SF Giants' Hunter Pence Speaks to His 'Warcraft' Glory Days and How He Plays on the Road

SF Giants' Hunter Pence Speaks to His 'Warcraft' Glory Days and How He Plays on the Road

Hunter Pence reached 'Gladiator' rank in 'World of Warcraft' Arena and dreams of opening a board game shop. Tim Umphrey/Glixel

He was among the top 0.1 percentile in competitive 'WoW' and dreams of opening a board game shop

He was among the top 0.1 percentile in competitive 'WoW' and dreams of opening a board game shop

It's pretty amazing how many genuine oddballs the San Francisco Giants have employed in recent years. There was the macho, charcoal-bearded closer Brian Wilson, the spacey, idiosyncratic Cy Young winner Barry Zito, and the 174-pound spitfire Tim Lincecum. While right fielder Hunter Pence might not look like a genuine eccentric, his off-kilter affability (and formidable talent) has made him the most cherished star on a team full of fan favorites.

Pence is probably best known for his tight, luscious locks, beautiful batting mechanics, and legendary workout regimen, but he's also a lifelong gamer who streams Magic on Twitch and used to carry a bulky gaming laptop with him on the road. You tend to expect a certain amount of artifice with any celebrity interview, but Pence is downright convivial. He's straightforward with his passions in a refreshingly non-performative way – an authentic geek who's just as thrilled by video games as he was during his childhood. We talked about Smash Bros., the board game store he dreams of someday opening, and how Death Knights were overpowered back during World of Warcraft's Wrath of the Lich King expansion.

What games did you play when you were growing up? What got you into gaming?
The first game I remember playing was Q*bert, but my first memory of really loving gaming was waking up super early to play Super Tecmo Bowl for the Nintendo. We would do seasons and buff our stats. That's my earliest memory of gaming.

Who did you play games with growing up? Was it a sibling or a friend?
I had some neighborhood friends and we'd walk home from school and get into all sorts of games. When I got older and got into PC gaming, we had a pretty good crew.

What game are you best at?
The World of Warcraft arenas were my height. Growing up we'd play stuff like Mario Kart, where we'd all race each other and try to get the best time. There was Goldeneye which I got wrecked in. But when online gaming started growing, I got really into arenas. I was Gladiator ranking [in World of Warcraft], which is like the 0.1 percentile.

Did you know the people you were doing arenas with or did you meet them online?
I met them online, none of my friends had the time to really get there. So it was friends through the internet. One of them did live in Houston, though, so we became pretty good friends. He was actually training to be a UFC fighter.

When you were playing World of Warcraft, or any multiplayer game that's social, would you ever pull back the curtain and let people know that you're Hunter Pence? Or do you keep that hidden?
I keep it under wraps. But with my arena teams, we'd play something like 250 matches a month. We'd have scheduled times to meet up. So they would know, but nobody else would. It was a lot different back then. There was no Twitch, and gaming was kinda looked down on. People didn't talk much about it. But it's changed so much, it's a lot cooler, a lot less toxic.

World of Warcraft arenas – especially on the level that you played – require a lot of technical fiddling. There's a lot to think of, like how you build your team, and how to counter others. Do you like doing that in video games?
Yeah, I like the creativity offered in these games. I like it looking for things that not a lot of people do. I pretty much never choose the most popular character. I always seek out the least-played character and try to make the best of them. I don't know why. I guess I like being the underdog and doing something that nobody has seen. For instance, in World of Warcraft, my gladiator was an Enhancement Shaman. I had a really good Mage, I had a Death Knight when those first came out. But the Death Knight just felt like it was cheating. The Enhancement Shaman took so much more work.

Those Death Knights were famously overpowered at the start of Wrath of the Lich King.
Yeah, I think they were first released right as the season was ending. So I was way ahead of the game in the battlegrounds, taking on the whole team and never dying.

Do you find time to play during the MLB season? Are you able to play on the road?
I wouldn't say a lot, but you definitely can. I would bring my laptop around – and I still do – or I'll bring my iPad around if I'm playing Hearthstone. I remember as a young guy, I used to get a ton of heat for bringing around my giant laptop for World of Warcraft. In baseball, you've got a little bit of free time in the morning, but you leave for the field at, like, 1:00 PM, and you get home at 11:30. So you've got a couple hours at night to wind down, and a couple hours in the morning before you go to work.

Typically I would get really good in the offseason. Because that's when you have your training regimen and then you're just supposed to eat well and rest. So my rest time would be me playing World of Warcraft or whatever the game was. So I'd get crazy good.

There was this one time where right during spring training, I was invited to some professional esports tournament, and my team was like "let's go! let's go!" and I had to be like "guys I can't go, I have to go to work." I also remember moments where I'd get into a house where the internet was bad, and I'd have worked my rating so high that if I lost a game I'd lose two hours of progress. The lag would kill me, and I'd just quit.

Also, in World of Warcraft at that time, you had to do these raids in order to gear yourself for PvP. Those would usually happen at 7pm, which is most people's off-time, so I had no chance at that.

You mentioned you used to get heat for carrying around your laptop and being a gamer. As gaming has become more mainstream and as younger guys get into the Majors, do you think that stigma has gone away
There's still a lot of people who don't know what I'm talking about, but a lot of guys around the league know I'm a gamer and they come up to me and tell me what they play. There's rumors of some incredibly good Counter-Strike or Call of Duty players. I think [Giants pitcher] Will Smith was telling me that Jimmy Nelson [Milwaukee Brewers pitcher] was crazy good at first-person shooters. There's a lot of guys who are into it. But not too many of them understand esports, and how big that's getting.

I know you play Hearthstone and you've been playing Magic on your Twitch stream. When did you first start getting into card games?
Magic was something I got into when I was like 10, with kids in my neighborhood. I played it for like a year, and then my parents threw away my cards. They thought they were evil. So I didn't play again until last year actually. I didn't even know it still existed. Some people I play League of Legends with were playing Hearthstone, and I was making fun of them for it. Like 'why would you do that?' But then I started playing it and got really into it. I like how they're quick games. You can just leave at any time. I can't play League where I have to be stuck at my computer at 40 minutes at a time. In Hearthstone, if I have to leave I can just surrender the game. A lot of my decisions come down to what I have time for, or what can I get in and out of – so that's where Hearthstone, Smash Bros., and Magic come in.

A good friend of mine and I want to open a board game/Smash Bros/coffee shop. That's kind of our dream shop. He was like "if you're playing Hearthstone, you gotta try out Magic." Magic blew my mind when I got back into it, just the amount of creative, fun stuff you can do.

You're a lifelong fan of fighting games. Which one are you best at?
It's a toss-up between Mortal Kombat and Smash Bros. for Wii U. Right now, it's probably Smash. I think that's the most fun because you can get people who don't even know the game and they're still going to have fun. You can't just jump into Mortal Kombat and know what you're doing. You have to spend hours mastering your combos -- which I love – but it has a harder entry.

I also really love Injustice and I'm really looking forward to Injustice 2. The juggling aspect of Injustice is a good time. I love all those fighting games. I love the finger coordination, like reacting to what your opponent is gonna do. It's kind of like facing a major league pitcher, where you're trying to anticipate what they're going to throw.

What have you been playing lately?
I've been watching a lot of League of Legends. Not playing it, just watching. Magic is my main focus right now, with a side focus on Smash until Injustice comes out.