While Starcraft II is only halfway through its second year of release, the time when Warcraft III dominated the scene is already fading from memory. The explosive growth of eSports in 2011 and through 2012, though, owes much to the world of Azeroth, and of the players who made the action in Warcraft III as exciting as it's ever been.
Warcraft III, like Starcraft II and Brood War before it, had its share of superstars... but, without question, none shined as brightly as Manuel “Grubby” Schenkhuizen, one of the most successful and respected players in eSports history, and a modern day pioneer who paved the way for every player who came after him.
Grubby, the most decorated player in Warcraft III history, now spends his time as a professional caliber Protoss player still searching for his first major victory. In this interview, we get the chance to chew the fat over his career in eSports-- both past and present-- his thoughts on Starcraft II from a Warcraft III superstar's perspective, and where everything is headed from here.
Greetings, Grubby. While you're a living legend to anyone who even passively followed the Warcraft III scene, the Starcraft II fan base has a large number of new and younger members. For those who've yet to have the chance to get to know you, can you give us a brief introduction of who you are and how you got to where you are today?
Greetings. I’m just your regular guy who happens to love video games and performing for an audience. I used to play the piano but it became dull and it wasn’t very interactive with the audience. Imagine my surprise when I realized eSports “exists.” From carefully going to a LAN here and there, living from tournament to tournament quickly grew out of proportions. A careful negotiation with my parents led to the possibility to take a year off after finishing my high school. Back then, that was a relatively rare and sometimes poorly understood move. I didn’t see it as very different from kids who went to Australia for 6 months to do some soul searching partying.
After winning two world championships (WCG & ESWC) in my first year off, I couldn’t find any reasons to discontinue my fledgling career. I’ve rarely looked back, and have no regrets. I’m very happy with where I got to.
In terms of Warcraft III, there's scarcely a major title or record you don't own, and you spent your career representing the biggest organizations in the business, bringing success with you no matter where you landed. Through it all, what is it that truly defined you as a progamer in Warcraft III? What is that made you stand out more than anyone else?
I couldn’t say for sure what, if anything. One of the greatest helps I’ve had is that the game has never grown boring to me. I see people struggling with motivation, forcing themselves to train against their own will. That simply never happened with me – I’ve always enjoyed what I do immensely. I’ve also just been lucky that my fan base grew and grows constantly, since people just seem to like watch me play. Your will is my command… [Laughs]
"Whereas MYM and EG were more professional, my time in 4Kings is what you could call 'first love.'”
Throughout your run in Warcraft III, you represented many different teams, including Four Kings, MeetYourMakers, and Evil Geniuses. Of all of your past experiences, which stands out to you as your “golden age,” where you seemed to have been “home” in terms of friendship and success, and in finding the situation that allowed you to thrive?
That would be in 4Kings. Whereas MYM and EG were more professional, my time in 4Kings is what you could call “first love.” Not so much because of the organization but simply because it was a “friend’s team”. In EG I was more of a solo player, which was right at the time. In 4Kings we had great performances as an actual team. While sometimes individually worse than our opponents, we nearly always defeated them in team games. It displayed how that could transform a player. Great chemistry and fighting for a greater cause than just yourself.
Of all the victories you have under your belt in Warcraft III, which stands out as your favorite or most beloved memory? Was there one which meant more than others, or perhaps one which sticks with you because of something you had to overcome?
The 2008 World Cyber Games victory. I had to overcome people’s expectations that I was over my prime, that I could not win another victory in spite of whatever force of will or efforts I may possess. Before the tournament, I even wrote down a list of people who I was dedicating the win to. My girlfriend, my mother, my sponsors, my team, my team mates, my fans... the list was long, the pressure was high, and the explosion of joy upon victory was fierce.
From a very early age, your abilities had you on the “road” quite a lot. Since the age of 17, you've been jet-setting across the world to compete, never spending too much time in one place. How did this affect your adolescence, and your life as a whole?
When I started competing and traveling, I was at times immature and egocentric. I feel like traveling around the world has opened up my mind, allowed me to appreciate different cultures and grow up as a person. It also made me truly happy for the first time my adolescence. I had a great childhood, but I didn’t care very much for high school. Post-high school life was so much better for me, I really opened up and felt happy and free.
Early this year, you officially retired from Warcraft III and made the full time jump to Starcraft II. While the game is still very young, your switch came considerably later than most other current Starcraft II pros, especially those who shared your background in Warcraft III. Why was your switch a bit delayed compared to many of your counterparts? What kept in you in Warcraft III for so long?
It’s hard for me to begin on something new. Especially when I love what I am involved with. Even though WC3 was over its peak, I was loathe to let go. I enjoyed every single day of practice and competition. Moreover, I was still committed to tournaments, in the sense that I had already qualified for or accepted invitations for various tournaments in late 2010. All these factors led me to switch to SC2 a year (or if you only count retail, half a year) later than most other people. Sometimes I regret that I didn’t switch earlier, but I also owed it to my WC3 career and fans to stay until I could no longer do it. My time with WC3 added a lot of value to my life!
Once you made the switch, you settled on Protoss as your race. What reasoning went into this decision? Are their similarities between Protoss and Orc, or is there something else to it?
Actually I think Protoss as a race needs to grow a bit more diverse. The expansion pack might add a lot. In my opinion TFT added a lot for WC3 and Broodwar added a lot to SC vanilla. It would be nice to have more harassment methods besides Phoenixes, DT’s or Warp Prism drops. I think I still don’t use Warp Prism enough.
I picked Protoss because I’ve always liked big HP units. Throughout all the games I’ve played since I was 4, it’s been a pattern in my racial and strategical choices to go for beefy units. My brother says I always end up picking the most alien, monstrous or gigantic creatures in the game. Even if I were to reason out that another race were to fit my play style better, I still end up sticking with the big monstrous creatures.
"I don’t think I can make it to the top of Starcraft the same way I did in Warcraft... But I will be satisfied with my piece of the pie. I don’t feel like I have it yet, and I’m pretty hungry!"
Despite your somewhat late transition, you now have nearly a year of experience in Starcraft II under your belt. What are your impressions of Starcraft II at this point? Are you satisfied with your results to this point, or are there some things you feel you need to work on if you're to make it to the top of Starcraft II the way you did in Warcraft III?
I don’t think I can make it to the top of Starcraft the same way I did in Warcraft. For one thing, the scene is much tougher and broader. But I will be satisfied with my piece of the pie. I don’t feel like I have it yet, and I’m pretty hungry!
In April of 2011, you announced SteelSeries as your main sponsor. You are currently the only player representing them. Is this an advantage, or an inconvenience? With the lack of a full time team, to whom do you turn to discuss and work on different strategies in practice games?
SteelSeries has sponsored me as a solo player for nine months. They are one of the most professional companies I have had the pleasure of working with and I’ve appreciated their support. For the year of 2012, they’ve decided not to continue their sponsorship and focus on other pursuits. Of course I wish that they would’ve been able to renew their sponsorship of me for 2012 as well, so that I would be able to repay their investment even better. My results may have been the reason for them stopping, but I feel like I’m getting there soon.
For practice and strategy discussion, I’m happy to be close with a lot of pro-gamers. You don’t need a team to make friends and help each other. The eSports scene seems like one big family to me, at times.
You spent one month in the oGs/TL house in South-Korea. How did this affect your play? Was it a strange experience to find yourself in a pro-gaming house where you weren't the top pro doing the teaching, but the one trying to learn?
I only spent three weeks there, and only two of that was solid practice due to various circumstances. Even just two weeks benefited me greatly. There was not much teaching / learning going on, mostly self-study. oGs allowed me to observe and practice by myself, and this was already a great blessing for me. A couple of times I got some advice from InCa, and I was grateful – even though I wasn’t always good enough to implement his tips fully.
A vast improvement in your play was evident following your time in Korea. What would you say was the most important catalyst in this improvement? Would you attribute it more to the skill level of the players with whom you practiced, or would you say, as many others have, that it has much more to do with the work ethic and system of practice that comes with living in a Korean professional house?
Mostly the fact that I was able to play for 2 weeks without distractions or other responsibilities. It was also very motivating to see solid pro’s all around me while I was training. I don’t think there’s anything comparable available outside of Korea.
As foreign viewers have come to expect, Koreans continue to dominate Starcraft II in every event they enter, while only a handful of foreigners-- Greg “IdrA” Fields, Chris “HuK” Loranger, Johan “NaNiwa” Lucchesi, and Ilyes “Stephano” Satourni, most notably-- are able to consistently compete with them. Three of those mentioned spent considerable time in South Korea. In your mind, is integrating yourself into a Korean style house the only way to reach the top?
You don’t have to, but it certainly helps. Not as a magic pill, though. You still have to work very hard for it.
Save for a sparse few examples, the community at large hasn't had the ability to see you showcase your skills at major events like the GSL or MLG. Is a bigger presence in these international events in the works for 2012, or are you still “easing” yourself into the scene, and planning to attend those events when you feel you're at the top of your game?
Well I played two MLG’s, where I did decently but much worse than I did in practice. I definitely hope to display more presence in 2012.
Even at this early point in the game's life cycle, Starcraft II is already preparing for a major overhaul as Heart of the Swarm looms on the horizon. How do you feel about an expansion being introduced at this point, with another already planned to follow shortly after? How, as a professional gamer, do you prepare yourself for the chaos an expansion is bound to bring to the meta-game?
I won’t prepare for it. I’ll let it hit me by surprise, mostly. I want to focus on the game at hand for now.
Do you think Blizzard's current approach to Starcraft II is acceptable in terms of the affect it'll have on your industry? Or do you think there are better ways they could have gone about handling things?
Blizzard always lives up to expectations, I think. Sometimes just a little slower than people would like, but it can’t be easy balancing the game for everyone. As for the effect on eSports, I believe Blizzard has just about blown it up with Starcraft II, so big credit to them there.
Now, with the negatives out of the way, what about Heart of the Swarm excites you? What units are you the most eager to get your hands on, and what units do you think have the biggest potential to impact the way the game is played?
I’m most looking forward to Mass Recall on every Nexus. That’s going to be amazing for some of my infamous play styles from WarCraft 3.
Now, let's talk a bit about you as a person-- first of all, explain to us how “Grubby” became your online identity. What are the name's origins, and what led you to settle on that as your tag?
My name was Grubtor Steelheart, the Dwarf. Back in Brood War, my friends kept calling me Grubby, which I took for a term of endearment (I did not know the meaning of the word grubby). When I switched clans, I took it, and my fate was sealed when I became known as Grubby. You don’t get to change your nick name once you are known, usually. But I like it, because it’s my alter ego.
As mentioned previously, professional gaming has been a part of your life since a very early age. How have you been able to balance your professional life with your personal life from such an early age? How did you manage to balance your studies with your career?
So long as my school grades were sufficient, I was allowed to allocate my free time as I pleased, which seemed like a fair arrangement for me. It prioritized school while allowing me to enjoy my passion. When gaming became more than just gaming, and allowed me to earn money as well, I had the perfect excuse to game to my heart’s content! [Laughs]
There's no exaggeration at all in saying you're a living eSports legend thanks to your play in Warcraft III. How has your celebrity status affected your life? Are you recognized in the streets? What are your best and worst “fan” stories throughout the years?
I feel like I have two lives. One wherein I am Manuel the gamer, Manuel the family guy. My other life is where I am Grubby, the eSports athlete. Yeah, I get recognized in China quite often, but in other parts of the world only occasionally.
One time, two Chinese fans who study in the Netherlands called my 86-year old grandmother to ask if “Grubby” was around. She said, “what?”. She didn’t know who Grubby was and hung up the phone. When they called back to ask for Manuel, she gave my number. Once I realized what was going on, I explained to her that they were my fans. It was hard for her to imagine her grandson having any fans. She knows I work behind the PC and play tournaments, but there’s a big generation gap.
"When she said yes, the sun shone down on me."
Despite all of your victories, the site of your loss to June “Lyn” Park-- Blizzcon 2009-- may well be the most important in your life, as shortly after you proposed to Cassandra Ng. Walk us through that day from your point of view... not as a professional gamer, but as a nervous man about to propose in as public an environment as can be imagined.
I was planning to propose on the stage after making it on the podium. I was dreaming of the perfect setting for the magical moment. I brought the rings and had to hide them in the suit case, which isn’t easy because Cassandra usually does the packing. I feared that she would find it before the moment.
It was important to make sure that Blizzard was OK with it. Their eSports team are some of the most amazingly friendly people I’ve ever met, so I should not have been surprised they gave me not only their blessing, but cooperation as well. I even had a little heart to heart with Paul about how it was for him when he proposed – I was so scared.
When I made it to the grand finals, I knew I was going to go through with it. I hid the rings on my person. After the award ceremony, I was shaking uncontrollably. As planned, Bunny announced that I had an announcement to make. I started walking down the stage to propose to the girl of my dreams. As I walked towards Cassandra, time seemed to slow down and I felt so foolish and shy. I was trying to maintain the surprise till the end. As I went down on one knee, a hubbub arose from the crowd and Cassandra spontaneously started crying. I mumbled through the words that I had rehearsed. I fumbled with the ring and the box and hoped she would make my day. When she said yes, the sun shone down on me.
Later I heard that I frightened some people with the “announcement - when they heard it, they feared I was about to announce my retirement!
Speaking of Cassandra, she was very active in the Warcraft III scene, writing a lot of blogs and covering many of the tournaments in which you competed. Is she still as into gaming following your switch? How does she help you in your professional career?
Yes, she has a great hand in my career both in Warcraft III and Starcraft II. She is very supportive and helps me in many ways. Although she personally still plays more Warcraft III herself, she understand SC2 strategies on a basic level and offers unique points of view at times.
Looking ahead from your perspective as a player who's seen it all from the top, what do you think 2012 has in store for Starcraft II, both for you, and for eSports as a whole?
Growth, explosions, and fireworks.
It's been an honor and a privilege as always, and we thank you for your time and kindness. Any last words to bring things to a close?
Thanks to all my fans, old and new. You’re the reason I never give up and continue to want to display great games. Also I’m happy to announce my official partnership with TwitchTV for 2012! I think fans will be excited to hear that there will be a huge elevation in the frequency of my streaming. You can watch my TwitchTV stream at http://twitch.tv/followgrubby.
Interview conducted by Dimitri "Aremys" Vallette