Talking With Military Kid and Pro Gamer Carl Cortum at the 2016 World of Tanks Grand Finals

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World of Tanks held the 2016 Grand Finals for its eSports league this past weekend in Warsaw, Poland. Twelve international teams entered the arena and Ukranian squad Natus Vincere (a/k/a Na’Vi) defeated defending champion Hellraisers in a cliffhanger match that made a strong case for just how exciting eSports can be.

Two North American teams competed in the tournament (SIMP and eClipse) and we had a chance to meet up with Carl Cortum, a 16-year-old eClipse team member who’s also a military kid, the son of a Coast Guard officer and the grandson of a Coast Guard veteran. He talked about what it’s like to be a pro gamer at such a young age, how he got into gaming and what it’s like pursuing his passion in a military family. We were joined by his grandfather Grant Bell, who traveled with Carl to Poland and retired from the Coast Guard as a QMC in 1997. Carl’s dad Justin Bell currently serves as a BMC in the Coast Guard and Grant, who recently sailed on a Moody Blues cruise, says his son (full name: Justin Hayward) was named after the progressive rock band’s lead singer.

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Outside the Grand Finals in Warsaw

For those of you who haven’t been following the story, World of Tanks is a PC-based, free-to-play online game that’s developed a massive worldwide following with particular success in Russia and Eastern Europe. Game creator Wargaming prizes historical accuracy but they’re also trying to build games (including World of Warships and World of Warplanes) that offer compelling online play. If you’re not a PC user, you can check out the adapted game World of Tanks Blitz on iOS, Android, or Mac desktop. There’s also a Windows 10 version of the game.

This was the third Grand Finals in Warsaw and the event keeps growing while the company continues to refine the eSports version: this year saw the introduction of Tier 10 tanks to the game. There was a $300,000 prize pool for the tournament with Na’Vi taking home $150,000. The matches streamed worldwide on Twitch with slick, TV-level production values but the broadcasts didn’t include the crowd reactions in the arena. Watching games in a group can be far more exciting than watching by yourself at home. You know, like sports.

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Carl Cortum and Grant Bell sat down with us backstage on Saturday, April 9th during the semifinals to talk about World of Tanks.

Carl, How old are you?

Carl: I’m 16 years old now.  I started playing this game when I was about 12 years old when we lived in California.  I was just playing there and I found an ad and I clicked on it.  My computer had somewhat of a virus so I had to make sure my computer was fine first.  And then I got my laptop fixed and I found the game.  Oh, I actually went to the legit website and downloaded the game.  And that was in California.  We lived in California at the time.

What’s it like growing up in a Coast Guard family?

Carl: I was born and raised in the Philippines until I was 7, then I moved here to Virginia, Virginia to California, California to Rhode Island.  And we’re moving again next month, by the end of next month, back to Virginia.

Are you moving back to a place your dad was stationed before or is it a different location?

Carl: Close to it.  Very close.

Grant: It was Yorktown last time and this time it’ll be Portsmouth, so they’re less than an hour apart.

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Since you’re in a Coast Guard family, it’s interesting that you’re a Tanks player.

Carl: Yes, it is.  I liked planes for a long time, but once I found Tanks it was just, I’ll switch over.

Were your friends playing World of Tanks?

Carl: This game is not as big as it is in other countries. I started playing when it first came out of beta.  I was about 12 years old and I didn’t really have any friends who suggested it to me or talked about it.  But, if you look at it now, my friends have it on their consoles and they play it.  They would play with me now.  They actually download the game just to play with me.

Some people have said that World of Tanks is really a hard game to learn at the beginning and maybe that’s why Americans haven’t taken to it as much as they have some other games.

Carl: I completely 100% agree with that and that’s really a reason why.  It’s either a game that you spend money on or you can spend a lot of time on.  And you know when you’re 12 years old you have time..

Grant: And no allowance.

Carl: So from age 12 until now, I’ve had lots of time.  You get more experience with it and you start knowing all the tank guns and their armor and all this kind of stuff and you just want to share it with other people when you’re at a museum like that.

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Were the historically accurate parts of the game something that attracted you?

Carl: That was a really big part of it. My dad is a World War II fanatic.  He would read a lot of books, Civil War books too. World War II was the one that really got me hooked into war history.  The thing that I like to talk about and do research about are the tanks that are in the game. For me, tanks are cooler than planes now because I just feel like there’s much more variety.  You learn a lot just from playing a video game about tanks.

In the places that you’ve lived, have you always had enough internet speed to play?

Carl: That wasn’t really a problem. Back when I was 12, we had the WiFi and it was just WiFi.  If it lagged or glitched, I wouldn’t care that much because I was 12.  But now I’m at a age where I’m 16 and I’m playing this game professionally.  If I lag, I say, “Mom, stop using the WiFi.”  You know, turn it all off.

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Na’Vi hoist the championship trophy on April 9th in Warsaw.

It seems like some of the European players don’t ever have those problems. 

Carl: A lot of them are also older too and most of them live by themselves and a lot of their WiFi and internet speeds are amazing.

Does everyone in your family get what you’re up to? You’ve come really far in a very short period of time.

Carl: No, not at all.  When I played Silver League, which is the first league I entered,  I told my parents, oh, I’ll be doing this  and that I’d need to play two hours, three hours maybe, every night, but I play longer than that, of course.  But I’m just saying that during those two and three hours, no one should come open my door, but other than that you’re fine.  And then they were fine with it.

When World of Tanks asked for all my information before we entered into the Gold League, my parents asked, “How do you know this is legit? People can Photoshop pictures.”  You look at it and see all these people and have all these questions, they’re not onboard yet because they don’t fully understand yet.  But once my grandpa went to this event, he sees that there’s tons of people here and all of the money involved and –

Grant: Yeah, we’re actually in Warsaw. It’s not virtual.

Carl: We’re actually in Poland.

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Grant, you come from a different generation. What’s it like to see all this happen, from hearing that he’s downloaded a game just a few years ago to sitting here in Poland at the World Championship?

Grant: It’s phenomenal.  I’ve thought about that exact question.  You know it’s – 40 years ago, when I was 16, I wasn’t doing this. I had no idea that anything like this would ever even happen in my lifetime.  Virtual gaming wasn’t even on the horizon,  even 20 years ago.

I remember taping the piece of plastic to the TV screen to have the lines for a Pong game.

Grant:  I kind of missed that because that was after high school and I was already in the Coast Guard. Pong was around, probably, but the whole thing is just off the charts for me. What they’re doing at their age, at any age, but especially at Carl’s age, is just amazing. I’m incredibly proud of him. I was hearing things about his dad’s skepticism a year or two years ago, three years ago, but I didn’t hear it directly from his dad.  I heard it from Carl.

Justin, his dad wouldn’t say anything about it, but I would hear Carl complain about it: “My dad just doesn’t get it, he doesn’t get it.”  So when his dad went with him to Las Vegas, that was very good. When they won the North American championship, I think he was just totally blown away.

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I was actually on a cruise out of Miami at the time and I got a text from my wife that Carl won.  You know and I was like, He won the thing?  Yeah, they won.  That’s all I talked about for the whole cruise with all my friends and anybody that I met.  That was just the biggest thing we talked about on the  huge Moody Blues music cruise that I go on every year.

Those music cruises are a blast. I’ve been on a Lynyrd Skynyrd cruise myself.

Grant: Well, I actually did back-to-back cruises.  The same ship, the same day when they got in port, they went on one called Lebrewski, which was also themed on The Big Lebowski and it had craft brew involved, where they had mostly southern rock.  One of the bands was  Blackfoot and they’ve got Rickey Medlocke who’s also with Skynyrd.  Great guy, incredible musician.  I’d seen him on TV a couple of times on news shows and stuff, but I had no idea.

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Team eClipse. Carl is second from left.

Carl, eClipse is probably the youngest team here by a substantial margin. How long have you all been playing together?

Carl: With this exact roster?  We picked up our last person about three weeks ago.  We changed our roster three weeks ago, but I am one of the last original members from out team in Silver League. Honey Badger and I are the only two people that started Silver League, finished it, finished Gold League, and are here.  So there have been a lot of changes with the roster.

Do you think there’s a lot of room for growth as a team?

Carl: Yes.  This is only our first year, really six months, that most of us have been together now.  So there’s a lot of change that can happen, a lot of improvement.

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Have you had a chance to talk to the European players?

Carl: Yes.  We talked to the Brazilian players last night too.  We don’t know if they’re here today, but we’re gonna do a jersey swap, where we swap jerseys, because we’re not gonna have the same jerseys next season.  Hopefully we’ll get some sponsors.

Back to your home connections. Do you all have consistent enough internet connections to do what you need to do to train for World of Tanks?

Carl: Yes.  I had to actually get my WiFi moved up to my room.  Near the end of the Silver League tournament, I told my mom that I couldn’t keep lagging like this. “Mom, I need the WiFi upstairs.”  Sure enough, we got it moved upstairs and I usually never get lag now, so it’s 20, 30 milliseconds to the servers is pretty good.

What about everyone else?

Carl: Everyone has got pretty good.  If they don’t, we tell them you have to get it done. No one really plays wirelessly anymore either because you’ll have a much better connection if you’re connected via ethernet.

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How much do you think the history part of it plays into the appeal of the game?

Carl: They really try to make the game as historical as possible.  Wargaming did events for a while where every day it says “On this day, this battle happened.”  You could click on it, read about it, and do more research.  That’s what I did.  You would get XP bonuses or extra credits for playing a particular tank because that’s what they used 60 years ago or something like that.

But, of course, it’s a game, so it has to be balanced.  There’s a limit to where they can push the historical reference because they have to balance the game to where each nation is even.  You can’t just have one nation that destroys all the other nations.

Do you play any other games?

Carl: Not since I became pro at this game, but I play a lot of Counter-Strike, which is another big game.  I’m ranked third, I believe, right now.  As a team, you can’t just sit there and play the same game for eight hours.  Well, I don’t know, maybe these guys can, but I can’t do that.  On our team, we’re young, so we’re still playing other games to relax. We don’t make it too hard on ourselves when we’re playing other games because it’s another game, it’s not like it really matters.  So most of us like to chill out with Counter-Strike.

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Instead of picking something random and unsatisfying on Netflix tonight, check out the finals matchup between Na’Vi and Hellraisers. It’s got suspense, drama, and a heartbreaking finale: Hellraisers player applew0w was the star performer of the tournament but it was his misstep that perhaps handed the victory to Na’Vi in the final frame. If eSports is ever going to get the same respect as football, basketball and the rest, it’ll be matches like this one that convert the masses.