The Sacrifices of Pro Players

Professional gamer. This profession is a goal for some, a dream life for many. As fans of eSports, many of us naturally idolize and revere those who we watch play on stage in front of thousands – and what’s not to like? Professional gamers get paid to play video games. Not only that, you have thousands of people following you and praising you at every turn on the internet, through social media, and at live events. Ostensibly, the life seems pretty good, and for the most part, I would agree with that…while it lasts. However, generally I think most of the world has a pretty poor understanding of the realities of pro gaming. In this blog, I’d like to speak frankly based on the experiences of myself and others I know personally in the world of eSports, in an effort to help the majority understand the sacrifices made by those who give so much to us.

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Becoming Pro

Since the overwhelming majority of us have never truly earned the title of “pro gamer,” it’s impossible really for us to understand what it takes to actually achieve this. Some of us have friends who play with a few well known players on occasion and/or have placed well in some smaller online cups and local LANs. They talk about how they just can’t find the right team, or they’re too busy with other stuff in real life, but if they could just get that figured out, they say “know I could be pro.”3 This is one of my favorite phrases thrown around the world of eSports. The best I’ve ever heard the truth put was by Artosis on an episode of Meta or State of the Gamer where he said: “The only people who know they could go pro, are the pros themselves.” What most people fail to see is that the difference between Gold V and Diamond I is about as big as the difference between Diamond I and pro player. Amongst the 1%, there is only 1% that will ever be – or deserve to be – pro players. Aside from the skill, communication, teamwork, and marketability gap between top amateurs and pro players is the less perceivable gap in willingness and ability to sacrifice.

Those from the Halo community will of course remember Tom “Tsquared” Taylor. T2 infamously dropped out of high school to pursue his dreams of becoming a professional Halo player. Apart from finding great success in Halo under Str8 Rippin, T2 is the only former Halo pro who has been able to translate his success (I would argue) beyond his career in pro gaming, as he continues to work in the industry as a promoter and eSports Ambassador. Everyone from the Halo community knows the story of T2 and his success, or Doublelift and his success, but what you never heard about are the ones who fail. I know of many other pro and semi pro gamers from the Halo era who dropped out of high school to pursue pro gaming as a career, but unless you’re T2 (and a select few), your past experience in pro gaming isn’t going to help your resume on job applications. Now you’re 19-23 years old looking to go back to school and finish your GED and slowly working toward catching up to everyone else who has passed you by.

The reality of it is, being a pro gamer is a larger time commitment than a full time job. Sure, there are some who manage to be a pro gamer and continue their educations (Bloodwater from Vulcun or Suppy from EG), but not everyone can manage balancing that, let alone excel in both. The reality also is, in the current climate, many teams wouldn’t have you if you’re not able to commit full time to gaming. HotshotGG, Doublelift, Link, and Nien all dropped out of or skipped college in order to pursue their gaming careers. I can just be honest with you and let you know that I don’t see a situation presently in which CLG would ever pick up a player who couldn’t commit to living in the gaming house and working for us without any outside commitments. Being a pro player forces most to sit at the table and push their chips all in as early as 17 years old. Tell your parents you’re not going to college. Tell your friends you’re not going to get to hang out anymore. Tell your significant other you’re moving away to play video games in another state full time. Being a pro gamer requires sacrifice, for everyone. Those who don’t will fizzle and fade away before anyone ever cares enough to know them anyways.

Pro Life

There is a very important distinction that is made once you become a pro gamer. You’re not playing just for fun anymore, this is your job. This reality affects pro gamers to different degrees. While Froggen was in the CLG house, he had no problem playing all day every day. His commitment to practicing and improving as a player is unparalleled in my personal experience in eSports, which is why I think he will continue to be a top player for years to come. It becomes a grind for others though. It’s difficult to explain, but your brain will view things differently when the game is your job. Previously, they played games as a break from responsibility, now that game is their responsibility. They no longer get to play, they have to play. These aren’t 40 hour weeks either. When they’re not playing, they’re watching replays, having strategy discussions, watching broadcasts from other regions, etc. Pro gaming isn’t just a job, it is truly a lifestyle.

Another aspect many can’t ever know about pro gaming is the degree to which pro gamers are compensated. Before livestreaming, “pro gamer” was a title used more for show than anything outside of Korea. In Halo (which most fail to realize was about 85% of the pro gaming market share in the US up until the release of StarCraft 2), pro players had few ways to earn a reasonable income. There were 5-6 MLG events per year, with prize breakdowns as follows:  

Regular Season (4-5 events)

1st – $20,000
2nd – $12,000
3rd – $8,000
4th – $5,600
5th – $4,000
6th – $2,800
7th – $2,000
8th – $1,600

National Championship (1 event)

1st – $100,000
2nd – $60,000
3rd – $40,000
4th – $28,000
5th – $20,000
6th – $14,000
7th – $10,000
8th – $8,000

As you can see, eSports, much like traditional sports, is very top heavy in regards to where the money goes. With teams of four, a premier team (top three finish at every event), would be would net individual players a little more than $30,000 annually in prize money. Top 8? Less than present day minimum wage in some states at $17,500.

Aside from prize money, pro players had a couple other methods of earning extra cash based off their fame. In most games, the most common methods are boosting/selling accounts, offering lessons, and sometimes selling spots on your friends list. No one was getting rich off this though; the most lucrative revenue avenue used to be boosting/selling accounts, but Riot especially has cracked down on those prominent figures that are boosting accounts.

Streaming

Prior to 2010, individual player livestreams in the pro gaming scene were nonexistent. Destiny and HotshotGG paved the way for what has now become the highest potential revenue point for any pro gamer. Now, while livestreaming has unquestionably opened up great potential for pro gamers in terms of revenue generation, it’s certainly not without its flaws.

There are many aspects of the livestreaming industry and its history I’d love to divulge information about (perhaps one day Hotshot will write a “tell all” novel), but right now it would potentially be highly damaging for CLG to reveal such information to the public. Livestreaming though, like most aspects of pro gaming, is extremely feast or famine. The top performers are earning a lot of money, but almost everyone else is making far less. Not only this, but even amongst the top earners, few are able to keep their popularity long enough to truly capitalize off of it. Maintaining a fan base is a lot of hard work. You need to stream consistently and for long periods of time every session, while making sure your regular streaming block competes with as few other top streamers as possible.

Then there’s ad block. Ad block is hilarious to me. Personally, and I have been very outspoken about this, I think people who use ad block are huge assholes. When ads do not run on a livestream, you might as well not be watching the stream from the broadcaster’s perspective, because you are not generating  any revenue for them. It’s quite simple, if an ad does not run, the streamer does not get paid. All good streamers are conscious of the fact that their loyal fans who actually earn them money by not running ad block don’t want to miss anything, so they only run ads during queue times or don’t do anything while ads are running. Voyboy is a great example of this. He lets his fans know that he’s running ads and doesn’t do anything they would care to miss while he is running ads. Any streamer who isn’t an idiot can realize that it is in their best interest to only run ads during times of little interest so as to not incentivize their viewership base to run ad block.

How greedy and ignorant does one have to be to self justify running ad block while watching someone’s stream? Few broadcasters are playing more than 10 ads per hour. That is 5 minutes, out of an hour, that you are subjected to watching something other than the streamer’s broadcast. Mute the ad, open up another tab, and look at reddit for 30 seconds while it runs. Last I had been told the ad block rate is nearing 60% on TwitchTV. Seriously?! Streamers are earning 40% of what they should be because viewers feel so entitled that they can’t be bothered to watch a few ads while someone takes their time out of their day to provide entertainment to their fans. If you don’t want to watch ads, subscribe to the channel. There is no counter argument. I will stop here, but suffice it to say, this is the tame version of this rant.

Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs)

Steriods, HGH, “the cream and the clear,” are all very familiar terms to traditional sports fans who’ve been hearing about doping controversies for well over a decade. It’s something that isn’t widely talked about or necessarily very intuitive, but PED abuse has been highly prevalent in at least some eSports communities for quite some time. The biggest offenders in eSports by far are ADD/ADHD prescription medications, most notably Concerta, Ritalin, and Adderall. While I have personally not encountered them or heard of their use in the League of Legends scene, I was first introduced to them back in the Halo community.

So what’s the benefit here? How does ADD/ADHD medication help one game better? Concerta, Ritalin, Adderall or the like isn’t going to give you better reaction time, make your mechanics better, or take you to the next level in terms of play. I don’t like to think of it as making you better, but as helping ensure you’re at your best, and for longer periods of time. Tournaments for Halo used to be a grind, starting at 10am and having matches that ran all day until 7-10pm at night. If you’ve ever played in a tournament you understand, it is quite simply impossible to play for that long and maintain your best form, especially when you’re taking every game so seriously. Tournaments are endurance competitions, so naturally anything that helps you play better for longer will help immensely. These PEDs I’ve referenced do exactly that. They will help keep you focused and playing your best for long periods of time, and with minimal side effects. The most prevalent and noticeable side effect you’ll see from someone using these drugs is “cotton mouth.” Ever seen someone finish a game, immediately reach for their water bottle, and then kill the whole thing? Sure, but you don’t hear stories of kids overdosing on Concerta, and just about any doctor will prescribe one of these meds to any child with “poor” grades whose parent brings them in and says their kid “just can’t pay attention.”

The problem here doesn’t come from overuse at tournaments (although there has been at least one incident I’m aware of where someone had to be taken to the hospital at a major event, was DQ’d, and then banned from events), it comes from the abuse outside of events. No one starts smoking planning to get addicted, and the same thing happens PEDs. First you’re taking them at major events, then local tournaments, then during LAN bootcamps, then during long gaming sessions, but hey, you’re practicing 6-8 hours every day. Is it really better to train some of the time using Adderall and sometimes not? Don’t you want to replicate a tournament setting as much as possible for the best practice? Now you’re using every day. These drugs are very addictive, and they’re stimulants; they kill your appetite. I’ve seen and heard far more horror stories about former pro players fucking their lives up because of…Adderall? Seems weird, but it happens.

After Pro Gaming

Once one has finished with their pro gaming career is when reality begins to set in. At some point, every scene dies. This is the unchanging staple of the eSports industry which no one has yet provided the solution to. Football, Baseball, Basketball, Soccer, etc. don’t change. There is always a new FPS, RTS, or MOBA, however, and as time marches on so do the preferences of the viewing public. As such, while many pros attempt to make the transition from title to title, at some point the last title which they were relevant fades from the public’s attention and now they’re faced with the rest of their lives.

As mentioned previously, much like traditional sports, pro gaming arrests the “real world” development of its participants’ lives completely, the largest difference here being that traditional sports athletes presently have much greater earning potential (and in turn temptation, though that’s a different lecture altogether) than eSports athletes. Since the industry is far less developed, the opportunities for eSports athletes to continue their careers in the eSports industry after their days as a pro gamer are fewer as well. As mentioned previously, again, it is feast or famine. Only the most prominent figures will be offered the opportunity to continue on as casters, personalities, designers/developers, or ambassadors in other segments of the industry. Most however leave eSports as they came in; without an education and without much money, the difference being that now they are several, sometimes many years older and far behind their former counterparts from highschool or college.

The Takeaway

So up to this point, I’ll admit, this blog seems rather bleak, but I think it’s important for everyone to understand and recognize how much pro gamers have sacrificed and continue to sacrifice so that we, the fans, might have our lives improved by the innumerable hours of entertainment and astonishment they provide us.

All this being said, it’s ever more important for us to recognize those in the industry who are pushing eSports forward and working to improve not only the experience for the fan, but also the lives of the pro gamers we admire. I feel responsible again, to recognize Riot Games for their amazing work in this area.

People need to recognize, no developer or publisher has ever invested nearly as much into eSports as Riot has. With the creation of LCS, Riot was the first to develop an eSports league dedicated to its own title, investing millions of dollars every year into their passion. In case you weren’t already aware, you should understand that LCS is not profitable for Riot. Last year, they spent more on the SWAG given to fans at World Finals than the total revenue gained from ticket sales at the event. Riot is investing in eSports because they have the vision to see what it can become, and are dedicated tirelessly to pushing the industry forward to make it a reality. Obviously, not everyone is privy to how hard the Riot eSports team works on making LCS what it is, but I can assure you they bust their asses to give us what we’ve come to expect from LCS. The work ethic and enthusiasm from Riot is something that starts at the top and flows all the way though, from Brandon Beck and Marc Merrill to the interns at the studio who are just pumped that they get to see Doublelift once a week.

eSports is my greatest passion in life, and though, like all great cultural phenomenon’s, there are many hardships along the way, we should take care to remember how we got here and how we can continue working to make it better.

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by Kelby May, on September 5, 2013