Nick Johnson
Nick Johnson
Nick "Lesona" Johnson is an esports journalist with a focus on CS:GO and the OWL. His interest for esports started with CS:S and grew into a career as both an esports writer and an avid fan, giving him a unique perspective on both the casual and professional scenes. Twitter: @Lesona_

Interviewing the Interviewer: Frankie Ward on CS:GO, Esports, and the Talent Experience

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ESTNN’s FPS Editor-in-Chief Nicholas Johnson managed to wrangle Frankie Ward, one of the only professional esports interviewers, away from the stage at IEM Sydney and got her perspective on her job, her experiences, and esports as a whole.


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There’s something to be said for post-game interviews. Through the interviewers, fans get an inside look at some things they rarely get to see; how our favorite players feel, think, and act when they’re not behind their linemen, power forwards, or (in our case) their computers. Sure, fans can watch streams and team content that takes them behind the scenes, but the best stories come when a player has achieved something spectacular or fallen flat on their face.

Frankie Ward, now well-known in the esports scene after finding her home in Counterstrike, is one of the few people in esports that makes these interviews happen. ESTNN was lucky enough to pick her brain on a range of topics, including what goes on behind the scenes at esports tournaments, her start in esports, what makes interviews so important, and the future of esports.

What was your first exposure to esports? Was it a childhood love of games, a friend who showed it to you, Something along those lines?

 I’ve always played video games – from my dad’s laptop playing Monkey Island II and the Sega Master System, to buying myself a PS One with some money I earned from doing a theatre play in London when I was nine.

I’d heard of esports before I worked on my first project, but I’d still say my first proper discovery of it was working as a senior content producer on the BBC coverage of the League of Legends Worlds Quarterfinals in 2015 at Wembley’s SSE Arena. I worked with Joe Miller and Leigh “Deman” Smith, discovered what Twitch was and saw how passionate the fans of the game were. We didn’t have a chat functionality on our live stream, so I’d gather feedback from Reddit and from Twitter and really enjoyed engaging with the community.

After that, I decided I would love to work for Twitch and in the new year a producing role cropped up – I had to wait a while and do five interviews, but I made my move into full-time gaming in July 2016.

 

A job at Twitch is a big get! Did you find there was a lot to learn in the beginning or was what you learned at the BBC easily applied?

I was producing for around eight years before I joined Twitch, so it was more a process of learning about the community – so I started streaming and ended up becoming a Twitch Partner. It’s a habit of mine to throw myself headfirst into anything I do, and I made some great friends along the way too.

 

Can you fill us in on the roles you’ve played in the esports scene? One of your first Counterstrike broadcasts was at the Americas Minor Championship for the FACEIT London Major in 2018. Can you tell us a bit about your experience with that? Were you nervous?

That event was my second Counter-Strike event; I desk hosted a small online tournament called the Gamedon Premiere before that.

I actually started hosting [tournaments] when I was producing for Twitch; I didn’t have the budget for lots of hosts and the shows I were producing were almost always over eight hours a day and took place over several days, depending on the event we were broadcasting from.

The first esports broadcast I hosted was at Insomnia 58 in Birmingham and I was with the Dutch host and streamer Nysira – we did two games (one was possibly CSGO, the second was Overwatch). The Overwatch best-of-three ended in two games and was so fast that I had nipped to the loo briefly because I was desperate; I had to run back and straight onto the stage and couldn’t stand still – bear in mind Overwatch in 2016 was difficult to spectate if you didn’t play it. (Overwatch became my favourite game shortly after that and I became part of a Twitch UK team called Overlunch and played obsessively every workday with my colleagues for the rest of the time I worked there.)

In terms of what I would describe as my first proper esports hosting role, I would say that was stage hosting the ESL UK Premiership Hearthstone Finals in January 2018. I was very lucky that Product Manager Will Attwood – who I’d worked with as a producer – took a chance on me. It just so happened that Tim Clark – Brand Director (and Hearthstone fan) at PC Gamer Magazine – was watching that broadcast and it led to me co-hosting the PC Gaming Show at E3 in 2018; that show changed my life – in just over an hour, people suddenly knew who I was.

My first desk host was the NHL Gaming World Championship European Regional Final in Stockholm, and then I headed off to Dreamhack Austin to desk host PUBG, which was an absolute blast and brought me to the attention of tournament organisers such as FACEIT – who asked me to do the Americas Minor, and Richard Lewis, who got me involved with WSOE and has been supportive ever since.

In terms of the FACEIT Minor, I was absolutely terrified; I couldn’t breathe before we started the show. This was flippin’ Counterstrike; I never thought I’d get the opportunity to be part of the best esport in the world. As the week went on, I was able to relax into it more, and the analysts; Vendetta, Maniac and Pimp are friends now. They made the job so much more enjoyable and I trusted them instantly.

 

Do you still feel those nerves like you felt at the Minor the first time you walk out on the stage for the interview at a tournament?

Stage hosting isn’t something I typically do – stage hosting without a crowd is a lot harder than having an audience; you’re very exposed doing a piece to a camera without an audible response to pace things out, so you just try and remember everything you need to say and then say it well.

In terms of interviews, I don’t get nervous doing flash interviews off-stage, especially as I know most of the players I’m interviewing and the production teams I work with are fantastic, so they give you confidence. But if it’s a winner’s interview onstage at playoffs, that can be intimidating because it’s a different art to doing interviews before and between maps; most players can’t remember specifics of what happened in-game, so you have to focus on the bigger picture of what the win means. That’s something I’m still working on.

 

You mentioned Overwatch, so I want to ask you your opinion on the Overwatch League, if you have one. Do you think the franchise and geolocation model is the direction in which esports is trending?

I think that’s what MLG are doing with Overwatch League and now Call of Duty World League, but I don’t think it’s a trend and I don’t think it’s one-size fits all. It’s a business model.

I didn’t watch Overwatch League when it was broadcast on ABC, just the Tweets from disgruntled viewers who don’t understand esports. I would say that I don’t think esports needs to be on TV – it’s exciting to see it there, but the audience that watches esports doesn’t necessarily watch live TV. Everything is on-demand. So, the fact that esports inspires live viewing is really exciting – but it needs to be mobile, and live TV isn’t that. Twitch and other streaming platforms are.

Then you have the issue of things like barriers to entry (i.e. Overwatch being very complicated to initially watch and understand if you haven’t played it) and weaponry – you’ll notice in broadcasts of CSGO, casters almost never say “Terrorist” or “Counter-Terrorist” – it’s all T and CT. We don’t think of the game as a battle between good guys and bad – it’s about strategy, teamwork, reaction times, aim ability, [among other things.]But to outsiders, they’ll see it’s about shooting terrorists at first glance and be put off.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that esports is best at carving out its own path, rather than following a traditional well-trodden one.

 

What’s the hardest part of your job? The easiest?

The hardest is jet lag and tiredness; there are very few days off currently. If I’m not on air, then I’m preparing, traveling, editing podcasts or streaming on my Twitch channel. I wanted to focus as much as possible on CS:GO because I love the esport – but it’s also practical because I already know the storylines, the teams and the latest results – often because I witnessed the matches in person. I’m also building relationships with the players.

The hours can be incredibly long; one event I worked two 16 hour days back-to-back in a drastically different time zone to my native UK and it wasn’t physically possible for me to get more than six hours sleep between days, so once we hit 1 AM on that second day I was past my best. It’s very difficult to focus on four best-of-threes’ in one day when you’re that fatigued. In the interviewer role, I can often do double the hours of the rest of the broadcast team – I’m not on screen as much, but I watch all of the matches I’m covering.

I wouldn’t say there’s an “easy” aspect, but my favourite part is working with the best broadcasters in the world – I knew HenryG before I went into esports, but to get to work with him and the other CS:GO faces are amazing. And the players are brilliant too. I don’t do as much PUBG anymore, but when I do, I get to be very silly with people like Pansy and Simms and it’s like coming home.

 

I actually sat down and watched some PUBG recently, mostly to hear Lauren “Pansy” Scott cast again after she left Counterstrike. I had my doubts at first, but I was surprised at how engaged I was in the actual game. Do you think PUBG can succeed as an esport?

It already has in my opinion; the question is whether it can grow. Playing PUBG on stream recently was some of the most fun I’ve had in multiplayer, so it’s up to PUBG Corp to support the tournament organisers [to build] the audience. I’ll back it as an esport, 100%. It used to be that certain regions (i.e. Europe) didn’t fight until the third circle, but the meta is far more aggressive these days – on the world stage, we see six teams each thinking they have a claim on Erengel’s Pochinki as their drop spot, while Mirimar, the desert map, is spicy from the get-go.

Just look up CPT from Chinese squad 4AM and his godlike nade (sic) play from the final day of the FACEIT Global Summit. That was insane.

  

What do viewers of esports tournaments and productions not understand? Put another way, are there things that yourself and other talent go through that the general public isn’t aware of?

 The hours – and also sometimes you get ill. I have a tendency to do this on planes; I can board healthy and disembark with a cold. On productions it can be very chilly backstage, and I wear skirts and shirts most of the time for being on camera – 12 hours without a coat and bang; ill.

The other thing viewers don’t necessarily realise is that doing interviews in arenas, [the interviewer will] have in-ear monitors, but your interviewees typically won’t. In large spaces the sound echoes and there’s a load of sound besides that, so interviewees can’t always hear. I tend to tackle that by briefing interviewees on the questions before we go live – especially if they don’t speak English as a first language. However, I don’t tend to give up questions in advance if it isn’t necessary to.

In exit interviews, such as AdreN in the Major, I’ll double check they are comfortable talking about certain things now, although I typically don’t plan exit interviews as I would others – I let the player set the agenda for what they want to discuss in their opening answer. Initially, I got criticism from some audience members who thought I made players “uncomfortable”. Actually, if you’ve just lost a big match, you’re most likely going to be uncomfortable already. I’m just grateful that players and coaches agree to talk to me.

Ultimately, the Major was a great learning experience – I’m so grateful to the team at ESL for that opportunity. To be part of an Intel Extreme Masters, let alone a CSGO Major, was an incredible honour and I’m better at my job thanks to the feedback the team gave me across the event.

 

We overheard Chris “Puckett” Puckett at the Overwatch League Dallas Homestand mention that the production and talent teams were working fourteen-hour production days. It seems as though the hours are long across all esports for people working in your field. Is that something that, in your opinion, can be changed, or is that simply the way that it is with esports?

 Yep – it’s not just talent of course, production [is] also under the same – if not longer – broadcast hours. Some productions, such as StarLadder and ESL, will rotate desk talent and casters or split the day into two shifts. Once there isn’t more than one stream being broadcast, there are more opportunities for casters to have time between their series, as opposed to casting back-to-back – and that’s so important for their voices and for them to keep performing well. So, for talent on screen, it’s getting better and we’re treated really well, of course.

That doesn’t really happen for production – I used to produce shows where we’d have multiple different esports finals on the same stage on the same day, keeping my fingers crossed that we’d run to time. If you’ve got a great team you can keep going – I’d rather be in-house doing production than freelancing, because then you have in-office hours so you can return to normality and reset before the next event comes along. That’s what I had with Twitch.

 

Let’s transition over to you and Machine’s guest experience on the LEC set? How did that come about? Was it any different from the Counterstrike tournaments you’ve worked?

 I met Quickshot at the Esport Awards in London at the end of 2018 and gave him my details – then in the new year we sorted a date. Then I found out Machine was also there that weekend, which was fantastic because Alex is a thoroughly brilliant human being. I was panicking about only having one day at home between the Major and traveling to Berlin because I’m a prepaholic, but the team at Riot gave me everything I could possibly need; during a match you can literally say “Frankie for stats team – can I get Perkz’s kill participation percentage for Friday’s match, please” and less than five minutes later, they deliver the goods. The sheer level of research and insight they have at their disposal is beyond anything I’ve experienced before – this is, after all, a weekly production with its own studio. Also, all of the players were SO welcoming and up for talking to me.

For Counterstrike we have HLTV, which is an incredible resource – I hope there’s something similar in PUBG in the future.

 

The Riot stats team has always impressed me – it must have been an incredible resource for you and the other talent to have at your fingertips. Obviously, Riot takes their stats extremely seriously, but are there any tournament organizers that you’ve worked with that have similar accessibility to statistics? You mentioned HLTV, but I’m imagining you sitting in front of your laptop the night before matches writing down stats for players for the next day after already working for hours, Spunj-notebook style.

As we have HLTV, we don’t need someone to give us those stats – our expert analysts are onscreen and I know I can ask them anything. For example, I adore working with Maniac because I’ll mention a player and, as he’s been an analyst for just under a year, he can talk about playing with or against most of the pros I end up interviewing, so I get so much insight from him when we’re watching matches together.

I believe Riot produce all of their esports broadcasts in-house (at least they do with LEC and LCS) and it’s a nine-week season, followed by playoffs, then MSI or Worlds, so they can keep stats as they go along and have an in-house team that can do that – they also have pretty set showtimes thanks to their Bo1 regular season format, so they have meetings after the day one broadcast of each weekend to recap the show and set the agenda for the next day in terms of content and storylines (and they’ve also been doing this during the week in the office).

For tournament organisers in CSGO, they aren’t attending all of the tournaments that Spunj and the regular tier one faces are, so in this instance the talent are usually responsible for researching and keeping track across events – that isn’t to say TOs aren’t talking to us about storylines and what they want in the broadcast; BLAST give us lots of information on each team and update a doc (sic) during the show with the latest results and what they mean – but talent have a lot of responsibility on the whole for driving the direction of what is covered on the desk. They’re the experts, after all.

And yes – I do the HLTV notebook thing! For me, I find reading interviews with players really insightful, as well as stats, and I watch back interviews I’ve done too. At BLAST Pro Series Madrid, I could go back to the ENCE vs. Ninja’s In Pajamas match at Blast Sao Paulo and see ENCE chained 12 T-side rounds in their first half of Nuke. At the Madrid rematch, NiP pulled off a stunning turnaround – I’ve got the numbers for both matches thanks to HLTV. I also spoke to NiP coach Pita in Shanghai about how having Draken stand-in for dennis totally changed their Nuke game. It was fantastic to see just how much of an impact dennis has on Nuke now he’s back. They looked fantastic on [that] Friday and I’m excited that I’ve been lucky enough to follow their journey from the sidelines.

 

If you had to pick one event that you’ve attended or worked, which one was your favorite? Why?

 I can’t single out one favourite, but esports highlights definitely include the IEM Katowice CSGO Major Championship, working on McLaren’s Shadow Project at the start of the year (the McLaren HQ is like a Bond Villain’s lair, it’s ridiculous), and IEM Sydney. Sydney’s fans were on another level and we got to witness one of the closest series of the year in the Fnatic / NiP derby. There’s a photo our stage manager Oli took during the second map Overpass that captures the emotions of the broadcast team perfectly. I know I’m personally improving with every event, and I was really proud of what the team achieved there – just watch the Caches III to see the insanely entertaining videos put together by the Post-Production team. They were turned around so fast.

 

There’s been a lot of talk about women in esports lately – some positive and some not so positive. Thorin’s infamous “why do the interviewers always ask how the players feel?” tweet comes to mind. We disagreed with his sentiment, but has your time in esports exposed any glaring issues being a woman in a sport that is mostly comprised of men?

So firstly, I just want to clarify – it was Montecristo who brought up the interviewers asking “how do you feel”, and Thorin quoted this and said, “women want to know what players feel, men want to know what they think”. He also said that the majority of interviewers tend to be women – but I don’t know the stats on this. I do, however, know that interviewers like Freya from FACEIT, Olivee from LCS, Laure from LEC and Smix are bloomin’ amazing at what they do, so I can understand that we often think of women being in this role.

Now, I respectfully disagree with the gendering of this statement, because actually, I’ve heard men ask the question too. It’s genuinely about context – setting up why you’re asking the question. I always ask players how they feel before we tape or go live and then if their emotions are unusual, then we’ll discuss it. Also, in exit interviews, I [ask] the question more because it usually opens up the conversation. For example, FalleN was actually really positive after MIBR went out in the semi-finals at IEM Sydney and we got to enjoy the interview after that.

In terms of glaring issues, it tends to be more around a very vocal minority of the audience; I had a lot of comparisons and negative critiques during the Major and now I’ve been to many more CSGO events, the audience is used to me and tends to be a lot better. However, there are still discussions about my sexuality, the way I look and my relationships to the players. I’m not a doll, and my personal life is just that. Personal. It shouldn’t be up for debate or discussion.

In terms of other critiques, my male peers face the same odd comments too, so I’m not alone in that regard, but I would say that the comparisons I get are usually related to my female peers – who are my friends. The women in esports are very supportive of each other – BLAST is always really fun because I get to work with Potter. I’ve gotten to work with my friends Sjokz and Smix too – they’ve been through what I’m adjusting to right now and have so much advice.

 

Do you think that vocal minority can be changed, or is that something that just seems to come with the territory?

The vocal minority has already changed in the way they speak about me since the Major. It may take a few events, but once any talent has proved themselves, those voices quieten down or disappear.

I’m quite vocal on my own blog because I feel like I’m in a good position to talk about my experiences and what needs to change – it’s a better platform for me than Twitter because I can set out a thought-out argument. However, I tend to talk more about the wider dissent against women online, as opposed to esports – such as what women wear on Twitch. I just posted a blog with some genuine pictures of me without makeup because someone has defaced a photo of me and is claiming it’s my genuine makeup-free face – which inspired a slew of sexually graphic comments from HLTV forum users (FYI – I didn’t visit the forum index, it was sent to me by a Twitter follower). Neither of those things are ok, so I sometimes use my blog to take back the narrative.

 

I’m glad you mentioned interviewing FalleN after MIBR’s semi-final exit. It’s refreshing to see tournament organizers have the losing team interviewed, and it seems to be happening more often. Do you feel like that’s where the more compelling story is?

I don’t think it’s usually a question for me of a more compelling story – I don’t think of it like that – but a chance for the team to have a final word as they’ve achieved a spot in playoffs. That said, I did speak to TACO at BLAST Sao Paulo because the team had just lost their fourth match and I wanted to check-in with MIBR as this was “their event.” TACO was gracious enough to grant me the interview and was very honest in his answers.

I like exit interviews because they give the player an opportunity to tell their side of the story, and I get to ask them what’s next. I was too protective of some of the players in exit interviews at the Major, so now I’m a lot more held back, and I feel totally comfortable in those conversations – initially, I wasn’t.

 

I wanted to congratulate you on your response to Oliver “DickStacy” Tierney’s “joke” on stage at IEM Sydney, where he basically propositioned the audience to come to his hotel room. You handled it beautifully. I guess my question is do you think there’s a place for that in esports? I remember watching it and going “What does a person who sees this and it’s their first time watching esports think about our sport? Is that how we want people outside the esports ecosystem to view us?” Does esports need to mature in order to grow outside of its already established viewers?

 Firstly, thanks – and secondly, that was the Caches III showmatch, so it was meant to be ridiculous – Dick Stacey came onstage in a Morphsuit with the Aussie flag on it and had a wrestle with HenryG. The Caches is essentially a WWE match where there are storylines, except the Counterstrike itself is real; the winner isn’t decided in advance. There’s totally a place for the Caches in esports – it was so much fun to be part of. But it shouldn’t be the daily norm and it isn’t.

 

That’s a fair assessment. That said, is there somewhere that players, casters, and analysts should be drawing the line? It seems as though that’s already happened to an extent – the “Creamy Moses” skit seems to be left behind.

It depends on the context and what the tournament organiser wants.

 

Okay, time for a serious question: Team Australia or Team UK?

 Team England only has one English player, but I have to support my boy HenryG. Australia is basically Chad living out his top-ten team dreams with the majority of the Renegades boys, and maybe he needs to mix it up more next year!

 

Continuing with The Caches, that was the first time many viewers have seen a broadcast match on Vertigo. It was the showmatch, but how do you foresee professional matches on Vertigo ending up? Is it a new classic, or is Vertigo Nuke 2.0?

 We saw it at BLAST Madrid during the Iberian playoffs, and it got extremely messy at times and [a ton of pressure was] focused on the A site. I think the map is going to need changes before we see it played by more of the teams – although I expect to see it picked a couple of times at Dreamhack Tours.

 

Changing directions here a little bit, what is one event that you haven’t worked but you would like to? What is it about that event that draws you to it?

 ESL One Cologne. It’s the Cathedral of Counterstrike!

 

It’s their fifth anniversary this year! That was a softball question with only one real answer, honestly. Any chance we’ll see you there in July?

 I genuinely don’t know. However, I’ve got flights booked for a rare weekend away, so if I don’t go, I’ll be furtively watching Twitch by the pool…

 

If Counterstrike disappeared tomorrow, what one esport would you want to work in?

 I’d love to invest more time in League of Legends – but I also love Rocket League and I’d want to dip into PUBG again; PUBG is where I initially grew as a broadcaster and found my voice.

 

Who has been your favorite person or player to interview?

 It’s actually a blur trying to think through everyone I’ve been lucky enough to meet and chat to, so I can’t pick one person. However, I adore MIBR and TACO never disappoints. My interview with the MIBR boys at Blast Backstage in Sao Paulo was a riot. NAF at that same event after they took a map away from Astralis in the final was hype – but it was REALLY loud so we’re just repeatedly raising the level of our voices and the mic isn’t picking up the crowd and thinking about it still makes me laugh. And my first interview with GeT RiGhT at the Challenger stage of the Major was a big moment because I was talking to a legendary player from NiP – I had a bit of a moment after that one.

 

The Naf interview was amazing. That was more emotion we’ve seen from Keith in years. Is it a point of pride for you when you’re able to pull these moments from players?

Thanks! I think I’m just happy that they’ll speak to me – it’s been fantastic to build relationships with the players over the past few months. Those moments are a huge reason why I love my job.

 

Pivoting a little bit, the first thing that struck me about your interviewing style was that you’re not afraid to ask hard questions or press for an answer. It’s a very journalistic style; is that something that you actively try to present, something that you picked up during your time as a BBC Blast Arts Reporter, or does it come from somewhere else?

Aw, my Blast days! That’s so long ago now – we had an amazing interview training session from a woman who did the same session with me and some colleagues years later once I was full-time at the BBC. It’s where I learned about open and closed questions, and about the “killer question”. An example we watched, that I often tell people about, is journalist Jeremy Paxman asking a chief surgeon at Alder Hey Hospital about a colleague who has had heart patients repeatedly die on the operating table. He says “Mr. [surgeon’s name] – would you let him operate on you?” and the interviewee says “no”.

Although I don’t shy away from closed questions, I ask a lot more open ones – it’s usually to close an interview when I’m short on time that I’ll ask a yes/no question, or to settle something; I asked Edward at the Major if the team wanted to stay together and win the Major and he said “we will try our best”, so I pressed him again because it didn’t answer the question, but the initial answer to me revealed a lack of confidence in the team as unit at that point.

I’m more direct if a player doesn’t give me the full story; “a win is a win” – well yes, but if you have the same T-side issues when you play a more experienced team, it won’t necessarily be a win, so how are you going to fix that?

Maybe it’s me getting softer in my approach, but I also find I don’t need to push as hard as I used to – I think I’m just better at my job now and the players are used to this random woman with big hair getting all enthusiastic in their face!

 

Thanks, Frankie! It’s been a pleasure getting to virtually sit down with you and get your point of view on the industry and an inside look at your experience. Before we go, is there anything you want to mention? Projects you’re working on or any causes you’re interested in?

I'm excited to be returning to the PC Gaming Show at E3, which is right around the corner!

I have a podcast called My Life in Pixels where I interview gamers and esports faces like HenryG, James Bardolph and others, so please check that out if podcasts are your thing! It’s on iTunes, Spotify, YouTube and also acast.com/getfrank for Android users.

And in terms of causes – I’m super proud to be a Special Effect ambassador. It’s a charity that levels the playing field for gamers everywhere with a team of occupational therapists that use adaptive technology to help gamers with disabilities play. Please check them out and consider supporting them if you can!


Image VIA: Frankie Ward

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