Interview with TotalBiscuit on the Korean Scene Sponsor Issues

John "TotalBiscuit" Bain is a very vocal--and often times polarizing--figure in the esports community, and I had the chance to speak with him about some issues he has discovered that lie in the Korean Starcraft 2 scene, regarding sponsorship issues and a general lack of financial support for a number of players. Regardless of what you may think of the man himself, his devotion to this particular aspect of E-Sports deserves attention.

image Image Source: GHOSTCLAW for Major League Gaming

Unfortunately, I managed to not record a fair bit of our conversation, and do not have an exact transcription of his plans to potentially form a "Team Cynical" in Korea, but here are a few of his talking points that cover what I missed:

  • John's wife, Genna, is mostly responsible for the team formation process. She is passionate for the Korean scene after their MLG experience with CranK, and she is actively looking into finding sponsors and making other arrangements to see if such a team could work.
  • There would likely be a small core of two or three players initially, as the Cynical Brit organization looks to start small and build up over time.
  • With a focus on a strong sponsorship core, the team would look to provide room/board, as well as travel to tournaments and a fair salary.
  • Many players on Korean SC2 teams do not get paid a salary, they only receive room and board, and a place to train with equally skilled players.
  • Team Cynical is still very much in the conceptual stage, do not be surprised if it does not end up forming, and if it does, it will still take some time.

But, without further ado, here is the interview proper! The wording is almost exactly the same as what he said, but if you are like me and prefer an audio version of interviews, I've attached a YouTube version here as well.

1. Could you briefly explain the Korean scene sponsorship issues who may not have seen your comments on the issue before?

From what I've heard, and bear in mind I base all of this information on what I've heard from various players at various events, the problem with the Korean scene is that it doesn't have a core base within the country of Korea itself. This may change as Proleague gets more popular, and KeSPA starts to push into the field and Brood War fans start to come over to Starcraft 2.

The issue is that you've got Korean sponsors that are not willing to sponsor Korean teams because there isn't enough return on investment for them. Those Korean sponsors, they're no use in the Western scene, because they don't sell their products to Westerners. You've got a very limited selection of companies that would actually be willing to get involved, and even less that are relevant to the demographic.

Then, you've also got the problem that when it comes to sponsoring Korean teams, Western sponsors won't necessarily do it because you don't have a huge Western fan base that is really wanting to watch Korean players stream or get involved in tournaments, outside of the GSL. People don't necessarily watch the GSL for whoever is playing. Obviously, you'll get a spike if a really popular player like NesTea, MMA, Mvp, MC--if those guys are having big runs, then yeah, people will watch. But, most of the time, the guys who watch the GSL watch because the skill level is high, not because of the teams that are playing.

So, the sponsors aren't actually getting the brand awareness and ROI that you would expect from the Western audience, that foreign teams are getting in spades. Which is why, of course, teams like EG are so rich. The get so much ROI out of sponsorship.

So, I think that what has to happen is you've got to be able to bring more Western sponsors into the Korean scene, and you've got to--wherever possible--got to be able to grow the Korean audience to the point where Korean sponsors also want to put a lot of money in. That's currently not happening.

2. The other thing you said not quite as recently, but around the time when you first brought up the sponsorship issues, was shifting the Shoutcraft Invitationals over to a Korean focus to try and bring notice to the sponsorship situation over there. Have you had any progress with organizing that, whether that be with confirmed players, dates, or anything like that?

Yeah, over the next couple of months, things will be easier, because some of these teams will not be around anymore, and there are going to be a lot more free agents who will have a lot more flexibility. Right now, the main problem is that a lot of teams don't let players compete in some of these tournaments because they're too busy focusing on GSL or they're focusing on Proleague. I think that over the next few months it will be easier to do that.

Also, it's a case of getting contacts on the ground, and now we have contacts on the ground, and we're able to do a lot more through both players and people that we know over in Korea. So, our first attempt to do this just didn't work out, it fizzled and never happened. I think the second attempt will probably work out much better.

I'm looking forward to trying to put on an event like that over the next few months, but obviously organizing a Korean event is significantly more difficult, and since we're doing an invitational, it's actually more difficult than you might think. If we did a standard qualification based tournament, then people would probably just come and play in it, and it would be fine. But doing an invitational, and getting specific players that we know will be entertaining, well that's a different matter entirely. And it's difficult enough getting them from western teams, let alone teams that don't speak your language. I think our translator will have her work cut out for her in the next couple of months.

3. You mentioned that it is harder doing things in the Korean scene. Have you encountered any organizational difficulties that have really hampered what you're trying to do?

Yeah, just flat out stonewalling from a lot of organizations. I don't want to name specific teams, but there have been several teams who have flat out stonewalled and said NO. We'll even just asked, can you send a player to this event? NO. We're not interested, or I will just not respond to you. It's just really weird honestly, it's very difficult to deal with the Korean scene from an outsider standpoint, and we're hardly the first people to struggle with it.

There are groups that have a great deal of experience with this, like FXO for instance, has a lot of experience. Quantic has a lot of experience, and even EG is getting a lot more experience dealing with the Korean scene. And I think it's just a gradual process, and when you do it on your own and you do not have all this support and staff in Korea to do it, it does become very, very difficult, and you do run into big problems.

Which is why I think it's helpful to us that we helped out a Korean player, and that actually gave us a lot of credibility in the scene. We heard a lot, like the Korean Starcraft pros know about what we did. In fact, we heard that some are even quite jealous of it. So, they actually view what we did for CranK as a very positive--not so much an olive branch, but just saying hey, we do actually care about the Korean scene, and I think that that heartened a lot of people.

So, that may have broken the ice a bit with certain organizations. We'll see how that helps going forward.

4. You probably can't speak too much into this because of confidentiality, but you said teams will be folding pretty soon. How big of names are we talking here?

We're talking big names. There's at least once very big name that might surprise you. That's what I can say, that's the knowledge I have, I'm not going to reveal their name, obviously. But, I think you're probably going to see some pretty shocking things over the next few months.

Then, I have to wonder how much the KeSPA teams are actually going to cannibalize that, and how many players are going to be eaten up either by foreigner teams looking for top Korean talent, or by KeSPA teams looking for either coaches or people who are already competent with Starcraft 2.

5. Pulling all of this together, what personally drives you to make a difference in the Korean sponsorship situation?

It was just our experience with CranK that really pushed us into that. We learned a lot from him, and from the other Koreans as well. Because we brought CranK over, a lot of Koreans were willing to talk to us at the event, so we heard a lot of different things. As a result, I got a much better impression of the Korean scene than I had previously.

They pretty much spilled their guts, either through a translator or just by talking to us. I think you'd be kind of surprised by how good the English of a lot of those guys is. They're really smart, so you've got guys who are already going to university, and are just blindingly intelligent; far, far smarter than I'll ever be.

They're willing to talk about this stuff, and as a result, I realized--this is the biggest thing that I realized. Foreigners have it easy by comparison. Foreigners can actually get paid a salary and produce no results. As long as they get decent stream numbers, or they just happen to be someone who's outspoken on the forums and gets a lot of attention. That can't happen in Korea because of the language barrier. The Korean fan base isn't that large, so it's really hard to be notorious in Korea. You have to be notorious in the Western scene. The only way you can do that is by performing.

There is so much talent over there that distinguishing yourself is very difficult. Whereas distinguishing yourself over here is very easy, you don't have to do it via personal skill. So, it just seemed to me that: Wow, there's this entire scene, and there's so much talent, and there's kids working their asses off to be the best they can be, and yet they're seeing no support. They're in a hostile environment, and the only support they ever seem to get is when Western teams swoop in and pluck the talent out, and have them as their next latest and greatest star.

I don't see that as being helpful, and I don't feel that Western money--aside from FXO, of course, they've done a fantastic job in that respect, and what Quantic has done with IM and then StarTale--I don't think that Western organizations, with Western personalities and Western money, has really helped the Korean scene as much as it should have.

6. We have all of these smaller foreign teams swooping in and picking up bigger Korean names, like with mTw picking up SuperNova, and Alt-Tab getting Sage. Do you think they gain a lot by getting these players?

They gain the ability to win tournaments, which they didn't have previously, and that's perhaps the most important thing. I love Dimaga to death, but he hasn't won a tournament in a while. And mTw has had only Dimaga for a little while, haven't they? So it makes perfect sense for them to bring a Korean on.

The thing about Koreans is that you can pick them up quite cheaply--it sounds terrible to say this, it's like going in and buying a handbag... You can pick up a Korean player quite cheaply, because at the end of the day, they weren't getting paid anything while they were in Korea, at all, on their team; they weren't getting paid a thing. So you've got a very talented player who can bust up online tournaments. You've got a very talented player who can place highly at MLGs, IPLSs, IEMs, and Dreamhacks, and you're investing not a particularly large amount in them. You also get a foothold in the Korean scene by owning a Korean player on your team, so you can use that player to wedge open more opportunities in Korea.

So, it makes perfect sense to pick up Koreans. They are, in general, higher skilled than foreigners, and they cost less. They have lower expectations. So, I can't really blame any team for picking up Korean talent at this stage. And it's not a bad thing either, it's really helping out a lot of Korean pros who couldn't otherwise afford to stay in the game, and would otherwise be forced to just retire.

7. A little bit of a shift here, we're going to talk about your wife's role in all of this. You said the team is her project, for instance. How is having her around to help out so much with organization?

It's pretty crazy. I've worked for years with my wife for many years on other projects. We worked together on WoW Radio, and it was actually one of the most successful periods we had with the fan site itself. And then, we worked on a whole bunch of other stuff, but now we work on my business, my videos, and my brand.

But we also work on Starcraft stuff, and she's got a passion for the Korean scene now. Consider I was off casting at MLG Raleigh; she was around the Koreans all the time, that's where she was. She and Sophie, the translator we hired for that event, they were hanging around with the Koreans all the time. She was watching every single game, she was getting to know the Koreans, and she gained an understanding of the Korean scene, and also gained a real passion for it and wanted to help.

So, she has organizational skills that are far beyond anything I can do, and also has more time than I do. She is working diligently to create a team of some description--it's been something we wanted to do for a while, but it didn't seem feasible. And it still almost doesn't, you know. It's almost out of reach, but we have a lot of guys that have come forward and said we want to help, and we have a lot more connections than I think a lot of other teams really have.

We have a media network that blows every other team out of the water, simply by virtue of having YouTube.com/CynicalBrit and /TotalBiscuit, and the Twitch channel. There is no other team that has a YouTube channel with 775,000 subscribers, not even close. So, we can leverage that to perhaps gain other opportunities and sponsors that other teams can't actually get their hands on.

She's going to try and do that, because her specialty really is in marketing, and building the brand. She's been building the brand to the size it is for the last few years, and has been greatly successful with that. That's the knowledge she can apply to the team.

8. I'm going to switch over to some other types of questions, but do you have anything else you would like to say on this subject?

I'll just say that this is very much a thing that is in concept. The whole tweet thing blew up after I said that the state of the Korean scene is just really bad, and if I can get the sponsors, I will make a team. That ended up on reddit, and I felt compelled to actually speak about, because otherwise the rumors would go crazy.

What I said on reddit was accurate. We are looking into it; if we can get the sponsors, we'll do it. That's the stage it is currently at. Everything else is just negotiation and trying to build, and this may not even happen. We may find that sponsors are completely tapped out, we can't get the avenues we need, we can't raise funds. At the end of the day, I still have a family to support and a business to run.

Some people might think casters make millions a year, but they're actually out of their minds, and while we do make quite a bit of money from YouTube, there are a lot of other things we have to worry about.

This is going to be a long, long process, and I wouldn't expect it to bear fruit immediately.

9. Jumping into some more random stuff... How do you like living in the US compared to living in England? You obviously have your family here, but is there anything you miss from home, things you're glad you don't have to deal with anymore, or things you like about America?

Well, I'd say the weather, but--I live in North Carolina, so we have weather issues as well. We've got humidity, it's actually getting much better in the fall, which is wonderful, but we have humidity issues, we have sudden weather changes. Big storms, and lightning, crazy stuff like that, so weather is more extreme here.

I like the fact that there are way more events to get involved in. I would always have to travel to Europe to get involved in anything worthwhile when I was in the UK. That for me was a nightmare in and of itself, and I hate flying. I still have to fly here in US as well, every now and again, but at least it kind of makes sense. There's the little ocean, and yet it will take me ages to get here, and they probably don't even speak my language, so it's going to be tricky...

In the US there's a lot of opportunities to grow the business. That's what I always wanted to do, is to be very deeply involved in the games industry, and living in the US lets you do that. If you have the connections, and you happen to have the media network which we currently have, the US is the best place to be. You get access to all of the best conventions. The only thing you miss out on, essentially, is GAMESCOM, and even then, PAX is pretty much as good, so it's not too much of a worry there.

That's what I like most from a business standpoint. From a personal standpoint, I obviously like that fact that I'm back with my family--that's a big deal--but, I like the food. It's much better than the UK, the UK food sucks. The only thing we've got that's good is curry, and fish and chips, and while I miss a good curry, I can get a good one in San Francisco, so I can pick one up when I'm on the west coast.

10. Obviously, your main body of work is not Starcraft, it's game content on YouTube, so you have to opportunity to try a lot of games. What are a couple of favorites you have from the last month or so?

From the last month or so? Let's see what springs to mind... It's always bad for me to remember what games I've played the last few months, because I played so many. There are days where I play six games, all new. So, I'm like "What is going on?!"

But, I think the thing I really got into, which is a game that I finished--which is very rare for me, I usually don't have the time--is Transformers: Fall of Cybertron, which is surprisingly good! I was never into Transformers as a kid, so what really surprised me with the original, War for Cybertron, is that it was so much fun even if you didn't know anything about Transformers. Like, I know who Optimus Prime is, I don't know who Megatron is.

But, the game itself is a nicely varied and an incredibly well put together third person shooter, and it projects a love for the franchise that even if you're into it, you get suckered in. It's just tenacious, it attracts you in, and gets you really enthusiastic about something. It's infectious in its enthusiasm for the genre, so I'm a big fan of that.

Other games that I've played that were absolutely fantastic, FTL: Faster Than Light...

11. Yeah, that's a time killer, right there.

Oh god, it is! I've been looking for a game like that for a very long time. It's very much a game that simulates the whole idea of commanding a starship and flying through the universe, and managing a crew better than most games that are out there. Hell, I would give my right arm for a Star Trek game like that, I really would, but unfortunately it looks like we'll never see that.

Aside from that, I've been playing a lot of and really enjoying the beta for Planetside 2, of course, which is looking to be incredible. I just don't have the time to play it as much as I wish I could. Back in the day, I was able to put five, six hours a day into it, but not anymore.

12. What's your usual division of time between work, free time, Starcraft, or anything else each day?

It varies on a day to day basis, but it is mostly work. I always have this attitude that if I work now, I can maybe play later, and that doesn't always work out as well as it should. I've been having to really learn since I've now come back to the US how to properly manage time. Gen is teaching me to do that. Back in the UK, I would just work, because why not? I have nothing better to do with my life, I might as well just work my ass off and make a bunch of money.

But now I've got a family to deal with, and I do need to de-stress. I've had stress induced allergies for the past year, I've had bad things happen to my body as a result of stress,as they tend to. I've been working to try and limit the amount I work on a daily basis.

I will at a minimum work an eight hour day, more often than not it's eleven to twelve, it really depends on the day and how much content I've got going. Lately, I've been able to get into this mindset where I've been able to crank out video after video. I can work for five to six hours straight doing nothing but commentary, and then suddenly I've got a lot of content, and I can ease off over the next few days.

This was something I was never able to do, because I was never able to get into the right mindset, and I was always pretty depressed, honestly, because of the family situation. So now that that's been resolved, I have got a more positive mindset and I've been able to work in a better way, but it's not easy.

I think that the minority of the time is commentary, everything else is editing, it's dealing with the business side of things, and there is so much to deal with, to actually set up all of these opportunities. We do so much with pre-release games, and that takes a lot of work to get copies of those games and get access to stuff, and convince developers we're not going to bite their head off if they give us pre-release codes. There's a lot more to the business than meets the eye.

13. Obviously, it took years to build your brand, and your name, and the channel, but if anyone is looking to get into the same kind of career as you, do you have any tips for them starting out other than just putting hours into it?

Well, the thing you've got to understand about YouTube is that YouTube in its current form is entirely personality driven. You look at some of the videos on YouTube, say Happy Wheels Part 167 that has half a million views, by some guy whose name I will not utter here because it might summon the denizens of hell itself, and you say, "Why the hell?!"

What you have to then turn around and understand is the reason why people watch this is because of the personality, and that's it, that's the only reason. He could produce anything, absolutely anything, as long as it actually involves his personality in some way, and people will watch it. If you have a boring personality, fix that. No one will like you. Nobody. Either you've got to create a persona for yourself, or make yourself more interesting in some way.

For me, I think it was probably because I have an unusual accent. I have an accent that's--it's very rare in the UK to sound like this. It's not impossible, my dad sounds exactly like this for instance, only twenty to thirty years older.

And there are other people I've met who do sound like this, but it's quite a rare accent to the point where some people think I fake, which is kinda crazy. Apparently I've been faking an accent for the last ten years, who knew? That, I think, is what gets people into me initially. They hear my accent and they're interested by it, and then they find other accents of my personality which interest them and keep them coming.

So, that's the first thing, you must have a personality. And secondly, what I would say is consistency. Find what works for your brand, and then make it over and over and over again until people can't live without it. That's what I think "WTF Is...?" attained, and that's by far my most successful series. And that's the bread and butter of that channel, that's what brings people to it. It's constant content, it can't run out because there's always new games coming out. You've got to come up with a set of series which can actually maintain over the long term and will get people into it to the point where they become reliant on you.

Once they become reliant on you, that's when you've got 'em. That's when you have success. Because they come to you on a daily basis. The comparison I would make is so many people in the UK sit down in the evening to watch the soaps. They watch Eastenders and Coronation Street, it's an integral part of their life, they can't live without it. They want to watch it every day, you've got to be build your channel in the same way. You've got to have people say, "I want you to be a regular part of my daily routine."

14. That's about all I have, so let's do some closing things. What event, Starcraft or otherwise, will you be attending in the next few months?

That's really hard to announce, because all of those places--I'm confirmed for a lot of different events, but all of them like to do the whole pre-released hype, so they always announce all of their casters at once. You know all the MLGs, IPLs, and things do that. Let me just say that I will at several major US events over the next few months, and if you happen to be attending a major US event, I will be there.

15. I'm out of questions, so if you have any shoutouts, other announcements, or anything you want to say, the floor is all yours.

The first thing I would like to say is a massive thank you to Gen, who once again is the reason why this business exists. She is a core part of it, she is the only reason why we're even as successful as we are, so a huge thanks to her. Of course, I'm really looking forward to working with her to put this team together and see how it actually goes.

I'd like to give a big thanks of course to Husky, without him none of this would have been possible. He's the one who got me my YouTube partnership, and really supported me through the early days. He saved our asses, so I'm forever grateful to him. As many people pointed out, I have a bit of a rage button when anyone attacks that guy, so do beware. I'm a bit of a loyal watchdog in that regard.

But, big thanks to everyone that continues to support the channel. I really don't like the dumb fan boys, but I know that the vast majority of people aren't. So, the guys that stick around, the guys that are reasonable and have cool opinions, that like to discuss things without degenerating into tears and fits of rage. You guys are cool, like you. You're cool. Everyone else can go away.

I'd like to remind people that my content is always available, we update on a daily basis. Brand new videos on every day of the week over on YouTube.com/CynicalBrit.

And my Starcraft content, which is a little bit more intermittent, which includes my live streams, I Suck at Heart of the Swarm, and ShoutCraft casts are over on YouTube.com/TotalBiscuit.

Last but by no means least, I'd like to point out to teams and Starcraft players, if you want your replays cast for Heart of the Swarm, and you wish us to use the virtual jersey we're trialing on the channel now, you can do that. Feel free to email all of your replays through to themurloc@gmail.com. Send your HotS replay files, if you happen to be a pro player. And if you've got some cool casts, we will put them on the channel.

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