When Harry Met Hugo: A Deep Dive into the UK CSGO Scene and the Esports Journey of Harry ‘JustHarry’ Russell (PGL Antwerp Major Interview #3)


Images: PGL/Liquipedia

Despite the lack of UK-based players and coaches at the PGL Antwerp Major, the UK CSGO scene boasted an incredible range of broadcast talent there, and Tom Taylor made it his mission to interview them.
Tom had already spoken to Frankie Ward, with Freya Spiers and James Banks interviews to follow. Today’s interview is with Counter-Strike caster Harry ‘JustHarry’ Russell on his early career, who’s currently working at IEM Cologne 2022. We talk about how he met his now co-caster Hugo Byron, and a very detailed analysis of the UK CSGO scene. With Harry’s intimate knowledge of the scene, little is left unaccounted for.

Humble beginnings and the importance of Insomnia

Since you’ve now cast a Major semi-final, what was the first major you attended?

PGL Krakow. The Gambit-Immortals Grand Final, that was just amazing! I went as press, and dude, it was so nerve-racking. I don’t know if you’ve found this but you have to do a lot of pulling players and people aside being like, ‘hey can I get an interview?’ and it feels really good when you get one.

The press room here is lovely, but the one there was really small and there wasn’t very good internet so that was a real challenge. At a lot of the majors, players aren’t really obligated to do interviews and so everything they are doing is through wanting to connect and wanting to get the word out. I think that’s why you normally get good interviews at a major. It’s not coming through contractual obligations but coming from the angle of, ‘yeah, I’ve got something to say’, and that’s very cool. So we get a lot of bangers at the major.

What got you into casting? Your first event on the JustHarry Liquipedia page is an Insomnia 58 event in 2016 – was that your first event as a caster?

Insomnia was my first credited event because before that they were all really small. The first and only UK-based LAN I’ve attended was Insomnia 58. That was the first ever LAN exposure I had. Before that, it was bedroom casting. I lived at home with my parents so I used to cellotape a sign on my door that read, ‘Don’t enter! Casting’ and so everyone in my house got to know what casting was and what esports was.

I don’t think I was ever credited for those because they were smaller things, but I showed a bunch of that stuff to the guys at Insomnia and they said, ‘yeah, let’s bring you out, we always want to try new people’. And that’s something they’re really good at – they’re not afraid to give new people a chance. If you send them a VoD, they’ll listen to it, and even if you’re alright, normally they’re willing to give you that chance to grow and get into it.

Also, you used to take on a good bit of responsibility at Insomnia. You would produce the stream in a sense, being the one throwing it to break or in-game directing whilst you’re casting and that’s hard, it wasn’t normal in terms of a CS broadcast but it taught you a lot of stuff early on.

I got exposure in observing because I got to cast and observe at the same time, so you were never that good when you were doing both. You kind of become a jack-of-all-trades, and it’s definitely easier to cast when you’re just casting, but it was still nice to feel like I was learning a bunch of skills instead of just one thing.

I don’t want the youth of UK Counter-Strike to idolise the toxic side, I want them to embrace that and use it to fire them up, but still treat Counter-Strike respectfully on the world stages.”

Going into the most recent Insomnia 68, there was a bit of backlash surrounding the CSGO LAN – the event got off to a rocky start combined with a lower-than-usual prize pool, and just one match streamed online (the finals). Is this just the result of piecing things back together after Covid or signs of a downturn in commitment to the UK CSGO scene?

I mean, it definitely could be a result of Covid, but in my mind, when I think of Insomnia, and this is one of the reasons why I actually like it, is that it’s coming more from a place of passion rather than making mad money and bringing in loads of sponsors. And they do get sponsors and they do get money, but, you know, at least through all the interactions from when I went and the times that I’ve spoken to people that have been, it’s very much people just looking for a chance to be involved in esports. And so I think in a way, it certainly might lead to problems like that.

I think broadcasting just one of the games is a big oversight. There’s a lot of good stuff that comes out of Insomnia and for some of the younger players, it’s a good chance to get exposure on a stream and get people familiar with their names. Even if it’s not, like, a wide-reaching community, even within just the UK scene, it’s very good for that, you know? So yeah, that probably feels like a bit of an oversight, but a part of me hopes that this is just because we’ve just had Covid, we’ve just had the pandemic; maybe they kind of took it slow with the first couple of ones back and they’re now looking to rebuild to the Insomnia we all know.

And echoing that sentiment, Insomnia 69 recently announced it’s hosting a £5,000 Team Fortress 2 LAN at the next event.

Yeah! So, dude, they’ve always repped TF2 at Insomnia, and that’s what I mean about it being from a place of passion; nobody else is running big TF2 events. The way I always looked at it was, because the TF2 was popping off when I was there, it’s one of these games that might not be super popular in the mainstream nowadays, but it certainly had its time in the limelight.

There is a huge legacy, it has a huge skill-ceiling, and there is still a very dedicated audience that follow it as like a game… Even though the game is old, even though the game has had its heyday, there’s still a super-dedicated and passionate community that follow that, and so I like that they cater to it.

I really like that, man, and I like that they’re still doing it; years have passed, and they could have been like, ‘nah, we’re good, it’s not mega popular’, but I find normally the stream actually does quite well. Very rarely do TF2 fans have an event to watch, and so it’s something for them to look forward to.

So, in a way, Insomnia to some people might be viewed as a small event on their calendar, but for fans of TF2 and stuff like that, it’s actually a pretty big deal because it’s one of the few times per year where you get to watch it.

In terms of Insomnia’s importance for the UK scene, coupled with that of Epic.LAN and the ESL Premiership, do you think that UK CSGO as a whole would benefit from more events on the side of players and casters and do you think that it’s even possible with the UK still in its recovery phase after Covid?

Well, the UK scene is in a really weird place where if you actually look at the top level, we have a good few players involved, whereas in previous years, we didn’t. Even in the tier 2 realm, you have teams and players on the come-up. I think the problem for a lot of individuals is bridging the gap from being pretty good to joining a team with intent to go somewhere.

And it’s the same problem that a lot of other regions have: if you do have a breakout star in your team, they’re just gonna get sniped, they’re just going to be bought up the ranks. But that is a part of the scene growing and it comes with there not being this massive plethora of players to choose from, but I do think events are the way we discover that, and that’s why I’ve always been a fan.

The first events I did were all UK-based; it was Insomnia, then the ESL Premiership Finals at FantasyExpo or something like that in London, I don’t remember the exact name of the event…

There’s a great picture of you on your Liquipedia page there…

justharry esl prem

Yeah, and they still use that picture for everything! It’s so old, but they still use it for everything!

But, like, one of the things that you do get is that there are people within the UK scene who have always existed in the UK scene and in my eyes are pillars of it, and it’s super cool.

The first Insomnia I went to, I met a commentator named Mark Cross, aka Crossy, he’s been following UK Counter-Strike for a long time and he’s super invested in it. I met a bunch of the production guys there as well who are much the same. It is just what they live and breathe, and so to see people so involved in bringing up UK players and UK talent is a super cool feeling, and it’s not something that every other every country has.

If anything, I feel like the UK has a good foundation; that’s why to me, it’s kinda surprising we don’t have more players at the top, and that’s why I hope that with the rise of folks like mezii with Fnatic

Mad about mezii, UK banter and advice for up-and-comers

mezii is a literal star! For my money, he’s a top 20 rifler in the world, and now Fnatic are looking to build a squad around him and Krimz.

It’s just a shame to see Alex getting dropped from that Fnatic CSGO line-up leading up to that rebuild.

Yeah, it definitely is. It always hurts when someone flying the UK flag gets dropped from a team, but I think the whole Fnatic project is a very separate issue. They have a lot of problems, and I think that’s just a caught in the crossfire situation; you’re trying to keep your strongest assets and then build something brand new, because I think honestly for the fans of this org, you expect a certain level of quality. When that team wasn’t meeting it, sometimes it’s just better to hit the reset button and go again; rebuild from the ground up.

To the credit of that core-UK Fnatic roster, they were able to hit an 18-win streak, and then coming into Pro League, with three stand-ins, the squad were able to get some staggering wins.

I mean, that one was kinda weird though, because those squads very much felt like a last-hurrah as opposed to like… so, for me, as someone who really loves the legacy of Fnatic, I didn’t look at that team and think, ‘I would be happy if they moved forward with this’.

I thought that it was kinda cool that they were doing something, because they shouldn’t be doing nothing, but it wasn’t a team you could get behind, and that’s the problem you were going to face.

When you think of Fnatic, I don’t even need to tell you who you’re thinking of, you’re already thinking of them: olofmeister, flusha, JW – these legends of the game! Legendary leadership, legendary fraggers, these stars, these flashy players, and so I get the feeling that people just wanted that. And that’s why, to me, it’s cool that mezii is someone who’s still being considered. I think he should be considered. He was hands-down the light within that team, even when it was falling apart.

And it’s cool, though, that we’re even saying that bout a UK player, you know? I mean, dude, mezii is literally the best thing to come out of Britain!

I just want to fanboy mezii for a second. Every person that I’ve ever spoken to has never said anything but good things about mezii. From what I can tell, he puts in so much effort to just get good at whatever role, whatever task he is given. It’s like he approaches it with the mindset of, ‘ok, it might not be what I’m used to, but I’m just going to become the best at it’.

And a part of me wonders if that’s because he comes from the UK scene, where if you’re given an opportunity, you really do have to grab it, you really do have it give it your all, and there have been players in the past who have had opportunities and haven’t stuck the landing and then they kind of, fall into obscurity, but it feels like he doesn’t want to do that.

I really get the vibe that he brings a lot of positivity to a team, you know, I think he brings a lot of good energy, a lot of good ideas, he’s very open-minded; he’s not going to be some massive diva who wants his roles and that’s the coolest part.

“mezii always manages to stand out ‘cos he can do something different every game. He’ll still drop 28, 29, 30 kills in a map, doesn’t matter what role you give him, he’ll embrace it fully. And I think that’s the attitude that the UK should have. We haven’t earned our place yet to be divas, to kick up a fuss.”

I’m not putting words in anyone’s mouths here, but if I ever found out that someone like NiKo, s1mple, even going back to the old legends, olof, flusha, if these guys were super demanding, it’s like, ‘yeah, no shit’, of course they’re demanding, they get to be demanding, they’re legends of the game. Whereas, I think for a lot of UK players, the goal should be, just fucking… sorry I’m swearing a lot! The goal should be to give it all you can, because you’re going to get judged harshly, you’re from a community that’s known to be toxic, known to maybe cause problems and stuff, and so you might get looked at unfavourably.

But if you approach it like a mezii, where you do just take it in your stride, you’re unproblematic, you always give 100%, you end up being the name that sticks around. And that’s why, in my mind, the reason why he’s got the best chance out of anyone to be on a top 10 team in the world.

So, stay humble, lose the attitude and put in the work is probably good advice for some of the up-and-comers in the UK scene?

I mean, dude, when you’re at, like, national competition and it’s UK boys versus UK boys, man, get loud! Get in their face! That’s all part of it, it’s all part of the culture, and I don’t think we should lose that. But when you go international, there’s certainly a bit of humility.

And I mean even people like smooya, everyone knows him as this loud, cocky dickhead, and, smooya is a dickhead, but that’s like part of the charm of him. And I’ve seen the way he interacts with players who’ve achieved a lot more than him, done a lot more than him, and he’s certainly not the same guy he is when you’re seeing him on stream or whatever. And when he is fully being like that, with his cocky, British attitude, he is a lot humbler when he’s around the greats.

So it’s like, even him, who used to be viewed as the extreme, ‘oh you’re signing Smooya? Lol, that is the most toxic guy’. Like, I dunno man, even he has humbled a lot as he’s continued throughout his journey, he’s put a lot more time into just getting good at his craft: ‘I can talk shit when I get the trophies, when I get the results’.

And that’s how it should be. UK trash-talk, man, there’s nothing like it.

I mean you have your ‘Peek me, I dare you!’

Yeah, exactly, like, UK banter is hilarious, and nothing will change my mind on that, and I want the UK scene to earn that right to bring that same energy they bring to an Insomnia, where guys are yelling at each other across the room, where it’s a grand final and at any moment, someone can just stand up and give some tirade to the opposition; that makes it fun, it makes you get invested!

It also gives you a taste of the confidence of a team, the bravado of their guys; it’s super cool and I think it’s a really nice part of UK Counter-Strike, but then I think that when we get to the world stages, that’s where we should be more like the Royals.

If we wanna keep it British, we should get formal, we should get polite, we should show the world ‘yeah man, we might be a little bit rough around the edges, but we clean up nicely’, because we do. Guys like mezii, guys like Alex, even looking at some of the up-and-coming teams like Into the Breach, I think there’s definitely guys on that squad there that fit the bill in this regard where it feels like they are taking a more humbled approach when you get to the international level.

I don’t want the youth of UK Counter-Strike to idolise the toxic side, I want them to embrace that and use it to fire them up, but still treat Counter-Strike respectfully on the world stages. And I think that would make it so much more appealing, especially with the rise of international teams. Everyone’s speaking in English already and British people have got no excuse!

Endpoint, hero figures and a new wave of UK competition

On the topic of international rosters, looking at Endpoint, so often seen as a feeder team to international CS with flameZ getting poached by OG, mezii getting poached by everyone and Thomas… well he’s been in and out of Endpoint like a revolving door, do you think that this team will ever be able to settle down and reach the same height as their roster that previously made it to Pro League? [question asked before Endpoint qualified for ESL Pro League 16]

I actually really like Endpoint, not even solely because of what they do for the UK, but I think in terms of bringing talent up to the point you’ve just made, to the credit of that, they’re very good at looking beyond just Europe and farming a lot of talent from further afield. A lot of the big names from what I would consider underrepresented regions have gotten a start, at some point, in Endpoint, and that’s super cool to me.

There is kind of a meme to be made as well in saying, ‘you’re just getting guys to be stars who aren’t British to carry the British guys’, but, no, I look at it as better than that. I look at it as we’re very open-minded when it comes to fostering talent and giving them an environment to be competitive in.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a mutually beneficial thing. You receive someone incredible who other teams might not have given a chance to, and they receive all this experience with an actual squad with a bunch of guys as well, who, especially when for the most part it is international teams those players are looking to move into, they get an environment where they really get to nail-down their English, they’re communicating in English, like, fluently.

That’s why whenever I speak to any of the Endpoint alumni they literally have stories and jokes and they tell them like they’ve grown up in London their whole lives and that’s hilarious to me. I think it does a lot for everyone. I think it’s a very mutually beneficial agreement. But it would be cool to end up in a scenario where Endpoint can rise through the rankings and, like you say, give us another run, give us another Pro League, give us another run through… they played in the RMRs for example.

How cool [would it be] if we end up with an Endpoint at some point that makes it through the RMRs and gets to a major. We’d get Endpoint stickers in the game; like that would be a level of representation that would be mind-blowing for a lot of British folks who are CS fans, and honestly, I don’t feel like we’re incredibly far off, I really don’t.

I think a lot of people spell doom and gloom for the UK scene, but I look at it as, we feel more competitive now than we have done in my recent memory at least. You know, we use to have a few guys, guys like dephh, who went out to NA and played for Complexity; surreal as well is another example. There has always been examples but they were always few and far between and felt like exceptions, whereas now, if you look at UK players who can compete at top levels, even things like tier 2 events, things like what used to be Dreamhack Opens, now ESL Challengers, events like this, I’ve run into Thomas multiple times at those sort of events, and obviously you’ve got mezii, that kinda goes without saying.

JustHarry working at Dreamhack Anaheim in 2020

Then you’ve got Into the Breach, a team I’ve recently started following because they’ve been making waves as a team that can take maps off of what would be, in theory, better European competition. I think we are finally getting to a point where actually we can have a team to get behind, to represent us on the bigger stages. No longer is it you’re a 10-time back-to-back Insomnia champion, now you’re graduating from that and going onto the next-step up.

And I do think it’s like a ladder, we’ve gotta climb it. We can’t just go from not even on the ladder to suddenly right at the top. There’s gonna be exceptions, there’s gonna be players that do that, but it’s not going to be the case that we get a whole team there right away, it’s going to take building and there needs to be good examples within the scene, and it feels like we’re starting to get those now.

Before, you didn’t have many players to choose from, it was a very select list, and the legends of the 1.6 and Source eras are long-since gone, you’re not talking about them in the same way. So, we kind of had a void for a very long time in Global Offensive where we didn’t have those British names to rely on and it feels like we’re starting to build them now. Our house names in UK Counter-Strike are slowly having the world start to know them and that’s a very cool feeling.

This is going to spur on young players who, maybe, go to their first Insomnia or go to their first Epic.LAN, and yeah, maybe you get smashed out by Into the Breach in the first round, but you know what that’s gonna make you do? Next year, when you come back, if that happens again, you’ll want to try and make things a little closer, make it a little more competitive – and that’s how the scene grows.

With this being the first time in a while that there is zero UK representation in terms of players and coaches at a Major, will that just fuel the fire amongst the players in the UK scene?

100%. I mean the major is the dream of every CS player. Not just British folks. Not just Scandinavians because of their legendary history at Majors. Not just North Americans because everyone wants to be able to replicate that legendary Cloud9 run. It’s just the holy grail for all of Counter-Strike, and if it wasn’t already the dream, it definitely is now.

Like I say, it finally feels like we’re getting pieces to be competitive, and so the idea of getting a British team or lots of British players at a Major is no longer much of a question mark; it’s something that feels inevitable in my eyes. And I do think the fact that we are kind of lacking across the board at this one is only going to light the fire.

Like, Allan Hender, for example, coach of Endpoint, someone I’ve worked with on broadcasts, that guy just oozes a love for Counter-Strike, and I mean it. He is, whilst working a Katowice, he’ll be researching stuff for Endpoint, putting in the hours there, so whilst he’s doing all this stuff, he’s still staying true to the idea of trying to get Endpoint to be the genuinely competitive team that can go toe-to-toe with European competition and we have a few characters like that in the scene who, in my mind, are really pushing it leaps and bounds. And they’re so important, man. You’d be so surprised what one or two hero figures can do for an entire country.

I think actually, a really good example, is looking at our German brothers from overseas. Look at guys like Tabsen: he could have gone international, he could have joined an international team at any point in his career, his English is phenomenal, but he wanted to build up German Counter-Strike, and wanted to give them a team they could get behind. It wasn’t easy, BIG were fairly bad for the longest time, you know? But as it went on, and more players saw that dedication and they see that passion, and then they get called up to work alongside Tabsen, suddenly, guys like krimbo come up, this very young player.

“We have a few characters in the scene who, in my mind, are really pushing it leaps and bounds. And they’re so important. You’d be so surprised what one or two hero figures can do for an entire country. It’s what the UK scene was missing for a long time, ever since we lost the legends of old.”

Right, you imagine, when Tabsen made this decision to stay on German Counter-Strike, krimbo would have been, what? 14, 15 years old at most? Like, at most! And even then, I reckon it would have been more like 14 years old. And then, years down the line, he’s now in the BIG main team, and when you’re next to someone who’s an icon in your scene, that’s going to push you to work harder, push you to be better, push you to work in a way that maybe you’ve never worked before.

And so I think those kinds of hero figures are super important, and that’s very much, in my mind, what the UK scene was missing for a long time; ever since we lost the legends of old. Everyone used to talk about guys like rattlesnake and stuff like that from the old 1.6 era, you know, you’ve got, like, 4 Kings and whatnot. All these old names sort of died out and went away so we didn’t have those guys you could put in your mind as an, ‘I want to beat them! I wanna be as good as them!’

Rivalry, competition, it drives everything, and so does the urge to want to be on the same team as someone who’s your personal hero, and it’s like, man, part of me thinks if you put someone like dobbo on a team with mezii next week in Fnatic, suddenly, he’s going to work harder than he’s ever worked in his life to try and bridge that gap, to try and get as good as the guy next to him. So, I think that’s super important, and I think we’re actually building a very fine cast of people to take that role.

Even folks like Alan Hender, where yeah, he is a coach, but he’s on all these broadcasts, he’s doing loads behind the scenes, so people see that and they go, ‘ok, if he’s the guys behind me and he’s working all this stuff and he’s involved in tier 1 Counter-Strike, I wanna impress him, I want to show I have what it takes!’

And so it starts to feel like there’s real avenues to impress.

Well, that was an incredible answer to my question.

When Harry met Hugo and climbing the broadcast talent ladder

I meant to ask you this earlier on before we got carried away, but how did you come into contact with Hugo, and how difficult is it to replicate your success story?

I met Hugo because I’d done a bunch of small online events with ike 100 euros on the line. So it wasn’t a lot, and the first thing I ever did was for ranks MGE to LEM. That was the first event I ever casted. And it was this thing that someone in NA, a guy called zuma put together. I don’t know if he’s still around but ‘yo, wassup man!’

I always call them backyard LANs or stuff like that, the kind of vibe where you want to do something but it’s just for people who like Counter-Strike. It’s not because you’re looking to make mad money or put on some incredible show or have the top teams, no. It’s like you’re trying to get people to get their friends and enrol in an event and play.

So, zuma wanted to do an event for mid-level NA players and called it the ‘Rising Star League’ or the ‘Rising Pro League’ or something like that. He put a Reddit post out saying, ‘Yo, I’m looking for someone to cast’, and I thought, screw it, I’ll give that a go, and I was like 16, 17 years old, and I did that and I had a blast, really enjoyed it!

Now I’d always followed esports and I started to speak to other casters, people like Pansy who’s a legend of UK Valorant, Counter-Strike, Call of Duty, everything, she’s phenomenal! And I spoke to her, just through DMs, like, I was… it’s not like I’d done anything in commentary before but I just asked her how would I get started? And she said to ‘put together a bunch of clips of your casting VoDs’, so I did exactly that and sent those VoDs off to anyone who was running events, like, everyone who was running events, and no one messaged me back… Yeah.

And then, this old company named ((27-in-1)) put out this message saying they were looking for brand-new casters, and the person in-charge of sorting through the applications was Hugo, because he’d been doing stuff for them for about four or five months at that point. They used him a lot so they trusted his say-so on who sounded like they had potential – and then the owner of the company stole all the money and the company folded. Oh man, classic old esports! It still very much happens now as we are an industry in our infancy, but it used to be even worse.

But Hugo, he messages me, and he goes, ‘I just watched your VoD and I really liked it’, so I was like, ‘that’s awesome!’ and then he went, ‘yeah, but bad news, the company just went under’, and I was like, ‘oh… sick’.

But then he said: “I do have an event coming up working for GameAgents.”

And they were just running production and commentary for a league they were running. So Hugo got me involved as his co-caster, and we started from there.

We did a bunch of stuff both together and separately as time went on, we used the VoDs from that to then provide real-world examples to people who could pay us, which was mind-blowing to me as I’d been doing this for free for ages! And then suddenly it’s like: ‘Wow, I’m getting 5 euros an hour? That’s mind-blowing!’

I did an Insomnia shortly after all that, got a few VoDs together, then I showed them to the Insomnia guys who were more than happy to give me a chance, and I think they paid me £100 a day, which was the most money I’d made ever in my life at that point and it blew my mind.

And then I remember thinking, ‘dude, I get to travel to cool places like… Birmingham!’

Also, I shared a hotel room with a really, really nice UK Rocket League caster, Gregan [who recently worked at the Rocket League London Major, won by Moist Esports].

He’s just a lovely guy, still very much involved in esports and in Rocket League specifically. He gave me loads of advice because he was reasonably experienced at that event compared to me, and it was all very welcoming on the UK side of things.

Everyone was very down to give advice, give input, and then as time went on, we got call-ups to things like ESEA, the ESL UK offices when they used to exist, like we would go there and do shows there. They had a phenomenal crew in the UK offices, man. We were going from doing nothing and working for free to earning a bit of money and being able to put everything into this. I just quit my job immediately. I was like: ‘Nope, normal work? Not for me! I wanna do this. I love video games, I love Counter-Strike!’

So, to put a timeline on all of this, what was the year you started casting with Hugo?

I think it would have been 2017, if my memory holds correctly. Maybe 2016 as our first event, and then 2017 is when things started to happen. [But it was in 2016] that I got to work on a PGL Minor for the Krakow Major, which was insane. And after that, Dreamhack got in contact with me and they said: ‘Hey, we really liked what you did on the Minors, can you come do a Dreamhack Open?’

So I went and did Dreamhack Open Tours in France, and I went there with my girlfriend so we treated it like a holiday as well. Afterwards, we stayed a bit longer because I’d never really travelled, and oh my god, I just fell in love with everything about this!

It was like: ‘I get to go to cool places, I get to talk about the game I have put thousands, if not tens of thousands of hours into. The game I watch all the time, the game I’m obsessed with, and I get to share that with everyone, and I get to work with all these people who’ve been doing that for ages and who have all these cool stories, have all these cool ties to.’ 

I used to be the biggest fanboy of some of these pros, and then I’m in this expo centre getting to cast them in front of a crowd of some French fans. Mate, we got to do a G2-Envy in the semi-final; I got to cover that. French team versus French team. Bruh, the crowd was insane. And obviously, I think that was the one where KennyS was, like, stage-diving and crowd-surfing after they won it, and it just blew me away. It was like, wow. And I’m sure you felt this with this [Antwerp] Major.

It’s like, watching it online, you think you might be able to tell the vibe, but you can’t. It’s not till you go there and you’re in it, and you’re in the crowd, with everyone screaming, with everyone getting excited, it just feels incredible. It’s like the ultimate adrenaline rush.

Even when you’re just there in the crowd watching. I love casting, but, my second favourite thing to do is just being in the crowd and watching because, it’s like, at that point, I don’t have any pressure, it’s just full enjoyment. There is nothing left to do but to enjoy the Counter-Strike that’s on display. And you’re in a room with thousands of people doing the same thing, and you’re all harmonised and in tune with each other. So all it takes is for one guy to get a little loud, and suddenly, the whole room is louder than you could ever imagine.

“The first and only UK-based LAN I’ve attended was Insomnia 58. Before that, it was all bedroom casting. I lived at home with my parents so I used to cellotape a sign on my door that read, ‘Don’t enter! Casting,’ and so everyone in my house got to know what casting was and what esports was.”

I mean from the Smooya shouts at Faceit in 2018 to the Navi chant being thrown back and forth across the arena here, it’s been an electric atmosphere, and again, your casting always helps. To start rounding things off, we’ve heard your story, but in terms of opportunities for up-and-coming talent, what are your thoughts on opportunities for them?

I think there was definitely a time where it was easier to get in specifically within the UK scene, but I’ll say this: if you’re from Britain or Ireland, if you’re a part of any of this territory, I’m assuming you already have a good understanding of the English language, you already have a desirable voice for a broadcast, people just like British accents, I don’t know why. I’ve just grown up around them my whole life, you know? It feels normal to me, but people like ‘em.

And as long as you have the passion for researching the game, knowing and extrapolating what you like from other casters, and then using that for yourself, I think the world can be your oyster in a way. You need to have a bit of drive and there will be a lot of grinding in amidst that where you’ll be doing it for really no money, or not a lot of money, but, at the end of the day, it’s something you love, and so the money you do get, even if it’s as not as much as you could make from a day of work, it just feels better.

So then you use that as the proof of concept. You make a bit of money, you can tell family and whatever, if anyone’s weighing in on the decision, it’s like, ‘no, well, hang on, this is legit’. You kinda need that bit of legitimacy in some cases, right? Family is always a hard thing to balance with the whole build-up, but there is proof that you can do it.

smooya esl one cologne 1
Harry says UK player smooya has a “cocky, British attitude, but is a lot humbler when he’s around the greats”

I think so many new names have come out of the UK talent scene, guys like Dinko, guys like Hawka. There’s even some newer casters… sorry I’m missing some obvious ones like EternalJay, Dweg – I mean those guys are fantastic and they’ve really risen up. Obviously Dweg is like an honorary UK citizen nowadays, but I actually met him all the way in Australia for the first time before he even moved, which was mental.

So there’s guys like that, but even if you look on the brand new end of the spectrum, you’ve got a lot of talent who are very much involved in the university circuits and stuff like that. NUEL do a lot of stuff relating to shows being produced; there’s some element you can hop in on. Check with your university, check with your college, there will be some chance for you to get involved be it through playing, observing, commentating, learning to produce, there are more options in the university level now than there ever has been before. And that can be an incredible foot through the door.

There are some hosts and casters that I really like who are doing stuff there, folks like Ne0kai who have really impressed me, like Giniro who’s a Valorant/variety host, and she does stuff on that university level and now she’s starting to move into more mainstream Valorant shows.

There’s newer casters, folks like B-Dog and GrimyRannarr.

Yeah, we’re all working a few things at the moment and it’s been great fun.

Exactly, and so there are a lot of brand new people who are coming up, and they’re not just doing it through dumb luck, they’re doing it because, once you make that decision to put the time, and put the energy and the effort in, if you’re giving it all you’ve got, then you will get something from it.

And if you make the most out of every opportunity you get, you can make it work. I used to think that when I went and went Dreamhack that, ‘wow, this is probably the biggest thing I’ll ever do’, and I loved that and it’s fine, and I was very happy.

But it’s just a matter of seizing every single opportunity with open mind, open arms, you just take everything you can and give it 100% and I think you’d be surprised just how much of an edge that can give you already.

Birmingham to Berlin, Antwerp to Stockholm…

Yeah, yeah, it’s awesome man! It really is. And I’m not trying to make out that I was someone who was all 100% back-breaking, ‘ohh it’s all work, no fun’, like, no, this is really fun. And you very much get to enjoy that as you’re going through it and I’m sure for pro players who are lucky enough to be on the top teams, they feel the same way. You put in all that effort and you start to get the little rewards back.

You’re going to cool places. The first event I went and did abroad I think was that PGL Minor in Bucharest – and it was just one of the coolest things ever. I went out to Romania, like, my god, when would I have gone to Romania if it wasn’t for esports? And I went there, and suddenly I was like, ok, this is really cool, and it only pushed me to want to go further, you know? It’s like it’s Romania today, but who knows, maybe in a few years’ time it’s a Major?

It’s just unreal – there’s never been as many paths for players to get to the top level.

Will you come to Brazil?

Well, I’ve actually been to Brazil. It’s sick. I went to Belo Horizonte for ESL, and, man, Brazilian crowds – they go hard. Even when there’s like 20 of them in the crowd here, they’ll band together and they’ll have one of the loudest sections of the arena.

And I think for UK folks there are so many paths just open in esports as a whole. Not just on a playing level – I think that is on the rise. I think UK talent… just look at a talent announcement, you can count the UK flags, you know, we’re a big part of talent work. And then even when you look behind the scenes, I know so many great UK content creators, UK folks running in production, even on the kind of level of player management, or product management, there are a lot of British people working there.

It’s one of these things that you don’t necessarily realise, you kinda just see the tip of the iceberg as it were. But even once you go behind the camera-facing side, there’s a lot of opportunities for folks from the UK and I think it really is just about seeking them out and fully sending it. And I have a lot of respect for anyone who is willing to take that risk. A lot of people have.

Even looking at old legends from the UK, looking at folks like James Bardolph, like ddk, like, those guys just kind of dropped everything to pursue esports. Now it’s a risk, don’t get me wrong, and I’m not saying everyone should just go ahead and do that but if you get a taste of it and you feel that passion, and you’re willing to take the risk, you’d be surprised how far the determination and drive just to make it happen can get you.

New horizons

To end with, can I hear your thoughts on the new Faceit Gucci Gaming Academy and the Champion of Champions Tour announcements and how you think they’ll impact our scene going forward?

Well I didn’t actually catch the announcement for the Gucci Gaming Academy, but I do know about the Champion of Champions Tour (CCT). That’s the one that that takes place over the next two years, right? Yeah, I mean things like Faceit, like ESEA, it’s all necessary to help continue the growth of the scene. And I think, if anything, NA served as a warning of what can happen if you don’t have properly-established lower-tiers, right?

And I think there’s going to be a real drive over the next few years to put a lot of money and a lot of energy into establishing that because there is a market for it. It is essential to the growth of tier 1 Counter-Strike. Even things like the WePlay Academy League are another example of… that one isn’t so much about growing the tiers in the same way, that’s more about finding promising young stars and growing them in the right environment, creating a perfect breed for Counter-Strike in a way. And look at how successful that’s been already.

You’ve got guys at this major right now who were in those academy teams a year ago…

B1t is a great example.

Exactly, but even more so than that, there’s B1t, there’s drop from Furia, Spirit made it all the way to the semi-finals whilst pitching two academy players, Patsi and S1ren, it’s crazy. Then you look at Mouz: they replaced NBK with jdc.

They literally swapped out a legend of the game for someone from the academy team, to join his old mate from the academy team in Torzsi.

There’s a real focus right now on trying to ensure the longevity and health of the scene and I think, sadly, it took dire circumstances for that penny to fully drop, but now that it has, we’re remedying that.

Now we can hear the arena from here and it sounds incredible, and that’s what B1t will be experiencing in an hour.

pgl antwerp major crowd

Exactly, man! And just imagine how that feels!

I mean, it’s just unreal; there’s never been as many paths for players to get to the top level. I know that’s kind of for the entire world’s benefit, but the UK can very much be a part of that in my eyes, and we definitely should be. We do so much for esports despite being a little, tiny island nation, a little, tribal island nation, and I think it’s about time we set up these ways for young players to grow and come into their own.

And I think university leagues are a big part of that, I think that these squads who have been around for a long time, these organisations like Endpoint who have been here for a long while are key to that, I think the organisers are a big part of that. Even things like how the National Championships are a path into the ESL tournament circuit nowadays, you know?

Like, you have all these chances to where maybe you didn’t before to actually access the top level, and so I really hope that spurs on a new generation of players in the UK.

Thanks to Harry for this extensive interview. You can follow JustHarry on Twitter here

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