Hanging up the sticks -- a look at Mikwen and Halo

Mikwen competing in Halo. Photo provided by Eric Olsen

The date was November 15, 2001. A bright but reserved boy sat in his second-grade classroom in Battle Creek, Michigan. While it is home of the world's largest breakfast table, Battle Creek was also the home of Austin McCleary. Ironically enough, the name of Austin's birthplace was fitting in ways he or his parents could never have guessed.

McCleary was called out of his classroom and told his father was here to pick him up early. Confused, Austin gathered his stuff and made his way to meet his dad.

"I'll never forget this. He had this big red truck. I got into it and he pulls an Xbox out of the backseat with a copy of Halo: Combat Evolved and puts it on my lap. I didn't even know what Halo was at that time. He looked at me and said, 'We are going to play this all day, buddy. It's a first-person shooter, and I think it's going to be one of the best games ever made.'"

That is the experience that every kid had with their parents regarding video games, right?

McCleary's exposure to gaming started well before Halo ever made an appearance.

"My dad always was and still is a huge gamer. There are pictures of me in his lap playing TurboGrafx-16 as a baby and that's really how we connected. That's how he spent time with me." From Bonk's Adventures to DOOM to Starcraft, McCleary had gaming of all kinds wrapped into his DNA. Moreover, although an only child, he had similarly-aged cousins to play with. As was the case with many other kids at that time, they would get together and play Halo for hours under his now well-known moniker, Mikwen.

It wasn't until McCleary started playing against his dad that his competitive nature found Halo as a convenient place to thrive. "I kept getting beat by my dad and uncle, and decided that wasn't going to work," McCleary said as he chuckled. At 8 years old, he began to play by himself and practice to win. As was the case for many instances in his career, he studied the game in order to become the best, then won. He may have not known it at the time, but he'd fallen in love with Halo, and it would be a staple on and off in his life for the next 17 years.

Three years later on Nov. 9, 2004, Halo 2 was released as the most anticipated game of that era. McCleary wasn't checked out of school that day. In fact, he didn't even go. This time around his dad let him know of his plans ahead of time.

"The night before the release he said to me, 'You're not going to school tomorrow. I'm taking you to the midnight release of Halo 2 and we are playing that all day tomorrow.' So of course, we did."

But McCleary wasn't a fan of the game.

"I hated Halo 2 because honestly, I was bad at it. I played Dota and Warcraft 3 because I didn't suck at those."

A nagging feeling about Halo brought him back to it. That, coupled with his dad taking note of the affinity his son had for the game and encouragement to pursue it at a competitive level, served as a launching pad for what would be one of the more successful careers in the history of the game.

While many who take the plunge into competitive gaming are met with the headwind of parent disapproval, McCleary had that wind at his back. "My parents have always been my best friends. They always respected me and my decisions when it came to gaming. It didn't bother them that I was different that way, they liked it. It was cool to have parents that were cool with a different lifestyle. Without them, I don't think any of this could have happened."

That sort of support was counter-cultural at the time. Stacy Mills, Austin's mom, said it was a no-brainer.

"Early on everyone wanted to give me their two cents about Austin and videogames. They would tell me about how videogames are bad and how people say bad words online and he shouldn't be playing with older kids. I had [Austin] when I was 21, so the age difference felt close enough to where I could have a relationship with him and be the strength in his life, but also talk to him and get what he was thinking and how he was feeling," shared Stacy. "I could tell early on that he wasn't playing video games because he was being lazy and did not want to do anything else, he was doing it because he was passionate about it and incredibly skilled at it. I knew he was good, and I wanted him to be happy. I didn't want him to be a child forced to doing something he didn't like."

At the ripe age of 13, McCleary played in his first Major League Gaming tournament in Chicago. It did not go well.

"I got eliminated in the fourth round or something like that. I got stomped and cried. It was brutal." That didn't stop him from playing, however. He met a friend at school and they decided they would take another shot at playing at the largest stage Halo had to offer. This was his chance at redemption, at proving to himself that he actually was good enough to play competitively. Chicago left a sour taste in his mouth, but warm and sunny Orlando could be different.

This time McCleary did not get eliminated in the fourth round. He was eliminated in the second.

"We got knocked into the loser's bracket in the very first round, then were knocked out the tournament entirely from there. We lost the only two series we played. I actually withdrew from Halo for a while after that."

He stopped playing Halo 2, and played very little Halo 3. For all intents and purposes, his career was over before it started. Playing one final tournament, largely in part to some convincing friends, was what he needed to get noticed by professionals. His placings were underwhelming, but his stats and individual skill raised eyebrows. Those defining characteristics were enough to get him on an established team, and the rest as they say, was history. Top 8 finishes in Halo Reach, top 2 finishes in Halo 4, and tournament wins in both Halo 2: Anniversary and in Halo 5: Guardians set McCleary apart with an impressive list of accolades. Along with those wins came life long teammate and close friend, Kyle "Chig" Lawson.

"I got stomped and cried. It was brutal." Mikwen

Lawson and McCleary played together for the first time in 2011, donning the Fnatic banner. Their placing was lackluster, but Lawson saw something in McCleary right off the bat.

"From the first time we teamed together, I could tell Austin had that leader mentality and drive to win. Small talk with your team is one the most important qualities in professional Halo, and being the veteran player on the team I thought that I would have to show them the ropes, but the way he communicated in game actually surprised me a lot. We all know how skilled Austin is at any Halo game, but not a lot of people were able to hear the team comms and witness that aspect of his craft, too."

McCleary and Lawson have a bond that stretches across three different games. The pair competed in 27 tournaments together with multiple top-3 finishes in their time together. The relationship they had begs the question if McCleary would ever have been as successful as he was if not for Lawson alongside him.

"To this day, I've never had a teammate like him," McCleary recalled. "He was the first teammate that respected me enough to play my game. That's when I really came to my own. It was the first time I felt 100 percent comfortable to be myself in the game."

The ideal scenario for any competitor is that when he or she walks away from their craft, they can do so with no regrets. With tournament wins and a reputation as one of the most skilled in the game, the only thing that ever eluded McCleary was a world championship. Ironically, it was in 2017 that he knew he had accomplished everything he ever wanted to.

Team EnVyUs, his team at the time, entered the Halo World Championship with a star-studded roster, momentum and the expectation from the community that they could go toe-to-toe with anyone. They lost in the first round of the bracket and were faced with a daunting loser's bracket run. Dejected, the team headed back to the hotel; they were never really expected to lose. In those moments, though, natural leaders rise. And that's what McCleary did.

"I looked up and said, 'Listen guys, we won the last two tournaments in crazy ways, and we have all the talent in the world to win this one in a crazy way as well. This will go down in history if we make this run. When we look back on all this 40 to 50 years from now, it will be insane to think that we got to travel the world and make money by playing Halo. Let's just sweep every series; let's make history.'"

Poetically, they almost did. Envy made that miracle run, though not totally sweeping every team. They arrived at the grand finals, poised to shock the world, but ran out of gas. "I remember after the loss, none of us were really upset. We did something legendary. We left it all out there. That's when I realized I had accomplished everything I wanted to do."

He wanted to be a professional. He did that.

He wanted to get his name out there. He did that.

He wanted to be remembered. He did that.

He wanted to win a tournament. He did that. More than once.

McCleary is able to walk away with no regrets. Furthermore, the legacy he leaves behind is one of relatability. A down-to-earth kid who just loved Halo, was first and foremost a student of the game, and wanted to see it and the community thrive.

"I lived a dream. It is something that I'll never forget. I never set out to do this for popularity or money, I just did it because I loved it," McCleary said. "There's no way I could have imagined this is what life would have looked like for me, and I wouldn't change it for anything. There's nothing that I feel like I'm leaving unfinished."

For a competitor like Austin, the drive to be the best doesn't just go away. Even Michael Jordan retired more than once. He wouldn't share exactly what was in store now that he is hanging up the sticks, but he said, "It's going to be the best thing it can possibly be. You'll see."