The 0.1 per cent: How eSports pros make a career playing video games

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What if you could get paid to play a video game?

Millions of teenagers have entertained that dream while blasting away at video game opponents in front of the TV or computer. But becoming a pro gamer is extremely difficult and often a short-lived career, according to a former eSports star.

“There’s just so many kids who play all day,” said Guillaume “Grrrr…” Patry, a former professional StarCraft player from Quebec City.

“To think that you can just give up everything and go all-in on eSports is a little bit crazy.”

Patry was a top StarCraft: Brood War player in 2000 before competitive gaming became a major global phenomenon. ESports have exploded since then, with thousands of players competing for million-dollar prizes at tournaments that are streamed to hundreds of millions of viewers around the world each year.

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ESports tournaments have awarded nearly US$500 million in cash prizes since 1998, according to the prize-tracking website E-Sports Earnings. The richest game is Dota 2, which has handed out $169.7 million in prize money to date.

The whole industry generated $655 million in revenue last year and is expected to be worth $3 billion by 2022, according to a Goldman Sachs report on eSports published in June.

“We believe professional video game play can be appealing to a massive global audience of people who can watch and learn from pros and try to improve their own gameplay — something that we believe isn’t as possible for most traditional sports fans,” the report said.

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An estimated 630 million unique viewers will watch eSports online this year, according to a study from Juniper Research released in May. Many of those broadcasts occur over YouTube or Twitch, although traditional cable channels — including ESPN — have also started broadcasting major tournaments.

Patry says pro gaming is an appealing career path for many young people, but it ought to remain a “fantasy” for all but the very best amateur gamers.

“It’s really hard, and a lot of people are trying,” he said.

The early days of eSports

Patry moved to South Korea to become a pro StarCraft player in 2000 at the age of 18. He was a top-ranked North American player at the time, but the eSports scene in the U.S. was still too small for him to face top competitors every week.

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That’s why he decided to test his luck in Korea, where StarCraft had become a major cultural phenomenon.

“They had their own cable StarCraft channels — three of them,” Patry said.

“In the newspaper, it was like a sport. People talked about StarCraft, people played StarCraft at work or after work. The popularity of the game was insane.”

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Patry won the StarCraft world championship during his first year in Korea and continued to play the game professionally for a few more years. He earned a total of US$62,965 over the course of his career and played his last professional game at the age of 21.

Canadian Guillaume Patry is shown at a ‘StarCraft: Brood War’ tournament in South Korea in 2000, in this image from video. BeatlesChess/YouTube

Patry says eSports have matured a lot since the days of the first StarCraft when corruption and match-fixing scandals made major sponsors reluctant to invest. Players relied on tournament winnings to survive, and some would bet against themselves to make more money, he said.

“You could just forfeit a game and make way more than you would make in a whole month,” he said.

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Today’s eSports place more emphasis on integrity, because they’re backed by corporate sponsors and game developers that keep an eye over their investments, he said.

Big money

Current eSports players can rake in more than $2 million for winning an international tournament, and many of them earn steady salaries while competing for corporate-sponsored teams.

Top North American players in League of Legends, for example, make an average salary of $320,000, according to developer Riot Games.

“These days, now that the path to pro is well established, and there are nearly 1,000 pros globally making a living off of playing League of Legends professionally, we look at player salaries continuing to rise and new player [health] benefits as evidence of a healthy ecosystem,” Hopper said.

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Riot Games is one of several developers that kick in money to help pay player salaries. However, top players don’t just get to walk away with that cash. They have to devote a lot of their waking time to their esport.

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“Most of the pros playing nowadays are full time, not going to school or having another job, so they can consistently perform well,” Sasha (Scarlett) Hostyn, a top Canadian player in StarCraft II, said in an interview with Red Bull in February.

The 24-year-old from Kingston, Ont., is the highest-earning female player in eSports history, with $291,854.43 in total prize money winnings, according to E-Sports Earnings. That doesn’t include her salary earnings or money made through streaming services such as Twitch.

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Patry says he saw the same kind of dedication among Korean StarCraft players in the early 2000s.

“Everybody lives in a small apartment and you just play games all day,” he said.

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Earning curve

Patry says he’d have no chance if he tried to get back into professional gaming again. The 36-year-old still lives in South Korea, but he’s moved on to other pursuits including poker and cryptocurrency trading.

He points out that most eSports are dominated by players in their early twenties, despite the immense popularity of gaming with teenagers and older adults.

“It doesn’t mean that 90 per cent of the players are between 20 and 25. Far from it,” he said. “The young players are always the best players. It’s very competitive and just being a few years older, it slows you down.”

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Players between the ages of 21 and 25 have won more money than all other ages combined, according to stats posted on E-Sports Earnings. The data shows very few players win any prize money in their 30s, and only a handful have ever won money in their 40s.

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“I don’t think someone who’s over a certain age can adapt fast enough,” Patry said. He says adaptation is crucial in video gaming because game developers frequently tweak their product to adjust the way it’s played.

“It’s not like soccer or hockey. The game you learn when you’re 13 is not the same when you’re 23,” Patry said.

Patry says most people will never even come close to realizing their eSports dreams. However, he does have a bit of advice for the “top 0.1 per cent” who are considering turning pro.

“It’s not something you should give up education or your job for,” he said.

“If it happens, it happens naturally. People will come to you.”

With files from the Associated Press

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