An athlete is a serious competitor, traditionally for sports, but more and more also for esports. Instead of having the ability to jump high, run fast, or throw far like a traditional athlete, esports athletes or pro gamers must be able to translate split-second decisions into in-game actions using the complex set of keyboard strokes and mouse clicks. At the highest level of professional gaming, players have the minds of chess grandmasters and the dexterity of concert pianists.
One thing, however, remains the same between all types of athletes regardless of sport or game: the mindset. This mindset defines the best athletes across all disciplines, and it's what can be found in the world's best basketball players just as much as the world's best Dota 2 players.
Enter Caviar "EnDerr" Acampado, the Philippines' best Starcraft 2 and Broodwar player. EnDerr has recently taken something of a break from the professional Starcraft 2 scene but at his peak he was the Philippine representative to the World Cyber Games (2013) and the 7th e-Sports World Championship (2015) for PSISTORM Gaming. At home he was utterly dominant in almost every Starcraft LAN and earned the reputation as the country's most fearsome Zerg, so much so that his peers and fans informally requested that he play other races when participating in community tournaments.
Now EnDerr has refocused on finishing his studies and is preparing for a life after pro garming, but not without one more shot at a trophy, just to see if he's still got what it takes. When we got to speak to him about his thoughts on the pro gamer mindset, he had just finished his midterms and was preparing for the 2017 WCS Valencia SEA qualifier earlier today.
"I'm going to do my best, and it feels good to be representing PSISTORM again, but whether or not I get anywhere with these qualifiers I don't want to sacrifice my studies again," EnDerr told us.
EnDerr admitted that the current 24-year-old him was very different from the 18-year-old EnDerr who was crushing opponents left and right in LAN cafes. Back then he was utterly driven to be the best in Starcraft 2, after having played BroodWar seriously before that, and feeling that he had the skills necessary to go far in the esport.
"More than the talent, I knew I could become one of the best because I had the right mindset."
And so we got to discuss the meat of our meeting: the pro gamer mindset. For EnDerr, one's mindset is more important that innate talent or even what training one has undergone, though those certainly come into play. EnDerr says the pro gamer mindset defines whether or not a player really wants to be the best at something, and if that person has what it takes.
"There's a mindset where you just want to play and maybe get good. Or maybe just gain MMR. That's just a halfhearted vision. It's something you don't mind getting but not something you really WANT or NEED.
It's a whole other story when you absolutely want to be the greatest -- and I mean the real and actual best player in the world. When you can feel the gap between what you are and what you could be and that gap is something that you HAVE TO close, then you're already on the right path to becoming the best."
This sense of being utterly driven to be the best is prevalent in almost all advice from the world's greatest. From Michael Jordan to Kobe Bryant, from Muhammad Ali to Manny Pacquiao, there's clearly a certain type of person that is gripped by the motivation to be at the top.
"That's how I think organizations should choose their players. Don't invest in talent, because someone with more talent will inevitably come along. Orgs should invest in players with the correct mindset, and the drive to become the best."
This seems to be a great insight particularly for esports, where roster changes and sudden burnout are the catalyst of inconsistent performances. Most organizations these days find their players through the top of the ladder rankings or through rising local stars, but such successes are no indicator of what kind of person the player actually is. If a player gets to 7k MMR or an equivalent high rank by spamming games at home but isn't ready for the much more grueling disciplined training that's required of a professional gamer, then he's not going to get far as an esports athlete.
In fact, it's in this training regimen that the drive to become the best becomes most important, because it is what will actually test a pro gamer's grit rather than any tournament. The majority of a pro player's games are actually for practice.
"And it has to be directed practice," EnDerr adds. "You can't just play game after game and expect to get better -- you will quickly hit the ceiling of your instincts and skill. To get better you have to specifically look for something to improve.
Like maybe I will tell myself that this game I shouldn't miss a single larvae inject until the 20th minute, because I know that around 15 minutes my macro starts to slip. Then when I go into a game I will try my hardest to improve that aspect. Realistically, I'm trying to improve many different things in each game so it takes me a lot of games to hit my goal, and when I hit my goal I set it higher. I don't really care if I lose -- it's not about winning; it's about improving. If I lose all my games in a training day but I hit all my goals, then it's a good day."
This, EnDerr explains, is why ladder rank is not really a good indicator of skill. You can farm ladder rank after all, because as along as you have a win rate higher than 50%, your rank going up is a sure thing, it just depends on how many games you can play in a day.
Once a player understands that correct way to train, EnDerr says that from that point on it's simply a matter of support. He recounts a time when he missed an important qualifier tournament because his house' internet connection was cut off, and every shop he went to didn't have any available stations for him. He was completely ready to compete that day but circumstances forced him to forfeit his match.
It was then that PSISTORM offered EnDerr a place to train in Cebu, where the organization would take care of not only the internet connection but also the rest of EnDerr's needs. Without having to worry about anything except specifically getting better at the game, EnDerr quickly surpassed his previous records and by the end of the year found himself at the 7th e-Sports World Championship for Starcraft 2.
"So you have a player that has the drive and correct mindset to train. That person will get good on his own because that's the main thing he wants to do, day in and day out. That player is like a car already building speed and best thing an organization can do for him is simply remove the obstacles in his way."
This, EnDerr says, is why Korean pro gamers are so ahead of esports athletes from other countries. Korean organizations understand this and know the best practices for creating an environment wherein an already-self-improving player can flourish. It's not like in third-world countries, or even first-world countries where there's no industry standard yet for player support, where pro gamers are faced with all sorts of secondary distractions and responsibilities that hinder their training.
EnDerr, after all, became a pro player at 18 years old when he was already away from his parents' support. Between worrying about tournaments, he had to also worry about keeping a roof over his head and all sorts of other bills before he was supported by an organization. Since then he has mainly supported himself through prize winnings.
"I really feel if I had the same support at 18 as what I got when I was 23, I would have been a much better player. Maybe I'd have achieved more. I really don't believe in there being a limit to anyone's potential."
With our conversation coming to a close, I had to ask EnDerr, if he was as driven and motivated to become the best as he said any good pro gamer should be, why did he slow down? Why take a break at his prime, if he believes that he had the potential to go further?
"Like I said, I was different at 23 than I was at 18. And I'm even more different now at 24. Yes, I could maybe win some more tournaments, but the cost of that is that I need to devote my entire life to Starcraft again. Last time, I left my studies, I was dependent on PSISTORM, and to be honest the Starcraft 2 scene was starting to fade.
I really love Starcraft but I want to have more to my life as well. So I'm studying again, and working. PSISTORM wanted me to play again and I said I would try, but not at the cost of my studies. I'm trying to be an adult and if a tournament should ever come at the same time as an important exam, I'm choosing the exam. In fact, I've only had a few days to train for [today]'s WCS qualifier because my midterms just ended and I prioritized them."
It seems that for EnDerr, his drive to become the absolute best in Starcraft 2 is not at the level it was at when he was the country's most fearsome zerg. But, he says, that competitive mindset is still there, and that's what counts.
"Now that I know what kind of motivations can make a person surpass his limits, I feel I can do anything, if I want it hard enough."
It's what every professional athlete says, but not everyone seems to understand just how true the statement is. For EnDerr, it's his life story: from simply borrowing a friend's Starcraft 2 account to play custom games to becoming the Philippines' greatest-ever Starcraft player. Perhaps in due time, he will be the best at something else. Starcraft player or not, EnDerr will always have his athletic spirit.
(EnDerr's words have been translated from Filipino and edited for clarity.)