No Pain No Game

TPHS alumnus Max Angel (‘15) coordinated masses of soldiers, war machines, spaceships and alien warriors toward an enemy base. Defenders were slain one by one, fortifications burned and buildings exploded. Once more, Angel had secured victory, and he had done so with just a monitor and a keyboard.

Angel was a semi-professional player for Blizzard Entertainment’s popular strategy game “Starcraft II.” Like many online games, players face off against each other in real-time matches to rise in rank and become champions of their division. In recent years, such e-sport games have risen in popularity. According to market research firm Newzoo, 205 million people watched or played e-sports in 2014. Asia is the most popular center for e-sports, but North America and Europe collectively claimed 28 million e-sports players or viewers in 2015, a number that is growing by 21 percent a year in the two regions. Gaming events like the League of Legends World Championships, which in 2015 was held in the Berlin Mercedes-Benz Arena, attract crowds of over 10,000 in person, with millions more viewers watching online, and offer prize pools ranging from the hundred of thousands to the millions of dollars.

Angel was part of that competitive community. He started playing in 7th grade, but believed that he was not “good enough to play very competitively until the second or third year of high school.” He joined a “Starcraft II” team called Team Ascension after playing matches with their team members online. In his career, Angel estimates that he has won around $9,000, achieved Grandmaster status, which is a competitive division for the top 200 highest-ranking players in a given region — the Americas, Europe, South Korea, Taiwan, Southeast Asia, or China — and also played in a “Starcraft II” World Championship Series Premier League event.

“I went to one Premier event, which is the largest “Starcraft” tournament they have, and they happen about three to four times a year, and I got knocked out pretty quickly,” Angel said. “That’s probably the biggest event I went to.”
With competitive video games like “Starcraft II,” players must constantly practice to hone skills, increase speed and memorize strategies. Players also spend time studying new strategies and reviewing changes to the competitive scene.

And even for games originally created to be a casual, fun-with-friends experience, like “Super Smash Bros. Melee,” a substantial amount of training is needed to go pro. According to “Melee” player Casimir Kothari (12), playing “Melee” professionally requires great technical skill that may take years to develop.

“It’s super fast-paced … each character has a ton of options, and the options are good in different situations,” Kothari said. “There’s always another layer of complexity, so it’s a very deep game.”

“Melee” games do not draw millions of viewers like “League” or “Defense of the Ancients 2,” but it has a devoted fan base, according to Kothari.

“The people who play it really appreciate its amazingness … and everyone knows all the top players and their personalities,” Kothari said. “That’s one of the big appeals of the game because there’s all these storylines with all the pro players, and it’s really exciting to see them play each other. It’s fun to watch and it’s fun to play.”

Such storylines include classic tales of underdog victories, trash-talking champions and surprising reversals for players and teams. Kothari keeps up to date with community developments and plays mainly with his friends, but has participated in a competitive tournament locally.

“I immediately got double-eliminated; that’s the cold, hard truth,” Kothari said.

Despite the rough start, Kothari said he did win a few games, and may be interested in playing more local tournaments in the future to improve his skills.

To keep his competitive edge, Angel spent three to four hours a day playing “Starcraft II” or doing game-related activities, like studying strategy. But Angel said he kept things in perspective.

“It actually worked out quite well for me, playing Starcraft and doing high school simultaneously, because you can focus and play pretty well and improve for about two to three hours at a time when you’re playing Starcraft, and if you try to focus any longer than that, you’re brain is basically going to turn to mush,” Angel said. “So I think the high school-”Starcraft” combination was actually pretty good for timing for balancing.”

When he left for college, Angel decided to end his gaming career.

“There’s a healthy amount to play competitive things such as video games, and I probably played for a very unhealthy amount,” Angel said. 

But unlike Angel and other pro gamers, the average high schooler does not take gaming to that extreme. For “League of Legends” player Luke Jung (11), the game is more a social pursuit — a way to have fun with friends.

“You can all be at your own houses and do whatever you want, but you can still talk with everyone else and play games as a cohesive group,” Jung said. “You can have 10 of your friends all playing together [while] in the safety of [their] own [rooms] at 2 a.m.”

Jung has moved on from playing four to five games a night and now spends more time with friends in real life. But he still keeps up with the pro gaming scene as a spectator, particularly for his favorite team, Cloud9.

“It’s like following a regular sports team,” Jung said. “You try and figure out how their lives are, what they’re all doing — all the drama about it.”

As with regular sports, fans can follow players on social media outlets like Twitter for updates on their daily lives, but Jung said that with e-sports, there is a more “personal connection” available between the player and the fan, primarily supported through websites like Twitch. The streaming platform, which has 55 million users, allows players to broadcast their games and practices, or simply chat with fans. Fans can subscribe to players for $5 per month, a source of income for many gamers who maintain large fanbases. Subscribing to players’ channels grants fans access to special privileges, like the opportunity to play against them in online matches. Twitch also offers live coverage of tournaments and bigger matches.

“With streams, you can watch them play and practice — you can’t [easily] watch your favorite soccer player practice,” Jung said.

Jung has never been a participant in the competitive scene, but “League of Legends” player Brian Crabtree (11) has tried his hand at a tournament before.

“I played in a local tournament with a few of my friends, and we actually ended up winning … Definitely the first time you play in a tournament it’s a lot of fun, but it’s a lot of work,” Crabtree said.

Crabtree said a career in pro gaming is possible “if you’re good enough,” You can have a substantial income from streaming sites, corporate and gaming company sponsorships and tournament prizes, but it is difficult to reach the level of the best competitive players. According to Angel, it is possible as long as a player goes in with commitment and focus.

“If you’re very dedicated and don’t fall into some sort of mental trap of thinking that you’ve gotten far enough, or if you don’t hit some sort of roadblock, it’s not too hard to get to where I got,” Angel said. “I wouldn’t say it’s a matter of it being easy or hard. You can constantly improve as long as you don’t [start thinking] that you are good enough, that you’re one of the best players and you’ve gone as far as you can go, and then you’re not trying to improve anymore.”

Pro gaming may not be a career path for everyone, but the industry is expanding. With companies like Coca-Cola sponsoring teams, income from streaming sites and millions of dollars in tournament prize pools, there is definite money to be made in e-sports. Perhaps in the future the definition of sports will change — athletes won’t only sprint, pass and tackle. They’ll also get that hyped triple kill that takes them to the top of the match’s rankings.