wanted to play, he'd have to use his family's phone line, which didn't impress his parents.
"They pretty much hated it," he says. "I got my modem taken away a lot. They'd unplug my keyboard or my monitor and hide it in the car and lock it."
"My mother was constantly giving me talks and telling me I had to stop playing StarCraft."
It was a constant battle where his parents just "didn't get it." They would unplug his modem, but he would have a stack of them under his bed. When his family went to sleep, he'd pull out another modem, plug it in and play StarCraft through the night. He would often play from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., unplugging and hiding his own modems before his family woke up.
Exhausted from playing StarCraft at night, Stemkoski slept during school hours. Gym was the first class each day — he would nap through that. His second class was chemistry — he slept through that, too. His grades slipped, but he didn't care. None of his classes were nearly as interesting as StarCraft. He loved its complexity and its depth. He loved that there was so much to learn, so much to know, and he could always find players on Korean servers who could challenge him.
Stemkoski's StarCraft training was paying off. He made it to the U.S. finals eight times and represented North America at the World Championships of StarCraft twice, which placed him in the top three StarCraft players in the U.S. He was undoubtedly one of the best players in the country. But no one outside of StarCraft cared.
"My mother was constantly giving me talks and telling me I had to stop playing StarCraft, but by this point I was heavily watching the Korean scene and I had decided that I would make a living out of this," he says.
In 2002, he graduated from high school despite failing many of his classes. As his classmates filled in college applications, Stemkoski had his eyes set on something else entirely: the StarCraft mecca of the world.
Dial-up in Kansas
Southwest of New Hampshire in Kansas City, Kan., a 13-year-old Nick "Tasteless" Plott and his younger brother Sean (who has also since gone on to make a name for himself as a successful StarCraft 2 broadcaster, Day9) walked into their local game shop, pocket money in hand. Everyone was talking about a new game called StarCraft. It was a real-time strategy about aliens and marines and spaceships and, to the two brothers in 1998, it looked amazing.
The brothers bought a copy of the game. They took turns playing, one watching over the other's shoulder, shouting commands and telling the other person how they were doing everything wrong. Their internet was slow, and matches were fun but not as competitive as they could have been. Wanting a challenge unhindered by their dial-up connection, the brothers went to a LAN cafe to play.
"I remember there was some guy who was about five years older than us who was basically an asshole who beat us and then talked shit," Nick Plott says. "I think that was my initial motivating factor. I wanted to go back there and beat him again, so my brother and I practiced a lot.
"We never ended up going back there because the internet came out."
Connected to the world at high speeds with access to Korean servers, the brothers realized they'd found a love in competitive StarCraft. Like Stemkoski, they fell in love with the game's depth and challenge. StarCraft wasn't just about twitch reflexes; there was strategy at every level, it overflowed with nuance and no matter how good the brothers got, they could always find someone who could beat them. By the time they were in high school, the Plott brothers were entering StarCraft tournaments and consistently winning. Naturally, school suffered.
"I basically took a bunch of computer classes in high school because at the time programming classes were pretty simple, so I knew I could go online and download the programs I was supposed to make using C++ and I'd spend the rest of the class reading about build orders in StarCraft," Plott says.
He slept through English. He slept through math classes. "I was excelling in my English class until they told me I couldn't write my papers about StarCraft, and after that I lost interest in English."
After graduating high school, Plott moved to Denver for college where he studied philosophy and psychology and received a scholarship for public speaking. His parents enjoyed a sigh of relief — their son was in college. Law school was on the cards. There was talk of a Ph.D. in philosophy. Video games were done.
Then StarCraft came calling.
The Stone Age
StarCraft 2 commentary and eSports casting as we now know it is a relatively new phenomenon. Today there are entire television shows dedicated to broadcasting StarCraft 2 matches and leagues like Major League Gaming, Global StarCraft 2 League and DreamHack that are full-scale productions, complete with professional casters for every game. Anyone with an internet connection can tune in to a stream and watch their favorite casters commentate a match in high definition. People actually have favorite casters.
In the days of the original StarCraft, things were different.
Derek "Dox" Reball is a manager of the eSports team Nv and has been involved with the StarCraft community for 15 years. He says that commentators were rare before the release of StarCraft 2, and anyone who tried to provide commentary was working against technology.
"We didn't have streaming technology, so the way we used to do things was we would record the audio of ourselves watching the replay, then we would attach the replay file and the audio file in a zip and upload that zip to a website," he says. "People could then download it, watch the replay and listen to our voices as they watched it. It was like this old school radio concept. It was really bad, but that was how we did it."
That was one way of doing it in during the Stone Age of eSports. Running a tournament was no easy feat, either.
Bob Colayco is a public relations manager at Blizzard, the studio behind StarCraft and StarCraft 2. In 1998 he was involved in the Professional Gamers League where StarCraft matches would be played and refereed. At the time there were no replay functions, no observer functions and no way to ensure players weren't cheating short of keeping an eye on both players' screens.
"To ensure players weren't cheating," he says, "I would jump in the game with them as a neutral terran [a race in the game] and I would just lift my command center to the corner of the map and from that point I would have them team with me and give me vision.
"I would then watch the match, take notes and write a newspaper-style report with screenshots of what happened. That's how eSports was done in 1998."
Technology limitations aside, the idea of a "professional commentator" was foreign to eSports. Early tournaments had emcees who tried to whip up excitement, but by most accounts these people had no idea what was going on. StarCraft was and still is widely regarded a complex game that's difficult to follow. Without a knowledgeable commentator, the game was harder to watch than it was to play.
StarCraft was yearning for professionals.
Nick Plott never stopped playing StarCraft. He may have enrolled in college and received scholarships, but he still played every day, still skipped classes to attend tournaments and was determined to make something of a career from StarCraft. He didn't really know what that career would look like or how he would do it, but the game had such a profound impact on him he could not let it go, even if it meant an uncertain future.
"If you look at StarCraft, it's like dubstep," Plott says. "Dubstep is actually a fairly old genre of music. It's popular now, but it's actually about 15 years old. It was popular in underground clubs in London, so to be a dubstep DJ 15 years ago was virtually impossible. Whereas now it's more mainstream and accessible.
"So now, if you want to be a professional gamer, it's going to be hard, but you can do it, whereas back then you were basically a starving artist."
StarCraft tournament prizes in the U.S. were meager. A player could win tournament after tournament and take home only a few grand at the end of a year.
In 2005, he and his brother made it to the final 12 of a tournament. The two were paired together, and Nick Plott lost to his brother. Relegated to the sideline while his brother played, he noticed the emcee on stage had no idea what was going on.
"He had no idea how to explain the game. Literally no idea," Plott says.
The emcee provided rudimentary descriptions of things happening on the screen. Units exploding. Spaceships exploding. Zergs moving from one side of the screen to another. There was no analysis, no context and nothing remotely entertaining. Frustrated by how little the commentary was doing for anyone, Plott asked if he could go up on stage to co-host.
He says it went "better than expected," but the reality is it put him on the StarCraft map in ways his professional gaming hadn't. Here was a confident, articulate speaker with charisma and a sense of humor who not only knew StarCraft like the back of his hand but could talk about it in a way that engaged people on a level no previous emcees were able to do. Off the back of this casting, he was invited to do more. Tournaments in Italy, Germany, Japan and Singapore invited him to cast in English. He wasn't paid to do any of it — professional casting wasn't recognized as a career back then — but the travel was free. In his final semester of college, Korea came calling.
StarCraft 2 had just been announced. It would be some years before the game would be released, but Korean broadcasters began investing in casting talent in preparation for the launch. They saw how big StarCraft became despite there being no professional English commentary. They knew StarCraft 2 would be even bigger and, with casters like Plott on board, they would be able to extend their reach even further.
"I read the email three to four times to make sure I wasn't crazy or misunderstanding it. Then I told my family."
A Korean broadcast, GOMTV, emailed Plott after hearing about him through the grapevine. It made an offer: he would move to Seoul and provide English commentary for the broadcaster's StarCraft tournaments. There were no guarantees of anything — he'd have to find his own place to live, acculturate on his own and there was no promise that this gig would lead to anything else.
"I read the email three to four times to make sure I wasn't crazy or misunderstanding it," Plott says. "Then I told my family. There was some concern, but I said, 'Look, I'm going to go. I don't really care if you don't want me to go.' And then I went."
Plott dropped out of college and was in Korea a week after receiving the email. He would go on to be the first Western StarCraft caster in South Korea.
Back in New Hampshire, Stemkoski kicked off his own StarCraft tournament with a friend. Frustrated by the lack of tournaments in the English-speaking scene, he decided to commentate the matches. Korea was still on his mind. StarCraft had never left his mind. This was something he was doing for the community.
"I felt like we deserved something like this and no one was doing it, so I did it," he says. He recorded his low-quality recordings to a PC and uploaded the files online. In 2008, he was contacted by a competing Korean broadcaster.
"I thought, 'Oh, my God, this is it, this is my opportunity, I cannot screw this up!'" Stemkoski says. "It was pretty awesome. My family was surprised that I wasn't just bullshitting before."
Two days after receiving the email, Stemkoski had a ticket to Korea in his hand. He would go on to be the second Western StarCraft caster in South Korea.
The gift of gab
Stemkoski and Plott each made their way to Korea separately, but it would be their coming together that changed the way StarCraft was commentated. Upon arriving in Korea, Plott slept on friends' couches, worked as a caster, learned the Korean language and tried to overcome the culture shock. This wasn't Kansas anymore. Stemkoski found himself living in a small apartment with 15 teenage pro gamers and a colleague from the website he was casting for. He admits he had no idea what was going on, but he went with it.
Neither caster made much money when they first started, but they had made it to Korea. Neither was sure what they were doing or where it would take them, but they decided to put their faith in the game. Their passion for StarCraft had, after all, gotten them this far.
"We kept going for the same reason any starving artist ends up being a starving artist," Plott says. "You have no interest in other things. This one thing, StarCraft, is what makes you feel alive and happy. I think there's some degree of myopia in the decisions you're making in being a starving artist, but it's just what made me feel alive. It made me feel happy."
Individually, both Plott and Stemkoski began making a name for themselves both in and outside of Korea. As the hype surrounding the imminent launch of StarCraft 2 built, so too did interest in their commentary, and the Korean broadcast networks took note. Not only were they the only English-speaking casters set up in Korea at the time, viewers couldn't get enough of them. Within months of moving to Korea, they'd established themselves — individually — as the key commentators within the StarCraft community to listen to. They moved out of the crowded apartments, stopped sleeping on couches and soon began casting together.
The two knew each other from their professional gaming days, but now that they were both in Seoul, a friendship blossomed. Both had a burning love for StarCraft and could talk about it endlessly. Their personalities also complemented each other's. Plott was the louder and more outspoken of the two, full of energy and enthusiasm. "He was a lot different than the other StarCraft players," Stemkoski says. "When I first met him, he had dyed hair and face piercings. He struck me as this very sociable, well-spoken guy. It wasn't a surprise that he was approached to go to Korea. If there was going to be a professional commentator in StarCraft, it was obviously going to be him."
Stemkoski was the more reserved of the two, but only just. Equally well-spoken and confident, he's the more analytical commentator. An unabashed nerd, he has an encyclopedic knowledge of the game.
When the two began casting together, their dynamic was magic.
"No one has the chemistry that Tastosis has," says Australian StarCraft 2 caster Leigh "Maynarde" Mandalov. "They're the best not because of when they started — they're so good together that even if they came later they would still be the best.
"They've been friends for more than a decade. They have a rapport with each other that no other casting duo has."
The two have not only mastered the art of casting individually; they can effortlessly cast with each other. They know when to speak and when to let the other person speak. They've figured out when to provide analysis, when to provide background and when to make a stupid joke. Watching them cast a match is a seamless experience. Like Olympic relay sprinters passing the baton to each other, they know when to pass the commentary over to the other person.
"We don't even have to speak," Stemkoski says. "We can give each other a glance or do one quick little hand signal and we know exactly what the other person is thinking and what's going on and how to deal with it."
Stemkoski and Plott are currently the most well-known StarCraft 2 casting duo in the world. They commentate from their own studio in Seoul and broadcast to millions of viewers around the world. On top of their salaries, they have sponsorships and charge fees to cast at international events. But in order to stay at the top of their game, there is upkeep.
Stemkoski spends more time on StarCraft 2 than most professional gamers. He has StarCraft 2 matches streaming on his television and computer at home all day long. He keeps up to date with every tournament happening around the world. Before going to bed, he'll watch StarCraft 2 matches on his iPad or laptop. On an average day, he'll spend six to eight hours watching and playing StarCraft 2. He is married to a very understanding woman.
Plott's upkeep is less StarCraft-intensive. He spends his days watching broadcasts from all sports, even those he has no interest in. He'll watch and analyze how dart commentators navigate a game of darts. He'll observe football and swimming commentators and watch news broadcasts. He also keeps up with the StarCraft 2 scene and ensures he knows who all the players are, how they play and how they're evolving.
Dustin Browder is the game director of StarCraft 2 at Blizzard. He watches Tastosis every morning and says they are some of his favorite casters.
"I think they have such great knowledge of the game," he says. "They're really good at building up the drama that goes on in the game, they understand the stakes in any given battle; they understand the stakes in any given moment."
Browder describes StarCraft 2 as an intellectual game about strategy, so it's important to know what's in the player's head. In a game like Call of Duty, he says a viewer can see if a player is going after an opponent and if they're doing well. In a game like StarCraft, the actions of a player are not always clear. A good caster can identify what players are doing, what players are planning to do and how the entire match will pan out based on these actions.
Part of Tastosis' upkeep is knowing who all the players are, what strategies they use, what players are thinking, what players are worried about and the history between players. When Tastosis casts a match, it's not a matter of Zerg versus Protoss or Marines versus Zerg, it's NesTea versus MvP along with their history.
"They have an encyclopedia-like knowledge of the players, and that brings a ton to the table. You're not just experiencing the game that's happening in front of you."
"They have an encyclopedia-like knowledge of the players, and that brings a ton to the table," Browder says. "You're not just experiencing the game that's happening in front of you. You're also getting a glimpse into the many games that have gone before to give a sense of what is the epic struggle between these two players over the last six months, let alone what's happening on screen today.
"If you want to see what it's like without commentary — unless you speak Korean — go watch it in Korean now," says Browder.
A live audience and Korean casters might tell a viewer when something is happening and whether it's worth getting excited about. But to the non-Korean speaker who doesn't have an encyclopedic knowledge of the game, it doesn't tell viewers what is happening and why it matters. There's no story, no drama. As Browder says, to the average viewer, it's unwatchable.
Plott sees his role as a translator, contextualizing what's happening on-screen for viewers and putting it into a story so viewers can feel like they're part of the action.
"We're like C-3PO from Star Wars," he says. "We can speak the language and talk to the Ewoks. We're taking what looks like a bunch of spaceships blowing up and saying, 'Look, there's something really cool going on here. He's trying to trick him and then he's gonna react like this, and if that happens the game will end like this.'
"That's what we're able to do. We're like the gateway to getting people into StarCraft."
Starving no more
It's hard for the StarCraft 2 community to imagine the game without Tastosis, and even harder to imagine it without English commentary. And for Tastosis, it's hard for them to imagine their own lives without StarCraft.
"It's changed everything in my life," Stemkoski says. "I have a career that I absolutely love, I'm [at] the top of the field, I'm building a new industry, I get to travel around the world, I've met new friends everywhere ... it's hard to overstate what StarCraft and casting StarCraft has done for me."
Drenched under blue and purple lights in front of a live audience in Sydney, the duo climb the stage and take their seats between the pods that house Australia's best StarCraft players.
Somewhere within the two casters are remnants of the teenage boys who hid modems under their beds, slept through gym class and tirelessly tried to convince their parents that there was a future in this computer game from 1998. Today they don their headsets, smile at their audience and put on a show for those who love the game as much as they do. Starving artists no more.
Photos: David Zhou, MLG, Nick Plott
Editing: Russ Pitts, Matt Leone
Design / Layout: Warren Schultheis, Matthew Sullivan
Special Thanks: John Funk