The fickle fortunes of professional gaming pioneers
Shin Dong Won is the fastest typist I have ever seen. My eyes barely have time to focus on the monitor before he changes the view.
The screen changes a few times a second and is filled with alien bugs building bases and attacking other alien bugs.
“I've been playing Starcraft for 9 years,” he tells me.
Dong Won is playing at a rate of 350 actions per minute -- every "action" is a command he gives the computer. That adds up six decisions every second, which means he's playing six times faster than a casual player.
This is one of the most competitive video games in the world, and in June, Dong Won - whose in-game name is Hydra - beat out competitors in Europe and North America to win the seasonal championships. He was the “Season 2 World Champion Series Champion.”
A full time lifestyle
Video games are now a spectator sports. And Dong Won, who’s 24, has made over $160,000 in prize money by playing in tournaments, sometimes for tens of thousands of online viewers. He first started winning money in South Korea when he was 18. Unlike in America, professional gamers have been popular there for years, so this was something that he’s been working towards for a long time.
“I hoped that I'm going to make money from video games. I just practice every day for at least 6 hours.”
Staying competitive is more than just a job -- it’s a full-time lifestyle. And he’s living it: in a nine-bedroom suburban house in Antioch that he shares with half a dozen other gamers on his professional gaming team.
The living room is lined with young men in front of screens - all either playing video games or watching video games. The team is called Root Gaming and most players got on the team by playing a lot of video games until they were good enough to be noticed. Many gamers were either recruited right after college, or left college to try and go pro. Everyone who lives in the house gets free rent and their basic bills paid for.
Chasing the dream
“That's what allows a lot of people to chase the dream,” Paulo Vizcarra explains. He’s from Brazil and is the owner of Root Gaming.
The relationship between his eSports company and the players in the house works like this: He hires top level gamers to be on the team. Professionals are almost exclusively young men. The best players earn a salary -- Root wouldn’t tell me what Dong Won makes but described it as “decent but not outrageous.” Sponsors give the team money for promotion, like putting their logos on the team jerseys. It’s not that different of a model from many professional sports. But Vizcarra says in the U.S. this whole thing is still really new.
“Before Starcraft 2 there was hardly any professional gaming.”
The game was released back in 2010.
“When they announced Starcraft 2 we tried to make a professional gaming team and make it best in North America. We didn't think that eSports was going to be big as it is now.”
But it was and Root Gaming got this house 2 years ago. But what is it like for these young men to all live together.
“I would say friends living together is the best way to describe it. We have a lot of fun. We’ve have a pool outside. We go out to eat together.”
Vizcarra is a competitive Starcraft player himself - ranked 138 in the world - which sets this small company apart from some of the bigger companies that own teams. It’s cozier and more personal here. But if a players gets popular enough, he could leave. It’s always a risk.
“We have to try and keep them on our team. A really big team that can just pick and choose who they want.”
Root Gaming’s quiet Antioch house is 90 minutes northeast from another gaming house in Alameda. Evil Geniuses is a heavyweight in the world of eSports. One of their teams plays a five on five game called DOTA 2. And when Evil Geniuses won the DOTA 2 world championship in Seattle’s Key Arena this past August - they took home $6.5 million in front of a sold out stadium and an online audience of millions.
It was the most money won in a single tournament in eSports history.
“There's audience all around, we're in the center, there's a big screen at the top and people can watch from there,” Saahil Arora describes.
Arora is one of the five young men on the team. At 26 he’s an older professional -- his youngest teammate is 16.
“When I first started my parents were very against it. But I mean once I kept playing and they saw I was passionate about it they became more accepting. My mom still wishes I was a doctor but she's fine with it.”
Life after gaming
No one would say how much players get payed, and companies don’t want players to know how much their peers make. The team owners told me that if the salaries were open knowledge, it would be too easy for other companies to poach players. And while every person I talked with is confident that eSports will continue to grow, no one seems sure exactly how. There’s a lot of uncertainty in the industry, which can make players’ lives feel erratic. A game you’re good at now might not be popular in a few years. Team rosters can abruptly change -- Evil Geniuses replaced one of their teammates just days after their big win.
With so much up in the air, Arora doesn’t spend much time thinking about what he might do after gaming.
“I try not to think about that I'm just focusing on playing at the moment,” he explains.
But in 15 years he might be where Dennis Fong is. “Back in the 90s,” Fong tells me, “I don't think there was anything even called professional gaming, so I guess that would make me the first.”
Fong won championships for the 90s for games like Doom and Quake -- earlier incarnations of today's competitive games. He left gaming when he was in his early 20s to focus on business and has had a string of successful video game-related companies.
“A lot of these eSport careers last two to three years. It's pretty crazy. The games are constantly changing. If you can't evolve with the times you're out.”
So if you can adapt… and negotiate your contract… and train for hours a day -- are you finally set as an eSports athlete? Fong says - sure - as long as an injury doesn’t knock you out of competition. He explains how his arms felt -
“Massive pain, shooting pains from your wrist all the way potentially your shoulder. If you touched my forearms back then it would feel like there’s a rope because the tendons were so tight and inflamed. These guys pull in 1.5 to 2 million dollars a year. They’re just playing games all day long and can make a really really good living.”
Tens of millions of people play these games every day. And some of them might become millionaires -- if they can beat the system as well as their opponents.