Inside E-Sports: An Examination of the World of Pro Gaming

notail-dota2Editor’s Note: When it really comes down to it, these guys are playing a game for money, just like NBA or NFL players. Who’s to say that a touchdown pass in football is more impressive than a clutch skill-shot in Dota?

Getting paid to play video games sounds like the cushiest job in the world. Stumble out of bed, fill a bowl of cereal, boot up Steam, and go hunting for thrills and spills. Pants and personal hygiene are optional. That’s the pervasive, and in many cases valid, image of the professional gamer — a layabout with a purpose and a paycheck — but there’s a great deal more to making a living from gaming than meets the eye. Games are usually a leisure activity and an entertainment, but now they’re also generating enough income to sustain entire leagues and multimillion-dollar professional competitions.

To get an insider’s perspective on the rigors and sacrifices demanded by a career in gaming, I spoke with two veterans of the trade: 22-year-old Peter “ppd” Dager and 25-year-old Saahil “UNiVeRsE” Arora from Evil Geniuses (EG). In spite of their young age, both have years of competitive experience and are the most senior members of a five-man squad that includes a pair of teenagers. They carry the EG banner into mythical battle in Valve’s massively popular Dota 2 multiplayer game, which today hosts the grand final of a $10 million tournament known as The International. Captained by ppd, EG came within just one win of reaching tonight’s final against Team Newbee, but in the end had to settle for an honorable third place and a $1 million prize.

The life of a pro gamer requires uncommon discipline and perseverance, because the obstacles to success are as numerous outside the game as they are fearsome inside it. Parents won’t respect what you do, fans won’t understand when you fail, and most of the money goes to only the very best. As tough as that is, passion, team camaraderie, and a growing acceptance of e-sports as a legitimate career path are making competitive gaming bigger than ever.

Like athletic sports, Dota 2 is a young person’s game. Neither ppd nor UNiVeRsE sees himself playing into his 30s, while their 26-year-old ally Clinton “Fear” Loomis is lovingly referred to as “Old Man Dota.” Having participated in each of the previous three Internationals, Fear has been sidelined for this year’s tournament by a chronic arm injury that was originally diagnosed as tennis elbow — and just like with the sport of tennis itself, the game he plays demands the instant reactions and intense focus that a young mind and body are most capable of sustaining.

“Once you reach the top of a competition, you think maybe I can take this to another level where I can turn my hobby into a profession,” says ppd as he recounts the long road to his current position of leading a pro gaming team. He got his start in a game similar to Dota,Heroes of Newerth, and has been refining his gaming craft for over six years. UNiVeRsE began his career around the same time and went through a similar progression.

The key thing they agree on is that the jump between playing for fun and becoming a pro depends on someone spotting your talent and recruiting you to an established team — in other words, being scouted out just like a big-arm quarterback playing pitch in the park. As nascent as e-sports like Dota 2 may be, there are already big, professionally organized teams that pay salaries to representatives in multiple games (EG has a fighting game division and rosters of players competing in StarCraft IICall of Duty, and League of Legends alongside Dota 2).

Without the financial support of a team or committed sponsors, it’s basically impossible to put in the time necessary to refine your skills to the highest level. Juggling pro matches with school or work responsibilities is particularly awkward in the US, where most competitive games are played in the morning. It’s an all-in or all-out affair, and the way the players talk about it reveals the sustained intensity that’s required. ppd speaks of “disengaging” in the afternoon after at least six hours of team practice every day. That’s later followed by playing solo or live-streaming matches on Twitch late into the night. UNiVeRsE adds that there’s also no such thing as a holiday from the game: players take some time off after The International, but otherwise it’s a full-year cycle of perfecting individual play and team strategy.

The Chinese e-sports teams take the commitment to training to its logical extreme by having the whole team live together under one roof throughout the year. They don’t even consider it proper practice unless all five players are in the same room, working as a team. The fruits of these labors are borne out by results at TI4: of the last eight remaining teams, five came from China.

UNiVeRsE openly admits that he wouldn’t be putting in as much time on this game without the allure of The International’s exponentially growing prizes and the monetary backing of his team. Valve, the custodian of Dota 2, made a big splash in 2011 when it announced the first International would have a $1.6 million prize pool. The amount was unheard of then, but this year’s tournament will hand out nearly $5 million just to the winning team. That’s having a trickle-down effect on other Dota 2 tournaments through the year, which has been felt by the likes of Uli Schulze from Turtle Entertainment. Schulze organized ESL One, the last big event before TI4, in Frankfurt’s Commerzbank-Arena this June.

Around 12,500 fans attended two days of live Dota action and the online audience peaked at over half a million simultaneous viewers. “Two years ago, it would have been difficult to make it sustainable at this size,” he says, but the shock waves of interest from The International are bringing in more money and sponsorships from unlikely sources like Coca-Cola and American Express. The other side of that coin is that Schulze now has to cover the travel costs of the teams he invites, while also providing a sizable prize purse to make their trip worthwhile.

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