Due to how the ESL Challenger tournament was formatted, the broadcast talent in charge of covering the event did so outside of the place it was actually taking place. Instead of being present on-site in Atlanta, the crew worked remotely from Stockholm. Nonetheless, as is custom for ESL Counter-Strike events, all but one person was in the venue to serve as both the arena host and sideline interviewer throughout this tournament: Mike "DarfMike" Winnick.
Since starting his CS broadcast career in 2017, DarfMike has risen up the talent ranks to cover significant events under different roles like the ESL Challenger League, ESL Pro League, IEM Katowice, Cologne and Dallas, BLAST Premier Spring and Fall Finals and this past Challenger tournament in Atlanta. The vast majority of these events he attended in 2023, making it a significant year for him.
As such, BLIX caught up with DarfMike for an interview during ESL Challenger about his experience covering the event, how he looks back on his 2023, his personal highs and lows and much more.
Covering ESL Challenger Atlanta 2023
Pedro Romero, BLIX: Right now, you are the only talent that is on-site for this event. What's that situation like for you?
Mike "DarfMike" Winnick: It's always a little bit interesting for these Challenger events. This is my first time being the sideline reporter. So the way these work, for anyone who's not familiar, is the studio is in Stockholm and most of the talent are there on location, and then whoever is doing the sideline/stage hosting is actually here with the in-person team.
It's not bad for me at this event in particular. It can be a little isolating for whoever it is because, normally, you have the other talent members to banter with and joke with, but here, you don't. However, you have the crew, a lot of whom I know pretty well and with whom I enjoy spending time, and it's also an NA event. It's an NA DreamHack so there are a lot of people here who are either current colleagues or old colleagues that I'm running into. It feels a little bit like a big ol' reunion. It's a lot of fun to chat with people, so I'm enjoying it.
BLIX: It's kind of like an isolated reunion, right?
DarfMike: A little bit. Sometimes, when I'm back here in my own little green room, it's just me. But mostly I watch the game from the crowd. You get the atmosphere and get the vibes better so you're a little bit more drawn in. I enjoy people enjoying Counter-Strike if that makes sense, so I like sitting in the crowd. I like seeing people's faces light up with a clutch. I like seeing people get hyped and that gets the juices flowing.
BLIX: You mentioned before the conversation your relationship and other figures within the North American CS scene at this moment in time due to you starting here as a talent. How many of the fans in this event are new people who started getting into the scene in recent times? And how many of those have been here for a long time?
DarfMike: It's a little hard to judge, to be honest. In the North American community, a large section of this older crew moved on to Valorant when it was really popular. Some of them have since returned whereas some of them haven't but there have still been the stalwarts (i.e. the established people) who have been here the whole time. But we have been seeing a lot of fresh faces. Weirdly enough, I think Valorant almost accelerated that, if that makes sense, where people get into it and they're like, 'Wow, tactical FPS is pretty cool. What's this other thing? Counter-Strike? I've heard about it.' Maybe it was a little less approachable for one reason or another and then they start watching CS and they fall in love, so it's been really cool to watch.
There was a girl who skipped her college graduation to be here today. [Pedro: She was the one with that outfit, right?] Yeah. She had the full cap and gown and just about the full outfit and she just started playing CS recently. She got into it because of her partner and has 200 hours in the game or whatever and this was her first time watching a CS event in person. She was only supposed to be here the first day but then she changed her plans around because she loved it so much and now she's interested in potentially pursuing broadcast work, potentially getting more involved.
Seeing that moment when somebody finds that spark of 'Oh my God. This stuff is cool. I want to do this. How do I do this?' is so cool. I don't know what it is percentage-wise but I do know that in every event that I attend, I see new people discover a love that they never knew they had. And I remember walking into my first LAN and having that similar moment of wanting to do this and being a part of this in some way, shape or form so every person we have who comes out like that is really cool to see.
Looking back at DarfMike’s career
BLIX: It's one thing to look at your early days in CS but what's it like to be on the other side of this spectrum and being the starting point for another person's desire to want to pursue a career here?
DarfMike: It's awesome. It really is. I've been doing this since 2017 and I've been full-time for at least four years now and these last two years have really been my glow up, you could say. I've gotten a lot more opportunities such as working at Katowice, Cologne, IEM Dallas and working events with BLAST for the Spring and Fall Finals. Really, I guess I have been proving myself and had those opportunities to prove myself on a bigger stage and I'm really grateful for that. And so it has been interesting to become the more senior member.
On this broadcast, there's Sam [Sam "TechGirl" Wright], who's the host over in Stockholm. She's a lot more experienced and has worked in esports for a while. She's an old head lover of CS but she hasn't necessarily had work opportunities in CS until the last year or two. She's an established broadcast pro, but a lot of people in broadcast like Xner [Cole McHenry] and Phy [Garret Schier] are newer. Even Lucy [Lucy Eastwood] on the desk has only been there for the last two years. I apologize to Lucy if I missed that timeline.
It is interesting being in a role where I'm more in a position to give advice rather than to get advice from my colleagues which has been an adjustment. Any time someone asks me for advice, I still have this moment of 'Really? I don't even know what I'm doing. Do you really want to show you how to do things?' But I have relished being able to provide some resources and feedback, especially for the NA talent coming up. I mentioned Xner and Phy and there's Paladin [Anirudh Ajay] as well, a young guy who's really trying to prove himself and improve, so when they ask I try to be as open and share as much as I can because I do like seeing them improve. And when someone's excited and eager and wants to get better, it's awesome to see.
I feel I've gotten a little off-topic here and a little off tangent but it is interesting being a bit more established. I still feel I have a long way to go. When I'm at those up-brand events, I'm still definitely one of the more junior members of talent and am definitely soaking up information as much as I can and I'm really grateful for that, but I guess I'm a journeyman now. Sort of not quite a veteran but we're a little more established at this point.
BLIX: Somewhere in the middle between new and old, right?
DarfMike: Yeah. I mean, don't call me old yet. I'm turning 30 in 15 days so, you know, let's not have that talk.
BLIX: I mean, 30, in esports terms, is kind of old, right?
DarfMike: Thirty is the new 20, baby. I have got a lot of time left.
BLIX: That's up to you, so…
DarfMike: Absolutely. I mean, everyone's everyone tells me I have a baby face. I know I have a baby face. So I'm gonna keep playing it off as long as I can.
BLIX: You mentioned your highlights of appearing in major events such as Katowice, Cologne and BLAST. I'm curious about what you see as your lowlights from your work and the things that you feel you could have done so much better.
DarfMike: There were moments that you do something wrong or a big moment gets flopped and you think, 'I would like to do that better.' I can't think of any specific moments for you right now but part of that in broadcasting is, at the end of the day, the show goes on. Especially if you're casting, as the prime example, you say so many damn words that you are going to make a mistake just surely speaking on volume. The trick is to forget it for that moment, go back and review it and learn from it.
You have got to have a quick memory and you need to keep moving and I feel, for every broadcast, you do get better. So I don't know that I have any particular lowlights. There were times when a game was less exciting than you'd like it to be or a storyline kind of goes awry in an event and teams don't necessarily deliver the way you want. But at the end of the day, a bad day doing this is better than a good day doing a whole lot of other things. Even a bad game of CS can be pretty damn fun.
BLIX: Has there been a moment in which a past mistake comes back to you during a broadcast that serves as a reminder to you of what you do in front of the camera?
DarfMike: There are moments that you remember where something goes wrong or something goes awry. The example I can think of is one of my first big opportunities on a broadcast was at an event that was sponsored by a certain beverage company that, at the time, sponsored the semi-pro to pro connection in North America and the cardinal rule of that event was don't talk about any other drink, right? That's because you're being sponsored by a beverage sponsor.
And at one point, a team had a game where they had been playing very well and they were doing the same round over and over again and it just kept working and then at some point, they decided to switch it up because they were anticipating [adjustments from the opposing team] and the second strat didn't work. So they just went back to the first draft and I made a joke in that moment about New Coke versus Coke Classic where Coke changed the formula and everyone hated it and then they just reintroduced the old formula and called it Coke Classic and everyone was super happy.
It was a great joke and metaphor at the moment but instantly I realized that it was not the beverage sponsor and my co-caster grabbed my leg and looked at me and I immediately pivoted and said, 'Oh, but what they should have had was a ___' and just let it go. And because I was inexperienced and new, I legitimately thought I was getting fired for messing that up and pissing off the sponsor. No one ever brought it up and I never brought it up and it was fine but that's the kind of moment I learned from.
BLIX: Looking back on your career, you've mostly worked in NA broadcasts. How much did working in those tournaments in NA help develop you to where you eventually appeared in these big tournaments later down the line?
DarfMike: Anything. More reps are always going to be better. There's always improvement and you've got to take the time to improve and learn to grow. And being part of the North American community is something I value hugely. I think I'm somewhat privileged at this moment in that, while I started doing a lot of international work, I still have this connection to the domestic NA scene. I know players and I just follow players as they've come up through the region.
I see them at local LANs, I talk to them, I check up on them, I know their stories and I have that knowledge and relationship with the local scene that does help inform me when I'm talking about teams making the jump. It also just keeps me part of the community that I value. To get better at anything, you have to do that thing as much as possible, and coming up through different LANs and having the opportunity to travel the country (like in Fragadelphia, Nerd Street Gamers and ESEA Global Challenge back in the day) were huge in getting better and developing the craft. If someone wants to do what I do, the best thing you can possibly do is find a local LAN and see if they'll put you on a microphone and just go.
BLIX: How have you seen the progression of the development of broadcast talent in relation to when you started and the present day?
DarfMike: So the thing is, because esports broadcasting is still a very niche industry, not many people do this. Not many people do this full-time, certainly. Not many people do this in Counter-Strike specifically. And so the reality is that everyone's going to have a little bit of a different path to it. It's not like there's a pipeline project. It's not like there's an internship you can apply for. That's not how it works, right? People come from all sorts of different backgrounds.
It's one of the things that I also stress to people when I'm asked how to get started. And I explain what I did but I also explain that what I did worked at that moment and maybe it won't work in the same way. One of the big things for getting opportunities was winning the ESEA Next Big Caster Challenge. Well, that doesn't exist anymore. ESEA is not really a thing anymore so you can't do that. You can't do exactly what I did. But at the end of the day, it's still the same, because esports is fundamentally about people playing a game, if you find an opportunity to broadcast a game and put it out there and keep doing that and keep building, you'll eventually get opportunities.
So what I always tell people is that reps are good. If you have local LANs, that's a great way to get started. If you can get set up with someone else doing production so you don't have to be worrying about that, that's awesome if possible. But otherwise, if there are open IP games somewhere and you can stream them from your setup, do it, rip it and go. If you're streaming to 10 people, great! Those are 10 people who are watching you and that's an audience right there. That's you getting better and that's you getting reps and learning. So just do it. That hasn't changed, I don't think, since I started. Maybe there's a little bit more structure coming in but not really, I don't think.
BLIX: Why do you think that?
DarfMike: Because of the reasons we talked about. It's still very niche. There are not a lot of jobs doing this and there are not a lot of people doing those jobs so each person is going to have their own journey.
BLIX: The game may be changing but the grind never stops. Taking the conversation back to your past few years, what do you feel has been your favorite moment that you experienced in your career?
DarfMike: I've had a few. This year in particular has been huge. This was the first year that I've gotten to actually work with live crowds which is something that I love. It's something that's been a goal of mine since I started. I love the energy that people bring and the excitement that they have. IEM Dallas was an incredible first foray into crowdwork. This year, I worked four...well, I guess five now basically...crowds in Dallas, Washington D.C., Cologne, Copenhagen and now Atlanta. Dallas was an incredible first foray but Cologne was particularly special.
It's the Cathedral of Counter-Strike for a reason. It's an arena of 10,000 people crammed to the gills with people who are so excited to be there. Working as the in-arena host standing up on a stage and having 10,000 people chant when I raise my arm was an experience that I won't soon forget. I would say that was the highlight. Every crowd has been incredible in one way or another in their own unique way, but having that just volume of people on a stage that is so hallowed in the CS scene, was very special.
Forward to the future
BLIX: What do you view as the next step because you already worked in Cologne, Dallas, D.C. and Atlanta?
DarfMike: I mean, I think it's continuing to improve. This was the first year that I've done in-arena work. It was a great year and I'm very happy with the work that I did, but obviously, there's more to do and more to be better at. I'd like to work at a Major. That is the crown jewel that eludes me to this point. There are two coming up this year and I don't know if I'll be involved in them but I would love to if the opportunity arose. There are a lot of very talented people in CS. There's a lot of options they can go with. I think that I would do a great job at a Major and I present myself well in whatever role, but for me personally, that's a big objective: get onto a Major, have that accolade, and be part of the biggest moments in telling the story of a year of CS.
BLIX: You were able to attribute a few RMRs for the Paris and Rio Majors. How do you view those appearances in the RMRs in relation to your goal of appearing in a Major?
DarfMike: RMRs are really cool because you get to tell a story. It's the first chapter in the story of a Major, right? It's the introduction. How does the team get there? Does a team qualify there? Who makes it there? Who's the surprise? Who's the unexpected team? Who's the expected team that doesn't make it? I've had the fortune of being part of at least the last two American RMRs. It's very cool to be part of telling the [North American teams'] tales of making their campaign on the biggest stage in CS. That I view as a great privilege but it's definitely not the same as working in a Major.
BLIX: What do you think separates you from reaching the Major and how difficult is it to stand out as a broadcast talent to make that happen?
DarfMike: At the end of the day, if you do good work and you are good to work with, people appreciate that. If you work hard, if you care about the game, and if you are a pleasure to work around, opportunities will come your way. I'm grateful for the colleagues that I have in this space. As you said, it's competitive and people are incredibly talented, incredibly gifted, work hard and love the game most importantly.
And we're very fortunate in CS that we just have so much good broadcast talent and more people who want to join those ranks, but yeah, I've been lucky that my colleagues have been super welcoming and encouraging as well. So I think that if you do good work and you're good to work with, you'll get opportunities.
BLIX: And I want to wrap it up with this one final question: Let's say you take a time machine and you could go back in time and you're only able to say one thing to your younger self as to what they will expect for the future. What would you say in your case why?
DarfMike: I don't know. It's a heavy topic. When I was 18 and 19, I went through a very tough spell with mental health and sort of a crisis in my own life. It's part of what led me into CS in the first place but it's also part of what led me into why I do a mental charity tournament every year called the Mustache Masters. That's a big part of my motivation to be part of that. So I guess I'd tell that kid that it'll be alright, you know, and to keep at it, and at some point, you'll get to some pretty cool places.