The former competitor opens up about his life, his loves, and his passion for 'League'
The former competitor opens up about his life, his loves, and his passion for 'League'
By all accounts, Michael "Imaqtpie" Santana is living every esports professional's dream. He may have retired from pro-level League of Legends play in 2014, but his Twitch stream has 1.6 million followers and pulls an average of 30,000 concurrent viewers, while his YouTube channel has more than a million subscribers. According to Santana's management company Everyday Influencers, this huge collective audience generates $2 million a year in earnings for him, and that's before you factor in any sponsorship money. This is the type of success that others in the scene can hardly fathom: after last year's TwitchCon, Santana's former teammate William "Scarra" Li says Santana treated him and a group of close friends to the nicest meal he's ever had, complete with gold-plated dishes and a per-person tab that Li guesses had to have run at least $300.
All of this money is made from the comfort of Santana's living room PC, where he plays League for 10 hours a day in his trademark outfit: gym shorts and a white t-shirt. The casual look and Santana's long, shiny mane are key to his broad appeal, but if you watch his stream, it's easy to see the other areas where he stands out. Unlike other pros who simply regurgitate memes to sound funny, Santana works them like clay, whether he's spitting Kanye-inspired "I miss the old QT" bars in the middle of a game, or welcoming a new subscriber into what he calls "The Big Dick Club." That he's legitimately funny is already enough to set Santana apart from the crowd, but on top of that, he's got a very particular taste in music, ditching the royalty-free EDM that other League streamers default to in favor of top-shelf rap from artists like Pusha T, Migos, and A$AP Rocky. He's laid back, he doesn't get too salty on stream, and he's really damn good at League of Legends.
At 25-years-old, those qualities have earned Santana much in the way of conventional success: a gorgeous house in Silver Spring, Maryland, where he lives with his long-time partner and fiancee Lisha Wei and their three pets, Smallcat, Mellowcat, and Dapperdog. But for all that success, Santana sounds restless, even hungry, when I ask him about the future. "Sometimes I wish that I could play in the LCS and play some competitive games... I miss that a lot. Who knows. Maybe one day, I'll try to return to it, but for the foreseeable future, I don't see it happening."
For now, he's content daydreaming. To actually "relive the glory days," as Santana puts it, he'd have to move back to Southern California, home of Riot Games and League of Legends' North American League Championship Series. Three years ago, when he had that life as a star player of Team Dignitas, he and his teammates were playing League for 14 hours a day just to languish in the middle of the pack. His former teammate Li thinks it's a mistake for Santana to think about going back to pro play when he's already accomplished so much.
"QT is, at the moment, at the very top of his game," Li says, referring to Santana's success as a League streamer. "He's the largest fish in the ocean. And it doesn't really make much sense, from my perspective, for him to go back into something where he's gonna be making a lot less money, he's gonna be working a lot harder for it, and he may still not have the satisfaction at the very end to be like 'that was worth it.'"
At times, QT is one of the smartest players. But he's not savvy. That's a whole different thing.
For now, Santana is comfortable in his daily routine. His 10-hour stream schedule is tough but manageable, and he has tons of free time to hang out with Wei and their animals. Unlike most other pro League players, Santana even has time for other hobbies, like learning how to cook. "I'm still not very good at it," he says, "but... just being able to cook and fuck it up and not have to worry about it definitely feels good."
With so many things in his life so thoroughly figured out, Santana is comfortable enough that he doesn't have to deal with the nagging tension between what he has and what he wants. But that tension is like an itch, and it doesn't seem to be going away.
At the beginning of March, Santana was approached by premier global esports organization Team Liquid to fill the Attack Damage Carry (ADC) position – Santana's main role in League – on their beleagured roster. But he rejected the offer, saying he was "nowhere near good enough" to play at that level. Instead, the spot went to Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng, another top American ADC whose playful rivalry with Santana has driven millions of views to both of their channels.
This isn't the first time Santana has been in this situation. Three years ago, he was living a different kind of dream scenario, rooming with his Dignitas teammates in a beautiful house overlooking Long Beach, California. They were never the clear-cut best team in North America (they finished sixth in the LCS during Santana's final split), but they performed well enough to stay in the league, and the roster had such great chemistry that to this day, they're one of the most memorable Dignitas crews ever assembled. But regardless of how much he liked his teammates, Santana wanted to be the best, and he thinks his comfort paralyzed him with complacency.
"When I look back at it," Santana says, recounting his time on Team Dig, "I think that one of my biggest mistakes was definitely that I didn't look toward my future. Because if I wanted to be the best, I think that maybe swapping teams would have been the best thing for me. But I stayed on Dig just because I liked playing with the people that I had on my team. I didn't really look towards the future. Maybe I should've."
It's easy for Santana to say this now that the Dignitas years are behind him, but Li has another perspective. As Santana's former teammate, Li knows the best and worst that he has to offer, but they're still close enough friends that they run a weekly League of Legends talk show called Beyond The Rift, which itself has almost 30,000 subscribers on YouTube. Li gets cryptic when talking about Santana's popularity, but it's mostly because he doesn't seem to fully understand it: "At times, QT is one of the smartest players. But he's not savvy. That's a whole different thing." Li pauses for a moment, gathering his thoughts. "He just has a unique way of getting what he wants."
QT DOESN'T GIVE A SHIT
Santana's willingness to take advantage of every possible opportunity for cracking a goofy joke – whether he's being self-deprecating, or coining the popular Twitch chat phrase "raise your donger" as a reference to LoL champion character Heimerdinger – makes him an easy internet star. On his primary stomping grounds of Twitch chat and League of Legends' solo queue, where a thick skin is a prerequisite, one of his most valuable talents is his knack for finding the utterly absurd amongst the toxic, and turning it into entertainment at nobody's expense but his own.
Because he's often so oblique, it's hard to tell if there's a "real" Michael Santana, or if everything he does is just an act. When I talk to him over the phone, his demeanor is mostly the same as on his stream, although he's surprisingly nervous when talking about himself. But even when he's touching on more serious subjects, like his plans for the future or his relationship with Wei, he peppers in some casual jokes to lighten up the tone: "I don't think that I fake it when I stream. I'm pretty sure I'm just a complete fucking goon. Everyone that I talk to pretty much tells me I'm a dumbass, so I'm pretty sure that either I have some shitty friends or that's just the truth. I feel like that's just who I am. I just don't give a shit."
"QT doesn't give a shit" is a pretty common chord you'll hear Santana echo both on his stream and whenever he speaks in public, and there's some truth to it. Unlike most of his peers, he's not obsessed with blowing up his viewer numbers, making mountains of cash or having the nicest house on the block – even though he's already achieved those things.
He's been this way since his childhood in Margate, Florida, where he'd do nothing but watch Food Network and play the PlayStation multiplayer shooter SOCOM U.S. Navy SEALs all day. "I was basically like Shrek growing up in the swamp, and I didn't have any money or anything, so I wanted a free-to-play game," he says. So he started playing League of Legends, and after a few months of non-stop play, he'd gotten so good that his friends asked if he wanted to compete in a local tournament with them. The team made the finals, Santana got noticed by better players in the scene like Li, and the rest is history. At the time, none of this was part of some intricate five-year plan. "I didn't really look towards the future. It was just like, damn, I'm really good at this," he says. "I guess I can just fuck around and play a couple games, see what happens."
Looking more closely at Santana's League career, you can see through the cracks and into the things that he actually does care about, like the feeling that he's doing right by his family. When Santana finally made it as a pro player on Team Dignitas in 2011, his parents were happy to see that his commitment had paid off. "They were pumped up for me, like, 'yeah, go and give it your all, man…' Having them support me and want me to do my best was very helpful for me to really focus on improving and doing what I had to do to be the best. Or try to be the best.”
And that's another thing that Santana legitimately cares about – getting better at League of Legends. One of the very best Imaqtpie highlights is a vintage clip from 2013, captured on stream during his time in the Dignitas house at the tail end of a 40-minute slog of a game. Playing as the massive damage-dealing character Draven, Santana pulls a nearly-perfect Flash, which allows him to blink away from an aggressive Riven dive that would have otherwise wiped him off the face of Summoner's Rift. The play lets him pour out damage for the rest of the fight, and when he eventually carries his team to victory, he goes wild: "I love League of Legends. I LOVE LEAGUE OF LEGENDS!!!" Across the room, Santana's teammates echo back the cry at the top of their lungs. It's the kind of video that makes you nostalgic for his Dignitas days, when his performance wasn't just about mechanics, but about team chemistry and genuine camaraderie. Now that he mostly streams solo, his fun with the game seems to have lost that element, and instead hinges on the ability to perform at a top level all on his own.
"League of Legends is just such an amazing game," he tells me, assuring me that Riot Games isn't paying him to say this. "Just the competitive aspect of it, it feels amazing outplaying opponents. You'll see me, I'll play something like Jhin for example. I'm gonna juke this way, hit you with the W, hit you with the Ulti… it just feels so good when you manage to read your opponent's every move and counter it. I just love that feeling, and I don't really get that in any other game."
Wei boils it down in simpler terms: "He likes it because he's good at it. He wouldn't play other games because then he'd have to start over. League is what he's really good at, so it's more fun for him."
There's no doubting that Santana is good at League of Legends. Not only is he one of the top-ranked players in North America, Li thinks his skills as an ADC are top ten in the country. But the talents that make Santana such a successful streamer – his knack for sarcasm, his laid-back attitude – don't translate well into a team setting.
"QT, I think, was a person who was way ahead of his time in terms of his understanding of the game," Li says, comparing his old teammate to early League luminaries like Counter Logic Gaming's former shotcaller Steve "Chauster" Chau. "But the downside is that he couldn't communicate... More than 80, 90 percent of the time, his idea of how to play the game, or what we should do, was right. But he would never be able to explain why."
If there's anyone more critical of Santana's play than Li, it's Santana himself. Right now, his only real goal for the future is to become the top-ranked League of Legends player in North America outside of organized team play, but even that's proven elusive: "I know I can get rank 1, and the fact that I haven't gotten it yet – it's either my entire team's always garbage, and it's their fault that I'm losing, or I'm not as good as I think that I am. And I mean, realistically, there's only one option that it could be."
Santana is different now that he's trying to accomplish something concrete, and it shows on his stream. Compared to last season, when Santana didn't much care about his rank, he tends to stick with conventional champions instead of bouncing around between roles and selecting from a wider character pool. Now, without a pro-level squad to lighten the mood over voice comms, Santana's return to "try-hard" League of Legends has forced him to confront an old challenge: playing nice with random solo queue teammates. Heat-of-the-moment bad-mouthing used to be something that Santana struggled with more in the past, but that tapered off once he became a more successful player and stopped caring so much about others' performance. For what it's worth, Santana usually stops himself before going full troll on stream, and he'll either apologize to a teammate after flaming them, or he'll opt not to do it at all, tapping 'escape' after typing an insult into the chat bar instead of sending it. "He's been a little bit more toxic recently," says Wei, "but it's because he actually cares about losing in his games."
If anyone knows what makes Santana tick, it's her. The two met through a mutual online friend a few years back, and after some coy back-and-forth (Wei says she made the moves since Santana was reluctant to tell her he liked her), the two started going out. On stream, Wei is either poking fun at Santana from the next room over, or handing him food in between matches. Outside of that, the two do everything together, from cooking food, playing online games, to going out to the movies, to taking care of their three pets.
Unlike Santana, Wei is direct, and though she can be just as silly as he is, she talks with a clarity that contrasts with his relentless sarcasm. She's also more open than Santana is, and that's been a big factor in Santana's success as a streamer. Occasionally, the two sit down for a heart-to-heart about the things he really values in his career. These days, she thinks there are still things out there he wants to accomplish. "Michael doesn't really care about making his stream grow, that's why he doesn't do 24 hour streams or those kinds of events. He just cares about being good at League, so I was wondering, if you care so much about being the best at League, then why don't you go back to pro if it's not the money? But I don't know, he doesn't have an answer. He's still figuring himself out."
For now, Santana seems like he's trying his best to calibrate for the things in his life that really matter outside of League. At the top of that list is Wei. "I owe her a lot, because not only is she an amazing person, she's the love of my life, and I'm happy to be with her," he says. "She really is the better half of me." Falling into a hypothetical sinkhole, Santana starts musing on what things might be like without her to help keep him on track: "If I was left to my own devices, it'd be like: 'Computer broke? Alright, guess we're never streaming again, guys, that was it for the Imaqtpie livestream.' She definitely complements me in the fact that she's motivated to do stuff and I'm just worthless."
From a room over, Wei yells at the top of her lungs: "Stop saying that!"
"Alright, she said stop saying that. I'm not worthless."