Es­ports play­ers say ‘dream job’ takes its toll on their health

Ottawa Citizen - - SPORTS - NOAH SMITH

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.

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