While at DreamHack Montreal 2018, we sat down with Kevin van der Kooi, a.k.a. RotterdaM08, to talk about his career, the state of StarCraft II and more.[Author’s note: This interview is quite long, but it is worth the full read, in my opinion. It’s fairly rare to be able to interview someone that not only has been in the esport scene since its beginning but is also still thriving. I hope you enjoy this piece, there’s no TL;DR at the end ;)]
Sarah: You have recently reached 100 events under your belt, DHMTL being the 101th. When you first started to play Warcraft III, did you ever think you would end up as a pro player, make the move to StarCraft II and then become one of the most prolific casters of that game? Was it something you planned to eventually do, or was it something that happened naturally?
Rotterdam08: Absolutely not, obviously. When I started playing Warcraft, I didn’t even know about esports. I knew absolutely nothing about it. So I just bought the game like any other ordinary nerd that buys games. There is a really funny side story that I don’t want to tell in detail but the TL:DR is that I hated Warcraft so much that I brought it back to the store to change it for Unreal Tournament! But then Unreal Tournament was sold out and I was stuck with Warcraft and I was like, “Ugh! I guess I’ll keep this stupid game”. But then it turned out that this stupid game was actually really fun when I gave it another shot, and I played it a little bit more.
Then maybe a year later, somebody mentioned a replay website. I took a look at it and saw a picture of Insomnia with a cheque of 10,000 dollars after winning WCG and I was like, “Man, that’s super cool!” Then I didn’t really hear or see anything else about it anymore. Another year later, there was a new World Cyber Games. It turned out there was a Dutch guy called Grubby who was actually doing really well and was really good so I clicked on a link that was an audio commentary that would open in Winamp back then. Actually, funny enough, Kim Phan, who’s now Senior Esports Manager at Blizzard Entertainment, was casting those games and I thought it was just the coolest thing ever listening to the commentary.
I played the game a lot back then, so it was like, “Oh my goodness, this is so cool!” Even though I couldn’t SEE the games, because back then obviously we didn’t have Twitch or YouTube or any streaming, but I could picture everything, and it was like the most exciting thing ever. Then Grubby won and I was like, “Holy hell, that’s so cool, he’s in America and he just won money!” I was like, “I should do this too”, so then I just started playing a lot, felt very motivated, eventually got pretty good but it was still never my ambition to become a caster someday, because it was still kinda weird back then. It was only Winamp and these weird audio links. It didn’t really seem like something that I was very interested in until I was a pro-gamer for roughly 3 or 4 years and I went to an event in Germany. They actually had two casters sitting behind a desk and there was a camera on them. I was like, “Hey, that’s actually kinda cool” and I listened to their commentary and these were guys that were just all-around gamers. They were not Warcraft III experts, they really had nothing in common with the game. They were just there to talk video games. I listened to it and I thought it was very cool and at the same time, it really triggered me that they didn’t actually talk about anything that was meaningful. They clearly didn’t understand the game at a high level or any level for that matter. So I walked to one of the guys that I knew from ESL and I said, “Hey, why don’t you guys let me do this? I know a lot more about this game than they do.” And that’s kind of how it all got started. They said, “Sure, give it a shot!” People on the Internet liked it and from that point on, they kinda always asked me for Warcraft III events.
“It was just the coolest thing ever listening to the commentary […] Even though I couldn’t SEE the games, because back then obviously we didn’t have Twitch or YouTube or any streaming, but I could picture everything, and it was like the most exciting thing ever.”
Then when StarCraft II came out, it wasn’t really my intention either to become a caster, because it still wasn’t something that seemed reasonable to do full-time. I had no idea how big it was going to be. I thought it was always going to be a side hobby and just part-time fun, or maybe if I would get super good, I could do it full-time. So, obviously, when StarCraft II came out, I started playing a lot and I got pretty good quite quickly. Then, I was invited, well more like pushed by Dennis Gehlen from TakeTV, to cast Homestory Cup I, as he was hosting that event. He was like, “Kev, it’s gonna be super fun, just go, man!” Because we were Warcraft III buddies, Dennis used to play as well. I was like, “I don’t know, man. I don’t even know this game, I don’t know any of these units, I never played Broodwar”. I was already good at that point, but I still felt I knew NOTHING about the game, so it made me feel really uncomfortable. But he was like, “Oh, you’ll just do the Protoss matchups and everybody else will do the other matchups. Don’t worry! You have to be there, man, it’s gonna be fun”. So then I went there, it WAS really fun! People on the Internet said I did a pretty good job. Obviously there were some Broodwar people that didn’t like it, because I messed up/missed some things. Overall, the response was positive and then two months later, I heard that ESL was looking to hire a commentator full-time and then I was like, “Well, I’m getting a little bit older…” I mean, this was 8 years ago, so imagine how old I am right now (laughs). But I was like, “I’m getting a little bit older, maybe I should give it a shot”. So I applied for the job and then I remember very well that I went to China to cast a Warcraft III tournament. When they invited me, I thought, “Sure, why not? Free trip to China, let’s go for it” and while I was walking at the airport in Amsterdam, I got a phone call from an ESL employee telling me that I got hired and they basically wanted me to start there as quickly as possible.
Obviously, from that point, I had a good feeling about everything. I didn’t necessarily think I would do 100 tournaments, or a 101 at this point. But I did feel like, “Okay, now it’s real, right? I’m actually an employee of a company. I’ve got a job, I know this company runs StarCraft II tournaments”. Obviously from that point on, it started to feel very real.
What made you decide to shift from Warcraft III to StarCraft II?
It’s just that esports back then wasn’t the same as it is right now and after playing the game pretty much full time all day, every day, for like four years, let’s say from 2004 to 2008… I still loved the game, but I didn’t have the same burning desire to play it all the time. A couple tournaments also started to disappear, we had less stuff online. It just… In 2010, I actually started playing a lot more Heroes of Newerth than I did Warcraft III, because the game changed a little bit and I was still pretty good, but I definitely wasn’t good enough to really win anything.
So, I didn’t have the motivation anymore to play that much. I still was motivated enough to qualify for some tournaments and enjoyed free holidays, as I liked to call them back then. I also knew that I really wasn’t going to make a living out of it, so it was just a hobby at that point, nothing more nothing less. But obviously, while I was at a Warcraft III event, that’s when I got my hands on the StarCraft II beta for the very first time ever. This was in the very early days, I was in Spain, so it was either 2008 or 2009. I played the beta for the very first time, and everyone was very excited about it and obviously that made ME excited too, because I was like, “Wow, brand new RTS, things are gonna get improved, everything feels fresh again!” It was just natural cause. It would be very weird to stick with Warcraft III, if you truly love esports and being part of it. At that point, there really simply wasn’t enough to stay in Warcraft III. I also had my own reasons, the game shifted in a way that… I wouldn’t say that I didn’t enjoyed anymore, but I enjoyed it less. It was still the greatest game out there, at that point, but I just enjoyed it less because my strategies got nerfed, I didn’t like the new maps and there were less tournaments to play for.
It was on the decline and people were just ready for something new and everyone was excited about StarCraft II, so I just joined in the hype.
You’ve played through all the StarCraft II expansions, from the very beginning of Wings of Liberty (WoL), through Heart of the Swarm, until today, with Legacy of the Void (LotV). Is there an expansion you preferred or a specific meta you enjoyed more in a certain expansion?
This is a little bit of a cliché and certainly a lot of people will say like, “Obviously he’s just saying this”, but I really mean it that I think that LotV, by far, is the best, by a mile, if you ask me. Also, this version of LotV is a lot better than the first. Obviously, we’re still getting patches. Now I do truly enjoy WoL. If I think back on WoL, 2010 and the early months, obviously it was all very exciting because everything was new, and you would actually see brand new stuff. I understand that people have warm memories to those moments, and so do I, because obviously your mind was actually blown away back then. Your mind now is impressed, but not necessarily blown because you’ve felt that since you’ve been doing it for 8 years, you’ve kinda seen it all, you’ve done it all. People just do it better. But obviously, if you see something new for the very first time, that’s truly exciting. But you cannot, nobody can ever say that WoL was a better game than LotV. The game was incredibly still, if you think back on it, and LotV is so much more dynamic, it’s so much faster paced, there is so much more potential for all 3 races to play very well. In WoL, you were often delivered in the hands of the “balance gods”. If your race was good, then you would make it through certain phases in a game and you would win. People think back on Broodlord Infestors and stuff, in Legacy, that’s just not the case, there’s always a way for people to outplay each other. The game has way more interactions, there’s more battles, it’s just… It’s a million times better now, than it’s ever been, if you ask me.
You casted for a few years with Mr. Bitter, first for ESL and then for NASL. In 2014, Mr. Bitter left NASL to join Red Bull Esports. Do you prefer always casting with the same person or do you enjoy casting with different people every time?
I think both is fine. I think it is very fun if you are a duo. Because obviously, Ben and I, since we did so many tournaments together and we casted so many things in a row, then you really start to develop a really nice chemistry. You’ll never talk over each other, you just know what the other person likes to do. So, I do feel the overall quality becomes better when you cast with the same person over and over again. But it is fun as well to just go to a WCS event and you know, do a cast with Jessica (ZombieGrub), do a cast with Feardragon, do a cast with Tastosis, every now and then or obviously, I love casting with InControl as well, or ToD… Basically everyone! Both have their perks. I do think it’s better to have a steady partner, but maybe for the fans, it’s nicer actually to see more variations. I think both works, I don’t necessarily prefer one over the other.
You have worked a wide variety of events, some of which were set in a professional setting and some which were more community based. Do you have a preference for one or the other?
Mhmm… I think in general, I actually prefer (community based) events like Homestory Cup, just because it is a lot more laid-back. I understand that esports is a very big business and if you want to attract big sponsors, things have to be professional and it has to be serious. I get that, and obviously, I think that’s part of the job and I embrace it and I try to fill that role as well as I possibly can. But sometimes, I do feel, especially a couple years ago, I think we’re a lot better at it right now at the big events. But there was a time in 2013-2014 and I would even say early 2015, that I really felt that some of the big WCS events, we were starting to take ourselves WAY too seriously and it almost felt like it was “no-fun allowed” zone and it really made me sad. You weren’t really allowed to make any jokes. I really felt that the commentators all became kind of the same, right? Because we were only allowed to cast a game in a certain way. Then of course, we still said different things and we spoke in different manners and perhaps paces, but, it really felt all so still…
“…at the end of the day, I feel like we’re just nerds who love a game.”
While at Homestory Cup, what I love about that, you can truly be yourself and we don’t take ourselves seriously. And of course, we may be pushing it a little bit too far, where sometimes for 7 minutes, we don’t even talk about the game. You’re basically watching a couple friends just bullshiting all evening long and then, “Oh, GG, there’s a game as well! Sick game there!” Obviously, we push it a little too far in the other direction, but in general, I prefer it when we don’t take it super serious. While I do understand it’s important to do take it seriously if you want to grow things, but, at the end of the day, I feel like we’re just nerds who love a game. We love the same game, and then we can just sit back and make jokes and have as much fun with the game as possible. That’s why we started playing games in the first place, to have fun. We never started to become very professional or serious. Now once again, it comes with the job, I do get it, but I generally prefer a very laid-back approach and just having fun. I think fun is always the most important.
Of all of these 101 events, which one do you consider your best tournament, the one you consider the most important to you?
It’s super tough to answer that, because I think I’d be lying if I said there’s is ONE that truly stands out. I honestly think I would say there is maybe 10… I could make a top 10, but it would be very hard to put it in order.
One that will always stand out to me, I hope I have the year correct, but I think I do, would be Red Bull Battlegrounds Washington DC 2014. It was the Grand Finals of the entire Red Bull Circuit that they had held that year. I’m not talking about the Archon one, which was a year after that, I didn’t really like that one at all, but the year before when we had the Grand Finals in DC, that one will always stand out to me because Red Bull just… They hit a home run. It was just a fantastic event. There was no downtime at all, there were no PC problems, there were no issues with the stream, there were no issues at the venue. The venue was absolutely beautiful, I would still say probably the coolest venue that I’ve done in a while. It was in a big opera hall, but they had these giant posters of all the players, kind of drawn as evil cartoons villains, they had hype trailers, the sound was amazing. I actually felt I did a really good job casting that weekend as well, but that’s just overall. That tournament really stood out to me, we had some sick games, some epics fails that really made the audience go crazy as well, so that is definitely one that stands out.
I think HSCX truly stood out as well, because we had this weird venue, we were in a club, an actual club, and I really thought, “This is not gonna work”, but it did work. It was really fun, we had sick games and it was just… It was HSC times two, you know? It just felt so good, we had so much fun. I remember coming home and my voice was so hoarse from just laughing all the time. Obviously, we had a party in the actual club and that was super cool.
A couple of the Blizzcons, I think the Blizzcon with sOs and Life was a really really good one, where we had some sick finals, and a lot less problems than we had the years before. So that one stands out. And I would almost say, GSL vs the World, which was event #100. It’s not necessarily because of me, because I felt actually a bit sick that week, I definitely wasn’t at my best. It was the overall experience of that event, the run of Serral, Serral showing the world that he doesn’t just beat non-Koreans, but he will actually beat Koreans too. The first guys to hold the GSL trophy in 8 years that’s not Korean. That was truly sick. And WCS 2015 in Krakow, the Polish fans, they truly delivered, they were freaking amazing. That’s story line was so sick, with Lilbow and MaNa in the final, that one really stands out as well. And maybe, also in Poland, in Warsaw, in 2011, which was the very first event I ever did with Mr. Bitter, the European Battle.net Championships, I think it was called. Ret won. That Polish audience as well was freaking fantastic, they were chanting, cheering, they were loud! It was beautiful setup in a fancy cinema, the stage looked cool, so I would say maybe those five… those five stand out to me.
You have a great love for StarCraft II and have been involved in the scene since its beginning. Do you see yourself continuing with StarCraft II in the long run or are there other esports that spark your interest?
At the moment, there are definitely no other esports that spark my interest. I do follow everything a tiny bit, at least I look at it. I watch and I wonder if I’d be interested, but none of the games that came out over the last few years are interesting to me. The one esport that I do truly like, besides StarCraft II, is Dota 2. Of course, Warcraft III as well, but Warcraft III is kind of my stepson; I love it, but it’s not really in the front picture. Obviously Warcraft III is interesting, StarCraft II is definitely by far the most interesting and fun game for me at the moment. And I enjoy watching Dota 2, but I would never want to be part of the Dota 2 scene, because there is something that I feel, if you even dream of doing that, you have to be all in for 110%. I would have a lot of catching up to do, because I knew Dota very well 5 years ago, but they keep adding new heroes and the meta obviously has changed a million times, there’s a million different progamers now, so I have no desire to work in Dota. I think it’s fantastic to watch, but I definitely do not consider myself qualified to even think about that.
“As far as anything that’s out there right now, nothing comes close to StarCraft II for me.”
For the future, it truly just depends. If there’s a new big RTS or if they remake Warcraft III, I’m going to play that a lot more again. If they make Warcraft IV, obviously then I’ll switch to that. If they make StarCraft III, I’ll switch to that. As far as anything that’s out there right now, nothing comes close to StarCraft II for me, so there’s no reason to leave StarCraft II. I’m still doing fine, I love my job, I love the friends I have in this community. I love the community overall, I honestly feel that the StarCraft II community is a really good one. It really feels that whenever I travel I’m just meeting friends all around the world, even local friends that I only see at those events, but it’s just great thing. So I don’t have the urge to leave. Now, of course, you can never say never and maybe one day, I’ll get an amazing job opportunity and I will stop streaming and I will stop casting… But it has to be really, really good for me to give up the fun that I’m currently having.
Other than casting, you also stream regularly for long stretches of time. How do you juggle both streaming and casting?
So, there is an upside and a downside to doing both. The upside is that, as much as I love streaming, I kinda go all out whenever I do stream. I take very few days off, I’m pretty hard on myself, I’m my own boss and I want to be a dick to myself. I really do force myself to make a lot of hours and truly make the best of it and never have the feeling where I felt like I could have done a lot better or I could have done more than I did. After three weeks where I’ve streamed at least 19 or 20 out of 21 days and multiple hours a day, not 3 or 4 hours, but on average I would say between 7 and 9… Then obviously after 3 weeks, I kinda feel like, “Woah, okay, I’d kinda love to do something else for a week now.” And in that way, it’s very nice when I have to leave for an event again and it’s like, “Okay, 8 days, I don’t have to stress over streaming because I can’t possibly stream now. I am still making money, I am still doing my job, but I’m having a different kind of fun now.” So, in that way, it works out really good.
Of course, the downside is that StarCraft II is a very tough game. If I don’t play it for 8 days, I feel like I’m a lot worse than I used to be. It’s weird, some people, they get better if they don’t play for a week, but I’m getting older as well, so it’s so hard for me to maintain my level. You know, I’m pretty proud of my level. I’m not the greatest player on Earth, but if you compare my skill to, I think, almost any other shoutcasters in almost any other games, one that is not a pro gamer that retired last week, but someone that has actually been casting as much as I have over the last 8 years, I think I’m really good at StarCraft II, you know, skills-wise, overall. I’m proud of that. I want to maintain that and it is obviously tough when I leave all the time for traveling and I can’t practice.
“It’s always been very important to me to kind of stand in the middle of the community, hear the voices, hear the opinions.”
To then stay happy and to give people an entertaining experience can be a little bit challenging, but you know, there is fun in that challenge as well. It’s just ups and downs, you try to manage it and try to make the best of it. I think it works out well. I think if I would be only casting, I wouldn’t like that as much. If I was only a caster, obviously if you work full-time in a studio, you have a broadcast 4-5 times a week, then it’s fine. I could absolutely do that, then I would be okay without streaming. But with the way that StarCraft II works is that it’s mostly events and then it’s like 2-3 weeks off… Unless you’re Tastosis, but there’s only one of them and there’s only one GSL. So, it doesn’t really make a lot of sense to be only casting, because then I’m gonna be bored out of my freaking mind and I’m gonna be feeling very disconnected from the community and I really wouldn’t like that. It’s always been very important to me to kind of stand in the middle of the community, hear the voices, hear the opinions. Of course, there are trolls, but there’s also a lot of people who are genuinely passionate about the game, so I love being connected with these people and I’m able to do that a lot better through my stream than I’m obviously am through casting, right? Because when you’re casting you’re not really reading Twitch chat.
You do manage to get to GM every season.
Well, I actually find that almost an insult when people say that, which is funny. But the league distribution in StarCraft II is a tiny bit messed up. European servers are also a lot tougher than the NA servers. So, when people say, “Oh yeah, Rotti’s not bad, he’s GM”, I actually find that a tiny bit insulting, because, instead of saying that I’m GM, you could say that I’ve peaked at 6193 MMR. That is incredibly high. That’s like 700 MMR higher than what you need to enter GM on Europe. And almost a 1000 MMR higher sometimes than what it is to enter GM on NA. When people say, “Oh, Rotti is GM”, I kinda feel like they’re underrating me, because I am more than just a random GM. I can actually be pretty high up in GM and I feel that’s where StarCraft II can definitely do a better job, because that also goes into Master League and Master League is incredibly huge. If you say, “Oh yeah, I think Rotti is just barely squeezing by in GM” and then people are like, “Oh, I’m Master League so I’m not a lot worse”. You can be Master League, I think, with 4800 MMR or something, maybe 4900, whatever it is. That’s 1200-1300 difference, it’s so freaking insane. I don’t really like the way that the league distribution works, but yes, I’m proud of the MMR that I set. (laughs) Of course, I’m not always that high rank, on average I would say I’m 5800 or 5900, but that’s still a solid 300 MMR above the cut off.
Do you think the popularity of your stream is related to the fact that you’re known as a caster for StarCraft II? Does it make it easier to retain your following?
I think it’s hard to deny that, because obviously, after an event that I’ve casted, a lot of people are very eager to come into the stream and ask, “How was the experience? Any funny stories? What were the highlights? If I missed it, what should I watch?” So it is hard to deny that. I mean, the very first time I ever streamed, that was during like the heyday of StarCraft II, when Twitch was just dominated by StarCraft II. I honestly believe that the first stream I ever did, I had like 3,500 viewers. Now, obviously, that’s not normal, for most streamers, that is. It’s something that you have to work very hard towards. Eventually, with a lot of the casual fans leaving, it also became very hard for me to actually build an audience, because that was the first one, and the second one… And yes, for a while, I could casually hit 3,000 viewers, but back then, StarCraft II was a lot higher up on the Twitch ladder than it currently is. It’s still fine, and I can still easily live off it, but you know, back then we were mainstream, top 3 without a doubt, maybe top 1 for a while.
So at one point, a lot of those people left, but now of course, you could say I still had a head start, because I still had followers, I still had at least SOME viewers, and I had already built up a tiny die-hard community. It feels like I started very high, then gradually it became worse and lower and harder, the more time went by… Where I would say 2015 was probably the darkest time when it comes to (my) streaming, where there were a lot of days where I couldn’t break 400-500 viewers. I understand that still for a lot of people, that’s like, “Man, what the fuck, that’s a lot of people, why is he whining about it?” I understand it’s a lot of people, but if you’re doing it full-time, you’re entering your mid-twenties, and you used to have a viewer count that’s 5 or 6 times as high, it’s very hard to keep going at that point. You’re like, “Okay, maybe this is not going anywhere.” But fortunately, I stuck around and I put in an insane amount of time and effort, and now things clearly going a lot better again for StarCraft II and for my stream.
So yes, of course, it’s very useful for me that I was known because of casting and that’s why people were willing to click on my channel and I got the immediate front page on Team Liquid, that kind of stuff, but… It’s something that I cannot deny and it’s impossibly to deny that it helps me, but I would also love to believe that it’s not the ONLY thing that makes my stream successful. Yes, you could say I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth when it comes to streaming (laughs), but I also work very, very hard to have what I currently have.
You play, live and breath StarCraft II. Are they any other video games you enjoy playing? Any guilty pleasure?
Not really. (laughs) I really love playing poker. That’s obviously not a video game, even though you can make it one if you want, in the casino, but I don’t enjoy that kind of poker. I love card games, I love poker, I love watching poker streams. There was a time that I still played Dota 2 casually, but I’m so addicted to everything and then if I have a bad day of StarCraft II, then I just have the urge to play Dota 2 all the time. That just tears me apart. I have a super, super addictive personality and then at one point, I’ll be playing more Dota 2 than StarCraft II, so it is kind of a drug to me and it’s better that I don’t do that.
Other than that, maybe once in a while, I play a racing game on the Xbox. I got an Xbox last Christmas, so that’s the first time in like 7 years that I started playing different games, other than StarCraft II, Dota 2 and Warcraft III. Once again, Warcraft III is the game I grew up with, so I don’t really count it. It’s fun to drive a couple rounds around the track, but even in the last two months, I have not even touched it once, so… In general, I don’t really play anything, I don’t like shooter games, I can watch an esport tournament, but I don’t like playing it. I don’t like Battle Royale. MOBA is fun, but only if I get truly invested in it and then, that would simply take away too much of my StarCraft II time, which means that I feel I would become a worse commentator, because I would be less up-to-date about everything that happens in the scene, less up-to-date when it comes to who’s good, who’s not, who is a potential talent. I would also stream a lot less StarCraft II and that would make me WORSE at StarCraft II and that would make me feel sad again, because then I’d feel like my stream is becoming worse because I’m becoming worse, so… It’s a downward spiral, I feel, if I start playing other games.
You just talked about poker, I know you enjoy that game a lot. What makes it so enjoyable to you? Do you see similarities between StarCraft II and poker?
I think in a weird way, it reminds me a lot of StarCraft II. There is a lot of meta game; I think that he thinks I’m gonna do this, so I’m gonna do that. That is a very common thought process in StarCraft II, and poker has that as well. And then the better you get at it, you can think further ahead, and then the same logic also applies to when you play against bad players, you know that you shouldn’t overthink stuff, and that’s the same in StarCraft II. If you play against someone that’s, maybe not super bad, but let’s just say worse than you, and you scout and something is different, instead of freaking out, just be like, “Well, he’s probably just bad, you know?” so let’s keep the game simple. Yeah, I don’t know, I just love the game, I think the mind games are interesting. I think the poker scene overall, I’m not involved in it, but I enjoy following some of the well-known YouTubers, like Doug Polk or something, that also played Warcraft III, he’s great to follow. It’s just a fun scene, it’s something to keep my mind off StarCraft II as well, because, as much as I love StarCraft II, if that’s all you do, all the fucking time, then obviously, at one point it becomes less fun and more work. So, I try to always keep it on the fun side, even though I work a lot, and poker helps me do that.