ROG Masters brings together players and teams of all levels from around the globe.
ROG Masters 2017 involved 30 worldwide qualifiers that offered hundreds of teams a chance to battle through regional brackets for a shot at $500,000 in the Kuala Lumpur Grand Finals for CS:GO and Dota 2. These players came from a wide range of backgrounds, from new pros to seasoned veterans, all of whom were looking for a shot at their esports dreams.
Bringing together such diverse teams made for more than just interesting battles. It also made it possible to compare the performance of teams and players at completely different points in their gaming careers. The result is a fascinating look at the spectrum of what it means to be an esports player, from the challenges they overcome to the places they’re from.
Different challenges at different levels
Players face different challenges depending on whether they’re newly minted or seasoned vets.
At the ROG Masters, you quickly discover that players are both united and set apart by the challenges they face. Some challenges are geographic, while others are personal—but all players are tested in unexpected ways outside the arena.
For Filipino Dota 2 team Execration, location is everything. Hailing from a Southeast Asian island nation means longer ping times against non-Filipino teams. And while many players and fans can’t fathom being significantly impacted by weather, Mother Nature is a big deal for Execration. “When there’s a typhoon and there’s a blackout, we lost,” said Ryan ‘Raging Potato’ Jay Qui in an ROG video interview. With many qualifiers now being hosted online, these factors can can make or break a tournament.
Many people can’t imagine regularly worrying about losing a match due to a typhoon, but it’s not uncommon for Execration.
Though Southeast Asian teams have location-specific challenges, newly minted players everywhere often find themselves surprised by the demands of their new life. For CS:GO rifler Taylor ‘Drone’ Johnson, going pro meant gaining skills outside the competition booth that he never anticipated he’d need. Splyce is his first pro team, and it was immediately clear that there were big differences between the amateur and pro levels. “There’s a lot which comes with that when you switch,” he said. For one thing, expectations are higher. “You can’t be joking a lot, you can’t be making fun of people.” Makes sense.
Beyond being on your best behavior, there's uncharted territory to navigate, too. Pro players do more than game well. Sponsorships mean partner meetings, and this can be a bumpy transition as players are leveling up totally new stats IRL. “I [flew] out to New York, where there’s a headquarters for one of our partners,” Drone recalled. “I [did] a [CS:GO] presentation [...] to people that had never seen it. You’re like, ‘What? I’ve never had to do that to anybody.’” But despite this briefly rocky start, pro life is absolutely worth it. “The pros outweigh the cons, definitely. When in your life are you gonna be able to experience free travel to different countries to compete in a video game [with] your friends?”
In contrast, seasoned pros face an entirely different set of challenges. Some teams have such demanding travel and tournament schedules that they actually have to drop out of competitions to free up time. Others find tournaments get in the way of something that’s pretty key: practice.
While tournaments are great for teams’ exposure, experience, and net worth, Ghostik and others talked about how too many can impact team practice time.
Empire’s Andrey ‘Ghostik’ Kadyk, Gambit’s Bektiyar ‘Fitch’ Bahytov, and TyLoo’s team coach all said their greatest challenges were simply finding time between back-to-back tournaments. “It’s really an annoying thing [...] if you're playing [tournaments] just every single day,” said Ghostik during the ROG Masters group stages. And it’s not like the competition days are a walk in the park, either. Players go long hours inside hot tournament boxes, often without breaks for food until a side emerges victorious. Everyone needs downtime to relax, bond as a team, sharpen their skills, and play a few pickup games with zero pressure beyond who’s ordering the next pizza.
From humble beginnings to elite origins
All heroes—and esports champions—have origin stories.
Just like superheroes, every player has an origin story, and hearing how various players got their beginnings is fascinating. These early experiences inevitably form the foundation for everything from players' perspectives on pro life to their style of play.
Take Gambit, this year’s ROG Masters CS:GO grand champions as an example. Four of their five members come from Kazakhstan, but there are unexpected barriers to playing esports there. In 2003, when team captain Dauren ‘AdreN’ Kystaubayev first began playing CS1.6 professionally, just 2% of his home country’s population had internet access.
Captain AdreN talked about how Kazakhstan has lots of talented players, but the country historically hasn’t had the infrastructure for them to become successful.
Kazakhstan has come a long way since, but it’s hard to imagine playing online games in that kind of environment, much less becoming a professional player at Gambit’s level. They’re number 12 worldwide, and their players are among Kazakhstan’s top five-earning esports players. Kystaubayev explained how these challenges impact aspiring pros in an ROG Masters video interview: “We have lots of talent in Kazakhstan,” he said, face solemn behind dark glasses. “But we don’t have too many opportunities to play. We don’t have internet and stuff, and we have to improve by ourselves.”
Gambit are champions who dominate their opponents and the pro circuit. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, they put enormous pressure on themselves. This was immediately apparent from talking to Fitch during ROG Grand Finals day one. “A lot of people just told [us], we are the favorites here. But I don't know, everything can [be a] surprise,” he said, as if he was already expecting the games to get away from them. “We [are] not too good right now. We have to improve our game more.” Maybe it’s because they fought their way through so many challenges, but it’s surprising to hear a player from one of the world’s top teams talk as though he believes the odds are stacked so precipitously against them.
Talking to Fitch revealed that even champion teams like Gambit sometimes feel like they’re not good enough.
The opposite side of this coin is the fascinating perspective of those who went pro so young that they can’t imagine doing anything else. The game has become a natural extension of who they are as both players and people. This is the case for OpTiC gaming’s Ludwig ‘zai’ Wåhlberg. At 20 years old, he’s been playing Dota 2 since it was first released in the summer of 2013. This seats him squarely among the ranks of veterans, and it shows in the arena. But ask whether this game has changed him, and the questions slide away like droplets of water.
From the outside looking in, the game has undoubtedly changed him. He delayed finishing school for his esports career, and for good reason—he’s #25 in the world for esports earnings. But, from his perspective, Dota 2 and professional gaming aren’t something he added to his life; they’re inexorably intertwined with it. “In the major years, when I was growing up, I was already playing and competing and traveling [...] so for me, it's kind of always been natural because it was something I did from a very young age,” he said. “I kind of grew into it.”
Whether a player had a humble start or was launched into the spotlight at a young age, everyone starts somewhere and that context is inseparable from who they are today.
Don’t let his age fool you. OpTiC’s zai is a veteran.
For the love of the game
TyLoo’s bondik said, for him, it’s about the competitions and the game, including playing in lots of good tournaments, having fun, and doing his best.
At first glance, ROG Masters might appear to be nothing but contrast. But among all these teams and players, there’s still plenty of common ground. For everyone here, there’s unity in their love for gaming, hunger to learn, and thirst for competition.
For Tyloo’s Hansel ‘BnTeT’ Ferdinand, CS:GO is a compulsion, not a choice. “It’s my passion from when I was a kid,” he said. During most of the interview he had a poker face, but as soon as he began talking about his early days playing Counter-Strike, a spark lit behind his eyes. “I [started] playing CS 1.6 and at that time I realize this game [...] makes me [want] to play every day. I cannot stop [playing] even if my parents say, ‘Stop [playing].’” Thankfully, his family is now supportive and very proud of his pro career.
Talk to TyLoo’s BnTeT and you can immediately tell how passionate he is about CS:GO.
As for Zai, part of the draw is growing and learning with Dota 2, a game that always keeps him on his toes with the latest patch and Hero changes. But more than that, it’s about the competition. “I don't think a lot of people get to experience competing at the height of anything, whether it's sports or chess, [or] crossword puzzles,” he said. “I think being able to just do that is very exciting. Going to all these tournaments and playing with the best teams is ... it's very fun.” From the rush of being onstage to the pure thrill of competing at the highest levels, that’s where it’s at for him.
When it comes to summing this all up neatly for everyone, perhaps Empire’s Ivan ‘VANSKOR’ Skorokhod captured it best of all. We asked if he could ever see himself doing something else, and his answer was short and sweet: “Not really.”
As ROG Masters drew to a close, only two teams left as victors. But, regardless of the outcome and despite their many differences, every player there symbolized something greater: the idea that pros can truly come from anywhere. No matter what someone’s origin story might be, it’s grit, determination, practice, and passion that makes their esports dream a reality.
Gambit’s Abay ‘HObbit’ Khasenov holds the trophy moments after winning the ROG Masters Grand Finals.
By Kimberly Koenig