A teenager’s supposed to spend their mid-to-late teen years enjoying themselves, going out and about with their friends without a care in the world, experimenting and enjoying life. However, for Jake “Smeef” Smith, those years were instead filled with anxiety and fear.
“I was just getting sick a lot,” Smeef said. “So questions were being asked: ‘Why is it taking me so long to get rid of these illnesses? Why am I feeling so run-down?’”
We at Syft took this interview to sit down and talk to Smeef and his mom about his ups and downs and how video games have saved him during his most vulnerable moments.
Born in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, Smeef was like a regular boy growing up, indulging in sports while also playing video games with his father Darren, a truck driver. Some of his fondest early memories include killing the first person he saw with an M1014 shotgun in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and finally beating his father in Modern Warfare 2.
“There was that competitiveness between my family and stuff,” Smeef recalls. “Then just beating my dad was just the best; it was the best feeling.”
Not only was Smeef beginning to show his video game prowess, he was also a very active child, playing football (soccer in the United States) and rugby as well as swimming very proficiently. At one point, Smeef was invited to a swimming club in Mansfield run by Rebecca Adlington, a two-time Olympic gold medalist. There, he excelled.
Having grown bored of swimming, Smeef decided to pursue other sports, turning his attention to rugby. As he played rugby, Smeef was scouted by Mansfield Rugby Club, the local team, who wanted him to join the first team at 14. However, he declined, reasoning that he would have had to devote more time playing rugby, thus not allowing him to play football, the sport he enjoyed most.
Though Smeef was athletically adept, he said there was never any “contradiction” between playing sports and playing video games. Additionally, Julie – Smeef’s mom– adds that he was intelligent and loved school.
Nevertheless, Smeef’s life was about to change forever.
Toward the end of Year 10 – or the equivalent of his freshman/sophomore year in high school in the United States – he started becoming incredibly fatigued doing basic tasks such as showering, brushing his teeth and eating breakfast. He recalls that if did not concentrate on a specific task, he would just fall asleep because of how tired he was.
Because of this, he missed almost all of Year 11; his attendance approximated to about 20%. On top of that, Smeef got glandular fever, a viral infection which mostly affects young adults. Although he had glandular fever in the past – which typically cleared up in about a week or two – this time it was different.
“It took me over a month to get rid of it this time,” Smeef recalls. “Then I got shingles, which is just uncommon, very uncommon in youngsters.”
After consulting with numerous doctors and getting innumerable blood tests done to determine the cause of Smeef’s fatigue and weakened immune system, no discernable answer arose.
With no clear answer, medical professionals eventually decided that Smeef had Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS).
CFS – also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis – is a disease characterized by extreme fatigue lasting more than six months which gets worse with physical and mental activity. The fatigue does not improve with rest and there is no known cause.
As a result, medical professionals told Smeef and his family that he needed a reset of sorts by stopping all activities and then slowly reintroducing them into his life. Julie recalls that while a diagnosis was a relief in one way, it was also “terrifying” seeing what was happening to Smeef and not knowing what was going on.
“But then when you really start to look at that, and you learn how little the medical profession knows about it, it becomes very scary again,” she said. “There isn’t a treatment that can be given or medication that can be given or surgery that can be had.”
Once Smeef was diagnosed with CFS, Julie said the hardest thing for her was seeing all of his peers doing what children that age did, which only fueled her concern about Smeef potentially being left behind. What’s more, she felt his future was at risk since CFS can last for years or even life. Smeef reassured his mother, saying that he would still make a success of his life — he just had to find a different way.
This journey wouldn’t be easy for Smeef. During his bout with CFS, Smeef was relegated to his home as part of the reset and advised to carefully manage different aspects of his life in order to avoid a “boom and bust” cycle. Simply put, Smeef had to reintroduce his previous interests back into his life very slowly in order to keep himself from exerting too much energy.
While slowly working on himself, his parents continued going to work and his friends seemed to leave him behind to deal with his struggles alone. Seeing that he could no longer enjoy a “normal” life, Smeef’s mental health began to deteriorate.
As such, Smeef focused his attention to gaming. At first, Julie was worried about Smeef’s gaming and wondered whether it was the right thing for him to do. After a conversation with Darren – Smeef’s father – Julie relented, especially since Smeef had always been someone who enjoyed being good at certain things and got upset when he felt like he was “failing at everything.”
“So to see him get passionate about something again … and hear him laughing, smiling again and gave him something that he was succeeding at, I just don’t understand how any parent would not get on board with that,” she said.
With Smeef putting in more time gaming, he became more and more successful, especially in Fortnite. He eventually qualified for the Fortnite World Cup as part of Fnatic in 2019 and placed 44th in the solo finals – only his second-ever LAN tournament at that point – which he considers to be his proudest achievement. He eventually used the prize money as a deposit for his family’s new home, which they moved into a year ago.
As Smeef continued to hone in his craft, Julie got in touch with parents of other prominent esports players such as BenjyFishy’s mother, Crimz’s father and others on Twitter about the need for a coalition of parents in esports. Though it was originally meant in a joking manner, Crimz’ father David Herzog and Vanish Duster’s mother Shae Williams went out and started the Coalition of Parents in Esports (COPE).
COPE is a non-profit which aims to provide aspiring esports athletes the resources they need and open the gaming environment so that all can partake in their own rewarding experience. It was created through a desire to bring positive change to the space.
“I’m really excited to be a parent advisor and just be able to sit in the background and get involved to help him with certain projects and promotion,” Julie said. Additionally, Smeef says COPE is “revolutionary” and an “amazing movement,” especially considering there have been so few companies to push the positives of esports and video games instead of the negatives.
Smeef has dealt with an extremely tumultuous situation the last few years, and Julie says it has been difficult to see her child go through so many highs and lows. However, she sees the new year as a new chapter, especially after a tough 2020 in which they lost two close family members: Smeef’s uncle, who was one of his earliest supporters, and his grandmother on his mother’s side.
“They just have an impact,” she said. “I can see the fire in his belly again and his determination is back. I’m just looking forward to the next 12 months to see his growth again.”
Looking back, had it not been for gaming, Smeef said he would have “nothing” and probably would not be alive today. Gaming gave Smeef a new lease on life and allowed him to pursue opportunities that benefitted his life greatly, even as a global pandemic has negatively impacted some parts of the esports world.
In all, while the video game industry continues to deal with the ever-changing landscape caused by said pandemic, Smeef says his main goal is to be a better content creator in 2021 while keeping his CFS at bay. Currently, Smeef says he has gotten out of the “boom and bust” cycle, which is a good start.
“I’m going to focus less on competitive play, less on tournaments and more on streaming and entertainment,” he concluded.
We at Syft wish Smeef and his family all the best and can’t wait to see what he has in store for fans in the coming months. To see Julie’s twitter, Smeef’s twitter, and Smeef’s twitch, click here, here, and here.