Ready for a blast from the past? Back in 2011, pro gamers didn’t have sponsorships, Twitch deals, Fortnite skins, or GFuel flavors. SteelSeries was the first brand to ever sponsor an individual pro gamer, which was unheard of at the time, however a passionate pro player caught our eye, and we wanted to help him rise to the top. His name was Grubby, a Dutch Warcraft III and later StarCraft 2 superstar. Here’s an interview that we had with him way back in 2011, when "esports" was not yet the buzzword it is today.
(Editor's note: We recognize the outdated capitalization of "eSports", but have left it as originally written for nostalgia's sake.)
Meet Manuel 'Grubby' Schenkhuizen
King of Orcs. Not the kind of Orcs that you find in J.R.R Tolkien's books, or the grim creatures that parents scare their offspring with. No, Grubby is the King of Orcs in Warcraft® III: Reign of Chaos™ by Blizzard Entertainment®.
At age 24, Manuel is a two time World Cyber Games Gold medalist, a newlywed, whose wife is a former Miss Singapore, and winner of more than $200.000 in tournament prize money. If there ever was an eSport superstar in the Western hemisphere, it's him.
Two screaming teenagers are stretching their notebooks through a tiny gap between the security guards who are desperately trying to keep the horde of people between them and the tall dark haired man standing on the other side of the fence. All around are several hundred people pressing forward to get a picture or just a glimpse of their idol. Rewind to five minutes ago and this hallway at a convention centre in Shanghai was a quiet place, but when Manuel ‘Grubby’ Schenkhuizen is in Asia, things are rarely quiet for long.
And no matter where he is, Manuel will rarely miss a chance to create awareness about eSports. Like last year when the IT University of Copenhagen invited Manuel to be a part of an "eSports Symposium".
Instead of being home in Nieuwegein with Cassandra Ng, his newlywed wife, Manuel didn’t want to miss a chance to speak about the topic he loves the most; eSports.
"Worrying is not very productive. Play for the enjoyment instead, that is where your heart is at."
During the symposium it was clear that Manuel was the one most listened to. After all, he is a World Cyber Games Hall of Famer, while his co-speakers Ryan Hart, a British fighting game legend, and Counter-Strike great, Jonas ‘bsl’ Vikan, are reduced to mere extras.
Manuel’s last point gathered the largest applause during the 1½ hour Q&A; session.
"Worrying is not very productive. Play for the enjoyment instead, that is where your heart is at", he says when asked about being nervous at events.
"In every single thing I do, I ask myself: Will this help me perform better? If not, then why do it?"
With a mentality like that, it’s not hard to see why the Dutchman is such a fearsome opponent to be up against in tournaments.
The Teenage Star
When he first won the World Cyber Games back in 2004 Manuel was but a teenager. The once shy and private manners that defined his gameplay back then, have since been pushed aside by the eSport superstar that he has evolved into. Manuel has, more than any other active athlete in Western eSport, realized that to market yourself as a star, you have to be available as one.
Manuel certainly is. His proposal to long time sweetheart Cassandra Ng could not have been more public, as he literally chose the biggest stage in the eSport world to do it at.
In front of all the cameras and spectators at BlizzCon 2009 Manuel dropped to one knee and presented his beloved girlfriend with a ring and a simple question "Will you marry me?"
Thus, it was no surprise that it didn’t take long for his wedding pictures to surface on half a dozen eSport coverage sites when he got married in the summer of 2010.
"She is taking care of a lot of the promoting", Manuel says and pauses for a moment before he continues.
"She was the one that made me start regular Twitter updates and is who reminds me to update my social media accounts."
But she’s far more important than just that. Look at the lifespan of most other professional gamers’ careers. Most people last a few years in which they have a couple of ups and downs, maybe a few championships along the way, and then they stop.
They fade out and disappear from the limelight, but not Manuel. He played in his first WCG tournament in 2003, won his first major championship in 2004 and would still be playing WarCraft® III today if it hadn’t been for the release of StarCraft® II. The secret behind his lengthy career is quite simple however.
"Without Cassandra I would have quit long ago", Manuel says when the topic of his career length pops up.
"WarCraft III is in essence a lonely game. And not being alone when I travel is a huge reason to why I’m still here."
Over the years the former Miss Singapore has worked as translator, manager, friend and strategic partner for Manuel. The latter being a thing that he thoroughly appreciates. As real-time strategy (RTS) games in general are played 1 vs. 1, talking about strategies with potential opponents doesn’t seem like a winning formula, so the fact that Cassandra played both Warcraft® III and StarCraft® II on a high level, has made it easy for Manuel to receive feedback on his ideas.
"It’s a blessing that she plays and understands the game, because it allows me to discuss my strategies with her."
He might be an eSport superstar, but there is no superciliousness in Grubby's behavior. Quite the opposite in fact. He always has time for his fans and he goes to great lengths to be able to meet deadlines and be available for all requests.
Grubby + Fans
Just ask Claude, a Quebec resident, who recently wrote Manuel a letter to explain that the WarCraft® III ace's and will to pursue his dreams, had inspired him to do the same for himself, and asked for a poster of Manuel. Instead of dismissing Claude, like 99% of all other people would have done, Manuel took his time to sit down, write a reply on Tumblr and send his fan a gift. Social media has become a preferred way for Manuel to communicate with his fans.
"I've got a lot of really supportive fans; great people each and every one of them. Through Facebook and Twitter I receive words of encouragement, which awards me with a sense of purpose in my job."
It’s also a great communication tool for the Dutchman, who can reach several thousand fans in a matter of minutes. Whether it’s about a livestreamed Q&A; session from his home, or a SteelSeries challenge-series at Assembly, the fans can dive straight into the private realm that surrounds Manuel.
"With so many fans supporting me, I feel like I'll never walk alone."
"I can easily provide a large number of fans with information about where I'm competing, where I'm traveling, what I'm doing and so on. When I'm uploading replays, doing livestreams or showing VOD's, they’ll be the first to hear about it through these media outlets."
Albeit some would say that it’s used solely as a marketing tool, but Manuel doesn’t think of his profiles as marketing channels. He thoroughly enjoys hosting Q&A; sessions on his livestream, getting to know his fans and letting them know more about him.
"I stay in touch with my fans because I enjoy the contact. You have to enjoy the feeling of being a professional gamer as best as you can. I really believe that my fans follow me through my ups and downs, my victories, successes and almost-successes."
He even cites the Liverpool Football Club’s famous motto, You’ll Never Walk Alone, when talking about his fans.
"With so many fans supporting me, I feel like I'll never walk alone."
And the fans from his Warcraft® past are still supporting him religiously. In the first seven days of livestreaming his StarCraft® II ladder games, Manuel managed to have about half a million views, roughly the same number as Greg ‘Idra’ Fields, supposedly one of the best StarCraft® II players outside Korea, had in only two months of streaming.
Grubby + SteelSeries
Manuel’s availability isn’t limited to his fans and however. Like modern sport superstars he is a brand. A brand that companies involved with eSports, want a piece of. It isn’t just business to Manuel though. He sincerely believes that he can contribute valuable input on gaming peripherals and he admits that he finds himself in a rather unique position, where he has the ability to influence those who make the decisions.
"The reason why I recommend their SteelSeries gaming peripherals to other gamers is because I have experienced their quality first-hand for a long time."
"I have used full SteelSeries gear for many years, and it has helped me to win many tournaments. Consequently it means a lot to me that SteelSeries supports me and that I can call them my main sponsor." When talking to Kim Rom, Chief Marketing Officer at SteelSeries, it becomes obvious that the warm feelings go both ways.
"It can sometimes be really challenging to work directly with a gamer. People with limited business training won’t always reply to e-mails, take ownership or really commit to joint projects", Kim says before going on to praise Manuel.
"Manuel is a rare breed; it really takes a special kind of gamer to walk into a tournament and win - especially if his head is full of sponsorship obligations or business deals. In every project I have ever done with him, he has gone above and beyond. He is passionate about promoting eSports, developing new products, fine-tuning existing products and winning."
Going above and beyond is one of the secrets behind Manuel landing the deal with SteelSeries. While he is a household name and could probably acquire sponsorships on that alone, Kim reiterates that the track record they have with the Dutchman makes it an easy decision.
"You could say that Manuel himself makes him a good fit for us. I have been working with him for more than half a decade now. And he is as passionate about his game now as he was back then. I am not sure how many other professional players I could include in that category, but I can tell you that it wouldn't be a lot."
Working with Manuel won't change much according to Kim. The company has always had direct communication with him and Kim doesn't see that changing much in the future. The only thing that could change, he says, would be that Manuel will have more influence on research and development.
"The only thing I really see changing is that we will probably be getting a lot more input and feedback from Manuel during our product development phase, simply because we will be tied closer together now."
To stay on top in any industry you sometimes have to take chances. After eight years on eSport teams, Manuel recently took the biggest chance in his career and decided to go solo. After seeing out his contract with the American powerhouse, Evil Geniuses, he now has to navigate on his own. Backed by SteelSeries and European Game Series, Manuel will now represent himself and build his own brand - a dream he has had for a long time, he says.
Such a move however also brings forth several new challenges for the Dutchman and his wife.
Without a team to handle most of the business and travel for a pro gamer; taking care of travel and accommodations at events, sponsor negotiations and keeping sponsor requests on a set schedule, Manuel risks the possibility of having less time to practice.
That isn’t a concern he says he has though. "My goals are still the same and the means of doing it are still the same - training and performing in eSports tournaments".
In fact Manuel reckons that there will only be positive effects from the decision, noting that his relationship with his sponsors will not only be closer but also much more personal.
"I can work together with sponsors in a more personable fashion. By working closely with my sponsors, I'll be able to make suggestions for product development or marketing strategies, which should enable me to offer more value to them as well," Manuel said when asked about how the move would influence his professional life
As for organizing his pro gamer life and handling the new tasks himself, Manuel needs to look no further than his extensive history with top tier organizations like 4Kings, MYM and Evil Geniuses. And he seems quite confident that his past experiences with the organizational side of things will serve him well when he’s on his own.
"After 8 years in eSports I've garnered a lot of experience about how to manage myself and my professional and business affairs. And of course, I have help with this from my wifey," Manuel says with a smile.
"Not much should change. I will still be focused on training most of my time as I want to become a true professional StarCraft II gamer."
Can he pull it off? According to his old manager in MYM, Mathias ‘Losemann’ Beyer it shouldn’t be a problem for the Dutchman.
"His attitude and his willingness to work hard on his own is what makes him a star."
"Manuel is easily one of the most professional players, if not THE most professional player, I have ever seen," Beyer says from his home in Bangkok.
"His attitude and his willingness to work hard on his own is what makes him a star. He not only knows how to behave professionally inside a team, he is also very responsive towards partners and fans"
"He has his heart in the right place" Beyer says when asked what defines Manuel, before adding that the Dutch Protoss-player is so full of passion and team-spirit that he can work with anyone.
Becoming a true professional StarCraft® II gamer is work in progress for Manuel. He played some StarCraft® II games during the open beta in the summer 2010, but then he went back to focus on WarCraft® III for the rest of the year. Having half a year’s disadvantage, compared to the best players in the world, Manuel has set his sight on reaching the very top of the European StarCraft® II community this summer, something that his old manager fully believes he can do.
"Manuel is a very skilled player and a very unique person, unique in a very positive way. He also has been a very good friend over time I have worked with him and I have been very impressed by his attitude and his loyalty," says Beyer and reiterates that he would be surprised if Manuel doesn’t reach his goal of playing amongst the best.
And it should be possible. When Manuel picked up the game again in January 2011 he was sitting at an abysmal 91416th rank in the world on the ladder.
Since then he has moved up over 91.000 places and has so far peaked at rank #40 in BattleNet's second ladder season. While the ladder position doesn’t directly say anything about how good of a player he is, Manuel has gained fame in the last few months being invited to the North American StarCraft® League (NASL) and most notably by taking a Bronze medal at Copenhagen Games in mid April, defeating the likes of TLO and MorroW.
While he did fall short in Round of 32 at his first StarCraft® II tournament at Assembly Winter in Finland and didn't reach the last 32 at MLG Dallas, Manuel is still positive that he will be amongst the best players in Europe when we reach this summer.
"I feel I'm holding my own fairly well already, but I still need more tournament experience. Having started on StarCraft II, four months ago, I can say my rate of improvement is on schedule, but it still feels like it's going too slowly."
He is, however still so confident in his winning ways that he streams many of his practice sessions online for everybody to follow. In less than three months, Manuel has had more than 1.2 million views tuning in to watch him get into a shape that will allow him to do what he did in Warcraft® III; win, and win often. And that's exactly why he doesn't hide his training. He doesn't hide the fact that he isn't there yet. He just works harder and lets his fans see his progress – because for Manuel, losing just isn't an option.
Does Manuel feel bad about not jumping on the StarCraft® II boat immediately so that he would be on par with the competition? Not even remotely. He’s enjoying the journey and as he said in an interview with the German site Fragster.de: "Warcraft III was and still is a great passion of mine, and time spent in enjoyment is never time wasted. Also, Warcraft III and its fans in part made me who I am, and there'd be no 'Grubby' today without it. So I owed it to them too".
So what does a professional StarCraft® II player do when both StarCraft® II and Warcraft® III gets picked for the World Cyber Games in 2011? Does he try to win his 3rd World Cyber Games Gold Medal in Warcraft® III - a feat no one has done before - or does he match up against the best players in the newer game? Whatever Manuel chooses, one thing is for certain, he will give it his best. For his fans, for his sponsors and most importantly, to prove to himself that he can do whatever he sets his sight on, because that’s what champions do.
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