The recent announcement of DreamHack Winter talent promised the Overwatch community their first taste of Robert “hexagrams” Kirkbride at a live LAN event. While the other casters have worked at recent tournaments such as APAC Premier, Overwatch Open, and the BlizzCon World Cup, for hexagrams this will be a new experience. Despite casting online tournaments stretching back to early closed beta, he has never been invited to cover a LAN tournament and has no prior experience in other esports.

Starting early on in the closed beta, hexagrams tried out with ZP for GosuGamers and the two became the early voices of the Overwatch scene, particularly in North America. By covering weekly cups with top teams at the very beginning of the esports scene, hexagrams became a community favourite - as evidenced by the regular, and now hopefully silenced, “WHERE’S HEX?” threads every time a tournament announced their casters.

I sat down with hexagrams to talk about his upcoming work at DreamHack Winter, exploring some of the opportunities and challenges. Written excerpts of the verbal interview follow.

Hey hex, thanks for talking with me. Congratulations first off on getting the gig at DreamHack Winter - this is your first live event that you’ll be casting, is it also the first LAN that you’ll have been to as well?

hexagrams: I just recently got to go to my first big esports event, I went to Blizzcon - wasn’t casting or anything of course but just to hang out. Man, it’s surreal, putting all these faces to names. I walk in and the first two minutes I’m like oh, that’s ZP, yeah kinda know him, there’s Seagull, flame, and the whole weekend was like that, it was crazy, it was a blast.

It was my first BlizzCon, my first big event, my first event at all really. It was surreal, it was just absolutely insane. I can’t even really put it into words, it’s just a whirlwind and I had a blast. My voice is finally recovering from scream-talking to people all weekend. I’ve been to sporting events and that’s kinda similar, where everyone likes the same team, but when everyone likes the exact same thing it was just surreal.

It’s kinda weird though when you’re somewhat known. It’s like you’re watching sports teams, but afterwards they’re like, “How do you think I did?”

It is a strange experience, you’re going to your first esports event and yet you’re somebody that the players recognise and you’re known within the scene as an analyst. What experiences did you have interacting with the players there?

hex: I was actually a little surprised how much my opinion mattered, in some ways. People were asking me, “What do you think of this scene, or that scene?” Generally there’s a consensus for all people who agree on certain things like that but also I learned a ton.

There’s a lot of players that I’ll personally root for and I’ll personally have much greater respect for - just understanding their head for the game. I think that’s such an important thing in Overwatch. I’ll talk to some players and they’re a very good player but they’re never gonna captain a team, just personally knowing what I think of people myself. Then I’ll talk to some players and I’m like, anyone with that guy on their roster, you could put four other people around them and they’ll still be top 5 in the world.

I imagine with so many varied players there from all the different scenes that you got a range of perspectives from talking to so many people?

hex: Yes and no. Overwatch is kinda interesting; we’ve had an established meta and it comes and goes, and it doesn’t really change that much, but people’s opinions on it - you can kinda almost break it down by what they play too, it’s like “I love this meta right now!” That’s like Ana mains and Reapers, and then there’s people like, “I can’t wait til this is over.” That’s like Lucios and the other players.

There are differing opinions on what is strong and what’s not strong, but there are general overarching thoughts. And some people are hiding behind hubris where I’m like, “You guys gotta be scared to face the Korean team right?” And they’re like, “No, it’ll be fine we’ll crush ‘em.” There’s no way you believe that rationally, there’s no possible way you actually believe that! I think the biggest thing is not necessarily what people actually think but how they think of it, and personalities, and attitudes about it.

Were you hanging out with the talent a lot or were they busy behind the scenes - locked away and used as slaves by the Blizzard staff?

hex: They’re well paid slaves if anything!

I got to meet some talent I hadn’t met before. Me and ZP hung out the entire weekend; he put me up in his room, that’s one of the great reasons I was able to go out there. ZP and I got to hang out in person which was a little nerve wracking because it’s someone you’ve known for a year but you don’t really know. I was glad we got along really well in person.

I was able to meet most everyone. It’s really cool to be able to meet these guys and they’ve all been so kind to me behind the scenes as well. It was really nice to meet people in person and still get along with them, because you never really know - is this just how they cast, is this just how they are online? I feel like I have a pretty good read on people, if they’re genuine or not, and most of the people involved at the highest level of Overwatch, at least talent-wise, are just genuinely good people.

That’s always a nice thing to hear if you’re planning to go to Overwatch events. You said you were hanging out with all the talent, I assume you got to watch the games too. Were you jealous of the fact they’re casting at BlizzCon? Were you itching to get involved from where you were sat watching the games?

hex: Jealousy is not really - I know this is gonna sound totally false but - jealousy is not really a thing I entertain very often when it comes to casting. I get disappointed sometimes, but I know the people who get to do it so I’m happy for those people.

I mean yeah, of course I’d have loved to cast at BlizzCon, who wouldn’t? I’m not gonna sit here and be like, “No, that’s not something I wanted to do”. But I’ve always been a believer that everything will happen in the right time and place. There’s been talks on several different occasions at short notice, like, “We need a sub caster, could you fly out, could you come in here tomorrow?” Some of those things didn’t come through and looking back on it I'm like - well thank god! Because if I’d flown in on 4 hours sleep, not prepared, not done rehearsal, on my first live gig in front of the camera, and I bomb, that’s it. That’s just the end of it. They’re like “That’s why hex doesn’t go to live events.” So I think when things happen they’re gonna happen in the correct way.

When people ask, “Why aren’t you there?”, I’m like, “I’m not a professional caster yet, really”. I’ve barely been doing this. I’ve been doing Overwatch for a year now and that’s all I’ve been doing, but these other guys are very good at what they do, they’re professional casters. They’ve been in other games and they put in all the time and work. It’s not like Goldenboy woke up yesterday and decided, “I’m gonna do Overwatch!”, and somehow stumbled onto a desk. These guys put in the work and they deserve it, so it’s never really been a jealousy thing. I let myself be disappointed when I hear announcements I’m not involved in for like a day, and then I move on because there’s other casts I have to do, and I can only focus on what I can do. There’s two columns: your actions and the results, and you can only control the one of them so I just try to focus on what I can do and then hope everything works out. I guess that’s all you can really do in life, that’s my grand life lesson!

Expanding on the feelings of disappointment just for a moment, obviously the tournament organisers are working with Blizzard for these big tournaments and they must have had you on a shortlist of sorts given your history casting since the closed beta. Did things just not line up for you? Had you just not networked with the right people? Do you think other people, due to their history in other games, were at the top of the queue? What was going on for you, why is this only the first live event we’re seeing from hexagrams despite the fact that yourself and ZP were almost the ‘voice of the game’ since the closed beta?

hex: I can really only tell you from speculation, because I honestly don’t know and it would be reckless for me to say otherwise. I truly don’t know, I barely talk to a lot of people - that’s probably my biggest flaw in Overwatch. I’m not the best at networking, I don’t talk to the higher-ups. Maybe I’m on the list but there are these other people who are more connected. And again it’s these other people who have live experience, live on-camera experience and things like that. It’s safer and it’s more comfortable and I completely get it, I totally understand it. I’ve talked to Blizzard, and we’re gonna talk a little bit more, and there’s some things I should work on casting-wise but I’m not by any means blacklisted or anything like that.

I think ZP got a great opportunity to go over and do the ELEAGUE qualifiers and from there he’s been rolling on too. And I talked to them when that happened and they were gonna bring in different talent, because he was a late addition to that desk, and at that point they were a little bit over budget and couldn’t bring anyone in. ZP just made the most of that opportunity and he’s been rolling through it.

I think a lot of it is that these giant organisers don’t wanna take chances on someone they don’t know, you dance with the devil that you know. So they bring in people that they’ve seen on TV, seen on big events. They know they’re not gonna lock up in front of the camera and they’re more comfortable with it. Like I said, ZP got a great opportunity that I don’t even know he was slated to get, and he made his most of it. He proved that he could do it on air, and hopefully I won’t mess up DreamHack and get some more chances after that.

You’ll be hoping you don’t just bomb and that’s it! No more hexagrams, he’s outta here!

hex: Well that is kinda a very real fear, I’m comfortable talking in front of people, I’ve done events online in front of 20-40,000 but it is different. I also know that it is a big opportunity, and so it’s only human to have some nerves about it. I’m about 80% excited, 10% nervous, 10% terrified, but it’ll be fine. I’m just gonna put in all the work. The only way to get over nerves like that is to make sure you’re as supremely prepared as you can be and then just let everything take care of itself.

With the nerves of the upcoming event and your appreciation for the experience of the other casters, does that ever make you second-guess the technical aspect of your casting? Do you think you’re subconsciously making yourself feel inferior by looking up to them rather than putting yourself on the same level?

hex: No, because I don’t necessarily look up to them. I know what I do very well and I know what other people do very well. I think it’d be foolish to not ask them how I can improve. I think a lot of people in every profession could learn by always trying to get better and that’s been a mantra of ZP and I’s since we did Weekly #1. It was like, “OK, good cast, but these are things we can improve. Let’s try to get better.”

So I’ve personally gone up to a lot of the talent that’s on desks and been like, “Hey, I saw you watched me cast, do you have any tips, whaddya think?” And they’ll tell me very honestly, because I think you only improve by honest feedback. I’ve asked the community for feedback too. I don’t put these people on a pedestal or anything, but I can admire the things that they do very well and there’s no reason to not try to do everything well. I think my game knowledge and my analysis is very quick, I think I’m up there in there; there’s some things vocal-wise and just kinda talking and communicating information - there are people I look up to. I’d like to get better at that.

I don’t necessarily feel that I’m trying to make myself inferior by being like, “Oh my god these guys are great!” It’s like, “Oh my god these guys are great, I’m going to try and do that too, I wanna incorporate that as part of my game.”

In terms of your cohesion with other casting partners, obviously people will know you casted alongside ZP many many many times in the past. At DreamHack they’ll be rotating the talent around, are you perfectly comfortable with that? Is it going to be an opportunity, something you’ll have to adapt to and learn on the job with, how do you feel about that?

hex: Well there’s two people that I’m 100% comfortable with just because I’ve done casts with them before. I’ve only done one cast with Uber, he did a Weekly with us just to give us breaks and we rotated there - I cast with ZP, then Uber, then I take one off, all the way around. So those two I feel 100% comfortable with having done it before. My experience casting with people I don’t know has been 100% positive.

There is gonna be some learning on the job when I’m casting with Jason and Mr.X because I don’t think I’ve cast with them before, at all. I’m not really worried about it, I guess it’s one of the reasons why I always thought I’d be pretty decent at casting. Socially I’ve never really been awkward with people, I can relate to anyone, I can talk to anyone. I can understand people’s rhythms pretty well.

We will have a small rehearsal, I’m gonna try to get with those guys too and maybe do a little practice as well but there will be a small learning curve. When you’re gonna learn on the job like that you try to keep it as small as possible. But I’ve also watched their casts as well, so you kinda understand their tendencies, where they like to jump in, what they like to talk about. So it’s not only doing homework on the teams, it’s doing homework and preparation on the casters and who you’re gonna work with too so you understand their rhythms, their techniques, things like that. It’ll take me maybe 2 minutes to get used to it if that, honestly I’m not super worried about it. I guess there’s a learning curve that’s there but it doesn’t bother me because I feel like I can learn quickly and I’ve done it before with other casters.

DreamHack Winter talent

DreamHack Winter Overwatch Championship talent. Image credit: DreamHack

What about working on the analyst desk?

hex: That doesn’t really bother me either. It feels like it’s so set up, it feels like it’s gonna be a little easier than casting. It’s kinda like - here’s a question for you! And then I have my answer, and someone else gets asked a question. That’s why you have great hosts, so that they can keep the flow of conversation going and that’s pretty much a paint by numbers kinda thing. You saw this, whaddya think of that? Well, here’s my answer. I don’t have a problem answering questions when I’m being posed them.

I guess the desk thing, maybe just making sure I hit my camera, that’ll be the big thing. I have past experiences in my life, I’ve been a teacher before so being in front of a bunch of angry freshman is not new to me. I’ve been a writer before and had to read my own stories to auditoriums full of people, so it doesn’t really bother me, speaking to people in public. Maybe that’s just a blessing I was born with, I don’t really get nervous being on camera or anything. I mean I do, it’s natural, but I can hide it and use that energy somewhat. I’m not super worried about that...

I think, maybe I’m just deluding myself a little bit. There is going to be a couple moments, because DreamHack is huge and it’s an auditorium full of people. It’s a sports stadium right, so there will be moments of natural shaking that will happen. Hopefully it won’t make me stutter or something like that but I’m not entirely concerned about it. It’s the least bit I’m worried about. I’m probably most nervous about not having my own camera to cast from. I need to practice casting from someone else’s camera. That’s probably what I’m gonna spend the next two weeks doing.

In terms of the upcoming LAN at DreamHack Winter, there’s NiP, Misfits, Fnatic, compLexity, and the four teams that will qualify through the BYOC tournament. What do you think about the overall event? How competitive do you think it is, who are your thoughts on teams to watch, storylines, etc. coming into the event?

hex: I hope some mid-level European teams decide to all get out there in BYOC and do it. I’m always a big fan of upstarts and underdogs, things like that. It’s always my favourite part of it. Even recently watching Rise Nation and Kingdom, I love watching these people who made it on their own in esports. They weren’t known from anything else really, they didn’t have other games, maybe they had some experience but they decided this is my time, we’re gonna make a team, we’re gonna do it. I find it very endearing to watch, so I hope something interesting or good comes out of the other four. I would be surprised by it, happily so.

The competition should be really interesting. Fnatic - of course everyone knows, I make no secret of it, iddqd is one of my favourite people and players and he’s off of that roster. It’s gonna be interesting to see the replacement and how well they work. compLexity is a team that, on any given week could beat anyone in the world, and on any given week I could grab five guys and we could beat compLexity. They’re super inconsistent, I’m not trying to take a shot at them but I think people would agree with my that compLexity can be a mystery at times. But I know that they’ve been putting in a lot of work, I know that they have a coach that I respect a lot too, so that should be interesting to watch.

As far as Europe goes, I love both of those teams. I think both NiP and Misfits, if neither one of them wins it, it will be an upset. I think everyone will give Misfits the edge based on how well they recently did at LAN events, but I had a chance to talk to some of the NiP guys - it was one of the reasons that I picked Finland to win the World Cup and one of the reasons I was so heartbroken when they ended up losing to Sweden as well, because I really thought they could beat Sweden.

I think one of those two teams should probably be the favourites in it. I think most people will probably say Misfits but they’re not running with ryb any more, that was a different lineup to what won the most recent LAN, so I would say NiP would be my favourites to win it. That’s probably not the smart money but I never take the number one rank in any tournament. No-one ever remembers the guy who picked the best team to win, everyone remembers a small upset or whoever picked the second or third place here. Again, even the North American teams: Fnatic could be good, Fnatic’s not really a North American team; compLexity have an opportunity to surprise us but I would imagine that either of the qualified European teams, just the level of competition is generally greater so they’re generally more prepared for things. NiP or Misfits, if you’re asking me to pick it I’d say NiP.

Interesting, they do have a triple best-of-three win record online against them coming into it. It’s gonna be super interesting to see how that translates to LAN. The last thing I wanna ask you is: we don’t know what’s going on behind closed doors with casters and the tournament organisers, bidding for spots at tournament and they’re flirting with all of you. Are we to expect even more things from hexagrams? Is this the grand beginning of you becoming a top-tier caster within the scene? Have you got other things lined up or is this just tentative first steps?

hex: There are some things, I can’t always officially announce but there should hopefully be stuff in the works. It will be another LAN, and then - right now I’m kind of at a crossroad of a ‘prove it’ moment. Everyone knows I can cast online, and I’m good at casting with ZP. We’ll do those events, and we’ll hopefully continue to do those events, but if I want to go to these big events and these big LANs I have to do well at DreamHack. There’s no two ways about that. If I do OK and I don’t just choke on it, I’ll get another chance, but if for whatever reason I just cannot speak English that day that might be the end of me!

There are some other things lined up though that I can’t officially announce. Hopefully the dream is that it all parlays into being part of the Overwatch League. That’s the big league, the big boys, it’s regional, so I’d love to be a North American caster for that. I think that I’m good at it, I put my time in - that’s the dream. There’s nothing I can really officially announce but hopefully DreamHack and then something shortly after, and then hopefully Blizzard falls in love with me the way the community has been so kind to me, and then I’ll be doing League! That’s the dream, right?!

I hope it works out for you, and I'll see you at DreamHack Winter to follow up in person!

Josh "Sideshow" Wilkinson
Overwatch analyst, writer, and caster. Former TF2 expert. Shed occupant.
Find me on twitter at @SideshowGaming