Ryan Towey sat in his suburban Chicago home in a darkened room illuminated only by the ambient glow of TV screens, watching intently as four 20-somethings played hour after uninterrupted hour of Halo 5. This is his job.
He and his crew—the Halo squad for professional gaming team Evil Geniuses—were there, in the house where they live and practice together, for not just the rest of the day, but the rest of the week. They played many matches of Halo, and when they were done, they watched hours of footage of their matches. There was a lot on the line—specifically, the $2.5 million prize pool for the Halo World Championships. If the team wanted a chance at some of that money, they had to play. And play. And play. This may be eSports—organized, multiplayer video game competitions between professional gamers—but they spend most of their time doing what any athletes does: training.
“[Training] was a grind. I cut out everything else. Twelve hours a day, it was all film, all gaming, all practice,” Towey, the pro player-turned-coach of the four-man Evil Geniuses Halo squad, says of the build up to the championship. “It was seven days a week for over a month.”
In recent years, eSports has experienced an explosion in popularity throughout the world. As online viewership via game streaming services like Twitch and YouTube has skyrocketed and team-based video games became more popular, leagues and tournaments have responded with increasingly lucrative cash prizes for players. With a new eSports-based reality show premiering on cable network TBS and media outlets highlighting the fame and glamor associated with the gaming phenomenon (VICE recently did a documentary "The Celebrity Millionaires of Competitive Gaming"), a narrative was born: for eSports athletes, life is about jet-setting across the country, wild tournament afterparties, huge winnings, and an easy life.
Top-level players in games like Call of Duty or Street Fighter are now able to compete in video games the way other athletes compete in football or basketball. Pro gamers form teams that attract sponsors like Comcast Cable’s Xfinity brand, electronics maker HTC, computer company Alienware, and energy drink brand Monster. Last year’s international championship for developer Valve’s Dota 2, one of the biggest events in eSports, saw 4.6 million concurrent viewers online at its peak. That tournament carried a prize pool of over $18 million. The five-player Evil Geniuses team for Dota 2 took first in 2015’s championship, netting $6 million. Some teams spring for team houses where players can live and practice together. There are even zealous fans who treat them like many other sports devotees would treat Steph Curry or LeBron James.
“Winning big tournaments is a great feeling and has [an] amazing impact on your life,” says Kyle Elam, a professional “shoutcaster,” or eSports commentator, and a former Halo 3 champion and coach. “The opportunities to travel, meet new people and interact with companies and sponsors can influence what you end up doing for the rest of your life.”
He knows first-hand, though, that none of that matters more than winning. “Some of these players, including myself, are some of the most competitive people I have ever met,” Elam says. “Winning is the only thing on everyone’s mind.”
There’s a reason why eAthletes are so competitive—their job is easy to lose. As fun as the perks might sound, for Towey, Evil Geniuses, and hundreds of other pro gamers, the eSports life is a grind, not some glamorous dream job. Tournaments aren’t always enough to pay the bills—especially if you don't win.
That's a big reason that some eAthletes, such as Ryan “State” Visbeck, use streaming to pay the bills.
Visbeck is a 23-year-old professional player of StarCraft II, a strategy game in which players control whole armies rather than controlling a single character as one would in Halo. As a “freelance” pro player—one who isn’t currently tied to a particular pro team—Visbeck spends his days broadcasting his StarCraft II games on streaming service Twitch. The service allows fans to watch Visbeck’s games live as he plays them, and also includes a chat function so they can interact with one another and the pro himself. Visbeck earns money through Twitch streaming subscriptions, which give viewers perks like special chat icons and access to his slate of recorded videos, as well as fan donations. It’s enough to support him as he lives in South Korea, where StarCraft has been extremely popular for more than a decade. Originally from California, Visbeck moved abroad to train with a pro StarCraft team in 2013 and has lived there ever since.
“Everyone practices the same hours per day, you have team lunch breaks. you do everything as a team. There’s no time at all to actually have a life.” —Ryan “State” Visbeck
“When I moved to Korea for the first time, I was training at a team house in 2012, and I was much better than I am now,” Visbeck says, laughing. “I went to Korea for three months to practice for the StarCraft II world championship in Shanghai. And a couple years later, when I moved back to Korea, I joined a Proleague team—the premiere StarCraft II league in Korea. Both of those experiences were completely different from anything else I’ve had in my entire life, because in a Korean team house in StarCraft II, you’re waking up at 10 or 11 a.m., everyone practices the same hours per day, you have team lunch breaks. You play soccer as a team. You do everything as a team. There’s no time at all to actually have a life.”
Now on his own, Visbeck spends more time streaming than competing, usually playing online for nine hours a day. He's also a college student at a local Korean university, and plays in StarCraft II tournament qualifiers while juggling a slate of classes.
“My sleep schedule’s been screwed up for the past couple of weeks,” Visbeck says. “When I want to compete in tournaments, they’re always going to be North American qualifiers, so they’re at times that are good for North Americans. I’ll start at 12 a.m. and finish at 7 or 8. It’s a disaster, having to flip my hours for classes and eventually flip back for the qualifiers every couple weeks. It’s just so stressful.”
Many players put in similar hours. Members of European eSports club Team Liquid—which plays Heroes of the Storm, a team-based game from World of WarCraft developer Blizzard—practice extensively just about every day, and personal time is practically nonexistent. “Time-expensive hobbies barely fit in,” says Liquid player Raoul “GerdamHerd” Saurbier.
Between playing with teammates, practicing solo, and watching film of games to identify ways to hone their skills and strategy, Team Liquid’s players say they put in at least 10 to 12 hours a day training in Heroes. “It’s exhausting,” says Team Liquid player Daniel “Shad” González. “You get mentally tired because you are thinking all day about the game and how to improve, and then in training you're concentrating to try to fix your mistakes.”
All that practice and focus culminates in tournaments and league play. But getting into those competitions is difficult, and it doesn’t guarantee that teams will walk away with a worthwhile payday. At the Halo World Championship, despite all Evil Geniuses’ preparation, Towey says the team had a tough run, finishing lower than they had hoped. They left the tournament with a top-8 ranking and $75,000, a far cry from the $1 million the first place team took home. Sure, $75,000 is more than most Americans take home in a year, but it doesn’t go very far for a team, Towey explains. “You give a percentage to the organization, a percentage to the coach, split it four ways [between the players], taxes. We won the gold medal at the X Games for ESPN in Aspen, and that was $15,000 for first place—you’re not really looking at a lot."
So like Visbeck, several of the Evil Geniuses team members stream consistently to supplement their income. Towey spends a lot of his time online, interacting with and creating content for fans to build the Evil Geniuses brand. And two of the Evil Geniuses Halo team members, twins Jason and Justin Brown, have full-time jobs outside of gaming—they’re both apprentice electricians.
eSports competitions range from online games to huge, live events set in professional sports arenas. The Evil Geniuses Halo squad has had big tournaments every month through the first half of 2016, including the World Championships. Tournaments for eSports athletes generally means flying to a city with teammates, setting up in a hotel room, and waiting to compete. The sport, like many others, requires a lot of traveling, and Team Liquid’s González says that can be exhausting. Since the companies creating most eSports games are based in either the U.S. or Asia, it’s even worse for European players, who often spend more time traveling than competing. Once a team has finally arrived at a tournament, Visbeck says there's rarely a chance for much preparation ahead of a competition.
“So you take $15,000, give a percentage to the organization, a percentage to the coach, split it four ways [between the players], taxes—you’re not really looking at a lot.” —Ryan Towey
“There’s usually a very short window where you actually get to practice before the tournament starts,” he says. "And that's if you're able to lug a computer all the way out of the country and have the hotel actually have good enough Internet to play.”
The competitions are an intense flurry of activity that can last hours or even days. And then, suddenly, they’re over. One team may have netted a few extra thousand and some new tax responsibilities to remember. Another may have earned a life-altering amount of money.
Either way, completely spent, the athletes can finally let loose. Many events tend to have post-tournament parties, hosted by the league, sponsors, or the developers of the games around which eSports are built.
“Sunday nights have been regarded for a long time as ‘party night,’” Towey explains. “You’re extremely focused for the entire weekend—it’s your job, it’s what you’ve practiced and trained for. Nothing is going to come in the way of trying to do the best that you can. And then come Sunday night, when everything is over, it's finally time to relax. You can hang out, see people you haven’t been able to see in a long time or that you were competing against, and everyone just kind of unwinds.”
Open bars are a usual fixture, and with most players at or around college-age, drinking is a big part of the culture.
“There’s almost always some kind of party or after-party going on at these tournaments. I think they were most crazy when [eSports] was very new. Especially because for a lot of the pro gamers—like, we’re gamers, right?” Visbeck says, laughing. “So we were kind of out of our element at these after-parties. It was pretty wild the first couple of years. I think it’s gotten a lot more calm. But you still have some crazy moments.”
And of course, with all the visibility of tournaments, streaming, and big-money prizes, there are the fans. Lots of fans tune into eSports online, but plenty now make a point to turn up in person as well. The growing number of live spectators adds an element of celebrity to the eSports world. Towey says he’s often asked about the idea of “groupies” and superfans, like those that follow musicians around on tours. “It would be false to say that there isn’t anything like that. But it’s not rampant—I think it’s kind of blown out of proportion a bit,” he says. “For most of us, this is our full-time job and we take it very, very seriously, especially at tournaments. No one has time to be outside of our team socializing.”
“For most of us, this is our full-time job and we take it very, very seriously, especially at tournaments. No one has time to be outside of our team socializing.”
The gaming world has a expansive reputation for sexism. Streamers and players who are women are often forced to fend off harassment online, and Towey says female fans who show up to tournaments are often perceived by others in the wrong way. “A lot of women will get very incorrectly grouped into [the groupie] category, due to the stigma of being a fan of a game while being a female at the same time.”
When questioned about the prevalence of eSports groupies, half of Team Liquid’s Heroes of the Storm squad laugh. If eSports groupies exist, they’re certainly different than the screaming fans clawing at Justin Bieber’s hoodie. And either way, Towey says Evil Geniuses have to put business first if they want to survive: “At the bigger events we’ll definitely attend those parties, but they're seen as networking opportunities, not an opportunity to let loose or anything like that. We’re all pretty professional and take things pretty seriously when it comes to our job.”
Ultimately, if eSports stars want to play video games for a living, they’re almost forced to take all the fun out of it. It's work, and if they don’t take it seriously, their job will soon be taken by someone who does. So for Evil Geniuses, it’s back to the team house in Chicago to practice, watch tape, and stream. Summer will be over fast, and they have to stay sharp.