It's 8 p.m. on Thursday, June 16, and it just so happens that it's a special day for Will "Chobra" Cho. As he takes the time to reflect on the past few years of what he's done in esports, he realizes the day marks his one-year anniversary at ESL.
Much has happened since his latest job switch, a role he stepped into after being an on-camera host, caster and translator for the South Korean broadcaster OnGameNet. As Creative Producer (since the interview, Chobra has been promoted to Senior Producer)at ESL, Chobra's job is to help visualize and bring to life an artistic vision for esports tournament broadcasts. He's well qualified for it; his resume includes some of the biggest events in the industry for games like StarCraft II and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.
It shouldn't come as a surprise that Chobra's career took him to a creative position at ESL. After all, he honed his skills at one of the earliest premier stages of esports all the way in South Korea. He's been immersed in both American and South Korean influences, offering him a lens into both cultures. And he's turned that duality into his advantage.
Life here, and life there
Chobra spent the first few years of his life in the United States. He was born in Akron, Ohio, and spent some time in California before his father was offered a job in South Korea. Chobra was four years old, and the whole packed up and moved across the Pacific. Though immersed in a Korean language environment at school during some of his most formative years, he credits his mother for encouraging him to continue his English. "My mom taught English [in South Korea] at the time. She tutored English," he recounts. "She would make sure I read books in English, watch movies, like Disney movies, without the subtitles and just keep that up."
All of that would prove to have another purpose, as his mother always had the intention of bringing Chobra and his older sister back to the United States. It wasn't until age 11 that he returned stateside.
Until that point, Chobra was attending primary school in South Korea, which he recounts with much amusement. While his sister was always a good student, he remarks that he wasn't, at least in his sister's eyes.
"My sister was, you know, all about [the Korean educational culture]. Super cutthroat, making sure she always had to get like first or second place," he laughs. It wasn't so much that young Chobra was bad at schoolwork, but rather that his interests lay elsewhere.
The violin was one of those passions; it played a large role throughout a number of Chobra's school years. He took up the instrument in the second grade and continued playing all the way until the last year of high school.
"The violin was at the center of my life," Chobra comments. His sister had started playing the cello when he was in the first grade, which became the driving force for him to pester his mother for an instrument of his own. "She told me, 'Hey, let's hold off, your sister just started. Let's see how that goes, and if after a year you still tell me you want to play it, then you can join in too.'" He had always wanted to learn, and didn't let that delay deter him. Almost exactly one year after that talk with his mom, he asked her again and picked up the violin.
That started a foray into a world of summer music camps, competitions and the development of an ambition: to become a solo violinist. Chobra dedicated a lot of time to the instrument and kept up "just good enough grades" as a backup plan, as he puts it. It was a goal that drove him, but it slowly began to lose its appeal. For one thing, Chobra's father wasn't such a big fan of his solo violinist dreams.
"My dad didn't really support it as a career," he says. Along with the pressure to have a backup plan due to his father's disapproval, Chobra discusses another reason why he chose to give up his violinist dreams. "No matter what you do, if you want to take it as a job, there's going to be politics and bureaucracy that you kind of have to adhere to, to get around. And that was another thing I didn't think I wanted to compromise on."
College, MLG and OGN
Armed with those self-proclaimed not-top-of-the-line grades, Chobra began attending Columbia University. "I switched my major from freshman through sophomore year about seven times," he laughs. After taking Computer Science for about a year and a half, and then finally deciding on a Political Science major, he continued on until the midterm season of his last Spring Semester at the university. That was when Chobra took the leave of absence that would change everything.
He's talked about the leave a few times in video interviews and the variety of reasons that motivated it. But it was during this time in 2012 that he took the leap to immerse himself in competitive gaming broadcasts, having experienced some of the South Korean esports broadcasts in person when he was young.
"I had always been interested in any form of broadcasting," he explains. "I saw that esports broadcasting was starting to take off once again in America." Having found something that combined things that he enjoyed, Chobra was intrigued. "I figured, all right, I took time off, this is something that joins a hobby and very big interest of mine, let's give it a shot."
There are many accounts of this "whirlwind romance" with esports. They all start something like this: during the summer of 2012, Chobra, on leave from school, goes to New York, comes across the Major League Gaming studios, and is able to bump elbows with the likes of team Azubu Blaze, esports journalist Rod "Slasher" Breslau, MLG staff, and caster Christopher "MonteCristo" Mykles (at the time representing the now-defunct League of Legends site GGChronicle). Chobra ended up being offered two opportunities at the studios: translating for MLG at future events and writing for MonteCristo's GGChronicle. "I signed on for both," he says.
Soon afterward, when MonteCristo accepted a commentator position in South Korea, Chobra took over for casting League of Legends in the weekly MLG League Championship Series qualifiers.
Working with MonteCristo as a contributor, Chobra built up the relationship that would net him the next jump in his career. OGN had been looking for potential hires, and MonteCristo, working with said broadcasting company at the time, recommended him to them, as he had experience in both translating and casting.
"I straight up didn't know what to do, especially with the OGN offer," Chobra says. "I had this sudden fear: what if I'm taking too many risks at once?" With the new year rapidly approaching, Chobra finally decided to take the plunge and moved to South Korea, having accepted a job offer with OnGameNet to help with their global operations efforts. "I kind of wore many hats," he chuckles. "I did all the menial things from moderating the chat at the time, all the way to translating the interviews live for [League Champions Korea]."
When asked how he kept up his Korean, Chobra replies that by going to school in South Korea, he naturally was able to balance both languages. Plus, he had always conversed with the older family members and friends surrounding him. He laughs that whenever his family would have a gathering, it would be up to him to communicate with the older generation for his sister and his cousins. "My cousins couldn't speak Korean. And my sister was shy, so any communication between the kids and the adults would be done through me."
It came in handy when he began to work in South Korea; OGN colleagues would comment favorably on his fluency. Since a majority of his Korean was kept up through watching Korean shows and by talking to adults, his awareness of proper vocabulary surprised the people he worked with. "If anything, I had trouble learning slang when I moved back to South Korea," Chobra says.
About a year into his role at OGN, many of the hats that he had worn fell away, and he focused more on casting and on-camera duties. This meant that the numerous small things he had been involved with in the early days of the global team were lifted off his shoulders. Though at times the work was difficult and the hours long, the memories of staying overnight at the office are ones he remembers fondly. It was also a place where he learned and experienced many things. But in the end, he wanted to experience something more.
"I wanted to be more of a presenter than like an analyst or just game play-by-play," he says. "My goal was, hey, make the broadcast as a whole." He set his sights beyond the job he cut his teeth on. "I always knew eventually I was going look for a job back in the West," he says.
Go west, young man
So, when the offer came from ESL for Chobra to join as talent and broadcast personnel, he accepted. He decided that he wanted to be more than just a host for the span of his career, and the Creative Producer aspect of his job title would help him sink his teeth into learning more of the production work behind it all.
In a statement on his tumblr, Chobra said: "My visions and OGN's visions for me didn't line up at the end of the road, and I've always enjoyed working with ESL and watching ESL productions. I'm very excited to join and be a part of that, and I hope that you continue to have faith in the fact that I'm here to make esports more fun for us all. I want to enjoy it, and I want you to enjoy it with me."
In the ESL role, Chobra focused on creating "firsts." He explains that, due to his experience in the South Korean esports scene, he was well-equipped to pave the road for something new. Plus, he saw that the producers and directors of these events were constantly trying new things and pushing the envelope, something that he really wanted to do. "I felt that I had the advantage of being able to really take in both Korean and American culture, both inside and outside of esports," Chobra states. "I wanted to use that advantage to try to further new ideas in esports broadcasting."
Though he was always interested in Dota 2 and StarCraft, he did not pursue working in these games from the get-go. The reasoning behind it, Chobra explains, was that the community was hard to break into as someone starting out. By joining ESL, opportunities in these other games opened up naturally, something that seemed to be a definite plus.
"The criticism that probably hurts me the most is when people tell me that they think I'm fake," Chobra says. "A lot of times it happens in my first or second time for a new game." He comments that it probably stemmed from his initial inability to understand all the inside jokes casters would make. "It's very easy for them to believe that you're just doing that because you have to," he remarks. "But at the same time, to me, it's like I wouldn't have accepted this event even though it's internally at ESL if I didn't think I could legitimately enjoy it."
Despite the negative comments that he gets, his goal is always to let his sincerity shine through. "[I] just [want to] let them know that I'm super excited to be here. I'm going to draw that emotion out of the crowd and the people I'm interviewing, and that's my goal," he says.
Chobra has invested a great deal of effort into improving his work. Criticisms of his Korean pronunciation have been posted on various Korean community forums and poked fun at the fact that his Korean, touched with a "rolling" American accent, sounded funny to native ears. Despite the reassurances of the respected veteran broadcasters working alongside him, he took those comments to heart, and they spurring him to try and improve for the next time. It's won him a lot of fans, Western and Korean alike.
When asked about how he feels about the nickname "Godbra" that Korean fans have endearingly bestowed upon him, Chobra laughs, "One, It's an honor. More than anything, I'm just very thankful, I guess?"
Producing and following ambitious dreams of furthering esports broadcasting aside, Chobra mentions that translating will always be a big core to who he is as a figure in esports. He comments that his style is more interpretation than word-for-word translation and stresses that it is better to take that risk in order to portray the entire picture. Relaying the essence of what's being said is ultimately better than a literal translation. The only exception? "When I don't really know the player very well," he says.
Chobra has used his position at the intersection of two cultures to understand what esports fans of each side like - and want - from their esports experiences. Ultimately, there are many similarities. But it's knowing what the differences are, and being able to cater to them effectively, that's helped him craft his space at the forefront of bridging these two scenes.
As a Korean-American, a child of two cultures, it isn't easy to fit into the boxes of what is "Korean" and what's "American." But Chobra has come to terms with being both. "Sometimes I'm more Korean about some things and sometimes I'm more American, and that's okay," he comments. "You know, I'm both. I'm Korean-American; that's fine."
Since he's built his career on being able to wield that duality, traversing both cultures is what lies at the very core, even as other passions and interests also fuel him. "I've gotten to where I am because of who I am, and I really want to stay true to that," he says. At the helm of it all, however, is one firm belief that Chobra is adamant about: being the interface between South Korea and the West. "I want to represent the people and this culture [of South Korea]," he declares.