Recently I had an opportunity to interview Steven “Toffees” Pierce, creator of Dota 2 shows “Around the Pit” and “Coffee with Toffees.” I asked him for his thoughts on peripheral content like Dota 2 shows and for a peek into what goes in to putting on a weekly or monthly talk show or podcast as well as how the shows can be improved or expanded upon to reach a wider audience.
Content Creation is a Labor of Love
I asked Toffees for a little insight into his background and how his career in Dota 2 content creation got started.
Toffees: So I’ve been gaming since as long as I can remember. In college I studied theater and improvisation. Then I moved to Chicago, studied improv at the ImprovOlympic there, then went into acting. I did a lot of other jobs. I’ve been in sales and marketing, I’ve been in a lot of things. Prior to starting the podcast, I was acting full time in Boston, and I had about three months off a year when the company I worked for wouldn’t do shows. The competitive scene was sort of blowing up at the time, I had just gotten into Dota with some friends and was really enjoying the competitive side of things and realized that there was just so much happening in the competitive scene that your average working adult like me and my friends couldn’t keep track of it all. So I started a small show with the intention of literally just having my buddies listen to it… The show grew pretty rapidly, we started doing some interviews… [I] started to experiment with format, hired some artists to do overlays, the show just kinda kept growing from there. And that allowed me to spin off into other things, like doing interview shows specifically [like] Around the Pit, and casting more.
Do you have any ideas like what would be an effective marketing strategy? Do you think that the shows need to reach more viewers or there needs to be more demand for it?
They need to reach more viewers. I think that there is potentially the demand, the problem is it’s something where you’ve gotta get the eyes on for people to realize that they want to watch the show. I mean, I’ve been doing Around The Pit for… let’s say four months just to be safe. I still get messages every single day [from] people going “Wow! Just found the show, absolutely love it.” It’s something where you go “That’s great, I’m glad you found it, but how do you get it in front of more people?”. All sponsors, all anybody really wants right now is click counts. They want to know how many eyes are gonna see the episode to justify the money spent. And that makes sense to me, the problem is going from the relatively desolate wasteland of early content creation and surviving long enough to actually get to the point where there’s enough eyes to support you.
I think studios and sponsors, to me it’s the next step. It’s just an issue of getting attention. The idea is there, the numbers are there to a certain extent. But sponsors don’t want to put money into it and [while] having sponsors give equipment is super helpful, paying the bills is a necessity. A lot of these makers realize after a while, “I’m putting eight hours a week into getting the show up and running and producing it to the quality that it needs to be put together, I can pick up a part time job. I could go be a substitute teacher once a week and make $100 instead of investing this time that’s fun but doesn’t pay the bills.”
So do you think maybe making some kind of big conglomerated show would be the way to go, like a bunch of people all together doing it, or continue doing ‘everyone does their own show’?
I think that it’s gonna depend on those shows being created on the small until a studio sees a really good product and picks it up and then maybe it grows from there. But it’s an emerging market that we don’t have a lot of ideas on what does and doesn’t work, other than [that] we need more consistency. There’s a ton of great shows that come out and they last for a month to two months and then they’re gone. That’s the one thing that I think hurts us the most and part of that is because there’s just no money in it. It’s not cheap [to run a podcast], it’s not free to host podcasts and get the numbers that you need to understand it, to get the internet quality that you need to run a show live. Stuff like that takes wear and tear on the computer and I think people after a couple of months realize it also takes a really big time commitment, and without any sort of income because honestly YouTube incomes are terrible, there’s not a lot of incentive to keep these people making the good products that they’re making.
Here’s a hypothetical – in an ideal world where you had let’s say unlimited time and money – what kind of show would you want to put on?
If I had unlimited time and money, I think I would continue to make the kind of shows that I’m making now – I think Around the Pit’s format is really strong. These sort of shows that are fun and dynamic and are well produced, and I think that’s the hardest part. In a perfect would I would have a producer, a director, I would have a talent scout, a booking guy, I would have a graphic designer who can take care of keeping things updated. My show right now has a static loadscreen of Rosh standing next to a sign that says “Around the Pit,” I wish I could afford to have Rosh stomp on the screen and slam the “Around the Pit” as the intro graphic. The stuff that you watch on network tv that really kind of sings. A lot of viewers tell me – “I don’t want us to be mainstream Toffees,” and I get that – I’m not asking to be on ESPN. But those sort of touches are the things that keep viewers coming back. I think those are the things that are really hard to make the transition out of low end content creator to well-known show.
Perhaps what resonated with me the most was Toffee’s answer to a question about viewer response.
“It’s [content creation] just kinda trial and error and hope for the best, and hope that you make the front page of Reddit and people talk about the negatives and the positives [so] you can take that back to your show.”
With the advent of some “bigwigs” like ESPN putting together eSports divisions, I wonder sometimes if we’re going to see the grassroots shows squeezed out by well-funded ‘commercially produced’ content. ESPN can afford to run market research analyses and pay people to scour the internet for feedback on their eSports articles. Creators who are pouring their free time and own money into putting together their shows and content don’t necessarily have the resources to get detailed feedback from their viewers. They have to hope that someone gets pissed off and tweets about it (like the recent Caster Controversy) or someone raves about it on Reddit. Personally, I hope the small time shows are here to stay and are given the opportunity to grow into something great – “by the people, for the people.”