Not All Fun And Games -- The Uglier Side of eSports


Posted May 31, 2012 - By Cassandra Khaw

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Screenside -- eSports: A History

What we see of eSport competitors doesn’t always reflect the reality behind the scenes.

Imagine this: a crowded show floor, lights, and cameras pinioned to your every movement. Tens of thousands of people riveted by each of your keystrokes. Your every kill arouses a cheer, your every death a chorus of disappointment. If you win this match, you and your team will go on to receive the kind of money normally reserved for those blessed with incredible business acumen or an inhuman grasp of general knowledge. Today, however, the prize goes to the men with the highest actions-per-minute.

For many, this is eSports: glamorous, lucrative and paved with afterparties.

Like the video game industry itself, eSports is growing. In Korea, professional gamers are idolized in a way the Western world usually reserves for football prodigies. Barcrafts - the practice of watching Starcraft II in tandem with the communal consumption of alcohol - are springing up everywhere in the world. TV channels dedicated to competitive video games are no longer an idle dream. Last year, Gamescom played host to the 'The International', a DotA 2 tournament that rewarded the triumphant team with a million USD.

But is the reality as alluring as we think it to be?

Erik Brinkley, Global eSports Community Manager for the Tt eSports Gaming Brand, says no. "What people don't see are the grueling hours these players put into mastering their chosen disciplines. In Korea, where the best Starcraft II players live and play, players are sometimes confined to small two to three bedroom apartments which are, in turn, shared by anywhere from eight to ten people. These players will spend almost the entirety of their days practicing Starcraft II over and over again until the game becomes second nature. They rarely have much in the way of personal time."

His words are a disquieting reminder of an article that was written by independent daily South Korean newspaper The Hankyoreh in 2010, one that provided startling insight on what life was often like for the nation's aspiring pro-gamers.

"The standard in pro gaming groups is for people to live together 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, with no traveling to or from work. For those ranked Group 2 or lower, their entire daily routine consists of eating, cleaning, laundry and games, " Starcraft columnist Kim Jeong-geun explained at a policy talk, according to The Hankyoreh. "Because of this structure of bringing in young people, developing them and then replacing them when their lifespan is spent and they have been squeezed dry, [the professional gamer development system] has earned the name of ‘the chicken coop.'"

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The journey to becoming a professional gamer is one of many steps, each more difficult than the last. Before prospective candidates are permitted entry into a clan, they must first pass an initial examination. From there, they then move on to live in dormitories where they practice rigorously in anticipation of the Courage Tournament. An offline event designed to sieve the best from the lot, the Courage Tournament is one of the two ways a hopeful can acquire a pro gamer license.

In spite of how only an average of seventy-five people out of the five thousand that had participated to date are drafted as formal Group 2 members each year, it's also the easier method: established teams can choose to provide a license to an individual, but because teams only have three to four licenses to distribute a year, this honor is usually reserved for the very best.

Should the aspirant triumph in the Courage Tournament, they are then allowed to be tested for apprenticeship in a pro-gaming group. It is only after they succeed at this final challenge that they are permitted to take on the hardest part of all: the fight to become a Group 1 member. Not many succeed. According to the Hankyoreh, an average of 43.5 of those ranked as semi-professionals or higher quit every year.

While nowhere near as militant as the Korean Starcraft: Brood War scene, the rest of eSports remains a highly competitive landscape, one that imposes heavy demands upon its apostles.

Hunan-born ex-professional DotA player ZSMJ called eSports 'cruel' and 'unforgiving', a field that personified the phrase 'survival of the fittest', in a poignant entry on Sgamer (GosuGamers provided an English translation of the piece).

"Sometimes, I hate my job, because it requires me to stay up late, have my meals at irregular hours, and as a result my face breaks out in blemishes/acne - all this frustrates me. I met a lot of friends [playing DotA] who share similar interests, but I also lost a lot of people around me who cared about me."

He also described his daily routines when attending a competition. "Every time, we participate in a competition, I would discuss strategies and tactics that my team would use the next day with my teammates, and watch the replays of the first day of competition till 2am in the morning. Then I would get up in a few hours at 7am, even though our matches are scheduled in the afternoon, just to watch the other competitors play - well, to analyze and get a better understanding of our potential opponents."

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Of all the tournaments that he had attended, ZSMJ said that the SMM 2010 was the one that left the strongest impression. "I noticed many competitors who were sound asleep in their seats. The competition lasted till 1am past midnight, and only then we had our dinner which lasted till 2am and we would return to our hotels and crash at 3am. The next morning, it's 6am rise-and-shine, and we go without breakfast or food till 1pm in the afternoon. "

Unsurprisingly, life in the Western hemisphere is no easier. If anything, it may well be more difficult than the one experienced by their Asian counterparts. "There is a huge difference between training environments in the East and the West. The US is probably the weakest of all the scenes simply due to how society works here." Richard Johnson, coach for North American Starcraft II team Infinity Seven, confessed.

"I think Asian culture is a bit more supportive of technology and gaming and thus it’s easier to set up pro-gaming houses because you have sponsors who will benefit from that happening. There’s also the issue of proximity. In both Europe and Korea, it’s relatively quick and cheap to travel. A lot of people usually live closer together, which makes it cheaper and easier to set up training environments and to send people to tournaments. But here? It's not easy. Our demographic is pretty young, so spending $1000 to fly across the country and stay in a hotel for a weekend isn’t always possible. "

Nonetheless, with the rising value of prize pools and growing number of tournaments, there appears to be no shortage of people interested in pursuing this career path, so much so that some are even willing to pay places like the Gamer Institute for an education in competitive gaming.

The result of a collaborative effort between Daniel Grzeak, Semin Nurkic and Bosco Tan, Australian-based Gamer Institute was built on the spine of an ambitious dream: to make competitive gaming accessible to everyone. Rife with community tools, training videos and articles, the price of entry is non-existent. Anyone can join the Gamer Institute. However, the establishment's best services are locked behind a price tag. According to an interview with Gamespot Australia, an hour-long one-on-one coaching session with the coaches can cost anywhere between USD15 to USD100.

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Unfortunately, it looks like an aptitude for your chosen discipline can only take you so far. "One of the biggest mistakes people make is believing that we make boatloads of money and thus, have a gigantic marketing budget to spend. Since eSports is currently a niched market, we have to be extremely creative in our marketing strategies in order to secure the biggest impact with the lowest overhead. This includes being extremely picky about whom we associate ourselves with." said Brinkley.

Is there a specific set of qualifications that sponsors look for? "The easy answer would be to say, 'they [must] win a lot'." Brinkley joked.

"But, that's too general for our industry. Some teams do an excellent job of catering to the community and garnering a huge fan base; some teams and players rely solely on results to fuel their marketing appeal. It really depends on their individual specialties and how they can contribute overall to gain a favorable public opinion."

Alexis Susset, an international investor and founder of team Type, concurred. "When looking at a team, the most important [thing] is the people in it. Being good at what they do is only half of what it takes to be a truly good team. Personality is what separates good teams from great teams."

He also cautioned people to remember that professional gaming is a 'lifestyle' as opposed to an avenue to 'quick-easy money'.

Richard Johnson, coach for North American Starcraft II team Infinity Seven, compared professional gaming to a good internship. Tournament winnings aren’t something you can count on even if you’re the best player or team in the world. eSports is also still too young to really say that someone is going to be able to make a ‘career’ out of gaming. However, if you have a team house/ training environment where you’re not having to pay 100% of the rent for where you are staying or support other people, the money isn’t bad at all."

But is it good enough? According to ZSMJ, a professional gamer's salary 'generally would not stretch into five digits'.

While ZSMJ noted that it is 'not an issue' for a competent player to earn up to 20000 RMB (31734 USD) a year, ZSMJ stressed that the idea of a raise is 'pretty much stagnant' and that salaries seldom exceed the initial figures, regardless of whether the individual has succeeded in bagging a 'couple of championship titles or runner-ups'.

"As with all your earnings, your tournament winnings are also subjected to 20% tax, after which the remainder is divided among your team mates. In some cases, the club might have a stake in what you win and subtract your travel expenses from your winnings."

Screenside -- eSports: A History

Needless to say, not many pro-gamers quit their day jobs.

Those who do eventually make professional gaming a full-time pursuit are often those who also have developed a cult following at video game broadcasting communities like JustinTV or own3DTV. Unfortunately, streaming, which is essentially the practice of broadcasting your games as you play, too is no guarantee of a reliable income.

"[It's only] a short to mid-term solution. Unless you're one of the top players or a star, I feel it will be very hard to sustain this lifestyle since the level is progressing so fast. In general, I think it's a great idea for someone who wants to be a professional player. Just be sure you have a backup plan," Susset warned.

For people like Fatal1ty (the first and arguably the most successful pro-gamer in the world) or Street Fighter's Daigo Umehara (he holds the Guinness World Record for most consecutive wins in a Street Fighter tournament), back-up plans are unnecessary. For them, professional gaming is the 'fantasy career' that so many envision it to be.

For the thousands still fighting for a place in the annals of gaming history, life is still hard. eSports may be growing, but it is still a densely-packed niche that rewards only the best. Those who fall short are swept aside, forgotten beneath the constant onslaught of fresh talent.

Tags: eSports, Features
Not All Fun And Games -- The Uglier Side of eSports


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