Growing up in Omaha, Neb., Marcus Graham didn’t fit in with his sports-crazed family. He didn’t enjoy football — most unusual in Cornhusker country — or basketball. He liked some niche sports, like bowling and track and volleyball, and his true love was the video game Quake III.
Decades later, Graham is most often compared to one of the all-time great NFL coaches and broadcasters. The video game commentator is known as the “John Madden” of e-sports.
“I’d never really connected with sports,” Graham, 40, said recently during an interview at Twitch in San Francisco. “I get it now. I actually understand my family more having done this.”
Graham, whose professional name is “DJ Wheat,” was the earliest and most influential “caster,” doing play-by-play of video game tournaments in the late ’90s.
“Marcus really was the first,” said caster Sean “Day” Plott. “If anyone else says they were, they’re lying, because he was first by a considerable margin. And he started in an era when there was no such thing as video streaming. He was trying to figure out the technology, and then he’d share the technology, cobbling programs together and getting them to work. He was doing a daily gaming show long before even YouTube.”
Gaming is a billion-dollar industry, but it was not lucrative 20 years ago. Graham started as a competitor and made a total of $1,500 playing Quake III while spending about $15,000 attending events. Then one day, unable to attend a competition in Sweden with his Quake III team in 1997, Graham provided updates via RealAudio, reading texts from his squad to a tiny audience of friends and family listening online.
After graduating from the University of Nebraska, Graham had to find a “real” job, so he went into IT, managing a staff of nine. To keep his hand in the gaming world, he coached a Quake III team, delivering detailed critiques to the players.
“I remembered what I did with RealAudio, so I started recording notes while reviewing practices,” Graham said. “‘Bob, I noticed you were over there and Jimmy, I don’t even know where you were; the rest of you were in the right place but we can’t win without Bob and Jimmy.’ Eventually one of the guys said, ‘Hey, you have a real instinct for the game, you should do this live.’”
Graham found a platform called ShoutCast and he did a live broadcast “to about 12 people,” he said. “It was that moment in time I was like, ‘Wow, this is something I want to do for the rest of my life. This is something I’m really passionate about.’”
He began to gain some notice for his work and was invited to do live commentary at an event in Texas in 2002. That led to a job calling the World Cyber Games in Korea.
“From that point, my career started going from a player to a coach to falling into commentary,” Graham said. “That’s why people say I’m the grandfather of commentary, but I look at that and laugh because it’s really what everyone in sports was already doing before us. We were taking the things we’d heard and just putting our spin on it — that’s what e-sports commentary is.”
Photo: Lea Suzuki, The Chronicle
Marcus ‘DJ Wheat’ Graham, who lives in the Mission District in San Francisco, is the director of programming at Twitch TV.
Marcus ‘DJ Wheat’ Graham, who lives in the Mission District in…
Graham, who lives in San Francisco’s Mission District with his wife, Jennifer, and 11-year-old son, James (better known as “Mini-Wheat”), now picks and chooses the events where he does commentary. Since 2011, he’s worked at Twitch, where he is the director of programming. It’s a perfect match; Plott even argues that were it not for Graham and what he’d been doing for years in combining commentary and audience interaction, Twitch wouldn’t exist.
“What Twitch is doing is based on how Marcus conceptualized the way he wanted things to be,” Plott said. “And Marcus was the guy the whole industry looked at.”
While Graham downplays his impact on the business, former Counter-Strike Go caster Stuart Saw said that Graham not only set the standard for future commentators, but he also turned it into a professional enterprise.
“Marcus is too modest,” said Saw, who is now Twitch’s director of strategy. “The reality is that if it wasn’t for Marcus, casting wouldn’t be in the position it is. It used to be volunteers, just people who showed up at events and paid for all the equipment. Marcus at a certain point said, ‘We provide enough value to have better working conditions.’ He turned it into an eclectic profession — and a paying profession. He was the one.”
Graham mentored hundreds of casters along the way, generous with his time and knowledge.
“He was the one you went to when you started,” Plott said. “He set the tone of professionalism, because he was the only one and he’d already done thousands of events. He’d still be there before breakfast, and you’d say, ‘I guess that’s how you do it.’ He even does his hair nice, wears a nice tie and he smells good. You say, ‘Man, that guy is on point.’”
“A lot of the new commentators in e-sports might not have heard of Marcus, but I can hear him in almost all of their work,” British caster Paul “Redeye” Chaloner said via email. “His influence on me and many others that worked alongside him helped shape the way we commentate on esports today.”
Though Graham hadn’t been a traditional sports fan, he was exposed to enough of it growing up in Omaha to have absorbed a lot of the sportscasting nuances. Even more important for his development, he believes, was his parents’ devotion to AM radio shows. He particularly cites Art Bell of “Coast to Coast AM” as an influence. The basics of video game casting are the same as what you might find on Monday Night Football, however.
“A lot of things that come from sportscasting are inflection, creating drama, conveying the action — we’re always trying to figure out, ‘What’s the story to be told?’” Graham said. “But a football game is contained by four quarters. We have Counter-Strike, in which we have to tell a story across a best-of-three match with (multiple) rounds and each round can include overtime that can go indefinitely. It’s like putting the preseason, regular season and Super Bowl all into one and saying, ‘Go!’”
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Another major difference when it comes to gaming is that the formats change regularly, and even the games themselves come and go. Dozens of titles are played professionally.
“In 2004, I thought ‘I’m going cast to Quake III forever!’ But unlike traditional sports, our field can change,” Graham said. “Our ball shape can change, our scoring system can be rearranged, because we don’t have a sustainable model where one game can outlive time. There have been genres that games typically follow, that’s been the one constant. I realized if I was going to have a long career, I was going to have to be more like Bob Costas than John Madden.”
If gaming is added to the Olympics as expected in the next decade, Graham would be perfect to serve in the Costas role, hosting the whole e-sports shebang. He has done commentary for more than 50 games, including a few he’s had to learn on the fly just as the game was released to the public. And each title has specific terminology — and fans who take a proprietary interest.
“Gamers are very critical about what they want and how they want it and they’ll be like, ‘You don’t know that game because you called that ability wrong,’ or ‘You called that character something else,’” Graham said. “It’s trivial to the point where virtual characters in some games are called heroes and in other games they’re called champions and to say or mix up the two is blasphemous. Almost unforgivable. You have to be on top of it.”
Graham isn’t one for mix-ups. He is known for his dexterity and his thoroughness.
“Above all else, he’s a natural,” Chaloner said. “He can just turn up, put out world class commentary and it doesn’t seem to take much effort. He has a very natural way of delivery, a great voice and his enthusiasm and passion of the game just bleeds out in his commentary. He is also super flexible with which games he can do; he makes you truly believe he knows a ton of stuff about whatever game he commentates on.
“He worked hard at being that good, which I think is the perfect commentator, that blend of natural ability and hard work, it’s what separates the good from the great and Marcus wasn’t just great, he was the best in the business.”
Graham said that Twitch, which is the top platform for e-sports live streaming, cracked the code when it came to gaming.
“Twitch is the platform that finally brought together the things I saw in content creation,” Graham said. “I grew up in a one-way entertainment world where you watch TV and that’s all it is. I loved the new form of media, one part traditional media and one part interaction to talk about it in real time and carry it beyond the content. Twitch married those two things, the video and the chat experience.
“With all the gaming and commentating and podcasts I’ve done, every second of my life has led up to this. I’ve finally found home.”
Susan Slusser is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @susanslusser