Chris Rattue is a sports columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

Teen unplugs gaming dream

Pursuit of big bucks in world of e-sports takes youth from school to US - and back.

Mackenzie Smith isn't the first kid to drop out of school to follow a dream. But he is unique, a Kiwi teenager who headed overseas to pursue an e-sports career.

While giving up everything to play the video game StarCraft might be accepted in South Korea - where some parents actually pressure their kids into pro-gaming as a potential meal ticket - it's hardly standard behaviour in this country.

Smith is an e-sports pioneer. Having completed Year 12 at Western Springs College, he packed his bags for America. There is no time to waste in the world of competitive gaming, no long and drawn-out career paths. Indeed at the age of 19, and back in Auckland, Smith has retired, his wholehearted shot at the StarCraft big time apparently over already.

This rapid-fire journey began about the time Smith started high school, when he was introduced to the science fiction war game (in which three races war across the galaxy) by a friend at an internet cafe.

Is StarCraft - a game Smith describes as fast-paced with chess-like strategies - actually a sport? The slightly built Smith certainly approached it like one, with a sense of purpose to make a muscular All Black prospect wince. Smith trained 10 to 12 hours a day. Being an online sport (although there are offline tournaments) it is possible to compete overseas without leaving home, but that's not the way to succeed professionally.

"It only took me two years to get into that very competitive level, but that is a lot of time invested," Smith says.

"There are a fair few players here but to my knowledge I'm the only one who has gone overseas and gone fulltime in e-sports.

"Once I found StarCraft I never had another career in mind. Professional gaming was really the only thing I thought about."

StarCraft is a military science fiction media franchise created by Chris Metzen and James Phinney, and owned by Blizzard Entertainment.
StarCraft is a military science fiction media franchise created by Chris Metzen and James Phinney, and owned by Blizzard Entertainment.

His journalist parents were supportive. His school gave him pamphlets about getting discretionary entry into university just in case the pro-gaming did not work out.

First port of call - San Francisco. He had been "noticed" by a Peruvian who owned a team called ROOT Gaming and offered a place in a team house where he was the youngest resident alongside players in their early 20s from South Korea, Australia and Canada. There was no big money involved but he lived rent free, small amounts of prize money helped him cover his food and living expenses easily, and the young gamers got on well. This was a life dedicated to getting better, all day every day, playing online competitions, and heading off to a few offline events. When his visa extension ran out, Smith headed to Switzerland and another team house where things did not go so well.

It was dream over, with a confusing twist as Smith's results started to improve just as he was looking at a new career.

Having decided to check out of competitive gaming, Smith returned to Auckland last year, via North America. But he started getting significant results, good enough, he says, to rank him among the top eight StarCraft gamers in the non-Korean world, including a tournament in Poland where he scooped $10,000 in prizemoney.

But his mind was already made up. He's a StarCraft part-timer now, an interested online spectator while he studies for a communications degree.

"I'm enjoying studying journalism and it is probably a replacement passion," he says. "There is still definitely something there that interests me, and it will always be there, but I watch other players duke it out now the way some people watch sports.

"It has given me a different outlook on life, and I've got no regrets. But I haven't played in a month now, the longest time I've ever had off.

"While it's more enjoyable than a lot of jobs, there is still that element of forcing yourself."

- NZ Herald

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