It all began in the magical world of Neopets.
"I made it up when I was 6 or 7 on Neopets," Eugene "Pobelter" Park told me about the selection of his unique ID. "Remember that?"
Although I'm a bit older than the 19-year-old starting mid laner for Immortals, I'd also taken part in the online pet community during my youth. Now, probably a decade later, our colorful creatures probably live in electronic purgatory, wondering what had happened to their handlers.
"Actually, my first ID was like Pipsqueak7," he admitted. "But that got banned because me and my sister would play on the same computer, and I think they thought we were account sharing. Anyway, my new account name was Pobelt because I thought it sounded cool, and that eventually became Pobelter when I played MapleStory. [I] really [messed] up the skill allocation on my main character Pobelt. So I started a new one named Pobelter."
Like many pro-gamers, Park's fascination with video games began at an early age. He started out playing on the Nintendo 64 when he was around the age of 5 until his mother accidentally cleaned out the system incorrectly and broke it. From there, he moved onto playing PlayStation games like Frogger before eventually turning to educational games on the computer that started his love for PC gaming.
"I spent most of my time playing WarCraft III and MapleStory in middle school," Park said. "As a 13-year-old with no money whose parents didn't want him to be playing video games all the time, I couldn't afford to buy games, so I ended up starting WarCraft III somehow. I downloaded it illegally -- sorry Blizzard -- and I played on this bootleg European private server because I didn't have the legit CD key. I [also] played Dota, and I thought Dota was pretty fun, but at the same time, I was playing on 300 ping and people were flaming me in Turkish [and] Portuguese, so I ended up hearing about this so-called Dota clone called League of Legends entering closed beta."
And that's how one of the best North American mid laners of all time came to be. The adolescent Park turned to a game considered to be a tweaked version of the same genre. Since starting as one of the first people to test the game in the closed beta, Park has gone from an unknown playing in his childhood bedroom to playing in front of thousands on the North American League Championship Series stage.
"I just tried to keep it pretty low-key," he told me when I asked how he dealt with being a popular face in the League community since his early days of high school. "[I] didn't like it when random people would come up to me at school and go, 'Yo, you're Pobelter,' because I didn't [enjoy] that. It made me feel kind of uncomfortable."
Luckily for Park, most people at his self-described "pretty nerdy school" didn't make a big deal about it and thought it was cool he was a mini-celebrity in the world of competitive gaming. In terms of the schoolwork, Park had little to no issues passing through his school curriculum and doing well on his SAT scores. He was only held back from being at the top of his class due to the endless hours spent in League of Legends.
"It probably would have been a lot tougher of a decision between playing in LCS and going to college right away if I'd gotten in anywhere I really wanted to go," Park said. "But I only got accepted into my backup schools so I [said], 'I guess I'll try [LCS] out and see how it goes.' Anyway, school was taking its toll on me, so I might as well take some time off and explore because -- I did some research -- people who take time off go back to college and have a really refreshed mindset and don't get burnt out. So I thought it'd be a good idea, and my parents supported me."
Park's ascent from semi-normal high schooler to professional gaming star wasn't a rapid one. His first few teams and seasons in the NA LCS were rocky ones. On teams that were good enough to stay in the league but not strong enough to actually compete for a title, Park kept the reputation of a youngster ready to have a breakout season but never getting that breakthrough moment. Instead, he battled through relegations, known for his finesse to wiggle out of difficult situations and help his squads keep their place in the premier league.
"My parents were a bit skeptical at first," he said. "I remember telling them I had to fly out to Raleigh, North Carolina, for my first LAN event at [Major League Gaming] Raleigh in 2011 or 2012. They were just [like], 'What the hell?' and thought I was going to get kidnapped. But I showed them this was all legit. A part of the game I play. There's a tournament, and hopefully I'm not going to die and get my organs harvested. Luckily I didn't, and I'm here today."
No, Park didn't get kidnapped and didn't get his organs harvested at Raleigh. However, it wasn't until he finally was relegated from the league on Winterfox in the spring of 2015 where he finally caught his first big break. As his struggling team was pushed down into the minor leagues, Park left the organization and signed with the established Counter Logic Gaming for the 2015 summer season.
"It'd definitely have to be winning LCS with CLG at Madison Square Garden," said Park, describing the memory that has stuck out to him the most throughout his lengthy career. After joining the team at the start of the summer split, Counter Logic turned its identity around by winning its first LCS championship with Park as the starter in the mid lane.
"That just felt...awesome," he said. "Probably the best I've felt in my life."
For how successful he felt on the stage, Park was still struggling to gain full acceptance from his parents. It wasn't until he left CLG following the summer split to join the rookie organization Immortals that his parents started to look at competitive gaming as more than just a bit of exploration.
"It didn't happen until fairly recently," he told me. "For the first year of my career -- even on Winterfox and CLG -- I wasn't making that much. For my first year on EG, I was making the league minimum," he said. "Even on CLG and Winterfox, I wasn't making that much more. But this time around on Immortals, I think I have a pretty good salary. It feels really stable, so I think my parents are going to support me as long as I want to keep going. Whereas before, they would have been like, 'Maybe you should go back to school soon.'"
On Immortals, Park is transitioning into the role of reliable veteran rather than the pesky, upcoming rookie he has been seen as. Park is rectifying his exclusion last split by being one of the most impactful players in this summer's regular season. After winning a title two splits ago and finishing third in the spring, another championship would give him one of the best resumes for a North American-born player in the LCS' history.
"My plan has always been to go back to school, get a degree and see what happens from there," he said. "But recently, esports has been growing so much, and there seems to be a lot of opportunities outside [playing]. Basically, it's hard to gauge until that point actually happens."
Pipsqueak7, a kid nursing his online animals on Neopets, to Pobelt on MapleStory, to Pobelter, the pro-gaming star.
"Wow," he said, trying to find the right words to say to the fans that have followed him since he was an amateur high school player. "Just thanks for supporting me. I remember streaming on own3d.tv back in 2012, and I'd get 60 viewers. I was like, 'Wow, that's 60 people watching me. That's a lot of people!' And it's just crazy to see how everything has shaken out."