Pro at 15, retired at 19: welcome to the world of professional eSport
"It's not relaxed play-when-you-feel-like-it. I would play 10-12 hours a day 7 days a week and take very few breaks."
screengrab from Google
Starcraft is a game that is set well in the future in a far distant galaxy where three factions of creatures – the remnants of the human known as Terrans, the technologically advanced Protoss and the insectoid creatures the Zergs – battle it out for supremacy. It's also a game where the best players in the world can make a bunch of money by playing professionally.
In 2005, a guy died from exhaustion after playing it for 50 hours straight, but surely, that just proves how addictive it is.
What is the life of a professional Starcraft gamer like? I spoke to Mac ,a 19 year old player who has been in and out of the professional scene since he was 15 to find out.
So are you retired now?
I wouldn't use the word retired even though I could probably get away with it. Everyone has a really different definition of retirement. Basically I'm part time in that I still play a bit on the side. I'm incredibly limited living in New Zealand but I still compete so I wouldn't call myself retired. Just two weeks ago I qualified for a tournament in Poland.
So it was the focus of your life and now it's just something you do for money on the side.
Yeah, pretty much. Right now money is the main incentive. Oh and there's enjoyment as well.
You still enjoy it?
If you invest so much time into anything I think you're going to have an emotional attachment to it or whatever.
So you play Starcraft, are there any other games you specialise in?
I feel like a lot of people have this perception that the skills cross over and you can be a master of many different games, but no. You start from the ground up every time you switch. Some people do switch, but very few just because it's not a very solid plan if you want to be successful.
Mac in action in 2015.
Yeah, right. What does it feel like to be in a scene that is only really coming into it's own and being recognised as a sport?
I'd say it's only in the last year that eSport is considered a real sport so I didn't go into it with that kind of attitude. I've never really thought of it as a sport and still don't. The main thing people say is 'oh we don't need to be a sport. We're our own thing. Who care's what we're defined as'.
Honestly everything from how it's produced in the media to how the events are run is mimicking the sporting scene, especially with ESPN jumping on board. It shows us where we're heading.
I think that people don't like to admit being accepted into the sporting boys club is what they want, but at the same time it is very much the ultimate eSports goal. Recognition is all anyone wants. It is so much more valuable than anything else.
How is Starcraft different in the tournament scene?
For Starcraft players it's a very unique situation in that we actually have to segregate our tournaments to provide enough opportunity for the players outside of South Korea. You take the top 50 players from South Korea and they're all better than anyone else in the world. No one's been able to catch up – not in enough numbers. There's a huge foreign fan base who want to see their own people play. That's a big issue in terms of competition because every time there's a tournament, we have to question whether this is actually the best of the best. It's a question of integrity.
You mentioned that there's not much opportunity in New Zealand, how did you end up getting a placement in California and then in Switzerland?
Back when I started competing in 2012 tournaments would hold qualifiers for each region. Our region was generally South East Asia, Australia and New Zealand. They would give us one spot per tournament. If you got in they would pay your flights. Basically in 2012 I won a qualifier from my region for a tournament in Tokyo and a tournament in France. Both of them were in the span of 2 months so it was really out of the blue for me.
Yeah, right. And how old were you at the time?
I would have been 15.
Yeah, it was quite a surprise. Obviously I hadn't done anything like that before. That was kind of the point where I started to pursue it in a more serious way. I didn't get signed immediately after that. It was kind of a year after. I got noticed by an American team owner.
They're not one of the leading team so they have a tendency to pick up and comers or people who aren't well known and aren't that demanding. I wasn't being offered some ludicrous contract, it was just a place in a house to practice. That's how some teams function rather than the big name pick ups with the already established names.
I imagine if you got picked up by one of the big names there would have been huge pressure on you to perform.
Yeah, of course. And obviously there would have been big pressure on the team. Everything is so amplified on the internet; people get envious. Even if the players are slightly not up to par with the rest of the team they just get torn apart by fans. Everyone is very critical of that sort of thing.
So you moved to California, what took you to Switzerland?
My visa ran out. I wanted to move to Europe, I have a passport so it seemed like a better solution than dealing with visas. I moved and spent about a year training.
What was that like?
It's not relaxed play-when-you-feel-like-it. I was really committed. I would play 10-12 hours a day 7 days a week and take very few breaks. I just had so much to catch up on. Most people – especially on Starcraft – are a bit older; mid to late twenties. They have a lot more experience. In that regard I was really disadvantaged. I was playing catch up.
Back in the first season this year in Switzerland, I failed to qualify. The main thing was that I wasn't earning any money and I was paying rent in Swiss francs, which was not cheap. So it was all resting on this one tournament where you get in and you win, like, 2000 euros just for getting in to the first stage.
There was qualifier after qualifier. They had, like, five qualifiers. In the very last one, I got to the very last round and I lost the third game and that was it.
I did eventually get signed by the team in Switzerland, but I decided to go home and figure things out.