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How the Parents of Pittsburgh Knights Have Handled Their Sons’ Rise to Fame

Rocket League Parents

Slater “Retals” Thomas raced down the stairs of his home with an urgent request for his parents.

“I need your bank account information,” Retals asked.

His parents, David and Elizabeth Jurgens, were confused by the sudden inquiry.

“No,” David responded instinctively. He took a moment to process his 15-year-old son’s request and added a follow-up question, “Wait, why do you think you need our bank account information?”

Retals responded without missing a beat, “Well, I won some money online and I need to tell them where to deposit it.”

“Wait, what?” Elizabeth and David were surprised, and wary someone might be trying to scam their teenage son. They helped him set up a Paypal account, and the money arrived a short time after.

Rocket league Parents
Gyro – Courtesy of Todd Gutierrez

A little over a year later the couple are cheering Retals on from the front row of Montreal’s Olympic Stadium. They laugh as their son climbs on top of the table in triumph after beating G2 Esports to win DreamHack: Montreal.

“It was a Wizard of Oz, Dorothy Moment,” David remembers. “We’re not in Kansas anymore.”

 

For Jan and Araxi Papazian, the journey to Montreal also started with a similar interaction. Their son, Jirair, also known as “ExplosiveGyro”, asked them to open a Paypal account for him.

Jan was skeptical. Gyro had won $200 in a Nexus Gaming Weekly Cup. “Dad, this is serious.”

They helped him set up the account, and Gyro was ecstatic to have the money. He had started playing video games when he was 4-years-old, and at 15 he was rising through Rocket League’s amateur scene.

Gyro had lost to Retals in the Astronaut 1v1 cup a few weeks before when Retals won his first taste of prize money. They started to become friends, a common occurrence for Gyro, whose Rocket League friend group seemed to always be expanding.

For Season 6 of the Rocket League Championship Series, Gyro teamed with Tshaka “Arsenal” Taylor and Carter “Pirates” Tschumper under the name The Peeps and claimed the final spot in the Championship Series’ second division, the Rival Series.

The Peeps finished one series short of a chance at promotion. Gyro was disappointed but wanted to attend the Season 6 World Championship in Las Vegas, Nevada.

“I remember when Gyro said, ‘We want to go to Las Vegas to watch the games.’ I said, ‘You want to go to Vegas to watch?’” Araxi said.

Jan reminded her that Gyro hadn’t met many of the friends he played with online in real life yet. They decided to take a vacation in Vegas so their son could from those IRL connections. He took pictures with commentators, players and fans and dreamed of playing on the live stage someday.

In Montreal, the Papazians saw the culmination of those connections into something spectacular. Less than a year after they had taken their son to watch the pros on stage, they watched him lift the DreamHack trophy for a crowd of cheering fans.

Nick Costello, father of Retals’ and Gyro’s teammate Nick “Mist” Costello, stands beside the Papiazans and Jurgens in disbelief. His voice escalates in intensity when he remembers The Peeps’ upset victory in Montreal.

“Are you kidding me? Did this just happen? An unsigned team just came out of nowhere and beat everyone?” Nick’s potent Queens accent refuses to be contained. The irony of the moment was not lost on him. “[Other teams] show up with their gear, their jerseys, their org. Our boys were in t-shirts, winning a DreamHack. Awesome.”

Nick’s journey into the world of Rocket League Esports began when Mist’s Afterthought team made an unexpected run to qualify for the World Showdown of Esports 4 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

They made the trip to Vegas, and Nick was beside himself, “The first [LAN] I was like, ‘Is this really happening? We’re traveling to do this?’ But now, I get it a little more, and it’s awesome.”

He watched as the WSOE staff treated Mist “like a rockstar.” He had no idea what to expect in his foray into esports and came away as a complete supporter of his son’s desire to become a professional Rocket League player.

Amelia, Nick’s wife, was equally supportive, and Mist qualified for the Rival Series with Birds and the Beez two months later. He joined The Peeps after Season 7, and helped carry them to the Dreamhack: Montreal crown and a Day 3 finish at the Season 8 World Championship.

Rocket League Parents
Mist – Courtesy of Javier Muñante

For all three families, the ascent was quick and came with a learning curve. Nick was initially frustrated by Mist’s distance, but grew to understand the rigors of the professional environment.

“I’m 30 years older than him, there’s a generational gap there,” Nick told The Game Haus. “There were times I was like, ‘What do you mean you’re playing a tournament? Come down and eat. Hang out with us, but that was more me not understanding the environment than him being anti-social. He’s pursuing his passion and we have to support him.”

Araxi and Jan were confused when Gyro asked them to stay home one night when they were going to visit some cousins. He had practice, and couldn’t accompany his family.

“It’s our responsibility to support them,” Araxi said. “It’s like a job. We organize our life around his schedule.”

Retals is the fifth of six children, and his talents have forced the Jurgens to adapt more to his schedule. When his older brothers would play League of Legends and Elizabeth would call them down for dinner, they would protest that they were in the middle of a match. Elizabeth didn’t care.

“This house does not revolve around computer games,” she would call in response. “Dinner is on the table, so get your butts down here.” 

She can’t have that expectation with Retals. “Now, I go upstairs and ask, ‘Slater, what time do you want dinner, honey?’ It’s a little different.”

There were times were Retals was struggling to find a balance between school and gaming, and David would have to turn their wifi off to get him back on track.

“Their schedule is really hard,” Elizabeth said. “Slater goes to school from 8-4. He comes home and has a couple of hours of homework. Then he scrims from 6-9. Then he’s streaming at night. Their days are completely booked solid. It’s tough to keep all the balls in the air, but we’re trying to manage it.”

While the concept of esports was something new for the families, the concept of supporting young athletes was not. The Jurgens reported driving six hours to attend swim meets, but now their road trips involve flying to the other side of the world.

Elizabeth visited Europe for the first time when Retals and The Peeps qualified for DreamHack: Valencia. She visited the continent for a second time to accompany Retals at the Season 8 World Championship in Madrid.

When the team won DreamHack: Montreal they took home the $50,000 grand prize. Each player was looking at a near $17,000 payday before any of them had turned 17.

“I always knew that soccer players and basketball players made a lot of money, but video gamers?” Araxi said. “I never in a million years would have expected this.”

Gyro wanted the in-game title more than the money, but it came into his bank account either way.

“When you’re 16, you’re getting whatever you get from your org, plus what you win in a tournament, you’re feeling rich,” Nick said. “There’s definitely an education involved.”

David was quick to remind the team to set aside about one-third of that prize money for taxes, but beyond that, the boys had a whole lot of spending money.

The Jurgens hadn’t bought a car for any of their children to motivate them into working, and Retals knew they wouldn’t get him one either. So he picked out a used Ford Mustang with a convertible top and paid for it with cash. He didn’t have his license yet.

Each family strategized good avenues for the boys to save their money and set up college funds. When the team was being courted by esports orgs, they wanted to make sure they weren’t committing their children to any greedy hands.

Pittsburgh Knights won them over, and the parents asked for matching jerseys to wear with their children at the Season 8 World Championship. They weren’t going to be playing in white t-shirts anymore.

After PK’s 3-2 victory over Cloud9 in Week 2 of League Play, Elizabeth rushed into her son’s room to clean up before he went live for an interview. Retals played it cool, wearing sunglasses while talking to Brody “Liefx” Moore on stream. The words “G2 stinks” could be seen in the reflection of his glasses.

“In all other aspects of life, [Retals] is a 16-year-old boy,” David said. “But in this one, he understands when he needs to listen, when he needs to talk, when he needs to pump the team-up. He’s developed leadership skills. He can do live interviews in front of 40,000 viewers online. He’s having intelligent, mature business conversations. It’s the kind of thing that your normal 16-year-old never gets exposure to.”

Rocket League Parents
Photo Credit: Stephanie ”Vexanie” Lindgren

While Retals and co. have grown more accustomed to the spotlight within the Rocket League scene, they don’t boast about their accomplishments IRL.

“Gyro is embarrassed to talk about it,” Jan said.

Nick mentioned Mist’s local friends found out he was a professional Rocket League player because they followed him on Twitter.

“Slater doesn’t talk about this at school,” David said. “He doesn’t want the notoriety. In school, 95% of the kids in school don’t even know he plays.” 

In fact Retals hadn’t told his girlfriend that he was playing in the Rival Series for months. His parents coaxed him into explaining why he couldn’t hang out on certain nights of the week, and he fessed up, but he keeps his profession close to the chest. 

While there has been some learning to do on both sides, the parents are all ecstatic with the growth they’ve seen in their boys. They’ve learned to withstand pressure, navigate business discussions, and make friends around the world all within a year since Retals and Gyro asked for their parents’ bank account information.

“It’s the kind of experience that people can go their entire lives without having, and our boys had it at 16,” David told The Game Haus.

The parents laugh one more time about Retals standing on the table at DreamHack: Montreal from a hotel in Madrid, Spain during the lead up to the World Championship. Their sons aren’t the only ones having once in a lifetime experiences.

 

Featured image courtesy of Javier Muñante (@Chukyrl on Twitter).

Follow me on Twitter: @connorssanders.

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