While you're quite a recognizable name within the consistent HoN user and fan base, there are many who may be new to the scene to whom you're a stranger. With that in mind, would you care to give us a brief introduction and a run down of how you came to be where you are today?
Phil: Sure! My name is Phil Haller and I am a former Heroes of Newerth Shoutcaster from Honcast.com and the current Director of eSports at S2 Games. As far as how I came to be here; when Honcast first started in December 2009 I was listening to two known co-casters, Blazemane and Zndr, cast with BreakyCPK. As they were casting, I found myself correcting a lot of their technical game information. Eventually I contacted Breaky with an idea for a stock exchange site for team rankings called Konspiracy.org. After that I expressed my interest in casting with Breaky and one day when he was without a co-caster he asked me to step in and that’s where it all began. My first cast was gal vs dmf in the cybergamer.com.au tournament. You can actually watch my first cast ever here:
Over time I gathered a following of viewers who enjoyed the more “edgy” style of casting I brought to Honcast, almost functioning as Breaky’s alter-ego. The real step forward was after Dreamhack Summer 2011 when Breaky and I were contacted to travel with S2. During this time we met with a lot of partners and worked hand in hand with high level management at S2. I will go into more detail later in this interview as I see a question dedicated to my position as the eSports Director, but suffice it to say that through hard work and dedication I was able to achieve what I consider to be a dream job.
Right out of the gate, please let us indulge ourselves a little and ask what you thought of the most recent It's Gosu Open tournament in January. Were you surprised to see “incl” beating really good teams and landing in the finals? Do you think the US/Asia scenes are finally beginning to make some headway in catching up with the EU scene?
Phil: In the past two years the months of January and February have been rather slow for the entire gaming competitive scene. This is a good thing for up and coming teams such as Incl. It gave Incl the opportunity to really show what they’ve got against other high level teams. If they stick around maybe we’ll have another permanent top team to look at in the future. So it will be interesting to see what they do as competition begins to increase. I think they have a lot of talent. On the business side, it’s important that we focus on these slower periods and engage the competitive scene with more tournaments, which is where events like the Garena STAR League tournament, the It’s Gosu tournaments, our upcoming Odyssey LAN tournament, Milkfat’s World Record Attempt and the Honcast King of the Hill tournament come into play. As for the US/SEA scene catching up to EU is concerned, only time will tell. The EU scene is hard to judge at any given time. In the last year the country of Sweden alone produced 3-4 top tier teams. I think this success could easily be replicated this year.
Looking at the bigger picture, what's your view on the overarching competitive HoN scene as we move towards 2012? Do you expect the growth scene in 2011 to continue, or do you think things will level off?
Phil: This year we’re up against some big competition with League of Legends hosting a $5M Season and the DotA2 International in August. While S2 could compete directly with these games in a dollar for dollar sense, we won’t and we take a different approach. Heroes of Newerth is getting closer and closer (less than 60 days now) to the launch of our $100K HoN Tour (www.hontour.com) accelerated Beta Season. This is just the first step of many that we are taking in 2012 to form a competitive atmosphere in which teams of all skill levels can compete to win cash prizes as well as points that go toward invitations to offline events and other prizes. I think everyone will be impressed with the HoN Tour structure. Fans, competitors and the competitive players can expect big things from the S2 eSports scene in 2012.
Time for some speculation: you've been seen typing in red a number of times in the HoN client... do you have something more than just Honcast going on with S2? C'mon, you can tell us... we can keep a secret...
Phil: I’m not sure if anyone will remember this, but before I was messaging people under the name The_Thrill there was a guy named [S2]VolvieR sending out messages for a lot of the events. After awhile it became harder to contact VolvieR to get messages for Honcast into global chat. I asked S2 if I could do them myself. Of course this came with the stipulation that I would have to do global messages for ALL tournament casts, not just Honcast. That is kind of how it came about. As far as Honcast and S2 are concerned, we’ve enjoyed a great partnership since the early beta stages of HoN. With HoN Tour coming soon, S2 has decided to build its own studio to facilitate casting of the games, similar to the way NASL is set up. Because of this, members of the Honcast staff slowly made their way up to Michigan to begin getting ready for this transition. The HoN community can expect a much higher quality production value for HoN Tour matches and from Honcast in general.
S2 Director of eSports, eh? Not too shabby! Alright, give us the lowdown-- how did you end up landing your new gig?
Phil: After Dreamhack Summer 2011, there were some opportunities that arose for me and Breaky to travel to different events as pseudo evangelists for Heroes of Newerth. The first opportunity was Gamescom in Cologne, Germany where we did some live casting and hung out with H4nn1 and Mag1x at the SK/Steelseries booth. Shortly after that we attended PAX Prime in Seattle, Washington and met up with partners and sponsors to gauge further interest in not only our game, but in HoN Tour as well. During this time there were some internal changes going on at S2 Games. Things went on as planned for awhile and Breaky and I went to cast NASL through the months of September and October. Then we attended Dreamhack Winter 2011 and then the NASL Finals in December. It was a busy time for us all! Unfortunately, after NASL Season 2 Finals S2 decided to let their eSports Director go and the position fell into my hands as a temporary job. With hard work over the last 6 weeks and successful progress in both partnerships and HoN Tour (thanks largely to the direction of JohnnyUtah and mentorship of LuLu) S2 named me the Director of eSports.
Exactly what responsibilities will you have under your new title? What work will you be focused on primarily, and what initial goals do you hope to accomplish?
Phil: The short answer here is HoN Tour. The longer answer is trying to stabilize the competitive scene so we stop going on these roller coaster rides. We want to create an environment that is not only conducive to the highest level of competition, but also to growing the competitive scene from the ground up. I have always been a believer that the future of the competitive scene lays within the mid-range teams, not solely in focusing on retaining your top teams. I’m not saying the tip top teams aren’t important, because they are; but we need to assist in pushing teams to play their best games every game no matter what skill level they are at. Other than HoN Tour, my primary goal right now is to establish better payouts for cash prizes, create content with partners so that our competitors and casters have constant opportunities, and assisting community supporters with projects.
Seeing as how you have a new gig and Honcast is currently auditioning new co-casters, have we seen the last days of you behind the mic? Or will you continue casting while you work with S2?
Phil: My focus right now has to be on HoN Tour and the competitive scene. I have enjoyed my time with Honcast, the things I’ve experienced, the fans I’ve met, and the travel I’ve been able to do have all been wonderful. I will be stepping away from casting, hopefully permanently, as that means I will have a full plate to deal with in eSports. I won’t say I will never cast another game, because there will be times at events, like Dreamhack, where an additional caster may need to step in to give the actual casters a break (like DivA and xanderK did at Dreamhack Winter 2011.) I’m sure you’ll see me pop up on a podcast every now and then.
Now that you're a part of the S2 family, we want an honest opinion-- how do you feel about the way the MOBA scene is shaping in 2012-- especially concerning the impending three-way-war between HoN, Dota2, and LoL-- and how well do you think S2 has been handling things to this point? Are they keeping up or even surpassing Valve and Riot?
Phil: The “MOBA” scene is really interesting right now. With as much hype as StarCraft 2 gets there is some real opportunity to be a big player in this genre. As an advocator of eSports I will be pretty blunt about this topic: Riot’s position as a company is highly questionable when it comes to advocating eSports. League of Legends has a healthy competitive scene. However, with Riot trying (and succeeding) to purchase exclusivity rights to the large leagues (IPL for example) it shuts out any competitors. Now as a business decision I can see the merit to this. You force people who have an interest in the genre, as well as playing in those large-scale tournaments, to play your game. From an eSports aspect, it’s kind of lame to shield international audiences from being able to experience other games competitive scenes. It’s not good for eSports, and it’s not good for competitive players. I will hold my opinion on DotA2 for the time being, the game is still in beta stages and I think the direction IceFrog decides to take with it in the future will ultimately decide where the game goes. As far as how S2 has been handling things; there definitely have been some room for opportunities and I feel very comfortable in saying that our goal at the office is to correct any deficiency and really step it up in early 2012 and beyond. We all take the successes and failures that happen with our game personally, so expect a more productive and regimented team this year.
Moving on, gives us your top 5 team rankings as of right now. We know it's difficult given how volatile and unpredictable so many results have been, but making tough decisions is all part of having a fancy job title, right?
Phil: Having a fancy job title means I can’t have favorites anymore, but if I had to give a top five list…
- FnaticMSI – these guys might not seem like much right now, but they just need time to rebuild.
- Fray – another team that took a hit in the loss of DirgeSnoopy, was great to see their starting 5.
- TiG – the guys from JaGa getting picked up was great to hear <3 Darkwonyx, Pallet, Bassets and
- Haxxeren (and their good looking team manager of course).
- JAH` n Friends – individually these guys might be the best team in the world right now.
- tdM – Tralf and his guys just need to find their way back, another solid team with some of the best NA players around.
What are your thoughts on Moonmeander and his stream? Do you consider it something positive for the greater HoN community, or do you think it has the potential to cause damage?
Phil: I’ve been a mod on Moon’s stream for awhile and found myself connecting with his viewers in a non-trolling manner. Moon has told me multiple times how much he loves Heroes of Newerth, so he should be using his popularity to be spreading the good news about HoN, not the bad. We’ve all seen the ramifications of Moon’s stream in everyday TMM, there isn’t a day that goes by that I get killed and someone spams a “You Just Got Dumped On” macro. It doesn’t bother me personally, but it’s a constant reminder that our community is still as adolescent as it was 2 years ago. This something S2 is working hard to change.
Now that you've got the inside track with the guys with the money, tell us some secrets. Anything you can share that most haven't heard about? Any secret projects under wraps at the moment?
Phil: Not really. Like I said, finishing HoN Tour is the priority right now. I am working with the upcoming eSports Rankings guys on a small level to try and facilitate their vision. Other than that, not much I can share. I don’t want to lose my job already.
What are your thoughts on the NASL and HoN being a part of it? How do you feel about the tournament itself, and what sort of longevity do you think it will have?
Phil: Mark Brown and Russell Pfister are the COO and CEO of NASL respectively. They are easily two of the most likeable and honest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of dealing with in my 12 years of gaming. Heroes of Newerth will always look for the right opportunities to market itself with upstanding leagues like the NASL, but it has to be right for us. As I said HoN Tour is a major influence in every decision we make this year, and while I would love to do the NASL again, we MUST make sure that everything on our end is stable enough to support that level of commitment.
While Honcast looked sharp and professional at Dreamhack Winter, a number of people in the community are of the opinion that it was perhaps a little “too professional.” People seemed to miss the 24/7 webcam coverage and the laid back approach that made Honcast as popular as it is today. Is this something you'll be looking to bring back at Dreamhack Summer, or do you think upping the ante in professionalism is the way to go?
Phil: Personally, I missed the 24/7 webcam as well. While it was great to be able to have people sit at the largest booth at Dreamhack and watch great matches covered by Honcast and other S2 members, I felt a lack of personal connection with the viewers and players we usually had. I missed just sitting down and “shooting the shit” with players and TobiWan in between games. There is no doubt that professionalism is needed for Honcast to go to the next level when they’re casting games, but I agree that finding the perfect medium is necessary to retain what made the stream so popular to begin with. I feel like this will happen in upcoming events, as we just didn’t have the experience at that time with all the equipment. Now, however, the Honcast crew and I are all very familiar with what we can and cannot do with all of our sweet new gear, so expect to regain that "personal feeling" you have experienced in the past.
Phil: To my girlfriend Lainey and our daughter Bryn, S2Games, Laura Baker, Honcast, Alienware, Steelseries, my competitors and of course my fans. Thank you for making me what I am today. And of course, a big shoutout to It’s Gosu for letting me do my first written interview!
Interview conducted by Marko “Pew” Maric