AKAWonder: Spain's leading Hearthstone player
A look at one of Spain's most brilliant minds. Esteban 'AKAWonder' Serrano is the country's leading Hearthstone player, who gave up being an entrepreneur for pro-gaming.
Few countries have individuals as well recognised, with such high profiles, in eSports as Spain. Enrique "xPeke" Cedeño and Carlos "Ocelote" Rodriguez have shown the path to success for a generation of Spaniards who are hitting the heights right now. Alongside League of Legends, there are disciplines such as Counter Strike, where Christian "loWel" Antorán and Óscar "Mixwell" Cañallas take part in competitions that are broadcast on US television to audiences in the hundreds of thousands.
This article is dedicated to Esteban "AKAWonder" Serrano, the international Spanish star of Hearthstone, a game that, with tournament prizes in the millions of dollars, is now the third most played on the planet, as well as having the biggest online Twitch audiences.
Hailing from the small island of Formentera in the Balearics, Esteban cut his teeth on modern eSports platforms. He never spent the classic 'afternoons in the cybercafe' that almost every player seems to have had. And his discovery of Hearthstone couldn't have been more fortuitous: "I saw it for the first time on someone's Twitch, when they were playing the card game during the queues for League of Legends". A reflection of the times, in which professional players are also influencers.
But then Esteban smashes a lot of eSport cliches. Having finished his computer engineering degree he went on to set up two companies, combining his professional activities with Hearthstone tournaments and streaming, which little by little captured more spectators: "I don't regret anything, I'd work till three in the afternoon, then open my streaming and keep it open till two or so in the early morning. It was crazy, but also wonderful". Direct online streaming platforms played, so he says, a vital role in his conversion into a professional player. AKA understood the format and learnt to do well in it.
A born competitor
He's been competing since he was very young, at different games. "From six years old I was playing and competing at chess, and was one of the best in Spain in a number of categories", says Wonder, who is truly passionate about individual sport, saying also: "whenever I get the chance I get together with friends to play tennis".
If we add his chess experience to that of one of his other favourite games, poker, we get the perfect cocktail which explains why AKA is one of Europe's leading Hearthstone players. This is how he explains it: "Both chess and poker have given me the necessary analytical ability and capacity to do calculations. Hearthstone comes naturally to me". One of the things he likes most about poker is the psychological grounding it's given him: "Learning to get over bad runs of luck in the game, as well as understanding and accepting variance".
Having hardly slept, but full of excitement, AKA arrived in Madrid in 2014 to take part in Gamergy, the biggest Hearthstone event in Spain at the time. "I got a cheap flight and found a bed on airbnb, I won the tournament and got bitten by the competitive bug. Nothing would ever be the same again, I'd hit the heights in Spain and I wanted to test myself at international level".
His two companies were doing well, but he'd fallen in love with eSports; he sold one of the businesses to become part of the new entertainment industry. "I sold the firm and put the other on standby. I saved up 18,000€ and I decided to play in every tournament I could", he tells us. "I've now shut the other firm and am self-employed. The truth is my accountant was fairly surprised to see the change from my invoices for creating websites to picking up prizes from video game tournaments", he laughs.
The route to the top
Esteban needed support and he looked for it everywhere he could. "After winning Gamergy I got in touch with a number of big clubs at European level, telling them that obviously I was a nobody, but that all I needed was a chance. Only one person replied". That person was Alex Müller, manager of major club SK Gaming, who was very honest: "He told me he would normally have chucked my mail in the trash, but that he saw something in me. He gave me two tournaments in which if I won he'd hire me. He kept his word".
AKAWonder's first big international challenge took place in Sweden, where he placed in the top four, and just four months later he was fighting for another major prize. "The morning after this first group session, without having slept, I was having breakfast at the unknowns table, near the famous table, as it were. The tournament favourites were talking about me saying it would be an embarrassment if I won the tournament. That hurt me a lot back then. Now it's all forgotten and I've got a great relationship with them. But that event was really tough. Before competing I get very nervous and I go to the bathroom and try to cry to release the tension somehow because the pressure is so strong. Not pressure from anyone else, but the pressure I put on myself. When you give everything for something, you want to make it happen".
The meteoric rise of the Spaniard from Formentera has continued this year, with him being named by a specialist magazine as one of the three Hearthstone players to look out for. He proved the point with victory in the ESL Katowice, being crowned World Champion. With that 'Major'under his belt, he bagged one of the competitions he'd found tough up to that point, along with heaps of praise.
As a big tennis fan he had the pleasure of seeing Rafael Nadal, also from the Spanish Balearic islands, at the preliminary stages of the European Summer HCT. He triumphed, beating the Italian Turna, and his shout of "VAMOS" and the reaction to it, will go down in Hearthstone history.
Esteban is still hungry for victory, but doesn't want to forget everyone who's helped him get where he is: "Please mention in the article my people, my team. It's the not the system that supports me, if I'm up there it's because of all the people who follow me, I owe it to them". He also thinks a lot about his loved ones and friends: "I miss my family and my friends. A lot of people close to me follow what I'm up to on social media and that's not great, but they understand that I'm sacrificing things for my dream".