It’s October 30, 2019. It had been a long day at the Smart Sibol Training Ground in Makati. As the final available practice day for the Sibol Hearthstone team before the long weekend, multiple media outlets were on hand to interview Hearthstone pros Jia and Waningmoon, both representatives under the Sibol National Esports team at the upcoming SEA Games.
Being scheduled last among the media teams, it would be hours before my interview with Jia. I was worried that after such a long day, she would be too drained to answer all the in-depth questions I had about her life and her Hearthstone journey.
However, when Sibol Hearthstone Team Manager Richard “Pompi” Castillo finally called me up and introduced me to Jia, it was obvious that my concerns held no water. Even after a grueling day, Jia had been pleasant and cheery, cracking jokes and such.
Of course. I should have known that the veteran caster would be used to talking at length for long periods of time.
However, as I would soon find out throughout the course of the interview, I realized that it wasn’t just Jia’s experience in the caster’s chair at work here, this was just who she was; a jovial, good-natured individual with a burning passion for the things she loved.
A Gamer at Hearth
Those familiar with Jia Dee already know that she’s an absolute beast at Hearthstone. She’s won the WSOE Hearthstone legs twice and has qualified for a several Masters level Hearthstone events around the world. Of course, there’s also her selection to the Sibol National Esports team representing the country in an unprecedented event in the SEA Games, a monumental and historic feat that not many can lay claim to.
However, what most people may not know is that even before her Hearthstone journey, Jia had always been a gamer. She jokes that instead of having Barbie Dolls as a kid, she had her older brother’s Nintendo Gameboy to play with.
Jia grew up with the Nintendo brand, describing herself as a staunch Nintendo fan pretty much since birth. This has continued to this very day, with Jia being a proud owner of a Nintendo Switch where she had been playing Fire Emblem: The Three Houses-the latest game in her all-time favorite franchise-before putting it down to focus on Hearthstone events and training.
Her eyes lit up when I asked about The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild where she went at length to describe the incredible sense of wonder she felt with the game as she flexed how she conquered all of its 120 Shrines.
She’s also a huge Pokémon fan having sunk several hundred hours of playtime across various titles and various consoles throughout the years. Jia didn’t just play the mainline games, I found out, as she giddly rattled off Pokemon Stadium, Pokemon Colosseum, Pokemon Puzzle League, Pokemon Mystery Dungeon, Pokemon Conquest, Pokemon Ranger and Pokemon Snap. Half of these I barely even remember existed.
Jia even played the old Pokémon Trading Card Game back in the day among other trading card games, which would eventually lead her to Hearthstone few years down the line.
“I liked card games as a child and that helped when I started Hearthstone. I have Pokemon Cards but I very rarely played them in real life kasi wala akong kalaro (because I have no one to play with me). I also have Yu-gi Oh! cards but the Yu-gi Oh! that I really played was mostly on the DS. Those were really fun.”
She says that it was through her family that she found a love for the big red and white brand:
“My Aunt’s ex-husband worked for Nintendo in Seattle. So (Nintendo) was the stuff that was readily available to us. When we’d visit them in the States, my ex-uncle would invite us to go to the Nintendo Headquarters.”
“Nintendo itself has also always been family-friendly brand so I would play with my brother a lot. Not to say that I don’t like the other consoles but that was really my first exposure to gaming so it naturally grew on me.“
As a child, Jia remarked that she was never really the extrovert/outdoors-y type. She preferred staying in, watching TV and playing videogames over sports and the like. Her after school routine consisted of kicking back and watching what she describes as classic TV: Spongebob Squarepants and Fairly Odd Parents. She talks fondly of the Disney channel cartoon Totally Spies, an animated show that put a new spin on the classic Charlie’s Angels formula that quickly became her favorite animated series.
During the interview, Jia frequently made jokes about how she had no one to play with in her childhood and never being out in the playground with the other kids. She said “Young Jia” did well in school but didn’t really have a social life.
“I was a bit anti-social in grade school, I’m not going to lie. I don’t know why. I guess feel ko sobrang talino ko noon (I felt I was so smart back then)” she chuckled.
“Young Jia felt like the world revolved around her and school was too easy for her. Kaya siguro wala akong friends noon (That’s probably why I never had any friends)” as she chuckled once again.
“Tapos sa high school lang ako natauhan (It was high school that woke me up) and I like to think I became normal”
In her adulthood, much of Jia’s current hobbies still reflect her indoor kid nature. After a long day, she likes sitting down with her favorite K-dramas on Netflix and watch ASMR videos on the Internet. Of course, there’s also the aforementioned videogames, as well as reading books and playing the piano.
Jia was also quite musically inclined and classically trained in piano. I happened to run into her Piano Covers on Youtube when I was doing research for this interview and asked her about it:
“I took formal piano lessons from when I was 6 years old until I was 13 years old. When I started high school, I didn’t have time for the lessons and I had to give it up. But after the classical training, I realized I couldn’t devote such a huge amount of time to that because with classical music, in order to play it properly you had to practice very often and I didn’t have that kind of commitment.”
“I enjoy listening to classical music still but I don’t think I could play it very well. So I tried to transition into pop covers. I would search the most popular songs and I would look for people playing covers and I download their sheet music. Eventually I learned how to play by ear myself.”
There’s a tiny hint of regret when Jia talked about the piano, perhaps contemplating of what could’ve been but then dismissing the thought, seemingly at peace with her choice.
“It would have been really cool if I actually continued with the classical music because I really admire people that have that type of discipline. But for now the piano is just a fun hobby, like something to relax with or pass the time. I would like to post some new covers though but this time with better quality.”
While Jia remarked that she didn’t really take piano seriously, citing that she didn’t have it in her to stay committed to getting good at one thing, I’d argue that she indeed had what it took all along as evidenced by her dedication to stay the course in her Hearthstone journey.
But before Hearthstone, Jia had seen herself in a drastically different career.
“Very young Jia wanted to be a doctor because she liked watching House MD.” She says as she laughs.
Jia had taken up Molecular Biology and Biotechnology at the University of the Philippines which had two career paths: Pre-Med or Research. She fancied herself going the Research route because she actually enjoyed being in the lab and performing experiments for the greater good.
All this while, she had already been playing this new card game by Blizzard called Hearthstone, having picked it up in the summer after graduating high school after a friend recommended it to her. She’d spend much of her early college days playing the game casually until one day her batchmate Abi came to class having reached Legend rank, the highest rank on the Hearthstone competitive ladder.
This event sparked something in Jia, a fire in her spirit fueled by equal parts of curiosity and competition. She talks about this moment with reverence and admiration. It was this event after all, that would set her on a course to turning pro in the years to come.
“Sabi ko ‘Wow ang galing niya’ parang pareho lang naman kaming MBB [Molecular Biology and Biotechnology] student so maybe I could do that too.”
(I said ‘Wow he’s so good’. We’re both just MBB [Molecular Biology and Biotechnology] students so maybe I could do that too“)
“So I asked him for his help. He told me to stop playing my Rank 8 home-brew stupid Warlock deck and gave me a proper Zoo Warlock and I hit Legend with that. From then on I would hit Legend regularly.”
Jia’s love of Hearthstone drew her to GuildHouse, a board game cafe near UP where a community of like-minded individuals that shared her passion for the game began to form. It was also through GuildHouse that Jia would have her very first turn at the caster’s chair.
“So after a few months of playing there the owner at the time Sir Aja said that ‘What if we have a tournament in SM North?’ And we could try to invite more people not just our usual community.”
“Then he was like: ‘Who wants to cast among us?’ So I tried it.”
“Even though our stream was terrible, it kept cutting out every 5 minutes and there were times that there were only two people watching, I had fun because I got to experience what it’s like to be Frodan (a well-known shoutcaster in the Hearthstone tournament scene).”
“I found that I really enjoyed explaining things and I was quite good at it.”
She described the events to follow as “RNG” (Random Number Generator) – a gaming term for randomly-generated scenarios-because it was also through that GuildHouse event that Jia met the Mineski people who then invited her to cast the Hearthstone Event at ESGS 2016. Immediately after that, after another favorable roll of the dice, Mineski were also looking for someone to fill seasoned Hearthstone caster/player Pathra Cadness’ slot in the Malaysia Major, a Blizzard sanctioned event. Pathra had moved to France and they were looking for someone within the area.
“So they invited me despite not having any name. I was just this complete ‘rando’ (random person) in the international scene but there I was casting an event with people that I had been watching on stream for years! I was meeting pro players, I was meeting casters like TJ and Raven whom I was a fan of.”
“I was dropped head first into it but Blizzard liked my work and they kept inviting me back to more stuff and one thing led to another”
All this time, through her rise to acclaim, Jia had the unwavering support of her family to keep her grounded and keep her going. All throughout the interview, I got the sense that family was very important to Jia. She mentions her older brother a lot, who had been a devout geek and gamer himself and was more than happy to share his interests with his only sibling, and her mother and father who had been supportive of all her endeavors from piano all the way up to esports.
She describes their family as a small and tight knit bunch that loves to bond over food.
“We love eating out. It’s become a tradition especially if my grandparents could make it. Since they also live in Makati every Saturday, madalas kami mag food trip dito.(We frequently explore restaurants here in Makati).
“Kaya rin ako naging (That’s also why I became a) foodie is because of my family”
The self-confessed foodie was quick to name Japanese cuisine as King, citing Ramen, Sashimi via Chirashi Bowl, and Yakiniku-style Japanese BBQ as her top three dishes.
With such a strong, tight knit bond between them it comes as no surprise that Jia’s family supports her esports career as whole-heartedly as they do. Of course, it didn’t hurt that her new venture didn’t interfere with her studies, falling neatly into place parallel to her academic obligations, in addition to being an actual healthy career opportunity to pursue.
“My parents are very supportive, honestly. When I started out with casting, I was juggling it with school but at my very first international event was scheduled very conveniently the week after exams at the start of Christmas break. So I can go and treat it like a vacation with no conflicts.”
“My parents we’re like: ‘Ah so mag ma-Malaysia ka? Magkano pamasahe? (So you’re going to Malaysia? How much is the fare?) and I was like: “No Mom, Sagot yan ni Blizzard. (Blizzard is footing the bill.) They invited me to cast!”
“They were shocked. Not only that [Blizzard] would be covering the expenses and there’s also a talent fee of course, for casting.”
“We all thought, including me, that it would be a fun hobby at first. But as the years progressed, I got more and more events, and it got more and more steady as I became more known in the community.”
Even in the most difficult times when Jia was having trouble balancing casting and school work, her parents never really told her to give one thing up.
“They just said ‘As long as makapagtapos ka, kahit ma-delay ok lang (Just as long as you finish school, even if you get delayed, it’s ok.) Then after you finish school, you can pursue what you really want to. So, I’m really, really thankful for my parents for being so supportive.”
Even Jia’s older brother Kiko was very supportive of her every step of the way. This was the same brother who she’d fight over the old Gameboy with and played Zoids with as kids who Jia now considers her number one fan.
“Parang siya na yung naging number one fan ko. Lagi niyang shi-nishare yung interviews ko sa Facebook. So that’s really sweet. Thanks Kuya!”
(He’s kind of like my number one fan now. He always shares my interviews on Facebook. So that’s really sweet. Thanks Kuya!)
Today, all that support has blossomed quite fruitfully. Jia is one of the Hearthstone scene’s most prominent voices as well as its most proficient players.
Jia Dee is actually living the gamer’s dream as a full-time Hearthstone caster and player which means she fully supports herself through playing and casting the game she loves. Her day-to-day life revolves around her bread-and-butter game especially with the SEA Games coming up in just a few short weeks.
“Honestly, right now, I eat, sleep, breathe, Hearthstone. Aside from playing, I do preparation for casting if that needs to happen. So I would review stream VODs and things like that. Every so often there’s travel like my recent trip to Romania for a tournament. “
“Don’t ask me how I did” she joked “but it was a great experience.”
“I watch a lot of streams, I play in calls with friends, I do training. Yeah It’s really a lot of Hearthstone right now.”
With the volume of playing a single game for such a huge amount of time, Jia says that she’s definitely not a stranger to fatigue. However, she also says that the excitement of looking forward to events helps her power through.
“I’ve definitely had times where I felt burned out. When I really don’t enjoy the meta or if I don’t have something to look forward to like the next tournament or the next event. But right now we have the biggest thing to look forward to which is the SEA Games.”
“So even if now, I’m a little pissed at Shaman in the meta, I’m still fine playing hours and hours of Hearthstone.”
In a few weeks time, the upcoming SEA Games will be the grandest and most recent stop of Jia’s Hearthstone journey. As such, their training regiment is in full swing and getting more and more focused as the fated day draws near.
“So for Sibol we have a more scheduled training. So thrice a week we’d come here around noon from 1pm to 8pm as a group. When we don’t have training. I’m also playing at home.”
“We’re also trying to learn every deck in the meta and still trying to compete in the main Hearthstone Circuit which means trying to qualify for the Masters Tours and getting a good finish on ladder and stuff like that.”
Their Coach Jan Marvin Chalk Zaldivar also urges them to play Hearthstone’s Arena mode (a draft format similar to MTG Draft) once a week, just to hone basic skills and concepts.
“Arena is good for fundamentals even without knowing the meta. It’s just like what’s a good trade on board, what’s the best play with what you’re given.”
However, what Jia finds most valuable during their training sessions is the insight of her team while playing together.
“We like to talk to each other about what’s a good deck right now? What are some good tech to use.”
“Hearthstone is honestly, so much about discussion. So having those chuckleheads in person while you play the game is really great because we can discuss on the spot without lag. Then together we come up with a conclusion, the synthesis of what’s the best play this turn.”
“The more that I get that feeling, I get to understand how they think and then when I’m applying it by myself I can think about how they’d approach a situation and how would it be different with what I would do.”
I noticed this is a recurring trend about Jia, she values the perspective of other people and relishes sharing those perspectives to learn and become better. This was evident even as far back as her college days with Abi and even in an earlier question when I asked about what the most important things to consider were in turning pro:
“I think the mark of the best players is that even when they win, they’ll immediately go back and review their game, talk to other pro players about what they could’ve done better. That kind of mindset that’s always improving is really important ”
“Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Like how I improved, I asked Boss Abi right? Later on, as I started meeting more pro players and going higher in the ranks I had more friends that were willing to play with me. Sometimes, I’d help them test a deck, Sometimes they teach me. That type of communication really helps.”
With the SEA Games 2019 slowly drawing near, Jia’s going to need all that insight, expertise and skill in her corner as players from all over South East Asia look to become the first Hearthstone SEA Games Champion. However, in true Lakad Matatag fashion, despite the enormous weight put on her shoulders, she isn’t really feeling the pressure at this point.
“I suppose the pressure will be more intense. At WSOE, I was surprisingly not as nervous as I thought I would be when it came to the game itself. I really zoned in and just played the game”
At the very start of the interview I made a joke about how, when I was putting together the questions it read like a Slam Book- A dated open diary style notebook concept that teens my age filled up and passed around. As such I cooked up some Slam Book-y questions as sort of a fun end cap for the interview but I had caught myself wondering if Jia was even old enough to know what a Slam Book was. Thankfully she did and these were her answers:
Favorite Food: Sashimi
Favorite Color: Maroon
Favorite Band: Foster the People
Favorite Videogame: Fire Emblem: Awakening
Favorite Nintendo Character: Felix from Fire Emblem: Three Houses
Favorite Blizzard Character: The Innkeeper
Disney? Yes or No?: For the content yes. As a corporation, No.
Fave disney character and why isn’t it Genie?: Mulan because big relate.
Jia will be representing the country in the upcoming 30th SEA Games on November 30 to December 11 under the Esports category, Hearthstone Discipline. From gaming as a child, to a succession of opportunities in Hearthstone, her embodiment of the Sibol team battlecry ‘Lakad Matatag’ constantly manifests itself in how she chooses to face challenges: head-on with confidence, knowing that her support group is a strong, solid foundation in which she can grow further.