Interview conducted by Drexxin
Having a stellar career spanning over a decade in esports is no less than a feat, an achievement only a handful have ever been able to achieve. Today, we navigate the journey of Duncan “Thorin
” Shields in the world of esports.
If you prefer a more feature-based approach to this interview, please see Kary's revision here.
You are heavily into esoteric knowledge and have even spoken about this in previous long form interviews with Montecristo. While applicable to esports, it still seems extremely rare that others have delved into this wealth of wisdom. How has it helped you navigate your journey?
From my experience, practically anything learned or studied is applicable in some sense to everything else. My interest in that topic comes from my quenchless curiosity to understand or assimilate certain topics, so in that sense it stems from a similar place to my drive to work in esports.
Moving beyond the general, I can concretise some specific areas which have influenced my thinking within esports. Firstly, many esoteric or mystical orders operate using a "guru" or mentor system and this approach has affected how I see the imparting of knowledge or technique to others. I have a sense now for why so much wisdom is hidden away, since to give it away freely would cause many to assume it is of no value and the experience which confers said wisdom often involves undergoing a similar set of circumstances or challenges.
Often in my career earlier on I was naive and assumed others had a similar drive to my own and thus would relish an offer of mentorship. In reality, if you take away some people's chains they will assume you have stolen them. A lot of people seem to not just want excuses but crave them as a get-out-of-jail free card for why they have yet to succeed in the manner and to the degree they imagine themselves deserving of. Improving, whether it be in the spiritual context or esports, often involves confronting uncomfortable, challenging or even scary ideas or notions that we've either no experience with or far too much.
A reason the teacher appears when the student is ready is that the teacher will not position himself as much or offer such if he sees the student is not serious or driven enough to want to put in the hours to make teaching them worthwhile. Much toil and hardship resulted when I did not appreciate this principle. It also allowed me to see how my own life and career had been shaped by individuals who only appeared when I positioned myself appropriately for them to recognize my talents and will to improve.
You’re way ahead of the curve in terms of work ethic in this industry. Obviously, a lot of it comes from seniority and experience, but is there some kind of underlying issue with how esports brands, orgs, and teams are run from the top down, or would you just attribute this to the video game demographic being lazy? Explain.
One of the most intriguing aspects of my career in esports, thanks to how long and far-reaching it has been, is that I have gotten a sense for how many industries operate, since many of the issues seem to be correlated with scale and opportunity. I was always, from the get-go and up until today, intensely underwhelmed and disappointed by how few people in the industry seem to have a genuine passion for the field, beyond simply thinking it "cool" or enjoying the novelty of it, and thus were willing to dedicate themselves to studying their craft and daring to reach for excellence and the unheard of.
Simply to be doing well or making money or achieving a level of public fame has often been enough for so many. For me the issue is epitomized with a sentiment one will often hear from people who work in esports that goes "I get paid to play video games!". I'm staggered how many times I've heard similar statements from those who were not hired as professional players but instead were on camera talent, backroom staff or journalists. My response would be "you are not, but that explains why you accomplish the bare minimum." I am not here to play video games a lot or become particularly proficient at them. I am here to be the best journalist, on camera talent and thinker I can be, based on where I came from and where I am going.
As I alluded to previously, though, I don't think this is an issue solely endemic to esports. I've heard figures like 20-40% efficiency thrown around for your typical office job, with people padding their time with useless meetings or alt-tabbing and checking websites instead of working, just waiting for 5pm to hit so they can go home. It's unbelievable how many attempt to behave in this manner in esports. Indeed, I'm often stunned by how many in esports even work only during office hours and cannot be reached otherwise.
For me, the only reason to be here is because this is what I want to do and to be the best. If those reasons change or are no longer the case then I would almost certainly go elsewhere and find a new field or discipline which fascinates or captures my curiosity in the way esports did and thus far always has.
Finally, I'd also add that in esports, as with much in life, what you bring to the table massively influences what you can take away. Become a more well-read, well-reasoned and diverse-thinker and you will find untold and unrecognized depths in all areas of esports. Simply conducting interviews or talk shows with interesting and unique voices could be a full-time career in and of itself alone. It's been my great blessing that I've been able to pivot between areas of the industry and thus endure every day I am undertaking a task I want to and not feeling weighed down or bored by having only one lane from which to operate.
As you point out in your question, there probably is an inherent laziness that comes along with a field of "gamers" and in which we describe the primary activity as "play". In time, I imagine the ever-increasing investment and scale of the industry will get to the point where more are as dedicated as the best sportsmen and content creators.
In the earlier days of esports, the onus was on a journalist at events to seek out interview targets. This means they had to build relationships with them and approach them, sometimes in uncomfortable scenarios. This is no longer the case, at least in League of Legends. What are your thoughts on this in terms of character building? Do you think the ability to develop some grit (grow some balls) is offset by the guaranteed interviews given to start talent?
I would agree that the necessity of learning social skills and even tailoring them to specific individuals you have researched which comes along with securing interview opportunities yourself serves an interviewer well in the interview itself, so the atrophy of that element of the journalist's skill-set has saddened me. If you can't ask someone to do something for you and face the risk of rejection or failure then I find it hard to imagine you'll ever be a great interviewer or make it far in this field.
More so than that, I think being granted interviews also puts the interviewer in a more uneasy situation, as he has no way of knowing how interested or enthused his subject is. When I ask a player for an interview I can gauge how interested he is in being interviewed and maybe even get a sense for how open he will be with this thoughts and opinions. If it turns out his manager or owner asked or told him to do the interview then that changes the circumstances entirely and not knowing as much can be a poisoned chalice, for my money. If the player doesn't want to do the interview, on at least some basic level, then I don't particularly want to subject him to it, even if it might help his organisation with some exposure and me with some advertising revenue.
Much as with working on the skill of talking to women or people in general in your life, going through rejection and being slapped in the face by life and essentially given the choice of running home and crying about it or resolving yourself to succeed in another attempt is essential to developing who you are as a man. There are plenty more difficult moments you will experience in this industry than someone not replying to your message or saying no. Get over your ego or stay stuck under it.
You’re considered the Esports Historian not only because of your extensive historical knowledge of esports but also because you’ve been in the space longer than almost anyone else. However, many people would likely love to know what sort of professional endeavors you’ve delved into prior to your esports life. Was it always competitive gaming for you, or did something precede it?
Beyond a paper round decades ago I have never had any full-time employment outside of esports. I was lucky enough to find my way, haphazardly, into the space in the early days and thus when I was a much younger man, around the age of 18. Certainly, there have been a few patches which were more difficult to survive financially, but I've relied upon esports from my income since 2001 year-on-year without fail.
I had interest in becoming a comic book writer and perhaps would consider transitioning my skill-set developed from esports into another competitive discipline, but it has been esports all the way for me.
You’ve made a lot of analogies in your esports to career to NBA legends and noteworthy events. Is there a universe where you might have instead preferred to delve into “real” professional sports?
Yes, I've given it idle thought on many occasions. In the early days of delving deeply into some of the North American sports I follow I gave thought to trying to break into the content creation spaces of those fields, since esports didn't have the money to pay beyond a certain level for content back then. Thankfully, as far as my endeavours in esports are concerned, that has changed and massively so in the last years, so that my entire day every day can be filled with content creation solely for the esports field. If anything, there is a demand even I cannot supply right now.Even if I remain full-time in esports I imagine I will one day branch out into building a small part-time career creating and studying in another field. Curiosity is the compass I follow, not simply the dollar amount.
I want to talk about demeanor and having a sort of “abrasive” personality. I think it’s always good to be true to yourself, but I think there’s a certain level of respect and outreach you should hit before being fully open and expressive. Do you disagree, or do you think it’s best that “in-progress” esports prospects let their work speak for themselves?
It's very difficult to give advice or even much of an opinion on this matter since I came up in such a radically different time across the board and I would argue I have often done things the hard way as opposed to the shrewd or advisable way. I have often told others "I barely got away with doing things in my style and I am me, so don't imagine it's a sure-fire path to success."
I agree that it is good to be true to yourself, but I'd go further and say it is essential. It could cost you opportunity or even success entirely, but I would say that there will be a place for you somewhere, it's just it might not be here and now. That's also obviously no excuse to retain negative or unhelpful elements to your personality or persona. When I say I did it the hard way it's because I succeeded at times almost solely from my talent, work ethic and prolific output. Had I been lesser in any of these areas I would have had very few looking to help or employ me. That's one of the reasons I have been able to empathize with the career stories of players like s1mple, who eventually must realize that no matter how good you are it is necessary to develop yourself socially if you want to work along with others and create more than one man can alone.
It might seem cool or edgy to imagine you can do it all on your own, indeed some ideologies espouse it as a near mandate that some members of society attempt as much, but even when it comes to solo work there will be resources or information or opportunities you will only be able to acquire or enjoy if you are the right kind of person. I used to think people should be employed solely for the quality of their work. I see now that was a naive pipe-dream of someone who would have benefited most from matters working that way.
I think more reasonably that the best qualities to embody if you want to work and succeed in this industry are being fun to be around, reliable with your output and level of performance, and trust-worthy with your word. I had the latter two but too long ignored the first.
When it comes to social media, I would suggest most people massively limit the range of topics and opinions they are willing to express there. The notion we could treat those accounts like journals we let others peer into was a silly one, even if it's how the services were often conceptualized many years ago. Stick to discussing esports topics and limiting the amount of interaction or conversation you have with those who are simply there to distract, trip up or annoy you. I rarely have regrets, since I strive to learn from my mistakes, but if I could go back in time I would almost certainly have tweeted far less and kept some of my opinions for private circles or trusted friends only.
Related: Jacob, Rise of the Wolf
A while ago, you mentioned you utilized “streaks” as “motivation” to be consistent in your work output, regardless of circumstance. This includes getting shows done in hotel rooms in the past. Have you found this still the best way to tackle your tasks or have you experienced burnout after all this time?
Streaks are good for squeezing out additional productivity, since it's far less likely you abandon a streak of 10 days in a row doing something if you don't quite feel like it that day, as opposed to if you can bump your work to any other day and have no momentum built up or concept you are adhering to. With that said, I found those streaks in particular took the premise too far and burned me out like little else ever has. The lesson I learned, though, was to work smarter rather than harder. By increasing my efficiency in a number of ways I can produce more output while working less now and thus have been able to free up more time for my social life or other hobbies.
I think willpower is a massively misunderstood topic. I used to think it just meant forcing yourself to do something and demanding greatness of yourself. Instead, I have found it more helpful to encourage myself to succeed and cut away at elements of my circumstances that make it a little harder to concentrate or create. This means diet, exercise, being mindful of what input from the external world you allow, balancing your hormones and many other tweaks.
While that might sound a lot, it is central to the point I am elucidating, as just as someone who regularly goes to the gym and exercises all of their major muscles groups will be able to undertake more physical labour, proportionally, than someone who rarely exercises, it is not the case that breaking and remaking all of the habits previously alluded to will drain you. Instead, each habit reformulated to be productive as opposed to destructive adds to the energy pool you can draw from and encourages you to keep chiseling away at the unnecessary to reveal the statue hidden within the marble of yourself.
What would you say your favorite game has been to cover? What about your least favorite?
Counter-Strike as a general franchise fits the bill of being my favourite, since my resources and opportunities were significantly more limited in Counter-Strike 1.6, that I can't simply pick it due to my preference for it over CS:GO. CS:GO has been a game in which I have accomplished many things otherwise only dreamed of and have been able to break free financially and in terms of freedom of time and movement which has been positively life-transforming and affirming.
The game has not just the long historical basis that plays into my strengths, but also pairs tactical depth with flashy and exciting game-play.
My least favourite game to cover would in the most literal sense be smaller and less interesting esports games like FIFA when I worked for SK Gaming and Team Acer. In terms of a game I covered in more depth, I'd say that Overwatch was a very underwhelming game to cover and create content for. While it had some brilliant individuals within the industry side to work with and collaborate on ideas with, there was very little outlet to publish and the visible fan-base appeared to be actively hostile to content creation from the beginning. Even worse, the idiots that call themselves reddit mods decided to kneecap the game from early on by creating a niche subreddit and thus locking off content creators from the vast underwater part of the iceberg of traffic within the game. Revenue and hits are secondary concerns for me, but if neither are there then it will grind on you as it concerns your work.
Pivoting to something you’ve spoken about here and there before, how do you feel about the monetization model of large events? Do you think we’ll eventually see a PPV (pay-per-view) model return to some degree a la GSL/MLG as production value goes up and adblock becomes more common?
The lack of monetization is what keeps esports a bubble and means many will bleed out or waste tens of millions in investment only to disappear entirely or accomplish little. I think some PPV options or models are not just important but seemingly necessary. I think MLG were almost a decade ahead of their time with their Arena PPV events and I'd point to the often misunderstood case of OGN's LoL English Twitch stream subscription as an example of the PPV model working and to much success.
The notion a fan will pay for the computer, game, merch and even in-game items but not the broadcast itself suggests to me too many in the industry are afraid to leave the relative safety of the pack and innovate. If so many of us will pay for Netflix, even in an age when so many could figure out how to illegally acquire such shows, I suspect the right packaging or model exists to get esports profitable thanks to the consumers.
Any last words, maybe a favorite quote you’d like to leave us with?
Here's one I think embodies my journey and efforts in esports:
"I saw that there comes a point, in the defeat of any man of virtue, when his own consent is needed for evil to win—and that no manner of injury done to him by others can succeed if he chooses to withhold his consent. I saw that I could put an end to your outrages by pronouncing a single word in my mind. I pronounced it. The word was 'No'." -Ayn Rand
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Follow the interviewee on Twitter at @Thorin.
Feature image credit: Epicenter