The Psychology of Winning:
My conversation notes with one of the world’s best gamers
by Elizabeth Weil, Founder & GP, Scribble Ventures
The side of great startup founders outsiders rarely see is the most telling one — the human equation. It’s more logical to focus on ideas and markets but fundamentally, that’s not why founders start companies, nor why VCs invest in them.
The real question is:
“What is it about this person that makes them unstoppable?”
Stephen Ellis is a perfect example of unstoppable. Known as “Snoopeh”, one of the world’s best gamers who was later hired by Facebook for its gaming division, he then co-founded Scribble company Pipeline, a platform for content creators to build an audience and grow a business.
But look even deeper and an interesting pattern emerges:
- Stephen came from a low-income family in Scotland.
- He was born with a club foot and was unable to play sports with other kids.
- His father, a games and computer enthusiast who passed away when Stephen was in college, ignited in him a passion for gaming that started when he was just five years old.
- Stephen spent his youth and young adulthood singularly focused on this craft, eventually ascending the ranks to #1.
We see this 4-part pattern repeatedly in the founders we back:
- A calling away from the typical path
- A passion for something unusual
- Many years of singularly focused, committed work
- Outsized success no matter the pursuit
After a recent chat with Stephen, he gave me permission to share my notes with the broader founder community. I’ve bolded the markers we see of an unstoppable founder.
Ideas and markets matter. But it’s YOUR unique story and journey — your track record of “unstoppable” — that is orders of magnitude more telling.
Pattern 1: A calling away from the typical path
- I got into gaming when I was four or five years old. Every Friday night, my dad and his buddies hung out at our house and played video games. One was Quake, and another was called Medal of Honor.
- I thought it was so cool. Then they started letting me in on the odd game.
- I was getting a little bit better each time to the point where my Dad’s friends told him he could no longer let me play. They thought I was cheating. My Dad knew I wasn’t cheating but they got really frustrated — this was their fun Friday night, and here’s this little kid just coming in and ruining it.
- So I quickly got thrown out of those Friday night games with my dad. And it really spurred in me this idea that I wanted to build my own computer, my own space to play games.
- Also, when I was born, I had a bad injury on my left leg, leaving me with a clubfoot. I grew up in Scotland and all the kids around me were playing football or rugby. But I was not very good at sports because I kicked the ball and it went off to the left rather than straight ahead. So I didn’t do well in sports, even though I was very competitive.
- I grew up in a relatively lower income family. Around me, the things I could get into were sports, fights, or drinking. I wasn’t very good at sports, and I didn’t really want to get into drinking and fighting. (atypical path)
- So games became the thing that I appreciated.
Pattern 2: A passion for something unusual
- My outlet became games, because this was a level playing field where I could crush it. I fell in love with it.
- My dad had always been into technology. He had the Amstrad, the Amiga, and all this computer stuff.
- So I started building a computer for my Christmas gift. I was six years old and the one thing I wanted for the holidays was a graphics card. And then I just started playing a lot of games, it became my hobby.
- I initially started with a video game called Age of Empires, which is an online game on the PC, a classic Microsoft title. I was obsessed.
- Then I moved on to online games. I played World of Warcraft, which is known to be a game where people don’t have a life and kind of grind through college, playing for like 16 hours a day.
- I had an older cousin who was obsessed — unhealthy obsessed. I wasn’t putting in the same hours he was and I also couldn’t really afford the monthly subscription for the game.
- I then looked into private servers, where you can play a classic version of World of Warcraft, for free. It might not been above board… but I didn’t care!
- That led me down a path of learning how to create private servers.
- At 10 or 11 years old, I started making my own private servers and this is where I started making money online. I was making items inside the game to sell to people like me 30 years later — they had a bunch of disposable income, could afford these things, but didn’t have time.
- I had roughly 3,000 people on this private server, and was essentially selling virtual goods before virtual goods were a thing.
- I then got bored, and got into a game called EVE Online. It’s spaceships in spreadsheets, basically. Economists have written pieces on this game, because of how incredible the player driven economy is within it.
- I played that for seven and a half years and made a bunch of money. I would build, buy and sell all the accounts that I’d built up to people who were older. I learned arbitrage before I even knew what arbitrage was!
- I was going to school for computer science, not because I wanted to quite frankly, but it was just what I thought I should be doing — “go study, go get your college degree.”
- But I kind of resented the idea of going to school because I just wasn’t lit up by it. It’s just not the way that I engage with the world. I was there for a year and I got pretty bored.
- I was playing this game called League of Legends that some friends asked me to try out.
- At its peak, there were 100 million people playing every month. I actually hated it at first because I was really bad at it. This was my first year of college.
- I gave the game a couple of weeks but I wasn’t into it. So I stopped playing.
- About three months later, my buddies from Eve Online said “Hey, why don’t you come and try out league — we’re gonna get into it together. There’s gonna be five of us. It’ll be fun.” And then I fell in love with it. It was no longer just me, it was this team environment.
- Then this part of me that is just very, very fucking good at video games kicked in. I quickly outgrew my friends to the point where they no longer enjoyed playing with me because I would cause us to play against very hard people. And this skill gap was just getting bigger and bigger.
- I started climbing up on these online leaderboards. I became one of the best players in the UK.
Pattern 3: Many years of singularly focused, committed work
- Mine is very much the Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hours story about how you become the best at something.
- I put in the hours at the cost of other things.
- Over time though, the status and the recognition of being really good at something that a lot of people were doing became draining on me given my other responsibilities of being at school.
- During my second year of college my dad was diagnosed with cancer. We learned that he was not going to be cured and would likely pass away within 6 to 18 months.
- That caused for me a sort of wake up call of — what the fuck am I doing?
- I went to university one day, and I came home in the afternoon, and my dad was screaming. As a young person, hearing your father screaming for help when you walked through the door was a very visceral feeling.
- He had chemotherapy and had gotten an infection. So his body’s immune system was completely compromised. He was just screaming for help. And I was like, fuck, I don’t need to be at school, I don’t even want to be at school.
- And to be honest, I kind of lied to my parents. I said, I’m just gonna stay at home. And make sure he’s okay. And also at the same time, I was really falling in love with competing on this online stage.
- So I thought — I can be home, I can do what I want to do. Plus, I can make sure he’s okay.
- And I started becoming really, really good. On the continent in Europe, I started getting recognized for competing at the highest levels, to the point where in 2010 a German team called SK scouted me and invited me to fly to GamesCom in Cologne, Germany to stand in for someone. This was one of the biggest industry events for gaming.
- I’m on stage in front of 10,000 people competing. And I cannot describe the feeling of like, “This is where I’m meant to be. This is what I’m meant to do.” And how energized I felt at that moment.
- There were 100 million people playing this game every single month and I was in the top 100 of that worldwide. In order to do that, there had to come a level of sacrifice.
- I was probably playing 16 hours a day, six days a week.
Pattern 4: Outsized success no matter the pursuit
- At the time, over 100M people were playing League of Legends each month. We flew around the world competing in regional and international tournaments. Claiming a number of 1st Places across Europe and Asia. We placed 3rd in the World Championships.
- We went to Korea, and got up to number two there, which is the mecca of gaming. We were playing live on TV in Korea for the three months that we lived out there. It was surreal. We played at the Korean War Memorial in Seoul and it was this epic outdoor venue with giant soldier statues, and pillars going down the sides, and 10,000 people in the audience and millions of people watching on TV.
- We were recognized as one of the closest groups of players. Our strength was being able to come back from behind and win. Whereas many other teams would fold, we knew we just needed to keep building, and see that opening, and seize it. And then we could turn the momentum.
- We set many records for the longest games on stage.
- You’re competing throughout a season and there’s a circuit. Before game day, there’s a lot of preparation. You’re studying your opponents and practicing your champions (the character you’re playing in the game).
- Within League of Legends, there’s over 160 different characters, maybe more now. I had to master and understand what each one of those were doing. And then there’s also the synergy between the characters that you have on the team, so not just the teammates, but the actual characters themselves in the game.
- With scouting your opponents, you’re trying to understand what characters they played, their level of proficiency with each, their strengths and weaknesses, and the kind of compositions they’re going to run. So much the same that a traditional sports league would happen. You would review all the videos of their previous games, identify weak spots, and then use those to press an advantage in the actual game itself.
- There’s elements of online gaming that I definitely use now as a startup founder/CEO. It’s less now about studying the competition, and more about the pursuit of mastery in different areas.
- Startups similarly have so many different facets — product, marketing, BD, sales, etc. And the job is to develop a level of competence in each one of those areas over time.
- One thing that helped me a lot then and even now in my startup is a high level of visualization.
- The day before a competition, just based on the opponent, I could envisage at what point they were going to be at a certain place and almost play out that moment in the game before it actually happened.
- Also, some of the partnerships that we struck within Pipeline have happened while playing a game. Rather than a Zoom meeting, we’re playing a game and having a conversation, talking about what we could do or what we’re seeing.
- So it’s cool to still keep that part of me alive.
Stephen Ellis is the CEO & Co-founder of Pipeline, a platform for content creators to build an audience and grow a business. He is also a world champion online gamer, having topped the charts as a professional League of Legends player.