MORE THAN JUST FUN AND GAMES
Esports players say ‘dream job’ takes its toll on their health
Lucas Tao Kilmer Larsen, 21, remembers fantasizing about how awesome his life would be if he could become a professional video game player.
“That’s going to be a dream job and I’m going to enjoy my life so much more,” Larsen recalls thinking when he was a 15-year-old teen growing up in Denmark.
The reality, he has learned, is quite different.
As esports continue their march toward mainstream acceptance, video game publishers, teams and players all find themselves learning on the fly and navigating new, and in many cases unexpected, challenges once reserved for top tier traditional sports athletes and celebrities.
In recent interviews, Larsen and other pro gamers shared what it is like to be on the front lines of this mushrooming industry, revealing an ever-evolving world of long hours, league-mandated obligations and few mechanisms for esports competitors to push back against expectations.
“It’s definitely my dream job. But over time, it’s become more and more of a job . ... It isn’t as fun anymore, I see it more of a job now,” said Larsen, better known on the League of Legends circuit as “Santorin.”
Larsen says he logs up to 14 hours of gameplay per day and only sees his friends “once a year, for five to eight hours.”
Though his early visions of this new-age career path are very different from the reality, Larsen also embraces many elements of his current way of life.
“It’s not as awesome as people imagine,” he said, before adding he has had a chance to travel the globe and attain his goal of becoming one of the best players in the world — and being recognized as such by fans, which he described as “pretty awesome.”
These conflicts are emblematic of the moment in esports. Adoring fans come with concerns about security and problematic access to players. Rich contracts come with onerous hours and a pressure to maximize personal branding. Feature roles in slick commercials and magazine features come with the risk of losing focus, and losing a job in a world where the average playing career spans just a couple years, less than an average NFL running back.
For pro players, striking the right balance between work and life can be tricky. Larsen’s 14-hour playing days are more or less standard among his peers and represent one of the longest work weeks for any job in the United States, according to the American Community Survey PUMS data set.
League of Legends Championship Series (LCS) players like Larsen routinely practice for more than 12 hours per day, usually with one day off per week. Players also have ancillary obligations, such as being available to sponsors and the media as well as a contractually-stipulated number of hours they must stream their gameplay online. This figure varies, but a person with knowledge of player scheduling from Team Liquid, a top esports organization, said their team requires about 30 hours per month.
“I just thought I’d get to play video games for a living, pretty much,” said Jason “WildTurtle” Tran, Larsen’s teammate on FlyQuest. “I didn’t really know how much effort and time you actually have to put in to compete at the highest level.
“A lot of the general public thinks that pro players are just having fun, making money and playing video games and it’s very easy, but I don’t think that’s the case at all.”
The rewards for top players are substantial, however. Average salaries for LCS players are now in the mid-low six figures and Overwatch players earn a reported average bordering the six-figure mark. That is in addition to any earned prize money, with pools ranging into the tens of millions for some competitions.
“We are trying to compete at the highest level, so we are going to be putting in our time and research to get better at our craft,” said Tran.
For pro gamers, there is an added obligation beyond competition, owing to the grassroots nature of competitive gaming culture. After pro matches, fans expect to be able to directly interact with favourite players, much as they do online.
“A really big part of an LCS match is the interaction with the fans,” said Vincent “Biofrost” Wang, 22, a player on Counter Logic Gaming ’s LCS squad.
While most of those interactions are positive, sometimes it can get uncomfortable. In a bizarre incident earlier this year, at least two LCS players claimed a fan twisted their nipples during a league-sanctioned post-match meetup.
Another player on the Houston Outlaws of the Overwatch League reported receiving death threats online, something a female esports commentator said she receives on a “daily basis.”
In discussions with The Post, players also mentioned unwanted attention online.
“Online it gets a little weird,” said Jake Lyon, another player in the Overwatch League (OWL). He said a minority of fans, who skew younger, can be overzealous in their interactions and feel as if they “are friends or something more.” Some female fans have asked him out on dates — an experience common to many players in LCS and OWL.
Attorney and player agent Ryan Morrison, founder and CEO of Evolved Talent Agency, said his clients have faced “incredibly terrifying situations” including death threats and “over the top romantic things” from stalkers online.
Kyle Souder, an assistant coach for Overwatch’s Paris team, said players are incentivized to be as accessible as possible, be it online, at fan meets or in videos, because it helps build their brands — which can outlast their careers as players. The accessibility at live events has raised questions of players’ safety, however, particularly after a shooting at a Madden NFL tournament in Jacksonville, Fla., last summer.
“Nothing has happened yet, but I feel like it could,” said Souder, in reference to The Overwatch League’s live matches. “When players are walking onstage, nothing is stopping anyone from jumping on these players or touching them in any way . ... The clock is ticking down. It’s going to happen eventually.”
Chris Hopper, head of North American Esports at Riot Games, which runs LCS, said regarding live events that the “first thing that we are always going to consider is the physical safety of all involved.”
Hopper acknowledged fans have a “perception of proximity” and “greater degree of kinship” to pro players that is not held in other major sports and presents a unique challenge of accommodating fans while keeping players safe.
“It’s definitely a tight line to walk,” said Hopper, who noted metal detection, security cameras and a dedicated security team as some ways the LCS controls its events. The Overwatch League declined to comment for this article.
Despite potential fears, players said the overall fan experience, especially in person, is positive. Many consider it a highlight of their pro status, especially since so few of them anticipated receiving the kind of attention reserved for pro athletes and celebrities.
“Sometimes I get recognized and it’s always really cool to me,” said Wang.
In regards to safety, mandated availability and other labour issues, players in esports do not have the benefit of a union, like their peers in other top American sports leagues. Pro players of the game Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) have a non-profit players’ association and League of Legends has an association for its players as well, which was funded by the game’s developer — and league owner — Riot. These do not, however, qualify as unions and the players’ employers do not have to engage with those bodies, instead engaging directly with players.
Morrison said many players do not have representation at all.
“We do our best,” said Morrison when it comes to caps on the number of days players have to be available, hours they have to practice and stream on Twitch as well as access to nutritionists, trainers, and travel reimbursements. “The ‘happy pro lifestyle’ we know and love from traditional sports? Esports isn’t close to that yet as a general rule.”
Players have little leverage to push back against any demands made by teams and software publishers, which run many of the leagues. Playing careers are often brief and start at a relatively young age. In a 2016 interview, George “HotshotGG” Georgallidis, owner of Counter Logic Gaming team, said the average career length for a pro is “a year to two years.” The average player age for League of Legends LCS is just over 21, compared to 29.2 for MLB and 26.6 for the NFL, according to ESPN.
Further adding to player stress is the knowledge that many of them are highly replaceable. A poor tournament result can lead to a terminated contract or even an entire roster being released, as two LCS teams did after 2017. Another team replaced all but one player.
Beyond their personal labour concerns, these factors also make it difficult for players to push for security enhancements.
Still, players expressed general contentment with their current work situations, acknowledging that this, being a pro esports player, is the first job they have held.
Pointing out the “nice” accommodations when they travel, food and facilities, Wang said he feels like his current team “really cares” about its players.
“It’s a nice job,” he said with a laugh, but got serious when discussing his hopes regarding what teams will one day offer players.
“Maybe just providing what traditional companies provide like retirement plans . ... A lot of pro players are worried about what they’re going to do after being a pro,” said Wang.
We are trying to compete at the highest level, so we are going to be putting in our time and research to get better at our craft.
A cosplayer dresses up as Overwatch Hero Ana at BlizzCon. The world of esports continues to expand, complete with dedicated fans similar to those found at NFL stadiums.
Pro Gamer Jake Lyon, of the Overwatch League's Houston Outlaws, stands outside Overwatch Arena at BlizzCon, where he was interacting with fans — a standard part of the job requirements for many pro esports gamers.