We're All On Speed: 6 Insane Reasons Pro Gamers Retire At 26
Playing video games for a living seems like a pretty sweet deal, but there's a lot more to it than rolling out of bed at the crack of noon to do battle with racist teenagers using the power of the Internet. We talked to professional StarCraft II players Jesse "RuFF" Hall and Brandon "puCK" Qual, and they told us about the stranger side of pro-gaming.
It's About Much More Than Gaming
Pro-gaming is not only very competitive (there are countless teenagers trying to break into it so they don't have to get a real job, just like writing Internet comedy) but very top heavy. The winning team of 2014's biggest Dota 2 tournament walked away with a cool $5 million, but fewer than 300 pro-gamers have banked more than $100,000 in tournament winnings. As Jesse explains, a lot of players make money through streaming their play live.
"A lot of fans think we make a lot. But really, the pro-gamers don't make that much. Tournaments are where you can make a lot of money, but if you see a pro-gamer streaming almost all the time that usually means they're not making much. E-sports isn't as big as a lot of people think it is when it comes to that aspect."
Just because you can Zerg rush your nephew, it doesn't mean you're ready for the big time.
Both Jesse and Brandon stream on Twitch, where money comes from fans that like their style. You need a balance of talent and personality -- fans come home after a day's work looking to unwind by watching some gaming, but if you don't offer something unique compared to the thousands of other young white guys doing the exact same thing, then they're going to look elsewhere.
"[Viewers will] thank you for streaming, or they'll pay you to try a strategy," explains Jesse. "A lot [of money] comes from subscriptions and players who are really interested in you, who want to throw money at you and say they love the entertainment you provide. I tell myself it's similar to a street performer who's got the hat on the ground."
Except pedestrians don't have the option to switch between 5,000
other people doing covers of "Wonderwall."
You're essentially marketing yourself like a less morally offensive Kardashian.
"I've seen people who have T-shirts, they do giveaways. I think some of the most famous streamers are the ones who sit back and give away most of the stuff the sponsors give them. There are a lot of ways to market; it's just about being creative."
You also need good timing, as the popularity of games can wax and wane. If you can get in on the ground floor of a hot new game, you'll be in a much stronger position than someone who's just now trying to become the next big Counter-Strike streamer. Then you just have to hope that everyone doesn't quickly lose interest in the game you've mastered.
"It can be hard for anyone who's new and trying to get in. A lot of people who end up getting famous, they get famous when a new game comes out and immediately capitalize on it."
"All right, I just need to start streaming and wait for the inevitable gritty reboot."
It wouldn't hurt to hone your contract negotiation skills, either. Pretty much every pro-gamer plays on a team that handles tournament scheduling, sponsorship, and all the other nitty-gritty business details. Jesse and Brandon agreed that you can get a good contract if you're willing to talk, but you can get screwed if you just listen to promises of glory and sign blindly. Basically, you're committing to a lot more than you think when you register your Dem0nB0ner_69 account on Battle.net with the hope of striking it rich.
The Average Pro-Gaming Career Is Crazy Short
One of the biggest criticisms of professional sports is that athletes aren't prepared for the real world that abruptly confronts them when they retire in their 30s. But gamers make athletes look like wizened ancients practicing arcane arts. While athletes are hitting their peak in their mid-20s, pro-gamers are already looking to retire because they can't keep up with the reflexes or lifestyle of younger players. At 29, Jesse is considered over-the-hill.
"Technically, for my age, I should have retired already. A lot of pro players will retire probably around 25 and start actually living a normal life. Players that are a lot older kind of think outside the box; they make new strategies because younger players mechanically are so much faster. But the thing is, they always catch on. Older players get dethroned by younger players, because they take the stuff they do and then do it better."
Here's a player from the Senior Major League Gaming circuit.
The good news is that, unlike sports, you don't have to be born with the right body type in the right part of the world to succeed. Jesse thinks anyone can become a pro-gamer if they start early and work hard, and while Brandon thinks some blessing from nature is required, he agrees it still comes down to effort.
"Both of those things come into play. Like swimming, you have to have a certain body type. You might have too big of hands. Your fingers might just bump too many buttons accidentally. Everything needs to be perfect, and the hard work needs to be tremendous."
"No homework or dinner until you've given me 10 no-scopes, boy."
So players shoot for big money and then an early retirement, although we can't discount the Rocky-like possibility of grizzled veterans getting called back for one last match to save their kid or something. Brandon explains the typical lightning-fast career path.
"It makes sense for people to start younger. You get really good, you give it a couple of years, and if you're still doing well you keep going, but the moment you start to lose it's time to start thinking about a new path. It's a sport that you can only do at a relatively young age. You start making less money the older you get."
You literally get too old for this shit.
The Professional Gaming World Can Screw You
Let's revisit those gaming contracts. Jesse said:
"You never know who is out there and what their objectives are. If you look at Quantic Gaming, for example: The owner promised quite a bit to his players, capitalized on it, they got extremely famous, he didn't pay out, and then they just kind of disappeared. But over time, as more and more of that happens, the players are more inclined to recognize it. The first thing I'd do is make sure I get paid on the first of the month. I wouldn't accept something anymore that's like, 'Oh, yeah, at the end of the month we'll go ahead and pay you, just enter these tournaments and stuff,' and then they never do it."
"Ah, shit, this says they'll play me at the end of the month."
Quantic Gaming was a high-profile team that collapsed under the weight of its own empty promises. Their CEO stopped paying his players their salaries for months, and then he vanished along with the $40,000 he allegedly owed. They wanted to sue, but as soon as they admitted they had no hard evidence the owner popped up in party pictures on Facebook. Months of exploitation ended with Jagerbombs, not comeuppance.
They didn't get the Swedish money, but at least they got to keep the shirts.
That wasn't an isolated scandal. We're not saying that every team is looking to screw gamers -- Brandon and Jesse are both very happy with theirs. But it's a young industry with young players who generally don't know much beyond gaming, including how to handle the large sums of money floating around. Kuro "KuroKy" Salehi Takhasomi, who's racked up $648,000 playing Dota 2, thinks players are underpaid and poorly treated because they have no sense of where the money is. And while South Korea is stereotypically considered the place where the most pro-gamers live a life of celebrity, luxury, and game groupies, there's actually been an exodus of Korean players to other countries because they were being asked to train for 12 to 16 hours a day without a living wage. And yes, that was South Korea.
Performance-Enhancing Drugs And Sketchy Gambling Are Pervasive
As many a biopic has taught us, you haven't truly made it until you're mired in substance abuse and scandal. The Electronic Sports League recently announced that they're going to implement drug testing. The main drug they're looking for is Adderall, because the same pill that helped you get through your college midterms is perfect for increasing your focus, reflexes, and hand-eye coordination. When victory can come down to clicking your mouse just a little bit faster than your opponent, well ... power-ups exist outside of games, too.
Up, up, up, up, up, up, doooooown.
Here's a high-level Counter-Strike: Global Offensive player admitting that his team and probably most others took Adderall in a tournament with 250 grand on the line, here's a top Halo 3 player talking about how he got hooked on Adderall and couldn't compete in tournaments without it (luckily, it was easy to buy at tournaments for 10 to 40 bucks a pop), and here's a former e-sports marketer talking about the rampant use of Ritalin, beta-blockers, and selegiline, a drug for Parkinson's treatment that improves your mood and motivation. That's in addition to the fact that many players consume enough caffeine to give a horse a heart attack.
And then there's good old fashioned gambling. You can legally bet on e-sports, but don't be shocked if your bet is voided. A high-profile Counter-Strike match was thrown in January 2015, while in 2014 a famous Korean League Of Legends player attempted suicide after his match-fixing scandal came to light. The first case was just a scam to make money, but in the latter they needed to come up with funds fast because the money to pay salaries had run out. We're talking a unique combination of big money, inexperienced teenagers, exploitative situations, the stress of performing in public, and limited opportunities -- is this professional gaming or a boy band?
This doesn't really clear it up.
The Culture Can Be Toxic
E-sports has absolutely exploded over the past few years. In 2014 89 million fans watched 3.7 billion hours of e-sports, which is almost triple the viewing hours of that ancient and eldritch year, 2012. The International, a Dota 2 tournament, and its $10 million prize pool pulled in more viewers than the World Series and the Stanley Cup Finals combined. The industry brought in $194 million in 2014 from sponsorships, ads, and merchandise, and it's forecasted to pull $465 million in 2017. So instead of telling your kid to get off the computer and play outside, you may want to keep him parked there and grab him a Red Bull.
"Seriously, boy, we will stay here all goddamn night if we have to. My dead daddy had a better kill/death ratio in 'Nam."
But like any hot new venture, it has to go through some growing pains. And perhaps the biggest will be figuring out how to deal with a culture that's influenced by the darker side of the Internet. It's estimated that 30 percent of e-sport viewers are women, but very few play at the top level. And when they do, it's not always pretty. The first woman to join a pro StarCraft II team was chosen "for her skills and looks," according to her own manager. Two years ago a top Street Fighter X Tekken player tried to throw a female opponent off her game by guessing her bra size, telling her to take up mud wrestling, claiming he wanted to spy on her in the bathroom, and, uh, threatening to smell her if she lost. When called out, he said, "Sexual harassment is part of a culture, and if you remove that from the fighting game community, it's not the fighting game community," before later offering a standard "I'm sorry you were offended" apology. Brandon has a theory about how this culture emerged.
"A lot of players start when they're really young and they never really leave the high school mentality where it's drama drama drama and it's all they care about. A lot don't go to school, they don't get a real job, so they haven't really experienced anything outside of playing video games all day. It's a completely different reality, and once you develop it it's really hard to go back to a normal lifestyle."
"Look, I can wear pants to this, or I can not be an asshole. You don't get both, Hitler."
Because most players rely on fans for donations, fans tend to have a lot more power than they do in traditional sports. That's allowed e-sports to grow without getting excessively commercialized, but Brandon points out that it's also given authority to crazy people.
"There will be people out there that go out of their way to make your life miserable. There are all kinds of crazy people. You never know what to expect; you have to be very careful. You hear about it all the time. If you follow the scene long enough you'll see stuff come up. There are cases of SWATing -- people will figure out the address of some player and make a false claim, and they end up with a gun pointed in their face. They'll [launch a DDoS attack], hack your passwords, and go after you on Twitter."
Basically, all of the worst parts of the Internet come to life and stalk you like a crazy ex.
It Can Take Over Your Whole Life
A lot of pro-gamers don't have much experience outside of gaming. Brandon explains:
"When I was first starting, my life revolved around the game. I'd wake up to it, sleep to it, go to school thinking about it, use the computer labs to look up random facts. I'd practice as much as I could. I would still do my school work, but I'd have this urge to play really bad."
"Your comparison of Jane Eyre and Sarah Kerrigan, Queen Of Blades was baffling yet oddly convincing."
Throw in the fact that outside of tournaments a pro-gamer's schedule is more flexible than your cat's, and you can quickly find your life going to some strange places.
"I find myself having a hard time just keeping a normal sleep schedule. I haven't had an actual 8 to 5 job for three, four years. Right now my schedule's pretty bad; I've been going to bed at 4 a.m. every day, waking up at 11 to 1. Some people really like that schedule; I personally don't. It's really hard to set back a schedule when you're sitting in front of a computer all the time."
When you have Froot Loops at 3:30 a.m., does it count as breakfast or supper?
It gets worse when you're on a high-level team that lives and trains together. Here's a profile of a top League Of Legends team that reads like it's set in a dystopian version of a frat house. They train together 12 hours a day, then have to share bedrooms. We don't care how much you like your co-workers -- sooner or later you're going to get on each other's nerves, especially if you're mired in the middle of a losing streak.
Brandon finds that outsiders significantly underestimate the stress that can come with gaming professionally. We're not saying it's like performing heart surgery, but it's not vegging out in front of the computer all day either.
"It can be extremely stressful. You never know how well you're going to do. The battle to get to where you are is tough. And then you might find out four, five, six years down the road that you don't enjoy it anymore, and then you realize that, oh shit, I don't even have an education. There are so many risks you have to take. It's always good to find an alternative path. Taking two or three classes a semester is a good idea if you're doing something as straining as e-sports."
Because, hey, what's a couple more hours on the computer studying at that point?
If you ask pro gamers what they plan to do when they retire, their response is often just a shrug. Some, like Brandon and Jesse, have an education. Others will look to get into coaching or management. But with e-sports still in its infancy, we won't really know what a generation of pro-gamers retiring will look like until it happens. Until then, Brandon and Jesse both love their job, and they're very glad that they have the opportunity to do it, but make no mistake -- it is a job. Albeit the one with the best possible fringe benefit: the ability to go to work sans pants.
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Check out Robert Evans' A Brief History of Vice: How Bad Behavior Built Civilization, a celebration of the brave, drunken pioneers who built our civilization one seemingly bad decision at a time.