Another week, another round up of e-sporting news from ESFI World's senior editor, Samuel Lingle. Read on below for the results of the North American Star League and the trepidations of one particular player, Chris "HuK" Loranger.
Two weeks ago, the North American Star League closed the book on their second season, culminating in a rematch from the Dreamhack Winter 2011 finals. Team Evil Geniuses’ (EG) Ho-Joon "PuMa" Lee defended his NASL Season 1 title by taking revenge on the player who beat him at Dreamhack, Team Liquid’s Hyeon-Deok "HerO" Song. PuMa took home $40,000 for his efforts.
NASL is a true grassroots e-sports league. It's privately funded by Russell Pfister, a man with a passion for competitive gaming and a dream - to produce a professional league that will showcase e-sports to the North American crowd. They broadcast matches four days a week in a league format that mimics many pro sports, ending in a live playoff, but failed to draw the viewership they've been looking for, especially in the second season. NASL has struggled with budget constraints, scheduling issues, and a myriad of other problems, but the close of their second season proved to be a good one, providing StarCraft 2 and Heroes of Newerth tournaments with excellent competition.
PuMa earned an EG sponsorship, leaving his Korean team The SCV Life (TSL) for a chance to compete overseas, after winning the first NASL season. He’s placed well at tournaments, especially dominating Western foes, but at events like Major League Gaming, battling many fellow Koreans, he’s often struggled. At NASL, he showed off his strength against non-Korean opponents, beating two top American Zergs, Shawn “Sheth” Simon and PuMa’s teammate, Greg “IdrA” Fields, and surviving a tough 4-2 semifinal series against Marcus “ThorZaIN” Eklöf, arguably the strongest Terran outside Korea. That landed him in the final against HerO, another Korean enjoying the benefits of joining a Western team and the man who beat him at Dreamhack a week earlier, and this time, he was good enough to beat one of Korea’s top rising Protoss players.
PuMa’s NASL run and his story is an interesting one, but the tale of the NASL Season 2 champion is similar to one I’ve already told. In fact, the two main characters were the same as Dreamhack’s story.
This time, I want to talk about a different topic, one that's a large part of any competition, be it baseball, golf, or playing Super Smash Bros with your annoying brother – what happens when you aren't the player kissing the trophy? What happens when you lose?
It may seem a bit counterintuitive to start that conversation with Chris "HuK" Loranger. Of all StarCraft 2 players, he's one of the least accustomed to it.
The diminutive 22-year old Canadian-born-in-America is perhaps the most prominent and well compensated StarCraft 2 professionals outside of Korea. He's a confident and sometimes cocky character with a quirky personality, never afraid to speak his mind. Once, he described himself as having "top three" control in the world, and while it's certainly world-class, his greatest attribute is something else: his obsession with getting better. He will do whatever it takes to win at StarCraft 2, put in countless hours, even when he's sick, or tired, or angry at the game.
HuK burst onto the scene at Major League Gaming Raleigh in August of last year, and quickly became a sweetheart of the StarCraft community, travelling to Korea to train with the best and representing the Western scene on the biggest StarCraft stage.
He ranks 11th on the StarCraft 2 total earnings list, banking $60,250 in winnings over the course of his career, behind Frenchman Ilyes "Stephano" Satouri and nine Koreans. Evil Geniuses, the premiere multi-gaming e-sports franchise in the West, lured him from the Team Liquid label with a lucrative contract worth a "life-changing" amount. He is the only two-time champion at Major League Gaming in StarCraft 2 and the only Western player to consistently maintain the highest rank, Code S, in the world's most elite tournament, the Global StarCraft League. He was one of the first Westerners to travel to Korea to train, and he's one of the few to stay and have success.
That second MLG title came in mid October at Orlando, where HuK decimated the toughest field of competitors ever at an American tournament to that point. He then embarked on a world tour including GSL, Dreamhack Winter, MLG Providence, NASL Season 2 Finals, and the World Cyber Games, where he hoped to continue his strong play and "win $50,000." But in Providence, he bombed out of the tournament quickly after beating HerO, though his two losses were to the eventual finalists, Johan "NaNiwa" Lucchesi and Dong-Nyung "Leenock" Lee. Dreamhack went worse: he narrowly survived his group stage only to fall against John "Seiplo" Seipel, a relatively unknown Swedish Protoss whose biggest accomplishment in StarCraft 2 is, well, beating HuK.
At NASL earlier this month, the struggles did not end. Looking forward to a tough second round match with HerO, HuK seemed to underestimate his first opponent, Dennis "HasuObs" Schneider. The German Protoss from Team Mousesports took down the Canadian in a best-of-five series, prompting HuK to tweet, "so depressed, going to stay in my room for the next 30-40 hours and try to recollect myself."
Perhaps that seems like a bit of an overreaction to some, but like any professional sport, gaming is full of pressures and expectations that can mentally wear down a person. For HuK, a player talented enough to not only win tournaments, but be expected to do so regularly, that pressure can be hard to handle during a lengthy streak of poor results.
"Losing is the hardest thing about (pro gaming)," said HuK in and interview with ESFI at NASL, "for someone like me who devotes a lot of their time, I don't get to see my family, I don't get to see my friends. You just devote so much time to the game, just to lose, and it's like, 'Why did I do all that if I can't win?'"
That's a question that many pro gamers must ask themselves, tournament after tournament, considering only one single competitor accomplishes the ultimate each event. While a player's own expectations must be realistic and many players have successful careers without ever winning a championship, most pro gamers will tell you that, if you are satisfied with less, you might as well quit.
Even so, a player's own expectations are often not what lays heaviest on their shoulders: it's the expectations of their adoring fans, the expectations of the team shelling out cash to send them to tournaments across the world, the expectations of family, and friends, who never thought pro gaming was a great idea.
Of course, those same fans, teammates, and family can also provide a support network to overcome periods of stress, but ultimately, HuK says, it's something he has to get over himself.
"People tweet at you, you have friends talk to you, and they're like, 'It's one of many tournaments, StarCraft 2 is going to be around for a long time, you're going to have a lot of opportunities, just look past it," he said, "Things like that help, but mainly its on yourself. It just takes time, time is the biggest thing. Hopefully you get motivated from it instead of getting sad and giving up."
That kind of motivation is often what separates the champions from the rest, and pro gamers from casual ones.
"You've just got to be really, really motivated. There are going to be times when you are going to have to practice, when it's not going to be fun," he explained, "You've got to love the game, and play the game like you love it, but there are going to be times when you don't love the game, and you still have to practice, and you still have that match in two days, and you've still got to work hard and want it. You have to be hard-working and disciplined."
Apparently, pro gaming isn't all fun and games.
There are challenges for professional gamers besides the onus of expectations and the man in the booth opposite you. This year especially, travel has become a major issue for many gamers. In a single month, HuK's competed in tournaments in the USA, Sweden, and Korea, crossing oceans every week to keep up.
"[Travel] sucks. It destroys me as a person. It's not good. I'm hoping not to travel as much next year," he said, "I'm a very emotional person, although I might not seem it, I get very depressed and sad even though I might not seem like it to the community a lot of times, so it's really tough to have losses pile up, with the stress of travelling and not sleeping regularly, not exercising, whenever you travel you don't eat well either, there's a lot of bad factors that come with it. I'm a very light sleeper. Traveling sucks. It's the worst part of the game, besides losing."
On the surface, a job where you get paid to travel around the globe to exotic locations and play video games may sound great, and it is, but there are challenges for even the greatest players, both emotional and physical.
"Don't [be a pro gamer]. It's hard," he says, "I don't want to be cruel and mean, if that's your dream and you can't do without it, then me saying ‘don't do it’ is not going to change your mind anyway. The job is really hard. A lot of things have to go right for you to make it. You have to be very good at it, you have to spend a lot of time playing it. I would never suggest doing it."
That's not a very encouraging prospect, but for those with the singular kind of obsession, the drive you need to succeed at pro gaming, HuK is right: his words won't stop you.
After NASL, HuK's losing streak continued; he failed to qualify for GSL Code S for the first time in many seasons, and at the World Cyber Games finals, after topping his group, he fell in the opening round of the bracket. HuK plans to spend some time relaxing now that the season is over, but it won't be long before the thing that drives him brings him back to training, even if it isn't fun and even if he's still reeling from his recent failures. He plans to "win everything" in 2012, and while that may be an unrealistic goal, it's the kind you need to have in his line of work.
HuK and every other pro gamer would do well to remember something: losing isn't a permanent condition.