It takes pure talent and sheer determination to reach the apex of two of the world's biggest Esports communities in different roles.
However, renowned global Esports personality, Isaac “Azael” Cummings Bentley, made it look like one of the easiest things to pull off in his 13-year career.
In an exclusive interview with Sportskeeda Esports’ Sayantan Chowdhury, Riot Games' caster and former World of Warcraft pro, Azael, opened up about the current LCS scene and shared his inspiring story of becoming a successful Esports professional.
The following is an excerpt of the conversation.
Q. From being a professional World of Warcraft player to a veteran League of Legends analyst/caster, you have grown up with the sport. So how did you get into Esports? Did you get enough support from your family and friends when starting?
Azael: Esports has been a lifelong passion of mine, and I was introduced to it early on by watching Starcraft Brood War when I was very young. The idea of competitive gaming seemed extremely exciting to me, as my brother and I would spend hours thinking about strategies to use in our favorite games.
We always wanted to be the best among our friend group. I had a passion for gaming but never intentionally pursued a career in Esports. It was just something that came naturally to me when I began playing a lot of WoW.
I had played several games to quite a high level between Starcraft BW, CS, and others, but always just for fun.
When I began playing a ton of WoW and getting into the PvP scene, it was just for fun and satisfied my competitive nature. But as I consistently reached the top of ladders, I realized that I could compete at higher levels as well.
In the earliest days of WoW PvP, Blizzard didn’t allow Canadians to compete. Unfortunately for me, in the early days, despite winning many qualifiers and placing at the top of the ladder, I would find out I hadn’t been invited to the main event with no explanations given.
Blizzard did not organize tournaments such as WSVG at that time. Other events were invite-only. Although I would watch them, I knew that I could compete, but I was never given a chance.
The top team in the early days was a team called Pandemic. I ended up transferring to their server to play against the team that was considered the best at the time.
I was able to quickly pass them on the ladder and take rank one in all three brackets. This led to some sponsorship offers from teams that had invites to WSVG. Unfortunately, WSVG was canceled before I ever got a chance to attend, but not too long after MLG announced their own events, which were open sign-up.
I was eventually able to find another sponsor who said they’d send us to the event. But they scammed us and never had tickets for us to attend. Thankfully, my parents scraped together the money for me to fly to the event.
My teammates were able to fly by themselves as well. It was all last-minute because my parents knew how badly I wanted to go and how much I had worked for it.
We ended up winning the entire tournament over all the more well-known and much-favored teams. As a result, I was offered a sponsorship by Evil Geniuses, which I immediately accepted.
Friends and family were hesitant early on. My parents were pushing me to stop gaming until they saw the positives that were coming from it. I was able to travel the world and earn money while loving what I was doing. That convinced them.
Later, they became extremely supportive and did their best to learn about the game to watch and cheer me on.
Q. Any particular reason that drew you to the LCS over the other pro leagues? How is North America different from the other regions in terms of playstyle and champion priority?
Azael: When the LCS launched, I was jealous of the prize pool, and production value Riot Games was putting into League of Legends. I would watch LCS and Worlds every year and think that this is how Blizzard should be doing it.
Blizzard never put the same priority or emphasis on their Esports ecosystem. As a result, they saw a steep decline in many of the competitive scenes for their games. When I stopped professionally playing with Blizzard, LCS seemed like a natural step in the right direction.
Things change year to year. But the top LCS teams have often been scaling. When you look at TSM/TL and all the titles they’ve won, it pushed many teams to imitate the winning style. As a result, I think it made teams less aggressive or innovative than LPL, for example.
I think this trend has been changing a bit in a positive direction, thanks in part to the influence of Cloud9 dominating last year in spring by playing a super aggro style. I hope to see more flexibility and aggression from our teams going forward.
Q. Now, with Perkz joining C9, Alphari putting up a clinic with Team Liquid, some of the LCS rosters have looked stronger than ever. What do you feel are the chances that North America makes it out of the group stages and does big in Worlds this time?
Azael: I think that both TL and Cloud9 undeniably have the talent required to succeed internationally. A strong showing at Worlds is definitely possible. That being said, the competition is only getting tougher every year.
With four seeds from the top region, it makes every group that much more competitive. The teams have to play at the top of their game and be quick to adapt to the Worlds meta, or they’ll be left behind, as we’ve seen happen in the past.
Q. The LCS import rule has long been a concerning topic of discussion among the coaches, players, and fans. Can you provide your own personal inputs and opinions on the matter?
Azael: I’ve talked about it extensively on The Dive and elsewhere. But my general opinion is that there’s nothing inherently wrong with imports. Growing up supporting a team like the Toronto Raptors, I saw them as Canada’s team, even if they would be lucky to have one Canadian roster.
That being said, for the LCS, I think the important thing is for fans to connect with the players. For our amateur scene to be healthy and growing, you can’t rely purely on imports or you’ll just end up with other region's leftovers and be a weaker version of those regions.
I also don’t want a world where teams can import full rosters. Fans and the league have no connection developed with those players.
We have the ability for players to become residents, and if they spend time here, and are committed to the league, then they can earn their resident status, which exempts them from being in the same bucket as other imports.
Besides that, I wouldn’t want to see teams get additional imports as we already have every team's ability get two. Our league is largely dominated by import players already.
Q. Talking about Gwen, the latest champion addition in League, what is your overall impression of her? Can we expect to see the potent top laner anytime soon in competitive play?
Azael: I’ve only watched the early preview stuff for Gwen, but she definitely seems interesting. The idea of a squishy AP fighter designed to attack the frontline instead of dive backline is a big departure from what we’ve had in the League. As a result, it’s hard to predict how successful she’ll be without getting to spend some time playing or watching her once released.
Because of how niche her role sounds, I would only expect her to only make it into pro play if she’s very OP.
Q. 'Azael', your gaming nick literally stands for God's Creation. Was it a random pick, or do I sense an interesting story here?
Azael: No, this is an interesting story. I always struggled to pick names for characters I created in games, so I sat at the character creation screen in WoW and spammed random name generators until I saw one I liked.
The first name was Azazael, which I later shortened to Azael after transferring to a different server. But someone had stolen my name.
I’ve heard that Azazael refers to a demonic or evil spirit, which was interesting since I played a Warlock in WoW who controls demons.
Q. You had an amazing career with World of Warcraft. Did Necrolord Azael come to you as a surprise from the WoW franchise? How did you feel about it?
Azael: It absolutely came as a surprise to me. I had never really thought much about it but then heard a rumor that some famous players might be getting NPCs. But I didn’t want to get my hopes up too much. When I heard my character was being immortalized in the game, it was an amazing feeling.
WoW will always be the most important game in my life, as it completely shaped my future and got me into Esports. It’s how I met many of my best friends and developed my career.
It was simply an incredible feeling to be included. The death quote for my character blaming my arena partner (Cdew) for dying was hilarious. “Chuck, where were you!?”
Q. You debuted your casting career with StarCraft II and eventually established yourself as a League of Legends analyst. Do you have some different thoughts for the future? Can we expect to see you someday with the Valorant casting team when the game grows bigger?
Azael: I first started casting in WoW. I was competing in and casting tournaments at the time. Even the top-level players back then really didn’t make much money. So the fact that I was able to get paid for casting the matches I wasn’t playing, and at the same time competing for the prize pool, was a huge win for me.
You never know what the future will hold for you, and this is especially true in Esports. I started with WoW and never really had plans to leave it, but I ended up casting WoW, SC2, Hearthstone, League, and others.
I have no plans to leave LCS, but I also know that in reality, sometimes the choice is taken from your hands. In that case, I think my experience across many different games will help set me up for whatever I cast next.
Q. What inspired you to go into Esports and take up casting specifically? Any advice you would like to give to aspiring casters looking to make it to the Esports scene?
Azael: I first started casting to attend an event I hadn’t qualified for and found that I really enjoyed it. The fans enjoyed it too. From there, it just became a passion. As opportunities popped up across various titles and tournaments, I followed it naturally from one to the next.
At this point, I’ve been casting for over a decade, which seems crazy to realize.
My advice to aspiring casters and pros is to avoid pursuing a career in Esports because of the end goal. Pursue it because it’s what you love.
This may sound cliche, but I think if you set out with your benchmark for success to become a top pro or caster, then you’re almost guaranteed to fail.
It’s like a kid picking up a basketball for the first time and planning their whole life around making it to the NBA. The chances of that happening are extremely slim.
If you are only doing it for some perceived notion of success and not for your love of what you’re doing, then you’re sure to burn out long before you reach your goal.
If you want to cast, start casting right now. Cast your friends' games, replays of pro games, compare your VODs to those you respect in the industry. Constantly go into every day with specific things you want to improve on.
You can’t wait around in this industry, so you have to be a self-starter and work diligently to get better day by day. If you love the process and end up being amazing at it then that’s the dream outcome.
Even if you never made a career out of it, but enjoyed the time you spent casting, then that’s a win in my books.
Q. Though the Indian Esports scene is still in its infancy, it’s still had a tremendous boom with the COVID-19 lockdown and the arrival of Valorant. How do you feel about its future? Do you have some plans to visit India when the travel restrictions are lifted?
Azael: Esports is a global phenomenon and isn’t going away anytime soon. It will only grow in the coming years. Any game that’s able to become popular and capture India's passion will be massively successful.
There are so many young people in India who I’m certain will fall in love with Esports as they are exposed to it.
It’s just such a fun space and feels so much more accessible than traditional sports, where physical limitations can eliminate you from participating even before you even start playing (such as height with professional basketball players).
I have never been to India, but I would absolutely love to visit someday. My wife and I absolutely love Indian food and have spent a lot of time in quarantine trying to perfect making our own biryani. I always love learning about and experiencing different cultures and countries. I especially love trying out amazing local food.