When I was 18 years old, I dominated all challengers in Street Fighter II. (Well, most challengers.) I came as close to ruling the arcade roost as one can do without being the big bird. Two younger scrappers—Frank and Jose—reigned as the fighting-game gods at Coney Island's legendary Faber's Fascination, my local video-game venue. They had incredible reads. They had impeccable execution. They had poise under pressure. But if you weren't one of those two titans, then I would serve you piping hot cups of defeat.
I was so prolific with handing out Street Fighter II losses that I'd often arrange money matches with the few brave souls who'd step up to the challenge. In retrospect, my winnings were quite meager, but a $25 Saturday-afternoon take was a pretty big deal for a poor project kid back in 1992.
Now, nearly three decades later, those winnings look absolutely paltry as video-game players—professional video-game players—compete in sponsor-backed tournaments that boast cash pots in the millions. In fact, Newzon, a research firm, estimates that the multi-million dollar business known as eSports will generate $1.1 billion by 2019.
40-something-year-old me is more than a little envious, and very much inclined to hate everything and everyone associated with the professional gaming circuit. So, I decided to channel that searing venom into something productive; namely, exploring how and why people are paid to play video games.
eSports: AKA Gaming for Fun and Profit
In years past, competitive video gaming was limited to groups of friends sharing laughs and talking smack. Though that element certainly still exists, competitive video gaming has exited dank arcades and musty basements and entered more august venues.
The overarching name for these professional contests is eSports, and it has attracted a passionate, dedicated following that fills such huge places as New York City's Madison Square Garden and Las Vegas' MGM Grand Garden Arena. Though video games as spectacle is a concept that's sure to confound the layman, electronic interactive entertainment has attracted curious eyeballs from the beginning, albeit on a much smaller scale.
"The phenomenon of wanting to watch top players play is nothing new," said Jace Hall, CEO of Echo Fox, an eSports organization that fields players in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, H1Z1, League of Legends, and other competitive titles. "This dates back to watching crowds of people play Dragon's Lair."
Featuring beautiful Don Bluth animation that rivals Disney's classic works, Dragon's Lair is an early full-motion video game that's genuinely more fun to view than it is to play. Along with Donkey Kong, Ms. Pac-Man, Street Fighter II, and several other arcade uprights, Dragon's Lair attracted both quarters and enthralled onlookers. Certainly, part of the appeal was the new entertainment medium that snared passersby with its dazzling lights and catchy musical melodies. But there was another significant element at play: watching gaming gods battle one another for high scores or bragging rights.
When the arcades began shuttering their doors in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the video game as spectacle moved to computer LAN parties. There were select televised matches—mainly overseas StarCraft competitions—that attempted to reunite fans with competitive video game playing, but these didn't make a major impact. Instead, technology in the form of streaming services, such as Beam, Twitch, and YouTube Gaming, let people from around the world view Dota 2, Hearthstone, and League of Legends matches at nearly any hour of the day.
In 2015, the Electronic Sports League (ESL), the largest and oldest eSports organization, drew 27 million unique viewers to its ESL One Cologne Counter-Strike: Global Offensive tournament alone. It also hosted more than 12,500 online and offline events in 2016. ESL's online and offline efforts, as well as work from other organizations and players, expanded the audience to the point where you can now view matches in sporting arenas that seat thousands, as well as television. expanding into arenas that serve as the home of more traditional sporting fare.
"Lo and behold, the audience is back, and there are no physical limitations," said Hall. "That, of course, turned into an economic opportunity. Sponsors want to get to a desired audience."
And those sponsors are willing to invest serious cash.
The Money Game
The video game industry's major publishers supply some of the beefiest eSports pots, with a good portion of the money culled from the player base via in-game purchases. Noted part-time video-game developer Valve supports Counter-Strike: Global Offensive's major tournaments, contributing prize pots of more than $1 million. Likewise, Riot Games blesses League of Legends, one of the most popular video games on the planet, with million-dollar tournament pools in the company's League of Legends World Championship. Capcom Cup, Halo World Championship, and Rocket League Championship Series are a just few of the other well-attended big-name events that let pro gamers cash large checks. The Dota 2 International tops them all, though; Valve offered a $20 million prize pool in 2016.
Tournament wins make professional gamers money, but that's not the only way they support themselves. Direct sponsorships are valuable, income-generating ventures, too. Though most tournament players swallow the entry fees, hardware and software costs, and travel expenses associated with participating in competitions, the few who partner with sponsors receive financial assistance.
For example, Darryl "Snake Eyez" Lewis, a Capcom Cup and Evolution Championship Series champion, is sponsored by energy-drink maker Red Bull, and his corporate cap is as familiar to fighting game fans as his Zangief grapples (for the uninitiated, Zangief is the character Snake Eyez is best known for playing). Snake Eyez typically ranks high in tournaments and attracts viewers, which in turn creates an opportunity for Red Bull to promote its brand to a wide audience.
"When you become a pro player in a respectable eSport game, you can make a really nice living through sponsorships, tournament winnings, and even streaming," said Lewis. "I tried explaining to my parents why Red Bull was interested in sponsoring me, and they didn't understand. After looking at the size of an EVO audience in a video, they finally saw why eSports is so hype and started understanding the impactful elements that come behind professional-level gaming."
Though neither Lewis nor Red Bull would talk dollars, the company provides the Street Fighter champion with numerous sponsorship benefits, including a brand-building documentary series. Mainly, the partnership gives Lewis the breathing room to focus on perfecting his fighting-game skills.
On the other end of the spectrum is the Echo Fox, an eSports team that was founded by former Los Angeles Laker and NBA champion Rick Fox. Professional players who sign to Echo Fox receive multiple benefits, including salaried employment and a special training headquarters. Other eSports teams include CDEC Gaming, Evil Geniuses, Team Secret, and the wildly successful Wings Gaming, a crew that amassed nearly $10 million in 2016.
Mystified—and still highly peeved at the idea of people making legitimate money by playing video games—I asked Hall about the amount of money that pro gamers are making by signing to Echo Fox. I'm not one to count what's in another person's pockets, but I had to know just how much moolah the young men and women make per year. I didn't get a precise response.
"Earnings vary depending on person and the game," said Hall. "They're signed to a contract and paid to play."
Still, it's easy to discern that the top players make sufficient cash to compete on a full-time basis. They may not make Major League Baseball–level cash, but there are similarities between the lives of professional gamers and professional athletes. Competitors often wear sponsor-backed jerseys or other branded gear. There's free agency. There are contract signings. On that topic, one of the most notable recent eSports business moves involved EchoFos signing Dominique "SonicFox" McLean, Yusuke Momochi, Yuko "ChocoBlanka" Momochi, Hajime "Tokido" Taniguchi, Brad "Scar" Vaughn, and Justin Wong in a push to dominate the fighting game community (FGC). That's the equivalent of a NBA team signing six superstars, many of whom are sure-fire future hall of famers.
Esports' imitation of traditional sports leagues doesn't end there. In a merging of the two worlds, the NBA and Take-Two Interactive—the publisher of the super-popular NBA 2K video game series—partnered to create the NBA 2K eLeague. Set to debut in 2018, it will feature 30 NBA 2K teams, each owned by one of the real-life NBA franchises. This unprecedented partnership merges two profitable entertainment worlds into what will be one of 2018's most discussed eSports events.
Given the amount of money generated by eSports on an annual basis, sponsors and teams look to sign world-class players who have legitimate shots of winning events. Unfortunately, as with traditional sports, finding competent players is challenging. In fact, even popular Twitch and YouTube streamers who destroy their competitors may not be worthy of participating in eSports.
"For the most part it's hard to find good players, because of cheating," said Echo Fox's Hall. "Take a game like Counter-Strike. You can install bots on your side of the client to give yourself an advantage."
Game developers have diligently worked to craft anti-cheat codes, but that hasn't prevented cheating from being a problem in the competitive space. For every step one side makes, the other sidesteps. Echo Fox leverages Twin Galaxies, a Jace Hall–owned organization that tracks video game world records, to separate the truly great players from the posers.
Twin Galaxies has an anti-cheating system that's based on leaderboards and a strict ruleset. When gamers submit gameplay videos for evaluation, the videos are packaged and presented to top video-game judges who can detect whether bots, video edits, or other shenanigans were in play.
Besides technological trickery, another potential issue needs to be addressed by teams and sponsors: avoiding the allure of signing popular streamers just because they're popular.
"In order to be pulled into a team, you must be popular. But if you put too much time into Twitch, you aren't playing," said Hall. The Echo Fox CEO thoroughly believes that if you pour exorbitant hours into maintaining an excellent live stream—with giveaways, shoutouts, cool graphics, and the like—then you'll suffer in terms of honing your abilities and moving up the competitive ranks.
That certainly appears to be the case. Many championship-level pro players, including Snake Eyez and Sonic Fox, have only rudimentary Twitch presences, because they're busy mastering characters and combos and entering tournaments. On the other hand, fighting-game aficionado and tournament commentator Maximilian Dood has a polished, always-entertaining nightly Twitch stream—but he doesn't compete professionally.
On a very basic level, it's hard for sponsors to find truly great players because there aren't that many truly great players in any video game scene, much like in traditional sports. The dedication required to elevate oneself from scrublord to godlike is something that many people can't or won't commit to.
"It's definitely not an easy profession to get into, because it requires a lot of hard work, dedication, and passion," said Lewis. "Many pro players practice for about 8 to 13 hours a day, depending on the tournaments or events coming up for them. They compete with the best, so they have to make sure that they're at the top of their performance at all times."
Despite its veneer, eSports has a dark side. Players burn out from the insanely long hours required for training and competing, and they often suffer repetitive stress injuries caused by constant, rapid button presses. Aziz "Hax" Al-Yami, a Super Smash Bros. Melee superstar, is an example of how eSports can wear on the body.
Hax took two expanded leaves from the eSports scene because of hand issues. According to ESPN's Daniel Lee, Hax felt "an explosion" in his left wrist while playing Melee at a 2014 Super Smash Bros qualifier. That forced his first eSports exit. Then, two years later, after a brief comeback, Hax bailed on a tournament due to massive hand pain. In total, Hax visited close to a dozen hand surgeons to investigate his health issues and endured two operations.
Sadly, eSports injuries of his type aren't unusual occurrences. The person who may know more about esports-related maladies than anyone on the planet is the Los Angeles-based Dr. Levi Harrison, the medicine veteran who's also known as "The Esports Doctor" in professional gaming circles. Harrison is entrenched in the eSports community, frequently appearing at gaming events and creating videos designed to help gamers safely play.
"I've been a gamer and an athlete all my life, and going to medical school gave me the insight that gaming is athleticism for your brain and mind," said Harrison. "You first weapon is your brain, then your body."
Harrison recommends that his patients, as well as gamers as a whole, make a habit of taking a five-minute break for every hour of gaming. Between practice sessions, tournaments, and playing for fun, a gamer can easily log more than 12 hours a day on the joystick or keyboard.That isn't good for their eyes, hands, backs, necks, or blood circulation.
"The natures of the injuries are so intense that it impacts them from coming back," said Harrison. "There's about 2 percent who return and struggle. They often go back when they aren't ready, because they know that the longer that they're off, their speed and dexterity decreases."
The injuries aren't necessarily tied to age, either. Some of eSport's youngest and brightest stars have suffered bodily harm from repetitive hand motions or simply sitting too long. This kills the "eSports isn't sports because there are no injuries" argument that many people unfamiliar with professional gaming repeat far too often.
Age of Empires
I noticed a pattern while investigating this world of gamers and cash prizes: Almost all of the major names are in their 20s and 30s. As a 40-something who would've done heinous things to become a salaried video game player, I began to wonder if I had missed the boat. Hall assured me that it's never too late to become an eSports player (therefore, I consider his word to be law).
"The older you get, the more your kung fu increases," said Hall. "I don't think age in video games is a real issue. You see [fewer] older people, because the economy of video games has never been sustainable until now."
Hall cited increasingly busy, time-sensitive lifestyles for the lack of older players in the eSports scene. Spouses, children, bills, and all manner of high-priority distractions can pull even the most competitive player away from the pro video game circle.
"I promise you that if you [go] to a senior citizens' home, someone will destroy you in Wii Bowling," said Hall.
Sure, grandpops may body me in Wii Bowling, but how would I know that he's on the up and up? Traditional sports, such as Major League Baseball and Ultimate Fighting Championship, have struggled with players taking performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). Esports is no different.
"We were all on Adderall. I don't even give a f**k," said professional Counter-Strike player Kory "SEMPHIS" Friesen to Mohan "Launders" Govindasamy in a 2015 interview. Friesen and other members of his Cloud9 team used the stimulant during a major tournament in which players competed for $250,000 in prize money. Adderall is notable for improving cognition, endurance, and reaction time. As a result, it's an enticing enhancement for players who are engaged in several hours of tournament play. But it's undoubtedly considered cheating.
As a result, the ESL was forced to take action. In August 2015, it put in place integrity rules that are designed to protect the players and eSports as a whole. It adheres to the World Anti-Doping Agency standards that ban illicit substances, such as marijuana and stimulants. The ESL now conducts random drug tests during all of its tournaments.
It's a necessary action; eSports doesn't want a Major League Baseball–like performance-enhancement scandal as it makes a mainstream push into your living room.
Attracting a New Audience
ESPN2, which that airs mostly traditional sports coverage, has tested the eSports waters in recent years by airing Dota 2, Madden NFL, and Street Fighter V competitions. TBS co-owns and airs ELeague, a live series of gaming tournaments that features Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Street Fighter V, and Overwatch play. According to Sports TV Ratings, the 2016 Evo World Championships averaged 201,000 viewers on ESPN2. Similarly, ELeague averaged 271,000 television viewers on TBS.The broadcasts have drawn satisfactory numbers that warranted continued eSports coverage from both networks
But not every game is television-worthy. Jace Hall believes that you can't simply air video games on TV and expect strong numbers. In his view, a game needs to instantly captivate the crowd.
"It's very important that the games are ones that they can understand quickly," said Hall. He cited Street Fighter as a game that people immediately grasp, because they understand the concept of one person punching another until there's a victor.
Hall also believes that the human factor—the characters, the stories—are what draw the average person to watch any televised contest. And that it's doubly important to highlight those aspects when a network intends to air digital characters.
"The mainstream only cares about humans," said Hall. "Their understanding of eSports comes from the human contact. No one goes to a basketball game to see the basketball. It's about the athlete."
Proving this point, gaming website Kotaku ragged on ELeague's Street Fighter V Invitational for being sterile until a rivalry reignited on live TV, resulting in an f-bomb being dropped. I thoroughly enjoyed the series, which merged slick television production with the insanity that only the FGC can deliver. And I can't wait to see more.
Letting the Hate Flow (Out of Me)
- PlayStation Vue Gets Dedicated Esports ChannelPlayStation Vue Gets Dedicated Esports Channel
People are getting paid money to play video games. Some are sponsored. Some claim tournament winnings. Some bring home big checks; others bring home a pittance.
My hatred was birthed from envy, but now that I've thoroughly explored the eSports waters, I can admit that ignorance was also a part of that problematic mix. I reached a more balanced outlook in time, with a bit of knowledge, wisdom, and understanding.
Here's the deal: The men and women who participate in eSports sacrifice a ridiculous amount of their time to become the world's best players. Their dedication is as intense as that of your favorite NFL player's. These elite gamers working incredibly hard to make careers out of their childhood passions, and I'm okay with that.