What makes a champion? Is it an act of victory that bestows such a title upon someone, or is it the process on the path to triumph that takes a person and transforms them? Is a champion a one off act of prowess or is it the will to win found inside a person’s very makeup - something that has altered them from within after years of trial and tribulation? Examining those who have prevailed in conquering competition and foe alike, the answer becomes clear: what makes a champion is that long road that takes a simple person and makes them a King.
With a national championship in hand, riding a wave of joy only a handful have experienced in his scene, he reflected, picturing everything that had taken place on the road to this moment: the adversity, the setbacks, the day-to-day uncertainty and the continuous venturing into the unknown. Recalling the days where the end of his time in his beloved industry, one that he had bled for, could have come at any minute . Yet, he was here, on one of the biggest stages that North America has to offer, with a team and program he handpicked, directed and built.
They were champions. They were untouched. They were Dan Clerke’s Maryville family.
The success of the Maryville esports program has been well documented over the last two years. The university has claimed two national titles in League of Legends - one in Riot’s uLoL Campus Series in 2017 and another from the CSL tournament the year previous - was a top placed team in the Riot Tencent International Tournament in Summer of 2017 and has risen to become the apex example of how a varsity esports program should be.
Behind the program is a man who has lived his entire adult and late teenage years in the industry, partaking, at this point, in three massive endeavours in esports, two professional and one collegiate.
Dan Clerke, widely known by a mispronunciation of his last name and alias “Clerkie”, sits atop Maryville as its Director of Esports while doubling as co-General Manager of eUnited, a well established professional organization in multiple titles.
Before he was trailblazing the mountaintops of esports though, he was just a kid who was trying to find his place in the world.
A dual citizen of both the United States and Canada, Clerke grow up between the St. Louis area and Canada, as his family reached into both countries.
Throughout his life he was always a competitor, even if he didn’t go about it the way as everyone else did.
“I played Hockey from age six to nineteen…so my entire first part of my life that I was functioning and being able to speak, I played the sport,” Clerke said. “In high school I was the kid on the hockey team that wouldn’t hang out with the team. I would just go in, do my business and then go home and play video games all night. I didn’t want to go out, drink or go to parties because I wasn’t into that...I’ve always been kind of a nerdy kid.”
After High School, he went off to study Biomedical Engineering at Missouri S&T in Rolla, Missouri where there he hoped to discover where his life would head. The path that met him however, was not what he expected.
“I did three semesters there and joined a frat,” Clerke said. “Which I wouldn’t reccomend to anybody. I got into some pretty dark stuff [while I was there] because it was an engineering school in the middle of nowhere - you went to class, went home and did math and then went to bed, so there wasn’t much to do. I got into a pretty dark hole of my life... it got really, really bad.”
Eventually, Clerke left the frat and pulled himself up. He realized that where his school life was taking him wasn’t somewhere he wanted to be heading. That’s when Enemy Esports and Clerkie were born.
“My buddy Chachi, or Robert Stemmler, lived on my floor and I would come into the lab at like 3AM and he would be in there playing games. We would play Smash against each other,” he said. “One day I just said to him ‘dude, we hate this school let’s just start an esports org.’ I showed him a logo I made - the original Enemy logo, which we kept until the end.”
With his friends agreeance acting as confirmation that this could be something he could make worthwhile, Clerke dropped out of university and began working on what would become a well known and respected organization in League of Legends, Counter-Strike and Smite.
Clerke started working for minimum wage at a local deli in St Louis to help fund and support the new project, while his business partner and college friend Chachi dipped into his own funds to help. The road ahead wasn’t an easy one -- they had no investment outside of themselves and the scene was already beginning to be flooded with teams that had been operating for years.
None of that deterred him.
“We sat on Skype calls for eight to ten hours a day straight just brainstorming how we were gonna do this esports thing.” he explained. “We started bringing people on and signed on our first team, a COD team….we sent them to a LAN called NCG LAN, a tinyish LAN, and we beat a team there in the finals that was representing Team Envyus, we swept them. From that point, I was hooked on it. I was like alright, this is something I’m good at, I’ve got a good eye for talent, we’ve really gotta push forward on this.”
Push forward they did, as Clerke and the organization decided to go for the big leagues shortly after by fielding a League of Legends roster. The team failed to get rolling in its first iteration, but, with some player change ups, ended up making a run all the way to Riot’s North American LCS, qualifying through the Challenger Series.
“That was the moment in my career where I knew I could do this as a full time career. I knew I was good at General Managing and this was something I could do. It was a really emotional day for everyone [when they qualified for the NA LCS]….the thing about Enemy is that we weren’t big time funded, so every event that we had was do or die. We had to do well at every event or else the org would have died. That’s how dire the financials were for the team.”
The experience offered Clerke not only confirmation that he could make it in this industry, but something even greater.
“On that team we had someone named Otter, who should have already been in the LCS. Otter had been trying to do this for like four years, he dropped out of school, he had a challenging relationship with his parents - he was really struggling. Then he finally made it. I had never seen this much emotion on someone's face before. That was also the same moment where I realized I could make a difference in people’s lives.”
After making it into the NA LCS, Clerke and his organization were offered 1.2 million dollars for their spot and team, money that they had only dreamt about until then. Faced with a situation straight out of Silicon Valley, he weighed his options during what he describes as the most stressful week of his life. Ultimately, due to concerns over where their players would end up, they turned down the investment, going for brand over buyout.
“All the owners could have just cashed out, I would be driving a much nicer car than I am right now, but we ended up turning down the money. These players had worked really hard to get here and there’s no guarantee that under any other ownership they would get to play. I wanted to make sure Otter got to play on-stage, I couldn’t just take the money and say goodbye to them.”
This would be a philosophy and mentality that Clerke would carry with him in all future works.
Unfortunately, the Enemy roster was relegated from the LCS, ending the dream run. Eventually, despite having massive success with a second place finish at the Smite World Championships and a Counter-Strike team with upcoming talent like Kenneth “koosta” Suen in it, the organization ceased to be able to operate due to lack of funds.
Looking back at Enemy, Clerke says its style of management and the teams they brought it aren’t something he regrets because of the success they found despite all the odds and doubters.
“The main theme of all my teams in Enemy was that these were all teams that people didn’t expect to go anywhere and they did. That was how I made my initial mark in esports.”
Near the ending of the Enemy organization, Clerke had started going back to school at Maryville University in St. Louis. It was there that he met someone who would help steer his life to where it is now.
“When I was commuting to school at Maryville, I was really in need of some guidance with my situation at Enemy, as I was trying to raise funding in St. Louis.” he explained. “I met with my guidance counselor John Lewington, one of the biggest mentors in my life and still is. He saw what I was doing and was like ‘we got to get this in front of the President’ we have a student doing this and this is very entrepreneurial.”
Clerke received a small scholarship from the school after they recognized what he was doing as a student at the university. Then, Maryville took it a step further. They asked him what needed to be done to start an esports program of their own.
“I was sitting down with President Mark Lombardi and then he said let’s get this thing done at Maryville.” Clerke said. “I then told him to do that I would require a certain level of scholarships to find the right players, I would need space and they were really accommodating. They kind of jumped through hoops for anything that I needed and that was when we started the original Maryville team.”
Maryville began the recruitment and building process, bringing initial players like Saskio, Cackgod, Walrus and then Prototype in the Spring, who would make up most of their championship roster.
For Clerke, Maryville wasn’t something he actively sought in the beginning, but rather something that found him and ended up creating a space where he could share his vision for how players and organizations should be treated within the scene.
“I didn’t go out of my way to want to start Maryville,” he said. “It was something where I saw an opportunity in it where it made me feel more secure for the players in the industry. I mentioned the struggles that Otter went through with Enemy and seeing the emotions he had when we made LCS. Well, I had to see the exact opposite emotions three months later when we got relegated. It was one of the most crushing things for me to see. So the reason why I started Maryville was to give players like Otter, or players that were like fringe pro players or players that wanted to go to the pros in a healthy way, a home so that they could focus on something that would be constructive to their life in case going pro didn’t work out. So they could avoid all the pitfalls I went through.”
As alluded to previously, Clerke, through his experience, personal struggles and direct work with players has gained a creed that he lives by and one that Maryville follows: working with players as people and developing them as adults, not just units for success.
“This is a place where players can come and prove their talents and at the same time get themselves a degree. Otter was really the reason I started Maryville. Obviously I have eight players now and 30 plus kids in the program and I do it for them, but he was the main catalyst to creating this framework and program. Players like him. These guys don’t have to worry about what’s going to be happening to them six months from now, they’re stable and there is a future.”
All signs show that working with players this way, creating a base for them to prosper with the right facilities, management, coaching and education, is a huge success. Just take a look at their trophy case or their mural of accomplishment outside of their gaming lab. The team holds two scholarships teams, adding one for CS:GO most recently, and is expanding even further next year.
Clerke believes the way things are being run at Maryville are the way things should be as a standard within the collegiate scene.
“Some of my competitors believe that this should be treated as a Division 1 sport and that players need to be held at a really high standard and that they’re going to school for the game and should solely focus on that.” he explained. “Whereas I have the opposite philosophy. Sure, five to ten years to now it will probably be a D1 level sport because it will be that big. But right now, it’s simply not that big. My Maryville team could not practice once and still place top ten. These guys are already at a really high level, so what I do at Maryville is focus more on schooling and the college experience. They obviously still practice, but I don’t hold them to the same standards as D1 sports. It’s just not like that at all.”
Maryville, through this framework, has a developed a process that focuses equally on preparing their players to compete and making them comfortable in their new environment.
“This, right now, is the Fall semester for the program and the real matches don’t start until the spring.” Clerke said. “So that means with new recruits coming in, this semester is meant to acclimate them into the college environment, to make friends, to play the game at a casual level and then when spring comes around we kick into full gear. We did that last year and we won with it.”
A place to be comfortable and to become adults is the scene around the lab at Maryville. Upon first walking into the facilities, what is in view is not upset or out of sorts players tearing their hair out because of the stress of their lifestyle. Rather, what is seen is a calm environment, familial-like, with competitors, whether players or management, working not as colleagues but as friends.
“Maryville is more a place for me as well as them to focus on personal growth just as people.” Clerke said. “Some of the players that come here didn’t understand basic stuff, like using a dishwasher or a dryer.”
To him, opponents and critics of Maryville within collegiate esports fundamentally don’t understand what is needed to be done when building a varsity program or working with students and players.
“My philosophy behind coaching players, especially at the collegiate level, why would you try to be a drill sergeant to a kid at a D1 level when they don’t even understand how to work a dryer yet?” Clerke said. ”A lot of these kids didn’t participate in team sports growing up, so they were never put into an environment that demands things like: you respect your coach, you do whatever your coach says always, there is tiers within the team, etc. These kids didn’t go through that, they were just good at video games and played video games most of their lives. What I think is most common among them is a kind of disobedience that they’re used to, because as kids their parents would tell them to get off their game or to spend less time on it and they wouldn’t. So when you try to put them into a team that is run like a bootcamp, that’s just never going to work.”
It’s solely about creating new ways to gauge these competitors and students that are healthy and prepare them for the future, it’s not about expecting them to be used to it already, according to Clerke.
“You have to rethink your philosophy with these kids.” he said. They have to mature mentally before they’re able to compete with those sort of expectations. I’m not saying my players aren’t mature, they’re college students, but they’re not at the same competitive maturity as an experienced D1 college athlete.”
The real passion and drive, Clerke says, comes from seeing these players grow as individuals and teammates, not just in practice regimens and game hours. He believes teams should be places for players to flourish all around, not to be treated like cogs in a machine.
“A lot of these players haven’t played on Challenger teams or at the LCS level.” he said. “They’re learning how to interact with teammates going into the rest of their career. That’s what is really important. You don’t want to run this like it’s an LCS team, you don’t want to pick up and drop players every semester because you’re trying to graduate kids. That’s the goal here, to get kids degrees. It’s not to win just the championship every year, the winning comes with that and is secondary.”
The growth that his players have gone through because of the program is concrete and substantial, per the stories that Clerke shares.
“Something I like to tell people is about Saskio.” he reminisced. “When I first picked up Tony, I got him into a Skype call and he was one of the shyest kids I’ve ever met. He would barely speak and his voice was really quiet. He was like that when he got to Maryville and he also wasn’t the level of player he was at the championships or today. But now, after a year, he’s socially active, is one of the loudest people in the room. He’s matured as a human being and his play has skyrocketed. He almost solo carried us most of the season to the championship in the top lane. Then there’s Cody [Walrus] who got tournament MVP in uLoL when he came into the program as a D2 and D3 player.”
Player personal development is what comes to the forefront of operations for everything that Clerke does and works to accomplish and those who work with and beside him share that vision. A vision that, he says, can’t be spread alone.
“It’s really not a one man show,” he said. “It’s a group effort with the school, administration and team….when people talk about Maryville they talk about me a lot, but it’s really not just me. We have a lot of people working on this and it’s a great group effort.”
These opportunities to advance the collegiate space are something he has been afforded because of the work he has put in from day one, but more even more importantly because of the support and belief he received from those at the university who continue to provide the ability to make a difference in the scene.
“I just want to thank people like John Lewington, Dr. Mark Lombardi, Tom Eschen, Marcus Manning, Jarrett Fleming, Kenneth Lam and Marcus Box, for being sort of the personal mentors and colleagues that have helped turn me into who I am today and given all these great players and students the opportunities they have here.”
This combined effort has created a successful product through and through, so much so that Clerke and company don’t buy into the criticism or commentary by competitors all too much.
“That’s what I really focus on with the program.” he said. “So if my competition wants to criticize us for that and we’re still winning, I think that’s fine.”
This year looks no different than the one previous in terms of talent and style found in Maryville, so it very well may mean the critics might be crying out to deaf ears.
The fall of Enemy and and the cultivation of Maryville as a collegiate giant didn’t spell the end of Clerke’s full time professional career. In fact, it meant a new beginning with a larger venture.
Clerke, while simultaneously working hands on with Maryville, became a co-General Manager of eUnited, a funded esports organization that hosts teams in Call of Duty, Gears of War and Smite and previously held teams in League of Legends and Overwatch.
With them, he has started achieving the ambitions he had with Enemy.
His team in Overwatch became a European powerhouse, his League of Legends team fielded former world champions and discovered raw, upcoming talent. His rosters in Call of Duty and Gears of War have become respected as some of the best there is, while his Smite team are North American regional champions.
The stability he fought for year after year, event after event, has finally come.
Whether general managing a major organization or directing students on their paths forward, there is one common theme that Clerke says all should know: he knows he's really good at this and he is just getting started.
If you want to connect more with Clerke, you can find his contacts below:
eUnited Website: eUnited.gg