Michael “FlashX” Valore is famous for playing a video game professionally on an iPad. And he does so primarily by wandering around the map rather than sticking in one area. That’s a bit reductive, but it’s not too far from the reality of his life. Valore, who is signed to Team SoloMid (TSM), is what’s called a “roamer” in Vainglory, a mobile, multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) video game from developer Super Evil Megacorp.
Vainglory, for those not familiar, is a touchscreen-based MOBA for iOS and Android devices. Rather than clicking around with a mouse and activating abilities with a keyboard, like other popular MOBAs such as League of Legends or Dota 2, players essentially tap for every single thing. Tap to move, tap to hit enemies, and tap to use different abilities or items. It’s not exactly unique among games, but it’s certainly very uncommon — especially for a MOBA. And that goes double for a game with a relatively popular esports scene.
And Valore’s been around for the entirety of the short, but swift rise of Vainglory’s esports league. He began playing in September 2014, with his team Ardent Alliance getting picked up by TSM earlier in 2016 after a successful career. If anyone knows the ins and outs of the game, and its esports offerings, it’s him.
What did you play prior to Vainglory if anything?
Growing up as a kid, I played a ton of Dota when it was still just a custom game on Warcraft III. And then when Dota 2 released, I played that for a couple of years during college. So I definitely have a lot of background in MOBA. I did try League of Legends — the dominant MOBA right now — but with how deep the strategy base was of Dota compared to League of Legends, I didn’t really care for it.
What was it about Vainglory that drew you?
I was watching the Apple keynote in September of 2014 for Apple, not really for Vainglory. I had an iPad Air at the time. And growing up with the MOBA background I had, I thought the concept of a MOBA coming to touchscreen devices was really just awesome. But I was very, very skeptical of whether the same depth of strategy could come on a mobile device.
I downloaded it not having the highest of expectations. I thought that — during the keynote it was actually one of the games featured — it looked like an absolutely beautiful game. At the time I had really never seen another iOS app with the level of graphics quality that Vainglory had at that point in time. So the fact that that was coming to iOS devices … I thought that was really cool.
When I played it for the first time, it was in beta still, and it was exclusive to only the Southeast Asia region. It actually hadn’t launched in the United States yet. I went through a pretty long process of creating an Apple ID for that region specifically so I could play it, even though it was a crazy amount of lag living in the United States and trying to play in Southeast Asia. I thought that the game was awesome. Once it launched in the States and I started playing without the lag, I thought it was an absolutely beautiful game. I could not believe the level of graphics quality that had come to mobile devices. And then just how fun it was to play the game — I thought it was really cool.
How long did it take you to transition from casual play to professional play?
That’s actually an interesting story. It was the summer after my junior year of college. My plans post-college were actually to go and enlist into the Marine Corps, so I spent that entire summer — and really the previous six months of the school year — training really, really hard to get my fitness standards to meet 100% results on the marine corps fitness tests.
I was playing in this soccer league, and it was actually in the last minute of the last game of the season — I had a really bad injury that messed up my ankle, and I got it X-rayed; nothing was broken. But I came to find out about three months after I’d been doing a bunch of physical therapy that my ankle wasn’t really getting better.
I had an MRI done, and I learned that there wasn’t any more cartilage in my ankle joint. So I had to have this pretty invasive surgery. When I told my marine recruiter about it, it unfortunately disqualified me from any armed services just because it was a huge liability. So that was pretty disheartening for me at the time.
But during my rehab after this surgery, I would go to my campus gym, and I would sit on the stationary bike with my iPad, and I would literally just play Vainglory for the two or three hours I’d be sitting there biking. And obviously when you’re doing that for two or three months, and you’re spending two or three hours a day on it — I started to get really, really good at the game.
After I’d gone through that rehabilitation process, and I’d gotten pretty good at Vainglory, I found found two other teammates who wanted to go and compete in an ESL league. It was based on the European servers, and, again, being a North American team it made competing pretty hard because of the latency. But we played really well. We actually finished 5th, which I think was the highest, maybe the second highest finish for a North American team. But we had beaten a lot of the really talented European teams who were also competing in the tournament, so we knew we were pretty good.
Then in autumn of 2015 when the Vainglory esports structure kind of started, my team ended up winning the first autumn qualifier, which actually got us an invitation to go to South Korea for six weeks to compete in the second season of the Vainglory International Premier League — VIPL for short. And we ended up winning the whole thing. That’s ultimately how I got in contact with Team SoloMid, and they ended up signing us as a team.
I was working full-time prior to our invitation to Korea. But obviously going to Korea for six weeks was a huge, huge time commitment. So I took a leap of faith and quit my full-time job in order to pursue that, and one thing has led to another, and now Vainglory’s definitely a full-time job for me now.
How much time do you spend a week playing Vainglory professionally?
It has varied. My dedication toward Vainglory and really pursuing this professionally has increased the amount of time I’ve put into it.
The professional esports structure of Vainglory is officially a year old now. It started in the autumn season of 2015 and the autumn season of 2016 just started. When it first came out, I was playing and practicing with my team maybe two, sometimes three hours a day, which definitely wasn’t a huge time commitment. I was still working full-time at that point.
When we had bootcamp for a week prior to summer finals, we were playing between 10 and 12 hours a day. But, during a given week we’re probably playing — for a normal practice schedule — seven or eight hours a day. We don’t really take a day off. Our only off day is on the weekends when we’re actually competing in games. We’ll still probably warm up for a solid three hours before we play, and then we’ll have our competitive games which can last anywhere from two to four hours.
What would you say to someone who’s maybe familiar with what Vainglory is, but hasn’t played?
My pitch would definitely be that it’s a mobile MOBA. Obviously I think that one of Vainglory’s biggest struggles right now is … Can a mobile game realistically be an esport? But if you ever go and watch some of the production quality of the Vainglory esports structure, people definitely know and understand that this is a real game. People take [it] very seriously.
For casual players, it’s something that you can literally play anywhere, obviously depending on how good your connection is. I know that plenty of players, even professionally, like to play from the comfort of their bed. I play it sitting up at my desk because that’s how you compete on the stage, and obviously there’s something to be said for practicing for how you want to perform on stage.
But I think it’s a really good game with console- or PC-level graphics, if not better. I think that the graphics quality of Vainglory knocks League of Legends right out of the park, and it’s a really fun game worth checking out by everyone who owns a touchscreen device.
What do you think is the future of Vainglory as an esport?
Vainglory is really the first mobile esport, and it’s definitely in its infancy. So I know there’s a figure that there’s probably 800 million people on the planet who use either a PC or a console for gaming, whereas there’s about 5 billion people on the planet who have a mobile device. The fact that Vainglory is a mobile esport means it has the potential to become one of the biggest, if not the single biggest esport.
In terms of how long I see myself doing it? It really just depends on how long I enjoy doing it. I would say that my enjoyment and commitment to Vainglory as a game is the highest it has ever been. I play for Team SoloMid, who just qualified for the first Vainglory world invitational coming up in the first week of December. My passion for preparing for that event is at an all-time high.
Me and my teammates are talking about getting a team house together, which I know is pretty standard in the esports industry for top teams. But that would mean we’re really the first team in the Vainglory scene to do that. But that will definitely be a huge step, not only for our team but really Vainglory as a whole. [Ed. note: The Vainglory TSM team did in fact get a team house in October after this interview was conducted.]
Do you find it’s difficult to sell people on the idea of esports, even now?
Not really. When I first got into it my parents were very confused as to what I was really talking about. Now that I’ve been doing it for a year professionally — having played it for two years total — I think that explaining the game … If someone downloads it, and plays it, and sees it for themselves, I think it makes a lot of sense. If you go onto Twitch and watch any of the professional broadcasts, I think that it makes a lot of sense.
I know that the Vainglory playerbase as a whole is relatively young compared to some of the other esports just because, in today’s society, you have a lot of younger kids who have their hands on touchscreens and smart devices where they’re picking up this game. But a lot of the players have their parents coming to these live events, and they’re definitely super skeptical.
I know that when my team qualified to go to South Korea, one of my teammates was only 13 at the time, and obviously a 13-year-old going to South Korea for six weeks during the middle of the school year … his parents were like, “No way, that’s not happening.” So we brought a sub.
But when he actually qualified on a different team to go to a live finals, and his family went to those and actually saw that this was for real, and that he was competing for serious amounts of money, they were 100% supportive of it. My parents are 100% supportive of what I’m doing now, considering I’m one of the older professional players. I don’t think it’s hard to sell it to people anymore.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.