I remember about a year ago, I was sitting down at home watching television when a program about professional gamers came on. At the time I was in my last semester at university, working part-time and not at all looking forward to the prospect of having to enter the big bad world of a full-time career. I didn’t exactly know what I wanted to do then; I guess you could say that I was at an impasse as to how my life would proceed. And I was scared.
This documentary came on and I decided to watch it, even though I was extremely jealous at the prospect of these kids getting to play video games professionally – and getting paid for it. However, this film, which was based around the KeSPA (Korean e-Sports Players Association) professionals, completely blew my mind. There was little to no enjoyment for these kids at all.
The program followed four professional Starcraft gamers as they traveled South Korea to do TV spots for their sponsors, massive fan signings, and promos for the two major gaming channels, not to mention the countless tournaments they competed in.
These guys were – for lack of a better word – athletes. They woke up at the same time, ate the same food, went to the same gym, and slept in the same room. Day in, day out. They weren’t allowed to drink, stay up late, or go anywhere alone; god forbid they should ever want to cut loose and party one night.
And while they all acknowledged that the strict regime they had to adhere to was ridiculous at best, they continued to do it. Why? Because a career at the top of the Starleague lasts only a short few years. Doubtless there are exceptions – Lim Yo-Hwan (The Emperor) is considered to be one of the finest Starcraft players in Korea, earning an annual wage of more than US$300,000 plus endorsements – but the majority of gamers are only given a short career in the professional gaming spotlight.
This documentary led me to do some researching into the world of pro gaming. I mean if Korea has it, America has to have it as well, right? Lo and behold I stumbled across the Major League Gaming (MLG) website. It’s sexed up like an eighteen-year-old Hooters waitress, but an interesting read all the same. Scanning through their list of Halo 3 pro players I’m pretty sure that I’ve been annihilated by at least a dozen of them at some point in my pitiful Xbox Live career.
To me, this world of professional gaming is entirely incredible. Fifteen years ago, when my uncle was hooking up rickety-old computers for Doom LAN parties I thought it was just a passing phase; five years ago, when I was spending every waking moment playing Halo 2 multiplayer I knew I was wrong.
This fascination with gaming – and yes it is a fascination, just take a look at the turnout to a Starcraft tournament below – has almost matched the fan base of sports like football and baseball in countries like Korea. And the admiration doesn’t stop with the games, oh no; the professionals are treated like royalty (by the fans) and paid accordingly (by the sponsors).
One has to wonder just how far this will all go. Obviously, professional gaming is only in its teething stage; while it is massive in Asia, it is only really finding its feet in the west.
Since I’m Australian, and after the success of finding the MLG and other such franchises, I decided to see what Down Under had on offer in the way of pro gaming. I doubted that America could do anything so pioneering without Australia following suit soon after.
What I found didn’t so much surprise me as it made me wonder; wonder at how many people I used to know that are now considered “professional gamers”. After the amount of time I spent playing Battlefield: 1942 at my local Toowoomba LAN hub, Firestorm, I must have faced at least a handful of people now getting paid for their addiction. Most would compete in weekend competitions either online or down in Brisbane, but I never really thought anything of it. Of course, at that time nobody was getting paid – at least that I knew of – it was sheerly for the love of the game and, honestly, I didn’t love hanging out with sweaty blokes for sixteen hours playing the same game that much.
In hindsight, I never was – nor am I now – even close to being good enough to compete at the level that some of these guys do. But I have to say that the lifestyle of players like Johnathan Wendel does look appealing.
If you’ve never heard of him, Wendel (or Fatal1ty) was an incredibly skilled Quake player who courted all the biggest sponsors, captured the attention of MTV documentarians, and was even able to launch his own Fatal1ty PC line. He was one of the first American gamers to go pro and was earning on average around $50,000 a year plus endorsement deals.
But really, what it comes down to in the end is: is it all worth it? From the perspective of Johnathan Wendel you’d have to say yes. But seeing what I did from the Korean Starleague, I have to wonder whether these kids would do it all over again if they knew what they were getting themselves into. Fair enough if you want – and are good enough – to play games for a living, but when it becomes such a structured, regimented task rather than simply fun, what’s the point?
I’ve now got a great job, and have the chance to write for all you lovely folk on what interests me the most: gaming. That documentary really opened up my eyes to see that even the best things can have their bad points. Wistful and clichéd as that may be, I’m glad that I saw the other side of the coin, and can appreciate professional gaming for what it essentially is: gaming.