Remembering iNcontroL

Hey folks,

I’m brownbear. Today I’ll be writing a few words on the recent passing of Geoff “iNcontroL” Robinson.

I did not know Geoff well. We were, at best, acquaintances. Nevertheless he made a big impact on me, something for which I’ll always be grateful. Geoff sits prominently in my memories of playing competitive RTS in the late 2000s. In honor of his memory, I wanted to write a bit about that time.

The Beginning

I first met Geoff around twelve years ago, as we both competed to become members of Team USA at the 2007 World Cyber Games. The US National Finals were held in Universal Orlando Resort, and they were structured almost like a rideable attraction. Park guests could line up outside to walk through the dimly lit, tightly-packed LAN arena in which competitors from Age of Empires, StarCraft, WarCraft, Gears of War, Project Gotham Racing, and a few other games furiously played through their brackets. In the background blared a near-exclusive blend of Linkin Park and Mr. Brightside. The entire venue was smaller than the press room at Blizzcon.

I met the Brood War folks through Artosis, whom I knew from our time playing top-level Age of Empires 3 together. Geoff was a massive bear of a man, wearing a skin-tight t-shirt from Oregon State University. People said he was a powerlifter. I remember watching him play and wondering how he could even navigate the mouse and keyboard in the tiny, cramped desk space we were each given.

Now, the Brood War players in 2007 were probably the only real pro-gamers at the entire tournament. Given that the most famous western RTS player at the time was either Grubby or the guy from Pure Pwnage, you can interpret that in whatever way you’d like and you’d probably be correct. They could discuss their game at any depth; they were a tightly-knit community forged in part through mutual practice time; and they followed real training schedules. They were proactive in creating opportunities for themselves – Artosis and I at one point collaborated on a website called “RTS Professional”, which sought to teach newer players how to learn RTS games. He and another guy named Gentho were the brains of the operation, as well as the producers of a lot of the content; I just made a handful of videos with my kitschy FRAPS setup, and got paid $30 a pop. At the time I thought I was seriously making bank.

With pro-gaming comes a respect for one’s own discipline, a philosophy that I first learned from Geoff. The Brood War players were goofy guys with some fairly rambunctious after-hours activities, but they took their craft seriously. By contrast, no one in Age of Empires viewed the game as their livelihood or career path, at least in 2007. We took the game seriously, and it featured a high-enough skill ceiling to be enjoyable at the highest of levels, but ultimately it was just a hobby to us. The idea of playing in a high-stakes tournament was just an extension to that – the ability to take a time-consuming hobby and actually get some cool prizes and vacations out of it. Gaming was a means to an end, not a discipline in and of itself.

This came to a head near the end of the tournament. I recall sitting and watching the finals of several other games with the other RTS folks, having finished all of our matches. The spectacle at the time was Project Gotham Racing, an exclusive to Xbox 360 and a darling of Microsoft, who just so-happened to be one of WCG’s main sponsors.

PGR was an interesting competitive title to watch. Two players raced against one another on the same track. They each selected exactly the same car, presumably because that’s what the competitive meta demanded. The players’ efficiency in moving through the map meant that you could barely register the environmental details. In order to ensure purity of competition, the cars also did not collide with one another. It was almost like racing your own ghost in Mario Kart, except the ghost was another player, and winning put $3,000 in your pocket. All of this was rendered on what I swear-to-God was a 32” TV that sat more than 50 feet away.

To put it bluntly, it was baffling, nigh unwatchable. I don’t think any of us understood how this was a compelling competitive game. But to be honest, we also didn’t think very carefully about what a compelling competitive game should look like. Maybe this was the future – taking pre-existing popular games and latching on a competitive mode.

The Brood War folks – the consummate professionals that they were – took the lead in mocking this display. It was hilarious, to be sure. But what I found interesting was not the jokes, because anyone can make fun of a game whose competitive scene lives and dies on the whims of a marketing manager somewhere in Redmond. Tearing things down is easy. What’s hard – what few people could do back then – is articulating an actual vision for what professional gaming should be, and talking about why it should be that way, and trying to logically build a case for a sustainable competitive scene. And that was something that I had never really come across in my time in competitive gaming.

Over the years I would go on to have several such conversations with Geoff. At one point we both participated in the 2008 Pan-American Championship in Monterrey, Mexico. WCG fucked up Geoff’s hotel booking, because of course they did, and he ended up staying with myself and SonKiE from Warcraft III. As we watched shitty reality TV and collectively worried over our upcoming tournament games, we talked about what pro-gaming was and what it should be and what it might become.

Geoff was the first person I ever met who lived his life consciously. What I mean to say is that the things he did and the words he said were rarely accidental. Every belief he held was based on something, something he could explain to you if you challenged him on it. He thought about the way he wanted to live his life and then he lived it that way. He talked about the team house he wanted to start (in Arizona, I want to say?) and why it made sense to have a team house and why I should live there if I was serious about taking gaming to the next level. He talked about practice schedules and tournament anxiety. He talked about anything – at one point I spoiled the upcoming episode of the TV show we were watching, and he patiently explained why that was an utterly stupid thing to do.

This was new to me. I think, as a socially awkward sixteen-year old who spent most of his time gaming, my go-to social defense mechanism was to “be chill”. Don’t rock the boat, don’t judge other people, don’t be assertive: just go with the flow and hope you collect some friends along the way, because of the ever-present fear that you would say the wrong thing and people would stop talking to you.

It was through Geoff that I learned that this was a bullshit way of going through life. Life is too short to waste our time and energy on things that we don’t believe in. If you’re doing something, understand why. If you’re saying something, be ready to defend it and back it up. If you see someone doing good, tell ’em that they’re doing good – and if you see nonsense, call it out as nonsense. Geoff was always very opinionated, but that’s not what really struck me about him; what struck me was his genuine desire for truth-seeking. He voiced his opinions because he really believed in them, he had thought about them, he had considered the alternatives, and he had landed on something he believed to be right. He wasn’t stubborn, at least the way I remember him: he was just smart and he held himself to a high standard.

He was the first person I met in gaming who really made me think, damn: I’d like to be more like that guy.

The Middle

The mid-2000’s were an interesting time for competitive real-time strategy. At times it felt like the genre had never been bigger. Command and Conquer, Age of Empires, and Dawn of War all featured strong competitive scenes, and all would go on to appear in multiple WCG tournaments. StarCraft, while mostly dead in the Western world, continued on gloriously in South Korea. On top of it all was Warcraft III, the absolute titan of the genre and a constant point of comparison in the Age community.

Into this environment came the announcement of StarCraft II. To label it earth-shaking would be an understatement; many of us suspected (correctly) that the title would completely upend the competitive RTS scene. Something similar happened with Warcraft III, though at a smaller scale because the games industry wasn’t as big back then. Now every mom and dad on the block was buying an Xbox 360 just so they could have a good DVD player at home.

I think everyone who played competitive RTS at the time had the same conversation, probably many times: Are you going to switch over when StarCraft II comes out? Do you think our game can survive? Do you think it could really be as big as people say it will be?

The answers for most players, with the benefit of hindsight, turned out to be yes, yes, and yes.

For my part, StarCraft II was never something that I genuinely considered as an option. I didn’t even play the game until Legacy of the Void, and that was only because a good friend bought it for me when I was in China. The issue for me was the sense that, somehow, the game wouldn’t work out for me; that I would end up playing it all day every day, only to fail to make any inroads competitively and simultaneously torpedo any chance of success on a more traditional path through life.

I think people really don’t understand that there was no path in esports in 2007. I don’t even recall the term being widely used, though that’s likely just my own ignorance. There were no guidelines – take these courses, study for this interview, work for these companies, etc. No one had any idea what StarCraft II would be or what esports would become. The notion of being a professional caster was fantastical, like telling people you wanted to become Pat Sajak. Even today – where the path is ill-defined and many people struggle to have their breakout moment – the logical progression is surprisingly clear, at least within StarCraft: work your way up from your own stream to small tournaments to co-casting to community casting to trying to find work at a real WCS tournament.

Back then none of this existed. The headline-grabbing league at the time (in the West, at least) was the CGS, which boasted that it had signed its players to $30,000 a year contracts. $30,000 a year was not a lot of money, and even this was before factoring in the exclusivity terms of the player agreements and the extensive hours required of professional gaming. There was also WCG, and ESWC, and QuakeCon, and CPL, and a few other tournaments and organizations – but the industry was fragmented, and the money was lackluster.

As I told Artosis last year when we caught up at Blizzcon, his choice to move to Korea demonstrated some serious courage. It was like embarking on the Oregon Trail, perhaps with less dysentery. If anyone can say they pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps, it’s folks like Dan and Geoff: in some ways they created an entire job category, in Dan’s case in a foreign country where he didn’t even speak the language. It’s one of the reasons I respect him so much, not just as a commentator but also as a person. He sacrificed everything to genuinely build something from nothing.

It’s not to say that I admire Geoff and Dan and a handful of other folks from back then because they built successful careers. Many people have successful careers; *I* have a successful career. What impresses me is the way they invented their own path through life. And what really strikes me about it is the way they built real, whole lives for themselves – careers, families, friends, hobbies, personal maturity, a well-adjusted outlook. They didn’t grow up to be hollow, as I feared I would become; they lived full, complete lives.

Over the years, I would occasionally tune into Geoff’s stream to see what he was up to. He was the first person I ever subscribed to on the platform, and at the time he would make up a fortune for each new subscriber. I can still remember pressing the subscribe button, eagerly waiting for the notification to appear on screen to hear what fortune I would receive. I remember marveling at this guy that I used to know, who had built this whole life for himself. And I remembered that he rarely did things by accident; and that if this was the life he was leading, then it was certain to be the life that he had chosen to lead.

The End

I’ll always be grateful for the impact Geoff had on my life. He showed me how to live consciously, to live proactively, to live with purpose. And he showed me that this could be done in the service of a good life, and in his case, a great life.

I remember when Fox News wanted to run a story on World Cyber Games, and Paul Brewer was looking for volunteers from Team USA to do interviews, and Geoff happily signed up. I remember when WCG arranged a reality TV show for competitive gamers, and Geoff pushed to be included. I remember when we played heads up poker and I actually beat him, and he explained that there were two types of poker players who would have made the move I did: experts and idiots. He didn’t specify which category he thought I was in.

Each time I would ask him: how are you so confident about these things? Why do you believe this and not that? And each time he would look at me, and shake his head, and explain why he lived his life the way he did. And that’s what I’ll always remember about him.

I’ll miss you, Geoff.

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