A dramatic, machine-generated fog and a computer screen separated Ian Alexander from the crowd at the DreamHack Denver 2017 American Video Game League Collegiate League of Legends Championship in October.
A camera to Alexander's left livestreamed the team's pre-game deliberations while shoutcasters commentated. Draped over the back of Alexander's chair is a gray-blue bomber jacket, a yellow "CHALLENGER" embroidered in the League of Legends font on its left breast.
What the cameras on his left side didn't pick up, though, was the most interesting part of Alexander's journey to that chair.
At 18, Alexander is one of North America's best League of Legends players. At his peak, "MistyStumpey" (as he's known in League) was No. 12 on the game's solo queue ladder. And the top laner did it with just his right hand and a lone digit on his left.
When MistyStumpey rolled his chair back to talk strategy with Columbia's coach, he grabbed his "stump," as he calls it, just as it comes into frame of the livestream camera. He often fiddles with the one finger on the end of his left arm, which ends in a partial hand where the elbow would normally be. He can move the finger, but not fully. It's mostly cartilage, so it doesn't bend at the joints. He can use it to press keys, but he has to move his wrist to get from one button to another.
Imagine what it'd take to be one of the best players in the U.S. despite that disability, rubbing shoulders with Cloud9 and FlyQuest starters and, yes, Team SoloMid's Søren "Bjergsen" Bjerg on the solo queue ladder this season.
In his promo photo for DreamHack, MistyStumpey flexes with his right arm, looking over his shoulder at the camera. But for some reason, the photo was mirrored so that it appears as if he's flexing a full left arm, as if he doesn't have a disability at all.
And on his best days, he plays like it.
"He's a professional-level player missing four fingers on his keyboard hand," said Drake Porter, Columbia College's Esports Senior Strategic Analyst. "If anything, he should not be nearly as successful as he is."
MistyStumpey's brain works even more quickly than his hands. If he's not challenged, he gets bored. You'd think overcoming his arm would be a challenge in itself, but as his mother Valerie Alexander said, "It's just not enough."
MistyStumpey, who was adopted from South Korea when he was six months old, grew up in Blue Springs, Missouri. He's had this disability since birth -- and he started defying it early, too. He learned to juggle shirts when he was 6 or 7 years old. He made activity books for his younger sister, play-shops and play-money for his parents and bows and arrows for himself. He learned to swim, and he built a makeshift tape measure mechanism out of LEGOs for his mother when hers broke.
"He just found a way," his father, John Alexander, said.
Despite his disability, he often excelled at both physical and mental challenges. He played soccer for years. He'd quickly figure out strategy board games' mechanics, telling his family the path to the most optimal score -- a prelude, perhaps, to his League skill. He beat John Grubbs, his best friend from childhood, at foursquare, despite Grubbs' two longer arms.
MistyStumpey says he took some of this inspiration from his father, who has cerebral palsy on the right side of his body.
"Him being able to work through it and adapt to it basically was a validation for me," MistyStumpey said, "If he can do it, then I can easily adapt."
MisteyStumpey's biggest weakness is that he loses motivation when he isn't pushed. He sometimes struggles with attendance at Columbia College, not because of laziness, but because he doesn't always find courses challenging.
When he's tested by a subject or another person, though, he steps up immediately. The sophomore once got too comfortable with his performance in League and then got stomped by another team. His response: practicing harder and climbing up the ranked ladder.
"Whenever he feels like he's not being challenged, he just kind of floats through life," Porter said. "He's outrageously naturally talented. ... I really feel like if he sets his mind to something I think he can probably accomplish basically anything he wants to do. I think that out of any of our players, he'd have the easiest chance of reaching LCS, if that's what he wanted to do."
But developing the confidence to embrace that natural skill took time. As MistyStumpey went from his childhood to adolescence, he became more self-conscious.
"When you're a little kid, you don't think about anything," MistyStumpey said. "It's like 'Oh! He has one arm!' I'm like, 'I don't care.' And then it's like you get to that middle school age and you start caring."
His anxiety got so bad that he was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and anxiety disorder, but he eventually worked through those issues.
Now, when MistyStumpey notices people looking at him weirdly -- a "sixth sense" he said he's developed from a lifetime of people looking at him -- he's not bothered by it anymore.
"I just think to myself, 'They're just curious,' right?" MistyStumpey said in November. "It's not like they mean anything malicious."
"I've had a lot of people come up to me in the past month and say 'I don't notice you have one arm.' They think because I have one arm I might act way differently or odd, but then they see that there's nothing odd or different in the way I act, so they don't really notice it."
MistyStumpey, who finished high school by the time most people finish their freshman years, enrolled at Longview Community College when he was 16. He caught Columbia College's attention in June 2016 when he reached the front page of the League of Legends subreddit with an ask me anything post:
"Born with 1 hand, play like 2. Master tier!"
The comments were largely positive. Some were amazed that he could play quick-press characters, like Zed, with such finesse given his condition.
"It would honestly be more believable if you were an Olympic sprinter or world class soccer player with this type of disability," one commenter said, "especially considering the extensive use of the keyboard."
MistyStumpey's father then reached out to the Cougars, who announced in 2015 that they would sponsor a varsity League of Legends the following year, to ask about scholarships. He secured a tryout with the team soon after.
MistyStumpey, like most solo queue stars, was accustomed to "hard-carrying" teammates, which led to a somewhat reckless playstyle.
"When he was trying out for the team, I gave him a negative review," said Dean "CC Dean" Wood, one of Alexander's teammates. "He'd one-v-three or one-v-four -- just not make team-oriented plays. I just didn't think he had the right mentality."
But MistyStumpey's skills were impossible for Columbia to pass up. He joined the team in Fall 2016, and CC Dean's evaluation eventually changed.
"Last year," he said, "he was able to stomp his lane almost every game."
MistyStumpey also received scholarship offers from the University of Pikeville and Robert Morris University before choosing Columbia. After his first year there, MistyStumpey says he received even more offers "from like 40 different schools," but he chose stick with the Cougars.
"It was still close to home, I got a substantial scholarship for this year, and also I knew everyone and was already acquainted with the program," MistyStumpey said. "I had been here since the program started, and I was able to help shape it that way, which I liked. And with everyone I knew, I understood that I would be able to continue to help shape it the way which I thought it should go."
In his first year at Columbia, MistyStumpey improved as a teammate as well, and his risky picks and engages turned into clutch plays for the Cougars.
In the final game of the DreamHack competition in Denver, MistyStumpey chose to play as Ornn, a new champion that few had experience with at the time. With only a handful of solo-queue games as Ornn under his belt, he didn't have much experience with the champion, either.
But he'd played enough -- and watched enough pros play -- to know what he was doing. He also knew there was a pretty small chance that the opposing team, the University of Houston, would know how to counter Ornn.
"Ian just said 'The best pick right now is Ornn,'" Porter said. "He was explaining how the champion worked as we went into the game.
"We won that game super hard."
In life, just as in League, MistyStumpey likes to have a gameplan -- like, a "five years from now" gameplan. Right now, he's planning to take his talents all the way to the North American League of Legends Championship Series.
"That's pretty much the highest goal," despite some early misgivings over whether he could make it, MistyStumpey said. "I am certain now that that is something that's on the list of things I need to do?"
MistyStumpey does have a fallback plan, though. He's interested in a job in computer science like his dad, who is a software developer. That field, like League, would allow him to constantly solve new problems. But the real hope is to go pro and get more recognition as a streamer. At the heart of MistyStumpey's LCS dreams lies his competitive spirit and his desire to challenge himself.
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"Coming from a position where I tend to have to put in more effort to achieve the same things as other people," in the game, MistyStumpey said, "whenever other people have more capabilities but yet they just decide to not put forth the amount of effort to do so, that's something that really gets on my nerves. They have much more opportunities, but they decide to basically throw it away."
MistyStumpey says this emphasis on the importance of hard work has helped keep him humble in spite of his apparent natural talent for the game. He says he doesn't look down on lower-ranked players because he started out in the same position they're in.
"When I first started out, I was terrible. My very first season, I ended Bronze," MistyStumpey said. "I understand that it's a process of working up, so just being able to help them and do it that way helps keep me humble, because basically I understand what they're going through.
"I understand that it's not like 'Oh, he's a pro player, and he was born that way.' It's basically your work that you put into it."
And with just a little more hard work, MistyStumpey says he believes he can earn himself a place in the NA LCS Scouting Grounds in 2018.
"This year, I was like a couple games away from going to Scouting Grounds," MistyStumpey said in an interview in December. "Next year, I'll be probably like much higher than I was this year, just because that's how I've been improving over the years. So I think definitely, definitely next year, I'll be prime material."