All posts by Theodore Yan

Who are we here?

She sounds the way a photograph looks. It’s so strange, this habit we’ve developed in the past 70 years or so of forcing out a smile whenever cameras appear. The default human face doesn’t smile. Imagine how terrifying it would look if someone always appeared as she does in her profile pictures, perpetually wearing a Cheshire Cat where her face should be.

Elizabeth had recently been prescribed new medications. She took a dose of Lobutrin a little bit before talking to me, and she sounds cheerful, on the verge of giggling, throughout our conversation. She’s a talented artist, graduating high school this year, and going to NYU in August. She currently has a 3.8 GPA. She wants to study design, business, and possibly race and gender studies.

After her parents’ divorce while she was in the eighth grade, Elizabeth lived with them alternately for a few years, first with her father in Michigan, then in Acton, Massachusetts, before moving to live with her mother in Lexington.

“I decided I didn’t like Lexington my junior year, so I was just like, I’ll switch to Concord because my dad moved to Concord, so I did that for two weeks, and then I was like, ‘Fuck that,’ and I moved back to Lexington. And then this year I did Lexington for, like, one day and then was, like, ‘Hell no,'” she says.

She informed me later that she moved from Lexington the first time because a boy there tried to bribe her into having sex with him in exchange for Adderall. She didn’t know who to talk to about the situation and was so uncomfortable that she left the school.

Elizabeth seems to describe her parents as, at best, walls between which she bounces. “I honestly don’t have much to say about them. They don’t provide me much of a support system; I just do what I want to do,” she says. She talks about how she feels this has made her clingy, has made her desperate for companionship, has made her value her friends more than they ever value her. Her voice chimes happily throughout. Maybe this situation will matter less to her as she moves forward in life.

She refers to her anxiety and depression frequently. If NYU takes note of her rapidly falling grades in the second semester of her senior year, she says, she has a ready explanation.

“Before they rescind my admission, they’re going to tell me. They’re going to tell me, like, ‘Why are your grades shitty?’ If my grades are really that shitty, I’ll just be like, ‘Oh, depression.’

Elizabeth has difficulty deciding how being Asian has affected her life. “I can’t think of a general statement, but I can come up with lots of small things,” she says. “Like, I’m always referred as that blonde Asian.” She drags out the last word for effect. “I’m a cool Asian; I’m everyone’s little, midget, Asian friend. I don’t really care because it’s my friends calling me that, but, like, at the same time, it just doesn’t feel right.”

“It doesn’t make me feel bad. Like, I’m happy to be Asian now; I used to hate it a lot,” she goes on. “I think that’s just because, like… It was just me being dumb and thinking white people are awesome; I don’t really know.”

“I’ve talked to other Asians too,” says Elizabeth. “I feel like a lot of them just try to be white and try to be American because, well, obviously white people have it better. Also, when I was younger, I felt like I had to fight against the stereotype of just being a nerdy little Asian, but now I’m just more comfortable with who I am. I don’t care if I’m Asian; I got fucking bangs. I look more Asian than ever. People are just like ‘Oh, Elizabeth, you look like an anime character.’ Like whatever, like awesome, I look like an anime character.”

She bubbles along in this impossibly quotable vein for a while.

“I wanna get by. I don’t wanna work that hard,” she says, describing her greatest hopes and dreams. “I want a wedding because I want to throw a fucking party, and I don’t want to get married because I don’t want to deal with the legal fucking shit of getting divorced, because I saw my parents go through it and I don’t want to deal with that.” She pauses for a moment. “Honestly, I feel like my biggest dream is just to meet someone I actually like and just have a stable relationship and support system.”

“Or I just want to open up a cute little café, which is really dumb, but I just like the idea of having a cute little café.”

 

Albert

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My most cherished memories of Albert are of him sitting in his room with the door closed while he studied.

Not that I ever faulted him for that. Albert, a third-year, studies actuarial science. He has a 4.0 in a program I’ve seen a number of friends fail out of. Perhaps the only way you can survive it is by constantly telling yourself you’re not good enough, convincing yourself before every exam that you’re going to fail (conveniently forgetting that you’ve gotten As on every exam in your university career), and taping a sign above your desk that says, “Study harder, you idiot.”

“Outside of studies, I guess you could say I’m not doing much. I’m focusing on studies right now,” he begins.

Albert’s parents never gave him a clear reason for why their family immigrated from Beijing. What he does know is that they moved to the US, and then left it for Vancouver while he was a small child.

“At the time I was pretty lonely, because I didn’t really have anyone to play with, because we did move… We just made a transition, and at the time I didn’t really have any friends,” he says.

His parents also didn’t have much time for him. “My dad was working two or three part-time jobs, because we didn’t really have money. My mom wanted to get a better job, so she was studying at a college,” he recalls. He often cried, wondering why they couldn’t play with him, or take him to ball games.

Things are going better for his family now. “I actually can’t get over the fact that we just keep spending money,” he says. “We just bought a boat, so we blew a lot of money on that, and then I saw the backyard being renovated. Oh, also we got a new fridge; it’s pretty dope. I’m like, ‘Wow, how do we have money for this?’ and my dad’s like, ‘You want to see my gun collection?'”

Albert mentions to me that it’s nearly mandatory for actuarial scientists to secure an internship the summer after their third year. He’s not trying hard enough to find one, he says.

“I’m wondering to myself, is this really what I want to do? Do I really want to work so hard right now to work even harder down the road?”

Seeing Albert doubt his convictions is something of a religious experience for me. “If I work hard, put 100 per cent effort into an actuarial job, I think maybe it’ll just be too much stress on my life; maybe I might miss out on things like family.”

“One thing’s for certain is that I don’t want to work too hard; I don’t want to bring too much stress upon myself when I work, and then I’ll just die with regrets,” he says. “Because in the end when you die, what’s the point of work, right? You work to get money for your family, but you want to die happy, you want to die with the knowledge that you made an impact on your family and that you were there for your family, so I think that’s pretty important too.”

 

Ivy

At 9:30 am, Ivy, speaking over Skype, makes it clear to me that she only has 20 minutes to talk before she attends a meeting.

Ivy lived in Beijing until she was four and visits the city annually. The description she gives of it sounds like a venture capital report.

“It’s changed a lot in the past 10 years, very urbanized now,” she begins. “Highways are loops around the city, so anywhere within the second loop, with the centre being Tiananmen Square, is very bustling and busy, and subway cars are very full.”

She tells me that those who live within the second “loop” are extremely wealthy and that crossing the loop takes about 30 minutes by subway. She describes nothing but urban infrastructure. By the time she is done telling me about the city in which she was born, I am ready to invest my untold millions in projects there.

“The Chinese have a 3,000-year history of lessons… Why would we want to give up that tradition?”

Currently a third-year student at Queen’s University’s commerce program, Ivy describes her current projects: producing and promoting a healthcare app, as well as doing marketing work for a small business her father is opening in Toronto. She is also active in varsity figure-skating, the Queen’s commerce students’ society, and a number of other organizations, continuing a trend that began with a childhood filled with skating, swimming lessons, classical piano, and multiple academic clubs.

Ivy’s parents divorced when she was six. Both remarried, and she has a functional relationship with both sides of her family. She echoes something Elizabeth told me, saying that she’s glad her parents divorced.

“They’re both a lot happier,” says Ivy, “and I think that it’s really their problem and nothing to do with me.” Elizabeth simply prefers it to watching them constantly fight.

“The thing is, my dad was always very open about his feelings and his pain and sadness over the divorce, and that’s something I didn’t need to hear about,” says Ivy. “There’s something about the feeling of being around my mom rather than my dad. Being around my mom, I always feel like if the sky fell down, she could still hold it up, and I always felt very safe with her; but with my dad, because I saw him weak, and that’s not something that a child wants to see his parents like, I never felt very secure with him.”

She is unequivocal about the benefits of her background. “I think that China is a booming economy, and I think I’m lucky that I have maintained a very high standard of Chinese. I can read and speak it fluently; I can type it because that’s just recognizing characters,” she says. “It’s always valuable to know a different language, but especially Chinese now, because there’s a lot of opportunities in China.” Asked to explain what is valuable about being Asian, she explains what is financially valuable about being Chinese.

“People label Asians as ‘Asians.’ I think that’s really the only difference,” says Ivy, dismissing the idea that there is meaningful contrast between her own race and others.

“Currently, I don’t feel like, doing entrepreneurship, people see me as the young Asian girl. They just see me as a very young entrepreneur.”

Our conversation is cut short by her front door opening. “One sec,” she says. I hear footsteps.

“Gan ma?” (“What’s happening?”) she calls downstairs. She realizes her business acquaintances have arrived. “Oh, jin lai ba, jin lai ba. Wo zhai kai hui” (“Come in, come in. I’m having a meeting”), she bids. She hurriedly answers my last question and then bids me farewell.

Page 2

Defense of a passion

On August 11, 2013, five men won over $600,000 playing a video game.

The International, Dota 2’s world championship, had come to a close, and Natus Vincere (Na’Vi for short), perhaps the most storied team in the history of the game, had just claimed that formidable sum by coming in second place to the Alliance.

Alliance got $1.4 million.

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DAN SELJAK/THE VARSITY

ESports, the industry term for competitive video games, has gained a prominence that nobody could have imagined less than a decade ago. Valve, the developer of Dota 2, can afford to give out over $2.8 million in prize money at an annual tournament. Similar amounts of money are available for champions in Starcraft and League of Legends, and professional League of Legends players are now recognized as professional athletes for the purposes of visa distribution by US Citizenship and Immigration services. Competitive gaming is profitable; it is professional; it is, dare I say, cool.

In the middle of all this fanfare, however, are the same people who were always there.

People who love video games.

People like William Lee, more often known as “Blitz” — because the Dota community, like that of every eSport, refers to players by their screen names.

“I grew up in a traditional Korean home with divorced parents,” says Blitz. “I lived with my mom, and she was really against me playing video games in general, and so, up until the time I was about 15 or 16, I didn’t acquire a PC or anything. I actually had to go to my father’s house just to be on a computer.”

“My sister’s ex-boyfriend randomly took me to play Dota 1 one day, and I remember very clearly I was playing Sven, a really simple hero at the time, and I just absolutely fell in love with the game.”

DOTA StatsDota 2 is, on the surface, a simple game. Two teams of five players, each controlling a character (called a “Hero”) chosen from a pool of 102, fight to destroy a large structure called an “Ancient” in the centre of the other team’s base. What distinguishes the game, however, is how immersive it is as a result of the amount and diversity of heroes players can choose to play from. There are infinite ways the characters can interact with each other and the Dota landscape. By the time the first minute of game play has passed, each game of Dota is different from any other game of Dota ever played.

Blitz graduated from Purdue with a double major in management and classical literature. He had reasonably good grades, took the LSAT, and was ready to go to law school. He has also sunk countless hours into Dota and is famous for being the single best “Storm Spirit” player in the world. He has thought about attempting to pursue a career playing the game professionally.

Stories like his abound, but eSports are a young phenomenon, and very few players can make enough money to survive. “I’d say about maybe five to ten per cent of players could make a livable wage,” explains Blitz, “livable meaning about 23­— or 2400 dollars a month, right?”

“I had always kind of done the route that my parents had demanded of me: Go to school; do this; this is what you’re supposed to do,” says Blitz. “And I just felt like being selfish for a little bit, and I found out I really enjoyed it.”

Many fans and players of eSports would echo that sentiment. For them, Dota, or whatever games they play, mean so much more than simple recreation. They inspire a spirit of competition and a shared culture that they do not find anywhere else. “ Before Dota, I was really kind of shy, quiet, awkward. I was very socially difficult to be around,” the famously gregarious Blitz reveals. “And I think that Dota‘s kind of given me a better outlook on life, socially, because it is a social game, for the people who don’t know. You do play with teammates, and how well you do depends on how well you can communicate, and not get upset with people, just working in a team environment.”

And then he returns to what it would mean to try to play the game for a living.

“For top tournaments, excluding the International, there may be a $20,000 prize pool, but that’s paid out over the course of a three- or four-month tournament,” explains Blitz. “Playing Dota for two or three years is fantastic and all, but at some point you have to think about the future, and if you’re only getting by, I don’t think that’s really living.”

“A lot of people say things like, ‘Well, you’re making a living playing games; that’s fantastic that you’re getting anything at all,’ but that’s the wrong way to look at it because playing games for a living, you’re sacrificing a lot,” he goes on. “For a lot of people, they won’t have the support of their families; they have to work another job; they might be giving up a better job for this, because playing Dota is really demanding.”

The very best players in the world can make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year and can afford to play full-time. The vast majority of eSports players — who grew up loving video games and found, in the end, that there is nothing they love more — must work day jobs. They need to find some way not to starve while they pursue their dream, and so, they have less time to practice — making it even less likely that they will succeed.

“I’d like to be optimistic and tell myself I can do anything and accomplish anything,” said Blitz of his chances of ever winning The International, “but, realistically speaking, there’s so many things that are against me.”

“You know what’s always confused me, on a side note? It’s this whole thing like if you believe enough, you can do it. But isn’t every other person in my situation also trying really hard, and putting their all into it? I was always confused by that. Sure, I can believe in myself, and say: ‘Yeah, maybe I can!’ But realistically speaking, the odds are low.”

“A lot of people say things like, ‘Well, you’re making a living playing games, that’s fantastic that you’re getting anything at all,’ but that’s the wrong way to look at it, because, playing games for a living, you’re sacrificing a lot. For a lot of people, they won’t have the support of their families; they have to work another job; they might be giving up a better job for this, because playing DotA is really demanding.”

Blitz is a reasonable person — most professional Dota players are. Blitz, like his peers, acknowledges that his chances of making enough money to live on by playing Dota are slim, and his chances of making enough to live comfortably are almost nonexistent.

An additional caveat is that video games are still stigmatized. Dropping every other priority in the attempt to become a professional athlete in more traditional sports is comprehensible to most people, as is pursuing a dream of becoming an artist. “Playing video games” is very often still shorthand for being an immature, directionless slob.

If Blitz fails, then he will have wasted years of his life developing no marketable skills and will have a résumé that will be laughed out of the door by most employers. He realizes that, statistically speaking, he will almost certainly fail.

On November 14, 2013, William “Blitz” Lee boarded a plane to fly to Korea to begin his Dota career.