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Interview with DGN - Lead CS:GO Producer for IEM, ESL One, ESL Pro League

New ideas can become a challenge after a long run like we’ve seen recently. An important part in thinking creatively is having the time to think. There are a lot of great ideas that come out of the green room, or conversations behind the scenes.

Phoenix

We caught up with Tom-Eric "DGN" Halvorsen Jobi, lead producer for ESL CS:GO and the man responsible for producing the jaw-dropping and top notch Intel Extreme Masters (IEM), ESL One and ESL Pro League events.

We discuss about his background and work in producing political and national events prior to his start in esports, the development and production of various ESL events such as IEM, ESL One as well as ESL Pro League, the amount of efforts put into organizing IEM XV - Global Challenge amid the pandemic, the amount of hours that talents and other behind-the-scenes crew put in, striving to be creative and keep things fresh at every event and much more.

Before we begin, it’d be great to know a bit about your background.

Well where do I start? I suppose where I grew up. I’m from the Vancouver area in British Columbia. I grew up in one of the surrounding suburbs but spent the summer and winter months in quite a different setting. During those months I lived with my father in a cabin far from anything you could call a city. Imagine a 30 minute drive, dirt roads and all to the nearest town, consisting of a general store and some mail boxes. We had no electricity and ran well water in the summer. Quite the contrast to the world we live in now.

Back in the suburbs I was one of the first kids I knew to get the internet. My mother worked at a school and so we were hooked up with a computer pretty early on. Dial-up on 28kbps. A bit later on, in those first years of high school I got into video editing. Making skate videos with my friends and filming protests. If I wasn't out doing that I was online or at a friend’s playing quake. I kind of took those interests and eventually made something out of them.

Some of my first jobs were volunteering at the local community access station, doing every job you can think at a place like that.  I never really had the chance at an education out of high school.  By the time I had graduated I was already 3 years into television and was working as an editor for a car show.

Doing graphics work on a tech show, and helping out with the local sports teams. I’d signed up for journalism and business courses but fate had other plans. One thing or another always got in the way. It wasn’t always a straight path, there was a year where I didn’t have any work at all. Took to call centers and small labour jobs for a while. But I was able to keep the connections I had made, the occasional contract piece and eventually landed a job with one of the major networks in Canada.

Before getting into esports, you were originally involved in producing news related to political events as well as general sports such as NHL, MLS, National News, etc. Can you shed some insight on your job profile as a producer in that field?

Actually, esports has been my first stint at producing. Before I came over to Europe I was a Director for Global National and TD’d at the local arenas (that’s the guy physically controlling what goes to air, among other things). There were a couple of challenges there but generally I always found that role to be more like gaming than anything else. The keyboard is a lot bigger and the control scheme a heck of a lot more complicated. Communication with your team was essential. You can see why this all meshes so well.

Directing on the other hand, deciding how to present a story or information based on what the producer wants and the tone of a story; reacting to on the fly changes and breaking stories, with no room for error … there was a lot of stress. But it was always fun. You have to plan out camera movements. Where people will look, move, and when. Timing’s everything really. You’d do all this while coordinating with people off-site, live from multiple locations and remotely shoot with studios half a continent away. When you were on, you couldn’t be busier. The clock keeps ticking and you keep moving, there’s no room to stop and try again.

I’d worked on Elections, Olympics, Hockey playoffs and all of that. None of it really compares to esports though, it has challenges the rest don’t. Generally a little less resources, more to manage, and far more dynamic.

You left it all behind to pursue a career in esports either way. A courageous decision indeed, but weren’t you concerned of the instability that esports offered during the time you decided to switch your job albeit a lucrative one if I’m not mistaken?

Honestly, I had never considered the ecosystem of esports to be unstable at the time. It was a time of massive growth, a lot of experimentation, and a very competitive scene when I jumped in. One of the major attractions to me was how it brought all of my interests together under one banner. And CS, I’d played Counter-Strike since the first beta so how could I not get involved?  

Initially my main hope was to use the opportunity to develop my career. I’d wanted to be a producer since I began my career but didn’t have a clear path forward, coming from the technical side of things. This was my chance to make a linear move into a new role. At the time esports didn’t have too many people experienced in high level sports broadcasting, at least not that I had met.  This is something that is more common now, but as I said, things were growing a lot then. I’d seen some of the early arena events from the year or so prior and the excitement grabbed me. If I could get involved with esports, what could I do taking that experience back to traditional tv?

The way I viewed things changed once I got involved. It’s such a different beast and I fell in love. I didn’t want to take what I could learn and go back to what I was doing before anymore. What I wanted now was to grow with the scene and see how far we could push things together. Every crest we would reach on the way up this mountain would reveal a new one, and we’re still climbing.

Image credit: ESL

Speaking esports, how did you first get started?

It sounds ridiculous every time I tell it. It was in a match of Arms Race for CS. I was leaving spawn on baggage and heard a notification, that’s where it started.  

“Hey, do you want to produce esports?”
“Sure.”

A friend of mine, Ben, also a former news director had recently moved to Germany. He found himself at a company in Cologne called Turtle Entertainment. Most people knew them better at the time as ESL. An hour or so after that short exchange he hooked me up with an interview. A couple months later I was in the EU. Wild, the consequences one word can have. If I’ve learnt anything saying yes is a powerful tool in the road to success.

When I had arrived I helped on a couple small studio shows to familiarize myself with how the company worked. But my first assignment would be much larger than I’d imagined; IEM Katowice.

There were multiple titles to be played in the Spodek, a barrage of stakeholders, departments I’d only just begun to work with, and processes I was still familiarizing myself with. I came for a challenge though, right? Well this was it and I’d be lying to say I wasn’t nervous. But behind all of that was an experienced and passionate team ready to share their knowledge and help me succeed.

I had a lot to learn and wasn’t without my shortcomings but thanks to the team supporting me, we were able to find a lot of success. It’s the nature of trying new things and pushing our capabilities. So with someone new starting out brings challenges, I also think bringing in someone like myself with an outsider perspective is helpful, too. I was able to approach certain ideas with a fresh view.


At present, you’re the lead CS:GO producer for ESL and are in-charge of writing and producing all of their big shows such as IEM, ESL One and Pro League. Could you be kind enough to expand a bit more on your job profile at ESL?

I think in general you’ve pretty much summed it up.  At the same time there are so many areas I’m involved in.  We’ve a number of teams focused on different areas of the production and events, mainly my role is to work with each of them, giving overall guidance and direction to what we want to achieve so we have consistency and clear narrative.

For the events themselves it’s scripting out opening videos / ceremonies and deciding on all the elements that go along with that. All of the content that will be created in terms of interviews, video series, and whatever feature pieces we may make. I’ll also work with guys on the final look of our sets and graphic elements. Especially when it comes to the content of LEDs or virtual surfaces. Even lighting for a studio and camera placement.

Depending on what it is that we’re trying to achieve I might need to be more or less involved in the details. At times it’s really writing the whole script and deciding every shot used in an opening sequence, other times it’s only general topical guidance. This goes for both the event and the broadcast itself. They’re very much hand-in-hand when it’s the TO that is also running the broadcast. And there’s a lot that I only advise on or give a bit of feedback towards. The biggest take away for anyone should be just how many people are involved and the truly collaborative nature of it all.

A lot of the detailed work is in the day-to-day though. Working with our on-air talent to decide on the narratives we will focus on and how to tie all of the storylines together. For some segments I’ll plan it out entirely, including the talking points and how we pivot from one topic to the next, along with how we use all of the other content. Other times, it’s simply setting up a general framework and finding from talent what stories they want to tell and working together with them to decide how we can best illustrate it all.

Another aspect I particularly enjoy is the music process. That’s something that starts very early on, from before songs are even finished up until release. After that deciding on all the cuts and loops we’ll use in a show. I think in terms of what other producers do I’m probably a bit more unique in how hands on I am there.

Important to mention is that it’s not just myself producing these either. I’ve worked with a number of other producers who will manage the day-to-day production of certain events or production days while I’m looking ahead to plan the next. So it’s also a lot of coordinating with them and making sure they’ve everything needed along with clear guidance to keep it all running seamlessly from one event to the next.  Making sure that the start of an ESL CS:GO match looks and feels like the start of an ESL CS:GO match and not something else for instance.

As a producer, the amount of work you’re required to put in must certainly be huge. How many hours a day, per event, do you’ve to put in on average? As you also work closely with the on-air talent, are you the one directing the flow of the event in terms of narrative, or anything else?

Oftentimes I’ll read online someone discussing the hours on-air talent may be working, or contemplating the number of matches in a day. What I don’t think many consider is that for every noon start there are hours of preparation beforehand and some time afterwards as well. It all varies but what I can say is that on a regular production day you are looking at 3-4 hours of work in addition to time spent on the air. This time is spent compiling all of the stories that we want to be carried over from one day to the next, sorting out mashup specific topics, getting assets ready, assigning tasks, writing and planning the different segments, and that’s not even mentioning rehearsals, managing sales obligations and the other meetings that take place.

You have to work efficiently and make sure every minute counts. If not you won’t be able to get it all done and will run out of time. As I said earlier on, time management is essential and one of the biggest challenges of live broadcasting.

And yeah, during all of this planning the flow of everything is determined, not only the topics and what those stories will be, but how long we spend on them. You might not realize this but the time from one map’s winning moment until the next begins is fixed. As a result we need to manage discussions, videos, and when we head into our breaks strictly. You see great examples of this when we return from a commercial break and the next map is starting within 30 seconds. Not only is it important to coordinate all of this for timings sake, but also to make sure we can deliver a consistent story across the board – on socials, in marketing materials, on the air, and from one broadcast team to the next.

How is producing at sports and national (political) events different from that of esports? What are the major as well as minor differences?

I think the differences are too nuanced or technical to get into for the most part. Mainly what you’ll notice is that traditional television is a lot more rigid and uniform in its structure and workflows. It’s an industry that’s been around for many, many decades. Esports on the other hand is very adaptable and in many ways is still coming up with new ways of working.

In esports you’re also an expert in a number of different disciplines and often very passionate for the game you are working on. This can make things a little rough around the edges at times.

On the other hand there’s a lot more mix and match in terms of interests when it comes to the non-esports world and skillsets are more focused and narrow, but with a very high degree of expertise and professionalism that we’ve only really started to see be honed in over here. I think what that means is we’re nowhere near our ceiling in terms of potential just yet. And when you look at where things are, and the quality that’s been achieved, esports is in an exciting position.

Image credit: ESL

Let’s talk a bit on the creative side of things. You’re essentially enhancing the viewership experience for the audience by coming up with new skits or ideas at almost every event. How difficult is it to generate new ideas, that too on a frequent basis, without being burnt out? Do you also collaborate with other talents working the event in terms of keeping things fresh?

New ideas can become a challenge after a long run like we’ve seen recently. An important part in thinking creatively is having the time to think. There are a lot of great ideas that come out of the green room, or conversations behind the scenes.

But actionable ideas where we have time and resources to pull off can be an issue if we’re 2 months into a 3 month stretch. That said this comes back to having a good team. There are a lot of people with a lot of good ideas. An open mind and making sure others have a voice to be heard makes all the difference in times like these.

You have to take the time to not only talk, but to listen to what others have to say and there will never be a shortage of what we can come up with. Just don’t get stuck with tunnel vision or habit, that’s the death of creativity.

How difficult has it been to do your work during the Covid pandemic where events are being held online as opposed to in a LAN setting? Can you take us through the difficulties you’ve faced in terms of producing an event, that too keeping in mind to deliver a top notch output in terms of production value?

It’s a challenge for sure.  You lose a lot when you don’t have a crowd to build up the atmosphere or teams on location to make content with. You lose theming, the location and personality that it brings, as well as the time between the events.

When you’re changing locations there’s an obvious necessity of time that takes place between these events and that opens the door for innovation during that time. Conversely, missing all of those elements I mentioned also drives innovation but in another way. The one thing I think is drastically stunted however is those winning moments, and not being able to bring a team into the area. It’s those signature times that you simply cannot recreate with an online setting. It really has me looking forward to LAN again.

One nice thing however is the time saved by no longer needing to commute or travel everywhere. Because of this you can get a lot more planning done in shorter time frames, leaving more free time for yourself or being able to do that extra big of planning you might not otherwise have been able to do. It’s a double edged sword, but one that I’d happily drop in favour of the in person experience.

Alright, as we near the end of the interview, I want to ask you which is your favourite event that you’ve ever produced and why? Also, which is the funniest segment/idea that you may have come up with and it turned out to be a dazzling success?

For an event as a whole I will have to say the Katowice Major. We spent more time planning that than any other production I’ve ever worked on. And the in-arena elements of the event went off without a hitch exactly as I’d hoped. For that event I’d put in a lot of work towards all of our video pieces, scripting, hand picking all of the music even.

In the end the performances, the finals opening ceremony, and when Pashabiceps brought out the trophy were all fantastic moments. And then there was ENCE’s story all the way through qualifiers up until that last match with Astralis. Being able to see Dupreeh win there too, after all he had been through and sacrificed. It was amazing.  It was as close to perfect as I could hope for at the time.

But in terms of the funniest event it is without a doubt The Caches at IEM Sydney. To me it captures the spirit of gaming and a real sense of what the community is all about. It’s just good fun and always delivers in unexpected ways. Last time when Dick Stacy came out in his one piece and confronted Henry, just wow. We’d planned out a lot of the show / match elements and I won’t get into which parts exactly, but that turned out much better than expected. For that show there are a number of specifically planned moments, general ideas that we know will be hit, but most of it is off the cuff and I love it.

There is one other moment, where the fans gave the desk an inflatable kangaroo. I cannot remember why I had these files, but I just so happened to have audio of some punches being landed on my laptop. Probably for a skit idea that didn’t quite make it out of the drawer. The kangaroo was standing beside Jason and I knew what had to be done. A few seconds later we were ready. I told Stunna he should hold the Kangaroo from out of frame and start boxing Moses. He didn’t question why, he had no idea we had the audio ready to go, and Moses was entirely out of the loop. But as the hits came in you could hear the gloves landing. Being the type of guy that he is Moses played along and took the blows in stride. The crowd loved it. It’s impromptu moments like that one which stand out the most to me.

That’s a wrap. Anything you’d like to say before signing off?

Only that I look forward to hearing the roar of the crowd again when we make our return into the arenas. Being able to have all that passion and excitement for the game under one roof is sorely missed.  The day can’t come soon enough.


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Feature image credit: ESL

CS:GO

Phoenix

I write for a living. I write for Esports! Games: Dota 2 and Counter Strike: Global Offensive