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How Marcus ‘djWheat’ Graham became one of the voices of e-sports

Above: Marcus "djWheat" Graham moments before heading out to broadcast an MLG StarCraft event.

Image Credit: David Zhou/MLG

If you grew up watching football, you likely know where most of the color-commentary broadcasters came from. Think of John Madden. Just about everyone knows that he started as a player in the National Football League. He later went on to coach the Oakland Raiders to a Super Bowl before his long career commentating on games.

What I didn’t know is that story just about sums up Marcus Graham’s career.

Better known under his “djWheat” pseudonym, Graham is an e-sports commentator, online talk-show host, and business professional in e-sports and online broadcasting. I knew of him from watching a few StarCraft II matches and from his Live On Three e-sports show that I’ve watched a few times.

As a relative outsider to e-sports, I always thought that Graham woke up one day, saw how big e-sports is getting, and decided to take a crack at broadcasting it. The truth is that he was doing this job before we even had a name for it.

“I’m an older guy,” said Graham. “A lot of people don’t necessarily know the history. They’re like, ‘Why is this guy even qualified to talk about video games on any level?’ Before there was broadcasting — before people were even considering broadcasting these types of events we do now — I was a player.”

Graham got his start in competitive gaming — this was before anyone had coined the term “e-sports” — as a player on one of the top-ranked North American Quake II team-deathmatch teams. He was the leader of Clan 519, and he would travel with his team and compete in LAN parties for money.

Marcus "djWheat" Graham.

Above: Marcus “djWheat” Graham.

Image Credit: Graham

“I have a huge competitive fire inside me,” he said. “The interest in playing was always there.”

As Graham got into his 20s, he began to put that fire aside in favor of something that he could support himself with.

“One day, as I was about 21-years old, I said to myself, ‘You know what? I love to play video games. I really love to play Quake and travel around the U.S. and compete,” said Graham. “But the fact of the matter is, I’ve gotta get a job. And I’ve gotta get a job fast. At the time I was very PC-centric. I happened to get a job with a tech company right around the Y2K boom, when they were hiring anyone who knew anything about computers. This was great for me, because it allowed me to have a full-time job, and then when I wasn’t working, I was playing and doing what I could for the team.”

For Graham, doing what he could meant taking on the role of de facto coach. He decided one of the best ways he could do this was to watch the games and comment over them. That way he could call out smart moves and help the other players work on recognizing and addressing their errors.

“I probably did three or four of these before one of my guys came to me and said, ‘I don’t know if the other guys are actually listening to what you’re doing, but you should try to do this like it’s a sports game. Try to commentate. Your passion is obviously strong enough there. You’re almost doing it already.’”

The idea immediately took root in Graham’s imagination, and he began researching how he would go about doing something like that.

“I looked for different technology,” he said. “This was about 1999 into 2000, and so the first technology I ever used to stream was actually a RealAudio server. I could have 25 people, max capacity, listening. I filled it up every night, and I thought I was just the bee’s knees because there were 25 people interested in hearing about these Quake games that were happening.”

RealAudio is a streaming audio codec that individuals can use to stream music and audio content over the web. RealNetworks designed it specifically for low-bandwidth connections like dial-up modems.

As fun as it was, the 25-person limit forced Graham to move on to other technology. That’s when he found WinAmp’s Shoutcast software.

Shoutcast was similar to RealAudio, but it provided the opportunity for Graham and others to host Internet “radio stations” that could handle up to 1,000 simultaneous listeners.

“That’s what ended up happening,” he said. “I started doing, independently, my own radio broadcasts for Quake. I eventually ended up joining a group of guys that were called TSN, the Team Sportscast Network. They did the same thing, where they had their own servers. I was their Quake broadcaster.”

The Team Sportscast Network covered a wide variety of games although it specialized on the Tribes franchise. The format was so popular in certain gaming circles that a lot of people still refer to game commentators as “shoutcasters.”

“I ended up leaving that place and starting my own little station called Inside the Game,” said Graham. “But TSN was kind of the start of it all.”

The first commentator

In 1999, a handful of people were starting to use platforms like Shoutcast to talk about competitive games. That’s also when people started commentating live matches, but Graham says it is difficult to know who was first.

“I think there were a lot of examples of people doing [commentary] where they didn’t even realize they were doing it,” he said. “For that reason, it is really hard to pinpoint who was the first person that was actually out there broadcasting these things. I’ve been labeled that guy several times, but I don’t even know that I can take that credit.”

It wasn’t until 2002, says Graham, when companies like MLG were founded, that a wider audience began to realize that game commentators were a real thing.

“I think that was the first year that this hobbyist activity really became a reality.”

Before it was cool … or profitable

The early days of game broadcasting and commentating were very different. Today, organizations like MLG have full-time play-by-play, analyst, and color-commentary people. Those companies keep many of them on salary, fly them out to events, and even get them tailored suits.

Those are the kinds of things that Graham rarely received and most of the time had to pay for himself at the beginning.

“On the one hand, I was the talent,” he said. “I was the guy who got on the microphone and did his thing. But at the same time, because I was so into computers and so into the technical aspects of broadcasting, I often played the roles of talent, producer, and director all at the same time. The challenges were ridiculously hard.”

Graham was essentially running his own production company as a hobby. He and his team would have to drag thousands of dollars worth of equipment to events around the country and ask organizers to provide tables, Internet access, and access to the game.

This was all before video streaming. Hell — this was before YouTube. Graham would set up a situation similar to what an AM radio network has at a sports arena. He would set up a beefy audio-streaming station and watch the game and broadcast over it. Ideally, gamers would also watch the game, typically Quake, through a spectator mode in the title itself as well.

“But the logistics were kind of like, us knocking on companies’ doors and saying: ‘Hey! This is a cool thing that we do. Let us come to your place and do it.’ We paid our way for years to events. That was just because, partially, we loved what we were doing. The other reason was because we felt like someone needed to be doing this coverage.”

As a passion project, things got pretty expensive.

“We were not ever making money,” he said. “I invested, early on, tens of thousands of dollars into traveling and equipment. People ask me: ‘Did it pay off?’ It pays off now, because I put all that time and effort into building something, and as a result of all that hard work and effort, it’s landed me jobs in prominent places and broadcasting is a part of that. Twitch and so on. But at the time, there was no return.”

The only time Graham ever felt like he was making money at that time — and it was just a feeling — was when a few companies finally started paying for their travel to come out and broadcast an event.

“A the end of the day, it was about, ‘Can we get our crew there? Can we break even?’ We did, for a long time. But in those early days, we and a few others — there’s quite a few — that was how we had to make this happen. We just kind of self-invested in the organization and what we were doing. It was certainly a risk. It was a gamble. In my case and many others, though, it was definitely one that paid off.”

How Friday Night Lights almost killed djWheat’s career

Graham was able to make this hobby work and turned it into something more than that, but he couldn’t completely avoid some grim periods in his career. The lowest point came when one of his employers turned to a struggling broadcast television show and closed down his gaming division.

“In 2005 and 2006, e-sports was really in a bad place,” he said. “No one knew if people were going to keep throwing competitions. There were no interesting games coming out. The technology hadn’t caught up with the games themselves. It was a dire time.”

At that time, Graham was working for DirecTV on its Championship Gaming Series. The satellite-television company poured millions of dollars into the operation in the hopes that it would turn into its next big thing.

“DirecTV did a bunch of things right,” said Graham. “Working for them was probably two and a half years that I would never give up, because of the experience I was able to gain from that. But they made a lot of mistakes too, a lot of mistakes.”

While DirecTV was investing in the Championship Gaming Series, it put a lot of those funds toward the international side of the operation. Graham says that, in reality, North America is where amazing things were happening during that period.

In 2008, DirecTV made a deal with NBC to co-produce the football drama series Friday Night Lights. Graham believes that deal was at least partially responsible for making the provider rethink its gaming business.

DirecTV shuttered the Championship Gaming Series not long after that Friday Night Lights deal.

“That was where the dark times really came in for me,” he said. “I was in Los Angeles. I didn’t have a job. Gaming wasn’t really going anywhere, at least in my realm. So I moved back to Nebraska and started working for the same technology company that gave me a job originally in 1999. I basically had to start all over again.”

It was 2009, and Graham was working eight-hour days at a technology company in Lincoln. After work he would come home and broadcast for the rest of the evening. This time, however, he was doing things on video.

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