"We ended up carrying you off the field... it was like a dog pile kind of thing and like everyone slid into you and it was ugly."
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive professional and Team Splyce in-game leader Arya "arya" Hekmat doesn't quite remember the circumstances that ended his high school soccer career. It wasn't until a casual conversation with a former teammate some years later that arya would be told the grizzly details.
Getting hurt wasn't new to the Upland, California, native. Arya played with the typical aches, pains and bruises that come with competing at an elite level with one of the top high school and club level teams in the country. Having suffered sprained ankles, knee ligament strains, concussions and a severely broken nose, not once did arya think of quitting. It was all part of being an athlete.
However, the injury sustained while on the bottom of the pile that day would affect the rest of his amateur athletic life.
An ultrasound image and MRI would later confirm that arya had suffered severe nerve damage to his left leg that affected how much power he could generate while running or kicking. The connective tissue and muscles connecting the groin to the leg had been torn so violently that surgery was the only option for the chance of playing at that elite level again. Doctors explained to arya there were no guarantees.
"I didn't want the surgery," arya decided. "I was told it would heal but wouldn't be as strong, and since there was a chance the surgery wouldn't work, I decided it wasn't worth it."
After deciding to forego the surgery, arya took some time off to start the healing process. During rehab, he realized his leg would never be the same; it was an overwhelming feeling. "It really hurt. Especially because I was a good asset to my team. I felt like I was letting my teammates down, so it really was detrimental to my mental health and everything."
Arya began taking stock of his life in an attempt to fulfill his need to compete. "I was looking for an outlet to basically save myself, because I was so competitive and so driven."
Enter CS:GO. "I always casually played Counter-Strike and by doing so I realized like, hey, this game's very competitive."
Becoming a professional
During his junior and senior years in high school, arya started practicing, honing his aiming and shooting skills while learning the details of every competition map in the Counter-Strike rotation. Holed up in his bedroom for four-to-six hours a day, with a less than ideal Internet connection speed, arya practiced until he felt he would be able to compete in some local LAN tournaments.
He struggled in his first competition, but found some inspiration from a surprising source. "The first day I go to this LAN center, we play in this small, little event, just a pickup game pretty much, and one of the guys there, who was a semi-pro, he actually came up to me and my buddy...'You have really good aim. You obviously have tons of room to learn how to play the game properly, but your aim is there. Just keep at it.' That right there gave me even more motivation."
Arya used what he learned from his taekwondo training (he's a black belt), understanding that discipline and respecting your opponent would give him a greater chance of success. He coupled that with the insight he gained watching how his club soccer program trained their athletes to play their matches. Arya began to formulate a plan.
His first priority centered on learning as much as he could about the strategies and game play of other professional players and teams. The gold standard of organizations and players at the time was SK Gaming, a German esports team founded in 1997. SK Gaming wrote the book on how to play and win in the CS:GO arena, choosing a very structured and detailed method of play. Although arya learned a great deal from the SK method of play, he soon discovered a different kind of strategy when he joined his first professional team in 2011, DIU9U.
The in-game leader was from China, and a veteran in the professional landscape. Expecting this team to play with a style similar to SK Gaming, arya was struck as to how DIU9U's game play strategies allowed him to play with his own unique approach, going off-script and testing the boundaries of his skill.
When his time was up, arya appeared on a few other teams, including a short run on Luminosity Gaming, all the while developing his training and strategy systems in order to someday put them to use. In January of 2016, he became the CS:GO captain and in-game leader for Splyce, a professional gaming organization.
The making of a leader
As the in-game leader, Arya has been given the task of training this team and preparing them for competition. With more than two months as the team leader for his squad, Splyce is currently ranked No. 30 in North America and No. 197 of 392 teams in the world according to Gosugamers.net.
Arya likens his training style to that of a coach in the National Football League, running practices, drills and doing plenty of film review. Sacrificing sleep, he has watched hundreds of hours of video looking for ways to improve his team. "The film reviews. They really help me expand my mind. It's like I see what the other team's doing, yeah, I can copy it, or I can adjust it and make it better to suit us as a team."
In conjunction with the review of opponent and team video, arya has created a scrim system that reveals the skill set and mental makeup of his team members. In particular, he searches for his team's "brainless fragger" -- a fire-and-forget player whose only task is to immediately kill the first thing he sees. In addition to the fragger, teams tend to rely on a talented Awper who can employ the powerful bolt-action sniper rifle to devastating use. Considering the advanced degree of difficulty required to play both of these positions, the list of players to fill the rolls is small.
Through playing and coaching, he has also gained insight about himself as the in-game leader, "...you have to realize your strengths and that of your teammates, like what they are good at. Because not everybody can just run out and get a kill. Sometimes they need to run out and have an idea of where they're at already, have an idea ... maybe toy with them a little, like by using some movement to involve them..."
The daily grind
Training and competing with Splyce's CS:GO team isn't all glitz and glamour. There is an overlying pressure associated with being a team leader on a competitive world-ranked team. He has to perform. A lack of performance creates a domino effect of losing not only matches, but missing out on earnings and invites to big purse tournaments, affecting the livelihood of his team.
Arya understands this better than most.
On top of being a professional CS:GO player, arya also works a regular 9-to-5 job as a manager in product development. His supervisors are all too aware of arya's other passion. "I was upfront with my company, I told them, 'Hey, I play competitive esports; this is what I do on the side. It's a hobby, but it's also an income for me on top of that.' They respected it and they understood."
And when he's not working or practicing, he's spending time with his girlfriend, Sarah, and one-year old daughter, Stella. The money he makes in his managerial position provides for his family and allows him to travel and train for competitions, but the time constraints are extensive.
In particular, Sarah has been a pillar of strength in an otherwise hectic landscape. According to arya, "It's like I'm doing what I love and a big part of that is my girlfriend... it's stressful for her, I'm working a real job and then I'm coming home and working pretty much a hobby that I turned into a profession... I wasn't getting paid doing this at first, but she still was there supporting me." There is no doubt that without Sarah's support, arya's quest to become one of the best CS:GO players in the world may have never been fully realized.
Arya's story isn't necessarily unique when compared to other professional gamers. The grind is real for everyone. But what sets arya's story apart is his unrelenting dedication toward whatever he might put his mind to. Dedication to his team, his family members and his success. It's only a matter of time until the breakthrough that he knows is within his professional grasp comes to fruition.
And to think, all it took was a little injury to set him on his way.