We had a chance to sit down with Micheal Heiss, a.k.a Polar Bear Mike, the support player for the Jade Dragons, on the first day of the Smite World Championship S9. Below is a transcript of our conversation.
1. What is it like playing in front of a live crowd compared to playing in the studio?
I think hearing the momentum of a crowd shift during a game … the best example is if a team is in an underdog story and they get off to a good start, they really quickly shift the crowd onto their side, and suddenly every kill they get, every objective they get, the better they are playing the more intense it gets. You can start to feel the crowd shaking, so if you are someone who isn’t used to that, if you are not used to conquering those nerves it is really easy to get flustered. On the other side of it, if you are playing well and you start to get that momentum rolling you get a lot of hype behind it, and you feel like you have a lot of things going in your favor and just the energy in the room you can just kind of feed off that, it’s a really unique experience.
2. What are some of the non glamorous aspects of being a pro player?
I think when you have been doing it for a long time like I have, I think I am in year 8 or 9 … you build up a tolerance for it, but there is still a lot of public scrutiny or judgment that goes along with it. A lot of people … it’s pretty easy to turn a blind eye to some of it and not let a lot of it in, but at the end of the day you are playing something that is competitive, a lot of people are going to go out of their way to give you their opinion or judge you. Sometimes losing can feel a little heavier than it should be if it’s just a regular season match especially for someone like me where in my career my teams I have always placed pretty highly so there are a lot of high expectations behind that. So there can be a lot of mental pressure that goes with it, so you have to stay on top of everything, push yourself harder … there is a target on your back people want to beat you. So I think the mental pressure is hard to relate to, I think competitive jobs can be different in that regard. You are basically in a space where folks are going to give you their opinions whether you care to have it or not.
3. Everybody watching from home sees the obvious thing from the spectator cam, but it’s got to be different in your perspective.
Yeah its like you are sitting on the couch watching a football or basketball game and you think ‘oh what a stupid shot why would you take that’ but you know there is a lot more that goes into than that, it can be bad use of your energy to try to explain that, so you just get used to it.
4. Is there an element of ‘yeah I am playing a game, but this is work for me’ or eventually you just think ‘ugh I am just not in the mood to play Smite even more’?
It goes back and forth in waves I would say, at the end of the day I would say I love my job, and I have a job that tons of people around the world would never think would be an actual career, and to be doing it for nearly a decade now I feel super fortunate. That said, there is a work aspect of it, and sometimes you don’t want to practice again, or you’re getting bored having to play the same game/character again.
I mean imagine you are doing a project with your co-workers for a long time, eventually you are going to butt heads. Life happens and things can be going on that can cause people to have a hard time with family or relationships. Navigating that social side of things in a team and keeping things professional, productive, and fun can be difficult when personal things can be going on. This is something you learn to manage over time, but that’s one thing that causes you to feel like it’s a job where I can’t just only have fun with it, I have to account for my other teammates and that kind of stuff.
5. Do you have a particular god you just love playing but you can’t due to the meta?
There are 2 that come to mind, first is Baron Samedi, he is my favorite character in the game since he is available. He has mostly been played support or solo throughout my career, he is definitely my favorite character with the way his kit is very smooth. He plays really well to me, so he is my favorite. I do get to play him a bit, I got a few games on him this year. The one I would love to play is Aphrodite, I always thought I could make her work if my teammates really tried to make it work, but styles like that are pretty much impractical, we may be able to take that 5% of our games and make it look good, but the amount of practice and effort it would take to get that to work … the risk/reward side of things means we can’t really get there.
6. Do you have any crazy picks you like to do? Personally I am a big fan support Danzaburou, I love shield of regrowth with the saki bottle, it’s so fun if you can get away with it.
Yeah, season 6 I would love to build Chiron support … I would build a lot of pen items. I would joke with my team that my dash is a Sobek pluck, my cleanse is a Geb shield and I would just go through the kit and how it is good for support.
7. Yeah I forgot about the cleanse on his 1.
Yeah he really does have a lot of support potential in his kit, I never lost a scrim with him, I’m like 3 and 0 or something.
8. Are we seeing support Chiron this weekend?
(laughs) No, but he really is my favorite troll pick. But if you are playing well enough you can make stuff work … at least in scrim.
9. Do you tend to just try to focus on ‘these are the gods that fit in the meta these are in my play style’ and try to have 4 or 5 gods you are really good with, or do you try to practice everything?
My personal opinion or philosophy as a pro player is that you should be able to play everything. So there may be a character that I don’t particularly like, but if I feel like the items they use well are really strong, or the character has been buffed to a point that their kit is really strong I will practice that character. I feel like I want everything that is really strong in the game to be a threat to the other team. I want folks to have to be scared that I can pick any of those in a game, so that the other teams have to be afraid I may pick it and play it at a high level.
When it comes to tournaments we may try to push drafts in a certain direction, not just for my pick, but for our team. We may think that a random Zeus is really OP, but maybe we like a midlane style that counters it. So maybe give people Zeus and constrict other meta picks to force them into that Zeus pick. It really just depends on the meta, but generally speaking I try to be able to play everything, I have played long enough I feel like I can play any style. I think most people associate me with having a style that is pretty proactive, aggressive and applies a lot of pressure, but I think it’s pretty funny because my most successful styles have been more peel oriented.
10. Is it weird being a celebrity in an event like this? All of the people here walking around recognize you, and maybe feel they know you personally because they watch your streams … but they only really know your public persona … I imagine that can feel weird.
It is a little weird, I don’t really think of myself as … I don’t know the right word … I don’t consider myself above people, I consider myself another dude playing games just like anybody else is. I am super fortunate to have a following on Twitch and Smite, and to be able to play it. I think that is one of the things I like about streaming the most, you get a chance to be a little bit more down to earth with people. You can have normal conversations with people about sports or music or whatever, and still have a chance to share my knowledge about ‘hey this is a game I play professionally, here are some details or nuances I can explain’ and I feel like that is something that makes Esports unique with that fan to player interaction.
I can’t just show up at LeBron’s house … shoot around and pick his brain. That sort of intimacy in Esports is something that overall is a main driver to get fans to be passionate about it. But I do also think it can cause some sort of parasocial relationship to an extent where people will maybe say an inside joke and maybe take a shot at you trying to be playful, but because they are not close friends with you it may not come across that way.
11. Yeah that certainly can be rough when dealing with just text communication, you don’t see the facial expressions or tone of voice to indicate they are joking, things can come off in ways that were not intended.
12. Do you ever get stopped or recognized while out in a grocery store or out in public?
I have had it happen, but not double digits yet.
13. I mean here especially everybody at this event or nearby has to recognize you.
I haven’t had it happen in Texas yet, but I have had it in Georgia, where we live, a few times. My girlfriend was living in Indiana, I had a few people recognize me when I was there with her and that was kind of funny because that felt so separated. You know in the Georgia area where we all live, people who live there and play Smite, this is where we are based from, so that feels normal. It is a little surreal, it’s not awkward because the fans are awkward, it just feels awkward because I can’t believe it is happening.
14. Another question I have, what does a team coach actually do? We watch the pro games on weekends and there is this dude in the background of the various team rooms who is the coach. What does that person actually do? Do they keep you guys in line? Are they theorycrafting and finding which items or strategies you should do?
It really depends on the coach, there are some that are very strategically focused. They focus on picks/bans or tracking what other teams are doing and that kind of stuff. Some coaches are more team environment focused, they serve as a mediator … not all players are great at communicating. They may think something but have a hard time communicating “hey I feel this way because of x, y, and z”.
Our coach Cherryo is kind of a mix of everything. He is a very successful player, he can’t move unfortunately, due to government restrictions with travel from Egypt apparently. As a result we don’t get to see him a whole bunch, but he is there for every scrim, he gives us a ton of input. He is really great for the team environment, he is probably one of the most respected brains, I’d say, in Smite history. Just strategically and how he approaches the game. So Cherryo, fortunately for us, is just a mix of everything. I think his experience with strategy, and experience in creating a productive team environment is unmatched.
15. Would you say he is responsible for some of your crazy picks or is he trying to reign you guys in and say you can’t play Chernobog solo, and Susano mid all the time?
No, those things are more player driven.
16. Don’t get me wrong … those picks are awesome to watch, especially when you can get away with it.
Yeah, the main thing with that stuff is trying to find a way where it can work so that if Alec (Fineokay) wants to play a hunter we may need a more tanky jungle character as a second front liner with me. If Daniel (Pegon) wants to play an assassin mid lane we have to think through if we are going to try to snowball, or do we need a magical solo or adc or something like that. A lot of that stuff can work but it needs to have balance in other roles. Honestly It tends to be there that these issues show up. For example Daniel (Pegon) can play Susano mid and do great, but maybe magical adc’s can’t hang in duo vs a physical so things may fall apart there.
17. If you were not a pro player what would you be doing for a living?
It’s hard to tell, I didn’t really have a super clear direction in school. I did well in school, but didn’t have anything I was really passionate about. Journalism was cool, but not sure I would have pursued that a ton. I am not really sure, I always thought I could be a teacher. That is something I would enjoy, I like seeing people learn and achieve goals. My mom was a teacher for many years and I always thought that would be a lot of fun.
18. If you could wave a magic wand and change one aspect of Smite, what would you do?
It’s hard because things that I would want as a pro player adds a lot of unnecessary complexity for the average player. Just because MOBAs in general you have to grind so much to really truly understand them. I think the most helpful thing for the game is to find a way to bridge the knowledge gap, to help new players learn the game. From a pro player standpoint, I think the start of the game … I don’t necessarily want to have snowballing be a problem, but just to have more options would be cool, either new starts or lanes being able to shift those around a little bit.
19. I know you guys have been fooling around with jungle invades. Is that something you would like to see be a little more viable?
Strategically from a pro play standpoint it is more fun to be able to practice with those, but I don’t want that to be so impactful that it dictates picks. I don’t want that to completely take over the game, but I think having that can be a part of strategy.
20. Any shout outs you would like to give before we end the interview?
Of course shout out to all the Smite fans, and the people support us and are passionate about the game, it means the world to me, I wouldn’t have my job if not for them. I am super excited to have a live event and hope everybody enjoys it.
It was a pleasure to sit down with PolarBearMike and pick his brain. We wish him and the Jade Dragons the best of luck with their Smite career. Stay tuned to Gaming Trend for more coverage and exclusive interviews from the Smite SWC S9.