Story of Natu: A Journey with eSports

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For Joona “natu” Leppänen, 30, computer game Counter-Strike was lifesaver after the death of his parents. ENCE Esports manager made e-sports his job after 15-year-long gaming career.

16-years old Joona manages to catch his mother when she falls head ahead to radiator. Because of cytostatic treatment his mothers lungs are full of fluid and she can’t breath while laying.

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Son has sleeped next to his mother almost a year. Since his mothers cancer renewed. It happened just a couple months after his dad died on worktrip in Copenhagen.

16-years old Joona wasn’t told the severity of his mothers disease, but he still knew. First his mother lost her voice.

I dont know if she still has WSOY booksales phone record. She was goddamn good.

In August 2001 his mother was a shadow of her former self. Close friends and relatives and even Joona himself thought it was better to get their mind away from it. He visits in Lahti to meet his mother on Friday and leaves to Helsinki, Finland biggest computer festival, Assembly.

In Helsinki Areena there is thousands congenials with computers. In the dark space only computer and lighshows bring some light. Joona forgot his mother for a while but misery comes back quickly after the trip.

Brother comes to wake him up from a nap on Sunday and asks him to come to the hospital.

– I was next to anesthetized mother. It was not a pleasant view and I wanted to go home.

A couple of hours later brother comes home and tells that their mother has died.

Gaming became one of the reasons why I have stayed sane.

Nick name from a Vichy bottle.

A dark station wagon curves to a parking lot of Lahti train station. There is no point in trying to move the front seat backwards. Behind the wheel sits Finnish gaming world icon Joona “Natu” Leppänen, 30.

He has seen almost everything in e-sports.

For 15 years Leppänen played himself to the hearts of Finnish and international public in the Counter-Strike computer game, which is one of the most popular computer games.

He is the Teemu Selänne of e-sports, that gets to still answer quoestions about a comeback. However Joona isn’t going to play anymore as a pro.

Now, 2016 he has made gaming industry his job. He is the manager and partner in ENCE eSports which has started the first professional Counter-Strike team in Finland.

Ence wants to the Top-10 of world, to grab the big trophies and prize money. World conquer starts in Febuary from Assembly Winter held in Messukeskus.

I remeber Joona´s mystic nickname from start of 2000. If someone said back then that I´ll be making a huge profile of him, I would have probably laughed, siped my coke and kept playing.

Five years older than me, Joona had often Vichy in his glass back then, from which also his nickname was born. There was “Natural” written on his bottle of Vichy which easily shortened to natu.

One of the biggest criteria in the orange-bricked house in a suburb close Patoniitty, is fast internet. While going in you have to watch for toys while walking. Leppänen and his wife have three children, oldest is 8-years and youngest just a couple of months old.

Childhood home of Leppänen is about ten kilometers to the north. Joona is the youngest of his family, his big brothers are 8 and 12 years older. Dad owned a furniture shop in 90s and his mother sold books.

Young Joona played football and floorball, and also tried skijumping. In the track of big brother came Joonas first touches to gaming. Commodore 64 was huge thing for a 5-year-old in beginning of the 90’s. Before the turn of the millennium, the family of Leppänen was a forerunner on internet connections. Because of his dads job they had fax-line and a fast ISDN-connection.

Quakeworld, released in 1996, is held as the first internet multiplayer game, and that is where Joona’s gaming got a more serious spark.

-I was just a kid, hadn’t even had my voice break, so I got a lot of shit thrown at me. I didn’t give a fuck about the opinions of others. I traveled my own path.

Parents death derailed to foggy trails.

Joonas older brother and his girlfriend of that time, now wife, became his guardians after their parents death. Joona was 16, brother 28.

The trio was living in Leppänen residence, until Joona was adult. Sports hobbies and childhood friends started to recede, because Joona was tired of listening to his friends bemoaning his destiny.

Playing Counter-Strike brought meaning to Joona`s life and filled the emptiness. Playing shooters and being on computer all day long wasn’t to the liking of his brothers. Specially, when 16 years old youngster didn’t manage to grab any hold of finances or housekeeping.

– Don’t talk bullshit, that is not going to be anything, everyone said. Although without it everything could be worse.

Brothers saw gaming as the reason, why the youngest one was doing badly. Joona understands why his big brother felt that kinda pain.

– Afterwards gotta take off my hat to my brother for staying sane. At least his guardian knew where he was, when little brother was playing in his room and not off raging in some corner of a park with bags of beer.

However, at the age of 16 Leppänen went on to play for the first time abroad.

From e-sports olympics to home with medal

Five players sit on left side in row, five on right side. Each one sees the shooters world from their own character eyes. Five counter-terrorists, five terrorists, in the halftime the sides are switched. Terrorists try to plant a bomb or eliminate all CT’s with their guns. CT tries to do the opposite.

One game round lasts for 2 and a half minutes and then they go at it again. Match win requires 16 rounds and winning the game needs one, two or four match wins. Other side defends, other attacks. Looks complicated, but in the end it’s so simple.

Natu CSGO

Nowadays all kinds of named tournaments are offered all around the world. It was different during the start of Natu´s career.

Joona´s first tournament on abroad was World Cyber Games held in Korea 2001. Christened as the olympics of the gamingworld, the tournament was first held in 2001 and continued on until 2013.

Each sport had only one team per country, just like in olympics. Leppänen was representing Finland in his first tournament trip. Back then just a few in Europe had heard about e-sports.

However, players of the phenomenom that rose from Korea were superstars in Soul already in 2001.

Girls were running screaming behind Starcraft player “SlayerSBoxer”. I was a little bit like, what is going on here.

Joona and four other Finns took the third place and earned altogether 10 000 dollars. The medal decorated with three olympic rings is still safe and touching it makes Natu smile. Nowadays the biggest attention in the fireplace room is taken by their firstborn childs trophies.

His carees first tournaments arrangements were world-class, and waiting for the same kind of experience took a long while.

During his 15-year career Natu played for a many different fiveplayer teams. In e-sports a teams life-cycle is usually short, when players go different ways in gaming and life.

The team from the olympics split quickly and the ambitious Leppänen didnt’ instantly find his place even he tried many times. In 2003 he started a group with his friends the goal of which was to go have fun in tournaments. It always wasn’t.

Leppänen remembers with horror the arrangements of the summer of 2003 Assembly tournament. In the flagship event of Finland the players were sitting at that time on boardwalk benches familiar from the army, and gaming was done on wooden tables. Even the monitors were from the previous millenium.

Level differences were evened out quite a bit. We lost to teams that we shouldn’t ever lose to.

Nowadays tournaments you dont see that.

A peculiar team name makes laugh still

Natus office is in the other corner of the house. The state agent used as a selling point the houses earlier resident. Finnish music superstar Cheek was training his rhymes in the same room in the 90s’.

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Of course I have to try pull-ups on the same bar as young Jare Henrik Tiihonen.

After Lahti groups fun time Leppänen decided to take a new step up to building a new team. First time in Finland, a super team was being built that would try to achieve success outside Finland also.

This was the mother of all good names: Liquid ice. Liquid ice, for which the term ‘water’ can also be used if we’re being accurate. Of course we’re not.

Liquid Ice didn’t need to enjoy their name too long because the teams winning streak brought new chances. Finlands top organisation Destination Skyline snapped the whole team to themselves and started one of the biggest succes stories in Leppänen’s life.

We were the first Finnish team that had success abroad.

During the year Destination Skyline won many tournaments all around Europe. A call from Finlands government broke the successful team when some of them had to join the military. Leppänen had played since his junior highschool times and was thinking about ending his career as a 19-years old.

Teammate Markus “Tico” Kivipuro managed to tell that he will retire first.

Then I couldn’t stop there, someone had to keep taking this forward. Maybe I have to thank Markus for that. 20-year-old Leppänen made his first pro contract with British Four Kings. Monthly salary wasn’t much, but a four-digit amount of euros for an unemployed was a lot of money.

You could say that natu was a pro too early. Now top players in the world earn monthly five-digit amounts. Bonus, fansales and tournament winnings make yearly incomes amount to over 300 000 euros.

In Finland the path to these kinds of incomes is still long.

Trophies and sports outcome are bigger things than euros.

Sometimes Leppänen handles ENCE esports matters easily with computer or phone. Messages pop up in three different programs, first thing in his mind is a radio interview of one of the players.

In the early 90’s in the houses corner room the first beats to a Finnish music revolution were made. Now in 2016 Leppänen is writing the gaming world anew.

The two years spent in the British group were gameplay-wise the best time of natus career. After that the second and last pro contract took him to somewhere every competitor wants to go; on the top of his own sports.

Leppänen joined the already earlier founded Finnish team 69N28E that won many tournaments in 2007. Careers biggest win came in NGL One held in Berlin.

After the tournament win in Germany the team got ranked as number one in world. After reaching the top the same thing happened to Natu that happened to Selänne after winning the Stanley cup. His mind was taken by emptiness.

There wasn’t any sense in my life for 7 years. Then it was big thing to get a job. I got a hold of my life and everyday life started to be within limits.

Suddenly the familys 8-year-old child comes in.

“When does this end” he askes with sad face.

Seriously taken hobby or two jobs?

Leppänen applied for a job the first time when he was 22. He told in his interview fir DNA openly that he played computer games as a “profession”. He turned the word, known to many as a kind of curse word, to his advantage in working life

I have pressure tolerance and i dont go from small public appearance to lock. CS and workcommunity has alot of same.

Leppänen was working for DNA and an IT-company based in Lahti until 2014. The “Selänne of CS” didn’t have patience to stay away from games for more than one and a half years, but his attitude towards them has changed a lot.

It was then just a serious hobby. I didn’t need to take stress from doing good when it didn’t have any financial meaning anymore.

Actually Leppänen worked two jobs. First was from 10 to 18 in office, the other on his home computer until midnight. And it was also too little for competive gaming because on during his time as a pro Leppänen played often for over ten hours a day.

Greetings to the relationship when after work you eat and throw a highfive before gaming. For some time I did it, but then the hours of the day started being not enough. When we got more children it became impossible.

Decision of retirement came in May of 2015, even though he saw e-sports growing up fast.

It would have probably been just a question of time when he would himself also be getting a grab on good earnings. But that assumption didn’t pay the bills for a family of five. The decision to retire came fully from himself.

My wife has been a hockey wife without the millions in bank. She anyways understood that it is my passion.

Leppänen hasn’t jumped out from the gaming world after retiring.

He only went deeper when e-sports offered for the first time a real job for the dad of three children.

Joona “Natu” Leppänen first became e-sports coach and commentator. Later he started as a manager in ENCE.

In start of natus career these kinds of jobs were few and far between but now Vierumäki sports academy is training e-sports coaches for the first time.

It’s easier to explain my job now.

Still twenty hours a week playing.

Leppänen still didn’t abondon gaming. As a retiree he plays over twenty hours a week. Biggest reason for this is livestreaming service Twitch, where players can send live video from his own gaming.

For Leppänen streaming is way to relax and create his own brand in gaming industry.

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Twitch is a textbook example of the chill culture of nowadays. One streams, others watch and comment. Fans get very close to the pros they adore, who also get natural channel to talk for their followers. International tournaments are also shown live on Twitch and you can watch replays from there also.

Streaming services are one of the notable growing money flows in the gaming world. For streamer money may come from subscribers and donations, ad and sponsor incomes and also selling fan stuff.

Players are extremely huge brand figures. If you like some product it also has a huge impact to viewers opion.

Money brings also side effects.

Betting has come in lately and lead to gamem anipulations that have lead to lifetime bans. Also underage people betting is a growing problem because control is bad. In-game item gambling is compared to the Wild West.

Peoples interest is now on a different level than in 2001 around natus first tournament trip.

We came home with medals on our necks and showed couple pictures that this is what it was like. Now if you lose you get death threats in Twitter.
And when you talk about computer games there is also the threat of cheats. Leppänen knows the problem but tells that the community is working to get rid of it.

-If you are talented why would you throw your career away for one fast buck. Of course it’s same thing with doping, there is always someone taking the risk. I would still think of this as a clean sport compared to traditional sports.

Neverending question about the status as a sport

Yeah, those traditional sports.

Cursewords fly after another journalist interviews Leppänen on the phone in the middle of everything. The gaming guru doesn’t like biased questions about e-sports being sports. He is annoyed that he is asked only one question. Is it sports?

Joona Leppänen

After smoking a cigarette he clarifies.

From the players POV this is competition which has many things from sports. Physically you gotta be on point so you can do 110% for 2-3 hours nonstop. On the mental side it has the same things. I know top players that have used the services of sports psychologists.

A small slackening can make the difference between 100 000 and 0 dollars.

For me a sports status doesn’t mean anything. From viewers POV this is entertainment which has the same elements as any sports.

Amen.

Even more abundant is the discussion about the health side. Leppänen has answers ready for anyone.

Daily rhythm is good to keep in balance and do something else before playing. Go running, gym or do some other things. And in this sport you dont get anywhere if you aren’t social. All the time you connected to some corner of world.

Its hard to not agree with Joona “Natu” Leppänen when you have heard his crazy story during the day. For him, gaming offered a lifesaver to deal with all difficult things.

I dont know where my road would have taken me after my parents death if I didn’t have Counter-Strike. I have been humiliated and heard shit from people but at the same time I believed in what I’m doing. I feel I’m privileged when I turned my hobby into a job. It’s everyones dream.

Finally the firstborn gets to take over the room. Immediately he tries to start a gaming console.

How does dad take it, if his son becomes a pro player?

I haven’t thought that far, Leppänen smiles while he goes to help his son.

It doesn’t take many minutes until the console is on and his son gets to spend his Monday with his favourite game.

This story originally appeared on Yle.Fi

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