By CLAIRE WANG
Sam Hartman-Kenzler, 29, looks more like a nerdy accountant than an Internet celebrity, with thick glasses perched atop an angular nose and gangly arms dangling awkwardly down his 6’2 frame. But still, he couldn’t fool adoring fans at a snow-laden music festival last New Year’s Eve, where a hoard of teens lunged at him for hugs and selfies.
With more than 200,000 Twitter followers, Hartman-Kenzler is one of the most popular commentators of the League of Legends Championship Series, a prestigious yearlong video gaming competition among twenty national teams and broadcasted to millions of fans worldwide.
Digital gaming sales hit a record $61 billion in 2015, and League of Legends—the world’s biggest video game—alone generated $1.6 billion in revenue. Against the backdrop of a still-fragile economy, the video gaming industry is thriving, spearheaded by the one-two punch of the tech explosion and daring millenials like Hartman-Kenzler, who quit a stable engineering job to pursue a lifelong passion.
Over a cup of Spanish latte at Santa Monica’s Urth Caffé, the broadcaster spoke about his bold career transition, the upsides of commentating for a living and the excitement of working in a new, unconventional industry.
You grew up in a family of gamers but that wasn’t your career goal.
Growing up in the Bay, I’ve always enjoyed gaming and played with my father, brother and friends. But my initial focus in school was engineering, and after getting a bachelors degree in industrial engineering at Cal Poly, I worked as a manufacturing engineer at US Pipe and Foundry and SMC Ltd for more than two years.
What made you decide to leave engineering for the video gaming industry?
I’d been keeping taps on League, and once Riot Games (the developer of League) started to invest in the competitive gaming scene, I knew I wanted to get back in. I could not be a player anymore because my ranking had dropped after I quit playing in college, so I started commentating professional games online during the weekends and eventually quit my full-time engineering job to take a part-time contract with Riot down in L.A in 2012. Now it’s become a full-time commitment.
There’s several aspects to your job. What do they entail?
I have been a commentator for the League of Legends Championship Series since its inception three years ago. On weekends, I travel to competitions around the world and commentate the games live, give analysis on teams and post Youtube video segments on competitive League of Legends play on Riot’s channel to help fans understand the strategies pros use. On weekdays, I’m at the Riot headquarters in L.A consulting with League’s operations department on how to run the North American and all the international leagues. So, yes, there are a lot of interactions among departments.
With more than 200,000 Twitters followers, you are one of the most popular League commentators in the world. To what do you contribute your success?
Everything bundled together contributes to your success as a commentator. Every aspect of you as a person ends up coming out in an authentic cast over time. Being a previous pro player definitely helped my credibility starting out and gave me the authority to speak on the subject. Since it has been so long since I played professionally, however, most of the actual in-game insight now comes from conversations with current pros, creating strong relationships with them to keep up to date on the highest level, and for me continuing to play at a high level in Solo Queue (ranked games for skilled players).
What is it like working for Riot, the company that created the world’s most in-demand video game?
I have a lot more freedom than any of my other jobs, and I get to work with all aspects of the broadcast team, from live production and show design to broadcast to game design, player support, and merchandising. We also work with many different international teams and travel, which is awesome because you get to see so many places with free accommodation. It does get tiring, but we get time off because they have to take a big break after the World Championships.
What are some of the places you’ve traveled to, and what’s your favorite?
The favorite place I’ve traveled to with Riot is probably Korea, with Singapore being a pretty close second, due to all the interesting people we met in each country and the events we went to. In total, though, I’ve been to Singapore, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Germany, Belgium, France, England, Canada, and China.
With an engineering degree, have you considered someday joining the tech department at Riot to design new games?
I will probably continue down the broadcasting and production side because I have a lot more freedom. Also, the first two companies I worked for in an industrial engineering position were not the best of experiences for me, as I couldn’t really interact with many people from other departments. I have the technical skills to get into that side of gaming, but my interest lies in hands-on tasks like talking about strategies and interacting with players.
What do you like to do aside from gaming and commentating?
I was on the basketball team in high school and have been playing ever since. I like rock climbing, traveling (vacation travel is very different from work travel because I can do whatever I want, but at least work travel we get maybe a day or two of sightseeing in) and going to music festivals, particularly electronic ones.
Since Riot established the series in 2012, the number of monthly active League of Legends players has grown from 32 to 67 million. How has the broadcasting scene changed with the company and the industry?
There are still relatively few commentators as it is difficult to find people with the right combination of skills and credibility in the community, but initially in 2012, we had four commentators North America and three from Europe. Now, we have six from North America, five from Europe and five from China. So the growth in three years has been pretty dramatic.
Do you see yourself in the gaming industry ten years from now?
It really depends on the way eSports and Riot Games grow, but I do see myself involved in some way still. Competitive gaming is still a relatively new phenomenon, but the growth we are seeing right now in the gaming industry is very exciting.