When I say the best I don’t mean the best in the office or the best at your school… I mean the best in the world. Before I was an engineer in the valley, I was a grandmaster at a game I loved more than life itself. Starcraft II.
In September of 2015, I was ranked top 200 in America in RTS game Starcraft II out of 100,000+ active players. For those of you who don’t know what Starcraft is, here’s a quick summary.
Starcraft II is a fast paced 1v1 strategy game focused around building an army and killing your opponent’s base. Each game is a fresh start and lasts anywhere from 1–15+ minutes. It’s a game that pairs the strategy of chess with the dexterity of playing the violin. Starcraft II is still considered the hardest competitive eSport to date, and it’s the game Google’s DeepMind wants to crack next.
It started off as a hobby
When I first started playing in grade 11, it was just a fun game to play after school. However, I ran into an immediate problem.
I was super competitive about playing this game, but I was also complete shit. I WAS SO BAD. I was at the bottom of the totem pole, the lowest you could possible be ranked — Bronze League (Bottom 20%). Everyone online made me look like an idiot and everyone at my school could easily beat me.
My first goal was to be better than my friend who got me into the game — Tony. I would rush home after school and watch videos of the all pros playing and try to replicate their play style…However, every single time I challenged Tony, he would beat me.
Then it happened. One day I just won. There wasn’t any big cool buildup, or Rocky training montage with inspirational music leading up to the match, it just happened. Then it happened again. And again. And again.
It got to the point where it wasn’t a challenge to beat my friends anymore, and I had reached a local skill cap. So it was only natural that I focused my sights on something bigger: Grandmaster(GM) league — Top 200 in America.
As you can see on the left, the ladder works very systematically. When I told people I was going for GM, most of them thought it was just some dumb phase that I would grow out of.
Imagine if your friend came up to you and told you that they were going to become the top 0.25% at something insanely hard and they just started. It’s like someone telling you they want to be the greatest physicist in the world in your grade 10 physics class. How would you react?
Whether I was doing it out of joy, or the social pressure I had created for myself, I knew it was something I had to achieve…I had no idea how hard it was going to be.
As time went on and I got better, most of my highschool friends stopped playing. However, I was still able to maintain a sense of community by meeting people in game. It was like living a double life — a video game had pulled together a community of people all chasing the same goal. I surrounded myself with the right people and it put me in a position for success.
For the first two years, my life inside the game was going smoothly. I was increasing at a faster than average rate, and I was quickly climbing the ladder.
However, my outside life is where things were getting tricky. I was in my last year of highschool and I was playing almost 10 hours a day. As soon as I got home from at 3pm to 1am at night, I was practicing. It got to the point where I was wearing wrist braces to sleep for 2 years because of how strained my wrists were.
My grades were dropping, I was worried about getting into university, and I was fighting with my parents on a regular basis. At my lowest point my plan was to skip university all together and move to Korea to continue pursuing a career in gaming. That’s how desperate I was. I didn’t care if I made shit money, I didn’t care if everyone in my life thought I was a failure, I wanted to be the best. End of story.
Eventually, I was fortunate enough to continue my education at Ryerson.
At this point, I’d been playing for around 2 years. Everyday I would endured physical and emotional challenges inside and outside the game. However, I was sitting at around top 10% of the player base. I was finally seeing some progress.
Hitting Plateaus and Refining my Craft
At Ryerson I was lucky enough to find people at who also played. I ran the Ryerson CSL team (think college football but for Starcraft), and we were one of the best universities in the league.
I was good, but I wasn’t where I needed to be. During my first semester of university, I literally didn’t show up to anything for two straight months. I skipped almost every single lab and every single class to play. I was playing 16 hours a day at that point, and I was top 2%.
A surprising thing I noticed was that it was harder to bridge the gap from top 2% to top 0.25% than it was to go from top 90% to top 2%.
It’s insane how deeply complex any field can be. Everything has its own subtle intricacies that you don’t see until you’re already on an extremely deep level. When you’re at the top, there’s very little room for mistake. Every small misstep can cost you the game against someone who knows how to exploit it.
Eventually, I hit a wall. A big wall. A wall that lasted for another 2 years of my life. I couldn’t bridge the gap between being top 2% (masters league) and GM.
During this time I played as much as I could while finding the minimal amount of time needed for school. I got extremely close to failing almost all my courses…multiple times.
Breaking my plateaus felt like rebuilding myself from scratch. It was like I was standing on a big pyramid I built. There were cracks in my foundation, gaps in my understanding, and a lot of things that needed refining. I had to reinvent the way I played. In order to go higher I had to break it down and rebuild it up again.
Most of my improvement cycles consisted of me taking a big dive in ranking as I started the process of breaking my pyramid down, then quickly shooting up past where I was once I started to rebuild. One step backwards, then two steps forward. It was an upward trend.
The final jump
By the time I entered 3rd year, I was extremely close to my goal. I had never wanted anything more in my life. I would wake up, turn my computer on, brush my teeth, and play. I would forget about food or water and just play. I had worked four years to get to the top and I was so close to it. Nothing was stopping me.
In my last couple months, I learned a lot about myself. For one, I saw how little I had come to enjoy the game. It had become this undying need to achieve something that had kept me going. Somewhere in this entire process, I began to hate the game itself. I felt no enjoyment in it at all. But I couldn’t stop. I wouldn’t let myself.
For the past four years, that goal had become ingrained with who I was, that stopping before I achieved it would be like shattering a piece of my own identity.
When I finally hit GM around 2 weeks into my 3rd year of university, it felt well deserved. I knew I was playing at that level for quite some time, so it didn’t come as too much of a surprise.
However, the real takeaway of this story is what this entire 4 year process cost me and what I gained from it.
- Time. Lots and lots of time. Ages 16–20 were almost exclusively Starcraft.
- My relationship with my parents. I can’t even begin to tell you how much arguments and fights my goal caused between my parents and I. They’re already traditional to begin with, so imagine how they felt when I told them I didn’t get into my dream university because I wanted to move to Korea and play a video game for the rest of my life.
- My physical and mental health. While I didn’t have much to show for it, my lack of eating and lack of physical exercise was a big problem. I felt like shit most of the time, and when I did manage to eat, I ate like shit.
- The accolades. Being able to say I was once top 200 in America at anything is an extremely huge honor. I put it on my resume and one of my interviewers even mentioned it.
- The confidence. This is definitely my biggest take away. Getting that good at Starcraft will forever server as a reminder that no matter what it is I want to achieve, It’s within my grasp. There’s no more questions of whether I’m capable of greatness or achieving what I want in life. It’s just a matter of whether or not I’m willing to suck it up and put in the work.
- The community. While the gaming community generally falls short when it comes to quality (sorry Twitch chat), I walked away with more than one life long friend from running Ryerson’s CSL team.
- I stopped listening to limiting people around me. When I first started my journey, all people would do was warn me that the climb is too high — that only the best of the best could ever be GM and I was too late to even try. It conditioned me to shoot past the stars with every goal I set, and never pay any mind to people who think any goal is too high up to achieve.
- I learned how to learn and deal with pressure. To get to the top I had to constantly refactor the way I thought and played. My style could never stay the same for too long, or I would hit a wall and stop growing. Additionally, given the fast paced nature of Starcraft, I learned to deal with things under stress extremely well.
Would I do it all again?
Every. Single. Time.
This post could never fully cover all the amazing moments I’ve had playing Starcraft, and how much the game meant to me.
As Day9 once said, it was MY fault I got that good at something that hard. It was me who did that. I achieved it. No outside influence, no inherent advantages or predispositions, I started from the bottom and worked my way up. I’m the only one who can take responsibility for the great thing I had achieved.
Before hitting GM, I never accomplished anything noteworthy in my entire life. It was my first real sense success and pride. As soon as it happened, I was a superstar in my own eyes, and I’ve been riding the momentum ever since.
I was able to apply all the things I learned in Starcraft to all the other areas in my life — whether it’s becoming a good software engineer, or learning how to play chess. I can’t remember the last time I doubted myself.
I wrote a journal entry that night that ended like this:
I can finally proceed with bigger goals and achievements, knowing that absolutely nothing is out of my grasp.