How To Become A Professional Cyber Athlete
Three years in the life of a Dota 2 player in Kyrgyzstan: Bakyt Emilzhanov’s (Zayac) journey from a schoolboy living in computer clubs to a well-paid professional
When everyone came to the yearly potato harvesting at grandparents’ farm, the family learned that 16-year-old Bakyt dropped out of school. His father made it clear that he is not going to hide it from the family and lie to everyone that Bakyt goes to school. Questions came pouring in. While digging up potatoes, the uncle relished interrogating Bakyt: “Why did you drop out? How much can you make? And what are going to do when you turn 25?” Bakyt felt angry for being treated as a kid and resentfully thought to himself: “How can you tell me about the future of computer games if you don’t even know how to use the internet?” But he didn’t dare to talk back. He told about The International, the tournament where winners got $6,000,000. The uncle responded by asking: “And you, did you win anything?” — “No, I didn’t win much”.
Bakyt left the farm a day earlier than everyone: he had a tournament in Bishkek in the evening. After dropping out of school, he decided that if he wants to become the best, the game should always come before going out with friends, visiting relatives, and everything that can get in the way of training. He changed at home and left for the computer club. In the club, worries went out of his mind: the game forces to focus so hard that everything else disappears. This opportunity to escape reality was the reason why he fell in love with Dota. Bakyt didn’t attend any family events for another half a year until he was able to tell his relatives that he is winning and earning money.
Nobody expected the boy to turn out a future cyber athlete. His parents, indeed, did not. They hoped he would become a contestant of international math olympiads like his elder brother. Up until seventh grade, Bakyt was an exemplary schoolboy: he studied in an elite math gymnasium, did sports, read books and didn’t give his parents any cause for concern.
At 14, Bakyt asked his father for a serious talk. “Father, I don’t know how to live with myself.” — “What happened, son?” — “Remember, I spend four years playing chess? Haven’t achieved anything. Three years did judo and another year wrestling? I won nothing. Played guitar — quit it. I quit everything and haven’t achieved anything in life”.
Right about the same time, several critical changes happened in his life. Bakyt transferred from the math gymnasium to a Kyrgyz-Turkish lyceum where he lived in a dormitory and visited home only on weekends. In the school, for the first half of the year, he didn’t study math at all and for the second half, memorized mathematical terms in English. Next year, Bakyt returned to his old school and discovered that studying became much harder and that his parents are about to divorce. To escape worries, Bakyt played computer games. His only motivation to study was his girlfriend, an A-student and an olympiad contestant. Then, she said: “You play games like a little boy” — and dumped him.
“And that’s it; I hit the cybersport,” Bakyt recalls.
Dota 2 is an online strategy game that has more than 10 million players worldwide. The rules are simple: two five-player teams need to destroy each other’s bases. Usually, the game lasts from 20 to 60 minutes. Every player has own “rating”: for a win, it grows 25 points, for a loss, drops 25. The strongest players in the world have 9,000 points and more. Once a year, the game developer holds the main Dota tournament called The International. In 2017, its prize pool was $24,000,000, and the winner team got $10,000,000 of them.
The beginning of 2015
He woke up to someone shaking his shoulder: his father stood over him. They were in a computer club where Bakyt spent the last three weeks. The room was full of cigarette smoke, flickering screens, and hookey players. Bakyt went to this particular club because he got a free pass for organizing local tournaments. Here, he spent days and nights, telling his mother that he stayed with father and telling the opposite to his father. After the divorce, his parents were so caught up in their own problems that they didn’t notice how long he was absent.
In the club, Bakyt had a company of several friends and a reserved corner by the window. Those who played a lot were allowed to sleep in the club. To fall asleep in a chair, you had to be so tired that you’d pass out. Sometimes, Bakyt passed out right in the middle of a match. Other clients left fast food wrappers and bottles used for spitting saliva after chewing naswar next to computers. Bakyt carefully pushed them aside so that he didn’t spill them over accidentally. If he was lucky, the next machine was vacant, and he could fall asleep by curling up in two linked chairs.
He slept once in a couple of days and sometimes woke up choking from the lack of air in the smoky room. Here, people called him by the game nickname, Zayatz (spelled “Zayac”), which means Rabbit in Russian. Chubby, gap-toothed, and smiley Bakyt liked the nickname, and it matched him. The place was full of noise, grease, darkness, and fun. He didn’t want to go home.
The club had 200 computers and only one restroom. Often, its door was broken down. Many online games can’t be paused, and players had to hold it until the end of the match. Then, they discovered that the bathroom line had five people — and they ran out of patience. There was no shower, but the place was so smoky that the sense of smell shut down.
The only thing stopping him from living in the club full time was the absence of money for food. For the most hungry days, Bakyt came up with a scheme: the boys from the club chipped in with five-ten soms (10 cents) and went to a nearby canteen to buy buckwheat side dish and a loaf bread to lavishly spread with laazy, a spicy seasoning offered for free. The meal was hearty and cheap.
This time, Bakyt lasted three weeks thanks to sandwiches that his friend brought over to him. The more days have passed, the less he wanted to go home. After a few days of living in fear that the parents will learn about the truancy and scold him, he made peace with it and decided to play to the bitter end. Then, his father came to the club.
The ride home was silent: Bakyt fell asleep on the back seat of the car, leaving his father to talk to himself. At home, the boy went straight to bed and slept 20 hours. When he woke up, the father told him: “Son, you think that’s okay? Imagine you are a boxer. Have you ever seen a boxer punching bag 24 hours in a row? This doesn’t make sense. After five hours of gaming, your performance worsens, and it’s inefficient. If you want to become a professional cyber athlete, you also have to rest efficiently.”
That day, they agreed on two things. First, Bakyt will start behaving like a pro, working and resting “efficiently,” having proper meals and answering parents’ phone calls. Second, he will visit a psychologist to get help and cease playing for weeks on end.
The psychologist turned out to be a woman who specialized in treating addictions. Her office smelled of formalin, like a typical local hospital. Bakyt told her how much time he spends playing and that he wants to learn to control that to become a professional player. The psychologist replied that nothing good comes out of games and the whole idea of playing professionally is a delusion. She denied the very reality of the cybersport. Bakyt left 10 minutes after the meeting started.
Leaving the psychologist’s office, he thought: why no one calls athletes sick, although they train every day? Take chess players. They are obsessed with the game and can’t stop playing, but it is not considered an addiction. In all the movies he watched about people who became the best at something, they always looked crazy when they talked about their passion. That moment, he decided that obsession is not a bad thing. You have to be obsessed to aspire to become the best.
When Bakyt broke the agreement with his father once again, turning off the phone and vanishing for a week, the father posted a message on a popular local Dota forum. The post was titled “A Child Is Missing” and had Bakyt’s photo underneath the title. Bakyt immediately called back: “Father, what are you doing?” He knew that his father knew exactly where he was. The father responded: “I know that you don’t care about my opinion, but I am going to do this so that you feel embarrassed in front of your friends.” The strategy worked: Bakyt ceased disappearing from home.
Professional Dota players hit the keys so fast that the sound of their game reminds train’s chattering. While Bakyt couldn’t do that himself, he listened to the clatter for hours. To make it into Kyrgyzstan’s best Dota team, he followed the players, playing in the same computer clubs, and often watched them play, standing behind their chairs. At first, the players remembered him only because of his father who could come to a tournament in the club at 2 AM to bring a big bag of local food for his son’s team: boorsoks, plov, meat, sweets.
Bakyt asked the prominent local players to get him on the team, but they didn’t want to take a weak player and laughed away by offering him to become their waterboy, to run errands for them. He tried it but gave up in a couple of days.
During one of the local tournaments, Bakyt, as usual, was standing behind players watching the game. There, he saw how a team that was just about to lose — he could swear it would lose — turned out to win only because of the captain’s commands. That moment, it dawned on him that Dota was not a keyboard solo, but a real strategy game and he can become an indispensable player if he comes up with action plans.
In the following year, Bakyt spent more time at the computer than any other local player. To learn from mistakes, players need to watch replays of their games. Most people are lazy to do that. But Bakyt spent hours rewatching his matches from positions of different players so that later he could tell his teammates where they blundered and what to do the next time. In a year, in November 2016, he became a captain of Kyrgyz team that took second place at WESG tournament in Korea and won $17,000.
The players didn’t expect to succeed. They started practicing for the tournament two weeks before its start and had only a couple of training sessions. Often, there was a recurrent emergency: someone overslept the practice. On the tournament, they were lucky. The opponents figured out the strategy that Bakyt proposed only at the finals. He suspected that the other teams were too lazy to watch their previous games. Otherwise, they would’ve discovered that the Kyrgyz team used one and the same plan in every game.
Before the trip, Bakyt half-jokingly promised: if they make it into the top six, he will dye his hair. After the tournament, their team was praised on Kyrgyz television and, for a while, Bakyt — now with bleached hair — became a local celebrity. He even got recognized by an old lady at a local clinic, who asked him: “You are a cyber … something, aren’t you?”
Soon after this, a Korean cybersports organization invited their team to play in Korea. It offered salaries, devices, accommodation, and meals. At the same time, Bakyt was invited to play in two Russian teams. Although those teams were much bigger than the Kyrgyz, Bakyt declined. He believed that the Kyrgyz squad had an enormous advantage — their friendship. Those guys were not only his teammates but kindred spirits. Together, they dropped out of schools, lived in clubs, shared last money and supported each other when everyone around insisted that their dreams about cybersport were childhood fantasies.
Their victory in Korea led the team to a Chinese tournament with a prize pool of $1,500,000. But the failure was predictable. Once and again, scheduled practice sessions fell through — boys kept oversleeping. Bakyt didn’t miss a session and believed that everything would be different in Korea. They would live together and have all the conditions for playing. It’s impossible to keep sleeping when everyone else in training right next to you, isn’t it?
In Korea, Bakyt realized how hard waking someone up could be. During the first month, one of the organization employees took the task of waking them up every morning. The man ended up standing over a sleeping player and screaming “Wake up! Wake up!” while the person didn’t react. Those who kept oversleeping believed that their friends will forgive them. The rest cherished their friendship too much to fight over it. In five month spent in Korea, the team lost every single tournament.
Their last chance to prove their worth was a tournament in Peru. Lima, the capital of Peru, is as far from Bishkek as possible: on the opposite hemisphere, in 11 time zones. As a child, Bakyt dreamed of traveling. When his classmates talked about their vacations in Dubai and Barcelona, he listened longingly and wished to go abroad too. When their family went on a vacation to Issyk-Kul lake in Kyrgyzstan, they visited a gas station on the Kazakh side of the border, so, Bakyt’s mother joked, technically he has been abroad. But on his way to Peru, he was in a dark mood. The day before the flight, one of the players, Ilgiz, announced that he wants to quit the team. Now, the team’s future was in question. Bakyt hoped that they would win the tournament and Ilgiz will change his mind.
MVP.Revolution — their team called after Kyrgyz love for revolutions (Kyrgyzstan had two in the last 15 years) — was eliminated from the tournament on the second day.
After the match, the players went outside. The sun was setting; the air was hot and humid. The spectators also went out and watched the players through a metal mesh. During the first day, the Kyrgyz team was so friendly with fans, taking photos and signing autographs until their hands felt numb, that people were screaming their team tag even after they lost.
It was noisy, but Bakyt didn’t hear anything. His ears were ringing with the emotions. The team was upset and silent. Their trainer tried to cheer them up: “Guys, come on; it’s okay.” The boys looked at each other: What was okay? It was a failure. They lost because of a stupid mistake: they agreed to act one way and did another. Their rivals were considered the outsiders of the tournament, but they turned out to be the real outsiders. Ilgiz said that when they arrive in Korea, he will tell the manager about his decision himself.
When the next game started, and everyone left, Bakyt kept thinking about the match and how they lost it. His mind reeled with thoughts: what if I didn’t say that, what if he didn’t do that, what if, what if, what if… Something exploded inside him; he lifted his had and screamed. Guys from another CIS team came up to him: “Zayatz, are you okay?” — “Yeah, I’m okay.” He opened a bottle and started pouring water on himself to cool off.
Bakyt crouched down and started thinking: “What’s wrong? Why can’t I do anything? Why we thought that once we get the necessary conditions we will beat everyone, but it turned out to be a fantasy?” He fell so deep in his thoughts that didn’t notice the sunset and was startled by sudden darkness.
A month later, in Korea, the team gathered in a garden where they spent evenings lying on benches, watching the sky, and talking. Ilgiz flew away, they couldn’t find a substitute, and days went by aimlessly. Bakyt gave an ultimatum: if the guys keep being unprofessional — if they oversleep one more training session — he will quit the team, despite their friendship. He remembered now how he declined offers from other teams and felt disappointed. “Guys, do you realize that our friendship is not helping us? All I hear is: “I don’t want to hurt him; he is my friend.” Weren’t you saying that we can always tell each other what’s wrong? And now what? It’s the opposite”.
At the end of summer 2017, they returned to Kyrgyzstan. When the rest of the team went to chill at Issyk-Kul lake, Bakyt decided to take it easy and relax too. He locked himself at his home in Bishkek and played nonstop for three weeks in a row. In 20 days, he improved his rating from 7,400 to 8,900 points and made it into top 10 in his region.
In the middle of September, Bakyt was invited to play for a Russian team Vega Squadron. He left the Kyrgyz team and flew to Moscow.
When Bakyt plays all night long, the pre-dawn Azan, the Muslim call to prayer, reminds him that it’s time to go to sleep. In Dota community, his regime — when a player leaves computer only to visit the bathroom and to eat — is called “no life.” Players are proud of having “no life” as proof of their serious attitude to the game. Bakyt doesn’t consider what he does as a having a job, although he spends 10 hours a day at the computer: he thought that a job is something you don’t want to do but have to.
He lives near the Central Mosque in Bishkek. His bedroom window overlooks the yard, and after the sunrise he sees trickles of neighbors rushing to get to school and work. On the windowsill, there are a “money tree,” an aloe plant and a small palm tree, in different stages of wilting. On the table, there is a flowering cactus — in Bakyt’s opinion, a perfect plant for him. Often, the first thing in the morning, he turns on his computer and starts playing, wrapped up in a blanket. A shelf hanging over the computer is chockablock with books: “Manas” (read), “Koran” (didn’t), Dan Brown (quit on page 162), chess guidebooks, fairytales, and a sudoku collection borrowed from his brother. Typically, the room is a mess, and Bakyt cleans regularly only the keyboard: once in three months when the accumulated dust makes him sneeze.
There is an unpacked suitcase next to the bed. In the last six months, Bakyt spent only a couple of weeks home. When he started making money, his family acquiesced to his career choice. When asked if he is glad about Bakyt’s victories, his grandfather said: “Of course, I am happy, although, deep down, I still hoped he’d lose and return to school.” The uncle that once gave Bakyt a hard time became his fan. Now, he watches all big games and, afterward, calls his nephew to congratulate — or, relying on boorish comments of Russian-speaking commentators, to ask why he performed so poorly.
Some family members are afraid that Bakyt’s example will give other boys false hope. An aunt asked him to talk some sense into her 15-year-old son who also plays Dota 2. “He has only three-four thousand points, and that’s very little,” Bakyt recalls about the conversation. “I told him: “Don’t be dumb. Even though I went all in and dropped out of school, at least I knew I have a real chance. And you are either looking for a reason not to study or too stupid to bank on something.” The cousin replied that he didn’t think of playing professional; it was just his mom’s anxiety.
Fans often write Bakyt in social media, and he tries to write back to everyone. Generally, they ask the same question: how to become a professional Dota player? The answer: you have to increase your game rating to be noticed by a well-known team.
Recognizing Bakyt’s fans among other Vega Squadron supporters is easy. They have Kyrgyz and Kazakh names and, when the team loses, they praise his efforts and refrain from suggesting to kick him out. When Bakyt just came into the Russian team, many people on social media were hesitant about an unknown player from the backwoods of Central Asia and, from time to time, urged to get rid of him. Today, the team has already two Kyrgyz players: in January, Bakyt’s friend and ex-teammate Eugene Ree joined them.
Right now, Bakyt’s chance to get to The International, the Dota tournament that makes the winners both celebrities and millionaires, is higher than ever. He is in a tier two team, plays in big tournaments, and has a trainer, a Dutch nicknamed Kips, whose teams made it to The International last two years. Just two years ago, the only thing Bakyt had was 100 soms (less than $2) that his father gave him for the fare. The first six months after dropping from school were the worst. Bakyt remembers them as “dark times,” like those in the Middle Ages when plague, famine, and Inquisition raged in Europe. He had troubles winning. His mood became so dark that he avoided his friends. On his way back home, he pulled his hat down over the eyes and wrapped his face with a scarf so that no one would recognize him. His father was sure that he’d play for a year and go back to study. For a couple of months, his mother didn’t even know that he dropped out of school, and Bakyt dreaded receiving her phone calls.
Recently, he had a conversation with her about him and his brother: “You two are bums!” — “Mom, I make money.” — “You play games!” — “Then tell me, how much should I make?” His mother estimated that he needs to earn 80 thousand soms to make good money (about $1,200) — which meant, as Bakyt figured, to make his family leave him alone. Fortunately, that’s right about how much he earns. Tier two teams in the region pay players from $1,000 to $3,000 a month. Until recently, Bakyt gave all his money to parents but eventually, they suggested he should start saving it. Now Bakyt saves his money for the standard Kyrgyz success kit, “an apartment and a car,” though he doesn’t drive and is not sure if he wants to live in Kyrgyzstan.
When he stays in Bishkek, Bakyt can spend a whole week at home and forces himself to go out for a walk on weekends. He puts on big noise-canceling headphones and circles the Oak park while listening to Kendrick Lamar and Scriptonite. While walking, Bakyt imagines winning The International. He believes that thoughts materialize and in his head, envisions the scene in minute details. He imagines the KeyArena in Seattle, the buzz of 30 thousand fans and himself, sitting in a cubicle with a focused poker face. He sees how in the moment of victory the coolness vanishes from his faces, replaced by surprise and glee, how he starts screaming and jumping with his team. He imagines lifting the trophy, looking at the fans and the lights around him… It takes 15 minutes to dream up the whole sequence. When he comes out of it, his heart beats like crazy, and he is about to scream right on the street.
Bakyt thinks that it would be nice to get a girlfriend, to have someone to go to a movie. Sometimes, he wants to watch a melodrama, but guys ruin everything by laughing in the most inappropriate moments. He even knows how he will propose one day: dancing down a staircase and singing a sixties romantic ballad. There is only one problem — the only females whom Bakyt talked to in the last two years were his mom and a friend (not counting Kips).
Recently, however, he overcame shyness and anonymously (so that his friends wouldn’t laugh him off) posted in a dating group on social media. That evening, it was the first time when he couldn’t focus on the game. He started talking on the phone with the girl who responded and, out of habit, he turned on the game. In the middle of the match, Bakyt realized that he is mindlessly losing. Even after ending the conversation, he couldn’t continue playing because he kept thinking about her laughter and that he has never felt like this before. Then, a thought struck him: is he going to become one of those players whose careers ruined because of a girlfriend?
And he thought: “No, this is definitely not that kind of story.”