Before the ESL Legendary Series S2 Finals earlier this month, most fans had never heard of Christopher "PHONETAP" Huynh. But after a gruelling two days of competition at the tournament, one of the biggest of the year so far, Huynh was sitting opposite one of the most recognizable faces in Hearthstone: Tempo Storm founder Andrey "Reynad" Yanyuk.
After overcoming a strong group and some of the top up-and-coming players in the game, Huynh has just one win a away from the championship.
Every other match that weekend had gone to a fifth game. Huynh's mech shaman deck is an aggressive deck that can be unstoppable if it hits curve well but it also proved unreliable, threatening to lose him several matches throughout the weekend. In this match however, the Shaman won the first game. Everything starts to go Huynh's way.
In one weekend Huynh has gone from an underground player fighting for recognition to a potential world championship contender, winning one of the biggest tournaments in North America.
"There are some days it still hasn't sunk. It's a little unreal." Huynh said.
Hearthstone is still a young esport. That means that stories like Huynh's are still very common. Jon "Orange" Westberg was a complete unknown six months ago. Now he's one of just two players to win multiple Hearthstone majors and is signed to Jason "Amaz" Chan's Archon team. Magic: the Gathering player Stanislav Cifka secured victory at DreamHack Bucharest, transferring his experience in the classic card game to high level Hearthstone.
Just 19, Huynh is finishing his freshman year studying psychology at St John's College in his hometown: New York City. A longtime gamer, he also has a competitive background in traditional sports.
"I started playing tennis around 10 years old," he said. "I usually competed in statewide tournaments in New York City. I always tried hard to become the best player I could."
But Huynh ultimately got "burned out" from tennis. Not long after, he discovered Hearthstone, and soon quickly ascended to the legend ranks. His competitive nature kicked in as soon as he saw the legend ranking numbers, and he soon pushed himself to get to the top.
From learning about the 2014 Hearthstone World Championships, Huynh discovered a whole new world in the Hearthstone tournament scene that ignited his hunger for competition. Huynh says he has "always enjoyed putting myself into high pressure situations, I feel like it brings out the best in me."
Just before the ESL finals, Huynh took another step in competitive Hearthstone—he joined a team, Hearthlytics. The team prides itself on living up to its name: The organization takes a highly analytical approach to the game, and boasts a number of successful veterans like Justin "JAB" Black and Muzahidul "Muzzy" I.
"They offered me access to JAB and Muzzy," Huynh said. "They've been really useful. It gave me access to more players to practice with and talk strategy with, and to scout the other players and predict the tournament meta."
The team's analytical focus suits Huynh's personality, he said. He obsesses over losses and analyzes mistakes in great detail. His team also push him to succeed, with his teammates also pushing to qualify for the Hearthstone World Championships.
Thanks to his victory last weekend, Huynh already has 100 Hearthstone World Championship points under his belt, Huynh now stands a very good chance of making it to the qualification stage. He's sitting in fourth place in the North American region, and sees no need to beat around the bush—he has his sights firmly set on winning that title.
"I need to be more motivated to maintain my spot in the World Championship standings." Huynh says. "I need to improve as a player and get more results, but right now, becoming world champion is my goal.
"Right now I wouldn't consider myself a favorite, but I've got three months to train and improve. If the cards are aligned, maybe I can do it."
Image via ESLHearthstone/Twitter