I want to know the origin of the nickname “Sneaky” for the 22-year-old Cloud9 marksman. A native of Florida, Zachary Scuderi is one of the top American League of Legends professionals. He qualified for the World Championships three years in a row and won two domestic championships in the North American League Championship Series.
“The original name is SneakyCastro,” Scuderi said, diving into the origins of the username he has become synonymous with since he broke into the NA LCS back in 2013. “It’s from a movie called, like, ‘European Gigolo’ or something. But originally, the reason I have that name is because my friend, who I played tons of games with, had an account for Heroes of Newerth, and I didn’t have one. So he was like, ‘You can play on my account.’ It just had that name.”
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In competitive gaming, your ID can mean everything. Except for the failed attempt of the WWE’s XFL back in the early 2000s, in which players were allowed to give themselves nicknames to put on the backs of their jerseys — Rod “He Hate Me” Smart was the most famous — traditional athletes have gone by their last names. Sometimes, if a player is extraordinary or ascends past the culture of the sport he/she plays, a nickname might stick. Better yet, the first name might become the calling card. For those players, such as Kobe, Shaq, LeBron, Tiger and others, all you need to hear is a first name to know whom everyone is talking about.
With esports, players become known online by their gaming handles. As with Scuderi, you get a wide range of stories from teenagers about how they first picked the IDs they would become famous for. You have stories of players looking to the right of their desks and picking the first object they see, or in the case of Scuderi, the story is as plain as an immature term his friend heard from an R-rated Rob Schneider flick.
“I think I had a Nintendo 64, maybe even an earlier version,” Scuderi said when asked how he got into video games. “Maybe my first game was Mortal Kombat with my dad? That was pretty interesting. Besides that, I played Banjo-Kazooie, Super Mario, whatever was out at the time. Eventually, I moved into PC gaming, and I played StarCraft into WarCraft III. Basically just played popular games at the time.”
When people not familiar with esports hear about professional competitive gamers, stereotypes surely pop up. They play in their parents’ basements. They’re antisocial. They don’t know how to interact with anyone outside of a monitor. Fortunately, due to the growth of esports in the west and the offline aspect of the top leagues around the world, those stereotypes, though sometimes true, are being cleansed by the likes of Scuderi.
Although he is self-admittedly introverted and played a video game for a living, there is no real difference between Scuderi and most 22-year-olds. He plays with his hair as he talks, has no issue keeping eye contact and answers interview questions as well as any other person in the spotlight would at his age. Scuderi has amassed a large following on Twitch and averages around 14,000 viewers every time he streams.
Having passionate fans, a foreign idea to him when he was back in high school, is something that makes all the work and stress worthwhile.
“I try to make most of the experiences between me and the fans,” Scuderi said. “Because they usually go way out of their way to come see you, so I figure if I can give them the best experience, then they’ll not regret coming out. I hope to give them a good time, and besides that, it’s pretty nice just getting to meet people that enjoy what I do.”
The connection between the fans and players is one of the keys that has made esports grow considerably the past five years. It’s hard for fans of LeBron James or Steph Curry to feel like they truly understand them. They’re living lives fans can only imagine, and besides waiting in line for hours during a promotional signing, a fan’s chances of ever meeting or interacting with them for more than a few seconds are minimal.
Scuderi talks and interacts with his fans on Twitch, laughing along with them and answering their questions. After games at the NA LCS, fans can get pictures and talk to players in front of the arena, and there is always a chance of catching them for a quick chat in the parking lot while they wait for a shuttle. Players are often given gifts by fans who come to the studio to watch them, and the items range from a box of candies to carefully crafted, personalized presents.
“I got a Chipotle bowl today,” Scuderi said. Over the years, the members of the C9 team have become known for enjoying burritos from the American chain.
“So just a regular Chipotle bowl? They just came up and [said,] ‘Here’?”
“Was it any good?” I asked.
“I haven’t ate it yet,” he answered, appearing like he hoped the person who gave him his present wouldn’t be upset at his answer.
“Are you going to?”
“Maybe,” he said with a laugh.
As silly as it sounds, that’s esports. Pro gamers are generally the same as the fans they’re meeting. Without their uniforms, the players can blend into the crowd at the LCS arena, as a sea of video game enthusiasts chat among themselves on a weekend afternoon.
““I try to make most of the experiences between me and the fans a good one for them,” says Scuderi. “Because they usually go way out of their way to come see you, so I figure if I can give them the best experience, then they’ll not regret coming out.“
“I had some troubles in ninth grade because I was playing [World of WarCraft] just nonstop,” Scuderi said. “[High school] was up and down. A lot of the time, I was spending a little too much time on video games. Okay, maybe not [a little] too much. I was spending all my time on video games, and then it just bit me in life, which is OK. I just didn’t really realize how much time I actually had to put into school. The same thing happened in college too.”
After high school, Scuderi went on to college as a computer science major. This was around the time he was attempting to get into the LCS with his team Quantic Gaming (which would later become Cloud9), and it became a decision between finishing a degree while keeping gaming as a hobby and becoming a professional gamer over everything else.
“At first, it was bad,” Scuderi said, going back a few years to recall the moment he told his family he wanted to prioritize qualifying for the LCS over continuing his degree. “I was failing school. That’s the first thing my mom saw. She checked my grades and was like, ‘Uh, why do you have three failing classes?’ I told her I was trying out for this LCS thing. Yeah, the first time I failed the first LCS qualifier. It was pretty sad because my mom didn’t really want to see me fail like that between school and the [LCS qualification] I was going for.”
In the second semester, Scuderi bumped up his grades to satisfactory levels and was forced into an ultimatum situation with the two lives he was trying to lead.
“A month before classes ended, it was like, if you want to be on Cloud9, you have to leave school and fly to California,” Scuderi said. “I was like, ‘All right, mom, I’m going to go out there and do this.’ I had already set my mind on it. I didn’t want to go based off her decision: Like if she said yes, I’d go, and if she said no, I wouldn’t go. I was just going to do this. I was going to fly back to finish the tests and classes. Tried that. Didn’t exactly work out. Failed the tests anyway and wasted my time flying back. It was pretty unfortunate. But [my mom] was really supportive of me.”
Scuderi flew to California, qualified with his Quantic teammates after failing the first qualification and quickly became a member of Cloud9 when it took over. Back then, the LCS was a lesser form of what it is today, in terms of production and size. Scuderi’s first games were a small studio in which all the teams were close to one another, chatting and hanging out on couches before the games. Now, with the LCS having its own studio and live audiences, the teams have their own locker rooms before going under the stage lights to play in matches.
“[My mom] was really happy for me just seeing my success,” he said. “She wanted to come out [with my sisters] because we were doing so well. They had a really good time at the [2013 World Championships] watching. I don’t think they understood much at all. I think now my [mom] understands a lot because she’s been watching most of my games. But I think they had a good time.”
From playing the final level of Banjo-Kazooie relentlessly as a child alongside his father — which Scuderi admits neither of them was able to complete — to playing in front of thousands of fans in South Korea during the 2014 World Championships, video games have shaped Scuderi’s life. Along with his parents and siblings, he mentioned longtime teammate Will “Meteos” Hartman as one of the people who have helped him the most the past four years as a pro gamer, just by being around to talk and hang out with while 2,000 miles from his life in Florida.
“I think I’ve already established what I’m going to be remembered for,” Scuderi said. “It’s just being a really consistent player. It’s not like I’m going to go insane most games, but I’ll be there, and I’ll be doing the damage that I need for the team. I’ll be that consistent factor that you can rely on.”
Looking to the future, Scuderi has no intention to slow down his consistent nature as a pro gamer. Down the line, perhaps, if he can’t play well enough anymore, he thinks streaming full-time on Twitch would be a doable option, given his fan base and the enjoyment he gets from interacting with them. But he doesn’t know what else he’d do in his free time if he didn’t have scrimmage blocks to go to or matches to travel for.
“Back to school would be my last-resort option,” he said. “I think going to school would be the hardest change of pace for me, just because you have to put in a ton of work. I wouldn’t be able to play computer games or games [in general] nearly as much, and that would be the hardest thing for me, for sure.”
Behind each pro gamer’s ID, there is a human being, unmasked from the online persona. Some are introverted, some extroverted. Some have bustling social lives and others like to sit alone on Friday nights grinding to become better at their craft. A few want to become superstars known worldwide, and others fear the spotlight and merely want to make enough money to live comfortably.
Yet as Scuderi’s last words solidified, they’re all shaped by the games they’ve played throughout their adolescent years, until when their hobby became a job. Scuderi will play on like the rest. His own path is different, but the underlying story is the same: a true passion and deep love for games.