Advice for interviewers in esports

I’m sat in the interview area of IEM Cologne fresh from writing scripts and prepping for three interviews we’ll be prerecording today. It’s a different environment to the IEM’s I worked on in 2019, when I was a new face on the CS:GO scene. (I worked three events in 2018, but IEM Katowice the following year was when the majority of the community saw me working for the first time.)

Some of my approaches and thoughts on interviews were formed during interview training in my work experience days at the BBC and from watching other interviewers at work. Rather more painfully, I’ve learned from watching myself back and by taking the ocasional risk, lucky enough to work with productions that allow me to do so.

It’s rare that I get extended time with my interviewees, given that in my sideline reporter role I usually have an average of 90 seconds to two minutes to draw information from a player on camera. Ocasionally I’m lucky to do slightly more relaxed formats – with the promise of an editor you can take more time to make your subject comfortable and have the opportunity to expand on your chosen topics.

I often get asked how you become an interviewer, but not how you become a good one, so I thought I’d share some thoughts on what to keep in mind if you ever find yourself on the sidelines, microphone in hand.

Photo by Adela-Sznajder for Dreamhack, Dreamhack Masters Malmö 2019

1. Prep, but don’t be stuck on your agenda

Before you do an interview, you’ll want to look at recent other interviews by your player, their performance and any notes you’ve made on their matches so you can find an angle. You may have also been asked to focus on a specific topic by production. However, if you go in determined to stick to the three questions scribbled on your cue card, you may miss the opportunity to expand on interesting details that haven’t been explored before, which brings me to my next point…

2. Look out for the details

You’d be surprised by how much impact the question “tell me more about that”, can have. In your prep you might have discovered something that relates to what you’ve just been told by a player – or maybe they’ve mentioned an issue that could be a much bigger problem going forward if they don’t fix it. You’re always hunting for something new when you’re interviewing – working on an esports broadcast, you want to find talking points for the desk, so make sure you keep their narrative in mind also.

3. Cut to the chase

You have limited time on the sideline so you want to get as much information as you can from your interviewee. Forgo long introductions – in some cases you can dispense with them entirely depending on how your segment is being placed within the broadcast. If you let them tell the story, rather than telling it for them, that means you can keep your questions short. On stage interviews, context can be a brilliant way to get a reaction from the player and the crowd as you sum up their achievements, but backstage you’re not working a crowd, you’re having a much more direct chat. The chances are, if you throw an open question about a half or whole map to start with, they’ll touch on what you were going to discuss – if not, you can follow up with it.

4. Closed questions can be killer questions

Closed questions – questions with binary options (ie yes/no) can shut down a conversation, but also can be a great way to end an interview definitively, or lead into something more.

5. The interview starts before the record

If I’ve not worked with certain players or teams before, I try to seek them out and introduce myself, rather than my first encounter being with them in a lightening quick interview between maps. It’s important that players feel as comfortable as possible on camera, and a significant part of your job is enabling them to do that. When players join me for interviews post gameplay, I’ll always try and take the setup time to talk to them and find out how they’re feeling – if I they tell me something I think the desk and the audience will be interested in, I’ll say “I might ask you about that” – but it’s also to strike up that rapport and get them ready to be recorded.

6. Value your relationships

You’re highly unlikely to be best friends with the players – that’s not what you’re there for. However, if you’re working in one tournament circuit, you’re likely to work with the same players. In fact, it’s one of the best parts of the job. Therefore, always consider the longterm – do you want players’ trust and respect and to build a working relationship, or do you want to make your name with a shock interview that means you’ll never get to do an interview with that player again? When I started interviewing in CSGO in 2018 I didn’t shy away from bold questions, but my interviews are far better now because they are far less dependent on what I say and more about what the player actually wants to tell me. However, because I am aware that the players respect me, I will still challenge some of their answers. Still, I’ll keep it fair; I don’t come out all guns blazing!

7. Not every interviewee is the same

Some players have never spoken English on camera before, others are seasoned pros. As you get to know players, you’ll learn what they respond well to and how to approach topics with them. With players who aren’t feeling confident about their English, I’ll typically let them know what we’re going to discuss and I’ll speak a bit slower – I also tell them before the interview that I’ll repeat anything they are unsure about, because that’s on me, not them. I have also learned from my own mistakes that using colloquial phrasing can be very confusing to players who don’t regularly speak English, so I try to avoid it. With new players, I’ll talk to them and their team about starting them with interviews – we aim to get them on camera at least once during the group stage when the stakes are lower so that they can experience what it’s like without too much pressure.

8. Adapt to the environment

Stage interviews are very different from sideline interviews. Usually on stage in an area you’ll have a IFB – this is a communications device (if you do stage work, invest in custom ear molded earphones to block out area echo) where you’ll have the programme feed (the show sound, including your own) and a direct line to the producer. Typically the player you’re with will not. If the crowd is loud, I may decide to give the player an idea of what I’m going to ask. I also don’t put as much emphasis on specific gameplay moments because the stage is a place of emotion and the bigger picture, whereas the sideline is more about the small, crucial details.

If you’re interested in stage hosting, I’d suggest looking at OJ Borg and Smix. OJ is gifted at creating intimate moments, despite being in an arena packed with 10,000 people. He may put a hand on a player’s back to guide them into focusing on his questions, which always help the player tell the most compelling story. Smix is a master at setting the scene of the what her interviewees have just achieved and making them consider the accomplishment and what it means to them, simultaneously establishing this for the viewers at home and giving space for the crowd to celebrate and react.

9. Don’t worry if people criticise your questions

The most important part of what you do is the answers you get. There are always going to be people out there who will claim you “only ask yes/no” or “the same questions”. Ignore them. Take your feedback from the people you work for.

10. Remember what you’re there for

Sometimes the interviewing role can be tough. You tend to work longer hours than other broadcast talent, especially if you’re filling more of a “reporter” role – ie writing and recording scripted pieces. Analysts and casters (and desk hosts, if they’re lucky) may get to work in shifts due to the level of focus required and vocal strain. If there are no breaks between matches – which you’ll be watching as closely as possible to find threads for your interviews – then keeping up your own focus can be really difficult. You also will need to balance out your intuition and desires for the interviews with what production and the rest of the broadcast team needs from you.

In the aftermovies and when people look back at the big moments in your chosen scene, you won’t be remembered. You’ll rarely – if ever – hear your voice. You can be disconnected from the rest of the broadcast talent due to locations of the LAN and you’ll have to be very self-motivated to get your daily prep work done. Sometimes you’ll have to disagree with your peers or production because you know a subject will risk your relationship with a player.

But – and this is the most important thing to remember – in this role, you will often be the first to witness players achieve their dreams. You’ll meet some of them at their first tier one LAN events and later see them lift their first trophies. In times when there isn’t a global pandemic limiting travel, you’ll follow their stories across continents. It is a rare privilege and should not be taken lightly.

By the way! I have a new podcast out! It’s called Save Your Game – the Red Bull Gaming Podcast. Find out out to listen on the Red Bull website (it’s on all good podcast platforms.)

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