"Honestly, I kind of thought this was going to be a fad," Chris Puckett said over breakfast, a little more than an hour before he'd narrate the fast-paced warfare of Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare to thousands of cheering fans at the Fort Worth Convention Center for the Call of Duty World League Dallas Open. "I thought this was going to be something that could fade away any moment. Video games weren't established in 2004. It wasn't cool."
Tall, affable and able to pull off the sneaker-jeans-blazer-tie combo, the 30-year old broadcaster, host, and de facto face of Major League Gaming carries himself with the relaxed air of someone who wakes up everyday to his dream job. And for good reason: In the gaming community, Puckett is a genuine celebrity. More than once Puckett was distracted from our patio breakfast at a Fort Worth café by passersby offering an enthusiastic "Puckett!" and accompanying fist pump. He has nearly a quarter of a million Twitter followers.
This would be impressive for any broadcaster—or caster, in esports parlance—but it is downright essential in the burgeoning world of esports. Major League Gaming has the revenues and production value of a traditional sports league, and is flush with seemingly every resource except mainstream starpower. It's a dangerous thing to be lacking, especially when, according to Bruce Dugan, director of communications for Activision, MLG's parent organization, "We're not just competing with traditional sports or other esports. We're competing with Netflix and Facebook and everything else."
The product MLG is selling, meanwhile, is so fast-paced that it borders on chaotic. It's also impossible to showcase the perspectives of eight different gamers at one time, which means the audience needs to lean on the caster to have any sense of what is going on.
To Major League Gaming, then, Chris Puckett is far more than a personality. He's the architect of much of the league's current success and a lifeline to it fulfilling so many of its future ambitions. In one form or another, he's influenced just about every caster working the first-person shooter scene. However large this grows, there's a good chance that a college dropout who got his start by hustling his friends in Halo will have a hand in all of it.
He can't quite believe it, either.
Puckett quickly impressed me, but it took a few games before I truly appreciated the difficulty of what he was doing.
In between the third and fourth games of a five-set match between Optics Gaming and Splyce, he advised me to leave him backstage and witness a game among the audience, closer to the real action. So I managed to find a seat in the third row of what could be called, without exaggeration, chaos.
Fans screamed while wearing the merchandise of their favorite teams. I craned my neck to see a few fan signs with inside jokes I didn't quite understand. The excited chatter around me was what you might expect after showing up to your seat during the final timeout of a March Madness game. The match started again and the action was jarring: Puckett's wife, Molly, still gets motion sickness when she sits in the first few rows of her husband's matches.
It was even exhausting to watch the announcers perform behind a curtain, their voices echoing to the crowd on the other side. Yet somehow, despite having to talk at an accelerated pace over constant action, Puckett and his partner, Clint "Maven" Evans, never seem to speak over each other.
Puckett's style is a practiced juxtaposition of the game's hurried adrenaline and his own relaxed enthusiasm. He even squeezes in jokes mid-game to genuine laughter: "Shout out to Linda Puckett, my mom watching from church. She's rooting for the green team." There's virtually no time for a joke to land, so you better know your audience if you're even going to try.
He learned his cadence by studying hockey announcers, the closest analogue of the four major sports in terms of speed. "I would listen to hockey and say 'Alright, this is something where they have to go much faster," he says. "What is their pace and what is their delivery?'"
But like all the best storytellers, Puckett also manages to weave in reminders—during pre-match segments as well as in-game—about how each player got to where they are and whether there might be some bad blood between the two teams.
"I've mentored every caster in the [First Person Shooter] scene," Puckett said. "That's the big thing I've been preaching to a lot of the new young guys is you have to focus on the story. Because if you're not attached to either of the teams it doesn't matter how crazy the plays are, you really have no reason to come back for game two or game three."
To some degree, the most important part of the hours of research Puckett puts in for each event—besides actually playing these games himself—is scouring Twitter for emerging beef at the top of the gaming world. "If this E.U. guy is talking trash about this North American player, eventually this is going to become a rivalry regardless [of] what teams they're on," Puckett explained.
So when Optic Gaming — the "Dallas Cowboys of esports," according to Puckett — mounted a furious comeback in the last 50 seconds of a match, Puckett was able to make the action accessible as well as dramatic. "Someone help him! He's dropping Mayweathers on everyone!" he yelled as one player, unarmed and outmanned, was trying to survive. Meanwhile, chants of "OP-TIC, OP-TIC" rained down outside. Finally, they pulled away, and Puckett was ready with the match-ending assessment: "There is an experience factor, a bond among these players you just can't break"
Over the course of a day, he might call as many as five or six matches made up of best-of-five games, in addition to pre-game or studio work for matches he isn't broadcasting. It's a gauntlet, yet his most nuanced work often comes when he's most fatigued.
"I learned that we had to explain things at a base level, then as the weekend went on we could get more and more detailed with the strategy," Puckett said. It's a conundrum he never needed to consider in the sport's early days: "In the first three years, I think we only spoke to the most hardcore audience."
The endgame isn't merely calling the match. Instead, it's cultivating personalities for the best players and teams. The industry needs talents like James "Clayster" Eubanks, a Call of Duty World Champion and gold medalist at the MLG X Games. But it also needs Puckett and his colleagues to grow those players' reputations. And, according to Eubanks, the players are among the first to understand Puckett's value.
"I've [gone back and] watched pretty much every single match I've ever played," Eubanks told me. "I 100 percent notice when Puckett is casting over them. Some of my most memorable grand finals have been narrated by his voice."
Puckett has a vested interest in Major League Gaming's success. He's been with the company almost since its inception, and the entirety of his adult life.
Puckett's foray into esports began as a 15-year-old, when he purchased an Xbox and the first Halo game. It didn't take long for him to realize he could make more money "pool sharking playing video games" than he did at his job making pizzas. So for the next two years, Puckett and friends would drive up to eight hours in and around Ohio to play in amateur tournaments for pocket change, then scurry back home without tipping off their parents.
At 17, Puckett decided he was going to "throw a big tournament with a big prize pool." He and Adam Apicella, a friend he met at a small competition, started organizing. They picked Pittsburgh due to its proximity, close enough to Ohio but not too far from the burgeoning gaming community in New York. Major League Gaming, an upstart organization founded by Michael Sepso and Sundance DiGiovanni, had scheduled a tournament in Philadelphia the very same weekend.
"So rather than try to split the community, because they had more money and we had more hype, we kind of combined forces," Puckett recalls. MLG provided the equipment and put up a then-record $10,000 in prize money. (The Dallas/Fort Worth event I attended had a $200,000 pot). It was technically MLG's second event.
DiGiovanni was impressed with Puckett, who had first come on his radar by getting banned from the MLG forums for telling them they had no idea what they were doing. DiGiovanni met with Puckett and his father during the first week of Puckett's senior year of high school and asked him to consider a future on the business side. He hired Puckett to travel around the country twice a month to help organize events making about $200 each trip. "I could see in him this desire to be a part of making all this happen," DiGiovanni recalled thirteen years later.
"My parents were a little sketched out by it at first," Puckett conceded.
In 2006, during Puckett's sophomore year at Ohio University, MLG received their first round of investments. DiGiovanni needed Puckett in New York. So Puckett dropped out of college, with the warning from his parents that it would end any future college funding on their end.
He became a tournament director. He created the brackets and sometimes grabbed a microphone to emcee the matches, a rudimentary version of what he does now. When USA Network gave MLG a TV show in 2006, the network hired TV personality Penn Holderness as a host. Holderness didn't know much about video games, so Puckett said he literally wrote out Holderness' commentary word for word. "He killed it," Puckett said of Holderness. "Everyone thought he was a hardcore gamer."
But when it came time to edit the show, the producers didn't know enough about video games to cut the action into a coherent show. So DiGiovanni sent Puckett down to the Red Brick Studios in New York City to work with the production team for three months and figure out how to display the most essential moments of eight gamers' first-person perspectives. "We pioneered what video game broadcast should look like," Puckett remembers. He credits the experience for developing an eye for what the audience needed to be focus on. Now, he has constant awareness of what is happening on the production side while he's casting.
Puckett's stature has grown as MLG has grown. A quick scroll below Youtube videos of his best calls results in comments like "My idol," "Puckett was my childhood hero <3," "What a legend," and "Puckett is the GOAT."
One of the other top Call of Duty casters, Jack "CouRage" Dunlop, actually got his start in the industry when Puckett, having met him playing video games online, asked him to be his intern. Now, Dunlop has 95,000 Twitter followers and travels the country broadcasting Call of Duty.
"I think it's a testament to Chris' skill and ability that even after 13 years, he's still at the top," Dunlop said. "He's still one of the biggest casters."
Eubanks, the professional player, took his praise of Puckett a step further.
"I think Puckett has done an absurd amount when it comes to the progression of esports as a whole," he said. "A solid commentator is the first step in seeing legitimacy in something, and I think he's gone above and beyond that now with what he does behind the scenes as well as in front of the cameras. A figurehead like Puckett is crucial in developing growth inside a fledgling scene."
Puckett has grand visions for the future of esports. Over breakfast, he envisions a world when MLG teams command enough money in prizes and endorsements that their owners are offering set salaries to players. "When are they going to start signing those massive contracts?" Puckett asked rhetorically. He imagines personnel men, too. One day, down the line, he could even see himself hosting an MLG Draft.
"I just want to see this continue to grow and develop where everybody in Kindergarten wants to be a professional esports player," he says.
When they're done, many of those kids will want to be Chris Puckett. Esports are a young man's game: According to Puckett, "23 is where I start to see a decline [in player's ability.] 26 is when a lot of them will just stop competing." That leaves plenty of time for post-retirement careers, and professional casting has become among the most sought-after.
Puckett stays ahead of the curve by working events for different video games from Call of Duty to Halo to Counter Strike. Versatility is his calling card. "If you give him a week of time to prepare, I think he could go and be a great talent for any game," Dunlop said. "I think where Chris excels is that he is a true professional's professional."
It doesn't take an esports background to notice, either.
In late 2016 MLG hired Pete Vlastelica as President and CEO from Fox Sports, where he was the Executive Vice President of Digital and developed shows such as "Garbage Time with Katie Nolan." The world is still unfamiliar and evolving for him. The on-air talent he once worked with came equipped with a journalism background, but the self-training of MLG announcers ensures a certain passion and knowledge unique to each caster.
"Having the right talent, the right voices, we can't build our network without that," Vlastelica told me backstage.
The rules to football, for example, might change here and there each season, but not to the degree they do in Call of Duty, which is literally a whole new world with constant additions or tweaks to gameplay with each new edition. Esports casters have to study the game constantly to stay sharp. They have to want to do that.
Glance over at Puckett calling a match and you'll hear him summarizing the rules, detailing the action, dropping personal nuggets about each player's background, and distributing his peripheral vision among eight possible player perspectives. At no point in the match I attended were there two consecutive seconds in which he didn't speak over gunfire or explosions.
"This guy's a natural," Vlastelica said, nodding in the caster's direction for good measure. It's almost stressful to watch as an outsider. But there was Puckett, annunciating every word and grinning like a 15-year old who loves video games.