TobiWan: The voice of Dota 2

Toby "TobiWan" Dawson was one of the commentators for 2016 ESL One Frankfurt. Provided by Helena Kristiansson/ESL

You might know him as the voice of Dota 2, the man behind the mic shouting "It's a disaster!" at last year's International, or from any other of the hundreds of competitive matches he has casted. Toby Dawson, or "TobiWan," is one of the most prolific commentators in Dota 2, and he has been in the game for quite some time.

You can find his voice across the world, broadcasting English simulcasts of games from Manila to Frankfurt and, of course, at The International. Since the early days of Dota, Dawson has been pushing the envelope for casters. Some show off their analysis, or storytelling, or insight into the inner workings of a team, but Dawson has always thrived on one factor: the hype.

"He's what got so many people into Dota in the first place, because they would hear his voice yelling 'Black hole!' really loudly, and go, 'What the hell is that idiot yelling about?'" said Austin "Capitalist" Walsh, a co-caster of Dawson's for more than three years.

"He gets excited and he puts forward that genuine excitement to all the listeners," Walsh said. "And you can't help but want to listen to that. It's contagious."

A happy accident

Dawson never quite envisioned early on that he'd be where he is now. His original career path actually took a much different route, one focused on education and eventually, child care.

Growing up in Australia, Dawson looked up to his high school manual arts teacher, and so went to school for a career in education. That is, until stress started to creep up and he realized he was "a student for the sake of being a student."

"I decided that I need to make a change, that where I was going was absolutely nowhere," Dawson said. Dropping pursuit of his degree with only six months left, he decided to instead pursue his passions.

"I need to leave everything behind and find a career in the industry I enjoy and the topic I enjoy," Dawson said, "and that was gaming."

Working in hospitality and for a game retailer, Toby started clocking 40-hour workweeks while moonlighting as a volunteer shoutcaster. Using paid holiday time to cover his travel to events, Dawson was initially working in a different game altogether from Dota, which at the time was a mod for Warcraft 3 known as Defense of the Ancients. His original goal was to be a Call of Duty commentator, which led him to the production company Gamestah. This company would soon earn a contract with the World Cyber Games to cast games, and needed help for one of them. Toby described to me the day he was chosen to cover Dota for the first time.

"'So anyone out of our entire group,' and that was like 50 volunteer casters, 'put your hand up if you've got experience in Dota,'" Dawson said of the meeting. "I put my hand up, saying, 'I've played three pub games of Dota.' That was more experience than anyone in the group, and I got sent."

It was a game he had barely touched, and knew little about. In fact, Dawson described his entrance into Dota as "kind of [being] an accident." But at the event, Dawson saw something more in the game that drew him in.

"I kind of got caught on the hype before I got caught on the game," said Dawson, "because there was no way I could understand the game by just attending that event. So for me, I just loved the community before I loved the game."

The tough old days

"Toby has been on the front lines, essentially," Walsh said. "He was the one who kind of started all this."

In the first few years of competitive Dota, Dawson was one of the earliest to get recognition in the scene as a reputable commentator. It was the Wild West, without the infrastructure and tools you might see in today's modern landscape. Video simulcasts did not exist; instead, fans would tune into radio stations on WinAmp, while commentators streamed out their audio using a plugin called Shoutcaster. Audio and video bandwidth wasn't covered by Twitch, but out of the pocket of the producers who hosted the media online. Co-casters would join up on TeamSpeak and give audio cues, because replays would frequently lose sync with the casters' audio track.

Dawson described to me a LAN setup he once used in those early days, involving a PA speaker and the best tools available. Ripping apart a headset, he dangled the mic in front of the speaker, which was then plugged into a laptop that streamed audio out over the Shoutcaster plugin.

"When people say, 'You know what, back in the old days, we had it tough,'" Dawson said, "we actually had it tough."

Yet there's a sincerity to the effort, and a level of prestige associated with those who put in the work to get things right and keep moving the bar higher. Reflecting on the production of yesteryear and today's tools and availability, Dawson lamented for the struggle a little.

"Anyone can be a caster these days," he said. "That's actually one of those things where the prestige gets taken away, because there was only a few of us who got it right."

At times, it was difficult. He was working a 40-hour gig while running his own website as a passion project and later moving on to Gamestah. Difficult hours, fueled by coffee and a drive for the game, often led to moments of self-doubt for the would-be caster in the making.

"I got so addicted to coffee that my body was having complete withdrawals from that, and I'm getting massively depressed that I don't think I could ever do this," Dawson said. It even led to a six-month hiatus when Dawson received a great deal of flak from the scene and had to separate from the community.

"I never thought I could find a good opportunity to move and follow it full time," he said.

Those old days wouldn't last forever, though. Dawson and others were raising the bar for production, and the game had long been gaining traction. Whispers of a standalone Dota were running amok. Toby was approached by a friend who was starting a production house called Freaks4U, which would host a community news and broadcasting site known as JoinDota.

"[Toby] went all-in on casting because he was super passionate about it," Walsh said. "And he was one of the few who essentially made a job where there wasn't one before."

Set with a full-time job, and on the eve of the debut of Dota 2, Dawson was poised to become the lead voice in competitive Dota.

Mastering the hype

When asked about what the typical day of a full-time Dota shoutcaster is like, there was a tinge of laughter in Dawson's response.

"Well, the beautiful thing is, I never have a typical day," Dawson said.

In just the past two weeks, he has been reviewing replays and studying teams in preparation for The International 6, an event he has commentated every year since its inception. He also has been playing Dota 2; in the long weeks on the road, it can be hard to find time to actually sit down and play the game yourself. There's never really a set schedule of what your day will be, or what your next week will look like.

"You can be casting almost every single day for a couple of months straight and then not have anything for two weeks," said Dawson, "because there's just nothing for you to cover."

In comparison to the early days of Defense of the Ancients, the Dota 2 scene seems gargantuan. Dozens of tournaments, actual infrastructure and elite players able to make it full time on prize pools, sponsorships and the occasional stream. The International alone brings in multimillion-dollar prize pools and massive audiences, in person and through Twitch.

It's throughout these growth years that most came to know Dawson as one of the premier Dota commentators. It was a time when esports was growing at a rapid rate, featuring sold-out arenas, massive screens, broadcast-level coverage with replays and statistics on every detail, with panels of personalities and analysts to break down every move.

It can feel like a commentator is just one small cog in the machine that is esports. But for Toby and others like him, the growing pantheon of full-time shoutcasters provide more than just a line of dialogue to point out the right burst of light to look at. Rather than tour guide, Austin Walsh describes the job as "traffic cop."

"Oftentimes in sports, the commentators can be more of a side note to the actual game," Walsh said. "But it feels like in certain esports, and especially in Dota, commentators have a larger impact on the broadcast than others, and I think part of that is Toby and the entertainment influence he put forward."

TobiWan is known for his high-intensity matches and the level of excitement he brings to any game. He's one of the few commentators you might tune in to regardless of which teams are playing, simply because he always delivers an entertaining broadcast. This isn't a latent talent; it's something that many casters, Dawson included, work toward mastering.

"You want your pitch, your motion, your tone to be high up when things ramp up, when the action is going on," Walsh said of a caster's focus during games. "And when it's not appropriate to be so hype, you have to bring things back down and reflect the state of the game as-is."

Where Dawson excels is those moments, ramping up to teamfights gradually until his commentary becomes a cascade of superlatives and streamlined descriptions, complementing and not overshadowing the plays in-game. The frenetic action results in verbiage that would otherwise seem incoherent: "Beastmaster roars; Na'Vi closes in; axes to fly."

His casting helps create a natural cadence for the game, and his style has heightened moments to infamy. Last year's "It's a disaster!" where Dawson's voice cracked at the peak of an incredible Earthshaker play from Evil Geniuses offlaner Saahil "UNiVeRsE" Arora, elevated an already incredible play to one highlighted in the annals of Dota history.

"You start a catchphrase, and sometimes it's pure. It's not anything that you plan, not anything you think of, it's just a word you can change around," Dawson said. "In the moment, your expression and emotions will just carry it to another level."

It's the goal of all good shoutcasters not just to participate and guide, but to amplify. Looking at Dawson's influences, which includes the Starcraft greats like Dan "Artosis" Stemkoski, it's easy to see the through line. The focus is not on the commentator, but on the plays and raising the talent and skill of these players to the forefront.

"We are ultimately reflections of the game at-hand," Walsh said on the role of commentators. "We are arbiters for something bigger than ourselves. We're just trying to put a spotlight [on or] highlight the best actions or the misplays that cost the game."

Making room for new voices

Dawson is considered by many to be "the voice of Dota 2," but there has been no shortage of competition for the throne. New commentators pop up in the scene every day, and the community groundswell behind fresh voices like Owen Davies, better known as "ODPixel," might make Dawson's perch seem tenuous.

There also has been competition between production studios throughout Dota's history. An infamous feud between JoinDota and American broadcasters Beyond The Summit sparked a fire in the community for weeks. Commentators like David "LD" Gorman, Aaron "Ayesee" Chambers and Andrew "Zyori" Campbell have all brought different elements to their casts, something that differentiated them from Toby and, at times, even made the veteran caster question his approach.

"As we became more professional, the storytelling aspect and the analytical side of the game started becoming a little more prevalent, so Toby started dealing with competition in that regard," Walsh said.

Having casted alongside Dawson at JoinDota and Freaks4U for several years, Walsh said that around the time ODPixel started gaining traction, he had a conversation with Dawson about his casting, noting how he had strayed from his entertainment-first style.

"I told Toby, 'I think you need to get back on track with that,'" Walsh said. "I think Toby tried to follow what the audience seemed to want the most at the time, and I think he's really been getting back to his roots lately."

"I actually feel the scene needs people like [ODPixel] to step up, because the more and more tournaments there are, the more quality coverage you want to have," Dawson said. "If you're casting every single day, you can't be 100 percent; you can't give it your all; you can't actually do a good product when you're casting every single day because you're just repeating stuff you said in the previous cast."

To the question of new and ambitious broadcasters who might seek to dethrone Dawson, the seasoned voice saw it in a simple manner.

"There's definitely a lot more space for new casters, so I'm not really feeling threatened at all," Dawson said. "If I'm not good enough to do my job, then I don't deserve my job."

The gaming world evolves

It's incredible already to see someone live out their dream, going from humble beginnings and wayward student life to being a full-time commentator and spearheading broadcasts of Dota's greatest matches.

Dawson's rise within the Dota community to the exclusion of other titles is a reflection of Dota itself, a game that seems to draw people in and hold them more than any others. Walsh brought up a cloud chart, identifying viewers on Twitch and which games they watch, along with related games they also view. It answered questions like, "What other esports are Hearthstone fans likely to watch?" Dota 2, he said, it was an island all its own.

"Because we're so tight-knit, because there's this very hardcore audience that makes up the core of Dota 2 -- the players, they play it, they watch it, they live it," Walsh said. "Because of that, Dota 2 will have a very large amount of longevity. I think it will outlast most other current esports that it's facing."

Dawson, however, has a more realistic, possibly cynical, view of Dota 2's endurance.

"It's hard to say that your game is going to die, but at the same time, you have to accept the fact that the gaming world is forever evolving," he said. "Software gets old, current gets old, games get old."

Dawson points to the change log as well, Dota's ever-changing metagame of patches and shifts in balance. Characters change and mechanics are adjusted, and he identifies this as a possible breaking point.

"Every time they make a change in Dota, it creates new interest," Dawson said. "But if they break something as big as say, Riot's choice to remove solo queue [in League of Legends], you could destroy your entire scene off the back of that."

When considering his own future prospects, though, Dawson says he doesn't see a need to get out of esports. In fact, he expressed a desire to cast more games, citing his recent experiment with Counter-Strike: Global Offensive casting. Considering his history with Battlefield and other games, it's no surprise he also has been eyeing titles like Overwatch and the upcoming Battlefield 1.

The best parts of the job

For as much history as Dawson has garnered, it's impossible to see him leaving the headset behind. Even harder is finding a single moment to encapsulate his career, one spanning back over a decade and across games. When asked, Dawson recounts dozens of moments: Chai "Mushi" Yee Fung's juke through the trees at last year's International, a broadcast in Malaysia that caused him to almost hyperventilate because of how excited he was during the game, the crowds at tournaments and events around the world.

"There's so much history in what I've cast that I could never do it justice by just picking one moment," Dawson said.

But his favorite part of the job was much easier to pinpoint: the crowd. The energy, the excitement, the atmosphere of a massive group of people, cheering for the glorious exhibition of competitive Dota about to take place.

"It's very selfish to say, but I really enjoy..." said Dawson, trailing off into nostalgia while thinking about his favorite part of being a full-time commentator. "I get such a high feeling when I cast LAN events. Like there's some kind of vibe that goes through that's like adrenaline, that just pumps. I've never jumped out of an aircraft, but I imagine it's very similar."

What Dawson brings to the scene is, in many ways, immeasurable. For fans, it's the hype and excitement. For Walsh, it was the "Toby-isms," his term for the little tidbits Toby drops during casts, which he says often brings both of them to tears laughing during the games they cast together. It might just be the Australian accent. It could even just be anticipation for the next "black hole" moment.

Whatever it may be, wherever he goes and any game he might be casting, Dawson brings passion to the mic, and a level of hype that's unmatchable. A seasoned vet who has more than earned his spot atop the Dota casting scene, Toby had a simple parting sentiment to our conversation about his legacy in the industry.

"It's been a long run," he said. "I hope I keep running for a very long time."