Maroun Merhej, also know as “GH”, has succeeded to become one of the world’s leading esport professional players. He decided to turn his passion for gaming into a career five years ago, after participating in his first large-scale competition in Taiwan with his former Lebanese team.
Meeting over a coffee in Furn el Chebbak, not far from where his family lives, he told us more about what motivated him to quit university and accept his first job as a professional Dota 2 player.
Why are you so found of Dota 2?
I discovered Dota 2 at the age of 12 and I haven’t stop playing it ever since. I love this game because of its unique combination of strategy and action. It stands somewhere between chess and football. It needs a lot of thinking as well as practice to improve your head-eyes-hands coordination. The biggest challenge is to stay focused as your brain needs to keep thinking for 50 minutes without breaks.
What makes you a good player?
I think my strength is my empathy. It helps me predict what others will do.
What was the turning point that changed this hobby into a professional career ambition?
When I was 19, my Lebanese team and I used to meet and play together in what we call a “gaming house”. At that time, we were only taking part in small competitions, winning a few thousand dollars every two or three months. I used to practice every day after class, for five or six hours.
Then, around five years ago, as our level was improving, we had our first big tournament in Taiwan. That is when I made up my mind. I really wanted to become a professional player, travel the world and compete. I discussed it with other professional gamers and I started training a lot to achieve my goal.
How did your current employer, Team Liquid – a leading worldwide multi-gaming organization with 13 different teams and over 70 cyberathletes – contact you?
Thanks to my efforts, I ended up being ranked for three months the best Dota 2 player in the world. This is when Team Liquid took interest in hiring me and contacted me through Twitter. I was still not done with university. I was between my second and third year of law school at Université Saint Joseph (USJ). But of course, this was an offer I could not refuse. Team Liquid was and still is one of the best teams in the world.
Thus you decided to quit before graduating. Is it a choice you regret?
As I began playing at a high level, skipping classes slowly became a habit. My head was always somewhere else and I eventually told myself I was wasting my time with university. I’m not generalizing of course, but I still think it was the case for me. The offer I received from Team Liquid was a proof that things were getting serious and pushed my decision forward.
In 2017, at The International tournament, your team won nearly 11 million dollars in prize money, the highest amount in the history of esports, of which you got a share. Such income prospects must have also affected your career choices…
Money is surely a bonus but it’s not our main goal as gamers. I wanted to work in something I was interested in and for which I had found my passion. I am not allowed to share numbers but, in the end, I am like any other employee. I get my salary every month. The amount varies according to the player’s talent and the time he spends on training. And then extra revenues come with winning competitions.
What did your family think about your decision to quit university before graduating?
At first, for obvious reasons, they were against it. For our parents’ generation, it is quite hard to understand that one can have a successful career in video games. Plus, it’s risky, not everyone succeeds despite hours of trainings.
But I have the chance to have an older brother who is also a professional player. He supported me and helped me to talk to them. He explained them that my dream wasn’t just pure delusion, because playing was something I was truly great at.
I think this usual lack of support from family, school or even friends in Lebanon, explains why you don’t see much local players, or even Arab players, in top-level competitions.
What is the daily life of a Dota 2 world-class champion?
Every two weeks or so, we have a competition. Before major ones, my four teammates and I, our coach and our manager, we all gather in Los Angeles or in the Netherlands for a bootcamp. During a few days, we have a very specific schedule. We train daily from 1pm to 10pm, then we take a small break and we continue playing on our own, to perfect ourselves. Eventually we go to sleep because we need our eight hours to recover.
For instance, we have a big competition in China this January. Before it, we will be at a bootcamp in the Netherlands. And right after the tournament, we will go back to Europe for another bootcamp, to get ready for following tournament. That’s my life: I train and I do competitions.
Are you not worried of losing your passion by transforming it into a constraint?
I was offered the opportunity to make a job out of my passion. Transforming this into a way of life was a dream for me. So, yes, sometimes, 10% of my time let’s say, I am tired and I just want to be chilling and not playing in front of people. But this is my job, I signed a contract and I have people counting on me. Besides, if one wants to win and remain at the top, he has no choice. The competition is growing fiercer every year.
How do you feel about playing on stage?
Playing in front of an audience is very common in esports, as well as in traditionnal high-performance sports like basketball. Around 90% of competitions are recorded and commercialized, among which some of them are on stage. It doesn’t make me particularly nervous, apart maybe for The International (TI), because it is the biggest Dota 2 tournament.
I like playing in front of an audience because you get to see people’s reactions. I think we’re also playing for fans who come to watch the competitions.
Is there an age limit for players at this level? What would you like to do when you retire from gaming?
There is no age limit ! If you can still be the best at 90 years old, you can keep doing competitions. But if your body or your head feel tired, you won’t remain at the top. I know some great professional players in their mid-thirties. Personally, I haven’t decided yet for how long I will be doing it and I still have no idea about what I want to do after that…