In 2011, Dave “Walshy” Walsh won his last cash prize at a major esports tournament. Three years later, he'll try his hand again this weekend at the Red Bull Battlegrounds in Detroit, though this time he won’t be wielding the controller that made him a superstar, but a mouse a keyboard in StarCraft 2.
Don’t let him hear you call it a comeback.
“I see tweets like, ‘Walshy coming out of retirement!” Walsh said. “No, no, no! I’m doing a small exhibition match, a fun thing… don’t consider this competitive me returning.”
If perhaps you’re wondering why a retired console gamer playing StarCraft is news, it’s because of the massive following Walsh has developed through his gaming career.
If Jonathan “Fatal1ty” Wendel is the progenitor of professional gaming on the PC, Walsh is the console version. He’s won dozens of tournaments spread over multiple games, earning over $150,000 in a professional gaming career that spanned over seven years. He signed a $250,000 three-year contract with Major League Gaming in 2006, one of the first of that size in esports.
Also like Wendel, Walsh has proven to be a great ambassador for esports since retiring from competitive play. He’s worked with the Entertainment Consumers Association to create a chapter for esports. He’s a board member of the Gamers Outreach Foundation, a charitable organization based out of his home state Michigan dedicated to using video games to improve people’s lives. And despite his lengthy time away from competition, Walsh remains a staple of his sponsor Red Bull’s esports initiative.
Instead of the collective shrug you might expect from StarCraft 2 fans, most were genuinely excited to see Walsh’s entrance into the Detroit tournament. “Honestly one of the greatest esports personalities of all time,” one Reddit user wrote. “A legend,” another said. Most of the time a retired pro playing a tournament isn’t news unless they win it, but Walsh playing at all, and not even in the genre where he made his name, turns people’s heads.
Of course, that doesn’t help Walsh’s problem with heightened expectations. He entered the tournament for a simple reason: to have fun at a competition that's only a few hours from his hometown of Grand Rapids, Mich. And while he says he’s the kind of competitive person who can’t have fun losing, that’s what he expects to do in Detroit. For the most part.
“If I get a win, I’ll be happy,” Walsh said. “I wouldn’t be surprised, especially with what kind of players Battlegrounds can draw out, if I lose in the first two rounds. I would be a little disappointed, but I guess I can’t have too high of expectations when I haven’t put in the hours for training. I’m just going out for fun.”
Most console gamers would struggle trying to click around a screen with a mouse and keyboard—at the least with the type of speed and precision needed by most pros—but Walsh actually has a history with PC gaming and specifically real-time strategy games. He grew up on games like Command & Conquer and the Warcraft series, particularly the 2002 title Warcraft 3. While he calls himself a “scrub” considering his lack of competitive effort in the game, he was still “pretty good”.
When StarCraft 2 came out midway through 2010, Walsh was quickly hooked. “I played more Starcraft than I was playing Halo,” Walsh said. At the time he was still a pro player competing in the Major League Gaming circuit for Halo 3. But that didn’t stop him from tackling the StarCraft 2 ladder, where he quickly reached Diamond level, the highest tier at the time.
The Zerg player says he used aggressive strategies to climb the ladder—why waste time in Silver and Gold when you can just win in 10 minutes?—but once he got to Diamond, he focused on his macro game.
“I like the decision making that comes behind in terms of determining what to do with your larva,” Walsh explained, outlining one reason he loves the insect-like Zerg race. “I really like those difficult decisions. All the games, when I lose them, I don’t feel like I was unlucky or it was due to balance. I feel like I just made bad decisions or poor decisions.” He points to poor scouting as a primary contributor to his losses.
When Blizzard added the Masters tier, Walsh managed to rank in the 70-80 range by the time he quit the game. But that was a long time ago. Walsh only has about 20 hours total in Heart of the Swarm, the latest StarCraft expansion.
“I feel bad because I promised to stream and that I’d put in some more time,” Walsh said. “But I’ve been busy lately so I’ve gotten in two games so far.”
Luckily, he’s got some quality coaches to help him prepare. StarCraft pros Shawn “Sheth” Simon and Marc-Olivier “desRow” Proulx have both offered their services. He plans to get at least one timing down with his pair of mentors and go from there.
Walsh can also draw on his vast experience as a Halo professional, competing in dozens of tournaments with hundreds of thousands of dollars on the line, though it’s hard to say how much those skills transfer over. The RTS genre is played in a style that's about as far from first-person shooter as you can get.
The only mechanical correlation Walsh finds is simple hand-eye coordination and capability to train that skill. “If someone was able to get 300 [actions per minute] on keyboard and mouse, if they put those years into a controller they would also be a top gamer and be very accurate,” Walsh said.
But strategic decision making in Halo, one of Walsh’s strengths, as a three-time winner of MLG’s Pro’s Choice Best Strategist award, is more applicable.
“I’ve always felt [Halo] was a very strategic based game when it came to controlling different parts of the map, or controlling weapons and power ups and timing those and working together with your teammates,” Walsh said.
Situational awareness—being able to read the state of the game and react to it with the correct decision—is incredibly important in many Halo gametypes, where players and objectives spawning all over the map create complex situations. That’s a skill directly applicable to StarCraft, a game where map awareness is one of the pillars of competition.
Still, the comparison is dubious at best. The two titles are on “different ends of the spectrum,” as Walsh puts it. “Complete opposites.” Even pro Halo players struggle to switch to Call of Duty, another title in the same genre. Matthew “FormaL” Piper became the first player to ever win a title in both games earlier this month at GFinity 3.
Walsh is non-committal on whether he could have been that record setting player, if he had dedicated himself to Call of Duty or another game. He feels he’d still be a top competitive player if he put in the hours, but that was what his retirement came down to: the hours.
“I do miss competing in the sense that there’s nothing that replaces the feeling of going to a tournament and being able to declare yourself the best in the world at something,” Walsh said. But he doesn’t miss putting in 60 to 80 hour weeks training, with no time left for friends and family. “It’s a never-ending season with esports.”
That’s something many professional gamers struggle with. Can you put in enough time to keep up with the players living the game in their every waking moment? Will you still enjoy the game enough to maintain that level of dedication? For Walsh, that’s where he realized it was over.
“The games you play you have to enjoy 100 percent,” Walsh said. When he realized he was playing StarCraft 2 more than the game he was paid to play, Halo, he knew it was time to hang it up.
“I don’t regret retiring at the time I did. I wasn’t enjoying the games and if I’m not enjoying it and having fun… that’s the whole point in being involved in gaming.”
That said his competitive spark isn’t dead. Walsh doesn’t plan a return but won’t rule one out, especially considering the esports push 343 Studios is making with the Halo franchise. The studio recently flew Walsh out to play a two-on-two match with the new Halo 2 Anniversary edition, part of the upcoming Master Chief Collection.
“I had a ton of fun playing the game and I was really amazed at the strides 343 was making in the esports scene,” Walsh said. “They really want their titles to be a top esports title.”
If Walsh doesn’t end up competing again, helping 343 Studios do that successfully might be his next destination. He currently attends Grand Valley State University in Pennsylvania, where he studies Computer Science with the goal of handling esports balance in video games. If he attend school full-time, he’d earn his degree in April of 2016, but Walsh isn’t married to the idea.
“I’ve actually considered stopping school at the end of the year,” Walsh said.“I would love to see if I could make a name for myself similar to [Sean ‘Day9’ Plott] as far as how big he is doing his streams and commentaries. Helping the community grow and become better Halo players.”
Like many older pro gamers, Walsh missed out on the YouTube and Twitch revolution, two things that help make up a large part of the income stream and popularity of current pros. But many of his fellow pro gaming alumni, like Plott, have latched on to the growing esports scene as commentators. Perhaps Walsh will be the next?
Or perhaps he’ll go on to help design the next great esport game. Perhaps he’ll become the first player to win an MLG championship in five different games with Halo 5. Or maybe even a StarCraft 2 champion? Well, lets not get ahead of ourselves.
“I can tarnish my good name with one of the Halo titles,” Walsh said. “But I won’t allow it to happen with Starcraft!”
This StarCraft 2 foray won’t even be a footnote in Walsh’s vast esports legacy. But it’s patently clear that despite his retirement two years ago, that legacy is still being written.
Phot via Red Bull Esports