Mauisnake: "I think there might need to be a step back taken in NA to take several steps forward"
While at the Americas RMR in Bucharest, Romania, Dust2.us' Dafydd Gwynn had the chance to chat with American broadcast talent Alex "Mauisnake" Ellenberg. The two did a deep dive on Mauisnake's journey from being a semi-professional player to becoming a staple member of on-air talent for some of the biggest events in the Counter-Strike circuit, to being the only American talent at his first Major.
Talk about your journey coming up through Counter-Strike in general. What made you fall in love with it?
I started with Counter-Strike: Source back in 2006. I played in a 24/7 Dust2 server for maybe three months and then a season of CAL Open was rolling up, and so people in that clan decided to do it. I played with them for a season, and there was kind of a weird falling out because a couple of the guys that started it were clearly hacking and we all knew this. So, the guys that were all my age, my friends – we made our own team and I competed for maybe a year-and-a-half until early 2008. I made it to CAL Main, I left my friends who were in Intermediate, and I joined a Main team and played a little bit around then and a little bit of CEVO Main. Then basically I moved in 2009-ish to Hawaii, and I stopped playing Counter-Strike competitively because I couldn’t handle high ping. So, from 2009-2015 I did not play any Counter-Strike at all, but I watched it. I started watching around 2014, just a little bit, and there was this university esports club that someone told me I should just get into because at the time I had a laptop, and I was playing a lot of Dota. When I got there, I realized, okay everybody here, even though I was mid-4000 MMR, they were a lot better than me. So, I was like okay, they want to start a Counter-Strike team, I think I can still play that game pretty well. So, I played CS:GO, and after literally years of watching CS:GO look like a trash game, I realized the game was a lot better.
So, I got more and more into it and after college, I kind of had a couple opportunities for jobs and things, because when you go to an Ivy League university and study stats and philosophy, a lot of stuff comes your way. I was kind of thinking I was either going to get into journalism or I was going to get into sports analytics. So, I was looking at jobs for NBA teams and stuff, but I didn’t really like the pay or the places I was going to have to move to. So, I just held off on that, and while I still thinking about what job I would do I just kept pursuing competitive CS:GO. So, 2016, 2017, I grinded up from Open all the way up to Main. I kind of got hard-stuck Main for maybe three-quarters of a year and then I got the offer to join AZIO, which was a Premier team at the time in, if I’m not mistaken, late 2017 and then I played on their team in 2018.
Throughout this whole time from late 2016-2018, I was making some YouTube content because I was just on a demo grind to become a better player, and I just said you know what? I know exactly what is going on throughout every stage of the round when I watch a player, so I’m just going to narrate it and start doing commentary videos. So, around the same time I was progressing as a player I was doing content and then, because of that, I posted it on Reddit and I basically did a POV review of sixteen players who were all the highest-rated players going into I think the 2017 PGL Major and I just made all of this content. Thorin saw it and he contacted me and asked if I wanted to get on a podcast with him, so I said yes. At the same time, I was kind of moving from Main to Premier, I started getting in better touch with Thorin and I was also doing casting on the side, like I was casting ESEA Main, I started casting Premier a little bit here and there, and so I was juggling a lot. I think this is important for anybody that wants to move up in this space, it's that if you aren’t picky about being a player, like, if you just know you want to work in esports, while you’re on this grind to become a better player, you might find something that you like more.
Honest to God, very early on I knew I wasn’t going to be a competitive player because I was kind of starting late in my life. When I started competing I was maybe 22 or 23 and so I’m already starting to approach the point where I can recognize the lifestyle a lot of the people that are pro players have to live and I knew that was a grind that I didn’t know I could be suited for because even keeping up my mechanics, strats, watching demos as much as I was always hitting 70 - 100 hours over the last two weeks kind of numbers, or whatever it was, it was just really hard on me and my mental health. I saw the broadcast side of it and I had already actually done some work in live broadcasts for NBC before at 30 Rock Center, I was working at radio stations and stuff like that. So, I already kind of knew what the broadcast side of things was like and I just through osmosis of working with some of the esteemed anchors and people like Brian Williams, Josh Mankiewicz, people that I got really close with, I knew what it took to be them, and I saw that being a more sustainable lifestyle. So, basically, throughout the whole time I was competing, I had it in the back of my mind that I’m doing this but also I’m getting a leg up if I wanted to pivot to be a broadcast talent, and so that was kind of in a way a super long-term objective for me. I was able to satisfy most concretely in 2019 when I got asked to do EPICENTER, and after 2019 EPICENTER on the analyst desk I was on the analyst desk for the Grand Finals desk. So very early on I got my feet wet and after that, I think I just kind of kept sailing on that path. Flashpoint helped a lot, DreamHacks help a lot, and now I’m getting gig offers from basically every single TO.
Talking about EPICENTER, when was that moment when you looked around and realized, "Shit, I’ve made it"?
Doing that one didn’t feel like I made it because I have a really hard time, like, until something happens, I don’t like to jinx myself thinking about it being there or anything like that. I can safely say now I have made it as a broadcast talent, that I’m getting offers from every major TO at this point, and even smaller TOs that are coming into this space are coming to me early on in their searches for talent. This year I already did WePlay!, FUNSPARK, IEM Katowice, I did BLAST last Fall, and I did PGL now. I have really now spread my net wide and I’ve established myself. I don’t even know if I felt like I made it until maybe mid-to-late 2020. Once I worked the second Flashpoint and I was already getting consistent DreamHack work and the occasional other events here and there, like I think I did a Betway showmatch or something like that. Once I started getting offers from random things that's when I started to realize that people see me as a talent in the space they can hire. On top of that, until the EPICENTER thing and I literally made it to broadcast in Russia I wasn’t going to be like I’m here. I had to be on the broadcast first and then I was like alright this is my job; this is a job now.
Would you say it's that mixture of you being humble in that sense but also not being picky that makes you so employable?
So, already in 2022, this is me being an interviewer/content guy for PGL and it's still, in a way the same hiring process as commentator, host, or analyst. The fact that, in this four-month span, I will have been a host for FUNSPARK, a host for a Relog Media event, a commentator at ESL Pro League, an analyst for IEM Katowice. Most events I get hired as an analyst but now I’m doing interviewer, I’ve basically cornered all four roles and even though I still think I have a lot to improve on all of them, it's safe to say for myself now that I can do all four roles and I’m not afraid of advertising that for TOs in the future. I think that helps a lot.
What would you say the one key element is for people like me or to people who want your role in order for them to become employable?
I think the most important advice I can give to anyone is to learn how to learn, which is just so vague in itself, but also be self-aware enough to recognize your faults every time you mess up and don’t get in your own head. Just be in the moment and just completely have zen but after the fact be able to look back at your mistakes with a critical eye that is actually meaningful, don’t just pat yourself on the back. There is nothing helpful about being masturbatory after you’ve completed something because you could have always done it better.
Before you got the big roles, what was the greatest moment in CS for you when you were just watching?
I think one of the coolest moments when I was at the 2007 Championship Gaming Invitational was when they did that thing in Treasure Island SF and Complexity won back then with fr0d and older 1.6 guys. I think that was one of the coolest moments for me because that's when the whole esports thing was actualized for me. Other than that, a key moment as a fan was the 2018 ELEAGUE Boston Major for pure enjoyment because I remember how crazy all my friends and I were getting and my teammates were in TeamSpeak that day, we were all watching it live, I think that was a beautiful moment. But definitely, CGI is more memorable because it's when I realized this stuff was real.
What is the greatest moment you’ve worked?
That’s tough, I really think in a lot of ways that first EPICENTER grand finals are one of the best moments of my career still. I look back at it actually; I have it on a hard drive but I think the VODs are gone. I look back at it and I thought the analysis I gave after the final map of that one, I think I gave some really good pointers about what just happened and transpired and the importance of that moment, and I am celebratory in the sense that I recognized that and was like that sounded incredibly coherent, I gave real insight into some of the strats and the way the game played out. For me, that was when I think I made a big step up. Not only was I working a tier-one event, I was on the most important game and I delivered something meaningful for the audience to take.
Obviously, you’re getting big as you’ve mentioned, but you still maintain a love for North American Counter-Strike, even while it is in the state it is in. If NA was at the point where they weren’t even getting qualification spots for Majors, would you still have that same love for it?
I think I am always going to want to propel NA CS to reach heights that maybe it could actually become a contender for Europe but right now, in my position, I basically want to just prop up the narratives just a little bit more for North American CS. I’m totally fine with saying that because I think that the journeys these guys go on have so much more adversity at present time than people that are in Europe. Obviously, people in Europe have to compete against better competition more regularly and some people might even look at this RMR and say that the road for Complexity was so easy because the last team they beat was Sao Caetano, but in actuality, the fact that they were able to clearly be head-over-shoulders above the rest of the competition here marks the fact that when they go to Europe or the way they conduct practice is simply better than a lot of NA teams and it also puts down a road map of how other teams should aspire to conduct themselves when they are practicing in NA.
When I talk to T.c. and JT, they really made it clear to me that the practice they get in NA, sure the quality is worse, but a lot of it is also what you make of it. So, if everybody just had that attitude and didn't just goof off in practice- when I was competing in NA sometimes people were late, sometimes my team was late, or even I could have been late, I don’t know, there probably was a moment when I was late and that shouldn't be a standard by any means because when I hear about European practices it doesn't seem like anyone has even remotely close to these problems.
What in NA CS would you say you are most excited about?
I am most excited for floppy. I think he is a top 20 player right now, in the world. I think he is probably in the 19-22 range, but he is right there. I think as a player he's probably going to be one of the best riflers in the world.
When you look back 20 years from now - what is your legacy going to be?
In 20 years, I probably will pivot to something different. Esports is so fickle. It's just such a fickle beast so I’ll put it like this; in five years if people just see me as one of the staples of CS broadcasts at a really good time, when post-pandemic if people see me as one of the staples and as one of those people whenever they tune in, whatever role I’m doing, if I’m there to provide entertainment and insight, and they really believe that; there's a difference between being a consistent face on broadcast and being a consistent aid to making the broadcast better. I think there is a clear distinction there and I want to be in the latter half.
Is there anything else you would like to say?
In some ways, in the near future, I think there might need to be a step back taken in NA to take several steps forward, and I think people will know what that is when it happens.
After his most recent stint as a live interviewer at the various PGL RMRs, Mauisnake will soon be undertaking his biggest event as a broadcast talent so far, having received the call up to work as an analyst for the PGL Antwerp Major. The PGL Antwerp Major is now less than two weeks away, with the Challengers Stage slated to start on May 9th.