Is Brandon 'puCK' Qual StarCraft's next foreign hope?
It’s 2010, and Brandon Qual is bragging to his friends that he’s just as good as they are at StarCraft 2. They’re all high-level Diamond and Grandmaster-level players, but Qual says he can take them out.
There’s only one problem: he doesn’t actually own StarCraft 2. He’s never even played it.
Today Qual goes by the name “puCK.” He’s a staple of the North American competitive StarCraft 2 scene, and is now one of only two Americans left standing in the StarCraft 2 World Championship Series, a global league for the best of the best players. But back then, he was just a cocky kid lying to his friends about how great he was.
“I hadn’t even picked up the game yet, but I kept telling them that I was pretty good at it,” he told the Daily Dot. “So I had a really short amount of time to actually get good at the game once I finally got it, because I really wanted to beat them.”
So he set to work in secret, training practically day and night, striving to fulfill what seems to be his life’s guiding passion: Beat everyone.
“I’ve always been extremely competitive with basically everything I do,” he said. “I always played sports even though I grew up really late. I was very small so I was never very good at sports. I’d always find other ways to compete though, like video games.
"I always had to be the best at everything when it came to video games.”
Being the best
It wasn’t just a competitive streak that was pushing him onward though. At the time, Qual says he was in the throes of depression, and a borderline unhealthy fixation on StarCraft was one of the things that helped break him out of it.
“There was a period of time—right before I got into StarCraft 2—that I wanted to quit video games altogether,” he said. “I thought it was a waste of my time. Everything was going really good for me. I was seeing somebody, working out a lot, and I really wanted to be successful in school.”
It didn’t last though.
“But then I wanted to change my degree, I wasn’t seeing that person anymore, and kind of went into a depression,” he said, adding that he couldn’t work up the enthusiasm to put in the effort to go into his real interest, architecture. “And the way that I would deal with depression before was just mass amounts of games. So I couldn’t hold it back anymore and I went back to it.”
That competitive streak seems to have combined with a rough patch to propel Qual into an all-out obsession with StarCraft 2 as he practiced nonstop.
“When I want to do something it’s all I do,” he said. “No matter what it is.”
It didn’t take long before he latched onto the game, and he became a Grandmaster—the rank given to the top 2 percent of players on each continent—in just six months.
“From the moment I picked up the game I thought it was so easy,” Qual said. “I thought I could easily become a professional at this. And this is when I was in Bronze and Silver, I was absolutely terrible. Something sparked in me and I knew I could do it. So I devoted a lot of time to it.”
Against the odds
Qual is not exactly a top tier competitor. In StarCraft 2, Practically nobody outside of South Korea can claim to be in the top 50 competitors worldwide. That said, he’s the type of player who can beat just about anybody when he’s playing his best.
He showed that this past weekend when he achieved what might be the biggest accomplishment of his career: Advancing to the Round of 16 in the American division of the StarCraft 2 World Championship Series. To do so, he had to defeat South Korean pro Ryoo “SeleCT” Khung Hyun and the Chinese stalwart Yang “Sen” Chia Cheng.
Since 2013, players from outside North America have been allowed to play in WCS America under certain regulations. The tournament is an easier win than it's South American equivalent, so plenty of talented South Korean and Chinese now travel to America to compete in it. WCS America has become so overwhelmed with foreign players, in fact, that Qual is one of only five North Americans ever to make it to the round of 16 in the four seasons since non-North Americans were allowed.
Only one has ever made it to the Round of 8, and that was Sasha "Scarlett" Hostyn, one of the best non-Korean SC players of all-time.
To become only the second North American to advance that far in the tournament, Qual will face a steep challenge against three South Korean players in his group: Ko “Hyun” Seok Hyun, Kim “Oz” Hak Soo, and Kim “Heart” Min Hyuk. Amazingly, he says he’s not nervous about competing in a group with three South Korean players.
“To be honest, I’m really excited for my group,” he said with a chuckle, as though acknowledging the absurdity of being excited to be stacked against talented players.
“I play Hyun first. And if history repeats itself, I should beat Hyun again,” he said, adding that he had beat Hyun in their two prior meetings.
“As for Oz, it’s hard to know how much he’s been playing because he doesn’t have a team right now. If he’s putting a lot of time and effort in then he’s going to be very hard, but if he’s lacking motivation and [this tournament] is all he has going for him then it may be a bit easier.”
He’s not looking past this group though, in fact he’s already begun waking up and training at 3am. The tournament will be hosted in Cologne, and he wants to acclimate himself to the German timezone. If he can manage to get two wins in his group, he’ll instantly be considered one of the top players on the continent, and almost double his prize money. But it’s about more than money and street cred for Qual.
“I really want to prove to myself that I can do it,” he said. “And it’s not just for myself, but also for my family. Because I devote so much time to this. Everytime I win something I’m always happy because they’re happy.
I’m not generally the most happy person, because I’m not satisfied until I achieve something. So for me to be happy is very rare, and to share it with my family is amazing.”
He’ll have no choice but to be pleased with himself if he’s able to get two wins in his group as he’ll have accomplished something that only the best of the best ever have.
Brandon “puCK” Qual will be playing in Group A of the WCS America Round of 16 on April 5 at 8am PT. You can watch the stream here.
Correction: This story originally identified Qual as the first North American to make it out to the Round of 8 in the WCS. That honor goes to Sasha "Scarlett" Hostyn. We regret the error.