In the summer of 2011, Swedish Terran ThorZaiN went from no-name to superstar overnight, defeating players such as FruitDealer, MC, and NaNiwa to win TeamLiquid Starleague 3. From there on out, ThorZaiN continued to be one of the most popular Terrans of early StarCraft II, even joining the Evil Geniuses-Team Liquid team to play in South Korea's Proleague.
Then, in a move that was as abrupt as it was low-key, ThorZaIN retired from professional play in 2014.
TL.net's Wax caught up with ThorZaIN nine years after his TSL3 run to reminisce about the early days of professional StarCraft II, the anxiety and doubt that simmered beneath all the glory and fame, and how that mental pressure led him down his current path of becoming a doctor.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
You quietly retired from professional StarCraft II back in 2014. Could you give us an overview of what you've been up to?
ThorZaiN: I started medical school in the fall of 2013, and my first intentions were to keep playing. But then, I did that for maybe 10 months-ish, and I kind of lost interest in the game. I still had some time to play—it wasn't like I was completely overwhelmed. But like, if I wanted to be good at playing, the time would have been there if I would have been willing to sacrifice social life. But I was going to a new town, meeting new people, and all that made me feel like I maybe shouldn't be playing that much.
So I didn't play much StarCraft, until like 2016, maybe? I started playing some again, because I had much more free time than before. So that year I played quite a decent amount, and I became pretty good again. But it was temporary, because I had to stop, I had to cut down on it eventually.
I finished med school in January of 2019, and since then I've been doing my internship. Gaming wise, I'm playing a lot of WarCraft III, actually.
I find that some guys who retire, they still have that competitive itch. Is it the same with you?
Yeah, I do, I am a competitive person. You have to be at heart a competitive person to make it as a progamer, so it's pretty natural that could be something that you miss. I find my remedy for the competitiveness these days... I'm playing WarCraft III at a pretty high level, but it's kind of with no strings attached. And that fits me now that I work full time as well.
Isn't it different though? Playing for fun compared to playing at the highest level.
Playing another game, even if it's ranked or whatever, you obviously aren't going to get the same kind of... You don't have the same goals as in StarCraft. When I was a progamer... It was separate, like you had this goal of being a progamer, and also the goals in the game. And nowadays I only have the goals in the game.
But the goals of being a progamer, like, the climbing of the progaming career [ladder] or making a name for yourself—my professional career can take that kind of role in my life.
Did you enjoy that part of progaming? The idea that you're not just trying to win the competition, but also trying to build a career. Did you enjoy that, or was it more stressful?
I think I was, when it comes to the publicity part of my progaming career, I was always very lucky. Because I wasn't the guy who would stream countless hours, I wasn't the guy who would be dramatic, I wasn't the guy who would be extremely humorous live, for example. But my tournament wins, my performances made me really famous in the scene anyway, without me really even having to work that much for it.
So that part came kind of as a bonus to me, so it wasn't really an issue. Like, for example, TSL3, when I made a Cinderella run, winning that tournament gave me so much publicity just because I was a nobody.
Back in 2011, when you qualified for TSL3, what was your mindset? No stress? Just looking to enjoy it?
At the time, when SC2 was released, I had quite recently finished high school and I set out for myself a goal to become a progamer within a year. And if I wouldn't have made it by that time, I probably wouldn't have made it at all. But since so many of my WarCraft 3 colleagues or friends had made it, I felt like "why wouldn't I be able to?"
So I felt somewhat reassured in that, and I wouldn't say that I was filled with performance anxiety at that time, and in the tournaments I had nothing to lose, I was always the underdog. For example in TSL3, I always performed so much better being an underdog.
Like, I remember talking with, I think it was NaNiwa, about it, and he was always the opposite. When he would play against Mvp or someone he was supposed to lose to, he would play worse than he would playing against someone he was supposed to beat, while I was the complete opposite. I think it's different mindsets.
Looking at at TSL3, each round you thought you were the underdog?
I didn't think so against Tyler/NoNy, and I think against Kas I also felt it was pretty even. But not MC and FruitDealer, I definitely felt like the underdog.
When was it the most fun being a progamer?
It's... it's a hard question to answer. MY progaming years were always very up and down. Like, my mental state. Because it was...
You had all these expectations on your shoulders, and I had the anxiety of not being able to do this forever, there was this kind of undercurrent of anxiety and bad mood? Like, really bad mood. Like, at times I would probably have, in retrospect, called myself depressed.
But there were so many extremely joyful moments as well, and it's like hard to... I don't know, even back in 2011, going to all the MLGs, and meeting all the people, and starting this new life, it was really cool. But also the time living in Korea and experiencing a new culture—I can't really pinpoint a specific period that was the best. They all had their moments of ups and downs.
When I think back on it, I have really good memories of like playing the StarCraft II beta with my friends and like being, "we're all gonna succeed and make it big." And then also from like the last couple of months, being at my last HomeStory Cup, everything in between as well, there were so many great moments, so it's hard to say this SPECIFIC period was the best.
Staying in Korea, for example, it was really fun and it was a good experience. But it was also for long stretches, so it wasn't that eventful. But like, when you go to these tournaments every other week in a different part of the world, it's creates for like, more memories I guess. So maybe the IPL, the MLG days, they were special in a way.
What do you miss the most from your full time progaming days?
I guess, the people and the, what do you call it, the freedom of not having a set schedule.
Were you someone who practiced a lot? What was your life like?
I was... I always cared too much about stats and all that shit, so I wasn't the guy who would play tons of games on the ladder. I would only play if I was feeling in the zone. So like, being tired or being hungry, I would not play, so that made me play less than some other people. But, I didn't really have a set schedule for my days, I wasn't up at nine and then playing for six hours and what not.
When you say you miss the people, are you talking about any particular people? Or do you mean the community in general?
Yeah, you always have your personal niche of people. In some ways, I meant the fans too, but also like the friends from back then. All the teammates, I guess if I look back at it, I was probably more close with my Mousesports teammates than my EG teammates. Me and MaNa were really good friends, and it was always a blast hanging out with HasuObs, MorroW, biGs, and the rest.
But also, the Koreans, like MMA and I had a little bromance for a little while, and that was pretty cool, meeting him at tournaments.
He was used to called you Zain/Jane.
Yeah, exactly [laughs].
So I guess, yeah, the Koreans I lived with and the Mousesports people. And I mean, the EG guys, it was always a blast. Like me and Ben for example, DeMuslim, we were pretty close. And the other guys in the EG, it wasn't like I was on bad terms with them, but we weren't best friends either.
What made you even start thinking about a transitioning out of StarCraft back in 2012? Were you losing interest, or were you just making long term plans even if you still liked progaming.
It was something like that. I was not as motivated as before, and it started to show in my results as well, so I wasn't performing as well as I used to. And I also had this idea that Starcraft II wouldn't be around that much longer, and I was wrong. But still, that added on some anxiety. It felt like I really had to get going with my life, because I wasn't performing as well as I used to, and StarCraft was declining. And even if it wouldn't have been declining, it wouldn't have been a long-term thing for me, at least.
And I'm talking like, I wouldn't have wanted to still be a progamer, when I was 30.
What made you lose interest in the game?
When I think back on it, I felt the Heart of the Swarm meta wasn't really that interesting. Like, I still played some Legacy of the Void. I watched [some of the esports] and I felt like the game was in a really good state. But Heart of the Swarm wasn't really for me, I guess. I don't really know why—because there were times when it wasn't all about Swarm Hosts and Brood Lords.
You said the anxiety was from not just the life-cycle of SC2, but also because of expectations. Did TSL3 put a lot of undue expectations on your shoulders?
I guess I was struggling with impostor syndrome, because I felt like I saw ... I guess my mind tried to find things proving to myself that I wasn't as good as some of these other players. Like, I know that I had pretty low APM for example, and maybe the Koreans or Naniwa or Idra would have 300, and I would have like 220.
And that must mean that I'm bad, right? That I'm lucky.
I think a lot of my progaming career, it FELT like SOMEWHERE—and I know it's not really the case—but it felt like I was winning a lot because I didn't really play the same way as all the other Terrans in a lot of games. And that other people didn't really, hadn't really caught up with how to play against me. But I know that wasn't really why I was good... But, yeah, the mind can play tricks sometimes.
And even if that's why you were good, what's wrong with that? There were a lot of players who were successful because cause they played different, like Polt.
Yeah, exactly, you can be different and you can be good at the same time. One doesn't have to rule out the other one. And I didn't really get messages from the community that that was the case either, I just, I guess I kinda fabricated it for myself.
Did that make that DreamHack: Stockholm 2012 championship worth more to you? Because you won TSL3, you were really popular after that, but the results were kind of mediocre after that. Did winning DreamHack after that give you some relief?
Yes, it definitely did. I remember at that point I was with Mousesports. I remember at one point, at the tournament, when I was at the bathroom in Stockholm, at the DreamHack tournament, thinking that like, 'Ah man, these last couple of months have been hard results wise. And I don't really pull something out of my ass, maybe I should consider retiring.'
So, that definitely was in my head at the time.
Does that song they played during the trophy ceremony make you feel a certain way still?
Yes, of course. I still get the nerd chills, as Artosis would say, when I hear it. And when I talk with people about my progaming career, and they're interested and they want to know more, that's probably the first video I show them. Because it's like, the atmosphere is so... you can truly tell from the YouTube VOD that it was amazing.
Have you been watching StarCraft II lately?
Yeah, I watched the WCS Global Finals, and everyone once in a while I head onto TeamLiquid and I see "oh there's a tournament with 6,000 ppl watching, let's see what it's about." But it's not like, regular.
What made you decide that a career in medicine was your transition? Did you always have some interest?
No, I didn't know that I was going into medicine before I was a progamer. Part of my anxiety while playing is I didn't really know what to do with my life. So progaming was working at the time, and was buying me time to figure it out.
But, as I said before, at times, I wasn't feeling that well mentally. And, I would look into reasons of me not being that happy at times, and I would come across articles and such written by psychiatrists, so that made me feel like 'oh I want to be a psychiatrist. And that's something, that's a medical specialty, I guess, that's what led me to study.
Now I don't really know if I want to be specifically a psychiatrist, but I'm happy with the choice I made.
Usually here I ask ppl to plug their team, Twitch stream, or whatever. What are we gonna do here? Say, "Hey, come to my hospital?"
*laughs* I guess I could thank everybody for making my esports career so memorable. From those past times, who will read this interview, that I miss them dearly.
And I want to do a shoutout to my WarCraft III team of Soviet War Elites (SWE).
Make sure to watch ThorZaIN play in ESL WarCraft III Pro Tour! If you're wondering where ToD has been, that's where you can find him as well.
You can follow ThorZaIN on twitter at @ThorZaIN_ and the ESL WarCraft 3 Pro Tour at @DreamHackWC3.