Were you ever a normal gamer?
You were good from the start?
"Nobody is a good player in the beginning."
Hong Seung Pyo, better known as SlayerS Cella, is far from a normal gamer. How good is he? "No-one knows." The head coach of SlayerS, Korea's most spectacular and successful StarCraft II team, Cella is immaculately turned out in his blue and white team jacket, shrugging his shoulders, cracking a huge grin. And as usual, he's trolling.
Cella's the kind of guy who says "I don't English" and then launches into a lot of English, his enthusiasm effortlessly making the point while the eyes of Blizzard's translator widen in fear. Cella's not shy, as anyone who's watched his livestream knows – a fizzing mix of high-level gaming, hamburger-munching, sugar-sweet pop music and inventive spellings.
The 27-year-old Korean has had a long journey to being SlayerS head coach: one that, at times, must have made him feel like a very normal gamer. The backdrop is, of course, StarCraft and StarCraft II, Blizzard's realtime strategy series and the biggest e-sport of all time – thanks almost entirely to its wild success in Korea. StarCraft II, despite the prettier graphics, is yet to overhaul its predecessor in popularity, but it is still big news: the GOMTV Global StarCraft II League (better known as the GSL) is the largest professional StarCraft II tournament in the world, and the gold standard.
Like many Korean gamers, Cella played Brood War (the StarCraft expansion used for competitive play). He was never a presence, though, something he attributes to not giving the game enough time. "I started to play more later, when it was Warcraft III and I was in the Werra clan: so my name became CellaWerra," he says. "Then I began to have dreams. I noticed I was playing even better and my ladder score was very good, so maybe I should do this some more. That thinking started to resonate with me, and at about the same time StarCraft II was starting."
This was late 2010, and things almost looked good. CellaWerra qualified for the first GSL, a considerable achievement, but was then knocked out in the last 64. It could have been a building block, but instead Cella hit a wall – and it's easy to see why. In October 2010 an extraordinary scandal broke around Werra, when its leader and manager GundamWerra was accused of sexually molesting a fifteen year old. It was evening news material in Korea, and in the days following even more allegations came to light.
Werra's prominent players immediately left the clan, and it was left to Cella to confirm its disbandment (his note's in the previous link, and makes uncomfortable reading). Cella was now alone, and didn't even have anywhere to practice. "I didn't want to be with another team," says Cella. "I felt I didn't really have a place. I couldn't play games at home – things weren't going well there & my father wasn't in his best mind. I was pissed off."
Unable to practice in any meaningful way, Cella failed to qualify for the next GSL. But things were quietly improving. "Because of my situation, I ended up playing at Rainbow's personal house." Rainbow is a top-tier Terran player and captain of Startale. "That was for about two months, and during that time I helped him prepare for the GSL and went with him to the qualification rounds."
Rainbow also happens to be good friends with the StarCraft legend Lim Yo-Hwan, better known as Boxer, who at that time was assembling what would become SlayerS, and was on the lookout for talent. Boxer is in the latter stages of his career now, but is best thought of as StarCraft's Michael Jordan: one of the most successful and easily the most famous pro-gamers in Korea, you could fill a whole article with his major achievements.
Boxer was known for his ability to spot a player, and his team enjoyed considerable success as a result. But SlayerS had bombed badly in the first Global StarCraft II Team League – a competition that pits teams head-to-head in a knockout cup format. In Cella, Boxer saw someone who could help with that. Cella wasn't sure. "I didn't have a lot of experience as a coach, and I hadn't proven myself," he says, "certainly not as much as some of the other GSL coaches."
Boxer was persuasive. "I didn't really make the decision – Boxer just said 'you can play at the same time, and try to qualify for GSL while being coach' so... I accepted it."
Cella was officially announced as SlayerS vice-captain in March, just as the GSL began. "I slept for about two hours in the first five days," says Cella. "Because I had to watch videos of all the other players' games, find out their weaknesses and their strong points and try to work out what they needed to focus on."
Obviously everyone expected something from Boxer's team, but they were up-and-comers. SlayerS won the GSL in sensational fashion, trouncing several top teams on the way to a classic final in which they sniped the heavyweights of team Incredible Miracle and took the tournament 5-4. It's probably the best final the GSL has had to this day. SlayerS (and Boxer) won their first major Starcraft II trophy, Cella took home the 'best coach' award – and also won himself the right to coach Korea in the World Team League.
Cella refers often in our interview to wanting to prove himself in this capacity and in early May, after two wins in the two GSL tournaments he'd coached in, Cella was promoted to SlayerS head coach. He announced the news by pretending to resign via tweet, a fine troll of his loyal fanbase."The basic duties I have don't really change at all – working out strategies and schedules with the players, picking the order in matches – the only thing I get is more respect. From my teammates, and from the other coaches."
Cella's first tournament as head coach was the same month: SlayerS once again triumphed, with another heavy-hitting run through the contenders before an epic final series against team MVP. And once again, Cella scooped best coach. He shrugs his shoulders. "We won the GSL. I thought that proved me as a coach. Then we won the GSL again." He looks pretty convincing.
Blazing onto the scene as head coach of SlayerS is one thing, but Cella's also long been known within the StarCraft II community for being one of the best and funniest streamers around. "I love streaming," he says, "maybe too much." Thousands of Starcraft II players, from pros to those trying to climb out of Bronze league, broadcast their practice and ladder games.
Cella's livestreams are like a show. All of the elements are there. There are catchphrases ('Holy Check!'), special guests, commercial breaks, singalongs, and if you only watch one Cella clip then please make it this 46 seconds of fried chicken appreciation. The enthusiastic English ("I want birthday sec!") and constant K-pop are just the icing on the cake.
All of this is interspersed with brilliant play from Cella and other SlayerS players like Ryung and Min, a reminder that this is a window into the Barcelona FC of StarCraft II. This strange medium, the livestream, offers more intimacy than almost any other: watching what another person's watching, seeing what their hands are doing – and occasionally seeing them on camera.
Cella's livestreams show an infectious passion for the game and for those who play it, at any level. One of the highlights in StarCraft II's brief history happened on Cella's stream on 8th May 2011 when, while listening to some Queen, he decided it was time to visit livestreaming players who only had a few followers.
Into the rabbit hole Cella went, bringing hundreds of followers from his stream, typing things like YOU ARE NOT ALONE and NEVER GIVE UP in the chat, before moving on to the next streamer. Audience numbers jumped from single to triple digits in seconds. "It was a joke at first," says Cella, "but later on it became serious for me. I know how it feels when you are not a famous gamer. When no-one is watching you, and you have no fans.
"Even though you're doing something you really really like, if nobody's watching you and if no-one's supporting you, you give up. Because that's how I thought in the beginning." Cella seems almost sheepish here, despite his awesome jacket. "I am somebody who likes to get a lot of attention. That is my character and I understand that need, people who think like that, and I just wanted to support and encourage, give them the message: 'don't give up – I am watching, I am helping, and one of these days you're going to be famous so please don't give up.'"
For a community that often lionises elitist attitudes, one-upmanship and – especially – making losers feel bad about themselves, Cella is a panacea. He's a winner who's not a douchebag. And he's also probably the best opportunity you'll ever have to press your nose against the glass and watch a top, top pro-gaming team mess around. Making the GSL even more popular in the West is clearly a key aim for GOM TV and Blizzard, and it's telling that, of all the representatives they could have chosen, we're speaking to Cella.
He still plays, missing out on the current GSL qualifications by a whisker, but you sense there's been a career shift – Cella will talk about proving himself as a coach all day, but when you ask if that now takes precedence over playing he's coy. "I do spend more time coaching at the minute than playing," he says, "because SlayerS is not happy yet."
Why not? "It was easy," says Cella, followed up with an exaggerated grimace that suggests it was anything but. Then that big old grin comes out again. "SlayerS is not happy because anyone could do it once or twice," he says. "We feel lucky, but it's just a few. After many more wins, maybe we can relax." He settles back, catches my eye one last time, and repeats slowly: "Maybe."
It's a little glimpse of the humility and steel behind the resolutely upbeat SlayerS Cella – streamer extraordinaire, crooner, fast food aficionado and all-round charmer. And it's a manner of speaking that seems to naturally fit the head coach of SlayerS. Because that's fighting talk.