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Stephano doesn't care

As WCS Europe exits the present moment, bound for the annals of esports history, the end result remains a familiar, and not unexpected, one, as Ilyes “Stephano” Satouri once more cements his unmatched status as foreign StarCraft 2's reigning top dog.  Yet another familiar story continues to play out alongside his victory: that it was again the manner in which he won which inspired as much excitement as his actions inside of the game server.

Telling everyone he would win the final easily, despite facing a young Spaniard seemingly swept up in the embrace of destiny, Stephano had arrived at the event looking more frazzled than ever, a look his choice of hair style plays to with ease, and for all the world seemed at the brink of his physical capabilities.

Yet the prize ceremony was another French dancing affair, as he finished as the best player in the building, all while seeming not to care all that much.  His team-mates in EG have taught us well, and often, that personality and fan appeal outsell all in-game decisions, but Stephano combines his debonair approach with skills at the cutting edge of non-Korean play.  While everyone looks to break down the young French man's game into its component parts and search for the mechanism behind his success, I wonder if perhaps he hasn't been telling us the secret to his approach all along: Stephano doesn't care.

The revolutionist's effect

Looking for a reference point to enter the maze that is Stephano my mind is drawn to the history of competitive South Korean Brood War, seemingly my rosetta stone for decoding life itself.  Within that perfect, and worringlying totalitarian, anthropological experiment in what young human males are capable of when forced to play a very difficult computer game for the vast majority of their waking hours, we find the impossibly talented and yet mercurial figure of  Kim "Bisu" Taek-Yong.

 

Much like Stephano's meteroric rise at IPL3 in 2011, Bisu's March third revolution of 2007, in which the young Protoss facing the seemingly impossible odds of newly crowned bonjwa sAviOr, at the height of his ZvP prowess, manifested the largest upset in BW history, slaying the game's most dominant player in a stunning sweep.  The outcome literally revolutionised the entire PvZ match-up for years to come, and practically saved the Protoss race in doing so, but it did not come without its costs.

In showing the world how even the best Zerg could be pushed aside by the right approach Bisu simultaneously sank collective hearts across Aiur's faithful, as they soon found that the unparalleled multi-tasking Bisu boasted also made his level of vZ success essentially irreproducible.  Other Protoss could adopt the general gist and take concepts to heart, applying them to their own game, and indeed the fast forge opening was simple enough to employ, but none would be able to execute to the same degree Bisu did, because none were Bisu.

Likewise, even in the era of Zerg's finest hour, we find none capable of doing as Stephano does.  The same impossible to replicate intuitive sense for how to play, which was present at all times when Bisu's game was right, can be seen in Stephano's keen understanding how to exploit of the rhythm of the game, forcing the opponent to play at his tempo and on his terms.

Just as Bisu inspired the entire Protoss race, only to make them realise that they would never do quite as he did, Stephano leads the way for foreign players in an era when they have lagged so far behind the elite tier of Koreans, collectively, as to have made the "are foreigners catching up to Koreans?" discussion almost entirely irrelevant, and a dead horse beaten unto oblivion.  Stephano's in-game skills, which spark his success on a tangible, physical, level are an exciting shot in the arm, and yet maddeningly irreproducible for others.

What Bisu represented for Protoss in BW, Stephano parallels for foreigners in SC2.  Yet it would appear it is about more than just his in-game decisions, more in fact a case of mentality and approach.  When Stephano tells you he doesn't care, I suspect he is telling the truth on a fundamental and very significant level.  Before I attempt to unravel the enigma of Stephano though, first some thoughts on why Stephano has so inflamed the passions of the foreign SC2 scene's fans.

The man we all wish we were

When it comes to the reasons as to why players become beloved by fans, despised by fans and even entirely ignored by fans, the reasons are naturally many and of a subtly complex nature.  With that said we can draw with some broad strokes and find some sense at the end of our efforts to point us in the right direction.  Some players appeal to the social element of a person, that element that looks for new friends in the world.  So the good guy pro seems like such a swell fellow we'd all love nothing more than to share a beverage with him and chat with him after he's finished competing. 

Then we have the more BM and/or trollish players, whose behaviour is polarising in either attracting those who admire an anti-authoritarian bent, or despise the flaunting of the etiquette of polite society.  For the ignored cases their personality often seems either either missing entirely, or incapable of being manifest in a way that is tangible, or their play is too by the book, safe or uninspiring.

While your mind has likely been producing the appropriate examples to go along with each of those broadly defined types, and indeed could go on adding to lists for all three categories, Stephano seems to stand apart in occupying another definable type of player, and yet one which we can find analogues for in the history of popular culture.

Stephano is the man the average foreign SC2 fan wishes he was.  While it might seem a little over-the-top to call him the James Dean or Marlon Brando of StarCraft, even typing that out raised a little self-conscious tingle in my writing grey matter, it seems to be the case that Stephano fits that well-worn archetype Hollywood loves to market to us with: the man every man wants to be, and every woman wants to be with.  Admittedly the latter part is less significant to our analysis, or won't be addressed regardless, but the former seems only too apt for the present climate.

Waiting on our big breaks

It's a somewhat sad, but inevitable, side-effect of competition between males in the modernised West, America in particular, that the average case is drawn to the pro scene not just for the aesthetic attraction of impressive high level play, but also because he harbours a secret, and sometimes not so secret, desire to be one of the professionals in question.  Just as sports fans of many walks love to bend your ear about what the coach of the a specific professional team should be doing, and how if they were the star player they'd have done X and Y differently, so it sometimes feels like the average SC2 fan follows the pro scene either for the dream of what it would be like for him to play amongst his heros, or as some kind of ill-advised preparation period for when his big break comes and he finds himself in that esteemed company.

I'm reminded of a study I once read that said when polled indiscriminately practically everyone on the street rated their own intelligence level as at worse average.  So even the stupidest and least intellectually gifted person asked could not conceive of the possibility that they were below average, and yet we know at least some of them must be.  In the same way, so many SC2 fans secretly believe they are good players, in a sense relative to the pros, and that given the right opportunity they could do what the pros can do in big tournaments.

Shooting stars like Scarlett only help to reinforce this closely guarded secret though, giving people the hope that if they just got to an [insert tournament name applicable to their region] then they might suddenly find that they could beat some of the pros and get that break into the business.  Just as everyone in our modern culture seems convinced they can be a singing star, regardless of how far the reality is from the dream, so seemingly many SC2 fans believe they could one day be good enough to participate in the life they only observe from afar at present.


Stephano the rock star of SC2

This is where Stephano's perceived persona becomes an incredibly powerful, and undeniably, seductive opiate for the masses, sedating their hidden desires and elevating their wishes to a plane of mildly euphoric daydream.  Stephano is the ultimate fantasy wish fulfillment for the 16-25 year old Western male who plays SC2 at all competitively, in whatever league that may be.  Let's consider the kind of tabloid caricature our minds conjure of Stephano once the reddit game of telephone has been completed.

He doesn't practice, he turns up at events intoxicated and with no fucks given, owns Koreans and foreigners alike, wins the money, which he's only too happy to tell you is the only thing he cares about, honour and prestige be damned, and then, following a victory jig, waltzs off into an unseen sunset of after-parties and presumably a bevy of Kerrigan-esque groupies.  Of course, even though some of those broad strokes are not entirely off the mark, the projected persona does not really match up with reality too fittingly, hence why I described it as a tabloid caricature.  It's too simply defined and lacking in subtlety to exist outside of a movie or the redditor's mind.

Does Stephano really not practice at all?  That seems highly unlikely, for obvious reasons, and he attends enough tournaments that even if it were somehow true he would still be playing quite a lot of SC2 just in official games at offline events, or qualifying for them.  Throw in show-matches and streaming, for that coveted cash, and the fantasy of him just showing up and owning everyone on sheer blistering talent, all in cavalier fashion, seems a little exaggerated, to say the least.

Does he really play intoxicated, or in any way outside of the straight and sober mental frame we imagine of the buttoned up Korean professional, fresh off an almost sadomasochistic level of practice to be good enough?  Again, a few notable examples aside, that seems to be a fun notion which is far from the everyday reality.  On the final day of WCS EU the Frenchman even told us he had remedied day one's slept deficit with a hefty investment of 14 hours sleep, ensuring he arrived fresh and ready to win in "easy" fashion against LucifroN's brother (old habits die hard when it comes to names).

So now we arrive at the final piece of my hurriedly scribbled caricature of a French SC2 wizard: he doesn't give a fuck and just owns everyone regardless.  Oh that the dreaming fan could show up with such an attitude, win the tournament and everyone's respect, proffered or begrudgingly handed over.  To have your cake and eat it, right in front of everyone.  This is likely the most seductive element of the Stephano mystique and yet, as some of you will have guessed, is the one element I think actually bears out, through analysis, as the most realistic.

I doubt Stephano does only care about money.  Were that true it seems a mystery as to why he would ever discuss plans to leave SC2 while the game and its prize pools are in full swing, stoking the fires of his own legend aside.  If money is the primary goal then it's hard to see how university, which will be there waiting just the same in two or three years, should be capable of beating out a few more years of racking up six figures in prize winnings and topping up that overflowing money soda float with dollops of rich salary ice cream.  It's not that Stephano only cares about money, I think he doesn't care at all.

The mental approach of the closer

At this point you're perhaps wondering where this character analysis is headed.  Is this to be a pitchfork-wielding admonishment of the French man's seemingly stereotypical national arrogance?  Actually I think the fact Stephano doesn't care is not only a good thing, but the secret and underlying thread to his wild and unmatched foreign success.

Let me begin with an example from professional sports which will be recognisable, and yet will perhaps come at you from a shifted perspective than normal.  Think of the great NBA closer in the last possession of a game, his team is down by one and he will take the final shot of the game.  If he makes it he is the hero, lifted on his team-mate's shoulders he'll exit the building a winner, beloved by everyone.

 

If he misses the shot some will say he cost his team the game, couldn't deliver under pressure, he's the scapegoat for every fan's frustration with another L in the results column.  In such a scenario few of us have any tangible experience at all of the mindset of that player, we only have our detached observation of the situation.  Yet, you may be surprised to find out how different the inside of the player's head is from the impression the exterior of his visage may give off.

To the outside world he is weighed down, burdened unbearably by pressure.  By even volunteering, or demanding, to take the last shot he is essentially boasting that he deserves to be the one who decides the fate of the game for his team, he's the player who has the best chance of making the shot and thus he is willing to gamble the risk of a miss against the reward of being the significant difference maker.

Looking at his face as he takes the shot we see an intense look of concentration and focus, his brow furrowed above laser-like eyes, piercingly following the ball's trajectory towards the basket.  His mouth is twisted up and his teeth may even be clenched.  For all the world one could imagine he is straining and exerting incredible mental effort internally, squeezing every muscle as tighly as possible to will the ball through the hole.  Yet ask the players in question what is happening and their explanation will be quite contrasting to that picture.

The elite NBA closer, your Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant or Larry Bird, will tell you that the effect they are aiming for is not the forced shot, the shot that comes with all the pressure of the world on it and a screaming internal monologue that you "must make this shot!" or "can't let the team down!".  Instead they explain that they aim to think of nothing, the mental effort should be minimum to non-existent.  All the effort that decides if the shot goes in or not has already been invested for these players, but it took place in a gym over the last 10 years of their life, not in the second the ball leaves their hand right now.

These players do not aim for an extraordinary and unusual shot which has incredible significance, they aim for the most routine shot they can manage.  They have practiced their bread and butter shots so many times in the gym, sometimes shooting and making thousands of them in a single day, that the muscle memory of how to make the short is as perfectly ingrained in their physical being as one might imagine possible.  They already know how to make the shot they need to, all they have to do is make it.  If their mind is engaged at all, beyond simple extraneous factors before the release, like if the defender is too close or a move in direction will produce a less contested shot, the only thing that the player's mind can do is get in the way of him making the shot.

The importance of getting out of your own way

The aim is for the player to get out of his own way, as relates to his active mental investment in how to make the shot, and allow his body to take over and perform the rote action that is by now routine.  The trick is to remove all mental context, which tells your subconscious that this shot matters and is special, and instead trick the body into believing it is mechanically performing the same action it has performed over and over, by repetition, when there was no game on the line, nobody watching and nothing to be gained or lost.  If the player can make an uncontested shot in the gym he can make the game winner when it matters, he just has to not care.  Caring about success or failure will only cloud his efforts, better to be indifferent and simply perform an efficient and well-prepared action.

There is a concept in ceremonial and chaos magick, the kind where creatures of the nether realms are supposedly summoned rather than the rabbit appearing from a hat kind, which is best articulated by the Aleister Crowley quote: "For pure will, unassuaged of purpose, delivered from the lust of result, is every way perfect".  Our NBA player aims to prevent his lust of result, presumably the success of the shot going in, from contaminating and making imperfect his intention, to take the shot he is most capable of making under the circumstances.  Now let's relate this, at first seemingly disparate, example and that concept to Stephano's approach.


When Stephano plays one, informed by the above analysis, can imagine that by not caring if he wins or loses, or who he is facing, he gives himself the freedom to get out of his own way and allow that incredible repository of natural, intuitive, ability to take over.  Acting and reacting straight from the subconscious Stephano simply performs the action which gives him the best chance of winning in that situation.  It matters not if he is facing the best player in the world, just as the best defender in the world should not bother the NBA player, as his chances at victory lie only in exploiting his own abilities to their fullest.  Where the vast majority of players, likely Korean and foreigner alike, constantly have an incredible mental and emotional investment in the outcome of each action in-game, Stephano bypasses any possible emotional filter or lens and allows his talent to give it a shot.  It's a zen state of mind.

As strange as the notion may appear to some, there is little more powerful in augmenting our efforts' efficiency drastically than our imagination of the possible outcomes.  On one level, in the evolutionary paradigm, one can imagine this trait being part of the reason we are here to discuss this at all, with the proto-hominids who did not think through potential outcomes naturally being eliminated by any number of dangerous pitfalls and unnecessary risks.  In a StarCraft player or elite professional of any craft though there is no room for too much of that kind of thinking while in performance mode, rather it is required for the player remain in the present moment, where he can best affect his reality.

Letting go

To further explore the actual mechanism behind getting out of one's way let's go back to our NBA player.  His exterior wrought in anguish or intensity, we can easily assume his method for focusing or concentrating is exerting strenuous effort to force his mind not to think too much, or wander.  This is perhaps symptomatic of the Western mind, or our understanding of concentration/focus at any rate, but I think it is 180 degrees from the reality of the mechanism.  Rather than try to force thoughts out of the mind, so only one pure intention remains, the player instead let's go of his thoughts.

By not clinging to them the thoughts float off of their own accord, like balloons a careless child has accidentally let go of.  As they exit his mind, without him attempting to grasp for them or analyse them or address them, all that remains is the pure intention that stems from his will in that moment.  In allowing this mental environment to form there is only one driving force in his mind, and it is free to act on reality with maximum efficiency.

 

There is a form of Buddhist meditation called Vipassanā, where the adept performs just the above describe process, with a little difference.  While in other meditational styles, mantra being a good example, the adept focuses only one on word or sound or shape, to the exclusion of everything else, bringing back a wandering mind to the object of focus again and again until it naturally leaves less often and for less time, like a trained dog, Vipassanā sees the adept attempting to simply observe his thoughts in a detached and non-judgmental manner.

Thoughts occur, they bubble up through the liquid of his mind and rather than analyse them or emotionally attach himself to them, or follow them into subsequent additional thoughts, the adept instead simply observes the thought and lets it go, free to exit his mind of its own accord, whence it came perhaps.

The goal of this type of meditation is to develop a state of awareness of the observer behind the mind itself, and in doing so detach from worldly emotional attachments to thoughts.  The adept may eventually become aware that where before he thought himself to be his thoughts, or the mind which is canvas upon which they are emblazoned in bright colours, he instead appears to be some kind of separate observer who watches his own mind having thoughts.  Our NBA player obviously cares later if he makes the shot or misses it, how can he not, but in the moment of action he merely observes himself perform an action he has performed a multitude of times and mastered to maximum relative efficiency.

Does Stephano knowingly perform a kind of Vipassanā meditation?  It seems unlikely, and I have no evidence to back-up such a speculation, but instead I'd suggest that the approach called Vipassanā is merely an approach to articulating a process that already exists within the human being, and so in this sense he does perform it, regardless of whether he knows it.

The detatched observer and the emotionally invested participant

When I mention a detached observer not assigning emotional significance or identifying with his thoughts it is easy to conjure up that image of Stephano's game face.  The blank stare of a killer, unburdened by emotional investment in outcome and simply observing his mind and body undertaking the actions he has prepared and visualised so many times in the past, to the extent he has achieved an assembly-line mentality to each small action in-game.  This is something Stephano shares with the very best Korean players.

Think of Mvp and MC when they are in a big game, both have a blank stare of unending neutral expression to what is happening in-game, even if they are closing in on victory or being overrun by the possibility of defeat.  Sure, the eyes may flit around a little more, occasionally a surprised reaction might sneak out, but overall they do not engage the emotional aspect while victory still hangs in the balance.

Now think of the most emotional players you know of, wearing their heart on their sleeves and their raw soul writ large across every feature of their faces.  While the game is yet entirely undecided they react and are tossed through the emotional spectrum, struggling to maintain composure.  Like the Westerner misunderstanding the concentration concept they are not letting go, they are struggling to keep the door shut on all their other thoughts and emotions, leaning against it as it bangs open and lets out a new angel or demon to play havoc with their focus.

It's worth noting that those players' struggle to keep their thoughts pure contributes to the fact that kind of player is notoriously inconsistent.  Ever mercurial in their results and actions in-game, they can suddenly throw away a sure-fire win at the moment it was almost secured, always left with the same sob story of how they almost made it.

Let there be light

I'm reminded of Mathew 6:22 of the King James Bible, where Jesus says "if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light".  When the mind contains only one thought it does not jostle for position or lack space or get lost under a mass of other thoughts, it is free to encompass the entire realm of the mind, and thus affect the very being of the individual.  It's as though the field of the mind, when mostly empty, becomes a supercharged amplifier, and the one thought instantly occupies all spaces at once and is impossible vast.  A solitary thought blasting across all the creation of the internal universe in an instant, "let there be light".

The beauty of this approach, ignoring lust of result and acting in a pure and unattached manner, is that it doesn't matter who Stephano finds himself playing, to some extent, and so even the fiercest Korean loses their mystique.  Whether they will admit it or not, most foreigners believe on a fundamental level of their being, that the Koreans are better than them, and thus it is a psychological disadvantage they carry into every game.  Couple that with in-game visualisations of what could happen when you're losing and it's easy to see how players crumble and fall apart under the unrelenting Korean pressure.

When most foreigners play NesTea they are either worrying about what genius maneuver he might pull off or having a party in their mind at the thought they might score a win over him.  One could imagine Stephano's thought prior to the game finishing loading is "Oo iz Nez-Tea?  Eye am Stef-a-no!".

So, while Stephano's actions in his general life may not all be worth emulating, especially if you enjoy recovering from your hangovers in the comfort of a warm bed rather than a drunk tank, by not caring, in a sense, he has discovered a secret which, when combined with his talent, has set him apart from the other foreign players.

They can't be Stephano, no one else can, just as BW Protoss couldn't be Bisu, but they can take a page from his book and adopt his approach, it might be the secret to closing the gap a little with our Asian masters.  Especially when one considers not all of the Koreans have this approach in their grasp, merely the very good ones.  Most of the great competitors have this approach within their dna, it's simply how they are built, but the rest of us can mimic these naturals and find greater successes of our own.

Congratulations to the WCS European Champion Stephano, zero fucks given and $24,000 taken.  The foreign scene's very own honey-badger's reign continues unabated.

 

(Photographs courtesy of their respective owners, including fragbite and dailyesports)

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