While the sun set on 2009, the days grew shorter for international Brood War.
During the build up to StarCraft 2, one of the last great non-Korean Brood War tournaments was in high gear. Team Liquid StarLeague 2 (TSL2) boasted a $10,000 first place prize, a check that made bold headlines at the time and would garner attention even today. The qualifying ladder attracted thousands of players, including some of the biggest names outside of Seoul, Top 48 qualified for the next stage in the tournament.
Hayder Hussein (Haypro) finished a very impressive 13th on that ladder, winning 64% of his games. Geoff Robinson (Incontrol) clocked in at 34th, earning a 60% win rate. Tyler Wasieleski (known as Nony then), had done so well in TSL1 (4th place) that he was automatically seeded to the next stage of the tournament.
Although both HayprO and Incontrol were knocked out midway through that next stage of TSL2, both finishes were seen as respectable and indicative of good play from solid competitors.
Tyler fared much better. He beat Idra 3-2 in one of the most important series in international Brood War history. Tyler then knocked out JF, the TSL1 winner and current Fnatic Protoss. Finally, Tyler won the $10,000 grand prize by beating Mondragon, an all-time foreign great, in one of the most watched international Brood War games ever.
As StarCraft 2’s release approached, the community and industry that had kept Brood War alive around the world seemed poised to aggressively expand. International Brood War’s best players – including Haypro, Incontrol and Tyler – seemed to be in prime positions to transform their passions into professions. Their dedication to StarCraft would finally pay dividends.
StarCraft 2 also offered an opportunity for new star players to emerge from around the globe. Fresh faces could become icons rising with the tide of the much anticipated sequel. In the first TL SC2 Invitational on March 2010, TLO’s performance was so creative, intelligent and electric, that when he beat and eliminated Liquid`Nazgul, Nazgul himself immediately moved to sign TLO onto Liquid. TLO’s enormous fan base was born on that day — hell, I’m one of the first members of his fan club — and he quickly became one of the most famous names in the StarCraft 2 world.
StarCraft has one Emperor but many kings. Any young man with talent, intelligence and great potential is a king unto himself until the future arrives and he either abdicates or maintains his throne. Each of these players wore their crowns in a distinct way and each, to some extent, loosened or lost their grip on it. Each is still absolutely young, capable and fighting to be a king once more.
This is the story of four unique abdications and the men aiming to win back their crowns.
Fast forward to 2011.
Thanks in large part to the quirks of the Major League Gaming 2011 scoring system, several coveted and advantageous Pool Play spots were almost continuously occupied by a group of players with a profoundly disappointing overall regular season Pool Play record of 23-68. That is a 25% win rate for Incontrol (20%), TLO (25%) Tyler (10%) and Haypro (41%), four of the most famous players in Western StarCraft.
To add salt to the wound, most of those wins came at the beginning of the year when the level of competition at MLG was significantly lower than it is now. From Anaheim, the group is 9-46, a 16% win rate. Three of those wins belong to TLO (who won just one series per event from Columbus to Orlando) and six wins belong to Haypro who was a relatively stellar but overall mediocre 6-9 during that span. Members of the group have gone winless in Pool Play five times in that time, including Incontrol’s 0-10 game run in Raleigh, which was the centerpiece of his 20 game Pool Play losing streak that stretched across three events.
At one point or another, these four players were some of the most loved competitors the international scene had to offer and they had the results to back it up. Whatever your personal opinions of them, they were respected as players. At the release of StarCraft 2, they were in positions to join top teams, be visible community members and play at the highest levels. The group varies by individual in regard to each player’s perceived potential for success, but any observer can see that this foursome performed far under expectations heading into MLG Providence.
Where did all the potential disappear to? Will it ever be seen again?
Incontrol: 26, Evil Geniuses. Sponsors: Intel, SteelSeries, Monster Energy, Kingston HyperX and more.
EG is a team whose top players spend every second of their StarCraft 2 careers standing directly in a bright spotlight. Incontrol’s poor results have received more criticism than anyone else in EG, partly because he is always held next to his more successful teammates Huk (winner of DreamHack Summer 2011 and MLG Orlando), Idra (winner of IEM China) and Puma (winner of IEM Cologne and NASL1)..
What is more relevant to many observers is that Incontrol is the oft-seen talking head featured weekly on both State of the Game and Inside the Game. He has been a major presence in the StarCraft community for years, including winning WCG USA 2007 for Brood War and then starring on the WCG reality show “The Ultimate Gamer.” He was a large figurehead for the troubled rise of the NASL. Win or lose, Incontrol rarely goes unnoticed.
What would you describe as the peak of Incontrol’s career? Was it his WCG USA win or the reality show after the fact? Was it his MLG Dallas 4th place or his rise to the height of scene celebrity at about the same time?
Are the peaks of Incontrol’s career inside or outside of StarCraft?
The charge levied most often at Incontrol is that he spends too much time being a celebrity and not enough being a competitor.
For his fans, he is a tireless eSports evangelist, traveling the world and conquering the net, offering a loud and articulate voice to spread the gospel of professional gaming.
For his critics, Incontrol’s appearances as a caster and promoter for tournaments and shows do nothing to dispel their perception that he simply does not pay as much attention to the game as they believe he should, yet he is rewarded with a starring role in everything he does.
Incontrol’s distinct personality, his knack and eagerness to be outspoken and opinionated has won him a legion of fans who flock to anything he does. Those traits have also attracted a vocal army of detractors since his rise to prominence years ago. As StarCraft has grown, so too have the contrasting groups that follow his career.
On the other side, we have those called that Incontrol calls “children”, a hostile and petty bunch who pick at any scab they can find to remind Incontrol and the rest of us of their existence.
Wait, stop what you’re doing! Incontrol just tweeted that he is going to see a movie with his teammates tonight instead of practicing. I’d tell you to go make the required Reddit thread, but it is obviously already posted and it’s got about 60 votes on it. It took six minutes to post. You were too late. Better luck next time.
“You ask if those threads get to me or if people's harassment bothers me? Sure,” said Incontrol. “Nobody wants to get those messages. Nobody wants to be attacked for living their life. That said, I have my dream job and I benefit tremendously. I expect some cost for this lifestyle. If people getting their panties in a bunch over me tweeting that I played another game is that cost, then the joke is on them, because I wouldn't trade this for ten times the punishment!”
Somewhere within the cacophony of flames and fawning over Geoff Robinson lies one of the central issues with his career. When one thinks of Incontrol, one’s thoughts almost immediately turn to casting, promoting, punditry, posting, community politics and drama. These days, too rarely is Robinson associated with competing in and of itself. A serious lack of good results has contributed mightily to that perception.
According to Robinson himself, his poor record of late is not for lack of dedication to the game.
Incontrol logs an average of 11 hours of practice per day and training mostly on the notoriously tough Korean and European ladders, and mixes in some of the best training partners in the world to trade games and thoughts with.
“I am a big thinker of the game,” said Robinson. “Demuslim and I love to go over strats, maps, builds and really delve deeper into the game. Outside of actual play, IdrA, Axslav and I will watch GSL and discuss what we are watching so we can keep up on the top players. When I am snacking or eating a meal, I usually fire up WhiteRa, ToD, Hero, Huk, Sase or another favorite Protoss stream and try to pick up stuff from them as I do non-SC2 stuff.”
Attesting to the extremely high level of his sparring partners and teammates, Incontrol shared the following anecdote from MLG Orlando.
“One of my proudest moments was Huk stepping out of his booth before his games with MC for the finals of MLG Orlando and asking me about a game plan," said Incontrol. "He discussed what he was thinking and asked me for my opinion. It was one of those moments that really mattered to me. I want to help others, I want to be someone my teammates can count on and in that moment I really felt that way.”
And yet, despite being surrounded by one of the most successful teams in StarCraft 2, the wins are simply not coming as they once did for Incontrol. Why?
“Level of competition is a huge factor. I think Slush, PainUser, TLO and Mihai [who are the players I competed against in MLG Dallas] are all fine players but they are not Bomber, Puma, Kiwikaki, Polt and Sheth,” said Incontrol. “I also think losing is contagious. I always did well at tourneys, winning a national championship in BW, winning various invitations, placing high in international tourneys, etc, but in SC2 the game is different, and I have struggled with the mental aspect of the game. Everything is heightened: money, expectations, exposure and more. So I think on some level, I don't quite understand I am still a work in progress. Obviously I hope to always be a work in progress but I want to stay that while winning a game or two here and there! I am confident that I have what it takes and I am in a place where I have the time and tools on hand to take care of business. I will just continue to work and do my best.”
At present, the level of competition is higher than it’s ever been. The amount of content (and catty gossip) produced is significantly greater. The sheer number of eyes watching is bigger, the weight of their collective gaze that much heavier. For a young star who had carved out a comfortable groove in previous eras, getting his legs firmly underneath him once more will be one of the greatest challenges of Incontrol’s career.
MLG Providence was another disappointing event for Incontrol. After three relatively easy wins, Incontrol was quickly eliminated against the first two known players he faced in the Protoss player State and then his EG teammate, the Zerg StrifeCro. Far from the top tier talent Incontrol faced in Pool Play, State and StrifeCro are mid tier pros who, while still widely respected, signal that Incontrol’s slump may be growing more severe.
“I want to emphasize that this entire thing is a journey. Right now I am struggling with MLG results. In practice I beat the best and work alongside the best. I know I can do it. Doing it in a practice or ladder setting is not doing it on the big stage like MLG. Making that jump is something I have done in the past and want to do in the future. All I can do is continue to work and enjoy the process. I am living the dream. Being bogged down and focusing on my poor results is not the advice any NFL quarterback would give you. I acknowledge them because they are real and they are mine but I seek to put them in the deep past!”
Turning around a steep decline is one of the rarest and greatest feats in sports and eSports alike. There are few if any precedents in StarCraft for the sort of reversal of fortune that Incontrol seeks.
Then again, there are no precedents for Incontrol.
TheLittleOne: 21, Team Liquid. Sponsors: The Little App Factory, Razer, TwitchTV
The team’s overall decline in results has been met with mixed reactions around the competitive scene. Some loud and some muted, but none particularly rosy. In the end, everything Liquid does is held under a microscope, but due to the affection most hold for the site, they are generally treated in a more positive way than another team in their situation might be.
Dario Wunsch (TLO) is a German player who has dabbled in playing every style of every race in the game.
TLO’s meteoric rise to stardom in 2010 took place largely because he was one of the most creative, individualistic players in the world. Using Random, TLO managed to repeatedly defy expectations and produce everything from nukes to nydus canals to take his opponents by surprise. In the ensuing confusion, TLO would employ multiple attacks and drops and, in the end, would very often come out ahead.
Like almost no one in StarCraft history, TLO’s style immediately endeared him to a fan base exploding around a then-new eSport.
When the GSL kicked off, TLO’s creative style produced some of the most watched games of all time. However, he produced few actual victories.
In November, with just one GSL series win on his record, TLO would leave Korea because of then-undisclosed circumstances. It is clear now that Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (which causes painful nerve compression in the wrist) is what plagued him then and has continued to hamper his play.
“[CTS] started last year in August right before I went to Korea and become really bad over there,” said TLO.
Physical health is the first puzzle piece needed to put together a successful player. Without physical health, there is little chance to ever be a complete player no matter how brilliant a mind one may possess.
TLO’s return to Europe was an attempt to give him a rest and the freedom he needed to heal and play at his discretion. However, staying home has not proven to be an easy path. TLO has described the severity of the injury as “up and down” since his return home. This is reflected in the varying levels of practice and play he has been physically capable of.
“The last 2-3 months have been persistent improvement,” said TLO just prior to MLG Providence. “It is still holding me back a ton, but soon I will be able to unleash my real potential again, I hope. For quite some time I have been playing between 5 to 6 hours a day but this week I managed to increase it to between 8-11. So far my wrists are holding up but if I feel it becomes worse again I might have to step it down a little bit again.”
The life of a StarCraft 2 professional presents many challenges to someone with CTS. The obvious first obstacle is the game itself. The physical demands it makes on one’s wrist can wreck havoc. TLO may, if he is lucky, be able to construct an ideal setup at home with his keyboard and mouse at just the right height and angle, but the varied tournament set ups can mean pain and regression. Simple acts such as signing autographs for fans can take a hugely negative toll. Beyond that, traveling is tiring and puts a severe strain on CTS sufferers.
The unpredictable nature of Carpal Tunnel, the slow healing process, and the negative effect on TLO’s results have all weighed heavily on the German Random star. Add to that his enormous popularity and the weight on his shoulders is increased further.
"For a while I had real breakdowns after every bad performance,” said TLO.
TLO has had to repeatedly and consistently confront the connected issues of physical and psychological pain while competing in the high pressure world of StarCraft 2.
“Usually I start improving my play, rank up and it looks like I can compete with the best,” wrote TLO in a recent letter to his fans in which he apologized for and explained his poor results. “But shortly before and after tournaments my play falls apart. I have realized that my head starts spinning and I put more pressure on myself with events coming up than ever before. Maybe it is the feeling that if I don’t win soon my career will end sooner or later. I know that is irrational. And as long as I realize it to be an issue it can be dealt with.”
“I had real breakdowns after every bad performance mostly because I have really high expectations of myself and I build them up,” said TLO. “After every single time I lose I say to myself, ‘this time I will show them, I don’t want to disappoint my fans again,’ but now I am having more realistic goals and I learned that I just need more time and things will be alright. There are so many people who helped me through bad times, I am so grateful I've got such an awesome team and friends. Without them I wouldn’t know what to do.”
A loss can trigger an emotional outburst which can severely impair a player’s ability to think clearly, and in turn can make another loss inevitable.
To preempt the potential downward spiral, TLO has reached out to a group he describes as “very smart people” in order to learn various techniques with which he can help himself. Some of his techniques are as simple as controlled breathing or closing his eyes for five minutes. He says these techniques and the conversations he’s had regarding physical and mental issues have all helped him move forward.
“While not stopping [physical recuperation] I also have to master my own mind,” said TLO in his letter, “Rid myself from any exterior feelings that can influence me in my game. Play the game and think of nothing but the game. I care too much about other people’s opinions. And even though I don’t like to admit it, sometimes feel hurt by critiques of random people on the internet. Recently I stopped reading any comments, which is a step in the right direction, I think.”
Even after he was defeated, the bearded German was spotted signing dozens of autographs for a swarm of fans.
“The best times are still ahead,” wrote TLO. “This year I learned more about training physical and mental discipline than maybe any other pro gamer in SC2. Give it some months. As soon as I am able to really practice ten hours a day for one or two months straight, we will see my real level again.”
For a player who is still incredibly popular and whose StarCraft IQ and flair for dramatics is still widely respected, the expectations will remain high as TLO competes more often. With over a year of trial by fire, with CTS and all its many complications, there are few players who have learned more about themselves in the past year than TLO. The 2011 off-season will provide a much needed rest for TLO and in 2010, the German
random player will put that education to the test.
Tyler: 25, Team Liquid. Sponsors: The Little App Factory, Razer, TwitchTV.
Tyler Wasieleski (Tyler) is seen as one of the most naturally talented international Brood War players of all time. His name is uttered early and often in a conversation that few modern players outside of him and Idra are a part of.
One of the great moments of Tyler’s career was joining a Korean team (eSTRO) and playing Brood War professionally in the country in 2008. He did well quickly, placing second in a Courage tournament where a win grants a full pro gaming license and the ability to play in televised games. The last foreigners to reach those lofty heights were Legionnaire and Assem all the way back in 2003.
Shortly after he arrived, Tyler left Korea. The opaque explanation offered (“personal reasons”) did little to shed light on the move and predictably the community wondered why he had returned to America. A year later, after much inactivity, Tyler won the prestigious TSL2 over a field including Idra, who was playing in Korea full-time. Tyler also has the WCG USA 2008 gold medal in his possession.
The American Protoss player’s StarCraft 2 career has been much less successful. Tyler has yet to take a major tournament and rarely places well within one. Nevertheless, owing in part to his popularity and likability, Tyler is a mainstay on State of the Game and has been personally sponsored by Stride Gum for the 2011 season.
Owing to a relative lack of success and lessened visibility in the game itself, Tyler built a reputation of being inconsistent, as someone who did not put in the time necessary to play at a high level. Although he spoke on several distinct occasions about a comeback, about rededicating himself, these moments always proved to be false starts. In the end, he would inevitably return to the same “bad habit” of no practice.
Tyler’s motivation and the lack thereof have long been topics of conversation among his peers and fans. Although he has always been described as a special talent and is able to get the most out of his practice time than any other StarCraft player, Tyler’s inability to be consistent always has been his major weakness.
Much of his inactivity was once explained away with being a married, full-time student. Now, he offers another dimension to consider.
Part of the magic of Tyler’s TSL2 win was that he emerged from a long period of inactivity, was handily beaten by Idra in a match early in the tournament and then, after hours of grinding practice and hard work, defeated the American bad boy and went on to win the entire tournament. It was a testament to Tyler’s latent talent.
In August 2011, after a particularly turbulent time, Tyler’s fan club was wondering out loud about the state of their favorite player.
“Has he got another account? He only has 17 wins and 10 losses on his NonY account and it’s not in GrandMasters,” wrote ProxyKnoxy. “I hope he’s still practicing.”
The American Protoss player stepped into his fan club thread and responded.
Shortly thereafter, Tyler wrote in that same fan club that he’s suffered from major depressive disorder (MDD) since 2005.
Better known as clinical depression, MDD manifests itself in “an all-encompassing low mood accompanied by low self-esteem, and by loss of interest or pleasure in normally enjoyable activities.” It is described as “disabling”. The disease can negatively affect the family, work, school, sleeping, eating and overall health of the sufferer. Both the physical and psychological health of the sufferer are adversely affected.
“Athletes are at risk for depression,” wrote Judy Bruen at Livestrong, “High pressure sporting events, personal and team expectations and individual disposition may increase bouts of depression in susceptible athletes.”
In light of this, it seems trivial to speak about how the disease affects Tyler’s StarCraft career. After all, he has a marriage to care about and an entire life to live. Before I inevitably do take the leap to talk about the trivial, it ought to be acknowledged that the collective concern about his game and his improvement is dwarfed by the concern for himself and his overall progress.
Although the specifics of the disease differ from person to person, MDD can have massive and varied effects on an individual whose profession requires monstrous mental stamina and dexterity. Some of the conspicuous gaps in Tyler’s career, once a great question mark to his fans, are much more easily understood once we begin, ever slightly, to understand his disease. These sorts of gaps are seen in many who suffer from clinical depression.
We were unable to speak with Tyler for this article but he has been increasingly open and public about depression.
“I’ve been dealing with depression since 2005 and, for those of you who don’t know, it tends to be kind of an off and on condition,” said Tyler in an August vlog on YouTube. “You always have it but you go through an episode where the symptoms are very severe and then you’ll work your way out of it and you get the symptoms under control. You live normally and you can do all the things you want to do. Then you’re focused on preventative measures against falling into depression again. With my history, I’m at huge risk of falling into it again.”
After a major win in TSL2 and continued success in Duke University, Tyler became inexplicably depressed.
“I just got depressed,” said Tyler. “It doesn’t even make sense, it’s a condition. You can’t try to rationalize it. It’s just a condition that makes people do irrational things and act in ways that other people don’t act. I haven’t really gotten my legs under me since then but I’m working on it.”
That the disease doesn’t make obvious sense is a key point in beginning to understand it to whatever extent we can as fans and viewers. From a distance, a person can only make so much sense out of so senseless a condition.
“The precipitating causes [of depressive episodes] are hard to identify precisely,” wrote Joshua Wolf Shenk in The Atlantic, “in part because cause and effect in depressive episodes can be hard to separate. Ordinarily we insist on a narrative line: factor x led to reaction y. But in a depressive crisis we might feel bad because something has gone awry. Or we might make things go awry because we feel so bad. Or both.”
Examples of seemingly inexplicable behavior of sufferers are littered throughout the history of the disease.
The question of how the community will deal with Tyler’s disease and his openness about it is being answered every day.
The immediate responses to Tyler stepping and speaking out were overwhelmingly positive. Messages of support were seen across the community and, he has said, in his personal inbox.
Just days before Tyler did come out about MDD, he had been the subject of much ire after he cursed out a fan over Twitter. In the days following the MDD announcement, a contentious debate was held on Reddit over how to treat such outbursts in light of the new revelation. While it is tricky business assigning a winner to an internet forum debate, it seems fair to say that the consensus hoped Tyler would still be held accountable for his actions. This seems the most supremely reasonable outcome possible from such a conversation.
“You are now the spokesperson for anxiety and depression in eSports,” wrote jrmyhgg in response to a video blog in which Tyler discussed his depression.
Tyler has become the face and voice of the issue. Admiring fans, many of whom suffered from similar ailments, continue to turn out in great numbers to express their support and understanding of the American Protoss.
When a player humanizes himself, the fan base reacts. Tyler’s ups and downs have now taken on a more personal importance for many of his fans, from those who suffer from mental disorders as well as the vast majority who do not.
In fact, it seems that Tyler is on the upswing as we speak. Since August, he has been practicing and streaming more than ever before, even going so far as to say that he is currently playing the best StarCraft 2 of his life right now.
“This is a lot different from what’s happened in the past where I said ‘Oh, I’ll practice more’ and it’s been future tense,” said Tyler, “Well, now it’s past tense. I’ve actually been doing it. I’ve gotten a lot better. Providence is coming up in a few weeks and I’m excited about that.”
The community has picked up on it. The excitement seen in Tyler’s video blogs is contagious and the attention he’s received on Reddit and Team Liquid reflect that. He’s recently been called motivated, dedicated and ecstatic by community members. Granted, these are the reactions of a fan base that have long been hoping and waiting for a resurgence from the American and must therefore be taken with a grain of salt. However, their excitement reflects very real change in the player formerly known as Nony.
Tyler’s run at MLG Providence was short lived. He lasted only until the 5th round and was knocked out by a relatively unknown player. Whether he can continue his progress after a poor performance will be a major litmus test for the American Protoss player.
Tyler’s situation is unique in many ways. He is not fighting a slump or an injury. He is fighting a disease. It would be foolish for any layperson to sit here and speak authoritatively about what recent developments mean for Tyler’s future.
However, if nothing else, Tyler’s recent remarks are a reason to keep your eyes on one of the most talented American StarCraft players of all time as he heads into the 2011 off season and beyond. As he’s proven before, the potential for greatness is there. Now
, it’s up to him to bring all his talent to bear.
Haypro, 28, Team Liquid. Sponsors: The Little App Factory, Razer, TwitchTV
Mocking struggling players is sport to many fans. Haypro’s 2011 slump has brought out the predictable comedians. A slump, it must be said, that has included numerous Top 16 finishes at MLG, a fact that is often credited to his Pool Play spot rather than stellar play on his part.
The Swedish Zerg player is jokingly referred to as Bon Jovi or Banjo, a term highlighting his lackluster results by parodying the Korean term “bonjwa,” meaning a player who dominates StarCraft for a long period of time. Another popular nickname for the Swedish Zerg player is “Medium AI,” referring to his apparent inability to win even against a very bad computer.
It must be said that Haypro’s concise answers in our interview are understandable. It is extremely difficult if not downright unpleasant to speak about your own results when they have not measured up to expectations. Any individual who is not doing as well as him can be easily forgiven if he’s not ecstatic about the prospect of delivering a thesis on the topic.
What Haypro did choose to share was significant.
Hayder’s practice time shrunk considerably over the month and a half leading up to Providence. Although he says he normally practices six hours a day; a number that is toward the low end for a top level StarCraft 2 pro. Recently, he has been practicing “very little, maybe one hour a day or less because of different reasons.”
Haypro declined to specify the reasons behind his practice hours except to say they are due to circumstances he cannot control.
Haypro’s story highlights the fact that any bump in the road, any trouble in a professional gamer’s life, can have pronounced consequences in game. It is an incredibly difficult task to focus on the intricacies of StarCraft as a full time job for six or eight or more hours per day.
Being a successful StarCraft professional demands a state of mind that is capable, at least some of the time, of separating the game from the rest of life. To some extent, players must be able to compartmentalize in order to keep pushing their game forward to keep up with an advancing field of competitors regardless of what occurs in the background.
Whatever circumstances are preventing Haypro from practicing, they ought to reinforce an idea that is too often forgotten by fans. It is exceedingly difficult to be a successful StarCraft professional for any amount of time and that is doubly true for an extended period.
Entering into MLG Providence, Haypro was seeded into the Championship Bracket but was expected to do poorly from there.
Haypro will return to his old stomping grounds at Dreamhack shortly, a tournament he won three times for Brood War. Despite a breakout performance in Providence, the Swede remains a significant underdog against the top tier opponents he will be up against in his home country.