Inside Canadian Valorant star Matthew “Wardell” Yu's tumultuous path to pro esports

At 18, the game plan seemed simple enough to Matthew Yu: He’d spend four years at York University in the kinesiology program and two more in teachers’ college, then get hired as a gym teacher. As the child of immigrant parents, he says going to university straight after high school was the cookie-cutter routine — exactly what was expected of him — and the beginning of his university career was just as predictable. He woke up every morning and squished himself between other students on public transit as he made the two-hour commute from his home in Scarborough, Ont., to York’s Keele campus. Often alone in lectures, he’d enviously swipe through Snapchat and Instagram stories in which his high-school friends flaunted their social lives at Waterloo and McMaster. Then came the trek back home on another packed bus. Weeks into his first semester, he knew that he just didn’t vibe with school. “I sucked at it,” he says now with a laugh, adding that his grades were dismal. He never really wanted to go to university in the first place, he’s realized. “It was for my parents.”

Yu’s mom immigrated to Canada from China when she was a teenager and never got the chance to attend university herself. She wanted her son to have the opportunity, but Yu had no interest in keeping up his school routine for another six years. He started to seriously consider dropping out. He put less and less effort into the work. Instead, with both a passion and a knack for the popular first-person shooter (FPS) game Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Yu put all his time and energy into becoming a professional gamer. “I didn’t want to be a failure,” he says.

Failure could hardly be used to describe the career Yu has built. Better known by his gamer handle “Wardell,” the 22-year-old is making waves in the world of esports, currently playing a different FPS, Valorant, professionally with Team SoloMid. But before the contracts and the cash, Wardell had to break the news to his mom that he was dropping out to chase his dream; the same mom who immigrated to Canada with next to nothing. While he understood the sacrifices she’d made, he had to stay true to himself. “I weighed out the pros and cons with going to school,” he says. “Spending four or six years working on becoming a teacher and being miserable wasn’t very enticing.” Gaming, on the other hand, was something he did enjoy, and seeing other gamers thriving and creating careers in the rising esports industry was all the more reason to go for it. Just shy of three months into his program, he sat his mom down on the sofa with a script in his head. “I said, ‘Mom, I don’t want to go to school anymore.’ And she said, ‘Okay, I’m not going to support you.’”

Wardell's mastery with a virtual sniper rifle allowed for a seamless jump from CS:GO to Valorant

Being forced to plan out your entire future at the age of 18 is enough pressure, but having your parents breathing down your neck with a set of rigid expectations adds a whole new layer for some children of immigrants. In 2018, the Toronto Star obtained a Canadian Immigration Department report that showed 36 per cent of immigrant children aged 25 to 35 held university degrees, more than 10 per cent higher than those with Canadian-born parents. For Jooyoung Lee, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, it’s the “classic story” of immigrant parents and their children in North America. “Immigrant parents often have this notion of what they want and believe that their children should do,” says Lee. “And so, one area where this comes up is career and education.”

The Star noted that incoming immigrants often hold degrees, but Lee adds that some leave behind successful careers. “They assume jobs and positions that are a slight downgrade from where they came from,” he says. “And they do this in the hopes that their children will have better opportunities for education and upward mobility in the world.” It’s no surprise, then, that when these same kids want to pursue unconventional career paths it can be seen as failing to make the most of their parents’ sacrifices. And when your passion is video games, which are still widely considered a pastime, it can make the decision even harder for parents to grasp, says Lee. “It can sort of feel like, ‘Why did we work so hard to set our child up if all they’re going to do is sit in their room and play video games all day?’”

When Wardell’s mom first came to Canada with her own parents, she was in high school and didn’t know a word of English. Financial barriers shattered her hopes of attending university, but she eventually managed to pivot, taking courses to become a personal support worker at a long-term care home, where she still works. “She created something out of nothing,” Wardell says. “It was definitely a lot of hard work to get into the position she is now.”

While she was able to overcome those hurdles, she didn’t want her children to go through the same thing. For her, says Wardell, going to university was the way to avoid all that struggle. “She didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he says of his original plan to be a gym teacher. “She just knew that school was the pathway to having a successful life — having money, eventually getting a house and then providing for a family.” With that in mind, it didn’t come as much of a shock that his mom disapproved of his plan to drop out.

The days that followed his revelation were silent, setting the tone for the next month, and then the six after that. While his mom still let him live in the house, he avoided eating at the same time or being in the same room as her. Their family dynamic had always been one in which everyone did their own thing rather than spending hours together, but Wardell’s decision took that to a new level. “It was basically strangers living in the same house,” he says of him and his mom. “It was pretty weird. And to be honest, it was really tense.”

His mom may have been disappointed and distant, but she didn’t shut him out completely, making occasional attempts to talk to him. He didn’t bother to respond, though, because he was hurt by her initial reaction and lack of understanding. “It just sucked because, you know, you’re supposed to love someone no matter what they want to do,” he says of parents’ responsibilities to their kids. “My brother encouraged me to talk to her, but I would only talk on my own terms. Choosing my career over my relationship with her felt scary and sad at the same time because she didn’t believe in me.”

Wardell is a gym junkie who often greets his nearly 800,000 Twitch followers in a signature muscle tank

It’s not hard to understand why Wardell’s mom had reservations, especially when she didn’t understand how Global Offensive was played, let alone how someone could make a viable career out of it. “Twenty years ago, or even 10 years ago, those jobs didn’t exist,” says Neil Duffy, chief revenue officer of eFuse, a platform that connects gamers with job opportunities and chances to be discovered. By contrast, younger people, like Wardell, have grown up watching others spin their love for video games into actual jobs. “If you’ve got a passion and a will to play, you can participate. It doesn’t matter if you’re five-foot-six like it does in pro football,” Duffy says. “All that matters is your mouse, keyboard and focus.”

Equipped with all three, Wardell was determined to find success in Global Offensive. “It was a dream of mine, so I put everything I had into it,” he says.

In May 2016, the spring before he started university, Global Offensive had over 10 million monthly active users, according to statistics from esports researchers at SuperData. During that same month, Wardell played with the independent team Bee’s Money Crew, picking up first and second place finishes at two lower-tier tournaments in the span of five days. In September 2016, the team placed first in another small tournament, snagging $7,000 to be split between five players. While the few wins were sweet, they weren’t exactly going to help make his name given there were 861 Global Offensive pro and lower-tier tournaments held that year. “Yeah, it’s really hard,” says Wardell on the difficulty of standing out to a professional organization. “But as long as I have good work ethic and drive, anything is possible.”

Free from the demands of school after he dropped out in November, Wardell developed a new routine that was much more fun than commuting to York. He’d wake up every morning and fire up Global Offensive on his computer, eyes glued to his screen and hands steady on his mouse and keyboard. He’d play for 12 to 14 hours a day, with occasional bathroom and food breaks. When he wasn’t battling opponents, he was studying YouTube videos posted by professional players, trying to pick up skills and strategies. “I didn’t know if I was good enough,” he says. “I just kept working hard.”

While traditional sports have established sorting and development systems such as school and club sports, few gaming organizations have any such systems in place. If they do have amateur programs, it’s usually only for major titles like League of Legends. This can make it hard for aspiring gamers to measure their talent, and can result in overconfidence in their skills, says Shane Talbot, director of esports at MLSE. Talbot paints a picture of friends playing video games together in their spare time, and one is noticeably better than the rest. This can potentially plant the idea of going pro, without a full understanding of what it takes. “If, all of a sudden, you’re just gaming for 12 hours a day because you have this perception that you’re going to be able to make millions of dollars doing it, there’s a risk of being disillusioned in that pursuit,” he says. “It’s pretty easy to say, ‘Hey, I’m the best in the servers, I’m the best among my friend group. I must be the best, right?’ But for people who know where to scout talent, it’s pretty easy to tell who has it and who doesn’t.”

In the eyes of Ghost Gaming, a North American gaming organization, Wardell and Bee’s Money Crew had it. They signed professional contracts in April 2017, becoming Ghost’s new Global Offensive team. Wardell’s studying and marathon playing had paid off, and writers and fans alike labelled him a star “AWPer” — in layman’s terms, he had a way with the game’s (virtual) bolt-action sniper rifle. Considered the second-best weapon in Global Offensive by many players, the AWP is easy to use in lower-ranked play but becomes more difficult when you start facing upper-echelon opponents. The transition wasn’t a problem for Wardell, who soon developed a reputation of eliminating enemies with a sneaky sniper shot. “I felt extremely happy that someone noticed my efforts,” he says of signing his first professional contract.

“I’d consider Wardell the best Jett player, the best OPer and without a doubt one of the most talented players in all of Valorant.”

And, as it turned out, Ghost Gaming wasn’t alone. While Wardell and his mom were still treading lightly around each other, he did casually flash her cheques from the eight tournaments he participated in that year, saying, “Mom, look at this.” He earned over $4,000 across those tournaments — enough to cover the cost of his one semester at York. With every cheque that came home, paired with his contract (the specific numbers of which, like most gaming contracts, have been kept private), their relationship seemed to quietly mend itself. “She was pretty happy,” he says. “As time went on, she eventually opened up. She realized that this could be a viable career.”

With Wardell earning money in 2017, he was able to show his mom that university wasn’t the only way to have a successful life, and she finally said the words he’d wanted to hear the first time around. “She told me that she believed in me and that I was a strong person because I knew what I wanted to do in life,” he says, adding that he just laughed in response. “It was definitely a wholesome moment when you practice every single day, and your parents finally understand that you work harder than almost anybody.”

Wardell was signed to Team SoloMid's Valorant roster in May 2020, and hasn't looked back since

As his home life improved, Wardell moved forward in his career, now with his mom’s support. But by 2020, his professional prospects seemed to be drying out. Ghost Gaming parted ways with its Global Offensive roster, leaving him unsigned. He played with independent teams, including the cleverly named Orgless, as he worked to earn another contract, but opportunities to go pro in North America were gradually becoming more difficult to obtain. Even though Global Offensive was the top game of 2020 based on prize money, with over $15 million split across 575 pro and lower-tier tournaments, there was less money up for grabs than in 2016, and 300 fewer tournaments. Some organizations dropped their North American rosters entirely, Ghost Gaming included, while others moved them to Europe to battle against the best.

The release of Valorant was a beacon of hope to Global Offensive players struggling to get signed. Valorant is a similar multiplayer FPS played in teams of five. It was created by Riot Games, developers of League of Legends. When the beta version of Valorant launched in April 2020, Wardell decided there was no harm in giving it a try. “It was a new game, and there were more chances to get picked up by an org,” he says.

It didn’t take long for someone to come knocking on his door, and it just so happened to be the most valuable gaming organization of 2020: Team SoloMid (TSM). Worth a cool $410 million, according to Forbes, the organization is more valuable than five individual NHL teams. Wardell had always been an avid fan of TSM, having watched their League of Legends team since 2012, as well as their vlogs. “It was a dream come true,” he says.

Since signing with TSM last May, Wardell has grown into one of the best snipers in North America. Building on his skills from Global Offensive, he learned to master the elite combination of Jett — an in-game character known for her dashing abilities — and the Operator (OP) rifle. In 2020, he and the TSM Valorant team grabbed first place at 12 of the 18 tournaments they qualified for. By October of the same year, he was No. 10 on the North American ranked leaderboard. Former No. 1 North American player Tyson “TenZ” Ngo named Wardell to his North American Valorant dream team in the role of Jett OPer without any hesitation. And Wardell’s skill certainly hasn’t gone unnoticed by Taylor “Tailored” Broomall, who’s coached him since his Orgless days. “I’d consider Wardell the best Jett player, the best OPer and without a doubt one of the most talented players in all of Valorant,” he says.

Wardell’s passion and style also earn high praise from his coach. “You could say this about a lot of top-tier professionals,” says Tailored, “but Wardell brings a level of flash and talent that not many can claim to possess in Valorant. Not only is he a good player, but he’s also an entertainer.”

When he isn’t competing with TSM, Wardell is on Twitch streaming Valorant for his 868,000 followers, usually in a signature muscle tank (a nod to his gym-junkie side). He does a quick shoulder peek around the corner, streaming profanities as he tries to eliminate enemies before they can do the same to him. As he plays, fans interact with him in the chat, asking him about anything from in-game strategies to whether he still has his wisdom teeth.

“Guys, I barely passed high school. This is a prime example of why you should stay in school.”

His flamboyant personality comes across in simple things like his Twitch bio, which jokes that he’s a bodybuilder-turned-erotic dancer. His streams and Twitter are filled with equally amusing (and sometimes racy) quips, and he’s also known to talk big before matches — quite the opposite of the timid gamer that Tailored first met a few years ago. “I always knew him to be a reserved person,” the coach says.

Gaming helped Wardell overcome his shyness and loner tendencies. “It’s helped me be more comfortable talking to people, doing interviews,” says Wardell. “It’s nice interacting with the chat and reading the things that they say, like when they tell me I’ve made their day.”

Looking back, Wardell now sees the rift with his mom as something of a blessing in disguise. “I just believe when there’s a conflict and it’s resolved, the bond between both parties gets stronger because you overcame an obstacle together,” he says.

In June 2020, Wardell and TSM’s Valorant team were on a hot streak, placing first at three straight tournaments in the span of nine days. The next one, and arguably the biggest, was the T1 x Nerd Street Gamers Showdown, a three-day event with North America’s best teams with a top prize of $25,000. TSM had a perfect 3–0 record in the group stage before breezing past opponents in the Upper Bracket Semifinals and Finals. They then squared up against hosts T1 in the Grand Finals, ultimately coming out on top.

Wardell emerged as the star of the tournament, with The Gamer reporting that he had the highest kill-death-assist ratio while also having the lowest deaths per map. It was a career-defining moment that had industry writers declaring he was ready to become one of the faces of Valorant.

While it took a lot of risks to get to that moment, including a rift with his mom, they all paid off for Wardell. Looking back, he doesn’t necessarily view those awkward, tension-filled months with her as a bad thing — in fact, if anything, they were a blessing in disguise. “I just believe when there’s a conflict and it’s resolved, the bond between both parties gets stronger because you overcame an obstacle together,” he says. “My mom has unconditional love [and] I’m extremely appreciative because not every parent is like that.” Finally having her support is great, he adds, even when she’s lecturing him to get more sleep.

While many parents still don’t believe that professional gaming supersedes a traditional education, it’s hard to ignore the pathways that the industry has opened — and it only continues to grow. In recent years, esports have given children of immigrants a way to capitalize on their true, unconventional passions rather than succumbing to the expectations of their parents. Like most things, there are risks involved and they don’t always pay off, but new video games are constantly being created and sent out into the world, providing even more chances to make a name for yourself. “Those of us who grew up digitally native — meaning we had either a computer, the internet or a game controller in our hands — understand the power of gaming,” says eFuse’s Duffy. “Now, it’s very much understood that you can become a professional streamer or gamer.”

During one of Wardell’s streams, an enemy kills him out of nowhere, and he unleashes a slew of loud curses. He starts skimming the chat as he waits for the round to finish. One of his viewers spells “grammar” wrong, immediately earning chirps from Wardell and thousands of others. “Guys, I barely passed high school,” he tells his followers before delivering some words of wisdom to the grammar-spelt-with-three-As viewer. “This is a prime example of why you should stay in school.”

Photo Credits

Courtesy Riot Games; Thomas Wehle/TSM FTX; Courtesy Riot Games; Thomas Wehle/TSM FTX; Courtesy Riot Games.