With StarCraft II making an appearance at last weekend’s Intel Extreme Masters in Sydney, we caught up with revered esports caster Leigh “Maynarde” Mandalov.
The former St Michaels Old Scholar (of the South Australian Amateur Football League) player has had a whirlwind journey to becoming one of the biggest names in the professional StarCraft II scene.
In part one of this two-part interview, we discuss how he got to where he is today.
Tomorrow, we’ll discuss what goes into actually commentating an esports match, as well as how one sustains a career in the industry.
The Roar: So, before StarCraft, what kind of games were you into? Had you been deeply involved in a games community before StarCraft?
Maynarde: I was pretty deeply involved in the Quake 1 Community, back in the late ’90’s. I was one of the state’s better players. I’m probably just showing my age a bit here – I was in my teens back then and I was really, really into the game.
For the first time ever I had an online multi-player game that I put many, many hours a day into practising, and took seriously. Honestly, since the take-over of Counter-Strike over the Quake scene, I pulled out of competitive gaming, mostly all together, other than being just very casual between friends and that sort of thing.
But, back in the day, the Quake Community was something I was a part of for sure.
The Roar: How involved did you get in the Quake Community?
Maynarde: Just to the extent of just trying to be a try hard Pro player.
The Roar: Very good.
Maynarde: I didn’t get very far, best I did was, got to one-v-one some big names internationals, but never did well.
The Roar: Fair enough.
Maynarde: It was just as a player, I never really tried to go into being part of a team, or running a team, or commentating the game at all. There really wasn’t much for that back in the ’90’s, at all.
The Roar: Can’t imagine so. How did you get into StarCraft as a game and then subsequently as an esport?
Maynarde: I got into StarCraft, as most people did my age, by having the game on my PC back in the late ’90’s.
The Roar: We’re talking about StarCraft I, then?
Maynarde: StarCraft I, yes. I first got into StarCraft I in the late ’90’s, playing it as a casual player, enjoying the story, playing a bunch of customs with my mates, and making my own maps and that sort of thing, which was pretty cool, I thought, back in the day.
Then, with StarCraft II, I was super hyped for it when it was nearing release. When it got released I instantly started going to LANs. I instantly hit the competitive ladder to see how I’d do and I got really addicted to the mechanics of the game.
I hit the ladder really hard and, honestly, I didn’t expect the game to take me as much as it did.
The Roar: What made you want to get involved with the game more than just being a player?
Maynarde: I think it was probably around the same time when I realised I wouldn’t be a very good player – when I realised the ceiling of my skill was lower than I thought it could be.
I didn’t think I had the time of day to become any great at the game, but I loved the game so much and the tournament scene meant a lot to me by the sheer amount of tournaments that I watched and was a part of.
I wanted the game to thrive and I wanted to do anything I could to help it thrive. I was putting a lot of money, and time, and effort into funding prize pools for local tournaments, going to local tournaments and, eventually, commentating.
The Roar: You were obviously getting quite involved with the StarCraft community if you were funding prize pools and that kind of thing. Was casting then something you fell into? Or did you make a goal of being a StarCraft caster?
Maynarde: I wasn’t the only backbone to prize pools. I was a contributor. I remember putting thousands and thousands of dollars towards it, but I definitely wasn’t funding them out of my own pocket.
There were lots of people that were and sponsors and stuff who, of course, were the bulk of it.
It felt good to help.
As far as commentary goes, I actually fell into it. I didn’t expect and I didn’t think I would ever be a commentator, but it just happened because it was something I did for fun and I kept getting feedback of people with clout saying, “No man, you should pursue it further. I think that you really have something special, something different. I think you should really push for it.”
The Roar: Were there any casters you looked up to or learned from in your journey?
Maynarde: Absolutely. There’s heaps of them. You might know Tasteless [Nick Plott] and Artosis [Daniel Stemkoski], they were the biggest names in StarCraft commentary for I and II.
They were the guys that I really looked up to and it felt like it was unattainable for years, and years, and years.
I would watch them online and the long story short is I never thought I’d ever work with them because I felt like they were so above me. We actually cast together relatively often now.
The Roar: How cool is that?
Maynarde: It’s amazing. I never ever thought it would happen. It’s funny how it eventually happened. Didn’t take too long for us to meet either. We met in 2012 and have been casting together off and on here and there ever since.
The Roar: That’s fantastic. Backtracking a bit. How did you first get into casting and how was that initial journey, commentating games of StarCraft?
Maynarde: My first ever cast was actually a night where I was playing in a lower-level clan war with a bunch of people. It was just a bunch of people against another bunch of people.
I got eliminated early, but I kept watching the tournament and it was being streamed in front of five or six people. Half a baker’s dozen, no big deal. It was just a small thing so no one really put time and effort into the production of everything like that.
The guy who was commentating it basically opened up his Skype and said whoever wants to add me on that can join me as a commentator. After a few drinks, I thought, “Yeah, sure. Why not? I’ll jump on.”
We commentated together and I was making jokes, but people were like, “his game knowledge isn’t terrible. He’s got a nice voice, a bit of a radio voice. I think he’s really good.”
My name got thrown around the forum community that I was a part of for the local StarCraft II scene.
I got picked up by a guy that was running a bigger tournament circuit and he had friends in high places and I got to do the local Australian circuit.
The local Australian circuit guys got hired by Blizzard to run the World Championship Series and that’s where I met Tasteless and Artosis. Then they told international people about me and so on and so forth. Eventually, it was a who you know situation where I went from something bigger to something bigger again.
The Roar: What would you consider some of the major highlights of your career so far?
Maynarde: One that always comes to mind immediately when someone asks that is my first ever Grand Final commentary gig. It was a little bit bittersweet because of some stuff that was happening behind the scenes.
The regular commentator that was going to do the Grand Final couldn’t, so I was a stand-in. I wasn’t going to complain about getting an opportunity to cast Grand Final in Spodek Arena in Poland.
That was the IEM Katowice Grand Finals in 2015. It was me with Apollo [Shaun Clark], who was another that I looked up to for so many years and never really go to work with until 2013.
The 2015 Grand Final was in front of an arena of thousands. It was like a soccer arena. I don’t know if you are aware of the venue but…
The Roar: I know the one.
Maynarde: You know the venue. The atmosphere is indescribable. It’s electrifying. I walked up those stairs to commentate this gig and I felt like I was going to throw-up because of how nervous I was about not doing the right job.
The whole stadium and the staircase that I was climbing up, it was like a scaffolding staircase. It was thundering of people getting ready and the game hadn’t even started yet.
I was really, really feeling sick and then some guy was trying to interview me while on was on stage getting ready and I said some really bad words to him. I was freaking out. I felt really bad. I apologised afterwards and we’re cool now but at the time I felt bad.
I sat down with Apollo and he gave me some words and I started and as soon as the game started, I did a big roaring introduction, the crowd erupted, and it was like a drug.
I was high off the experience of commentating this Grand Final with having my voice reverberate this entire arena of thousands. Whenever I yelled, I felt the place shake, just from the speakers.
The Roar: That’s fantastic.
Maynarde: It’s something that’s indescribable. It’s something that only a very small percentage of people get to experience, so I’m very blessed in that regard.
Obviously, coming as a close second, all the BlizzCon Grand Final gigs that I’ve been offered as well, been very lucky to go to. Anytime I’ve been invited for that.
It’s gone a long way from my first ever BlizzCon, I cast two best of fives and then I was done. Spent about an hour and half of commentary, flew across the world for it and then I was done.
Even then, I was still really, really blessed to have gone there and worked with all the big names in front of the arena, which was again full of thousands of people in a big amphitheatre. The last one, I actually was there for the full two weeks of the whole tournament.
It was nothing short of magical. It’s stuff that puts a twinkle in my eyes talking about it with you right now. I can feel myself smiling.
I’m one of those people where I feel like I do all right as an online caster, but I really feel like my strength comes as a live caster because I really feed off the crowd.
If the crowd’s energetic, it just compounds my energy and folds it on top of itself and makes it a thousand-fold.
If it’s a really boisterous crowd, like for instance in France, there’s been really boisterous crowds. Poland’s had an amazing crowd. America, Montréal, they’ve had amazing crowds. They really boost my ability to bring energy non-stop.