The esports industry is expected to eclipse $1 billion soon, yet the U.S. amateur system is almost entirely unorganized. Super League Gaming is hoping to fill that void, with a little league for esports that welcomes gamers as young as 6. (Dec. 12)
College scholarships, six-figure average salaries and houses in Los Angeles with personal chefs, nutritionists and more at the ready. And training – hours and hours of training.
Player Xmithie (pronounced “ex-myth-ie”), for example, practices Tuesday through Friday with games and tournaments on the weekend during the regular season and playoffs. Days start around 9:30 a.m., team meetings are around 10 a.m. with practices and scrimmages from 11 a.m. until 9 p.m. His day typically ends around midnight.
This is the lifestyle of a professional athlete.
But these players are not playing football, basketball or baseball. They are playing for Team Liquid, an esports team that competes in “League of Legends,” the popular multiplayer online game made by Riot Games, now a division of Chinese conglomerate Tencent, and a global esports phenomenon.
Professional matches of “League of Legends,” one of the largest esports games today, pit teams of five against one another with the goal of destroying the other’s base. Each player selects an avatar (or “champion”) and will need to work together to not only destroy their opposing team’s territory but defend their own from attack.
According to Forbes Team Liquid, which has teams competing in a number of popular games including “DOTA 2,” “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive” and “Fortnite,” is the third most valuable eSports company at $200 million. Rival Cloud9 tops the list at a valuation of $310 million.
Eight of the top 10 teams on the Forbes ranking of most valuable eSports companies compete in “League of Legends,” whose League Championship Series (LCS) in North America began its new season on Jan. 26.
A life of luxury, and intense work
While the teams competing are five players, like a traditional sports franchise there are scores of people behind the scenes to allow the players to focus on refining their craft.
“League of Legends” pro teams to often live together in a house or apartment complex. Meals are often prepared by chefs, nutritionists plan diets and training staffs are available to help keep players mentally sharp.
Team Liquid’s chef documents the team’s meals on Instagram, providing a peek into the player’s dietary lives. Some days, the posts show the players are served a colorful sweet and spicy pork dish; other days, there’s steak or a “light, healthy, shrimp and vegetable sauté.”
Some teams, like Cloud9, practice out of their Los Angeles-area homes. Others have dedicated practice facilities similar to a traditional sports team, such as Team Liquid’s 8,000-square-foot space in Santa Monica.
“We take care of all their accommodations,” Team Liquid co-CEO and owner Steve Arhancet, 37, tells USA TODAY. Players take an Uber to the facility from an apartment complex where Team Liquid, which currently has 65 athletes competing across 14 different games, provides housing. “They get a furniture budget, they get their own room.”
A chef works on-site at the facility to provide meals and players have dental, vision and health benefits. Coaches, nutritionists and sports psychologists are on staff to help players stay at 100 percent.
But for these players, gaming is a full-time commitment, even more so than a traditional 9-to-5 job. Often, they are working on their game for six or even seven days a week.
Jake Puchero, who like many eSports players is perhaps better known by his player name “Xmithie”, is a professional player for Team Liquid in the North American League of Legends Championship Series. At 27, Puchero has been a pro “League of Legends” gamer for six years and is now the oldest player in a league where the average age is 22.
Like others in his field, Puchero never finished college. Having played in and won various other gaming tournaments before, he dropped out of Cerritos College to pursue his gaming dreams full-time around the age of 21.
As the league takes on a more professional bent, it is possible that trend will shift. Today a number of colleges, including the University of California campuses in Berkeley and Irvine, Robert Morris University, and Boise State are offering scholarships for “League of Legends” players.
An immigrant from the Philippines, Puchero says he’s been playing computer games since he was a boy, only really picking up “League of Legends” when he was 21. .
“I was really bored and couldn’t find a game to play, and then my girlfriend back then asked me to play ‘League of Legends,'” Puchero says. He quickly rose atop the game’s leaderboards, turning “pro” just as Riot was putting together its “League of Legends” league in North America.
Now a starter on Liquid, which defeated Cloud9 in the North American summer season last year, Puchero says his workweeks during the regular season are six days with the days often going over 12 hours.
“We have a break (on) Monday. Usually, that’s when we try to go out and have a social life,” Puchero says, noting that some people spend that time practicing. “We all really want to just win…we just pretty much breathe and play ‘League of Legends’ all day.”
Even with the grueling day-to-day, he still plans to play for a few more years.
“I still think I have what it takes… It just depends on how my motivation is,” says Puchero, noting how he tries to stay away from playing on his downtime to avoid “burnout.”
“I still have a couple of years in me.”
When these pro gamers are playing video games their focus remains on the game at hand. While they will play with regular, non-professional players in “League of Legends” online after they’ve scrimmaged and trained with their teams, don’t expect to run into them in the virtual lobbies, the meeting place players gather before online games begin, for “Fortnite” or “Call of Duty.”
“These players specialize in their specific games,” Jack Etienne , co-founder and CEO of Cloud9 tells USA TODAY. “My ‘League of Legends’ players do not go play any other games, they’re focused 100 percent on their craft which is being a ‘League of Legends’ pro,” adding that during work hours his players go even further to focus on their respective positions within their games (after work, of course, they are free to do what they’d like).
Like Arhancet and Team Liquid, Etienne makes sure everything else in his players’ lives is handled for them. With over 80 players on Cloud9 playing various games, Etienne has seven houses in the Los Angeles area where his gamers can live and work, withchefs, support staff, healthcare and retirement plans for his players.
The team closed a $50-million Series B round of funding in October. Etienne says one goal is to be able to open a practice facility in Los Angeles.
Discovery through friends and training events
Unlike traditional sports, which have deeply organized systems for scouts to find potential players in Little League, Pee-Wee football or on the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) circuit, eSports players often find one another online, joining together with similar players to make teams that enter smaller events with cash prizes.
This is how Zach “Sneaky” Scuderi, now 24, got his start as a professional eSports player at the age of 18.
After playing games of “League of Legends” with a player named “jpak” online, “jpak” offered Scuderi a spot on his team “jpak and Friends.” The two had never met in person, just online. “He saw me enough in the games to think that I was good.”
The team of five would compete in online tournaments, splitting prize money among themselves.
One tournament had a prize of $2,500 for the winner, with around $1,200 for second place. Scuderi’s team took second. “It was OK money. I’d never really, like, seen money before… it was just a bit to spend some stuff on,” using the $200 to $250 to buy more games. As this was the first money he earned for himself, “I could actually buy things that I wanted” instead of asking his mother first.
The team would play in tournaments online, with Scuderi not physically meeting his teammates on “jpak and Friends” until a “League of Legends” tournament in 2013. At that point, Riot flew the team out for the in-person event in California, with the team gaining a sponsor and changing its name to “Pulse.”
The team lost in that qualifier for a spot in the League Championship Series, or LCS, but for Scuderi the event provided a realization that a career playing video games could be “obtainable… and something that I wanted to do.”
After one of his managers at Pulse recommended him to the team that later became Cloud9, Scuderi switched teams, moving from Florida to California and dropping out of school at Florida Atlantic University at 19. His mom, who was “pretty mad” that he wasn’t performing well in his studies when he was training for the first tournament, took a bit of convincing.
Scuderi’s path is just one way professional “League of Legends” players can get discovered.
Scouts for teams study the game’s leaderboard looking for rising new talent. Riot Games, makers of “League of Legends” hosts a “Scouting Grounds” competition where 20 of the top online “Solo Queue players” in North America can show off their skills to prospective teams. There are drafts, trades and free-agent signings, just like professional basketball or baseball.
Teams like Cloud9 even put together “challenger teams” that can function as a sort of minor league squad for checking out new talent. “We look at everything,” says Cloud9’s Etienne.
Traditional sports and entertainers are hopping on board
As esports grows, traditional sports are hopping on board hoping to join in on the ride.
A wide variety of organizations and brands have invested in esports in recent years. The National Basketball Association has developed a league with game publisher 2K Games around the company’s popular “NBA 2K” basketball video game. In fact, 21 of the NBA’s 30 traditional teams have created an eSports offshoot.
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Los Angeles Rams owner Stan Kroenke have each bought stakes in gaming companies. The Pittsburgh Steelers announced on Dec. 12 that they have partnered with the Pittsburgh Knights, a local esports team that competes in a number of games.
Wes Edens (co-owner of the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks), Neil Leibman (co-owner of the MLB’s Texas Rangers), the Houston Rockets and the Golden State Warriors have all either formed or bought into eSports teams that compete in “League of Legends,” among other titles.
Even music superstar Drake has become a co-owner of an esports team, partnering with Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert and Scooter Braun (the manager to Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande among other pop stars) in the latest round of investment for the 100 Thieves team.
Playoff games, all-star showcases, and worldwide tournaments take place in major venues such as Madison Square Garden and Staples Center, drawing thousands of fans to arenas that more traditionally house professional basketball and hockey games or massive concerts.
Millions more watch online from around the world, with 99.6 million unique viewers tuning in for the “League of Legends” World Championship Final in November.
Big sponsors have followed.
Team Liquid’s facility in Santa Monica is sponsored by Dell’s Alienware gaming brand. Mastercard sponsors “League of Legends” tournaments globally, while the game’s regional leagues can court similarly large names including Coca-Cola in Latin America, Gillette in Brazil, State Farm in North America, and Mercedes-Benz and Doritos in China.
At the end of February, Nike became the official “apparel and footwear” partner for China’s “League of Legends” Pro League, creating jerseys and footwear for the league’s 16 teams.
Dell and Riot Games announced a multi-year partnership in January that will make Alienware a sponsor for the North American and European “League of Legends” leagues as well as the sponsor of four international competitions including the World Championship.
Riot’s co-head of esports, Jarred Kennedy, compares his company’s league to a mix of world soccer organization FIFA, the NFL and the NBA.
“One of the benefits of coming after all of those sports is we get to learn from all of them,” Kennedy says.
The question for any developing business, however, is if it is sustainable. What is Riot’s plan to keep fans and players interested going forward?
The company is working on new high school, amateur and college levels. Looking ahead to the next 10 years, Kennedy hopes to make being a pro-gamer a “viable path” for younger players, with the idea of gaming as a career becoming more accepted with each generation that passes.
“When we started on this journey, we wanted to build a path so that being a professional ‘League of Legends’ player was a credible dream to dream and a credible profession to pursue.”
Follow Eli Blumenthal on Twitter @eliblumenthal
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