These are exciting times for Kaci Aitchison. In the past year, she learned how to be a firefighter, dressed up as Mary Poppins and visited the set of the Village Theatre; she started-off a campaign to bring some kindness into those stressful Seattle commutes; she reported on numerous sporting events, grabbed some sticks and tried out for the Seahawks Blue Thunder Drumline, and gave a voice to cancer survivors, righteous artists, athletes, and teachers. She even learned how to brush a seal’s teeth. It’s been one thrill after another. Now, Kaci is coming back to host The International backstage interviews and behind-the-scenes coverage, for the third time.
UPDATE (August 13th):
TI6 final standings, updates and highlights – HERE
Kaci Aitchison has two audiences. One consists of the Q13 FOX News “This Morning” viewers, who tune in at the break of dawn to watch her features. As Amarae Jones, one of the viewers, puts it – “If it wasn’t for Kaci cracking me up every morning, bright and early, I don’t know what I would do. She is completely awesome!”
Her other audience – which barely intersects with the first one – is made up of Dota 2 enthusiasts.
Kaci’s first appearance, at The International 3, was met with reluctance. But from the first day, the odd one out had already won everyone over.
Warm, funny, and frank, Kaci is not afraid to do what she needs to in order to be in the moment; she trusts her instincts and flares up with whatever feelings come up. She exudes joy and enthusiasm and made a creed out of “celebrating teams and sharing their story with their fans”. She’s genuinely interested in what players have to say. And that shows.
She’s not afraid to kick off her shoes, tie her hair in a scrunchie, tuck one foot underneath her on her chair and patiently complete those first two Dota 2 tutorials over and over again – while diligently taking notes and keeping her fans posted via Twitter.
Now, on the brink of The International 5 and three years from her first plunge into the Dota 2 scene, Kaci Aitchison has won over a parallel notoriety, as an unlikely esports enforcer. Don’t let her ever-present smile fool you. Kaci Aitchison takes her work extremely seriously and wants to live up to the perception of being “the gateway from the real world to the Dota world”.
DotaBlast talked to Kaci about her work for The International 5, her views on competitive gaming, and her dreams of bringing Dota 2 closer to the mainstream audience. In a charmingly self-deprecating manner, Kaci confessed she’s “dumb as a rock at playing Dota”, opened up about her singing passion and even jumped in on a “conducted story” improv game.
DotaBlast: Kaci, you’ve come into the scene only three years ago, with no background whatsoever, and have immediately become Dota’s sweetheart. How does that make you feel?
Kaci Aitchison: I am enormously flattered, and I know there are a lot of people who don’t like me, but I try to focus on the fact that so many people in the community have supported my learning of the game and have welcomed me with open arms. It also feels daunting – I feel an even bigger responsibility to the community, to represent them by giving them a platform during the tournament to share their enthusiasm, their stories, and to connect with the pros. I put a lot of pressure on myself to do that and to do it better every year.
DotaBlast: Have you kept an eye on the scene in the past year? What do you think about the teams that got direct invites for The International 5?
Kaci Aitchison: I didn’t. I should have checked in with it periodically over the months but, to be honest, there are always so many changes, it ends up turning me around, so I usually wait until we’re a month or two out to touch base and see what the landscape is. Of all people, I am the last person who should have an opinion about who should or should not be getting invites; I am a reporter and my job is to elevate the teams that DO proceed to The International, by celebrating them and sharing their story with their fans. I think any team that earns their way in deserves to be there.
DotaBlast: You always seem very well prepared going into the interviews. Could you walk us through your research process? How much time do you take to bone up on the topic?
Kaci Aitchison: I do interviews every day in my current job, and my philosophy for those interviews – be it with the Mayor, a celebrity, a local business owner, or kids at a street fair – is the same as it is for interviews at The International: make someone feel comfortable and supported, so that they can be their best versions of themselves with you. My goal is to read up as much as I can about that team (and as much as I can understand – often times my prep includes going to Valve and others to get clarification on the significance of something) so that I can ask the right questions.
I’ve spent the last couple of weeks working with Valve on learning who is coming, who has changed teams since I saw them last (and oh my gosh, they’ve all changed teams, it’s been a year of musical chairs, it seems like) and the types of things the community is most excited about hearing. So, I’ve already started by reading up on the teams on all the websites I can find, and then combining what I see there with background Valve has shared with me. But then the day before, I’ll jot down an outline of other things we can talk about – I’m really interested in learning more about the players as people, and I think that’s what I bring to my work.
My job is to do my best to make them feel comfortable with me, even if I only have 30 seconds to do so, so that we can chat like colleagues and it feels like less of an on-the-spot interview. Fans definitely want to know about the gaming side, the skills, the strategy, and I enjoy asking about that, but I also want to know what makes these guys tick – how do they prepare, who are their biggest supporters at home, what does it really feel like to go up against a former teammate – really connecting them to the audience by helping them share things on a personal level that maybe we all don’t know as well. Anyone can look up their stats if they’re curious about those – I’m more excited about learning the other stuff and connecting everyone together. That, and interviewing the fans, which is always my favorite part, because of the energy and the fact that it shows how Dota 2 connects people all over the world.
DotaBlast: You always try to get players to crack up a smile during the interviews. What was the most difficult interaction you had during TI3 and TI4?
Kaci Aitchison: Oh, no. I can’t remember! iceiceice was tough, but not because I couldn’t get him to smile – because he’s a smart dude and I realized he probably thought I was some outsider who didn’t really care. It was a nice challenge to try to get to know him a bit and show him (I hope) that while I am an outsider, I’m really excited to share their stories and I just love talking to all of them. Even with the players who absolutely would NOT smile (and I can’t think of anyone specific but I remember several instances), there is certainly always a moment where I feel super embarrassed and worried that I’ve offended them, or I’m not saying the right thing.
But I’ve learned to let those moments breathe – oftentimes, interviewers are afraid of silence, and you shouldn’t be. Sometimes (not always), if you aren’t getting someone to smile and open up, you should just shut your mouth a second longer and see if they just need a moment to add on to what they’re saying. I’ve learned that the hard way and look, sometimes you have a timeline you have to stick to and there’s just no time for silence, so I get that, but give them an extra beat and see if they won’t keep talking.
Kaci Aitchison: I do remember a particularly bad joke I told, something to do with team Orange, and the player Banana – I actually think I had our translator translate something like “orange you glad your name is banana?” Just horrible on my part, but Banana cracked a smile and it totally made my day, because I want people to see that side of the players, and it’s my job to try and make them comfortable enough that they just might go there.
It’s not just a game: for many players it’s a way of life, a way forward, a way to establish a future. That is the biggest part that I like to convey to mainstream viewers.
DotaBlast: With every TI you cover, you become more of an insider. You have plenty of journalism experience and you certainly know how to give people a voice. If you were to do a Dota 2 special for Q13 FOX News, how would you explain the phenomenon to people who are unfamiliar with it? Whom would you focus on as the protagonist, and why?
Kaci Aitchison: I haven’t done a full-on special, but I have done a story on it each year for our Q13 FOX viewers, and it’s gone over really well. Last year, I put together (along with Walker Anderson, one of our awesome photographer/editors) a piece showcasing the excitement and the game itself. Then, to introduce it, I explained how many people around the world watched this event, played this game. I don’t think I can underscore this enough, people are shocked when I tell them. I love watching that surprise – when I say millions are watching, millions of dollars are up for grabs – they’re shocked! And then, because I don’t play the game, I can explain it in a way I know they’ll understand: I liken the draft to that of football, I talk about the teamwork that goes into the strategy; the communication and fast thinking that’s required to make decisions in-game; the excitement that centers around the fact that there are thousands of different ways a game can go at EACH MOMENT. I mean, that is incredible! I’m still amazed by it.
Kaci Aitchison: I hate hate HATE that I can’t quite grasp it – it is so amazing how people can play for years and still find something new one day, when they’re watching or playing. I like your question about who would be the protagonist, because that’s a tough one, and I’ve thought about it a lot. I mean, anyone who has seen Free to Play would understand why Dendi is a good protagonist; people who don’t play can suddenly understand why this game means so much to so many. It’s not just a “game”: for many players it’s a way of life, a way forward, a way to establish a future. That is the biggest part that I like to convey to “mainstream” viewers.
I think there’s a huge opportunity to change the way we talk about the game to the mainstream audience, to really get people excited about it. My concern is that the pros and other Dota gamers would feel offended, like we had to ‘dumb it down’, but it’s really important to recognize how amazingly complicated this game is, and how damn smart everyone who plays it truly is.
DotaBlast: Last year, you said you were sure that The International will get more mainstream media attention in 2015. Do you still think that’s going to happen?
Kaci Aitchison: My hope is yes, but it’s so hard to say. Here is what I think needs to happen, and I’ll borrow from what I was going to write for the above question and apply it to markets all over the country:
Football is a great example. In Seattle, for instance, and around the Northwest, people are huge Seahawks fans. Not everyone completely understands ALL the rules of football, and most of us don’t really play it (aside from tossing a football around). But we still love watching because of the energy and the camaraderie – it really brings our region together, because no matter how different we all are, we get together to root for the same team. And it’s just fun to watch with your friends.
Dota 2, and The International in particular, is really a lot like that. I think people feel like if they don’t “get” the game, or aren’t really into playing it for themselves, that it means they won’t enjoy watching other people play it. And that’s simply not true. I keep trying to play it and it goes against every instinct I have – my brain is not meant to be a Dota 2 playing brain. But I find watching other people play it super exciting, so that makes me feel invested in the players and the community. I really think if we made people understand this, there would be an even bigger audience. Think about it – if you start by saying to someone, “Hey, there’s this really cool gaming community surrounding Dota 2. You should try playing it – it takes hours and hours just to learn enough to start playing, and then really you suck for a long time, and it takes years to come close to mastering. But it’s super fun.” That is not the best pitch to someone who isn’t familiar. It just isn’t. If instead we were saying, “Hey, there’s this really cool gaming community surrounding Dota 2. It’s this amazing game that takes two teams of five to play, there’s a ton of strategy and communication involved, and they draft heroes just like any other sporting draft, and it’s the kind of thing you can play casually if you want, but the pros are amazing at it and there are millions of dollars at stake” – I think people would be more motivated to check it out.
Kaci Aitchison: Something I have always wanted to do is find a way to be that voice in the time BETWEEN Internationals, but I haven’t thought it through enough to know where I might start with that. I’d be happy to be the one to pick up the ball and run with it, though, because I’m the classic example of not playing it, but really enjoying watching and experiencing it. When people who are Dota experts try to explain it to those of us who aren’t, I don’t think they remember just how little we know, so the explanation needs to start with, like, “first you log in, and here are the buttons you use on your computer and mouse” instead of overwhelming us with “there are over a hundred heroes, and you need to defend your tower, but you have four different abilities per hero, and you have to level up for certain skill points, and THEN you can buy stuff from the store.” I mean, it just all sounds so confusing to someone who’s never watched a game! I think there’s a huge opportunity to change the way we talk about the game to the mainstream audience, to really get people excited about it. My concern is that the pros and other Dota gamers would feel offended, like we had to “dumb it down” but it’s really important to recognize how amazingly complicated this game is, and how damn smart everyone who plays it truly is.
DotaBlast: What do you think is the biggest misconception about competitive gaming?
Kaci Aitchison: People mistakenly think that it’s NOT competitive, or that it’s not challenging. I swear to you, people hear “gaming” and they still think of people sitting on their couches not speaking to each other, playing Grand Theft Auto or whatever. That’s great and all, but competitive gaming in the way I’ve learned about it in the last three years is more about team work and strategy and straight-up stamina than anything else, and people need to understand that.
DotaBlast: We know you’ve toyed with the idea of learning how to play Dota. How’s that going? Have you gotten past the two tutorials?
Kaci Aitchison: It’s going terribly, thank you for asking. I just re-did the first two tutorials FOR THE THIRD TIME, and finally made it to the third part, where I was promptly defeated by a falling tower. RUDE. My problem is, I have enough time to do it in pieces, but never enough of it at once, so that I can truly absorb it all. I will set aside a few hours on a weekend, then I’ll have a few months go by where I have extra work pop up, trips, etc. – and by the time I make time to come back to it, I’ve forgotten everything. I just really want to be clear with everyone in saying I am dumb as a rock at playing Dota. AND THAT MAKES ME SO ANGRY. I’m a person who learns things quickly, and when I don’t, I can usually at least see a clear path to figuring things out. Neither of those is true here. I get so turned around and frustrated with myself! And then I get mad at myself and worried that people don’t understand this: I don’t play it but I so, so love watching others play it. I still work to learn more about it as often as possible, and during the International, I am bugging everyone around me with questions so I can learn more. People will sometimes say “Hey, so are you playing regularly yet?” and it’s just like the football analogy I made earlier – I don’t play football, but I love watching people who are GOOD AT IT play.
DotaBlast: Apart from your passion for the Seahawks and Dota 2, you’re also a cat lover. Which Dota hero does your cat, Saffron, resemble?
Kaci Aitchison: A cross between Tusk and Brewmaster. Tusk more for looks, and Brewmaster more for personality. Not that my cat is drunk, but he has a way with his friends and enemies alike.
DotaBlast: If you were to cosplay a Dota hero, which would it be?
Kaci Aitchison: Timbersaw. I much prefer a “funny” approach to cosplay than “sexy”. Holy crap, I should try to do that, shouldn’t I?
DotaBlast: You most definitely should, Kaci! Speaking of things the Dota community would appreciate seeing – most people are well aware of your rap passion. However, some of them might not know you actually have an extraordinary voice and you used to be one of the lead singers for a classic rock band called Spike and the Impalers. We’ve listened to your “Paradise City” and “Black Dog” covers – top-notch renditions, amazing stage presence! What’s the story behind that?
Kaci Aitchison: You are too sweet – I have always been a ham and love performing. Many years ago, I did karaoke for the first time and did Lady Marmalade (the Christina Aguilera version, don’t judge!) and sang all four parts. I didn’t think anything of it, but it got a huge response, so I kind of just kept doing it. In the meantime, the radio show I was on back in 2005-2009-ish was a morning show on a classic rock station, and they formed a band with one of the members (Spike O’Neill, who is an amazing singer who can sound like almost any classic rock dude) and some professional local musicians. I told them I wanted to sing and they didn’t believe I could, so I recorded myself doing karaoke of Lady Marmalade (after some tequila, I might add) and they let me join! I sang Lady Marmalade at my own wedding, by the way. I literally have no shame.
Kaci performing Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” with Spike and the Impalers, at the Snoqualmie Casino, in Seattle
DotaBlast: In the end, let’s play some sort of a “conducted story” game, since we know you were an improviser for 7 years. Story title – “Kaci and Puppey, sleepless in Seattle”; Genre – “Action”; GO!
Kaci Aitchison: Once upon a time, there were two cats named Puppey and Kaci. Every day, these cats would fight off the giant rats of Seattle’s Green Lake park. It was especially tough in the trees – which had more of a jungle feel to them, really. To make matters worse, these tiny rats would come charging out seemingly every few minutes – creepy, right?
One day, they came upon a particularly giant, feisty rat who just would NOT DIE. I mean, seriously. Because of this, the cats got a little scared and decided they needed to find something to protect them with. Puppey immediately found a pile of random nukes sitting on the ground and grabbed those. Kaci noticed a giant saw and grabbed that, because she wasn’t the smartest jungle cat and figured a saw might help nukes and lasers. Puppey Cat and Kaci Cat attacked the giant rat, full force, and all the little creepy rats that came after them every few minutes.
Finally, the rat tumbled, and a very sweet English voice came down from the heavens to say “The Rat’s bottom tower has fallen!” Puppey Cat and Kaci Cat rejoiced. They were exhausted from fighting, but could see another giant rat in the distance. Puppey Cat looked at Kaci Cat and said “No offense, but you kind of weighed me down back there, so I’ll go finish clearing the jungle of all these creepy rats, and you can stay here and interview me about it when I get back.”
And ever since that day, Kaci Cat has stayed behind to interview the Cats, instead of trying to Michael her way out into the jungle with them.
Featured Image: Jerry and Lois Photography