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Azael: "I'm hopeful we can get another team to semifinals"

Isaac "Azael' Cummings Bentley has been a mainstay in the esports community for over a decade, from his time as a World of Warcraft pro player to his casting position with Riot Games. At the League of Legends Championship Series Summer Finals in Detroit, we had a moment to catch up with Azael and talk with him about his thoughts on North American League of Legends, his favourite moment as a caster, and improvements that could be made moving forward.
Azael: "I'm hopeful we can get another team to semifinals"

Credit: Colin Young-Wolff/Riot Games

Looking towards Worlds, what do you think NA's biggest area of improvement has been? Where they have improved, and where they need to improve?

I think one of the big things that we have actually improved a lot on that has led to some more international success is teams having increased flexibility, and I would say finding their own style and feeling comfortable playing that. I think one of the traps that teams like TSM and a lot of North American teams have fallen into in the past has really been trying to emulate the LCK or trying to find that "OK, this is the best team in the World. Let's try to be them". And then, you essentially end up being just a shit version of that team.

So, it's better to kind of be true to your own style and your own team. I think that Cloud9 is a team that has gotten a lot of credit for doing that. Playing aggressively, playing their own picks. I think likewise we saw Team Liquid at MSI tuning out some of the noise and playing true to themselves. Everyone, myself included, going into it was thinking Impact should be parked on tanks and they should play that style. They said "no, we know our style better than you," and they put Impact on carries. He played carries the entire way through and held up against some of the best players in the World. I think that has been somewhere the North American teams have really improved.

I still think there is more to learn in that regard, as far as areas to improve upon. You don't necessarily have to become these other teams but you can take things. You can take bits and pieces that fit into your own game plan. I think willingness to experiment more, willingness to try some of these picks and try to be more surprising at times. I wouldn't say you can just emulate what G2 does because they have such a unique set of players, but I think something that has really been valuable for them is their willingness to experiment. Not all of it is going to work, but if you're experimenting throughout the year by the time you get to Worlds you're going to be more settled on what's really working.

What are your expectations for NA at Worlds, with all of that in mind?

I think it's looking pretty good, honestly. We are coming off two of the best ever international performances for NA, Cloud9 Semi-Finals and TL Finals at MSI. I am hopeful that we can get another team to Semi-Finals, that would be a really big success in my mind. I think that it's fair to expect teams to get out of groups. I think our third seed could have trouble because I don't think we've had a super dominant third team though Clutch and CLG have been looking good.

I think it's fair to expect TL and C9 to get out of their group and have that be the baseline for success. I think it's certainly achievable, and It feels like especially TL now having some international success under their belt. Jensen getting his first championship last split, Doublelift getting out of groups for the first time, these are things that I think is going to help build confidence for international play and I think if these teams play to their level they certainly should at least get out of groups.

On a personal note, what's your favourite moment you've ever casted?

Favourite moment I've ever casted? I would say it's actually when we had Summer Finals in Toronto. For me, that was just so special because I've been in esports this whole time since 2007, I was a pro gamer for six or seven years, and my family had never been able to come to an event that I was at before. Being from Kingston, a couple of hours outside of Toronto, my family was there. My parents were in the crowd, my brother and everything. It felt like I was going home, right?

The fans and the crowd were so nice and receptive because I'm Canadian and lived in Toronto. That was the only time I can ever remember getting emotional when I came on and the crowd started cheering. It was definitely a really cool moment, and that's got to be the most special one for me.

As you said, you've been in the esports scene for over a decade now. What do you think were some of the critical decisions that propelled esports to where it is today?

I think that's tough. It's a huge sum of work, it's almost a different era nowadays. I think that a lot of credit has to be given to the early tournament organisers, the people who somewhat paved the way for what is the modern era of esports. We're now playing in giant stadiums and Olympic stadiums and it has reached such another level. I do think that looking back at the early era of broadcasting, Starcraft Brood War, MLGs, and all these kinds of early tournaments, that was what kind of paved the way and showed that there is interest in this.

And then, you also have to look to Riot and some of the companies now that have levelled it up so much from there and brought in the endemics and some of the big brands and allowed it to expand and become even better. So, I think it's a huge combination of things and it's hard for me to point to any one decision.

What is one thing you'd like to still see changed or implemented for esports?

I think one of the biggest challenges is going to be the continued diversification of the live experience from the at-home experience. I think that's one of the biggest challenges you have to face. If you want to consistently have a show in a big stadium, you have to make it feel different enough in the stadium compared to at home. I think the atmosphere is amazing and there are differences, but when you go to an NFL game or something, you're actually looking at different things than you are at home.

Whereas, when you go to a Counter-Strike game or League of Legends game, you're watching a screen which essentially the same experience you could have at home. I think that to keep people lining up to come back every single day, week in, week out fill out these big stadiums, you really need to continue to find ways to make that in-person experience even more unique.

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