Here's a fun fact: twenty years ago, even the merest mention of becoming a "professional gamer" would probably have earned people an earful from their folks on setting realistic life goals. Why? Because the term was loosely translated by the public dictionary as "laughing stock".
Yet, the biggest achievements in human history were built on seemingly impossible dreams, were they not? After all, the Wright brothers were considered to be lunatics until their idea got off the ground. Pun intended.
Indeed, esports has grown from "just that fancy word for video gaming" into a field as recognised and lucrative as any of its professional counterparts, if not more so. To be honest, it's one of the biggest surprises we've had this past decade, but regardless of the era, one thing has always stayed the same.
Like any other sport out there, esports and video gaming is all about people, and it always has been. Without the countless gamers that stuck to their guns through the years, I daresay professional esports would have remained a pipe dream today. As such, let's take a closer look at some of our favourite esports success stories.
Of course it's this guy. Because if we're talking about iconic gamers, there's no skipping Lee Sang-Hyeok, or as we know him, SKT T1's Faker. The world-famous League of Legends player is way more than just a Korean mid-lane maestro - he was practically the competitive face of the game at his peak.
Famed for his ungodly skill with the mage LeBlanc, supposedly one of the game's most mechanically-demanding characters, Faker's peerless tactical skill and ability to perform even under immense pressure were a deadly cocktail for his opponents. With him on the roster, SKT T1 quickly became the most formidable team in competitive LoL, breezing through tournament after tournament with ease.
Of course, for all of those achievements, the seemingly cold and stoic Faker is still human like the rest of us - he has bad days too. After SKT T1's shocking loss to Samsung Galaxy (SSG) at Worlds 2017, he was visibly emotional and crying outright. Seeing their ace-in-the-hole so distraught shook the fans' confidence for a bit, but they quickly rallied around to support the man dubbed the "Mid Lane God" at his peak.
Currently, Faker still plays for SKT T1 competitively and remains a prominent figure in both the Korean and International LoL circuits. It doesn't seem like he'll be moving on any time soon, and I'd hate to see him go. On top of that, his recent dedication of SKT's 2019 LCK Spring victory to his former teammates is a real tear-jerker. Make sure to watch out for those ninjas cutting onions.
For many Singaporean gamers, Team Razer's Ho Kun Xian, or just "Xian" if we're going by his moniker, is the literal definition of a homegrown success story. The reserved and unassuming Street Fighter player, who specialises in the underrated character Gen, is arguably the biggest undisputed pioneer of Singapore's esports scene. Xian comes from a period in time where fighting games were poorly sponsored and recognised professionally, not to mention the entire notion of esports was considered a joke, to begin with.
Amusingly, part of Xian's skill at Street Fighter developed as a result of him having to be practical, in the sense that he was only able to stretch his $2 pocket money by winning consecutive Street Fighter matches at the arcade.
However, his story only really gets rolling in 2008, when he started getting back into Street Fighter IV, proceeding to win second place at Dreamhack 2009. Unfortunately, the winnings were meagre and didn't last long, but a stroke of luck came in the form of a silent backer, Lenn Yang. Inspired by Yang's confidence in him, he gave it his all and got his big break a year after he won the 2013 Evolution Championship Series held in Las Vegas when Razer offered him a full-time competitive gaming sponsorship.
Currently, Xian still plays competitively for Team Razer but has also dipped his fingers into other areas, like commentating. Now, that reminds me - we actually had a short, but interesting chat with him a while back, during which he shared his thoughts on the growth of professional esports - check that out here!
Now, we all like hearing stories about the underdog making it big, and as far as modern esports is concerned, there wasn't a bigger underdog in the past few years than Tekken player "Rangchu". But in order to follow his journey, you'll need to know a little about the competitive scene in Tekken first.
You see, like any fighting game, certain characters in Tekken inherently pack an advantage in fights, often by way of their move coverage, hitbox or combo fluidity. Now, if you've tuned in to Tekken tournaments before, you'd probably have seen picks like Devil Jin, Heihachi and King show up very often - mainly because of those reasons. But when was the last time you saw Panda at the highest echelons of an international tournament? That's right - almost never.
Before he made it big, Rangchu was just your average joe who liked playing Panda in the arcades. Naturally, he got better at Tekken over time and tried his hand at a few tournaments. However, as he went on to more and more prestigious events, his choice of character gravitated away from his trusty furball partner in favour of more common picks. That didn't really work out for him, and after a little bit of soul-searching, he went right back to Panda, following which he started to see more competitive success due to the unorthodox nature of his main.
Well, long story short, after many trials and tribulations, Rangchu became the first player to take the awfully-underrated Panda into the world finals and win. Unsurprisingly, Panda saw a new lease of life in many arcades after that victory, although none were really able to pilot the slow, clunky animal to the same heights that Rangchu did.