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.

The path to Twitch

The technology in 2009 was important because it wasn’t just that Graham had access to video, it was that the streaming costs were completely eliminated. Unlike the early days, where Graham had to maintain his own Shoutcast server, he now could use websites like Stickam.

Stickam was an early video broadcast site that let people livestream themselves for free.

Graham decided to use that platform to do his old Inside the Game show.

“Even though [e-sports] was kind of in this stasis state, I just did that thing again,” he said. “Over time, I tried some different technology companies, like Ustream and Justin.tv. That’s when Twitch came to me and said: ‘Hey, we’re starting this video delivery service specifically for gamers. We want you to come to Twitch and broadcast from Twitch.'”

Graham was apprehensive at first because he didn’t really know why Twitch thought it could succeed, but eventually Twitch sold him on the fact that it was specifically for games.

“That’s also around the time that e-sports started to pick up,” he said. “Street Fighter IV got released and people were really excited about that. Myself and [GameSpot e-sports reporter Rod “Slasher” Breslau] and [Scott “SirScoots” Smith], the original hosts of Live On Three, started traveling again.”

They started attending fighting-game tournaments. Graham broadcasted the World Cyber Games finals in 2009 and 2010.

“We were sort of getting back into our old habits, but this time, we were traveling with tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment because it was all video, and we were trying to figure out where this all come together.”

djWheat today

It all came together in 2011. That’s when Twitch introduced its partner program enabling popular users to put ads in front of their content and make money.

“We were empowered to to capitalize on these audiences that we were building,” said Graham. “Really, the Twitch partnership program kind of opened up doors for many broadcasters to say: ‘There’s a way to make a legitimate business out of this. This is going to be one of the first steps to doing that.'”

In the wake of his partnership with Twitch, Graham began his Onemoregame.tv network that he operates today. Under that umbrella, Graham hosts a variety of shows that include his long-running Inside the Game and the Live On Three e-sports talk show.

Marcus "djWheat" Graham broadcasting for Twitch.

Above: Marcus “djWheat” Graham broadcasting for Twitch.

Image Credit: Twitch

Twitch eventually decided to bring on Graham full-time to help build its partnership program for e-sports.

“Since I had a huge e-sports background, that was it,” he said.

So once again, Graham is knocking on company’s doors and asking if he can stream. Now, however, he has the full infrastructure of Twitch behind him to make that happen.

“That’s where I went out of the dark times and back into, ‘Wow, this is what I’ve been hoping for for years. This is what we always wished we could do,’” said Graham. “Keep in mind, back in those early days, we could get numbers. We could get 10,000 people listening to our broadcast. But there was no way for us to monetize it. No one was coming to us and saying, ‘you have 10,000 people listening? Let me put an ad in front of you.’ No one had any idea. Well, now, you cannot ignore a site, like Twitch, that has 40 million uniques coming to it every month. Even as someone who’s been in e-sports for as long as I have, Twitch opening up the partner program is probably one of the biggest reasons and factors for why I not only was I able to continue the whole streaming concept full time, but it’s also how e-sports has been able to sustain itself over the last two years and continues to grow into this behemoth that doesn’t want to slow down.”

The future of e-sports, broadcasting, and djWheat

These days, Graham is everywhere. He’s hosting his weekly shows. He’s commentating major events like MLG’s StarCraft 2 event in Dallas earlier this year. He’s still helping with Twitch’s partnership program for e-sports as seinor manager of partnerships. He also took hosting duties for Twitch’s coverage of the Electronic Entertainment Expo trade show in early June.

He’s now also just one of many professional broadcasters that are helping to define how e-sports will look and sound going forward. We asked him what he wants for the future of e-sports and of livestreaming.

“[For e-sports], I would like to see three or four organized leagues, similar to how Riot is running their [League of Legends Championship Series]. I personally don’t care if they’re run by the publisher, the developer, or if they’re run by third parties and they work with a company like Blizzard to make that happen. We’ve already kind of got two established [with LCS and StarCraft 2’s World Championship Series]. I think that getting to four or five — I think that really legitimizes things.”

Speaking in terms of e-sports and streaming in general, Graham says he also wants to see pro teams and Twitch channels broadening their sponsor base.

“Right now we have a lot of sponsors that are specific to the folks who are watching the games,” he said. “A lot of headsets, a lot of memory. Intel. When am I going to see team Na’Vi Gaming sponsored by Budweiser, by Cheerios, or something like that?”

Attracting mainstream sponsors would indicate that e-sports is maturing. Traditional leagues like the NFL and NASCAR bring in millions from companies that have nothing to do with football or racing but want an association with those organizations because it could boost a brands’ reputation. E-sports professionals like Graham understand that the gaming leagues need to eventually get to that point as well.

“For example, One More Game is sponsored by Monster,” he said. “For us, it’s that first step in the right direction. We’ve talked to many of the North American bottling companies. We’ve done successful campaigns with Papa John’s and with eBay. These things are happening, slowly but surely, but I do feel that in the next three to five years, we have to have that next level of who is sponsoring e-sports for it to really take another step in the right direction.”

Finally, speaking specifically about Twitch, Graham just wants to see the company that revitalized his career continue to grow.

“I’m not only a huge fan of the e-sports content that’s up there, but also just the general gaming content that’s on there. I think that Twitch is also — In the same way that it’s affected eSports, it’s affected the general gaming community in a major way as well. I don’t go and read reviews anymore. I just go watch my favorite guys play a game for two hours, and I say, ‘Yeah, I want to buy that game.’ It’s changing the way journalism is done and how people are discovering games. We’re seeing games that people would have never heard about five years ago spread virally through the community because a guy on Twitch played it and someone said it looked like it was fun. These types of changes — that’s what I’d like to do. I’d like to see a redefining of the gaming community because of this technology and these tools that are now available to us as gamers.”