They say that it’s lonely at the top, but Shroomed has been aiming for the summit of Smash since he first made a name for himself as a pro. DaJuan “Shroomed” McDaniels was the Gatekeeper, the player aspiring pros had to take down if they wanted to prove their worth. Originally known for his Dr. Mario play, Shroomed has adapted over the years in his goal to constantly improve and earn his place among the Smash Gods.
I recently had the chance to sit down with Shroomed over a weekend and watch him in his natural habit of the thick of a tournament. The first thing you notice about Shroomed is always his easy sense of confidence and megawatt smile. He works a day job in tech to pay the bills, but he’s most at ease when he’s talking about Smash.
We sat in a booth in a steakhouse, along with fellow Immortals Smash 4 player, ANTi, the day before the Toronto tournament Get On My Level. The waitress was taken with the idea of esports; she mentioned how nice it must be to follow your dreams for a living. Shroomed laughed it off – it’s something he’s clearly heard before.
“When I first started playing Melee, I was – and still am – severely dedicated and when I first got into the scene, as I got better, I always improved.” he said. “For the first maybe four, five years of playing, I never dropped in my ranking.”
Shroomed battled his way through tournaments, on the competitive circuit. He wrapped up 2014 by taking a set off Smash Melee pro, Mew2King, repeated the feat at Apex 2015, and hit the top 8. It wasn’t until 2016 that he found his home with Immortals. “I picked Immortals because I felt like we had the same values; we valued the person as well as the player and competitor. I felt like they really wanted me to excel in my way, instead of forcing me to compete their way.”
That way hasn’t always been easy, or straightforward. “It’s tough to balance a full time job and Smash. Obviously, other people get to train a little more. Not substantially, but a good deal more than I do, because I work.” The tradeoff is independence, financial security, and the ability to buckle down and train hard when he is training.
That training has become more specialized as he works his way through 2017. When he first started his career, the path to success seemed simple. He kept training, and he kept getting results. Then he hit a wall, out of grasp of being a Smash God. “Every single time a new ranking came out, I climbed higher and higher. I did that all the way up until I was number ten in the world, basically.”
“It was kind of hard to push past that because at that point, I’m just going for best in the world. I’m already formidable, I’m the Gatekeeper, I’m number ten. I got stuck.” He paused, shrugged, took a moment to find his words. “I didn’t know how to get past where I was. Even now, I’m still around that skill level, and it’s hard to make that final, real push to being the best.”
It doesn’t matter what game you play, or what field you’re in. Plateauing is hard. Shroomed’s solution is to remain relentlessly optimistic. His mental state remains consistent throughout the year, with a hard reset after every tournament. There are no circuits, tournaments are standalone. “Even if we underperform at one tournament there’s always going to be the next tournament without the weight of the previous one. I keep pushing forward, always getting back up on the horse and trying again.”
There’s no qualification, no points, nothing to keep track of – just Shroomed, the game, and his opponent.
The crowd at Get On My Level was on their feet, hands in the air. It had been a long day, but the energy didn’t abate; the fans were on fire, and every combo resulted in a roar. Some pros milled around the stage, checking out games and scouting their opponents. Shroomed would occasionally climb on stage, but every second he wasn’t playing, he headed into the VIP room, grabbed a controller, and started practicing.
If Shroomed was friendly, bright eyed, and confident at dinner, he was entirely different at the tournament. He kept his attention entirely on the screen, shoulders tight with concentration. For most of the night, if he was practicing, the only sounds coming from him were Smash over the speakers and the click of his controller sticks.
When he plays, he’s mechanical with the practice that comes from being a pro. “When I sit down to train, I know exactly what I’m trying to work on and what I’m trying to do. I’ve been more focused in my training instead of training as much as possible.”
Shroomed is constantly dealing with the fact that he has less time on the clock than his competition. “It’s tough to balance a full time job and Smash. Obviously, other people get to train a little more. Not substantially, but a good deal more than I do, because I work.”
If you can’t get the advantage in time, you have to change your approach. For Shroomed, that means dedication: “When I sit down to train, I know exactly what I’m trying to work on and what I’m trying to do. I’ve been more focused in my training instead of training as much as possible.” He’s interested in the vertical slices of skill, choosing to improve on his weak points over making a more general effort at the abstract concept of “getting better”.
Onwards and upwards
Add in weekly Smash sync meetings, and Shroomed thinks that he’s found the formula. He sits down with the Smash manager and they discuss past tournaments, and the next challenges. 2017 has been a rollercoaster for Shroomed. His highest moment took place in the summer at Splash and Smash 3. “I was extremely close to beating both Armada and Leffen. I’ve never beaten either of them, and I was about one hit from beating both of them. It showed me that at my peak, I’m just as talented as any one of the Gods or top players.”
He returns to the same point, the idea that he needs to focus on his weak spots and shore them up through concerted effort. “Consistency is what I’m lacking. I was happy to know I can still keep up with them, just not over long periods of time.”
That became apparent at DreamHack Austin. In a heartbreaking run, Shroomed lost to Hungrybox and then lost to Syrox immediately after. It was his worst moment of 2017, the kind of thing that shakes your morale. “That was a pretty low moment to me because I didn’t do that well against Hungrybox, even though I historically put up a pretty good fight against him, and then losing to Syrox right after, who I didn’t think I should lose to… It made me stop and question my skill for a little bit.”
Before we talked about this, Shroomed had been upbeat. Here, his demeanor changed. It had clearly been a loss that shook him. “I had already had questionable results for the year, and I was feeling pretty good going into that tournament. I was serious, I had been prepared, I got ten hours of sleep, didn’t drink anything, I was really focused… and it was one of my worst performances. It hit me hard; I was demoralized after that.”
Ultimately, there was only one solution that Shroomed was willing to consider: return to the game. He sat down with the Immortals Smash manager, put his game face back on, and started playing again. Fix the weak spots, perfect his strengths.
After seeing his face drop while recounting the DreamHack Austin loss, I had to ask if he’s ever considered stopping. He didn’t hesitate; that trademark smile showed back up and he held his hands up. “I’ve been playing for seven or eight years now, which isn’t even as long as some of the other people in the scene, but I’ve never considered not competing. I’m going to compete until there’s no tournaments to go to anymore.”
As Shroomed heads into Smash Summit, he has one final message: “Keep pushing, keep trying. That’s always been my mentality. I’m the never give up, never surrender kind of guy. Keep looking out for me, because I’m gonna end this year strong.”
After Shroomed picked up a close match at GOML, the crowd began to roar. Shroomed wasn’t a hometown hero, but he’s a likable guy. Immediately after the match, he took his controller and immediately headed back to the VIP room. Once again, he plugged in his controller, started up a match, and began to practice anew.