On stage with the rest of the Arizona State University roster, Austin "Shot" Lonsert stares out into the crowd.
His team has just won Heroes of the Dorm 2016 and with it paid college tuition. He falls to his knees, overcome by the moment.
"In my head, the entire venue just went quiet. I mean, everyone was cheering, but I couldn't hear it at that point. I actually think I was having a slight anxiety attack," he said. "It was more of a shock moment."
In the audience, his mother is similarly overwhelmed. The son that she supported — opposing dissenting family members in the process — has fulfilled his promise. The gamble that she supported has paid off.
It's a powerful moment for Shot, as evidenced by his reaction. But his career to this point has been filled with other kinds of moments, too: the darker kind.
He struggled with depression, was kicked from COGnitive Gaming, and has since bounced around as a free agent. He's made mistakes — he'd be the first to admit them. But as he stands on that stage, he knows one thing for sure.
He was right to set out on this tangled path, and he's just getting started.
Dorm, round one
A year earlier, Shot would never have guessed that he'd be on the stage at Heroes of the Dorm 2016.
"I just thought it was like ... some tournament, I probably wouldn't do very well in it, and I won't be able to find good players on my campus, so what's the point?" he said.
In March 2015 he was working on signing with an organization, and he ultimately joined up with LunatiK eSports at the end of the month. But he had also just returned home from studies elsewhere, and with a new school came the possibility of competition.
"I was taking a couple classes at a local college, because I had to continue my degree, but I'd just stopped going to another school because I didn't do very well during that semester. And I had kind of a mental breakdown and I was like, 'I need to come home, please let me come home,'" he said.
"It didn't work out at that school, so I started taking some classes at a local college in 2015, during [the first] Heroes of the Dorm."
He fielded a team that included his sister Sarah and one of his best friends, but the experience didn't give him faith that he'd be back next year. They went out in the group stage.
"We didn't make it out of groups, and I was like, 'You guys suck,'" he said, laughing. "But I didn't really expect much, because my sister was a very casual player and I was like, 'Maybe I can shotcall them to victory.'"
Though he watched the finals for Dorm, Shot turned his attention back to the competitive scene. He and the rest of the LunatiK roster ultimately left in April to form Shot and the Bullets: Reloaded. The flex player had shown strong mechanical play and a solid hero pool that let his teams play to their own strengths.
"I had an original team called Shot and the Bullets, which was kinda because we didn't know what to name ourselves. It wasn't my idea, everyone thinks it was my idea and that I'm self-centered," he said. "After LunatiK, it wasn't my idea either to be Shot and the Bullets: Reloaded. I think it might have been [teammate Aaron "iVSlime" Prentice] at the time, who was like, 'I think that's hilarious, we should bring it back and call it Reloaded, it's so funny.'"
That team lasted only about a month before they were ultimately signed by COGnitive Gaming. Strong performances in April, including a 2-1 finals victory over Tempo Storm at the Go4Heroes Americas Cup #19, put them on the map as a group of rising challengers.
'You're letting him waste his life'
For the first time, Shot found himself on a team where he was provided a living space and a practice area. It was an unprecedented level of support.
But back when he had first set out to compete in esports, he had received a different kind of support from his mother, who was one of the few family members to back his decision to go full-time. First playing League of Legends, he was certain that he could make a career in esports if given the opportunity.
"When I decided to be a professional player, I was going to school in Colorado, and I didn't have a very good semester. I called my mom and asked, 'Mom, can I please take a year off of school so I can pursue professional gaming?' ... My mother said, 'Let me call you back.'"
Michelle Lonsert — better known on Twitter as Momma Shot — didn't call her son back until the next day. She spoke with her other children and with Shot's best friend, asking about his request. They backed him up, saying she should give her son a chance.
"And so my mom came out to Colorado to help me pack up my stuff and come home after the semester, because it was cheaper than flying. I took her to the movies and we talked about it extensively, and I think that was the moment that she actually decided to go along with it. She could see my drive and my dedication."
Though he is careful to note that he doesn't want to throw his family under the bus, Shot is clear that, outside of his younger family members, his mother was the only one to back him up at the beginning.
She received calls from other family members, who pleaded with her to stop letting Shot compete in esports.
"My grandparents were like, 'He's wasting his life, you're letting him waste his life, what are you doing? You need to stop letting him play these games otherwise he's going to completely waste his life and we'll never talk to you again,'" Shot said.
"It was ugly for some time. My mother told me — later, obviously, because she didn't want to stress me out — but she got calls from my family all the time, yelling at her for supporting me."
'It starts with COGnitive ... I wasn't the best teammate in the world'
At the very least, Momma Shot had not been proven wrong by May 2015, when her son signed with COGnitive. The facilities provided by the team were some of the best in the NA competitive scene at the time. Only Tempo Storm had a full-fledged team house, while the COGnitive home base, located in San Jose, Ca., let the team live in apartments and practice together at the nearby AFK.GG Gamer Lounge.
To date, COGnitive is still the team that Shot has spent the most time with. This arrangement was a new one for Shot, but one that he appreciated.
"We lived together on COGnitive and we had a gaming lounge that we played out of, we had food and stuff that was given to us, which was super amazing," he said. "Shout-out to David Fry from COGnitive Gaming. He set us up."
But while the situation was objectively good and the team continued to improve, Shot admits that his behavior during that time was disruptive to the team.
"I wasn't the best teammate in the world. Inside the game, great, whatever. We had good comms, we had good communication, we were a good team together. Outside of the game, I wasn't the best teammate in the world."
He recalled that, with a shared gaming space, he often cluttered the area with plates which spilled over onto teammate Joey "Hospital" Gavlas' desk. He also said he often had trouble waking up in the morning, and manager Dylan "Dylux" Walker often had to rouse him in time for practice, resulting in internal arguments.
What he knew — but maybe didn't truly understand — was that he was struggling with depression.
"I was like, I'll just get over it, I'm living the dream, I'll be happy, whatever. But it really affected me, and my mindset. I didn't connect well with my teammates. And my teammates got fed up with it eventually. I wasn't getting their hints that they were giving me."
'I've gotten a darker reputation within the professional level'
Those hints eventually became more. Dylux told Shot he had to clean up his act, or else the other players would stop accepting it.
"By that point it's way too late. If you have to tell someone to clean up their act, the team's mind is pretty much made up at that point."
COG had already qualified for the America Championship, but after they placed 5th-6th at the August North America Open and then 5th-7th at MSI Masters Gaming Arena 2015, Shot was removed from the roster.
It happened the night that the team returned from MSI. Shot started up a stream, but was called into a meeting with the rest of the team by his manager, Dylux. He was told it would be best to shut the stream down beforehand.
In the meeting, they said that they had decided to let him go. Shot says he did his best not to show the emotions he felt, and just accepted it.
"I said, 'I'm just going to pack my things.' They said I could stay the night, 'You can take as long as you want to move out.' But I said I'd rather move tonight. I didn't want to be in the same place as my ex-team. It was too emotionally taxing for me to stay there."
Shot called his mom to pick him up, who was in Orange County, over six hours away from the San Jose-based gaming lounge.
"She immediately got in the car and came to pick me up. Which was awesome. I love my mom so much." Shot said, sheepishly calling his behaviour "really momma's boy-ish."
Shot asked Dylux to help him pack up his things, and he agreed. The two packed late into the night: it had been nearly 1 a.m. when the meeting happened.
"And then Dylan volunteered to stay up with me until my mom got there. I really appreciated that."
After packing, they went from Shot's apartment to the gaming lounge. In the early morning, there were no customers in the darkened LAN center. The two played old arcade games for hours until Momma Shot arrived.
Because COGnitive had continued to list iVSlime as a substitute player on the roster, he was eligible to play with the team on the Road to BlizzCon. Fresh off a four-month stint with his former team, with whom he had spent the whole Road to BlizzCon, Shot was a free agent.
"I was a bad teammate, I accepted that. I was upset at the time, obviously, because we were a good third-place team and we were getting better," Shot said. "So I was pretty frustrated. But after that, I was a little angsty, kind of mad at the world. My filter wasn't there yet."
That angst spilled over into his interactions with other players, and when he would smack-talk with opponents, it became perceived as aggression and not just part of his competitive approach to the game.
"They saw it as an attack. There were a lot of players that this has happened with, and I've ... gotten a darker reputation within the professional level."
He also developed an attitude as being overly blunt, and that followed him as he struggled in free agency. His straightforward criticism of teammates didn't always work the way he had hoped. He said that he didn't view it as negative then, but he's since worked on it.
"Some people are like, 'I appreciate your bluntness, that's awesome, I know what to work on.' Some people, you need to sort of sugarcoat it for them, because it can be hurtful," he said. "It's difficult because, when you make enemies — whether by accident or on purpose — they can ruin your reputation single-handedly, by telling people you're a bad guy."
'The most troll thing I've ever heard'
It wasn't until Shot joined the roster of Blank that he found a route back out of the darkness.
Blank represented SK Gaming for a weekend when they competed at Heroes Rising, but the team did not do well at that tournament. After being sent to losers' 2-1 by King of Blades, they took a game from Bob Ross Fan Club but fell short, finishing 9th-10th.
But while the tournament may not have had an immediate effect on Shot's pro career, it did have a long-term impact. It was at Heroes Rising that the idea to play with Michael "MichaelUdall" Udall and Stefen "akaface" Anderson at Arizona State University first came up.
"I met Michael for the first time in my life, and we didn't really get along all that great. We didn't know each other, so we were just like, 'Hey, what's up' and then we just kind of went our own ways," he said.
"And then akaface came up to me because we were decent friends, we hadn't talked in a bit but we were still friends, he was on my original Shot and the Bullets team. So aka comes up to me and starts making a joke, 'Oh, Heroes of the Dorm is going to happen again, you should definitely come to ASU and we'll win.'"
While Shot initially dismissed the idea as "the most troll thing" he'd ever heard, he eventually looked up the rules. If he were to immediately start taking courses at Arizona State University, where both Udall and akaface were planning to play in Heroes of the Dorm, he would be eligible by the time Dorm started.
That set off a flurry of emails to Tespa, the collegiate esports organization responsible for organizing the event. He needed to be sure, before he spent the $8,000 in tuition, that he would qualify as an ASU student in time to play with their team.
The response eventually came back: he would be able to qualify.
"I had to throw down eight grand of my own money to have a chance at winning with Michael and aka. But I thought it was a very good chance. We had three professional players. This is a good idea, and I'm not breaking any rules, I'll still be going full-time at college.
"So I decided to go for it."
'If we can get them to that level, we can win this hands down'
The ASU roster set to practicing, but Shot said that early on, it felt like things could ultimately go either way.
"I was sure there was a good team out there that could be hard to beat," Shot said.
Early on, it seemed like that team would inevitably be the University of Texas at Arlington, which featured several members of professional squad Team Blaze. But the two teams would find themselves playing a lot earlier than anticipated, as they met each other in an amateur-level tournament.
"The first time that I actually thought we could legitimately win this thing was when we played in an online tournament, Divergent Gaming. We just signed up for practice," Shot said.
"Then we got to the finals, and we were against UTA, which was interesting. We didn't want to play against each other, we're like, 'We're going to hide all our strats.' This was really early on, right when it started."
ASU didn't win that match, which was a best-of-one. But it was close, and UTA was playing with Sammuel "bigempct" Hua, who was a professional player for Team Blaze but would not be joining the Dorm roster. In his place would be Andrew "MiST" Rodrigues, a HotS streamer who had less experience on the competitive stage.
ASU, however, would also have some players with limited competitive experience. Parham "Pham" Emami had played for Kappa Wolves with Udall and Akaface, but had been a substitute for some time. Isaiah “Snickers” Rubin was not a professional player.
That didn't faze Shot, however. After that close performance, he was optimistic about the team's chances.
"We lost, and some of us were kind of upset about it, but I had a conversation with aka later that night, and we were just on Skype duo-queuing. And we were like, 'We can win.' If we have good strategies, we have shotcalls, we understand what we're doing and we train up the weaker players on our team," Shot said. "I said to aka, if we can get [Pham and Snickers] to a decent level, they're already pretty good, but we can make them better.
"And if we can get them to that level, we can win this hands down."
Acceptance, if not enthusiasm
Indeed, Arizona State University was able to get them to that level, and figured out how to leverage every player on the roster. They began practicing six hours a day, and reviewed replays with the less-experienced members on the team so that everyone could better understand both the good plays and the bad.
Ultimately, ASU cut a swath through the tournament without losing a game, meeting none other than UTA in the grand finals. While there were moments where it looked like UTA could turn the tide, it never happened.
ASU had won, and the first thing Shot said to his mother, when asked by host Anna Prosser Robinson on stage, was that he had tuition covered.
"When I saw my Mom bawling and crying offstage, that's when it really hit me: wow, I succeeded, I proved to myself I can achieve something great. I proved to my Mom that professional gaming wasn't a waste of time."
That victory meant more than just money, though. Shot's actions had showed his mother that her faith in him had not been misplaced.
"It was like, 'We did it, Mom. We did it together. It wasn't just me winning Heroes of the Dorm, it was you allowing me to put in the effort, through COG, through all the other teams I had, and allowing me to go after my goal of being a pro gamer that led me to that achievement.'"
More than that, the win earned Momma Shot a reprieve from the criticism that, unbeknownst to her son, she had endured from family members as a result of her decision to support his gaming career.
"When I won Heroes of the Dorm in 2016, I paid off my college, [my family] saw me on ESPN, they saw the production and how many people were cheering for ASU, and were like, 'Wow, that's like a legitimate tournament, this looks like a finals for a football game or something.' And that's when they finally — sort of — accepted it."
The win also showed that Shot was still someone who could compete at high levels of play, despite the fact that he had failed to find a long-term home in the interim.
"That's why I broke down: I was proud of myself for one of the first times, and I made my Mom proud."
The player that I want to be
But that win did less than Shot thought it might to improve his chances of finding a stable home in the Heroes competitive scene.
"It had nowhere near the effect that I thought it was going to have. I thought it was going to be more like the Michael and Aka thing, where they immediately created a top-tier team. I thought that I was going to do something similar," he said. "Obviously I didn't think I was owed it, but I thought I was going to be more noticed."
After Dorm, Shot eventually found his way to Imported Support, a team that featured a number of players aiming to make a Dorm run of their own in 2017. The team became Top 8 in North America, and even managed to take a game from Astral Authority at the second NA Fall Regional. Things were going well.
But the team's long-term future came crashing down. A Tespa ruling was issued that stated a player could compete in either Heroes of the Dorm or the Heroes Global Championship for 2017, but not both.
"Hosselote, HecarimJ and Drated all go to Louisiana State University, and they want to participate in Heroes of the Dorm, yes," Shot said.
"So our team that was Top 8 — we went to PAX, took a game, woo! — we unfortunately had to disband."
Despite the irony that his path back to a future of professional play had been cut short by his past, Shot said he didn't regret the time he spent with the team.
"No one held grudges, no one was upset. We were all just really good friends. That team was probably my favorite team I've ever been on. Because we were just a bunch of buddies, and we didn't really take ourselves too seriously," he said. "We were just good at the game, and understood each other. Whenever somebody would get aggressive or angry at each other, we would just be like, 'Hey, chill out.' And everyone would."
Shot again returned to free agency. With the qualifiers for the HGC 2017 Pro League looming, he was again on the hunt for a team. As he has moved forward, so too has his reputation.
"My reputation has definitely followed me into this qualifier, and a lot of my relationships. But typically people change their mind about me once they talk to me and get to know me."
He formed a team called Veterans at the first qualifier, who were eliminated when they ran into Team Naventic early on. The second qualifier looms, but some familiar faces from Imported Support have returned to help him out.
But this time, with the work he's done — with ASU, as a player, and as a person — he's hopeful that the team can stick.
"I'm trying to fix my reputation by being the player that I want to be. I want to be a good teammate, I want to be someone who understands what everyone is dealing with.
"Because I've dealt with a ton throughout my esports career, and I want to be that person that they can confide in."
Josh "Gauntlet" Bury is a news editor for theScore esports. You can find him on Twitter.