gaming stadium - riot games

Photo: Riot Games

Video games, once an idle waste of time, are earning young men scholarships and status as professional athletes thanks in part to one game – League of Legends. As the players turn pro and the games become ‘eSports,’ has gaming become a career?

On 18 October 2014, five young men won $1 million for playing a video game. The event was no small time ceremony with only a few pockets of fanatic viewers; a cult–like 32million people watched it happen.

Sell-out seats in the Seoul World Cup Stadium and worldwide viewing parties streamed a single match to an international crowd – the finals of the League of Legends World Championship 2014 final.

Under the banner of an ‘e-sport’ – full name electronic sport – hundreds of people are competing to monetize their online hobby. Video games have in the past been regarded with contempt as the single most efficient way to piss away your brain and time, coming second after hard drugs.

Now League of Legends (LoL) is a demonstration of the strange future we live in. This video game; a free, online, no-risk hobby, is earning citizenship for people in the US as ‘professional athletes’ and colleges offer the game as a varsity sport.

eSports and competitive gaming have come into the limelight in recent years but it is not a new practise. It is “sports minus the heavy physical exertion,” says the chairman of the DMU LoL society, Derry Holt.

“I argue with people all the time about why competitive LoL should be called a sport. Darts, snooker and chess require little to no exertion, yet chess is a recognized sport by the Olympic Committee.”

As long as there have been video games there have been tournaments: the 1981 Space Invaders championship drew 10,000 players. The surge in popularity has grown hand in hand with the websites and online streaming devoted to video gaming; Let’s Plays, TwitchTV, Kotaku, and countless YouTube accounts, are all helping people immerse themselves in video gaming whether they are playing or not.

The LoL game’s objective is to play as one of its 123 unique champions and work in teams of five to destroy a big gem in the enemy’s base. A simple premise with a vast underbelly of tactics, meta-thinking and competition, LoL now stands as the world’s most played video game, with 67million unique players a month as of January 2014; a number that has only risen.

Now it has reached a new peak of seriousness, and it is not inaccurate to say there are people whose lives are devoted and sustained from competitive gaming; indeed, the annual income of many of the top players for LoL come entirely from sponsorship deals and prize money – not that this is a small amount.

Endorsement and contracts are earning one successful EU team between $3600-6000 a month. Can this unusual rock star lifestyle last? Video gaming comes with no transferable skills, and staying in the big leagues mirrors the patterns of success for physical sports; after a certain age reflexes will slow down and the times as a serious competitor become remembered as ‘the glory days.’

“My life is a bit different from others. I get up when other people have lunch. If you want to aim for the championship 10 hours of practice a day is the least I can do.” At twenty two years old and with no other career plans, Star Korean player Sun Ho-San spoke to the BBC in October about his worries over his future beyond gaming: “I would be lying if I said I’m not worried but being successful as a gamer is quite lucrative so my aim is train really hard.”

Worrying words and they come from an eSports success story. Riot Games, owners of LoL, have plans to provide careers for successful players as commentators and promoters when they retire.

Marc Merrill, Riot Games’ President and Co-founder, is aware that there is an onus on his company to support and reward the stars of the eSports community: “At the end of season 1 [circa 2011] these guys were putting in huge hours but they didn’t have paychecks, it wasn’t a career yet. A lot of the infrastructure necessary to have a sporting ecosystem hadn’t come together yet, so it was a huge career risk.”

But these celebrity pay cheques and luxuries will be for a very small percentage of LoL’s 67million monthly players. Should we be concerned for the hundreds of young players committing themselves to these goals, foregoing careers for a prize they may never reach?

The answer is it is too early to say. League of Legends is entering its fifth year; there are not enough success stories, failed competitors or retired players to prove that chasing an online dream is or is not a valid goal in life – assuming LoL will be around long enough to prove a point.

All 67million of those monthly players have the right to do as they please with their time, and it’s now proven that there is an elusive gold mine of celebrity treatments and monthly paycheques to be won by playing.

eSports is a fast growing sub-culture that makes many people happy and is serious enough to deserve encouragement; but its most committed players need to ask themselves if the end goal is worth the risk.