EXCLUSIVE: James Banks about the beginning of his esports career, music and his first professional interview (part 1)

Олексій Харченко

We recorded this interview with James Banks late at night in a hotel in Katowice where the IEM Katowice 2023 tournament was held. 

We spoke with the legend of esports journalism for more than an hour and a half, although this is not enough to fully tell the story of James, a Brit with a Ukrainian soul.

In the first part of the interview, he told how me he started his career in eSports, his thirst for competition, his love for music, his work at ZOWEE and his first professional interview.

How has eSports changed your life? 

I got into esports by chance. I went from being very sporty and active, hanging around my estate to suddenly having to be a lot more careful due to being diagnosed with diabetes at 12 years old. I had to take a lot of time off school to adjust and then my Dad bought me a computer. At first, I was playing RuneScape and some other single-player games (this was back on a 56k modem and when your phone rang the internet would turn off so single-player games were still the best way for a non-disconnected experience) but then I found Counter-Strike - this was the game changer. Just imagine no school, adjusting to diabetes and playing Counter-Strike way too much in a day. It was crazy how much I played, I truly was addicted.

I was there at the very beginning when the competitive scene was getting more popular. I think I created my Steam account the first day it came out, 12th September 2003. I was playing all the mods, you know, a lot of Warcraft 3 & Superhero mods as well as other fun modes. This helped me to stay away from a bad life, stay off the streets and put my energy elsewhere… I just played Counter-Strike. 

From school to competing in the UK scene that had the likes of 4Kings and Dignitas playing at the very top across the years in terms of sponsors, salary and success but there was a lot of talent across other teams that would always make the LAN scene competitive and that is where I really got into things. LAN was different from online matches on Enemydown or CSGN. LAN gave you the adrenaline rush, you would meet up with everyone, meet people you only spoke to online and you would just have the greatest time, this was a whole new world to me.

I played Counter-Strike for so long and competed at the LANs and qualifiers but I had more success playing Virtua Fighter 5 and got second place in the WCG UK qualifier than anything I did in Counter-Strike but I never ever gave up. I always kept playing. I wasn’t getting anything from Counter-Strike but I remember competing against 4Kings in qualifiers and my now friend Natu (Joona natu Leppänen - Players), I had this one sick clip a 1v4 pistol on the ramp but then we got stomped like 16-5 or some silly scoreline, this is when I realized that I was not going to be good enough to go professional at the top like I had dreamed of and I would only be able to compete at a good level, then I adjusted, I started to put my time into other games and focusing on the esports scene in general. It felt great to go professional in Virtua Fighter, have sponsors and represent Team Infused but it wasn’t anywhere what I had dreamed of in Counter-Strike at the time or even close to the same as what you see today.

Virtua Fighter 5 grand final WCG UK

I never stopped with Counter-Strike, it was my first love, I was watching the legendary CS 1.6 players like SpawN and HeatoN who became my close friends, I was watching and enjoying the competition of the very best teams and I was the ultimate fan, I was a serious fanboy of many teams and players around the world across the years. I have to say a big thanks to SpawN and HeatoN, we worked together at ZOWIE gear and without them, I would have never been in the industry. I am forever thankful to them for that as they were the ones who recommended me to join ZOWIE and if that didn’t happen I don’t think I would have stayed in esports, I certainly would have never been in this position today. 

So you're a competitive person?  

Yeah, very competitive. I competed in Taekwondo and had some silver and gold medals up until 13 years old. I coached in K1 kickboxing as well. In anything that I took part in, I always wanted to be the best. Ultimately you can’t be the best at everything but I was taught from an early age to never give up and I certainly didn’t give up, just look at my career! 

I heard you are a fan of NAS and you love hip-hop.

Yeah, huge fan, I love hip-hop and rap, my favourite genres. I think Nas is the greatest rapper of all time, without a doubt. He's got the longest music longevity, his music stays relevant. And he is still playing music in his 40s - 50s. He released five albums from COVID-19 till now and it all hits. He never had a Grammy in his career but he released one of the most classic rap albums ever and got one in 2021! 

When I went to New York in 2018, I went to Queens Bridge, which is the famous ghetto where Nas (American rapper - Players) was from, that was a really cool experience that only esports could have given me. I love hip-hop music. I remember people asked me why I'm there.  And I was like, I want to see the place where Nas lived. It certainly made me realise that I didn’t have it so bad growing up and I have tried to visit a lot of similar places while traveling to other countries.

I see that music, especially hip hop, is important for you. What is the playlist of James Banks? 

While I love hip-hop and rap, I listen to everything, I don't have a genre. When you're a kid growing up, you are pigeonholed into a group of people that might just listen to rock music but, obviously, this comes back to my friends I met through gaming. These guys were listening to music I've never heard. I mean, I'm 13 at the time, I'm listening to Slipknot and thinking, what the hell is this? And then I'm listening to other rock and metal music. At that time I had never heard this music in my life. 

Did you like it? 

Yes, but at that time it was weird. It was mostly shouting and didn’t make any sense. I was influenced by black music, because of my mother, my stepdad and where I grew up. 

I got into more music from gaming as well. The early Counter-Strike in 2002 - 2003 was full of crazy dance/trance music (example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TiUQfxZ2JPA ), like Tiesto and Armin van Buuren. I’m still listening to the State of Trance now, religiously. I've even posted about it and Armin replied. That was dope.

We're scared to let new things in, I think at least speaking from the UK school system, there is a lot of sitting within your circle and being stuck into one thing because of which group of friends you are with. We want to just stay with what we're comfortable with. Through the guidance I got in school, I went to rock concerts, I saw Slipknot live, I saw Limp Bizkit, Metallica, KoRn etc.

I've been to a lot of rock festivals and concerts such as Download Festival and Sonisphere with my friends. People were slamming each other. At first, I thought “This is terrible”. They knock you down and pick you back up. I was confused. Like, “What is going on here?” I'm a big guy, anyway, I hit the floor and thought, these are very odd guys, why do we find this funny? It was a wild experience and something I would not have experienced had I just stuck to what I knew. 

I learned a lot about different cultures, different people, and different environments. I grew up in a multicultural area but my environment and my friend group pretty much listened to rap, hip-hop, garage and grime music as I met different people outside of my school group, through gaming, through travelling, I was able to expand what I heard, and what I learned. This was great to add diversity to my life. 

You mentioned that you started playing Counter-Strike in school. How did you get to interviewing and casting? 

Oh, man. Back at the time I was playing Virtua Fighter, I was still playing Counter-Strike but I had stopped focusing on just that and I was doing anything else I enjoyed that was around esports and events. In 2006 - 2007 I went to college, trying to get some qualifications as I didn’t have the best grades at school, I left with only one Cl. College was cool because you didn't have to wear a uniform, you were given more freedom and treated like an adult, this suited me and the way that is best for me to learn. You could listen to music all day in the class. As long as I listened to the teacher and did the work then i would not have any problems. It was a much better way for me to learn. If I was late, you stayed later and you could work at your own pace, because I played Counter-Strike till three in the morning. I'm supposed to be at school for nine but it didn't really happen. I should have been more disciplined but found a way that worked for me.

While I was doing that, as I mentioned before my friends SpawN and HeatoN - legendary Counter-Strike 1.6 players. They have known me since the time when I worked at SK Gaming and NiP as a journalist. When I say journalist, that's not like you as a journalist. I was writing news reports on match scores. We had all the scores and websites where you’re doing old-school writing with some basic HTML. 

SpawN and HeatoN on Stage at Dreamhack for ZOWIE

I was getting paid for my work in mouse pads and other stuff from their sponsors and having SK insider which was an early paid-for service on the website. I did it because I was passionate about it and didn't know what else I would do in my life. I had this balance between studying, playing and doing anything else I could do esports-related as a “mega fan” I guess. So eventually when HeatoN and SpawN joined ZOWIE, they recommended I come as well - the company that was making only mouse pads at that time. They said, look, this guy can write, he knows the esports scene, the products and he's passionate. So while I was at college, they gave me a part-time job as a marketing assistant. So I had real money coming in from esports for the first time ever, way better than working in McDonald's or somewhere. I worked at McDonald's for almost three months before ZOWIE but then was luckily asked to join Marks and Spencer in the UK - a posh supermarket chain.

Not as posh, as Waitrose (more expensive food retailer - Players)

That's executive, even Queen level.

I learned how to talk and sell. I met all these people, from all walks of life, some at university, some getting their first job, it was a big learning experience again for me. They were the same age as me or a bit older and most of them knew what was happening in life. I remember that I was asking myself, what am I doing with my life? I was just playing some games, going to work and going to college but I didn’t have a direct plan.

In the end, it all worked out and it was a great learning experience.

I was juggling all of this, balancing work and passion but I knew that ZOWIE was a proper business, with a good opportunity for me and they were sending me to dream events. I have pictures on my Facebook where SpawN is signing mouse pads. We were bigger than SteelSeries in terms of selling every mouse pad at a whole Dreamhack event - this was huge for such a new company. 

How many items did you sell? 

It was completely sold out, maybe 1000 units. I can’t remember specifics but I know the sales team were happy. At that time, 10,000 - 15,000 people attended the Dreamhack event. This was a LAN event. We had SpawN and HeatonN - two biggest professional players, legends of the game and celebrities in the scene at that time.

I learned how to do marketing from the ex-head of the SteelSeries marketing department. I did my job and then Zowie got bought by Benq and the monitors came. I was able to go and teach people more about the gaming and esports side which was crazy for someone of my age, I remember first going to the BenQ UK office, I was learning so much but I was teaching their sales team a lot as well.

Banks and HeatoN at Dreamhack with ZOWIE

So I was teaching the salespeople, and then I went to trade shows and talked to people about our products. I was young, 19 - 20 years and did all these gaming events. Back then everyone needed sponsorship, ZOWIE had so many applications coming in but we were a new company. Danny my boss had the idea to give out the products to players even if they were sponsored by a rival, we knew if we had the best product or it was what the player really wanted to use then they would anyway as they wanted to be the best and getting it in the hands of the best players was easy when we had the network…at the time it was just amazing to watch and learn all of this... But they weren't using sponsor products.

We just went to the number one monitor, the number one mouse. 

In the UK? 

Everywhere. Zowie was the world leader. Everyone had a ZOWIE mouse at the time, then everyone had FK, and then everyone was using our mouse pads. As for the monitors, we were the first with 240hz with the lowest response time There was nothing better. 

I learned so much. I don't have an education and I don’t consider myself booksmart but I learn and I try to learn fast, from others around me or from those who are willing to teach me. So next ZOWIE came to me and asked me to do a website - UpCloseGamers (you can still see a lot of the videos on my YouTube channel, now renamed here: https://www.youtube.com/upclosegamers ). They paid for everything, I had a salary and they funded all events. I started doing interviews and got to know the players. That was the time of the Starcraft boom. I even lived in Korea for a bit which was an unforgettable experience, where I got to work with StarTale as their European Manager!

StarTale team photo from the team house in Korea

It is so funny because at the time I didn't want anyone to see my face (example: https://youtu.be/f-ShajVlaCE ), I was so scared to be on camera. There are videos on my personal YouTube channel with over 700k views on Counter-Strike 1.6 events I’m filming behind the players. People wanted that perspective, they wanted to see what settings their favourite players were using. We didn't have Liquipedia or HLTV, we didn't have so much information readily available. 

I was there and had no limitations. I had sponsors, but they didn't care if there were other brands featured, they wanted content. The whole point was our videos were getting content and I was pumping them out. I had no editor, just a gaming laptop, a camera and some basic equipment that I upgraded over time but both ZOWIE and BenQ trusted me.

Do you remember your first interview with a player? 

Yes, GeT_RiGhT, - a good friend of mine. I didn’t have a microphone and used just a camera, I was on a budget. But it blew up. These were the early days of YouTube. I think we got 10,000 - 15,000 views. We didn’t have the same way of delivering content. CSGO was not even released and we were doing this stuff.

I always asked players about their personal lives as well. I was trying to be different from other websites and HLTV. I learned so much from Richard Lewis and CARMAC. Everything I talk about is learning and if I am passionate, I want to learn!

Banks and GeT_RiGhT

Are you happy with your career? 

Now I am yeah, yeah. I left esports and joined a property company. I was a digital marketing manager. When I was in my 20s, I was earning a really good wage, way more than I could have made in esports, even as a player at the time and I was still living in my estate. But it was tough. I had a daytime job and then I was doing esports and CS:GO in the evenings, training in kickboxing and sometimes sleeping just 4 hours at night. I was killing myself thinking that I could do everything. It was not healthy but I was doing it because of my internal competitiveness and desire to better my life and help my family.  

Now you can work an event for 12 hours per day for 2 weeks and then go and chill. While I’m streaming things when I’m at home, it’s not so intense. I can manage my own schedule and rest up again. 

Wait for the next part of the interview, where you will hear many more interesting things about James Banks.

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