Los Angeles Valiant star SPACE earns mom's approval

Los Angeles Valiant player Indy "SPACE" Halpern skipped school to play Overwatch, and his mother did not approve of his focus on gaming. However, as her son's passion and skill grew, Diane Mella gave her support, and the choice paid off. Robert Paul/Provided by Blizzard Entertainment

Every school day, Indy "SPACE" Halpern used to say goodbye to his mom and walk off toward Life Sciences on the Upper East Side of New York.

And on most of those days, after the five-minute walk to the high school campus, he'd turn right around, head back home, make sure his mom was out for work and go inside to play Overwatch.

Halpern's mother, Diane Mella, is a nanny in the financial district of New York. She got wind of SPACE's absences after a call from Life Sciences asking where her son had been. But unlike most stories like this one, there's a good ending: SPACE, 18, now plays for the Los Angeles Valiant in the Overwatch League.

Of course, Mella believed her son was at school but clearly there was more to her son's gaming habits than he had led on.

Mella doesn't describe her son as an exceptional student, but he mostly kept up with his school work and had a good relationship with his teachers. When Mella was forced to move away from their Seaport loft in lower Manhattan, where SPACE attended Leman Manhattan Preparatory School on a scholarship, however, he had a difficult time adjusting.

"We were going through like an eviction for like four years," Mella said. "Indy's dad wasn't giving me the child support that he was supposed to."

SPACE's father, Mike Halpern, does admit that he was unable to keep up with child support payments for the past few years but said that he did pay $8,000 a month in child support from when he and Mella divorced in 2000 to around 2010-11.

Mella and her kids were forced to live with the children's grandmother on the Upper East Side, and she said she believed this had a big impact on SPACE. He didn't enjoy the commute down to Leman, nor did he like being so far away from where he grew up. That's when Mella and SPACE decided to give public school a shot.

He ended up going to Life Sciences, which Mella said has good teachers.

"It's just the student body," Mella said. "It just wasn't my kids' element."

At Life Sciences, SPACE noticed that the other kids disrespected teachers and that it was easy to skip classes. That's when he started cutting early to go home.

"He did kind of fly under the radar," Ashley Zaharakis, the senior guidance counselor and college advisor at Life Sciences, said. "He was good academically. Whenever I would check in, he would say that everything is good, so I kind of took it at face value."

Zaharakis described SPACE as a B and C student, one that was coasting by but wasn't causing any alarms to go off.

However, he could maintain his grades while skipping class only for so long. And after the calls from the school and meetings with his guidance counselor, he was nearing academic probation.

Meanwhile, he was climbing the ladder in Overwatch. He'd proven he was one of the best players in North America. And SPACE had little doubt he had the skill to land on a pro team and leave school behind.

SPACE always had a strong connection to gaming. From an early age, he showed an affinity for it, and his father took him to Rockstar Studios while he was doing some artwork for Rockstar Games' title based on the movie "The Warriors." Halpern also took SPACE to a Halo tournament and told him that it was possible for him to go pro in gaming.

"I really felt like if I don't go pro now, I'm just going to do full-time school," SPACE said. "My mom let me take some time off."

Mella has a different account of that conversation, though.

"He didn't actually propose it to me," she said. "He just did it."

This caused a lot of strife between Mella and SPACE. She wanted her kids to attend good colleges, and now her youngest was failing classes.

"If a student doesn't come for a week or two, it just makes it so hard for them to feel comfortable enough to come back," Zaharakis said. "His sisters has been really successful with college. And I think struggling with his father being in and out of the picture, I just think it all hit him at once."

Mike Halpern disagreed. He said he's "never out of the family" and that he tried to stay connected with his children, be it going to a movie or sending a bit of money to them.

Zaharakis tried proposing classes that could coincide with his love for gaming. Things like pulling him out of choir to take art classes or pursue game design at Full Sail University in Florida.

"To see him talk about that, he lit up like a Christmas tree," Zaharakis said.

But at home, Mella was trying to control SPACE's gaming habits, to little avail.

"I would hide the keyboard, hide the mouse," she said. "I couldn't hide the big computer. But every day, I would think of new places to hide the equipment so he wouldn't find it."

Either way, with the extra time, SPACE was able to compete and rise the ranks more quickly. That's also when he started gaining the attention of major esports teams. SPACE caught the eye of Cloud9, and the organization sent him and Mella to Germany to represent it at Overwatch Contenders Season One. That experience helped Mella look at competitive gaming from a different perspective.

It helped that there was some prize money involved, too.

"That was when I first knew that he was actually able to make money from playing a video game," Mella said. "I was like, 'Oh, what? $1,200? Really?'"

SPACE started getting offers to play Overwatch professionally. Teams wanted his talent and were willing to give him a salary, room and board and tournament winnings.

"I felt like this is such an opportunity for him financially, I didn't want [him] to pass [it] up," Mella said.

There was no way SPACE could finish high school and still compete, though. So despite her feelings on the matter, Mella let him move on.

SPACE eventually signed with the Los Angeles Valiant and made an agreement with his mom to get his GED by taking online classes.

For a few months, SPACE had to just practice with his team while waiting to turn 18, the minimum age required to start competing in the Overwatch League. He turned 18 on March 29, and the following week made his debut against Seoul Dynasty. It was a breakout performance where he helped his team absolutely demolish Seoul in a 4-0 victory.

Mella was stuck in New York at the time but watched intently online. SPACE's father, however, was able to attend, and saw it as the ultimate "I told you so" to those who doubted that his son could ever go pro or compete with the best Overwatch players in the world.

Mella says she will get her chance to watch SPACE at Blizzard Arena soon. She plans to fly out this summer to see her son play live.

"It's so funny how things happen because this game was a sore spot for Indy and I for so long," Mella said. "I never imagined he would be where he is now with it."