The kids are alright
The lives of teen esport players
Kim "Geguri" Se-yeon is considered the world’s best Zarya player in Overwatch. She’s the first female player signed to an APEX team, has a win rate of 80%, and endured a scandal during the Nexus Cup qualifier where she was so good she was accused of cheating (she wasn’t). Geguri is also 17 years old. Young people have better reactions – studies suggest that reflexes start to deteriorate at just 24 – and are prevalent within the various FPS esports scenes. In the same way that your high school’s best footy player was later signed to the Crows, the kids who are mastering headshots now have reason to think about how this might impact their future.
Leyton Gilchrist, 15, is excited about his Overwatch team DarkSided’s impending first sponsorship deal. He mains off-tank (“the tanks that can also do damage and protect team”) for one of the top four teams in Australia, and has been taking FPS games seriously since he was 12 years old, when he got very into Halo. “One of my friends showed me CS:GO on his computer about a year later and I instantly fell in love with the competitive nature of the game”, he says. “I bought a computer and played the game heaps. When there was a major tournament on, I tuned in to watch the best people in the world play the game. It was amazing: the crowd cheering, the commentators really getting into it, and the atmosphere was like nothing else.”
It took six months of playing Overwatch for Gilchrist to consider that he could “make something out of gaming”. Right now, he plays the game 4-5 nights a week, which he does around his schoolwork by sticking to a regime. “My average day consists of me going to school, then 4-6pm I do my homework, and 7-10pm I play Overwatch and practice with my team”, he says. “Sometimes I can feel busy and I may need some extra time to do my work; usually my team is flexible and can work around that”. He takes Fridays and Saturdays off, usually, to maintain his social life and avoid burnout. Although Overwatch is a major part of his life, he’s learned to compartmentalise it: “I usually don’t talk about games and Overwatch with my mates. I feel like school is a good time to separate the gaming and just chill with them.”
Despite Gilchrist’s success, the infrastructure does not exist yet to profit from Overwatch at his level. “There haven’t been many competitions or tournaments lately”, he says. “There have been some announced that are coming within the next few months that I’m excited to participate in and hopefully win.” While Gilchrist’s “ideal future” would be to play games professionally, he knows that it’s important to focus on his education too, and to not rely on Overwatch. “If Overwatch gets big enough I might take a ‘gap year’ playing games; however, it’s pretty uncertain right now. Who knows what the industry holds in the future.”
THE YOUNGEST PALADINS
Paladins has been big with younger players for a simple reason – it’s free to play. This makes it more accessible to gamers with low disposable incomes, including teenagers. This was the case for Munadi, who plays as xParagon, and is currently on the team ‘Kings’, ranked 4th in the Paladins Pro League. He’s 14, and usually plays the game on his laptop. “It’s very hard – the screen is small, and I have low frames”, he says. “I live in a family of five, with two siblings, and they’re constantly using the wifi. I usually play with high ping and low frames per second.”
I spoke to him moments after his team had competed against Kanga Esports at the Road to Dreamhack Valencia Grand Final (Kings lost, but were excited to have taken a set against Kanga). For Munadi, playing with professional equipment made a huge difference. “It’s so much easier to hit shots. If I shoot my projectile, it’ll actually go forward and not to the right. Because of that my skills have skyrocketed. I’ve done so many things I could never have done on my laptop. It’s like I’ve entered a whole new dimension.”
Munadi, who lives in New Zealand, had just met most of his team for the first time. “When they got to the AirBNB and came in… I looked at their heights and my heart dropped”, he said. “These guys are pretty tall, and I’m pretty small. I think Mr Flexi is double my age. But it’s been fine. I’ve really gotten along with them.” Right now, Munadi is trying to save up for better equipment so he can play at home as well as he had at the tournament. “I really like this game, and I’d give up everything just to make this my job”, he says. “That’s the dream.”
Joel Shiels, younger brother of Kanga Esports team captain Hayden Shiels, has followed his brother’s footsteps and joined the team too. He’s 17, and plays Paladins for around 35 hours a week. He’s made money from the game – “somewhere in the five figures” – and hopes to make a “full time career” out of the game. “The game undoubtedly takes up a lot of your free time”, he says, “but if you can manage your time wisely it shouldn’t be a problem to balance gaming and school. In saying that, you do have less time to do your studies.” As a member of Kanga, currently the best team in the country, Shiels has been able to travel to other countries to compete alongside his brother.
THE CoD KID
Call of Duty has a huge following with teenagers, despite their age ratings. Reef ‘Eminence’ Galloway is 19 now, but he’s been playing Call of Duty competitively since he was 15. He lives in New Zealand, and is a member of the team SYF Gaming. “I’d been playing CoD casually since 2009”, Galloway recalls. “After watching the first Call of Duty Championship, I stepped into the competitive scene with the goal to make it there one day. I achieved this on my first attempt in 2016, when I became eligible to compete.” Galloway is clearly confident in his abilities, but the first competitions he entered were a “rude awakening”, he says. “I thought I was the best around, but some kid who dominated in a casual scene wasn't so dominant in a competitive environment. Not at first that is…”
At 16, Galloway was presented with a big opportunity – entrepreneur Kim Dotcom approached him with an opportunity to move in with him and focus on his esports career. “Kim really wanted to provide an environment where I could put all the effort into my career and boost myself into the pro circuit”, he says. Moving out at 16 to pursue a career is unusual in any field, but Galloway took the opportunity. “I had left school a little earlier and I had to determine what I wanted to do with my future”, he says. “I was getting into the theatre industry wanting to be an actor, but gaming
MUNADI SAYS HIS PARENTS WERE SKEPTICAL WHEN HE FIRST ASKED TO TRAVEL OVERSEAS TO COMPETE. "I'M ONLY 14, YOU KNOW."
really took over. I was playing 12 hours a day and loving it. I always put the important things first in life but took every minute I had free to grow as a player.”
Galloway’s success in the game has allowed him to focus on it full time. “I had a rather successful year last year, so I haven’t needed to get a job”. Galloway explains, although that interest waned slightly this year. He “didn’t really like” Infinite Warfare, which has “resulted in less effort and commitment to the game”. He still loves to compete, though. “2017 for me was really about finding what I wanted to do next in my career and life which I can gladly say I have figured out what I want to aim for next.”
There’s an old Gary Larson Far Side comic where two parents watch their son playing Nintendo and imagine abundant future ‘help wanted’ ads for Super Mario experts. We’re not quite there yet, perhaps, but these four players all said that their families have been supportive.
“My family are ok with me playing Overwatch”, Gilchrist told me. “They didn’t used when I was younger, but now, as long as I’m keeping on top of schoolwork they don’t mind at all.” He said that his dad often comes with him to esport events and has formed a deeper understanding of the industry. “My parents are supportive of me playing and trying to make something out of gaming”, he’s glad to say. Galloway is very thankful that his parents have let him take the chances he has taken, especially when they let him move out of home to pursue his passion. “Most parents wouldn't allow their 16-year-old kid to take that type of opportunity”, he says. “They flew to LA to watch me compete in Call Of Duty Championships in 2016. I am seriously lucky to have them, and wish I could see more parents show the same support for other competitors around me.”
Munadi says that his parents were “skeptical” when he first asked if he could travel to compete. “Going overseas, on your own, with a bunch of guys – I’m only 14, you know.” They changed their minds, though, once their son explained that he’d be earning money from the game. “I’m really happy to bring back a medal to show them that I can go to high levels if I put my mind to it”, he says. But he also knows that his parents won’t necessarily feel the same way about their son trying to make gaming a career into adulthood. “I know they want me to do well at school, go to university, get a high-paying job… all the things a parent would want,” he says, with a clear recognition of the fact that these are sensible concerns for parents to have. “But I think once they start seeing how well I do, and what I’m taking in, in terms of cash and other things, I really hope that they understand, and see that this is something I enjoy. This is my passion.”
REEF ‘EMINENCE’ GALLOWAY JOEL SHIELS