From Couch To Bank - The Millions That Watch Them And The Millions Made By Superstar Video Gamers
This is the life of professional video gamers: They train for hours each day, score lucrative endorsement deals, and get flown all over the world to compete in front of fans - sometimes at sold out venues - for big cash prizes.
Top players get recruited into professionally managed teams, not unlike how Ferrari and Red Bull have Formula 1 drivers who are on the same team but still compete individually. Such is the life of a professional athlete and it's the same for top video gamers.
So-called "e-sports" have emerged as very big business and are growing. Top players take home six-figure incomes, and some have even amassed total winnings of over $1 million. The money comes from tournament wins and endorsement deals, and some even get a salary from a professional team.
Chris Loranger, better known as "HuK" among gamers, has been competing professionally for four years. At age 25--he'd been playing games long before that--he considered himself a professional when he earned enough from gaming to not need any additional sources of income. But being a professional gamer isn't just all fun and games -- in fact, many put in more hours at work than the average office worker.
"I basically just play as much as I can whenever I can," said Loranger, who trains for up to 80 hours per week. "I will generally try to practice three to four hours then take a one-hour break, and then go for another block over and over until I can't play anymore."
Loranger plays for Evil Geniuses, a professional gamer agency founded in 1999 and whose partners include Monster Energy, Kingston HyperX, BenQ and Razer, among others.
Major computer vendors have also jumped into e-sports. Team Acer, for example, manages a "StarCraft 2" roster of five players who come from four different countries. "StarCraft 2" isn't the only game played in e-sports, however, as teams manage players for "League of Legends," "FIFA," "Dota 2" and "Street Fighter IV," just to name a few.
Women are gamers
Team Acer's 20-year-old Sasha "Scarlett" Hostyn hails from Canada, but like many others in e-sports, she finds herself away from home often.
"Being a professional e-sport athlete is a huge deal in my life. It affects every aspect, like where I live right now in Korea and who my friends are," said Hostyn, adding that many of her friends are other pro gamers or event organizers. "And I get to travel everywhere; it's really exciting."
Even though competitive games are played over the Internet, professional gamers must travel the world to not only compete, but also to practice with the best. The tolerances at competitive levels are so tight that the lag introduced by practicing with someone geographically far away is unacceptable.
"The best players and pro gaming infrastructure are in Korea," said Loranger, after spending three years living there. "You won't get the same support in the West, and the practice partners are considerably worse. You have to play a better opponent to become better."
Traditional athletes already recognize the parallels between e-sports and more established leagues. Chris Kluwe, a former NFL punter who spent eight seasons with the Minnesota Vikings, is an avid player of "League of Legends" and "World of Warcraft."
"The time that you have to put in to be that good at a videogame is the same amount of time that you have to put in to be good at a physical sport. This is a mental sport, but there are physical aspects. You have to be able to react," said Kluwe. "Your reaction times have to be right up there with a baseball or football player."
"Right now, pro gamers are right at the threshold of the sport exploding, something baseball did in the '50s and football did in the '60s and '70s, and there are a couple of key similarities. The first is coaching," explained Kluwe, drawing parallels between traditional sports and e-sports. "Pro gamers who know how to take coaching are clearly outperforming those who kind of wing it off on their own, which is something that happened in football and the other major sports when they started getting big. They went from hobbies to jobs, and once it's a job, you have to take it seriously if you want to get better."
And like other professional sports, it draws a massive spectator audience. Live streaming website Twitch.tv posts impressive viewership numbers. Twitch is no secret underground channel; it now ranks fourth in terms of peak U.S. Internet traffic, ahead of Hulu and Facebook. Amazon, another Internet giant surpassed by the gaming video company's Internet traffic draw, saw such a bright future in Twitch that it acquired the company for approximately $970 million in cash. In the announcement, Amazon revealed that in July, more than 55 million unique visitors viewed more than 15 billion minutes of content on Twitch produced by more than 1 million broadcasters.
Mario Priolo, a founding member of the nonprofit eSports Canada organization, heavily credits video stream services like Twitch and YouTube as being literal game changers by not only allowing gaming organizations, but also individuals, to broadcast to hundreds of thousands of people.
"There are a significant number of people who can sit at home and play games - some of them not necessarily at the world-class competitive level - and still get a consistent audience of 10,000 to 20,000 people. They're making very good money and contributing to the excitement of gaming," said Priolo.
"People are completely replacing recreational TV watching with game streams, especially in the younger generation."
Although TV shows have found new life through services such as Netflix, the medium itself is passive. Live game streaming, on the other hand, is an interactive experience for the viewer.
"It was a complete game changer to be able to communicate with people who broadcast live. Viewers can chat with the broadcasters to directly communicate back and forth, to build a real connection," Priolo said, adding that social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, also allowed gamers to connect in ways that were not possible before.
High-profile matches bring together spectators in a social setting. Taking a page out of boxing and mixed martial arts, electronic sports leagues rent out full theaters where gamers gather to watch a stream on the big screen that is happening live, but could be taking place thousands of miles away.
Demand for coaching
In another scenario that closely mirrors sports, such as tennis and golf, going on tour and making a living through wins isn't the only money to be made in today's games. Recreational players can seek help from experts to better their game.
"Coaching is another thing that allows a lot of the semipros to support themselves. Once they build up a reputation, they can provide lessons and charge by the hour," explained Priolo. "People can make a name for themselves easier than ever with streaming and social media and can connect to anyone in the world."
Before becoming a gaming coach, Simon "Lowko" Heijnen created educational "StarCraft" videos on YouTube. As the videos gained popularity, he received requests for live coaching. Today, Heijnen offers his coaching services in his spare time for €35 per hour, but he doesn't consider himself a professional.
"I don't see myself as a professional coach. I see myself as a gamer first, and I love livestreaming and making YouTube videos. Coaching is something that can very quickly become work, and I don't want it to be," said Heijnen, who lives in the Netherlands but can coach anyone, anywhere via the Internet. "I want it to be fun for me and for the person being coached."
When asked why he doesn't apply his knowledge of the game to compete in tournaments like other pro gamers, Heijnen replied, "It's just not something I want to be. I know that I am not able to grind games for 10+ hours a day, every single day. What I do want to be is a YouTuber and livestreamer who has fun in playing videogames and helps others while doing so."
At Intel Extreme Masters, one of the most talent-stacked "StarCraft 2" tournaments of 2014, pro gamers from South Korea, Denmark, Norway, Canada, and the United States gathered in Toronto to compete for $25,000 in prize money. Twenty-two-year-old Lee "Flash" Young Ho won the top prize of $10,000, while his teammate Joo "Zest" Sung Wook, also 22, took home $4,000. Both play for a team owned by South Korean telecommunications company KT, mirroring the model in car racing where one team can finish in multiple positions.
The tournament, which was a four-day-long event in conjunction with Fan Expo Canada, drew 125,000 attendees. Thousands more watched online as the games were streamed live, and some of the replays have been viewed over 130,000 times on YouTube. What makes it even more compelling as a spectator sport is live commentary, mirroring traditional sports broadcasts with both play-by-play and color commentary - now a common feature of matches between two well-known players.
On December 6 and 7, Intel Extreme Masters will hold its biggest "League of Legends" and "StarCraft 2" competition yet in SAP Center, the home arena of the NHL's San Jose Sharks, which will host an expected crowd of around 12,000 for the tournament.