Mom, Dad: I’m dropping out of college to become a pro gamer
by Chelsea Stark
Millions in prize money and ESPN-sized audiences at stake
Robert Lee sat down with his parents over dinner at a favorite Chinese restaurant to break the news: He decided to drop out of college after one year at California State University in Fullerton to pursue a career as a professional video game player.
Lee had started to make more than a little money broadcasting his gameplay on Twitch while commuting to school three days a week. He wanted to make that a full-time job.
“The way I saw it, school was always going to be there, but this opportunity to make money playing video games was not always going to be there,” he says.
Almost three years later, Lee is a pro League of Legends player, earning a salary that pays enough to cover rent, clothes, food and a couple luxuries, he says, though he declined to provide a figure. That’s in addition to the millions of dollars in prize money that his team, compLexity, is competing for at tournaments around the world.
Esports, as professional, competitive video gaming is sometimes called, is no longer a niche activity. Those big audiences — and bigger payouts — are attracting game makers, along with sponsors like Coca-Cola and American Express, and partnerships typically associated with mainstream athletics.
Game publishers Riot and Valve have made millions riding the wave of the newest competitive genre, called MOBAs. Their respective games, League of Legends and Dota 2, have millions of players in almost every country around the planet. While these companies run their own internal competitive leagues, there are also third parties that both manage tournaments and broadcast them, such as Major League Gaming in the U.S. and ESL in Europe. Each has a business model that feels like a merger between ESPN and a sports league like the NBA, though they typically manage tournaments for almost a dozen games instead of just one.
Even ESPN, which has already dabbled in broadcasting less-athletic activities like the World Series of Poker, showed the Dota 2 finals on its online channel. ESPN is in talks with several video game leagues to gain more television rights.
Lee wakes up at 12 p.m. every day in a sprawling house in southern California. The compLexity team house sits in a gated community outside of Los Angeles. Its real estate ad might boast about its vaulted ceilings or granite counters, but those features seem to be ignored by the house’s occupants.
Once he’s up and fully awake, Lee joins the rest of his compLexity teammates, four other young men between 21 and 26, downstairs in a room filled with desks and powerful PCs. There’s very little other furniture, save a TV, couch and a conspicuous child-sized mattress leaning against the wall. That’s when the real work begins.
Lee says the team spends eight hours practicing as a unit, playing matches online. Practice time can also include watching replays of other matches or spending time crafting other, better plays. They’ll knock it off at around 10 p.m., and Lee is given the freedom to do whatever he wants. That usually means playing more League of Legends. He spends far more than the traditional eight hours a day on his job, but he’s not burned out yet.
“I dream about League a lot more often than I should,” he says. “My girlfriend tells me I sleep-talk about the game.”
The demographic makeup of professional gamers is largely similar to the gaming scene: It’s male-dominated and heavily southeast Asian, European and U.S-centric. Players also tend to be very young. Some pros start as early as 14, when their reflexes are the sharpest.
“Their reflexes are just better. You can hit your shots and really make plays happen when you are younger,” says Rod Breslau, a journalist who has covered esports for more than a decade, most recently for CBS Interactive’s gaming sites. “So the smart owners and managers pick up guys as they are coming through the ametuer ranks.”
He points to League of Legends player Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok as an example. At 16, Sang-hyeok was picked up by a professional Korean team and went on to win the World Championships with his four teammates. (One year of going pro has already netted him more than $260,000, according to esportsearnings.com.)
“In normal sports, you go through little league and high school and college and if you are amazing you get to the NFL,” says Marcus Graham, better known as djWheat, who has been an esports commentator since the early 2000s. “If you are amazing at League of Legends at 15, why would you join the high school team when you could be playing on the big stage with pro team?”
This doesn’t mean older players aren’t able to compete, but Breslau says their skills and reflexes do degrade, just like those of real athletes. Esports is too young to know exactly when that age might be, he says.
“Those older guys use their experience and knowledge and tactics, they use more mind games than raw skill. It’s no longer ‘I’m just gonna roll over this person no matter what happens.’ It’s a lot more thought process.”
Breslau and Graham both started their careers as Quake players in the late ‘90s, proving there are roles and opportunities for those who want to continue their involvement.
“Ex-pro players are now casters or hosts, and it’s followed traditional sports. They are now on analyst desks or their commentating the game,” he says. “And you can’t ignore that streaming is a career in itself.”
Forging that career involves being something a little more than a good player. Breslau says the best players he’s ever seen are ones that are great athletes, but the real champs are those with showmanship.
“LeBron James and Michael Jordan always pushed basketball as much as winning,” he says. “For esports, it’s more than just winning championships. It’s utilizing that to promote the game, to push the sport further, to push boundaries.”
And as esports teeters on the edge of mainstream consciousness, athletes that can bridge that gap are all the more important.
Perspectives on where competitive gaming took off vary depending on what country you call home, and also on what games you follow. In the U.S. and Europe, first-person shooters Quake and later Counter-Strike began to take hold starting in the late 1990s. There were growing circuits of players, but the outside world was largely unaware that gamers were organized and competing.
“We struggled with exposure,” Graham says. “A lot of the times competitions were completely cut off from the community. If you played Quake or Counter-Strike, you were probably following the competition, but if you didn’t you had no ideas this was going on.”
Graham competed in Quake tournaments, and they became the best in North America for a short while.
“I joke that I probably have a negative earnings because we spent more to travel than we would win, but we did it because we loved the game and the competition and the people that we met.”
But being a professional then hardly paid the bills, Graham says. “The harsh realization set in that I can’t play this game eight hours a day and pay my rent, so I needed to get a job.”
Meanwhile, a different breed of gaming took hold in South Korea. There, players became obsessed with real-time strategy games like StarCraft. In Korea, professional gaming was more quickly accepted, with pro teams forming and gaining sponsorships from major companies. StarCraft matches were broadcast on two separate TV channels starting in the early 2000s.
“The Korean teams have been sponsored by major telecom companies for 13 years, since the beginning of pro-league,” Breslau says. “Korea’s infrastructure started so much earlier, which is why it is now so much stronger, where that type of stuff is only now coming to fruition in the West.”
Strong interest from southeast Asia didn’t translate to the West, making it difficult to follow players and tournaments in those days, Graham says.
“You know how we had to watch StarCraft competitions back in the day? We had to wait a week, then hopefully someone ripped them off Korean television, and put them up on some site,” he lamented. “You had to go up and find it.”
Eventually, technology caught up with the fans’ passion by allowing the community to directly support pro players.
Graham moved full-time into providing commentary during matches in the 2000s, similar to announcers during sports broadcasts. He spent years using services like RealAudio or Winamp’s ShoutCast during live rounds. Then starting in 2008, software that let people more easily stream video became widely available. That’s when Graham says he knew things were about to change.
“For someone who struggled for so many years to try to get esports in front of more people through writing, blogging or broadcasting via audio, suddenly we had the best way to get the most eyeballs,” Graham says. “It wasn’t people who wanted to judge us, it was people who were like, ‘Wow! People playing games for money,’ or ‘this player is so good and I could learn from them.’ It was one of the largest injections of exposure or accessibility that esports has ever had.”
Though there were a few options available, one network that focused solely on gamers was Twitch, which started as an offshoot of the now-shuttered livestreaming site Justin.TV. Twitch hired Graham in 2011 to build relationships with esports teams and he now serves as the company’s director of community and education.
Breslau says the relationship between Twitch, which has grown into a platform with 55 million monthly viewers, and competitive gaming is symbiotic.
“Competitive gaming made Twitch a billion dollar company,” he says. “The competitive nature of esports, just like real sports, makes them so captivating. That’s why esports as a medium has pushed streaming to where it is.”
Twitch also provides an advantage for individual players that cable never could: the ability to monetize by interacting with fans in their time off. Most pros, Breslau says, run streams nearly every day.
Twitch, which Amazon is buying for about $970 million, runs pre-roll commercials and spots during a broadcast, sharing some of that advertising money with the players. For viewers who want to skip the commercials, Twitch sells $5 monthly subscriptions to channels, with half that amount going to the player. Those payouts start to add up quickly, especially for some gamers with more than 100,000 subscribers and millions of fans watching their streams. Fans can also simply donate cash to streamers.
Robert Lee’s full-time gaming career started from streaming, which he says came easily to him. Being successful at streaming means being entertaining consistently, and engaging your viewers.
“Other gamers may not say much when they stream, but I like talking to people and showing people my skills,” Lee says. “Even when I’m playing by myself, I’m yelling about it at the top of my lungs.”
Those interactions, and serving your fans, quickly become a huge part of pro players’ days. Professional Call of Duty player Matthew “Nadeshot” Haag has almost 650,000 Twitter followers and more than 1 million YouTube subscribers. Haag, who has been playing professionally since the age of 14 and is captain of OpTic Gaming’s Call of Duty team, says serving fans is a full-time job.
“A typical day for me is two hours of video editing and production for my YouTube channels, and then six to eight hours of streaming/practice with my team,” Haag says. “We don’t have many days off, so it really is a 24/7 job, all year long.”
In addition to directly sponsoring pro players’ Twitch streams, fans are also contributing to prize purses at tournaments.
Valve, the publisher of Dota 2, one of the biggest titles in competitive gaming decided to fund its annual championship prize pool by offering exclusive in-game items. These electronic goods raised $10.5 million for the tournament in July.
That level of direct fan involvement also helped draw big-name sponsors, including Coca-Cola.
“People’s eyebrows still might go up in shock,” says Matt Wolf, the global head of gaming at Coca-Cola, which sponsors portions of the League of Legends pro play with Riot Games. “They don’t realize it’s a three part experience. Sure there are people playing games, but there are people watching games live, and that’s electric. And then there are people watching it home via stream.”
Coca-Cola recognizes esports are growing and wants to be on the ground floor, says Wolf, who has a background in games working for EA, Sega and then his own company, Double Twenty Productions.
“This game and player-verse, and the volume it reaches, is so powerful. Any company should take it seriously,” he says. “I think it could be an Olympic sport in 2020.”
With growth like that, more and more pro gamers will know the joy — and the terror — of playing in front of massive crowds of fans. It means putting winning and losing teams in the spotlight.
“Going from an entertainer to a professional player was very stressful for sure, “ Lee says. “As a streamer, it doesn’t matter if I am defeated horribly and do everything wrong, as long as I’m talking to my viewers and having a good time. Now if I play poorly, I really kick myself in the gut and think about what I could be doing better.”
The pre-match jitters never really get easier, Lee says, but he has found a lot of coping mechanisms.
“Before the game I feel my body tensing up. It feels like it takes a lot of muscle to even click my mouse.” he says. “To relax, I’ll make a fool of myself, say incoherent stuff, even sing to my team, just to get pumped up and get the adrenaline rolling.”
The tournaments are over for a bit, though. Lee’s team was just knocked out of the running competing in this year’s League of Legends championship in October, with only a small chance of making it back in. That defeat hasn’t dampened his enthusiasm, even when he talks about sacrifices required of the demanding schedule.
“It’s been two and a half years since I left school. I should have graduated by now. I don’t regret it because I didn’t enjoy school. Gaming I absolutely love. I feel like I’m getting paid for what I love to do,” Lee says.
The fact that so many like Lee can support themselves doing something they love is a sign of the industry’s growth, Breslau says.
“It’s more than just playing to make money and sustain themselves for life, it’s the love of the game and the community,” Breslau adds. “They love to play their game. They love to compete in their game. They love to be the best in their game.”