Through Thick & Thin
Family is most important to Marcus. Through all the haphazardness of risky career decisions, it would be the balance he would find in his support system that allowed the frenzied and chaotic riskprone industry that surrounded him seem navigable. Nothing meant more to him than Jennifer and James, his wife and son.
It was more of a game when Marcus was a bachelor. Operating with no safety nets or boundaries. Making quick decisions on a whim was commonplace; that all changed once he became a married man, and again when he had a child.
At this point, Marcus has eclipsed two decades in the industry. He has jumped through hoop after hoop, and taken risk after risk. Where did it take his family during that time?
Jen and James have been with you for as long as you can remember as a support system, and in the end, it all worked out. That isn’t the case with everyone.
If there is one piece of advice that I give everyone, it is to ensure you have a support system in place to help you achieve your goals and chase your dreams. I simply cannot imagine a world where I didn’t have Jen and James with me on this journey. On bad days, I have them to turn to. On days of success, I have someone to celebrate with. Doing anything alone is going to be tougher than having a support system… and I cannot stress enough just how much of a factor this has been in my own career and success.
It comes at a cost, though. There have been many times where I have turned something down, or decided to go a different route because I always factor in my family as a variable for my decision. There have been many jobs/companies/offers that I have turned down over the years. Maybe the job or project fit into what I was hoping to accomplish, but required moving to a city or state that I wasn’t comfortable living in. So while having a support structure is key to success (regardless of whether it is family or friends), it will ultimately change the way you think about the opportunities and risk that you may have in front of you.
Our family most certainly has had a wild set of adventures together which has run parallel with my career path… but what is life if it’s not meant to be lived? This philosophy has helped my wife and I get through some of the toughest times, and I hope that rubs off on James as he continues to grow and mature.
It should also be noted that while we’ve had our fair share of difficulties over 20 years, I’ve never once heard my family complain. Sure they would prefer if I did less traveling, but I’ve never felt like I was being a burden on my family or our day to day lives. They are a part of this journey just as much as I am, and I think that’s obvious when you look back at some of the choices that we made together over the course of my career.
The Graham family is most certainly one of the key factors to my success. We have learned and grown from the risks that we have taken, the challenges we’ve put before us… and it’s comforting knowing that they are there during the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.
Jen’s your rock. Speak on that.
There is an episode of Lost called The Constant. It’s regarded as one of the best episodes of Lost and some have said that it’s one of the best episodes of TV ever made. The episode centers around the idea of time travel. As you can imagine, time travel (even in fantasy) is complex. This episode centered less around the complexity of time travel itself and more on the effects it can have on us as humans.
One of the major themes throughout is that the only way we can mentally guide ourselves through time travel is by identifying a “constant”. That’s someone who is there in both the past and present who serves as an anchor for your mental stability.
Jen is my constant. She’s been there through every single step of my career and she has grounded me and kept me mentally stable through the entire journey. Yeah… it’s not time travel… but this episode speaks to my heart because it tells us that with our constant we can get through the universe’s most difficult challenges. Jen has been that level of deep support since day 1.
She’s never given me shit for playing games, or filling the house with talk shows/commentary. She’s never complained about moving. She has always been supportive in helping me talk through options, opportunities, and career. And I should make it clear. Jen doesn’t act as a secretary or assistant to me in anyway… she is a partner.
My decisions, my work, my dreams and aspirations… she is a 50/50 partner in all of it, and I feel like that has allowed us to exceed even our own expectations and work as a unit and team through thick and thin.
James acts as a rock for both you and Jen. You’ve said he’s been the most supportive member of the family, talk to me about that.
Speaking of working as a unit and team… I would say that my career and the crazy journey we’ve been on has allowed us to teach some very valuable life lessons to James over the years. One of the things that we consistently message is that we, as a family, are a team. And as a team we tackle the toughest challenges, we support one another, and celebrate together, and we pick one another up if we happen to fall or fail. When one member of the team doesn’t work with the team… the whole team suffers.
Given these lessons, James has been most supportive because he has been a team player. In fact, he’s been such a good team player that we will often bring James into our discussions and decisions around our bigger plans. Sound crazy? Letting an 8, 10, or 13-year-old be a part of your decision-making process? I’ll give you an example. Summer of 2018 my wife and I had begun discussions about moving back to Nebraska. There were many reasons for this, one was because we wanted to put James back into public school after homeschooling him for 4 years. Another reason is because our larger friends and family network was in Nebraska.
We had the opportunity to move back, build our “forever house”, and continue to follow our dreams from a more comfortable location. We went back and forth about whether or not we should plan to move back in 2019 or wait until 2020 (which would have been James’ first year of High School). For months we discussed the pros and cons of both times, evaluated what would be easiest for us as a family and for work. Ultimately, we decided to basically give James the final say. We simply laid out our thoughts, presented the options, and said, “Would you prefer to go back in 2019 so you can do a year of Middle School before your first year of High School? Or would you be fine waiting one more year, and then moving back in 2020?
He said, “I want to move back to Nebraska in 2019 and attend a year of Middle School before High School.” And that was that. James has been supportive of us because we’re his parents, but I think he has contributed to this family just as much as Jen and I in what he has endured and the decisions he has helped us make.
As a side note, we could have never actually expected it, but that decision put us in a very good place given the status of the world in COVID19. Had we waited until 2020, we may not have had the opportunity to move at all, because our house would have likely not finished, we wouldn’t have been able to hire cross country movers. During this quarantine we’ve actually talked quite a bit about how James (unknowingly) helped us avoid one of the biggest challenges we would have ever had to face.
You’ve taken immense risks, which we’ve spoken about thus far. What fuels your belief in these leaps of faith? Do you speak it into existence, something else?
I took risks because I have always been a believer. Whether it was Esports, Livestreaming, Video Games, the internet, or building communities… I’ve always believed that these things would be something that would be important parts of our lives. I WANTED to be a part of those things. I let that belief fuel my passion.
“Everything happens for a reason”. Some may think that’s an easy way to justify the things that happen in life, but I embrace this saying to the fullest. Sometimes you’re going to get dealt a shitty hand. It is easy to get frustrated, angry, and upset when you’re dealt this hand, but it has always seemed more productive to figure out if there was a way to turn that shit hand into a winning hand.
Examples of this: During Q3, Clan519 won a NA Online Tournament in which we won travel to the EU to play against the best EU teams in the world. The timeline though was so rough, that I wasn’t able to get a passport so I could attend with the team. I gave my spot up. That really sucked. However, that ended up being the first time that I gave commentary and online coverage a shot, and instead of crying over not being able to attend, I stayed up all night to commentate and cover Clan519 to support them in the best way possible. After an incredibly successful broadcast, I essentially created a pathway for my future career off of a “shitty hand”. Championship Gaming Series 2009. When it shut down, it was devastating. I told the story earlier but we decided to move back to Nebraska. I could have just conceded at that point, but that was also the time when livestreaming was picking back up. By being put back into a “reset” position, I was able to explore the world of streaming all over and, and that made me fall back in love and realize that
I didn’t need a multimillion dollar company to chase my dreams. I did it back in 2002, so let’s do it again.
Taking the risk isn’t the hard part… dealing with the ripple effects of those risks is where the difficulty lies. Taking any risk means you have to be willing and able to fail. And because we’re defined by our failures as much as we are defined by our successes, these ripples are oftentimes our best moments to learn, reassess, and rebound. You simply cannot prepare for everything, and I think success is also measured by our ability to pivot and acclimate to our current situation.
So yes… I would say Self-belief and confidence were a big part of why I was willing to take risks. I always had a plan B and a plan C… and even if those blew up, I would be determined to find a plan D. Being able to plan is a huge skillset to have, but being able to react is just as important.
Let me also make something very clear. Success takes time. Sometimes YEARS! And even when you have reached your goals, you’ll want to keep going and strive to accomplish more. There have been so many individuals who I’ve worked with who are frustrated because they haven’t found success despite grinding for years. My story spans over 20 years, and I can confidently say that 12 of those years were grinding, sacrificing, and hard work with very little in return.
However, I call back to “Journey before Destination”. How you carried yourself on the path to success will be far more important to the world than what you ultimately accomplished.
The ebb and flow we’ve observed through Marcus’ career is something that he must accept, having a family. It’s part of the game, and it’s something he’s adapted to well. I wanted to emphasize how important his support structure was, and reached out to both Jen and James for first-hand insight, something they’ve never provided before. It was important to get both sides, and let everyone have a voice.
Jen, you and Marcus have been together for two decades. Could you offer some insight regarding how his motivation to achieve dreams has changed, if it has?
I wouldn’t say that Marcus’ motivation to achieve his dreams have changed over time. He’s always been extremely motivated and passionate about the things that he cares about whether it was Quake, shoutcasting, Twitch, the content creators. As his dreams have evolved, his focus has changed perhaps, but he has always been someone who gives 100% x10 to whatever challenge he chooses to tackle.
You’ve had to move often, and Marcus has had low job security in the past while being in that space of trying to make his dreams a reality. How did this affect you and your family?
As someone who was raised by a single dad most of my childhood and spent a lot of time moving around often, neither of those things really bothered me and instead made me very adaptable to whatever situation was placed in front of me. While at times, moving away from familiar things – family and friends especially – was hard, we’ve always just made the best of things. It’s not like we were not aware of any of the challenges a move or job change could bring. We take a lot of time and discussion before coming to any major life decisions, but if it feels right, we’ll usually take the leap. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t, but without taking some risks, there also would not be any rewards.
As far as how it has affected James, we have always tried to make things as normal and easily adaptable for him. We keep communication lines open, keep him informed, ask his opinions and feelings, and if a problem comes up, we come together as a family to solve it. He has had a fairly unconventional childhood, but we have always tried to keep it as well rounded as possible and James seems to appreciate all the different experiences he has had through his life so far.
Our greatest lesson as a couple and family has been communication. As long as we effectively communicate with each other, I feel we can do and tackle anything in our path.
James came into the picture, and suddenly there were 3 mouths to feed, not 2. How did this change Marcus’ drive? Was he more cautious versus the mindset of
a fearless couple out to conquer the world?
We found out we were pregnant about six weeks after our move to Los Angeles in 2005. I don’t think either Marcus or I were ready for that news right then. We had been married for less than a year, had just moved to Los Angeles, and while we had been preparing to start on expanding our family, we hadn’t been expecting it to happen quite that fast!
We had to quickly settle into our new roles of expectant parents while juggling trying to find our feet in a new city and, for Marcus, his new job at GGL. Those years in Los Angeles were pretty rough on both of us, but it taught us a lot about how strong we can be together as a unit working together.
I think becoming parents made us more determined to build and provide a secure base for our son, but we also wanted to continue to lead him by example to not be scared to take those chances to reach for your dreams.
[pauses to reflect a bit]
I honestly don’t know what is in our future, but as long as we confront it as we always have, together, then I’m sure we will conquer whatever Life throws our way. Beyond the knowledge that the only person I would want to travel this journey with is Marcus, not much in our life has gone according to any sort of a plan. It has been an incredible roller coaster of an adventure so far, but I do not regret any of it at all.
Out of all those ups and downs, which part tested your strength the most?
We’ve definitely had our ups and downs over the past couple decades, but I would have to say the toughest situation was probably the year of 2008 through 2009, as a whole. James was two, going on three then, that was also the year Marcus left GGL and went to work for CGS full-time, and then everything came crashing down at the end of the year with the financial crisis and CGS closing its doors.
As parents of a toddler and on unemployment, living in one of the costlier cities in the US, it was really rough for us. We tried sticking it out for a couple months while Marcus tried to find another job in the Los Angeles area, but we finally had to make the decision that it would be more cost effective for us to move back to Nebraska, where we still owned a house and the cost of living was a lot lower, and we both had potential job prospects and family there to help us out.
While making that choice was a huge blow, ultimately, it was the right decision for us as a family and a couple. We learned so much about ourselves, us as a couple, and as parents that year. It made us so much stronger as a unit having gone through that together.
The happiest moment?
I’m always so proud of my husband’s career achievements. I don’t know if I can name the happiest situation because every time he is recognized for his contributions, whether it’s the Lifetime Achievement in Esports or being inducted in the ESI Hall of Fame or an article or interview highlighting his career…
My heart blooms with so much pride and happiness that all of his hard work, heart and passion that he puts in is being acknowledged.
Then, a long pause. Jen wanted to take a moment to speak on what Marcus means to her.
He’s my very best friend and partner, an incredible father and husband. I have always been very impressed with Marcus’ work ethic and passion when it comes to the things he cares about. I know he will continue to champion those causes, and to help and support those around him to achieve their dreams, too.
I’ve never met anyone with as much heart as Marcus, and I hope that we’ve raised our son to have that same heart, empathy, and passion for Life.
Your dad’s a large figurehead within the gaming industry. He’s an established name across the entire esports landscape; what do you think of that?
I personally believe it’s fantastic. It’s quite inspiring to see my dad become a great figure in the esports community, and I do aspire to be like him in the future. I’ve always enjoyed gaming, and the community surrounding it, especially because of the connections people have with others.
I’ve heard his story, and honestly, it’s impressive how much time and effort he puts into his work, he’s always super motivated, and he never gives up. I always thought that he’s also just a great leader overall, especially when working with his team.
You’ve grown up surrounded by gaming, even esports, your whole life. What’s your earliest memory of that?
I usually have a terrible memory, but some of the earliest memories I have was when I first played StarCraft 2. I knew I watched my dad play a lot, and I wanted to try it, so I started with Zerg, and it was fun.
I’ve always been enthralled by gaming, and a lot of it is because of its presence today. Since I first played StarCraft, it’s captured a lot of what I enjoy in games, especially now when I can go back and watch videos of my dad’s old streams and casts.
Replaying memories has been a big part of my life because of this.
What’s your current dream, right now? What path do you want to take?
I don’t really have much of a current ambition in life; I’ve always wanted to get into something involving esports, engineering, or something relative.
Engineering just fascinates me, along with science, it’s great being able to discover things about this world. I’ve always thought that being able to understand just about everything was cool. Science just as a topic is fascinating though because we don’t know everything, and our goal is to pretty much learn what we can.
Over the years I’ve been just trying to find something that fully interests me though, and although I’ve not exactly become invested in much to the point of I want to do it for the rest of my life, I think I’m becoming more comfortable with my options.
Talk to me about moving to California. What were the pros and cons of that?
I really enjoyed the food. There’s a lot that was great there, and some of the people, especially ones from my dad’s workplace were fantastic. It’s definitely not my style, and I’ve never been that much of a city person. Cities are usually so busy and bustling, and it really rubs me off, I guess.
I will say that cities do have their benefits, as mentioned before, the food is just fantastic. I also just didn’t go out a whole lot in the city, mainly because sometimes, it could get very dirty.
Summers also kind of sucked, but overall, I don’t think I’d trade it away for another experience.
Then, you moved back to Nebraska.
I for sure prefer Nebraska. It’s just my home at this point, a lot of family friends are here, and family is nearby. It’s also where I’ve just met a lot of my friends.
Everything’s all so spread out too, and it’s been nice to not have to think about a whole lot. Nebraska is just easier to navigate as well, at least in my opinion.
Things are a lot more organized, and there’s also just a lot more space in Nebraska, both in where we live and just the general area. I also think it’s just more relaxed too.
You have the whole world as your stage and you’re given an opportunity to praise your parents. What do you say?
If I had to praise my parents? I really wouldn’t know what to say. I love them both, and they’ve been great at giving me that push I need to move. It’s just amazing how great they’ve been, and I really wouldn’t change anything about them.
They’ve just been really good at supporting me, and themselves, and I think they’re just great mentors. I really love them.
It was then time to pose final question to Marcus. What did this all really mean to him?
Long after you’re gone, laid to rest, and people mention your name… what do you want your legacy to be?
This shouldn’t be such a difficult question to answer… but it is. I think we all want to leave behind a worthwhile and substantial legacy, but we often don’t get a chance to choose what that legacy may be. So I think it boils down to what I think people will remember me by.
And that’s for having an unbridled passion and belief when it came to things like esports and livestreaming. These are two things that I’ve put a better part of half of my life into, and two things that I hope people reference as a party of my legacy. I want to know that I’ve made a difference in helping esports and livestreaming get to where they are today. I want people to know about the sacrifices I’ve made because I had a stonewalled belief that every minute of work was worth it.
I mostly want people to look back and use me as an example to say, “If you have a dream, just keep going for it… even if it means falling down and getting back up over and over again”. What we achieve while chasing that dream is often times more rewarding than the dream itself. One of my favorite book series of all time, The Stormlight Archive (by Nebraska native Brandon Sanderson) has drastically driven my perspective on this.
Journey before Destination
By this fantasy book’s definition [Way of Kings], the saying “Journey before Destination” means there are always several ways to achieve a goal, failure is preferable to winning through unjust means, and protecting ten innocents is not worth killing one. In the end, all men die, and how you lived will be far more important to the world than what you accomplished.
It might seem odd that I use the basis for a fantasy book to help shape my life and direction, but it just resonates with me so much. I look back on my journey and I confidently feel that people will remember how I lived and carried myself versus what I accomplished… and that’s the best feeling in the world. Knowing I’ve been able to touch the lives of people in this world is one of the best legacy’s that one can leave behind.
When I’m gone, I hope people fondly remember my passion, excitement, dedication, and sacrifice throughout my career, and then say, “Oh, yeah, he was one of the first commentators/livestreamers/etc.”
I reached out to Brandon Sanderson himself, author of The Stormlight Archives, to find out what the inspiration was:
Journey before Destinationbecame my mantra while writing the book [Way of Kings]. I had begun to focus too much on results—on getting the novel finished—and not on making certain each step along the way was worth reading. I turned it into the story’s own theme, because the more I’ve found myself focusing on it, the better my life became.
I hope it will help readers keep their attention on making each day of life worthy in some way, and not abandon who they should be right now in order to achieve some distant goal that may, or may not, be worth such sacrifice.
Now roughly 25 years removed from when he embarked on this journey seriously, Marcus sits near the top. Having helped blueprint Twitch itself, he continues to run a tight ship as its Head of Creator Development.
It was that single gesture of kindness from his parents on that cold Christmas morning in 1989 which allowed Marcus to explore what his dreams were. Unaware of what profound impact he would one day have, he remained steadfast and determined throughout. The temptation of quitting often lurked in his mind, but never did he give in.
As Marcus and I realize we’re at the end of this project, we begin to reflect on what a long process it has been since starting in October 2017, and how life has changed since for both of us.
I ask him if there’s anything else he’d like to fix before we call it a wrap.
He grins and takes a swig of his coffee, nodding slowly as he stares off into a short daydream.
A long pause follows. Then, he looks back up and his eyes refocus:
I’m realizing what this really should be, is a book. I’m not even 5% in.