Brian "BananaSlamJamma" Canavan has two options: master DOTA 2 and follow his dream, or finish out his degree in biomedical engineering and help the world. He can't do both.
Canavan, despite already having the best nickname in the sport, is only just getting started as a pro DOTA 2 player. He's still in college, but got the opportunity of a (young) lifetime when Summer's Rift firebrand Jimmy "DeMoN" Ho cold called him and asked if he'd like to join the team. How could he say no?
But what about school? Science? Building a better tomorrow? Canavan now finds himself at the kind of crossroads that more and more young eSports hopefuls are faced with. DOTA 2 thrives on youth. Windows of opportunity are brief, slamming shut in slow motion right before players' eyes. Many retire by the time they're 27 or 28, at the latest. Canavan is 22. He got started late.
At first, he tried to make up for lost time by doing both pro DOTA 2 and taking classes for his biomedical engineering degree.
"I was playing DOTA a lot for my entire college experience," he told me during an interview at the Red Bull Battlegrounds event in San Francisco. "But the whole professional part — plus streaming — only overlapped for about a month-and-a-half. I took this quarter off because after that month-and-a-half I just... it was so brutal. I'd go to school from eight in the morning until two in the afternoon, and then I'd get done, play with my team, and then stream after that. It was too much. I've realised I'm gonna have to make a choice."
"DOTA's more of my passion," he added. "Biomedical engineering is much more something I find would let me contribute to the world, I guess you could say — as cheesy as that sounds. But I'm definitely living in two worlds, having the two put together."
So he took a quarter off from school, and now he's spending the next few months dedicating himself entirely to DOTA 2. By the end of that period, he hopes, he'll be able to make up his mind about what comes after.
"I'm going back to school in September," he said, adding that he's doing it, in part, for his extremely supportive mother. "To be honest I don't know where my DOTA career's gonna go by then. I've only got about a year of school left, but people keep asking me if I'm gonna choose biomedical engineering or DOTA. I would definitely choose DOTA in the short term, for the experience. I've already had such a crazy experience in such a short time. So I wouldn't be heartbroken if I couldn't play and I had to be an engineer. That's what I planned on being all along."
It's not an easy decision. DOTA 2 really does speak to Canavan, as a person. It combines his great loves: white-knuckle competition and having a brain the size of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, or a whole bunch of regular-sized brains moulded to look like Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.
"I was a basketball player for most of my life, and then in high school I was primarily known for football and track. Then I ran track for two years in college. But then I eventually quit because it was all too much. And then I came to DOTA and started doing too many things at once again!" he laughed.
"I think the thing that sets DOTA apart from other sports is... in other sports I feel like basic knowledge gets you the first 25 per cent and raw skill and athleticism gets you the other 75," he added. "In DOTA I feel like the skill gets you 25 per cent, and then understanding of the game gets you the rest of the way. That knowledge of the game is what I think it sets DOTA apart from everything else. You don't need to be a natural."
Canavan's athletic background shows. He is, by no means, a small person. If you asked him, "Bro, do you even lift?" I imagine he'd tie 100-lb plates to your face and feet and deadlift you. That background is still very much a part of him.
"I think the draw for every athlete to whatever sport they play is the desire to just be better at all times," he said. "I remember Michael Jordan talking about how he lost a lot of his passion once he reached the top. He knew he was the best. It wasn't like he was being cocky. He was just the best. And for me, my draw to sports — DOTA included — is about finding a game where I can just never stop getting better. In DOTA, there's no cap, there's no single thing that makes you the best. I love searching strategies, seeing new plays, the billions of different situations that can occur."
So DOTA is perfect for him. It satisfies his need for competition and his brain's desire to consume all around it like Galactus at a planet buffet. But still, there are reasons to be worried, indecisive. Canavan is trying to be realistic about it all.
"I think the most frightening part is to take time off after school if things go well with DOTA," he explained. "Like, I'll have my degree, but a lot of places like to get you fresh out of school. So it's a calculated risk. I'm not frightened of playing at the top level. I love competing. I love the rush. I love the pressure. But it's still a gamble, going into a career as a DOTA player. Only a few make it big."
"Biomedical engineering is a really open field, meaning [what you end up doing] almost comes down to who you get hired by," he continued. "I find myself interested in cardiovascular stuff, so pacemakers, stints, things like that. But you learn a little of everything. You don't particularly specialize in undergrad. So that's almost as much of a mystery as my DOTA career."
And again, he's already getting "old" by the sport's standards. His days were numbered before they ever began. That part, however, worries him less than it might other players.
"I look up to players like [Team Secret's] Arteezy, and I watch their streams and feel like I'm learning so much," he said. "Then I realise these guys are, like, 18 or 19. I'm watching [Evil Geniuses'] Sumail stream — he's 15! I'm like, 'Oh my god.' But I don't feel old in the scene. I know I am, but I also base a lot of your age in the scene on your experience. For me, I know you have reflexes you lose or whatever, but I think a lot of it is the passion you have for it. I'm just starting, and I think I'm a person who can dedicate himself to something for a very long time. I played basketball for 15 years. I think I could easily have the determination and the will and the attitude to play DOTA for a long time."
He added that he could see himself having a career as a streamer or commentator or something along those lines after he retires.
What he said next really put it all in perspective:
"It doesn't concern me, basically, that I would call it a career in five or six years," he explained. "You know that going in. Even though I'm a little bit late — I'm 22 already — but I'd hate to think at 22 that I'm not gonna pursue something because I'm too old."
Because yeah, that would be a pretty unfortunate reason to give up on a dream when some places won't even let you rent a car yet.
As I finished writing this story, Canavan hit some bumps in the road. At the Red Bull Battlegrounds tournament, his team, Summer's Rift, fell short. They then tried to bounce back with a lacklustre (and somewhat controversial) performance at the open qualifiers for the biggest DOTA 2 event of the year, The International. Originally they were due to compete in the main qualifiers, but a last-second roster change disqualified them.
Canavan was dropped from the team shortly after the big loss at the open qualifiers. He's not pleased with the circumstances that led to his release (a lot of it, he claims, stemmed from poorly addressed internal drama), but he's not giving up on his dream yet.
"I was always going to go back to school in September no matter what," he told me in a follow-up email. "The results of this year were irrelevant in that regard. Either way I will continue to stream up until when I go back to school. From then on it will really just be a matter of what teams (if any) are interested in having me join and the success I might have. If my stream is extremely successful that will probably be enough for me to stay with DOTA after I graduate. For now that's my approach."
So basically, it's back to square one. Or maybe square 1.5. It's nowhere near as direct of a path to success as The International might have been, but it's something. And if that doesn't work out, well, his plan B — that whole biomedical engineering thing — could be a whole, whole lot worse.
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