‘Dota 2’ player John Finlayson has his sights set on turning his video-gaming hobby into an e-sports career. He tells his story to Matthew Starr.


Five hours before I arrived to interview John Finlayson he offered to make me a coffee. You see, he’d only recently learnt the ins and outs of how to use his housemate’s endlessly complicated espresso machine, and subsequently figured out the exact process of making what he assured me was a perfect cup of coffee. It was the first hint at an aspect of John’s personality – his fascination with and devotion to processes.

John’s childhood primed him for this way of thinking. Growing up, his family played card games with a frequency that he described as “always”. Not only were games frequent, but it was an incredibly competitive environment. John lets out a high pitched noise to convey the embarrassment he felt when at the age of five when he’d consistently lose against his family. “Losing feels bad because everyone makes fun of you,” he says. What he learnt from having such intense reactions to failure, however, was not only that failure was a key part to improving, but that he hated it so much that overcoming it was non-negotiable.

Figuring out how to win is something that comes naturally to John, his love of problem solving attracted him to undertaking a Bachelor of Mathematics at the University of Wollongong. Partial credit to developing these skills, he feels, belongs to his dad for gifting him the video game Magic & Mayhem when he was young. Unlike the action-heavy console games his friends were playing, Magic & Mayhem was played on a computer, and revolved far more around strategy and forward thinking to defeat your enemies. John spent years playing the one game due to his compulsion to master it fully, but by high school, he’d moved on to several other games. Moving on to playing against real people online caused his desire for victory to deepen even further and he looked outside of the games themselves to figure them out. He joined several online forums to become engaged with like-minded people, and then to beat them. The forums are where he was introduced to the concept of gaming tournaments.

“It wasn’t for money,” John says of his first tournament. “Or it might have been. I don’t know. I never got the voucher. I just knew I had to go to bed because it was late and dad was yelling at me,” he says jokingly, the glory of winning coming in the form of self-satisfaction having avoided the shame of losing. It wasn’t long after that John gave up gaming to focus on studying for the HSC, another problem he successfully solved by qualifying to enrol in the degree of his choice at Melbourne University with 10 ATAR points to spare. But Melbourne was to be a turning point which John labelled as “a hunk of shit”, and it shifted his attention back to gaming.

“Finishing exams thinking I’d failed, my girlfriend moving to America, moving out of home – Melbourne ended up being a disaster, and I needed something to help take my mind off it,” he says.

John found himself playing Dota 2 for hours on end. It’s a strategy game not unlike the one his father bought him years earlier. He recalls a night that he was supposed to be cleaning his room to prepare to move out but ended up playing until the sun came up. “It took all of my mental concentration. While I was playing, I couldn’t think about anything else. I played it for six months, more as an alternative to doing life properly,” he admits. It was in this period that he left Melbourne University. “After that, it was more like a passion.”

John Finlayson, at his relatively modest gaming set up, is amongst the top Data 2 players in the world.

The way John speaks about Dota 2 is the same way you hear an elite athlete talking about their sport. He discusses concepts like visualisation, spatialisation, game plans, muscle memory and the importance of consistency to improving your game.

John talks of intelligence, not general intelligence, but a more specific intelligence relating to the way games are played. In this way, he fancies himself as being quite intelligent, but a shadow of doubt grows larger the higher he ascends through the player rankings. “I’m coming across people who’ve played 10 000 games, and I’ve only played 4000. Intelligence is having an effect at this level. Sometimes I get scared and think…‘Oh shit! I’m going to run out of intelligence’,” he says.

“When you’re kids and you race, the fittest kid will win. Whoever trains even a little bit will be the fastest. Whereas when you get to the Olympics, you have to be genetically superior and in a physiological place to win. That’s starting to have an impact on how well I do.”

These grounding thoughts of self-doubt contrast with the successes and recognition John’s achieved in the game. He’s had an offer to become a salaried member of a team in Australia’s highest division of the Dota 2 competitive scene, only turning it down due to that team not being the right fit for him, something he says is pivotal at that level. He describes a game he watched and performed live commentary on for viewers online. In it, an established team consisting of players ranked just inside the top 5000 played against a randomly assembled team of players in the top 1000. While they didn’t win, John says it was closer than you’d expect.

Reflecting on his past teams, a recent poor performance in a tournament for a prize of $15,000 caused John to consider giving up the game entirely. He believes his team members cracked under the pressure of progressing through the tournament. The further they got, the more they believed they wouldn’t be able to win the next match, until it eventually came true in the semi-final, just one match away from winning the top prize. John says this self-fulfilling prophecy of loss is a cultural problem that’s particularly prevalent in the Australian Dota 2 scene. “Australians have not got a winning attitude, and I don’t know why. If they see someone like [a professionally ranked player] on the other team, they’ll say ‘we already lost’ . I say ‘let’s just try.’”

This attitude, is what made John ultimately decide not to hang up his headset and mouse. He continues to play daily in the hope that he’ll impress the right person. He already has other players recognise him by his username ‘Juan Snaw’, a play on the name of Game of Thrones character Jon Snow. He insists that people don’t get excited to see him, just scared, something he enjoys. “When people respect you before they even play you, it’s a good feeling,” he says.

However, not everyone respects the players of e-sports. The perception of gaming as a profession is not widely respected or understood. Speaking to John’s housemate and close friend Simon, even he questions whether John should be focusing such a large amount of time and effort into pursuing e-sports, worrying that it’s affecting other aspects of his life. “He never sleeps. And honestly, I don’t know if he actually goes to his classes,” Simon says, expressing concern over habits that he attributes to John’s gaming.

John’s future in the Dota 2 competitive scene remains to be seen, but his future in gaming is unlikely to be anywhere else. “I don’t think there’s going to be another game in the same genre [that’s] as good as Dota 2. It’s the epitome, the advanced version of it. It’s like chess and checkers. I’d never want to play a game that lacks complexity, because complexity is beauty.”