ESTNN chatted with Darshan "ZionSpartan" Upadhyaya ahead of the LCS Summer Split.
Let’s get right into it. You got your start in competitive play with Monomaniac sports in April of 2012. As one of the most veteran players in the scene, what do you think is the biggest difference for esports pros is then and now in terms of lifestyle?
"I think things have really leveled up. I remember that, when I first started, I was still in high school and I was going to high school and traveling to tournaments. Nowadays, players are in organizations and they have offices they go to for work. It feels like a 9 to 5 in that sense. There’s much bigger coaching staff, there’s physical therapists, we go to the same studio every week that has hundreds of seats for fans to come. It leveled up in a lot of ways but I think it still has a long way to go. But if you think about where it started its crazy that it's gone this far."
An unexpected high point
I remember a conversation with your former coach Irene where you joked around and he said he remembered you being ZionSpartan and he said “Oh that was you? You were a beast” and then had a laugh about it. Looking back on your career, what would you say are some of the memorable high points for you?
"It’s interesting you ask that question because I feel like if you asked me that question four or five years ago and you asked me that question now, I have drastically different answers. And the reason I’d say that is that I think when you ask that question the thing people would expect the answer to be is me saying when we won the Finals and I screamed I love you guys to my teammates and held up the trophy for the first time. All of those high point moments.
But I think what I value right now in my career and my life is the process. So I guess some of the more high points in my career have been some of the biggest realizations. For example, being kicked from CLG. When that first happened, it was something that was very unexpected. I had some resentment towards CLG on the fact that that happened and the reasons that it happened. But I think a few months down the road I felt a lot more gratitude for what happened because it led me down a path of self-growth and reflection that I don’t think I would’ve been down if I hadn’t been kicked. So I’d say if you asked me the question now: one of the highest moments would be when I was kicked from CLG because of where I am now and the growth I’ve made.
It definitely changed my life in a lot of ways that I’m really grateful for."
As a leader on the Golden Guardians Academy team, how closely do you work with the main roster, as in developing game plans and strategy?
"It varies from time of the season and varies from what’s going on. So, for example, now that its in the preseason, we do more internal scrims and we talk between players in terms of picks and strategies and things like that. When it goes to playoffs, they bring subs on and Golden Guardians likes to include the subs in review and working with the players. I think that Golden Guardians tries to incorporate Academy anywhere they can. The difficulty is that both teams are scrimming full-time and both teams have their own matches. So it can be kind of hard to come together.
But, for example, some teams like Cloud9 [work closely together]. Fudge and Licorice 1v1 all the time, so it kind of depends on the relationship you have on your individual counterparts. I think solo lanes will do more 1v1s and talk about matchups. Same thing with bot lane and jungle. And then, depending on the org, they may include subs more in playoffs and have them be part of the scrim process a lot more than some other orgs would."
Changes from the past
You were known for your exceptional split-push carry style in the past. But as your career progressed, you became more known for sacrificing your own advantages to help your team. How do you feel your personal play has evolved over the years to now?
"I think my perception has just changed to doing what’s best to win the game. And I think that’s a very hard thing to do. The concept of taking your ego out of the equation. But that’s the best thing you can do. And so, I would be lying if I said that I don’t want to play carries and thoughts of, oh man it sucks to be a tank that can’t influence that game. But my view on the situation is that, in draft you do the best that you can. And once the champions are locked in just do what your role is in the game. That’s kind of how I view it on picking champions.
So if I think we’re going up against a team where it's better for me to pick a tank then I’ll pick a tank. Or if it happens in the draft that it’s better to play a tank then I’ll do that. That’s where my mindset shifted. Where before I was more of a confidence-based player where it’s like, I’ll be feeling myself on carries, let’s lock this in today, let’s go. Now I think I’m more objective about it, so that’s the shift that changed for me."
I talked to your friend and former teammate Aphromoo earlier. Do you have any specific fond memories of playing with him you’d like to share?
"It’s hard to choose one moment. I guess one thing I do remember is that, I think for MSI, for a full two weeks he was trying his hardest every single day and I think he burned out like crazy after that tournament. But the consistent performances he had as a leader and in communications especially was something that shouldn’t be understated. And I think, in general, having friend like that, that back when everyone had gaming houses, you had much closer relationships with your teammates, so I think having a friend like that around is nice. It's all the little moments of being there for each other and being teammates that wanted to build each other up, I really appreciated that."
The COVID life
How has the recent COVID-19 pandemic affected your personally and your position with the team? Does it make some aspects harder or easier?
"In esports, if people think about it logically, they think it's an online game anyway. So you don’t lose anything from not being there with each other. But for practice especially, having that face to face interaction in post-games and day-to-day interactions is very important. So with losing that, you can’t really put a number value on it but its very big. That aspect of team synergy or just like team interaction is important.
Besides that, I think that not being able to go outside as much and take more of a break from the game or wherever you’re at, I think burnout is something that’s very poorly understood. I’m speaking from personal experience because just recently I’ve understood more deeply what burnout means for players. And I think when you’re in a COVID situation it's even harder to deal with burnout now because you can’t do a lot of the things that allow you to take a break from your computer and take a break from being inside. So there’s definitely a lot of negatives that come with COVID.
But I’m always someone who tries to look on the bright side of things. The glass half full kind of guy. So I think that its given me a lot of time to reflect. A lot more time for meditation is always great. Using the isolation as a time to reflect on yourself and your life is a great idea. I’d recommend that highly for anyone who has time on their hands."
Looking towards the future
So, what is the next step or goal for ZionSpartan?
"I’m kind of the person who doesn’t plan too far ahead. In the sense of thinking about all the career steps. Where I view my life right now is that I’m very focused on the process. It's not a question of if I will get back in the LCS, it’s a matter of when. Every day it's taking the steps to get closer to LCS. And, frankly speaking, the progress I’ve made as a player and personally the past nine months has been more than the last two or three years combined. I feel very confident about the steps I’m taking every day. And it’s a matter of continuing that process and moving towards my goal. You’ll see me back in the LCS and after that we’ll see what happens."
One last question. You have a beautiful singing voice, I’ve listened to some of your song covers on YouTube and heard you sing in the LCS post-game lobby. Have you ever taken vocal lessons or did it come naturally for you?
"I’ve been taking vocal lessons. I’m still taking vocal lessons basically weekly now and I actually want to do another cover soon because my voice has got a lot better than before. But, yeah, I love singing and I think that anyone who’s interested in singing should just take vocal lessons because, one, the value of a great teacher cannot be understated because my last teacher has been amazing. People are surprised about what they can learn if they just put their minds to it. My opinion is that everyone has the ability to sing. Of course, for some people, it comes more easily than others. But if you’re passionate about something, don’t be afraid to pursue it."
So, even though I’ve put in 500 ranked games and I’m only Platinum 4 I should keep on grinding?
*Laughs* "Well you have to do some reflection too. But yeah, keep moving towards your goal, keep moving towards your passions. That’s not bad for 500 games."
Featured image via Riot Games.