El33tonline Interview: Robert ‘PandaTank’ Botha on StarCraft II, the realities of pro gaming and enjoying a challenge

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The dream of playing games professionally is one that many hardcore and hobbyist gamers may toy with, and even pursue, as they invest more and more time into the pastime that they enjoy so much, but it’s a dream that evades all but the most dedicated.

You may think you’ve got some skills in StarCraft, Counter-Strike or Call of Duty, but do you have what it takes to perform at the very highest level and face off against international competitors at high pressure events around the world? Do you have the will and commitment to train for hours and days on end?

Maybe. Maybe not. What we know for certain is that South African pro gamer Robert ‘PandaTank’ Botha has astounding reserves of all of these qualities and more, making him every bit of the ‘Grandmaster’ that he has become.

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Just to give you an idea of the kinds of dedication that Robert Botha has displayed over a decade of competitive and professional gaming, we could talk about how he became the very first South African StarCraft II player to be awarded national Protea Colours and represent his country at several international tournaments, including the Electronic Sports World Cup 2012, as well as the International e-Sports Federation World Championships in 2011 and 2012.

Botha is also the very first South African StarCraft II players to achieve the lofty ranking of Grandmaster in the game – a title reserved for the top 200 players in the world. The top 200 out of millions. Let that sink in for a moment…

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The grand moment that Robert achieved the status of Grandmaster in StarCraft II

So it was with great excitement that we were able to get a chance to interview Botha at a new and exciting time for the world of StarCraft II, during the launch week of the latest addition to the franchise, StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm.

It’s also a very busy time for Botha. After helping to host a launch event for Blizzard’s latest game at the Centurion branch of BT Games last night, ‘PandaTank’ will be taking part in a showcase match this Saturday against a fellow pro StarCraft II player, Silviu ‘NightEnd’ Lazar, at South African game distributor Megarom’s tournament this weekend.

We’ll let Botha tell you more about himself and his beginnings in the world of gaming, though, while speaking about how he finds his enjoyment in StarCraft II these days, as well as touching on the realities of professional gaming and the current state of the scene in South Africa:

How did you get started in gaming? Was it on console, or PC or both?

Robert ‘PandaTank’ Botha: I first started playing when I was around 7 years old and my family bought our first PC. Since then I’ve always played PC games, I have never owned a console

Wow, that’s incredible – never owned a console?

Robert: Nope, never. My parents always believed that by using a computer you can learn many different skills. Where as consoles are for games only, at least in the past anyway.

What were some of your favourite games growing up?

Robert: Some of my favourite games have been Warcraft, StarCraft, Counter-Strike, Quake 3 and DotA.

The name PandaTank has been floating about for quite some time now (I remember hearing it years ago) – what were some of the other competitive games that you played before specialising in StarCraft?

Do you think you specialise in StarCraft or do you still have aspirations for FPS or other games?

Robert: Ironically (or perhaps not) my favourite games also happen to be the games that I have played competitively. I started out in 2003 playing Counter-Strike competitively.

In 2006 my Counter-Strike team was able to beat the best team in South Africa at that time. After ‘retiring’ from CS, I also played Quake 3/Quake Live and DotA at some of the highest levels in South Africa. Gaming has only ever really been enjoyable for me if I’m competing.

That actually leads into my next question: Is StarCraft II still ‘fun’ for you, in the traditional sense, or is it now a different kind of fun? Do you still find it enjoyable in the way a regular gamer would?

Robert: Probably not to be honest. I stopped ‘enjoying’ it in the traditional sense a long time ago. Although that is probably because the game wasn’t designed very well. On the other hand, the reason I was drawn to StarCraft II is because of the extremely high skill-ceiling.

A game is fun for me when it’s so hard I want to cry. I enjoy a challenge and trying to improve my self or skills. With the new expansion, Heart of the Swarm launching a lot of positive changes are being made to the game which I believe will help me enjoy it more on a competitive but also casual level.

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Robert taking part in an intense StarCraft match on a grand stage

That again leads into another question: What is it about Heart of the Swarm that you’re looking forward to the most after playing the beta, both in multiplayer and the campaign?

Robert: Well I won’t bother playing the campaign. I’ll just jump straight into multiplayer. A lot of changes have been made to make information gathering in the game easier and more consistent for players on a high level. This allows for more informed decisions to be made by experienced players instead of gambling or ‘coin-flipping.’ I think the game will also reward players who are faster and can multi-task better.

That’s interesting that you won’t play the campaign. As a Protoss player, are you looking forward to the next campaign after Heart of the Swarm or don’t you see the point in playing what is, essentially, a training section?

Robert: Not really to be honest. I doubt I will bother playing that either, if I’m still playing StarCraft at that time. Singleplayer games were never enjoyable for me any more after I was introduced to multiplayer

What do you think of the current state of the South African competitive and pro gaming scene? What do you think can be done to improve organisation and skills in the country?

Robert: I think it is very far behind the rest of the world. I don’t know what can be done. It will just take time for the internet infrastructure to improve to a point where your average player can compete regularly on even grounds with international players. In terms of organization, we need more tournaments.

Do pro gamers need to live in a different country to be successful, as some players from the US and Europe have done in moving to South Korea to train, or is it possible to ‘make it’ in South Africa as a pro gamer?

Robert: Yes, it’s impossible to make it as a pro in South Africa. I guess you can live here and travel to tournaments regularly, but that is extremely expensive.

Which competitive gamers do you look up to in the pro gaming circuit, and who are the current stars that you think are deserving of their place in the circuit?

Robert: I look up to a lot of players in the StarCraft community. Too many to mention. There are probably at least 200 Koreans that are better than me (and a lot of other famous pro-gamers) yet they will most likely never make a cent from gaming. They sit in their pro houses and play 12 hours a day, everyday.

Their motivation and dedication is absolutely insane. Yet they can’t attend tournaments or make money because they are not marketable. I feel sorry for those kinds of players because their skill doesn’t get represented or respected within the community.

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Robert participating in the Electronic Sports World Cup event – the picture of concentration

How often do you play StarCraft to train and keep your skills sharp, and what preparation do you put into an event like the one on Saturday?

Robert: I play seven days a week, aiming for about eight hours a day. I mostly just grind out the ladder. In addition to that I watch a lot of pro replays or streams to learn their builds or slight nuance in their mechanics.

What would you say to gamers in South Africa to encourage them to come out to watch the matches on Saturday?

Robert: If you enjoy StarCraft or eSports, then I would highly recommend it. It’s not often you are going to be able to attend a tournament in South Africa with a setup of this calibre. In fact it’s probably a ‘once in a life time’ situation.

And finally: Where does the name ‘PandaTank’ come from?

Robert: It comes from WarCraft III, the Pandaren Brewmaster, he’s pretty tank.

El33tonline would like to sincerely thank Robert Botha for allowing us to steal away some of his precious time, especially during the launch week of StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm and in the run-up to his showcase match at Megarom Games’ StarCraft II event on Saturday.

We wish Robert all the best for his match against Silviu ‘NightEnd’ Lazar all the way from Romania, as well as for the rest of his pro gaming career.

Note: All images were found at Robert ‘PandaTank’ Botha’s Facebook fan page.

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