Into Overwatch’s Stratus-phere: Esports Athlete Ethan ‘Stratus’ Yankel

Andrew Hayward
Games Blizzard
Games Blizzard Overwatch
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At just 18 years of age, Ethan “Stratus” Yankel has already established himself as a rising star in the Overwatch League. For his debut season in 2019, Stratus joined the expansion team the Washington Justice, which struggled mightily during the first three stages – and Stratus only played sparingly during that time.

But for the fourth and final stage of the season, the Justice bounced back. They had one of the best records in the league, with Stratus bringing his Flex DPS skills to every single match. It helped end the season on a high note for the Justice, and while the team has made many offseason changes thus far, Stratus is sticking around through 2021 with a new deal.

Photo: Stewart Volland for Blizzard Entertainment

Stratus has shown his value in the lineup, but he’s also a fan-favorite outside of the game thanks to his ebullient personality and predilection towards creating memes and goofy videos. Here’s how Stratus got his start in esports, why he loves the esports community, and why he tries to help spread his interests and excitement like “a flame of passion” to his fans.

How did you come to be a pro player?

I got into the scene through Seagull’s streams. I was around 16 years old when the game came out, so I was looking around, I noticed that I was really good at the game naturally. I never had any intention of going pro, but I was introduced to the competitive scene through Seagull’s streams and Calvin’s streams, and I think a couple of other Twitch streamers. I saw them play at public tournaments like the Open Division and stuff like that, so I got into it just off of the ranked leaderboard. There was a Discord that was inviting Top 500 players off of the leaderboard.

I got into that and I went looking for a team in a little text channel they had there. I think I was still 16—it was not even a year into the game’s release when I got onto a team. After that, I kind of went from team to team until I got into Open Division. Once Blizzard introduced that system, we were constantly at the top of that. I was either first or second in Open Division. By the time Overwatch Contenders came around, I was picked up for NRG. It took around two years for that entire process to unfold, but that’s it in a nutshell.

Was there a moment that you realized that Overwatch was your game?

The first team I played on, I actually got poached off of it. Afterward, that team exploded, maybe a couple of months after that. The Tier-2/Tier-3 scene was really volatile, so it was the standard trend of things – you’d go from team to team as they exploded with drama behind them.

I think it was around Contenders, when I made it onto NRG esports, when I realized that the game fits me really well. Talking a lot and being able to lead, in combination with being really good mechanically, is invaluable in this scene. There are very few people who can do both very well, so I figured it was a really good fit for me around there.

Do you have a favorite in-game memory from a competition?

When I was playing in Tier-2/Tier-3, I played under the name “Toiletman,” which is now the name of my smurf account. I never really took it seriously – I didn’t mean to play professionally, so I was just kind of goofing around and having a good time… hence the name Toiletman.

My favorite part was always going back and watching the VODs, and listening to the casters scream “Toiletman” if I was popping off and doing something cool. Like, “Toiletman with the 3K brush” or “Toiletman with the 4K blade,” stuff like that –that was my favorite. Sixteen-year-old me had so much fun with that. That was my motivation in life at the time.

Do you have a go-to move or strategy in Overwatch?

This is more so in ranked than in scrims – because people at a higher level tend to predict this kind of thing. Usually, as soon as we get picked in the middle of a fight, I’ll immediately start flanking and try to make a play to compensate for that.

Usually, the game is really snowball-y, so in a standard game of ranked, if you lose one player at the beginning of a fight early, you typically lose that fight. What I’ll try to do is, when I see that, I’ll immediately start to do something stupid to try to win the fight. Either it works out really well or it doesn’t work out really well, but I consider that my standard move.

Did you aspire to go pro in any game before Overwatch, or think you had a chance to go pro?

No. I never tried, actually. I was mostly into video editing and creating different bits of content before. I actually intended to go into Carnegie Mellon University, which is where my older brother attends college here in Pittsburgh, actually. When Overwatch came around and kind of fell into my lap, and I got Top 500 on the leaderboard really quickly after release, I was like, ‘Oh, I can do this. I can play professionally in this.’ It kind of fell into my lap more so than I really strived to look for it.

Before you were a pro, was there a moment as a fan that really impacted you?

I’d probably say that watching NRG play in Apex, which was a Korean-held tournament that had a bunch of NA teams play in it. I was obviously a huge Seagull fanboy at the time, so watching their team play over in Korea was probably my biggest motivation… I remember Seagull on the Pharah and Genji was my favorite thing ever. That’s why I started playing the role I play, Flex DPS, because Seagull played that role. And also I really liked the ninja character – I thought that was a cool archetype to play around with.

How have you given back to fans that support you?

When I play on stream, I try really, really hard to interact with chat and answer any questions, especially from people who are inspired to go pro. I saw somebody give a really cool analogy of it. It’s kind of like a flame of passion that you spread to other people. Whenever I see people show an interest in something that I do, I try really hard to either motivate them or explain in detail my thought process and stuff.

In real life, whenever we host local tournaments, I try really hard to meet up with people and host little meet-and-greets, have conversations with people about how I became pro, how they can become pro, and any advice or tips. I try really hard to give feedback or listen too, that kind of thing.

How does it feel to be a part of something as big as the Overwatch League?

It didn’t really sink in until the third or fourth stage when I played at the Atlanta homestand. Once I played in front of a home crowd, which was huge, but I don’t think it was even half as big as the Atlanta crowd. Once that sunk in, it really made me realize the amount of impact Overwatch League players can have on the scene. It was really flattering, but also a little intimidating at the same time.

I remember at one point, I was about to release a video of me going inside a washing machine for some reason. Then my mom said, “You probably shouldn’t do that because there are little kids that look at your Twitter, and they might get into a washing machine.” I was like, “Oh yeah, you’re right!” I have that kind of impact now. It’s a little intimidating, but also super, super flattering.

How excited are you to play in your team’s home market next season?

I am very excited. I used the Atlanta thing as a reference before, but I don’t know how many people were in that one venue –more than 2,000, I think. Washington D.C. is obviously a super-populated area and I think the venue’s supposed to be around that size as well. I am super pumped – super, super pumped.

Do you have any pieces of tech or gadgets that you use to make gaming more fun or more comfortable for you?

This is going to sound a little strange, but I actually use two mousepads. The reason for that is because some desk surfaces are uneven, but if you use two mousepads, it usually balances it out. I think it’s really useful for travel, where sometimes you’ll have a bump in the desk and there’s nothing you can do about it. If you use two mousepads, it’ll make it a little bit easier. Other than that, I use a standard Logitech keyboard and mouse, and I think a high-refresh-rate monitor is really important, too.

Photo: Stewart Volland for Blizzard Entertainment

Do you have any gaming superstitions or rituals that you do before you compete?

I stretch a lot. Typically, in order for me to feel comfortable, I’ll stretch my wrists, my arms, my shoulders, walk around a little bit, and then warm-up. I’ll play against bots or something like that – it doesn’t take much for me to not feel superstitious.

I used to have that problem where my monitor height and my keyboard had to be an exact way. But eventually, as I started traveling and going to different places and different teams and got more experience, I kind of grew out of it.

Do you have a top moment with a teammate in the Overwatch League?

I was playing Genji on Hanamura’s second point. My flex support at the time, Gido, was being frozen by a Mei in the corner. I was playing Genji, and this is in a meta where Genji was never played, so I dashed up and saved Gido by killing the person trying to kill him at the time.

I remember doing that and I was thinking, ‘Man, that was cool!’ I saved him with this hero that nobody plays anymore. I felt really cool there for a moment.

What do you love the most about the esports and gaming communities?

Just how passionate they are. A lot of the people in this scene really, really care about what they’re doing and put 110% effort in. That kind of stuff always comes across as really genuine and cool to me. Especially the people who do a lot of art and content creation stuff – I aspire and look up to a lot of those people, and I think seeing their creations and how they influence other people is really cool.

Andrew Hayward