Goodbye to Merlini, the shapeshifting wizard

Dota 2

It’s always a strange moment to see someone walk away from your dream, but today the good people working in esports were given a wakeup call. One of the bigger names in Dota 2 casting decided to exit his stage, the Dota 2 scene, and all the other things that follow a good degree of success in esports, like a blue tick on Twitter and probably some people who hate him.

For those not in the know, that man was Ben ‘Merlini’ Wu, a former Dota pro who has successfully transitioned into a casting role. During his time as a player he sat alongside legends like Clement ‘Puppey’ Ivanov and Brian ‘MaNia’ Strandby, and had the honour of donning the famous Evil Geniuses jersey. By all accounts Merlini was a magical player in his heyday, truly a star at a time few now in the scene remember, and the journey from top player to personality is one many will attempt in the next decade, in Dota and beyond.

But now, when his stock is well established and his position in the ‘biggest’ esport seemingly secure, Merlini has decided to vanish in a cloud of smoke, to pursue other things. His full statement can be found in the links above, but in it he talks about wanting to own a dog, or achieve other fairly normal life milestones that are not possible in a job where you constantly travel. And if you think having a dog would be impossible, what sort of life could a person with a family realistically expect to lead, spending half their time or more away from the home they desperately miss?

Now, to the latter point, it is obviously true that many people already have to work away from home, out of necessity. This writer has a father who spent many months away in the early years, in order to support his young family, but that was more out of a lack of options than a deliberate choice. However, Merlini has already shown he can do whatever he puts his mind to, and for him to stay in esports out of fear would be out of character given his previous history.

No country for old reporters

One of the most illuminating replies to Merlini’s tweet announcing his retirement came from ELeague’s Richard Lewis, a man who himself has sacrificed a massive amount to be at the top of esports. Lewis, don’t forget, was around in the scene over a decade ago, broke the IBP match-throwing story, was attacked by a Dota 2 pro and has faced constant attacks on his character as reward for his dedication to the scene.

Lewis replied on Twitter with, “You'll be missed. Hopefully you can still find a way to swing by the odd tournament as a special guest. Honestly though, it's refreshing to see someone think about the big picture for themselves in such a frank way. I know I should have got out many times. I got lucky it worked.” Kind words aside, there should also be attention paid to the section where Lewis admits he should have got out a while back, as they are not an isolated expression.

The reality is that esports is still growing, and far from secure. While there are many younger folk willing and able to sacrifice everything for just a chance to suckle at the grubby teat of the industry, those who can decide between this and other professions are beginning to wonder if it’s worth it. One of the leading investigative writers in the scene, who works at the largest firm reporting on esports, has mentioned to this writer that they are seriously considering transitioning into traditional sport reporting, and there are no replacements in the wings for Lewis or others.

Some of that is about the age of the writer in question, and sadly it is writers and particularly investigative reporters who are most at risk. The abuse all personalities, even Merlini, have to endure is one thing, but the difference for casters is they often have a massive fan base too. It may be that more security would have kept him in the scene, and Richard Lewis may retire as a grizzled old esports demigod, but there is a wider issue to be addressed if the best names are to remain part of the scene overall, and it starts with the fans at home. As for Merlini, we wish you the best, and are sure you’ll achieve it wherever you end up.