Sean Stackhouse graduated from the New England School of Communications in 2010 trained in the delivery of play-by-play and commentary for such traditional sports as baseball, basketball and football.
But the Pittsfield resident has found his niche in something quite different — the rapidly evolving world of esports.
The 31-year-old Stackhouse is known as “Stax” among those who compete and follow his broadcasting contributions to the Rocket League, one of many organizations that offer competition to video gamers around the world.
Stackhouse describes the Rocket League brand as “car soccer in a dome, basically, rocket-powered cars that can fly around.”
His job is to provide commentary and analysis of the animated action taking place on video screens to fans who now often fill major arenas for events or view matches via live streaming.
“Even though it’s soccer — or soc-car as it’s called sometimes — the pace of the broadcast is more akin to ice hockey because they’re up and down the field and the ball can cover a lot of ground very quickly,” Stackhouse said.
The industry is growing nearly as rapidly as the pace of the game.
Rocket League was created in 2015, yet when it staged its championship series finals in November at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, the event featured a $500,000 prize pool thanks to such mainstream sponsors as Mobil 1, Snickers and State Farm Insurance.
“A lot of people probably consider [Rocket League] a Tier 2 esport,” Stackhouse said. “It’s not generating the kind of money that ‘Counterstrike’ is or ‘League of Legends’ or ‘Dota 2.’ They have tens of millions of dollars in prizing every season. Rocket League just had its first million-dollar season last fall.”
Stackhouse’s broadcasting career began at Maine Central Institute in Pittsfield announcing starting lineups for Huskies games and doing play-by-play on local-access television.
“As a kid I always commentated my own games when I played ‘Madden [NFL]’ and all that,” he said. “I’ve just always been a fan of sports broadcasting, and that just rolled over when I got to high school and saw they had the station there.”
Stackhouse soon began taking on more work as a public address announcer. Today, when not traveling to Rocket League events, he is busy providing PA services at such venues as the University of Maine and the Northern Maine high school basketball tournament. He estimates working more than 50 UMaine sports events during the most recent academic year.
His introduction to esports casting came in 2015 when he downloaded a promotional version of Rocket League, which had been created that year.
“I reluctantly tried it, and it brought me right back to my childhood when I was doing these games and pretending I was commentating,” he said. “It was this goofy you-play-soccer-with-cars thing, and as I kept playing I noticed some online tournaments.
“I said with my free time I might give this commentary thing a go, so I reached out to some tournament organizers. They asked for a recording and I did and they said OK, let’s put you on next weekend.”
Stackhouse began working Rocket League events over the internet from home beginning in 2016 and was encouraged by the feedback he received.
“There was a chat room attached to the stream so I could glance over and see people reacting over time,” he said “You’d see some negative stuff and some positive stuff, especially as I was starting out, and I thought, some people actually like it, they were having fun listening to the broadcasts.”
His breakthrough required some patience.
“After a year and a half of doing stuff pretty much as a volunteer, the game developer Psyonix started reaching out to community organizations that were starting to run some live in-person events and were trying to get some of the community casters like myself involved,” Stackhouse said.
The rapid growth in esports from its modest beginnings just a few years ago was reflected in Stackhouse’s first in-person casting gig, the Dallas Open, in October 2017.
“They had a crowdfunded online store with player autographs, and if they raised enough money to pay for championship buckles, then for another amount of money they would fly in this caster or that caster,” Stackhouse said. “After they paid for the [buckles] I was the first caster up on their compendium, and within 45 minutes they had raised enough to fly me out there.”
These days Stackhouse routinely flies to events where he works out of a studio for the Rocket League Rival Series, Rocket League’s second-highest level.
Last year was Stackhouse’s busiest to date with stops including Las Vegas; Boston; Dallas and Arlington, Texas; Burbank, California; Madison, Wisconsin; and Toronto.
Stackhouse is represented by an agency that has suggested that he eventually consider other esports options.
“They’ve floated the idea of doing something with Madden or NBA2K or one of the other sports games because it’s right up my alley,” he said. “It’s stuff I did in college and even just out of college, instead now it’s a video game instead of actual players on the floor.”
For now, Stackhouse is focused on moving up the Rocket League ranks.
“Getting started in this broadcasting felt like I was coming out of college again,” he said. “It felt like a second chance because I never really sent my resume tape out to anybody or really went all in on making broadcasting my career out of college.
“This was really a do-over for me, and I’m trying really, really hard not to let this opportunity go by.”