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Rapha and the American Dream

Most people treat Quake as a game of action and reaction. Rapha doesn't. He treats it as a game of chess, where his ability to be four or five steps ahead of his opponent has made the humble kid from Illinois an all-American superstar.


This post was originally published on November 26, 2010 by Philip Rasmussen.

It Started With a Dream

One could call it a coincidence that rapha was standing behind John 'ZeRo4' Hill some seven years ago when his father brought his computer-interested kid to QuakeCon. One could also call it a coincidence that ZeRo4, who was at his best at that time, mastered the game in a fashion that made a deep and long lasting impression on 13 year old rapha. The string of events could have stopped here, had it not been for rapha leaving that tournament with a dream. A dream of one day being able to emulate what he had seen ZeRo4 do that day. alt text Call it an "American Dream" if you like. Much like James Truslow Adams, who coined the phrase in 1931, rapha dreamt about being better, richer and fuller. At least in terms of Quake 3.

It wasn't written in the stars that the kid from Illinois would reach the heights of his youth idol however. As a teenager, he traveled back and forth between his parents, who had gone through a divorce. He didn't have his own Internet connection or his own PC, so his progress was slow.

For rapha, that didn't deter his efforts.

It was all out of my hands, there was nothing I could do about it so I didn't stress over it too much.

Instead when he would manage to find free time away from school, sports, work, and friends he would spend time moving around the maps, trying to copy the style and item-timing that his idol's ZeRo4 and Anton 'cooller' Singov had. Since he could only play online when he was at his father's place, rapha turned to watching demos to pick up new knowledge. It's not as if he had absolutely no time to do so either. As the knowledge you could learn from books didn't interest rapha much, most of his free time was used trying to lure the secrets out of cooller and ZeRo4. alt text

If there was something I was interested in [in school], I would invest time into it and learn as much as I could.

He didn't struggle with school. By his own words he "was pretty average." Not because he couldn't keep up, but more because it didn't interest him enough. "I wasn't interested in a lot of the curriculum so I would just do what it took to do well enough."

The Rockford Kid

With its 150,000 or so residents, Rockford is the 2nd largest town in Illinois. The city, once famed for its elm trees, has transformed into a typical Midwest town, suffering from high unemployment and the relocation of manufacturing companies.

To rapha, however, Rockford was a nice place to grow up. With its parks and recreation, the town suited the young boy just fine.

Like many of his peers, rapha took interest in sports when he was younger. Although, he concedes that though he wasn't LeBron James or Kobe Bryant, he still rates himself as a fairly good basketball player. More importantly, he gathered valuable experiences from playing. alt text"Any sport in general will teach you the importance of fundamentals and the huge role that they play in terms of being successful or not. I noticed this same aspect with Quake, how important it was to get the fundamentals down and master them, because when you're having an off day, you can always fall back on them. It becomes second nature to you."

One of the things rapha often highlights when asked about his strengths, is his ability to think ahead. Ahead of the game, ahead of the action, and ahead of his opponent. In an interview on SK-Gaming.com, he once said he could be up to five steps ahead of his opponent. The ability to think ahead, even in the fiercest of fights, is something he attributes to his early basketball days.

The unique thing that basketball helped me with concerning Quake is the ability to see the play unfold before it even happens, and being aware of everything around you.

"I think this mindset has helped me in terms of reading my opponents and doing my best to know where they are at all times, the more aware you are and the more you know about any given situation, the more options are at your disposal."

However, as rapha crashed out of his first International tournament on the group stage, the quote came back to haunt him. The Rockford kid remained unaffected though; he still believed he was on the right track.

Just a few months later, rapha defeated the reigning number one player in the world, Cypher, at the ESWC Grand Finals 2008 in one of his first games of the event. Suddenly no one was making fun of him anymore. alt text ESL's Product Manager and long time Quake-fan Michal 'Carmac' Blicharz backs rapha’s view of himself.

"Rapha has an amazing ability to think like a chess player while playing a game as fast-paced as Quake Live. In an instant he can evaluate where a certain course of action will take him even a minute into the future, Carmac says when asked about rapha’s biggest strengths."

And while rapha might not seem super special, he has no apparent weaknesses according to Carmac, “He [rapha] picks scenarios not because of what's best for him in the next 10 seconds, but way farther than that. He also has a very strong head and, while there seems to be nothing super special about him, he also has no apparent weakness.”

A Humbling Experience

Shane ‘rapha’ Hendrixson might not be a LeBron on the basketball court or a Schumacher in a race car, but the mentality he possesses bares close resemblance to those superstar athletes. There are few people who would be able to continually progress through five years in any given online game especially without the ability to play regularly.

Since I had so few opportunities, I have to make sure every event counts and that I give it my all.

"It has kept me humble," rapha says when asked about not being able to train regularly. "And it might have helped me in terms of motivation. Since I had so few opportunities, I have to make sure every event counts and that I give it my all. It is what it is."

Rapha doesn't think too long about things that could have happened if he had had the opportunity to train more in those years.

Something he is changing though is his future. rapha has won thousands and thousands of dollars in the last three years. Being good at Quake pays good dividends, at least when you end up on top. In true spirit of his childhood idol, cooller, rapha could be partying like a rock star. That just isn't what he’s about. It’s quite the opposite in fact. alt text While many professional esport players are staying in the industry when they retire from competitive play, rapha has already planned out his future. He wants to go to college and study mobile electronics installation. The winnings play a vital part in that since he's "really not a fan of the whole debt thing."

He isn't worried about running into the same brick wall of lacking motivation that he hit in his earlier school days, because this time around he is studying something he is interested in.

"Once I go I'll have a goal set towards something that interests me. It will be something I want to do so I'll have no problem investing my time and making sure I get the best results possible."

Seizing the Day

In 2006 the Cyber Professional League (CPL) picked up Quake 3 once again. This time around they boasted a fully competitive World Tour, finalizing with a highly competitive 32-man tournament to conclude the tour in Dallas, Texas. The CPL World Tour Finals attracted almost all competitive Quake players in North America, including rapha.

I wasn't too far behind either in terms of skill and experience, so I think that helped as well in wanting to do more to get better.

Still without being able to practice online as much as his competitors, rapha went to Dallas in December 2006 to compete with the very best Quake-players in the world.

Being unseeded, rapha was going to have a tough way through the brackets. His first opponent was the German player, toxter, who he completely obliterated in two maps. He then faced Z4muZ, one of the only Swedes to stick with Quake3 through its abandoned years. The Mousesports-player knocked him to the lower brackets in the same fashion rapha had taken care of toxter, 2-0.

In lower bracket, rapha dismissed of both Relic and LoSt-CaUzE before running into cl0ck. The highly experienced American had beaten chance and taken a map from cooller in their 3rd round matchup. Against him, rapha couldn't do much and was handed a 2-0 deficit. In the end he went out on a 9-12th place finish. Even though he had played less than 1/10 of the games of his competitors, rapha wasn't the inexperienced teenager from QuakeCon 2003 anymore. He now knew he could break in to the very top. alt text"With all of the players that were in attendance, managing to place top 12 definitely showed me that I was at least doing something right. I wasn't too far behind either in terms of skill and experience, so I think that helped as well in wanting to do more to get better. I was just hoping there would be some more opportunities to try and do so."

The Chance of a Lifetime

Out of the blue, rapha got his chance. With the revival of competitive Quake 3, SK Gaming, home to some of the best duelers ever – and with a long history of having Quakers, decided to go back to their roots. In May 2008 they picked up rapha along with his childhood idol ZeRo4. And from then on rapha didn't look back.

He started practicing often with ZeRo4, who had already recognized the skills his young protégé had. Sixteen days after the pickup, ZeRo4 was quoted saying that rapha was the player he would like to meet the least in the coming ESWC Grand Finals 2008 qualification.

The respect went both ways though, and rapha happily admits that ZeRo4 has had an immense influence on his game.

One of the main things I learned from him was the utmost importance that positioning has in Quake and how to utilize it to your advantage.

He even attributes much of his calmness in tournaments to his lessons with ZeRo4.

"Of other things [I learned], I think it would have to be the overall mental attitude when playing in big tournaments, always trying to give yourself the best situations possible and if something goes wrong you can't stress over it. There's no point in doing so because whatever happened just happened and you can't take it back. So, [I'm] just moving forward and doing my best to make good of those bad situations which will happen."

In the American qualifier for ESWC 2008, ZeRo4’s prediction held up. rapha was not only the hardest opponent of all he could have met; he also ended up winning the championship, thus qualifying for the ESWC Grand Finals later that year. alt text This convinced SK Gaming to fly rapha to Europe for the Grand Finals in Paris. From then on, everything fell apart for him. As a rather unproven player, rapha was caught in an uphill battle with the traditions of his team.

"Well, at the time when SK picked me up I hadn't really proven that I could be a champion and they are known for the fact that they win, and win quite often."

Rapha didn't even make it out of his group at ESWC. He wasn't by any means being run over by his opponents, but he still remembers feeling bad about doing so badly in his first International event for the team.

"The games I had that I lost were very close but the fact of the matter is that at ESWC in '08, I didn't make it out of the group stage after they had flown me there and what not. I remember how bad it felt to go out of the tournament so early and I vowed to do my best to make sure that it didn't happen again."

The Breakthrough

SK Gaming, however, wasn't rocked in their belief in their young Quake-star. Rapha proved exactly why as he battled his way to a fourth place finish at QuakeCon 2008, narrowly losing to Cypher and ZeRo4. Following that tournament, rapha went home to prepare for the ESWC Grand Finals, and that’s when "something just clicked" he says.

I remember how bad it felt to go out of the tournament so early and I vowed to do my best to make sure that it didn't happen again.

"At QCon right before I had done ok, barely losing to Cypher and ZeRo4 and in between the 2 tournaments I focused on what I saw I needed to improve in my game. I just knew if I managed to make it past my group, which was pretty difficult, that I would do very well at that tournament."

"My entire focus, my attitude while playing, changed so drastically to the point where I needed to place top 3 in a tournament with as many amazing players that were going to be in attendance. I can't exactly explain how it happened; something just clicked and from then on there's been no turning back."

Carmac, who worked with rapha for two years at SK Gaming, says it was just a question of confidence that was between him and his first major success.

"Rapha was a diamond in the rough in early 2008, and then ZeRo4 happened to play him and pick him out for his talent. Before anyone had heard of rapha, ZeRo4 was willing to bet me big money that he'd become a world champion."

"I believe ZeRo4 gave rapha a lot of guidance, structured his in-game philosophy and from then on it was a question of confidence," Carmac says and concedes that there is a big difference between believing you are the best and actually knowing it. alt text The moment rapha had his first breakthrough of finishing top 3 in a world class event, he started becoming the player we know today.

The rest is history. Rapha beat the reigning number 1 in the world, Cypher, in his initial group. The Belarusian didn't have a chance against the young American, who had been waiting for his time to shine his entire life. In the end rapha's nerves failed him and he didn't make it to the Grand Final. Instead he took 3rd and $4,000 in cash prizing.

...they took a gamble with me, yet for them to receive such unexpected quick results - they sure did hit the jackpot.

At the end of 2008 he finally took 1st, as he won ESWC Masters Athens. The Rockford Kid wasn't a kid anymore. He had matured into a player who knew how to win. He did so again at the Intel Extreme Masters IV. Just a little more than a year after his first International event, rapha had more than made up for his failure in Paris. And to him that was one of the best feelings, to be able to repay the organization that took a gamble with him.

"I don't think they [SK Gaming] expected me to place as well as I did, as quickly as I did, over the course of 2008 and 2009. It was nice on my side to be picked up when I thought I shouldn't have been, they took a gamble with me, yet for them to receive such unexpected quick results - they sure did hit the jackpot," rapha says with a smile.

You Need Faith

Just as SK Gaming had faith in him, rapha has faith in others. He says that faith in yourself and faith in others goes hand in hand.

You need to have faith in yourself that you will put faith in others.

Rapha is doing what he needs to do. Whether it is a photo shoot for Intel or a shootout with his fans, he is fully committed. He knows that the faith put in him must be returned.

"If you only put faith in yourself it can make for some very difficult situations in life when it definitely calls upon trusting others to step up and do what they need to do. To me both are very important, I can't separate them."

While the game has shifted from Quake 3 to ID Software's free Quake Live title, rapha has been stable in his performances. The game is much like Quake 3, but to rapha that's not the primary concern. He's more worried of falling into the same slump as his old idol cooller. alt text"Drive is very important. If I didn't have the drive I've had, I probably would not have won so many tournaments in a row, maybe only two in the past year and a half. I think it's the main reason that I won the IEM World Championship. I was going to take nothing less than first place. My drive and determination to make that happen was so immense. It just seemed like I had more of it than anyone else and it definitely helped give me an edge."

"A good example [of how much drive matters] is cooller, who was in quite a slump. He didn't have the drive, the will to win that he once had. You could tell that it was affecting his results. But this past year he started to get that hunger to win again. You can definitely see a difference as he placed better and better at each tournament he went to."

In an interview with Carmac, rapha once said that he "was blessed with a gift for Q3." He said this because he had emerged onto the scene in a manner in which no one had guessed he could. Looking back, one can't help think that it wasn't just a gift for Quake 3. The determination and drive that rapha shows was likely to take him far in whatever goal he chose to pursue...as long as it interested him.