It's tough being an esports player. Sure, it might sound fantastic to play video games for a living. But for the cream of the crop, it means hours after hours of grinding until the mind goes numb and you can't stand the sight of the game you love so much anymore. And if that's not enough, sometimes the universe deals you a bad hand too.
For Tyler Hoang Nguyen the past year was nothing if not a wild rollercoaster. He made the decision to move halfway across the globe and set out with one goal in mind: to become the points leader and qualify for the World Championships. As if that fight wasn't enough, another one had to be fought almost immediately after: the fight for his father's life.
Of all the places in The Netherlands, you grew up in the remote province of Friesland. How did that happen?
I was actually born in Indonesia. My parents were refugees, and they illegally left Vietnam with a boat. When they were stranded at sea, Indonesia picked them up and they got asylum there for two years. While they were there they had me, accidentally. [Laughs] When they were in Indonesia, they had to make a top three of countries they'd want to be sent to. My parents put The Netherlands at #1, simply because there was another family that had come here and had written letters saying that The Netherlands was heaven. It was the best country ever.
We got to go to The Netherlands when I was about three months old. At first my parents were placed in some different city, I don't know which one, until the government started placing families in different places where there was housing available. Some Vietnamese people were placed in Purmerend, some were put in Leeuwarden - which is where we were randomly put in.
"My parents went to The Netherlands to give their kids a better future.
So once they got there, they tried to spoil us as much as possible."
So there's a small Vietnamese community over there?
Pretty much. There are a few families that came with us at the same time. My best childhood friend and I hung out from when we were around on year old until we were fifteen/sixteen. I still keep in touch with the guy. Our families get along greatly - my mom and the other woman are still best friends now.
Aside from football, breakdancing and Hearthstone, Tyler has a passion for photography.
What was it like growing up there, being a kid to refugees in a completely foreign country?
I had a pretty good childhood, the state took really good care of us. My parents were simply living off of welfare and they were going to school to learn Dutch - they couldn't get a job because they didn't speak the language. Despite that, the money they received was more than enough to live on. We didn't get insane amounts of money, but no one was living in poverty. It was enough to eat, and it was enough to go out once in a while and do some fun stuff. My parents went to The Netherlands to give their kids a better future. So once they got there, they tried to spoil us as much as possible.
My parents are the most carefree people ever. They never put any pressure on me to study for school or whatever, they just let me do my thing. Traditional Asian parents force their kids to go to school and such; I dropped out of college. My parents were super cool with it. The thing is, if I didn't drop out of college, I probably would never have gotten to this point where I'm playing Hearthstone professionally. I'm feel like I'm very privileged.
Setting the bar even higher
Within the Hearthstone community, you're known as this grinder who can easily stitch 20 hour sessions together. Where did that come from?
That grinding is a mindset. Whatever I do, I grind as hard as I can. If I do something, I hate it when I'm bad at it. I want to be better than other people at it. That mindset doesn't just apply to gaming. Before, when I was doing other stuff like football, breakdancing, any type of skill - I wanted to be better than other people. I'm just very competitively oriented.
"Grinding is a mindset. (...) If I do something, I hate it when I'm bad at it.
I want to be better than other people."
Let's focus on your competitive year in Hearthstone. In 2017 you grinded a lot too, but for some reason it felt that in 2018 you grinded even harder. Did it feel like that to you too?
Initially I didn't even plan to try as hard in 2018 as I did in 2017. I was about to give up and take a step back to focus on streaming. I'd still have competed, but I wouldn't have tried as hard. Trying to win Last Call in your region is an insane commitment. Barely anyone in the world says that they'll go for it. You can count on one hand the people who really try to win Last Call. So instead of trying to be #1, I would stream, compete et cetera.
But then in 2018 I had this opportunity to go to Vietnam and I knew that it was going to be easier than in 2017 to accomplish winning Last Call. So I just wanted to try to redeem myself for the missed #1 finish in 2017, because that did hurt. For the first four or five months I was #1, and then I threw two months of ladder finishes, which put me very far behind.
When I decided that I'd be going for Last Call again in 2018, I spoke to my manager. I told him what my goal was, that I really needed financial support to go to all those Tour Stops and that I would be streaming less. My team was totally cool with it, they were very supportive. And that's how 2018 started.
Every step along the way, Tyler's family has been there to support his career.
Judging by your results, you did have a slow start in 2018. Was that demotivating, or rather the opposite?
Nah it was the opposite. No matter what, I had to do it. I was devoting my entire 2018 to winning Last Call, compLexity was pouring in a lot of money so I could do it. But yes I had a super slow start. For the first half a year or so it was super close at the top for HCT points. We were around five points apart for six months, and there was no clear Last Call winner. Until the Fall Playoffs. That's where I got a big chunk of points, and sealed the deal.
Going for the Last Call meant that you'd be taking on some of your friends too - who are also competing at the highest level. How was their support throughout the year?
All my friends, players as well as my manager, constantly kept telling me that I'm good at the game. Never in 2018 did I truly think I was going to lose. Sometimes I was a little bit worried, and I'd say to one of my friends "I'm three points behind, this is getting scary" and they'd be reassuring. They'd say "Dude you have four months left, you're easily going to beat them. There's no way you're not going to win Last Call." That would encourage me. Casie and Feno mainly are the ones who have been inspiring me, saying stuff like that.
A lot has happened this year. You touched on it earlier: you moved to Vietnam to live with your father. Can you give more details about that decision? It's a pretty big one to make.
There were multiple reasons. To do what I do for a living - playing Hearthstone and streaming - where I live doesn't matter. The lower cost of living in Vietnam was a pretty big factor. Just in general, I like the environment more. I don't like cold climates, and here it's nice and warm. And food! Food is a big deal for me. Every day I wake up, go outside and there's a huge market in front of my door where people sell street food. I never cook. In the morning I go and get breakfast for about 50 cents or a dollar, for dinner I go outside and get food for a dollar or two... It's all about convenience. It is a really convenient country for me to live in considering the type of job I have.
The "moving to Vietnam because it's easier to qualify for Last Call" thing is kind of a joke, approached like a meme, but there's truth in it. It's not even a secret, I don't deny it. I would be fourth of fifth in Europe with the HCT points I have. I would have gotten literally nothing. In Asia I'm #1, which got me a $10,000 bonus, I've qualified for Worlds, which also gets a minimum of $25,000. At the end of the day, I made the best Hearthstone move - literally! [Laughs]
Committed to the grind
Throughout the year, your first big prestigious tournament was the HCT Fall Championships. Did you still feel any pressure there, even though you were in the lead for Last Call?
Not that much. At that point Ryvius was #2, who was also playing in the tournament. So even if I did badly and Ryvius qualified for Worlds, I would still be safe, because the #3 was nowhere near us. So the worst case scenario was if I lost in the group stage, and Ryvius would barely miss out on a top 4 finish. Then he would have caught up to me - he wouldn't have taken the lead, but he'd pose a serious threat. All things considered, I didn't feel much stress at all. There weren't many tournaments left that awarded HCT points anyway, and ladder-wise I felt confident about securing high finishes myself.
Obviously I wanted to secure my ticket at the Fall Championships. But in hindsight, I don't mind missing the opportunity. I do feel that those who qualify through Last Call are the best players. The four players are here at Worlds by getting the most points are the best players. I do feel some sense of pride. It takes a lot of hard work, and it takes a lot of skill to pull off.
"Usually people like Feno, Casie and me, that group, would literally play all night in our hotel rooms during, after or before an event. That's just how last year was."
There must have been points when you were almost burned out from the grind, right?
I kind of got used to it at some point. A burn out would not necessarily have happened because of all the grinding, for example from playing ladder, which was the easy part actually. The burn out did happen when we were flying to way too many Tour Stops. Sometimes we had three tournaments a month - that was when I started to get burned out. I think even for people who weren't in the race for Last Call, but still went to these Tour Stops for points, were burned out.
But we kept on grinding. There were times when there was a Tour Stop exactly at the end of the month. Usually people like Feno, Casie and me, that group, would literally play all night in our hotel rooms during, after or before an event. That's just how last year was. Compared to last year, I feel like I'm doing nothing now. It's so chill. We are in a quiet period, but still... There's none of that travelling, no ladder. I guess because I'm in Grandmasters I don't have to play in Masters Qualifiers, but it's very relaxed at the moment.
When the world turns upside down
You were riding a high in life at the end of last year. You were living in a country that suited you better, but moreover: after months of hard work you had achieved your goal of becoming the Last Call invite. But then things take a turn, when your father gets really sick.
Yeah. I don't even know where to start the story. So much shit happened. Just so much shit. I came back from DreamHack Winter early December, and normally my dad and my older brother pick me up from the airport. This time my brother called me to say my dad was in the hospital, but that I shouldn't worry, take a cab home and get some rest. I could visit him tomorrow - after all nothing was looking bad at the time. He wasn't that sick yet.
They told me he had COPD, which was causing breathing problems. He had to stay there and breathe through an oxygen mask for a while. We had no idea what was happening. But within a month, due to being neglected by doctors, his health kept going down. To this day, we don't have an exact diagnosis of what exactly he was suffering from.
Instead of talking with the doctors in Vietnam, I was talking with having conversations with doctors on Twitter. I had reached out, and I got in touch with three different people, all of whom are very good in their field. One of them is a top doctor in the United States. He was literally guiding me, through Twitter DM's. I took pictures of the test results and the medication my dad was getting, and sent it to the American doctors. The doctors in Vietnam had no idea what they were doing.
"Due to being neglected by doctors, his health kept going down.
To this day, we don't have an exact diagnosis of what exactly he was suffering from."
You were very public with the story, which was truly heartbreaking. Was that raw emotion, or did you want to tell this story to the world?
There were a lot of up and downs. When the doctors here were neglecting my dad, I was literally sleeping with my dad in the hospital room. That doesn't happen in Europe. I was personally taking care of my dad. At some point it got so bad that he couldn't stand up anymore, and couldn't do anything. He had to pee and poop in a diaper, and I was changing my dad's diaper. Apparently that's something the doctors or nurses here don't do. So for me it was really frustrating to see my dad in that state, and seeing him only get more sick. I tried to do everything to save him, so that's why I reached out through Twitter. I wanted to find better doctors, even if I'm just talking with them. I wanted to figure out what was happening with my dad and see how he could be helped.
Whenever it did start looking better, I would get very excited and tweet something about it. There were times when I thought that I was literally single-handedly going to save my dad through Twitter doctors. But every time it got better, something bad happened. Constantly.
"There were times when I thought that I was literally single-handedly going to save my dad through Twitter doctors. But every time it got better, something bad happened. Constantly."
How was the rest of your family dealing with the situation?
My mom and sister were still in The Netherlands at the time. They have a business running there, and it took my mom a week to get from The Netherlands to Vietnam because she had things to take care off, obviously. For the first week my dad wasn't that sick either. I was alone with him for a week until my mom came. My older brother would be there too, but he was overseeing the construction of the new house. The drive from there to the hospital was about 1.5 hours, so my brother had to go back and forth. He was there as well, but for the majority of the time I was taking care of my dad alone.
That was the first week, and after that my mom came. It got a lot easier, but then it was still just me and my mom for the remaining period. But it all never felt like a burden. It goes back to me being a grinder, which we talked about at the start. If I want something, I'll grind insanely hard for it. I will find ways to make it work. It was exactly the same thing with my dad. I was just grinding. I had a goal: to save my dad.
It must've taken its toll, being there day in day out.
Dude, I was going insane. The gist of the story is that the moment when my dad was sick and had trouble breathing, collapsed and couldn't stand anymore because of it, one of his friends brought him to a hospital. The hospital they brought him to was basically a hospital for poor people - that friend had assumed that my dad didn't have money. So they took him to the hospital people are used to go to here. We would have money to get him to a way better hospital, but he was stuck for a week.
When I got there, I started asking around "Why is he here, why doesn't he get a better hospital?" And everyone kept telling me that it was the best hospital. He had been diagnosed with COPD, and I kept being told that this was the best hospital to treat that in. In hindsight that wasn't the case, unless you had no money. While I was there I phoned other hospitals, but they all turned us down. They kept saying my dad was at the right place, that it was the best hospital he could be in.
He was forced to stay there for a month, and within that month it all went down. The hospital was dirty, the doctors would literally visit him once a week... The nurses would visit him, but they didn't know anything. They were complete noobs. It was really fucked up man. At some point we built a hospital room in our own house. The hospital he was in was dirty and full of germs. It only made him sicker and sicker. We sped up construction on our house so my dad had a room to stay in, got a private doctor and all kinds of equipment. But it didn't go well there either, so we got him back to the hospital.
"I knew how weak and tired he was. He died literally one hour after he sat down."
When did you, your family and your father realize that he wouldn't get better?
He was struggling in the hospital. One night he was really weak, and it was my dad himself who said "I can't stay here any longer, you guys have to take me home, right now." He didn't give us a reason. He said: "If you don't take me home right now I'm going to pull out all the wires and equipment and I'll just die right here." So we got the hint, because at home he wouldn't have medical support and he'd die too.
My dad was so weak - he knew that he was almost dying. He wanted to die at home ultimately. He wanted to feel like a human being for one last time. So we took him home, where we still had breathing equipment for him. We managed to show him around the house. His last wish was to drink orange juice with the family. His last moments were drinking fresh orange juice with his family. He was super cheerful at the time, and he didn't mention anything about feeling weak. But I knew him - I had been taking care of him for almost two months then. I knew how weak and tired he was. He died literally one hour after he sat down.
On to the next challenges
You've had a rollercoaster of a year, with lots of ups and downs. Did you talk with your dad about the World Championships before he passed away?
My dad was my biggest fan ever. He loved everything about my career and was super proud. When I qualified for the Fall Championships he would literally tell everyone. He would brag about how much money I had earned from a tournament, because it is so much money in Vietnam. He would just casually drop it in a conversation, saying: "Yeah my son just came back from America and won $12,500." People here would be amazed, because it's like two years worth of salary for them. Maybe even more. So that's how my dad was. I would always update him on everything. He was super hyped for Worlds, so it's sad that he won't see it.
"All the hard work I put in over the past two years has led me to this point.
It's just amazing man, and proves to me that grinding, working hard, pays off."
What does it mean for you now, to enter the big stage of the World Championships?
I've been trying to make this stage for two years. In 2017 I failed, but the year after I made it. All the hard work I put in over the past two years has led me to this point. It's just amazing man, and proves to me that grinding, working hard, pays off.
I'm a realist at the end of the day though. There are sixteen players there. Everyone is competent at playing Hearthstone. It's still a percentage game. You could say my chances are 1/16, but I think for me it's higher than that. I'm one of the better players there, but it can go to anyone. My aim is to make zero misplays, and play the best Hearthstone I possibly can. And then continue the grind in Grandmasters.
Storyteller by heart. If something is competitive, I am interested in it.