Evolving with the King of Orcs
Manuel "Grubby" Schenkhuizen has lost track of how many times he’s been to China.
“I’ve won one event here,” Grubby says. “It was also the last big offline event I won. It was in 2009 at a tournament called World e-Sports Masters. When I won, I realized, ‘Dang! That’s the first one I’ve won after 30 trips!’ I think by now it’s more like 40. I really wish I had kept count, other than which cities I’ve been to.”
He goes on to list the cities he can remember visiting: “Shanghai, Harbin, Hangzhou, Chengdu, Changsha, Pekin, Wuhan, QinDao, Xi’an…”
This time, he’s in Beijing, staying at the Pangu Seven Star Hotel while casting the Gold Club World Championship at the nearby National Aquatics Center.
Grubby knows a few hundred Chinese words, but claims it’s still not enough to get around. It's clear, though, that he’s had no trouble in doing so as our conversation evolves into a scrapbook of esports memories from a time long forgotten. After reminiscing about visiting the Terracotta Army, sampling Sichuan cuisine, and his encounters with various species of panda, he says “There is a good list of really memorable moments I’ve had here. It’s been a big part of my life, even part of my formative years or shortly after.”
Before diving into Heroes of the Storm and StarCraft 2, Grubby was one of the best Warcraft III players in the world. He participated in countless tournaments from 2003–2010 and won several notable World Championship–level LAN events, including BlizzCon 2005. He’s widely considered to be the most successful pro gamer from the Netherlands ever, and maintains his top-three status in terms of prize money earned from Warcraft III despite retiring from the game nearly eight years ago. His success with the Orc class in Warcraft III even earned him the nickname "King of the Orcs."
Grubby remembers the last tournament he played in China, but can he remember the first?
“I was in Shanghai in 2005, that was my first time ever in China. I was playing in an event where they invited 16 players—15 Chinese and Korean players and one Grubby from the Netherlands,” he quips. Only 19 years old, Grubby won the opening match of the tournament against Li "Sky" Xiaofeng—a legend in the Warcraft III scene.
“I was pretty scared going into Sky because he had been doing so well in China. He had this cool new strategy, quick tower rush with Sorcerers and Priest. I remember ToD, who was on my team back then, he was telling me that I shouldn’t be worried and we practiced together. It was one of the rare events where we actually did seriously and effectively practice together and he just gave me confidence that I would do alright—and I did, I won.”
The win over Sky would be the catalyst for things to come. Warcraft III is a special game in the hearts of many, but love for its competitive scene has always been exponentially greater in China, where Grubby can safely claim esports fame status.
“You’re Grubby, Right?”
While Grubby has fans from all over the world, nothing quite measures up to the fame he’s earned from the Chinese fans of Warcraft III.
To this day, despite whatever his travel itinerary may be, he is still recognized from his time spent competing in Warcraft III. “I go to an obscure supermarket and there is someone there in the supermarket that knows me, and you get this small taste of what it’s like to be recognized at any place but within another country. Then I get back home and just blend in again. You get the feeling in China that this was a huge—or is still—a huge deal. To them it was a big part of what they enjoyed in their early lives. That part will always stay alive for them and for me,” Grubby says.
“China is a huge place with a giant population. You don’t fully realize when industry insiders you meet at events tell you that you’re popular in China, or you’re famous, or you have a lot of fans here—you don’t fully realize the scale.” He continues, “During my active pro gaming at least, there would not be a single time at the airport I would not get recognized by a security guard, or someone that watched Warcraft III or watched me compete while they were in middle school.”
The Next Generation
With age, you often must surrender aspects of your youth. For Grubby, this meant knowing when to step away from the keyboard and become a part of the solution for moving esports forward. It was Grubby the influencer who adapted when the boom of livestreaming transformed esports into what it is today. It was Grubby the personality that went a step further by harnessing his game knowledge to become a solid name in the world of casting talent.
With what he’s learned from his time spent in the limelight, Grubby looks admirably upon the current class of Heroes of the Storm pros. “I feel proud of them,” he says. “I remember some of the problems I may have had when I was pro-gaming, some of the mental issues. You are your own coach. It’s quite difficult sometimes to separate yourself from the problems you have in the moment or the overarching goal that you have to win the tournament. They may have roster changes or some issues or whatever, but I feel like overall, they get on really well.”
Knowing what these players go through in order to be among the best in the country or the world is a unique perspective to bring to the casting desk. “You’ll see in 1v1 RTS because we are not playing a team game, we’re not as used to speaking to other people about what is going on inside our heads. You’ll see more of the archetypical introverted thinker without fantastic interviews in those types of games.”
Doing research and speaking to pro players in a huge part of the caster job. Grubby believes that this new incarnation of the professional player is a little more open to sharing their thoughts and feelings, and believes that everyone benefits from that.
“The players are more aware of that now than we were back then—which is normal, the times change. But when I see that they are willing to help build the story that we, as commentators, are trying to tell, which is my main interest here in China, they are quite forthcoming. Maybe not with their deepest secrets or what strategies they will be using, but lifting the veil a little and letting on how they feel mentally going into the match and if they have anything special prepared. They should and will alter their answers about build orders….” He laughs, then corrects himself: “I mean drafts, but they do their best to make it possible for us to tell interesting and compelling stories to the fans.”
Yes, wisdom may come through experience. But Grubby claims that this new wave of pros are more educated about the role they play than ever before. “They are more aware now that the circle of esports is a circle where many different interests matter, such as commentating, sponsors, the players, the tournament organizers, the fans—they all have a stake in having a fantastic show.”
It's hard to think of a story more compelling than Grubby’s—traveling the world ten times over to play computer games for money. And even beyond that, Grubby was there before the show started, before the audience had even arrived.