Can you really make a living playing games?
By Davie Wong, Sports Editor
When the League of Legends North America League Championship Series Finals descended on Vancouver in April, it was met by a flurry of eager fans. People lined up from the Pacific Coliseum almost all the way to Hastings Street to get into the stadium for the finals. More than 150,000 people showed up and took part in the two day spectacle, with over 750,000 people watching online. For many conventional media outlets such as Global BC and CTV, the question became: why? Why were so many people lined up to watch people play a game? How did this single event attract more people that any single Canucks game this season?
To answer all of that, you have to understand the culture of e-sports and the history behind it. When League of Legends started at the beginning of the decade, it was just like any other computer game. Except it wasn’t. League’s unique multiplayer gameplay made it appealing to large groups of gamers and made it easy to market to their friends. Its easy-to-pick-up game play helped create a welcoming community for gamers.
To break it down simply, League of Legends is a team-based game where five players tried to destroy the base of five other players. It’s relatively simple mechanics but addictive style helped it quickly rise to the top of multiplayer game genres rapidly. Not two years after the games release, it was estimated that there were over 3 million players around the world. But why was it so popular to watch?
If you ask any fan in the stadium why they were watching, they would probably respond with something like, “All my friends watch, so I do too.” But if you asked a fan in the stadium who they were watching, the answer would be much different. The biggest difference between conventional sports and e-sports is the amount of fan interaction the average fan has with the player.
Unlike conventional athletes, who often are shielded from the public eye, e-sports athletes interact with their fans on a near daily basis. The biggest source of this would have to be through “streaming.” This is where an e-sports athlete streams themselves playing League of Legends or other games, and interacts with their fan base by answering questions and sometimes even having conversations with them. Through streaming and social media interaction, professional e-sports athletes establish a personality for themselves, and their fans. This is the biggest reason why people watch e-sports. The fans feel like they know the players, feel like they know the teams. They are connected, and they are invested. That’s the reason why 750,000 people watch an event that others may pass over. They are invested in the result of their favourite team, player, or even coach.
However, people often wonder why these competitive games are called e-sports. Can you call these gamers athletes? What is the connection between them and a conventional athlete? Well, if you do some research into it, the answer is quite simple.
E-sports was a name chosen long before the rise of League of Legends, to reflect the hardship StarCraft players went through to be the best. Birthed in Korea, e-sports athletes earned their name for their reputation for rigorous training and stalwart dedication, not unlike any other athlete. Modernly, the name reflects so much more of the culture.
An e-sports athlete’s practice regiment differs from team to team, and even more so from region to region. But many practice between 5–6 days a week for 10–12 hours a day, so not too different than the regular athlete. Those who would say that the physical toll on an e-sports athlete is not the same as a regular athlete would be partially correct but overall wrong. Although physically being an e-sports athlete isn’t too demanding, it is mentally draining. Having to analyze replays, scrimmage with other teams, then analyze those results in one sitting would take its toll on anyone, no matter how physically fit you are. The “grind,” as some athletes would call it, is very real in e-sports.
Financially, the difference between an e-sports athlete is marginally different. Similar to traditional sports, e-sports athlete make a salary dependent on their contract. That number is also dependent on the team, and the region in which they’re playing. However, the salary is only the base of what they make. Like many traditional athletes, e-sports athletes take on sponsorships. Some market their own brands. Sound familiar? However, the bulk of what many e-sports athletes make is through streaming revenue. When fans tune in to watch the personal stream of a player, they are hit with ads in between games that generate revenue for the player; they are given the option to subscribe, which supports the athlete with monthly payments; or they can donate money directly to the player. As you can imagine, a streamer with around 50,000 viewers who plays an ad every 30 odd minutes makes quite a bit of revenue. Add the subscription dollars and donation revenue to that number, and most e-sports athletes float a hefty salary. Former pro and current streamer Michael “Imaqtpie” Santana reported his earnings at just over 8,000 dollars a month. That 96,000 a year.
On a Collegiate level, League of Legends also holds a close connection to Vancouver. UBC and SFU field two of the best teams in North America competing in the North American College Championships. This year, the rewards were worth 8,000 dollars in scholarship money per player should the team make playoffs. With a team of about six (five players and a substitute), that’s 48,000 dollars in scholarship money for making playoffs alone.
Some colleges have even stepped up the search for recruiting professional players to their school. Most notably, UC Irvine started a scholarship program to find and field the best roster they could for the competition, closing the gap even more between traditional and e-sports athletes.
Like many traditional athletes, the best of the best are invited to a scouting competition, much like the NFL’s Scouting Combine, where players have a chance to impress professional teams looking for local talent, and make it to the big stage.
If you’ve made it here, you’ll get the point that I’m trying to make. The difference between a traditional athlete and an e-sports athlete is so minimal that I don’t even differentiate the two anymore. An e-sports athlete is an athlete. Kids come out of college programs, or are headhunted in high school, and are given a chance to make a career out of the game they love to play. Maybe even one day, we’ll see Douglas College fielding their own e-sports teams. One can dream.