Most people I talk to, they didn't know you could make a living with gaming.
“We live in a small village,” says YoungBuck’s father Jaap Steltenpool. “Everybody knows each other, and now people are starting to become proud of Joey. 'Jesus! The farm boy from Bovenkarspel is becoming a star!' and they really think he's a pop star. And I don't tell them any different (laughs)… We’re very down to earth here, but Joey’s brother Mick does get more attention in the pub because Joey is famous in that age group. Most people I talk to, they didn't know you could make a living with gaming,” adds YoungBuck’s mother Yvonne Vulhop, “that you can be professional and live in Berlin in a gaming house, they don't know.” We got in touch with YoungBuck’s parents ahead of the Spring Finals to hear what they make of their son’s rapid ascension into the top tier of the EU LCS, what the journey looked like from behind the scenes, and how it’s changed their life for the better. They’re excited to be attending the Spring Finals in Rotterdam along with YoungBuck’s brother Mick and his 60-year-old aunt (“She knows more about the game than I do!” Jaap laughs).
Even though our conversation took place a few days prior to the Semifinals of the Spring Playoffs, YoungBuck’s father was already confident in the outcome. When Joey’s mother mentions the possibility of her son’s team going on to compete at the Mid-Season Invitational in Shanghai “if they win”, Jaap interrupts her, “They’ll win. Joey told me they’ll win, and he’s never proved me wrong in five or six years.”
The Rotterdam event won’t be Yvonne’s first time seeing her son compete onstage. She was in the audience in Cologne, Germany, when YoungBuck first qualified for the LCS with the Copenhagen Wolves. When I ask her to describe the experience, her eyes gradually fill with tears and her voice falters.
“He worked so hard for it,” adds Jaap. “And it when it finally happened, his dream came true. Yvonne was there. I couldn't be there. I had a bad heart at the time. But I understand why she’s getting emotional now. Because we as parents see what [Joey] did to get there. The fans, the Redditors, people in Twitch chat don't have clue what these guys must do to achieve what they achieve. And when your son finally achieves his goal, playing in the LCS, that is one of the biggest moments in his life, but also in our lives.”
According to YoungBuck’s mother, his lifelong passion for games began on his eighth birthday when his parents bought him the Game Boy he’d been begging for. “He wanted the game Super Mario,” remembers Yvonne, “That was the only game he wanted. When he came out of school, he was all about his Game Boy. But when he was in school I was curious so I tried it out, and ended up sitting the whole day with the Game Boy just playing it. It was a difficult game for a young boy, but I felt what he felt because every day I took the Game Boy and wanted to make it to the end of the game too. I just laugh because he played the game all the way through in one week and I took three months to finish it.”
“Then came the PC,” says Jaap, “and the only thing I ever saw was our two sons quarrelling about their PC time.’ No, I can't quit because I'm in a game!' And that happens all day. I was more concerned about the arguments between the two brothers than I was about the time he spent on the PC. And then later on when I asked him something at night, Joey would say, 'Not now, Dad. I'm in team training.' I didn't know what he was talking about. Team? I was pretty concerned he would grow up to be a nerd.
“Then one day he came home and said, I quit school, Dad. And that's the last thing you want to hear as a parent, but I know he's got a lot of common sense. And we let it be, and after two weeks he quit soccer. And that scared me again. And then he said, I'm becoming a pro gamer. Well I'd never heard of that.”
It becomes increasingly clear as we chat that the persistence YoungBuck’s mother displayed in soldiering through her first Mario adventure is clearly reflected in the attitude of her eldest son. There was no stopping YoungBuck when he set his mind on a new goal. Whether it was competitive online games such as Soldier of Fortune (in which YoungBuck hit rank 1) and later League of Legends, he had a drive to compete at the highest level. When he decided that he was going to start training in mixed martial arts, there was no stopping him. Imagine Sion’s “Unstoppable Onslaught” picking up speed, barrelling down the lane toward his target, and you have a perfect picture of YoungBuck’s resolve.
“Joey was always the kind of kid that always wanted to learn,” says Yvonne. “When he was little, four or five years old, when they had a free hour at school, he’d want to draw maps and learn to write, even if the other kids were playing with balls and cars. Later in life when all the kids and his brother Mick were playing outside, Joey was always inside. That's what he was so I let him be. When he wanted to play inside with the PlayStation or the Game Boy, I let it be. Not the whole day, but yeah, that was just Joey. On the laptop, he was always playing. Everything Joey does in his life, he's driven. He gives it everything.”
“If he sets his mind to something,” says Jaap in agreement, “he's going to do it with everything he's got. If he doesn't like it, he never touches it again. But if something gets his attention, he goes for it.”
TAKING THE LEAD
At one point during his final split with the Copenhagen Wolves, YoungBuck came home and told his mother that he’d found a new ambition. Yvonne recalls, “He told me, 'Mom, I want to try to be a coach, there's no challenge in playing anymore. And I want to do something else, but I will stay in the world of League of Legends.' A few American teams asked him to join as a coach, but it didn't feel good for Joey. Then G2 came along and he thought, this feels very good.”
“He took a big gamble,” says Jaap, “He got great offers, and I said to him, 'Take 'em boy, it's good money, it secures your lifestyle.' 'No, Dad, I'm not feeling it good enough, no I won't do it.' And once again he was right. And now he's so happy with G2, it's such a good organisation. We both knew that he had the capability, but Ocelote gave him that chance. And he’s proven himself.”
Whether or not G2 Esports knocks out Origen this weekend, the person that YoungBuck has grown into through his competitive experience has ramifications far outside League of Legends. The guy who started out on that Game Boy all those years ago has, in the eyes of his family, become a man.
“Even though Joey’s 24 years old, he teaches me things. So that's a life-changer. I advise him, but there is no need. Now he advises me: 'No Dad, if you look at it this way, or look at it that way', or 'I don't do that because', etc. He makes me better. I saw him grow as a person. When he was 17, he was quiet, relaxed but living in himself. And through this game, you know how he is now, how he speaks to people, how he confronts people, how he manages to make his guys feel good. He carries himself like a wonderful person, and a lot of it is because he got into League of Legends. I was very surprised. Let's be honest. I was once a top manager. I had to work for that for 20 or 30 years. He's 24 now and he's further than I ever was.”
But just because he’s a proper grown-up now doesn’t mean he’s forgotten about family. “When Joey comes home, he wants to lock up for a week,” says Yvonne. “I pick him up from the airport, then he goes to his room and says, I want you to spoil me the whole week. He comes home and spends time with his cats, he misses them very much. Most of the time he was at home already, but now they've reached the playoffs so he said, 'I miss the cats.' I asked Joey if I could pick him up from the airport before Rotterdam so he could come home for a few hours and it can't be.”
It can’t be. Because YoungBuck and G2 Esports have a Spring Playoff title to win. He promised his father they would. Then again, with the Rotterdam event taking place in his home country of the Netherlands, YoungBuck really is coming home, just not to his house.