Esports.gg had the chance to chat with the long-time duo to talk about their journey as professional casters. The duo have had a breakthrough year, but are still waiting for the opportunity to bring their energy to a big offline event.
The Southeast Asian region has recently provided some of the hypest DOTA we've seen in a while. So, I figured this is as good a time for everyone to get to know the hottest new casting duo on the block. Mike "MLP" Le Phoenix from Australia and John "johnxfire" Nathan Fernandez from the Philippines, are veterans of the SEA DOTA scene. Most recentl, they provided commentary for the epic SEA TI 10 qualifiers. And just like the SEA DOTA they cast, they're looking to make a splash on the world stage.
TCG: Lately you guys have really taken off in terms of popularity. In your casting career, where were you two a year ago vs now?
MLP: "So a year ago, we were mostly casting online stuff, which [because of the pandemic] I guess we still are. We were casting very small events with prize pools between 25 to 50 grand. Whereas now we’ve kind of come along and we’re casting bigger events. We actually get involved in majors and bigger tournaments with a couple hundred grand prize pools and TI qualifiers. John, what do you reckon?"
Johnxfire: "In 2019, we were doing big tournaments, but just doing their qualifiers. So, it’s gone some distance in the sense that we’re not just doing qualifiers anymore, we’re actually doing mainstage stuff and play-offs for a lot of the events. Yeah, it’s kind of grown, but it feels a bit weird in context, because it's growing - but it’s still all online. It doesn’t feel that different, because you’re still casting from your home. My beds in the back, you know, it’s very comfy so, it doesn’t feel different, but it is."
TCG: How did you guys make that progress? Is it just casting? or is there more behind the scenes stuff that makes a difference, like networking?
Johnxfire: "In our initial years we didn’t really have too many people to talk to in order to get these officials. For DAC, I believe it was Maut who reached out to us to cover some stuff. From there, because we had something under our belt, I think we caught some offers from Beyond The Summit which was great! I don’t know if our ‘network’ has grown per se… I mean, we’ve always kind of been in contact with Godz on and off in the background. But I think it's just that now there is more focus on these online tournaments than before.
Previously, your viewership for even TI qualifiers was like 10,000 max on a good day. Now you’re seeing 60k for Southeast Asia, a lot more people care. And I think that’s what kind of just led to this situation where more people can see and appreciate the casting."
"Now you’re seeing 60k for Southeast Asia, a lot more people care. And I think that’s what kind of just led to this situation where more people can see and appreciate the casting."
MLP: "I’d say our casting has gotten better as well. A year or two ago, I wouldn’t say the chemistry is as good as it is now. I’d say we were a little bit rough around the edges. So I think we’ve cleaned up a lot of the casting. And I mean, we’ve casted with each other for so long that, you know, time just perfects everything.
We’ve cleaned up our act a bit and with the pandemic going on, there’s more viewers actually watching these smaller online tournaments, so people actually get to know who we are. Because before the audience was so small that it probably didn’t really matter. So, I guess yeah, the pandemic kind of helped us with getting viewers and giving people something to watch."
MLP and johnxfire's Relationship with SEA Dota
TCG: You mentioned viewership going up, do you think that’s solely because of the pandemic or do you think there’s more interest in Southeast Asian DOTA? And has that helped you guys grow?
MLP: "I think when we first started, I'd say Southeast Asia was quiet. It almost felt like it was dying. It was very reminiscent of North America, a lot of people would view it as a weaker region and there was no real respect for it. And yes, the region’s growth did help us, but I'd also like to think, in some way, we kind of had something to do with the region being a little bit more exciting than it used to be. I don’t know if that's really the case.
We REALLY tried to make the region as entertaining as possible, it was kind of our ambition to grow the region and in turn it would help us grow as casters. I don’t remember many other casters really taking any interest in Southeast Asia. Before us, I guess there was Godz and LD, but that was pretty much it."
TCG: So it’s a bit more of a symbiotic relationship between you guys and SEA DOTA then?
MLP: "Oh, yeah definitely. We’re not trying to ride the back of SEA DOTA. I don’t want people to have the impression that we’re trying to use the region as a stepping stone in any sense. In all honesty, our ambition was to help the region grow from the start. Because the region’s really damned good. These guys are very mechanically gifted, the viewers should have been there years ago. I’m not sure where the hell they’ve been. But, you know, the region deserves better. So I’d like to think we kind of came in and tried to give it what it deserves.
Johnxfire: Yeah, I think before me and Mike were doing remotes for Southeast Asia, there were some Southeast Asian based casters as well beforehand and got to give props to Hades and I think a Lysander, were doing stuff with BeyondTheSummit in the region back then. But I think when Mike and I came in, we tried to be more personable with the region itself, you know, we talk about the culture a bit more, which makes it more relatable to our viewers.
A lot of Southeast Asian viewers may feel sort of alienated when it's just clinical talk about the game purely. You want to inject some of the local memes and banter. Southeast Asia is a region with a lot of character, every player has got something to say and all of them have history with each other. I think that's something Mike and I have managed to emphasize quite nicely. So it's just highlighting small stuff like that to make it more enjoyable for the local viewership because frankly, a lot of them want to watch English streams."
"John and I ARE happy to work with other people, right? Like, if one of us got hired for a gig and the other one didn't, we always say: “Take the gig, do your best!”
The Recipe for the Duo's Success
TCG: Is there anything else you guys would attribute your success as a casting duo to?
MLP: "I don't know if this really matters... But I'd say John and I, in some weird way, we're loyal to each other. So we don't like to mix and match our casting very much. John and I ARE happy to work with other people, right? Like, if one of us got hired for a gig and the other one didn't, we always say “Take the gig, do your best!” But I don't see any other duos that have stuck with each other for this long. I see a lot of duo's start together, maybe last six months to a year, and then they'll move on.
I always thought there was value in working with the same person over and over, because the viewers get to know you guys really well as a duo. It makes it a more personal cast. And because you've cast with each other for so long as well, you just kind of know each other in and out. I think part of it is sticking with somebody that you believe is good, that sounds good with you and that suits your style.
I've worked with other people and while they're not bad, they're not quite as good. So, I think there is value in sticking with each other and working through the tough stuff instead of splitting up and trying to go your separate ways."
Johnxfire: "Yeah, I think outside [of casting] we’re not just great co-workers, we’re really good buddies. I think that helps a ton."
TCG: What a wholesome answer! I've seen you guys receive lots of positive feedback online. Do you guys pay attention to that sort of stuff?
Johnxfire: "The positive stuff is great. But, it's actually the constructive feedback that's a lot more useful. I once got a DM from a guy saying that I was using the word ‘domineering’ wrong. So it's like, okay, I'm gonna take that out of my vocabulary. Stuff like that has been pretty helpful in improving.
People who’ve watched us say I use the word ‘potential’ a lot, and it's become a slight meme now. Suddenly, I’ll see it on Reddit. If my name is mentioned, someone’s going to comment “potential”. The feedback kind of helps you refocus, it points out stuff you miss. It can be helpful as long as it’s structured properly. [On the other hand] there are some comments that aren’t particularly helpful, like yeah, you hate the casting, why? Point out what you don’t like and we’ll be open to adjusting if we can."
"People who’ve watched us say I use the word ‘potential’ a lot, and it's become a slight meme now. Suddenly, I’ll see it on Reddit. If my name is mentioned, someone’s going to comment 'potential'."
MLP: "The fan messages and all the positive comments we've received, they're really helpful. Because as a caster, you do have those moments of paranoia where you may think to yourself “You're not good enough to make it to the main stage” or “people don't really like you” or you read the Twitch chat. It can get to you.
So the positive comments do help, especially on a really long casting day, which John and I tend to have a lot of. You log on Twitter for a second, you see that one guy that says “Man, I love this duo, they're my new favorite duo” and it uplifts you. You have so much energy afterwards. But to go on John's point a little bit as well, we both really like when somebody takes the time out of their day to send us something that they thought was just wrong or didn't sound aesthetically pleasing to their ear, it really does help us."
TCG: Was there any talent (DOTA personalities) who helped you along the way? I know you mentioned David "Godz" Parker and Travis "Maut" Bueno before.
MLP: "So there was Maut, he was one of the guys that gave us our first big gig. Godz has also been very helpful, picking us up in the first place for BeyondTheSummit. Zyori picked us up a couple times for Moonduck, gotta give credit to that guy.
There has been other talent, like Capitalist who has always been supportive, throwing out a rogue tweet here and there, saying he really likes our duo. LD’s done the same. A bunch of casters have helped us in that manner, sharing our social media around and providing positive feedback.
Johnxfire: Got to give a shout out to I think Aui2000, he was one of the early people who tweeted out to you [Mike]. He was like ‘I think this guy’s really good’ and I think that was one of our first exposures."
"There has been other talent, like Capitalist who has always been supportive, throwing out a rogue tweet here and there, saying he really likes our duo. LD’s done the same. A bunch of casters have helped us in that manner"
The Barrier of Entry for Oceanic Casters
TCG: So, Australia is not a top tier region and there’s a variety of barriers that make it hard for Aussie DOTA players, like distance issues and the size of our DOTA scene. Do you think those same barriers apply to Oceanic casters breaking onto the world stage?
MLP: "Yes, I think it's infinitely harder. I can show you the stats, but basically, we’ve cast 1300ish games and to this day we haven’t gotten a LAN. Maybe the quality is not high enough to be invited, but after casting that many games, I’d say we’re more than ready to be on LAN. I can confidently say that. But we haven’t got that many offers. We did get one international offer just before the pandemic hit, so we got kind of unlucky in that sense. But yeah, I’d say it is harder.
I think other casters have even talked about it, the reason Australian casters don’t stay in Australia is because you are far away and tournament organizers don’t wanna pay extra to fly you out. If they can save money, they're gonna save money and there’s no shortage of casters.
You have to be REALLY good at what you do to be worth the extra investment. There’s so many LANs and tournaments held in Europe. It’s kind of a no brainer to give [a European caster] the gig over people like us. But, I think if you look at the amount of games we’ve cast, the amount of work we put in and the quality of the casts - there’s no reason as to why we haven’t gotten international LANs… besides the pandemic and the fact we’re so far away from everyone else. What do you think, John? Am I being unreasonable?"
Johnxfire: "No, I think that’s right, but it’s a weird one. Like, if you move out and go closer to a region, you might get more LAN opportunities. But how do you know you're big enough to make that move? Right? It’s weird because you have to grow first and you can’t grow without LANs, almost like a catch-22. Specifically in Southeast Asia, if you look at the major tournaments held here, it's strange because you have these options and local talent as well, but the Southeast Asian mindset is that if you're holding a tournament, you might as well get the bigger names. So, even in homegrown tournaments, it can be a bit tough to actually even be in consideration."
How the MLP+johnxfire duo came to be
TCG: Damn, great answer guys! Okay, onto a slightly less intense question. How did you guys meet?
Johnxfire: "This is a funny story because MLP and I met in a place called Echo League that was an amateur tournament with an MMR cap of 4.5k. They had Southeast Asia, Europe and North America and MLP was casting. And I was also moderating for Southeast Asia. So, when I’d make lobbies, MLP would be there. We’d sometimes talk crap in the lobby, you know, and say “Hi”. I’d listen to his cast and I enjoyed it.
So I was just an admin for the lobbies, and Moxxi was looking for casters for SEA because it was really only MLP and a friend of ours called ‘Stinkypie’. And she was like “I need a caster, can you cast?” and I was like “I can but it’s not great”. So, one time, MLP was covering a game, and our friend ‘Stinkypie’ couldn't go on. So MLP ended up asking me to cast with him. And it kind of word out. I think it just kind of went off a lot better than he and I expected!"
TCG: So really, this is all because of Stinkypie. He's the one who introduced you guys! Wow. Okay, moving on. What do you guys do in your normal, non-DOTA lives?
MLP: "So with me in particular, I don't work a full time job. Years ago I fully committed to casting because I already knew it was going to be a pretty long and tough journey. So I just decided if I'm going to commit to this, I'm going to commit to it 100%.
I'll be honest, it's pretty tough without a full time job to rely on, you know, having that extra kind of stable salary is always nice, but I mean, when I'm not casting, I just, I just try to work on different ideas and content to throw out there to kind of elevate us more, I guess. That and I play a lot of DOTA which, you know, I'm planning on streaming that pretty darn soon, but I haven't really been streaming much so yeah, it's pretty much working on content. Hang with the wife of course. And yeah, just playing DOTA that's, that's pretty much it for me."
Johnxfire: "It's the same here, when there's no casting work I have an existential crisis. You know, sometimes after like a month of non stop casting, in some cases it can be exhausting. You look for that break. But once that break comes, I mean, we're just casting full time. So it's like a dead period where you kind of just relax a bit, you get your existential crisis, you look for the next job. And once it's there, all is right in the world."
Looking Ahead - Goals for The Future
TCG: Okay, damn, I thought I had it hard just playing DOTA every day and losing MMR and complaining to myself. So, what are your guys' goals as a casting duo lately talking? Cast TI Grand Finals, World Domination?
MLP: "We never really talked about that, per se. But I think John and I probably share the same ambition of casting TI Grand Finals one day. That's what I've always wanted. Like, if you’re castin’ TI Grand Finals, that means at that moment, you are kind of known as the best caster there is. It may not literally be the case. But you know, it's the TI Grand Finals, it's the biggest event of the year, it's the biggest series of the year. And apart from that, like, I guess I would like to do different stuff.
I wouldn't mind trying to open a studio one day for Esports or to try starting a team one day, just something like that, something crazy. But it would have to probably be after we get a chance to cast TI Grand Finals, which it's probably going to be a while. So, I'd say that's probably my biggest ambition."
Johnxfire: "Yeah, I think that's the long term goal me and Mike have, I mainly think about the short term, really, for me and what's on my mind is when our first LAN will be. That's my main thing that I want, I want us on LAN, I want us to be able to show off what we have. It feels like it's just been so close yet so far. So that's where my focus is at. When are we going out to a LAN and hopefully once this pandemic starts to shift out, we'll get more of those opportunities lined up."
"For me and what's on my mind is when our first LAN will be. That's my main thing that I want, I want us on LAN, I want us to be able to show off what we have. It feels like it's just been so close yet so far."
TCG: Love it. Any advice for aspiring casters?
Johnxfire: "For aspiring casters. A lot of people actually approached me like “What do I have to do to start casting?” The one thing you have to do to start casting is to just start casting. Cast some replays, cast some of the games you’ve played beforehand, if you want some practice. If you’re feeling more confident and want to bring it to an audience, look for amateur leagues.
When you’re broadcasting, try to feel good about what you’re doing. Like one thing that MLP and I noticed early on is that our cast feels a lot better if you’re holding a smile. It gives you a positive mood, it lets you enjoy the game while you’re casting it. I think that’s something that might be lost to beginner casters because you might be feeling a bit tense. Have some confidence in what you’re saying, even if it might be completely wrong. Because the audience won’t buy it if you don’t believe in yourself. Be confident, look for some amateur leagues if you haven’t started yet and have fun with it!"
MLP: "Yeah, I kind of agree with everything John said. But on top of that, I’m gonna speak from my own mistakes. Don’t be afraid to talk to other talent, even the biggest of talent like ODpixel or Capitalist or whoever you look up to. Don’t be afraid to send a message asking for advice. Most of them will be willing to help you and willing to try and answer your questions.
If you’re too scared to talk to them, message me, I’ll answer the question for you. That was one of my biggest mistakes, I was just too afraid to bother other talent by asking them questions. And that really held me back quite a lot. It’s as simple as a Discord or Twitter message. The worst case scenario is that they won’t reply to you. And the best case is they’re going to reply and help you out. And yeah, with that as well, if you do start asking questions, you’ve inadvertently started to network as well right? You get on people’s radars."
TCG: Okay, cool. Cool. So like wrapping it up, do you guys have any final thoughts? Or maybe you'd like to say something to the diehard MLP and Johnxfire fans out there?
MLP: "I mean, thank you very much for following, thanks very much for all the positive words! I think I already said this at the start of the interview, but it means a hell of a lot to us. And it actually does help us quite a bit. And yeah, that's all I can say, thank you very much, it's been kind of overwhelming. I can honestly say when I first started I'd never thought that people would be this supportive of two casters online that they've never met and they don't know personally but you know, it means the world to us and it really does make life a lot easier and a lot better for us. So thank you very much."
Johnxfire: "Yeah, just a big thanks to them. And I want to say if you've got memes just send them out. I love the memes coming through, like the closer of the SEA Qualifier I was wearing a barong and the memes that came out were pretty sick. So LOVE LOVE THE memes, love you all and hopefully, you know going down line, the cast keep coming, so yeah. I guess that's it."
TCG: Thanks so much for your time guys!
If you want to get a little taste of MLP and Johnxfire, you can check out their YouTube channel here.