That age-old saying, “You’ll never achieve anything playing video games,” is now as relevant as the Sega CD. Thanks to the rise of livestreaming services like Twitch and MLG.tv, it’s now possible to make a living playing video games professionally. Case in point, Activision and Microsoft handed out $1 million to the top Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare gamers in Los Angeles earlier this year. Think of it as the console video game equivalent to the NCAA Tournament, only these cyber athletes are paid big bucks to hit the sticks and snipe out virtual enemies as four-man teams.
In all, Activision has doled out $5 million over the past five years, and that’s just the icing on the cake for these pros. Pro gaming teams are paid annual salaries that can rise into the six-figures. And like real athletes, they also get sponsorships and endorsement deals from companies like Kontrol Freak, Astro Gaming, Red Bull, and Logitech G to promote their products. And pros can livestream their practice sessions and turn on the advertisement option to pocket extra money each day as they play games. Many pro teams live rent-free in Gaming Houses that are paid for, along with expenses, so they can focus 100% on playing games. Sounds like a dream, right?
ESports, or electronic sports, has become big business. Over four billion hours of eSports was consumed by gamers in 2014, according to research form IHS. In fact, more gamers spend time watching pros (and others) playing games these days, than playing games themselves. But if you think you have what it takes to be a “player,” there’s never been a better time to embark on a new career as a professional video game player. There’s more big money out there – over $25 million in cash prizes was awarded in 2014 – and more ways to enter tournaments than ever before.
But getting to the top will be more challenging than beating Bloodborne on PS4. Just ask James “Clayster” Eubanks, who was awarded the first-ever Call of Duty Championship MVP Award as part of the winning team, Denial.
“I’ve always been a very good gamer,” Eubanks said. “I’ve been playing video games ever since I was 6 years old, so it comes naturally to me in a way. It’s like instinct at this point, but to get to that next level you really just have to be dedicated. You have to critically think about the way you’re playing the game and almost see it as a math formula, like I’m adding two + two, but it’s not equaling four.”
What it did equal for Team Denial was a check for $400,000, which was the top prize at the 2015 COD Championship. Split four ways, that’s not a bad take for a weekend’s work. Denial pulled a Kentucky and went undefeated throughout the tournament, which included 32 of the best COD teams from around the globe.
“We just happened to have the best event of our life and we played with fire this entire event and it just worked out for us,” Chris “Replays” Crowder said. “The global structure is complex. There’s a lot of different play styles you have to adapt to. We watched a lot of these teams play during their matches so we could learn how they operated. And it paid off.”
Crowder, the team captain of Denial, has been playing games professionally for eight years. But he began life as a regular athlete, playing baseball until an injury sidelined him at age 14. He picked up an Xbox controller and started competing on Gamebattles.com. He believes gamers with real sports backgrounds can excel at eSports.
“The competitive edge that you have when you play a real sport is the same in eSports,” Crowder said. “Whether you’re playing a video game or if you’re doing physical activity, it’s all the same thing. You have to focus and work together as a team.”
In addition to having thousands of cheering fans in the audience, millions of gamers tuned in to watch the competitions online through MLG.tv, CallofDuty.com and Xbox Live. That’s also where a sports background, where crowds are the norm, helps.
Dillon “Attach” Price, the fourth member of Team Denial, grew up playing soccer and then baseball. He said sports taught him to keep a positive attitude and never let a bad play impact the team dynamic. But there is a big difference between someone who thinks he’s good playing Call of Duty against friends and someone who can make a living playing the game.
“A good gamer probably gets good KD (kill to death ration) and plays a lot of pubs (public matches),” Price said. “For professional it’s all about 4 vs. 4 all the time and you have to outsmart and out strategize the other team.”
While the money is good for those who make it to the top – and even for those who don’t win, it takes a lot of work. Price said pros play a lot, and it’s “grinding” play, which can be repetitive. He also suggested finding the right people to play with, since teamwork is crucial to winning on the competitive scene.
And then it’s a matter of going to MLG.tv or ESL.tv and tracking open competitions and tournaments, to see if your team’s “great” matches against the current amateurs, and then pros, out there. Keep in mind if you’re in your late 20s or older, the odds are you’re past your prime in eSports. Consider that Price flew home to New York from LA to get back to being a senior in high school, albeit one who now has an extra $100,000 in his wallet and a very cool championship ring.