In a converted hanger near Pearson International Airport, thousands of people chant his name: "Huk, Huk, Huk!"
Chris "Huk" Loranger takes to the red carpet, high-fiving fans lined up on both sides as he passes. The hall can barely accommodate the crowdmembers, who stand in the aisles and sit on the floor to get close to the action.
At the main stage Mr. Loranger holds a Canadian flag over his head for one last round of cheers, then walks beneath the giant projector screen and into the sound-proofed booth where he'll face off against Yang "Alicia" Joon Sik.
From the crowd's size and energy you'd think this was a UFC fight, but the video game they'll be playing is closer to chess: Blizzard Entertainment's real-time strategy epic, Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty.
At 22, Mr. Loranger is a legend in the professional gaming industry. He's made a name for himself on an international scene dominated by Asian gamers, and is one of only two North Americans to earn a spot in the Global Starcraft II League's top 32 bracket, the world's most competitive pro gaming title. His career winnings over two years total $70,000, and his annual income – including his team salary, and subscription fees from fans who pay to watch him play on the video streaming site Twitch.tv – is rumoured to exceed six figures.
On Saturday at the North American Star League (NASL) Grand Finals in Toronto, Canadian gamers watched united behind Mr. Loranger. Although the results were disappointing – he was knocked out of the NASL in the quarterfinals and took 10th place in the parallel World Championship Series Canadian national qualifiers, barely making it into the next round – his fans remained loyal, cheering him out of the booth after his loss to Yang.
Born to a poor family in a rough part of Florida and rocked by an early divorce and his mother's substance abuse, Mr. Loranger faltered in school and ended up in juvenile detention. In 2006, when he was 16, his father won a custody battle and moved Mr. Loranger and his brothers to his home in Ontario, which Mr. Loranger believes was a much healthier environment. "Had I not moved to Canada my family and I both agree that I'd most likely be in the military, jail, or dead," he said in a much-quoted interview with his team's sponsor Steel Series.
As a competitive gamer, Mr. Loranger enjoyed brief success playing the original Starcraft, released in 1998, and Relic Entertainment's Company of Heroes. But it wasn't until the release of Starcraft's sequel in 2010 that he started getting serious attention from fans, teams and sponsors. At the time he was going through medical checks required to join the U.S. military, but when pro team Millennium Gaming offered him a three-month contract, he decided to indefinitely postpone his enlistment.
He's been paid to play Starcraft ever since.
His first big win was at a Dreamhack Summer 2011 tournament in Sweden, and again at the 2011 HomeStory Cup a week later. He placed first in both.
His success continued on the Major League Gaming pro circuit, where he gained a reputation for being the last non-Asian player standing through six consecutive MLG championships. He is one of only three players to have placed first at an MLG championship more than once, with wins at Raleigh, N.C., in August 2010 (the first MLG tournament to include Starcraft II) and Orlando, Fl., in October 2011.
As a member of team Evil Geniuses – he joined players such as Greg "IdrA" Fields and Marcus "ThorZaIN" Eklöf last August – Mr. Loranger hops from tournaments in Asia and Europe to North America and back. "I spend half of my life on planes," he told The Globe and Mail, adding that, in the last six weeks, he's been to Texas, California, Sweden and now Toronto. His next stop is Finland for the ASUS ROG summer invitational.
When not travelling, he lives in a training house in Seoul, South Korea with more than 20 pro players. They wake up each morning at nine a.m., have a team breakfast in the cafeteria, then practice for three to four hours under supervision from some of the sport's top coaches, including original Starcraft legend Lim "Boxer" Yo Hwan and his wife Kim Ga Yeon. An hour-long lunch break is followed by a solid block of practice time that runs well into the evening.
Practice doesn't just mean racking up in-game hours. Mr. Loranger painstakingly reviews his game replays for mistakes, analyzes opponents' past games, and tests new strategies against teammates. One of the advantages of living in a team house, he says, is that personal needs like cleaning, laundry and cooking are taken care of by paid staff, so that he can focus on practice.
He moved there in January 2011 to vie for the Seoul-based Global Starcraft II League and its $80,000 grand prize. And in May of last year, he advanced to the envied top 32 bracket – known as Code S – where he stayed for five seasons, rising as high as top eight.
He says that living in Korea and working with Korean players and coaches has helped him develop the type of work ethic required to be a top-tier gamer. "I've learned a lot about myself, about prioritizing time, staying focused, and discipline," he says. "You have to commit so much of your life to the game, or you will just not be successful."
That's not to say Korean players are chained to their keyboards. "First and foremost you should love the game and enjoying playing it," he says. "But you're going to have moments where you don't do well, or you're having a difficult time logging in the hours, and you have to have a sense of discipline to fall back on."
Last November, Mr. Loranger dropped down to the second-tier Code A bracket after losing a key match to Lee "Leenock" Dong Nyoung. Then, this past April, he was knocked out of Code A and decided to focus on European and North American tournaments where he's had more success.
Still, he says he isn't done with the Global Starcraft II League, and Korea can expect to see more of him before the year is through.
Mr. Loranger hopes to eventually make Canada his permanent home, but the training environment he needs to thrive doesn't yet exist here. Unlike the U.S., he says, it's unfortunate that large tournaments such as MLG don't take place in Canada, where fans of competitive gaming conitnue to grow. As evidence, he points to the NASL grand finals this past weekend, which were sold out several in advanc.
"The people are there and they want to support it," he says. "Hopefully after this NASL, people will recognize that there is a huge audience up there that is not being attended to like it should be."
You can watch Chris "Huk" Loranger's games this weekend online at nasl.tv.