If we were to think of a prize pool of $40 million USD for an international tournament, what type of sports would you attach to it? Basketball? Football? Well, it’s actually the prize for first place in The International, the concluding esports tournament for the annual Dota Pro Circuit.
Dota, or Defense of the Ancients, is an intellectual property acquired (and now developed) by Valve. Due to its popularity and mechanics, Dota became a staple in esports tournaments. Now, esports players take home prizes comparable to their sports counterparts. Experts predict esports will generate nearly $1.6 billion in revenues in 2023.
But is there any merit to becoming an esport player? Is this a viable career path? And what exactly does it take to become a pro in esports – aren’t most kids good at playing games?
In this post, we find out what it takes to become an esports icon and we reach out to professional Counter Strike: Global Offensive players Astra, Mayline-Joy Champliaud, and Aleksib, Aleksi Virolainen, from the legendary Ninjas in Pyjamas organization to get their perspective.
Let’s have a look at how esports players compare to their sports counterparts in challenges, lifestyles, and career paths.
Is It Worth Pursuing a Career in Esports?
Esports players focus on playing the game, entertaining an audience, or both, as opposed to other professionals in the gaming industry, like writers, designers, and testers.
While the short answer is yes, there are a lot of pros and cons uniquely tied to esports athletes.
Pro #1: Skill Takes Precedence Over Physical Aptitude
Sports heavily tie in to your physical traits like height, weight, shoulder width, etc. Diet culture and shredded ideals are prevalent among athletes and their fans. Esports players don’t need to be a certain weight to participate in Rocket League tournaments.
Not to mention, esports players don’t have the disadvantage of aging quite like sports players do. You might know Hamako Mori better as Gamer Grandma. Born in 1930, she’s the oldest person with a YouTube gaming channel as certified by the Guinness World Record. While she said she avoids playing competitively at her age, Gamer Grandma previously dabbled in esports staples like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and Battlefield 4.
A younger Michelle Statham born in 1965 does play competitively, though. She’s best known by her gamer tag TacticalGramma, and regularly streams her Call of Duty: Warzone sessions on Facebook and Twitch. She also sells TacticalGramma merchandise, which goes to show how much people support her work.
Pro #2: Esports is a Valid Career Path
No more than two decades ago, having a career online was seen as unsafe, and sometimes even illegal. Nowadays, streamers earn sponsorships, ad revenue, and partnerships, all of which come with a good and often stable pay.
Pro esports players even sign contracts with teams which guarantees a salary. A lot of esports teams also have agents in charge of promotions, marketing, merchandising, social media accounts, and schedules. This makes it feel more like a job and less like a one-man show.
Pro #3: Not Confined to a 9-5 Regimen
The demand for remote work increased substantially after the pandemic. Despite this, not many employers are willing to let go of the office space or provide more flexibility regarding work hours.
Esports is a great career option if you’re looking to work remotely from home or if you’re not an early riser. You just need a stable internet connection, good equipment, and a proper setup.
If you sign up with an esports team, you can get plenty of opportunities to travel during tournaments. These normally take place across North America, Europe, and Southeast Asia. Not many career paths offer the option to travel the world.
Pro #4: Finessing Reflexes and Problem-Solving Skills
A 2015 study conducted by Australian and Chinese researchers found that pro gamers have increased problem-solving skills and better logical reasoning. This is because most esports require strategic thinking. Video games also improve hand-to-eye coordination and help you make decisions faster.
These findings aren’t exclusive to video games, since team sports and car racing tend to offer the same benefits. Nonetheless, these are great skills to have outside the gaming world and have practical uses in a wide range of careers. If esports players want to switch lanes, they can hone the skills to do so more easily.
Pro #5: Fame and Influence
Wanting to be famous is a tale as old as time, but social media exacerbated both the need to make it big and the opportunities to do so. Pro esports players who reach the top of the industry often attain the same level of fame as any other social media influencer. Some even make it into popular culture.
League of Legends pro Lee Sang-hyeok, known as Faker, had his story told by ESPN. FaZe Clan, one of the most popular pro esports organizations, had a partnership with DC Comics for a limited edition comic book series depicting Batman alongside FaZe members. American team Cloud9 partnered with AT&T to promote 5G expansion and integration, and members even participated in a promotional BMW photo shoot.
Esports players can experience the so-called celebrity life, giving autographs, selling personalized merchandise, and being recognized in public. For those passionate about competitive gaming and who aspire to reach this level of fame, an esports career seems like a good decision.
Con #1: The Pressure to Perform
It’s an open secret athletes sometimes use performance-enhancing drugs. The esports world also fosters a competitive environment that may push people to misuse prescription drugs. Allegedly, some esports athletes have resorted to Adderall in certain instances.
Adderall is a medication commonly prescribed to treat people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It’s a psycho-stimulant composed of amphetamine and dextroamphetamine, which improve focus and cognitive control, and increase wakefulness. Common side effects include insomnia, loss of appetite, and euphoria, which are the primary reasons people abuse Adderall.
Certain students may abuse Adderall to pull off all-nighters, and now there’s some evidence that the esports industry caught on. The medication may make players focus better, have better reflexes, and even take fewer breaks.
So, does Adderall count as doping in the gaming world? Research is still inconclusive — some research on non-ADHD youth found the increased focus they perceive is due to the placebo effect. Certain esports players also argue that banning Adderall and similar medication is discriminatory towards people struggling with issues like ADHD or narcolepsy. It might cause players to seek an ADHD diagnosis to circumvent a possible Adderall ban.
Con #2: Less Respect as a Professional
Athletes put in tremendous effort to finesse their skills and become professionals. As a society, we’ve come to respect the work they put in. And we do the same with grandmaster chess players, who are generally regarded highly intelligent.
But esports players don’t always garner the same respect. Society as a whole still views gaming as a lazy, unproductive activity. Many scoff at the idea of competitive gaming or streaming for a living. People ridicule the stress young players go through and often use examples of hard labor to de-legitimize their struggles.
Con #3: Health Risks
Most esports players already face stress and anxiety because of the pressure to perform. But physical health risks are also apparent. Esports are conducive to a sedentary lifestyle, so it’s easy to fall out of shape.
Esports players regularly play or stream for upward of six hours at a time. This puts them at risk for eyestrain, not to mention the fact that long sitting periods increases the chance for high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and high blood sugar. 24-hour streams for charity have also become popular, but these take a serious toll on sleep patterns and metabolic functions.
If this wasn’t enough, popular fast food chains like Pizza Hut are regular sponsors of esports events. Players are often seen eating the sponsor’s foods during breaks, both for convenience and for marketing purposes. However, fatty and high-caloric foods are often linked to heart problems.
Con #4 Expenses
Streamers looking to break into the industry will normally start a YouTube or Twitch channel where they stream their gameplay and try to garner an audience. It might sound simple, but it’s not exactly affordable.
Depending on your current internet plan, you might need to upgrade to accommodate a better data transfer. You’ll also need a good-quality camera and microphone to get you started. If your room has poor lightning, you’ll need to invest in some ring lights.
Next, you need software for live streaming. To make sure everything goes smoothly, you’ll need a capture card and encoder. If this is your first time, be prepared for a not insignificant amount of Googling to put everything together. Lastly, to stay online and prevent cyber attacks during streams, and avoid lag, you’ll need a good gaming VPN.
Keep in mind this doesn’t guarantee an audience, but it’s the bare minimum for quality, or else your viewers will tune out. If you want to properly promote your channel through ads and sponsored posts, you’ll need some extra money.
Those looking to become esports pros will likely focus more on improving their gameplay and on using their in-game skill to attract the attention of people already established in the industry, rather than stream. Their gear might not be as expensive as that of a streamer, but you still need a good setup with high quality internet connection and a lot of time that you might otherwise have dedicated to work.
Con #5 Mental Health
We’ve already addressed how esports players are pressured to perform. Any semblance of fame or a following comes with a shroud of toxicity prevalent in the gaming community, which adds another layer of stress.
Competitive players also face a lot of criticism from fans and opponents alike. Some even take the matter as far as actively cyberbullying the players.
You would meet a lot of toxicity as a whole, and as a woman it’s even worse because some people would just decide to troll from hearing a feminine voiceAstra, pro Counter Strike: Global Offensive player
Sportsmanship has long been an ignored element in online gaming, and that sentiment carried over to competitive matches. Female players seem to be particularly targeted. Aleksib also confirmed that people’s comments can even get to the most well-rounded players, which is why it’s important to learn to tune out the negativity.
There will always be eyes on you. After doing it for such a long time, some comments might get under your skin or you feel like you’re putting in so much work but you’re not getting the results. But honestly (you should) just try to enjoy the moment, enjoy your teammates, enjoy the people around you, and don’t care about what other people think. I think that goes far with (…) your own well being, and in the end I think it’s gonna reflect on your own performance.Aleksib, pro Counter Strike: Global Offensive player
What It Takes to Become an Esports Pro
For those willing to accept both the pros and cons of the esports world, you have a long journey ahead.
As with any career, it depends on the individual. Skills, determination, opportunity, safety net, and passion matter when choosing a career. People also change their mind, as we’ve seen many professionals switch careers during the Covid-19 pandemic. This is something you need to take into consideration if you’re not in for the long haul.
Most esports players have short-lived careers. Researchers estimate esports players normally go pro between ages 16 and 18, with the majority having played competitively for 2 to 6 years prior. Esports pros usually retire between 22 and 24. A study put the average esports professional career at around 5 years.
This makes players considerably younger than their sports counterparts. In 2017, ESPN compared the average age of active sports and esports players.
While it’s too early to determine why esports players have such short-lived careers, burn-out no doubt plays a huge factor. It’s a common misconception among fans and aspiring esports pros alike: since playing games is fun, it must be the perfect job.
In reality, like other professionals, esports players undergo a lot of training. Esports teams train for around 50 hours per week. Depending on their contract, individual players can have other obligations like live streaming and sponsorship promotions. Some players even participate in scientific studies measuring performance, reflexes, and memory. This ranks up the workload significantly.
The competitive market means only the best players can make a career and achieve success. Unfortunately, with so many young players eager to compete, exploitation is common. It wasn’t until the mid 2010s esports started to be a viable career path, and players could earn a salary.
Not to mention, getting started in esports can be quite the brutal journey. If you want to become a professional in the field, here’s what you can expect.
1. Gear Up
The first step in competing professionally is to build a decent set. You need to minimize input lag, and optimize your hardware for optimal performance.
- Mechanical keyboards are more responsive, which makes them less prone to errors during intensive gaming sessions.
- A wired mouse has a better response time than a wireless one.
- A 144hz monitor that can actually deliver 100 FPS.
- Decent CPU, GPU, and memory, all of which should support last-gen games without freezing or frame rate drops.
Finally, if you want to live stream or record your matches, you need a good camera and recording software. You’ll also need an encoder and capture card — preferably one supporting hardware-intensive activities like video editing.
2. Find Your Game or Genre
You’ll want to focus on a specific game. At most, you should choose a genre, like FPS (first person shooters) to specialize in. Playing competitively requires a lot more than being good at a game. You need to rank well among the best of the best.
Specializing in a particular game lets you finesse your reflexes and decision-making skills to the point your gameplay is flawless. We’ve seen Ali Kabbani (known professionally as Myth) construct complex defensive structures in Fortnite in a matter of seconds. Marcelo David coldzera performs amazingly fast flick shots in Counter Strike: Global Offensive.
To get this to this level of beyond godlike skill, pro esports players had to practice thousands of hours.
3. Practice Often
Once you find your game, get ready to play it for hours and hours until you perfect your strategy, and are perfectly synchronized with your team if it’s a team game. Repetition is what helps develop our skills.
Every action we take is the result of electric impulses in the brain. These impulses travel along a chain of nerve fibers. The more often you repeat the action, the faster the impulse. This also trains your body to react faster and be more precise.
Aleksib, gives a solid benchmark of 8,000-10,000 hours of practice for the game, whereas Astra gave a more cheery estimate of 6,000 hours.
That said, you can’t guarantee success by completing a specific number of hours. Set realistic goals, and avoid overworking yourself to the point of burnout. Some pro esports players can play up to 16 hours a day in-season, but this isn’t necessarily sustainable long-term. Consistency is key.
4. Find a Team
After you’ve built up your skills and preferably a reputation online, start looking for an established organization and, if it’s a team game, an actual team. You have resources like Discord servers, Reddit forums, or Steam groups to get you started. Keep in mind this is a competitive market, and it can take a while to be accepted into an org/team.
Some teams are for casual players, not professional. Some might even offer to sign you up if they want your skills. Make sure to read the fine print before signing any contract though.
Finding a team is crucial in developing as an esport player. You’ll learn to play with others with different skill sets to yours, and develop good communication skills.
5. Complete and Rank Up the Ladder
This is where your hardest battle starts: getting noticed. Ranking consistently with good performances is how you ensure pro teams, fans, and companies notice you. If you’re good enough, you can even sign up with a pro squad.
That said, you’ll have to be extra careful during this time. Most esports players are young, and the market is highly competitive. This makes a breeding ground for exploitative and deceitful practices.
Unlike NFL sports leagues, esports doesn’t yet have unions to negotiate players’ rights. Exclusive contracts are common. This normally includes clauses to appropriate the revenue its players bring in. Famous organization, FaZe Clan, recently settled a contract lawsuit in 2020 because of this clause. Fortnite player Turner Tenney Tfue sued for the contract that allowed FaZe to take up 80% of all sponsorships and advertising revenue he earned.
Many esports players sign up with agencies while they’re underage. Most child labor laws only pertain to the movie industry since they haven’t been updated to keep up with the rapid digitalization. This means that many esports players might not have the legal protection to back them up and look out for their interest. After you sign, you have to comply with the esports regimen.
6. Live and Train Like a Pro
No matter how many training hours it took you to get here, you still need to be better. Pro esports teams often move in together, depending on the housing agreements the organization provides. These communal living spaces are known colloquially as gaming houses.
Cloud9’s gaming house has players train up to 12 hours a day. It takes a lot of effort and dedication to keep up with this kind of lifestyle. Late night hours are also pretty common, as confirmed by Aleksib, Finnish CS:GO pro.
I mean, my average day consists of talking with the team before practice, then practicing, and we usually have a 2 hour break. So on that break I’ll go to the gym. Then we continue the raid and we finish in the evening. (…) Usually I end my day pretty late compared to some of my mates.
Experts also recommend a holistic approach to esports to maintain a healthy lifestyle. This includes eating balanced meals and working out. Living mindfully also helps players deal with stress, and prevent health problems associated with working in front of a monitor like back and neck pain.
You can see why it’s hard to create a healthy work-life balance with this schedule. Unless you’re disciplined enough for this rigorous plan, you’ll have a hard if not impossible time adapting.
(Extra) Challenges for Women Looking to Become Esports Pros
People looking to start a career in esports already have a rocky path in front of them. As with most male-dominated fields, women looking to make a career in esports face extra challenges, and even discrimination.
We currently have structural and cultural barriers in place limiting women’s access to and resources for competitive gaming. This leads to four key aspects female esports players struggle with.
1. The Pay Gap
Female esports players earn less than their male counterparts. According to esportsearnings.com, no female players made it to the top 400 worldwide earners. As of January 2023, the highest grossing female player is Canadian Sasha Hostyn, known by her gaming ID Scarlett. She currently ranks #449 worldwide and #15 in Canada by her earnings.
The gap in earnings is massive if we compare the top ranking players.
Right now, the top-earning female player earned just around 6% of what the top-earning male player made. To make things worse, the top 10 female players combined only made 19% of the #1 earning male player. Perspectives for female pros seem bleak.
Despite being passionate about her job and competing in serious tournaments, Astra admits female players have a harder time making a living.
Yeah for sure, especially in the female scene where everything is so small. We didn’t have ESL Impact when I decided to go pro so it was even worse. I would say it is still not enough to live only from gaming in the female scene but we’re working our way up to the top. I believe that it’ll get better, it’s only the start.
2. Objectification and Sexualization
Sexualization refers to the portrayal of a person through their sexual appeal while ignoring or minimizing other characteristics. The person is glorified as a sexual object, and their attractiveness and worth are directly tied to their sexuality.
Women are objectified in most media, and the video game industry is no different. Traditionally, game studios catered to a male audience, and some still do today. This led to sexualization of in-game female characters, despite them being underrepresented.
In a 2021 analysis of the top 20 best selling games of 2003, researchers found only 14% of video game characters were female. Of these, 41% wore revealing clothing, and 43% were depicted nude. By comparison, out of the male video game characters, 11% wore revealing clothing, and 4% were depicted nude.
The same analysis found female characters are more likely to be designed with unrealistic body proportions (25%) compared to male characters (2%). This objectification can lead to a distorted view over women’s bodies, and even desensitizes players to women’s abuse.
With this in mind, it’s no wonder fewer women are interested in gaming communities. Female esports players face prejudices and discrimination based on their gender, alongside objectification from male peers.
3. Fewer Opportunities and Visibility
Besides dealing with objectification (or maybe because of it), female esports players often find themselves at a disadvantage when it comes to visibility and recognition. They’re also underrepresented in a majority of tournaments.
In 2014, the online world was outraged with the International e-Sports Federation when it banned female competitors from entering Hearthstone tournaments. As a response to the backlash, the federation made a statement on Facebook promising a female-only Hearthstone tournament which never came to fruition.
While not all tournaments are as overtly discriminatory, it’s common for teams and fans to focus on male players. US developer Valve hosted four yearly international tournaments (from 2011 until 2014) and nobody seemed to mind that there are no women among the hosting talent. It wasn’t until 2019 that Valve added its first female CS:GO player model.
This is something pro CS:GO player Astra, was acutely aware of when considering esports as a career path.
It was not an easy decision, there were a lot of different factors. I would say that it is a bit reckless to do that because it was so uncertain for the female scene. I decided to pause my studies and go pro before ESL introduced their Impact league. We barely had any tournaments at that point, maybe once or twice a year.
Female esports players have less visibility and fewer opportunities in the field. Fans and organizations still debate how to best integrate more female pros in events — through female-only teams or by integrating more female players in men’s teams.
Traditional sports are separated by gender due to differences in average height, lung capacity, and upper body strength, but none of those matter in esports.
4. Harassment and Sexism
The online gaming community is notoriously toxic. If we factor in the misconception women are bad at video games, we’re looking at an environment predisposed towards abuse. A 2021 survey by Reach3 Insights found 77% of female respondents reported gender-specific harassment. This includes patronizing and dismissive comments, unsolicited advice and judgements, men quitting the lobbies where women are present, inappropriate sexual advances, and gender-specific insults.
Some viewers even resort to violent threats, doxxing, and swatting. Beside content moderation, players can’t do much else to protect themselves. While platforms like Twitch and YouTube allow filters, bots, and even live content moderators, sites like Twitter, Reddit, or Instagram don’t offer much help beyond the block button.
Female players are often told by the audience to toughen up and grow a thicker skin. This leaves little room for people to have a discussion about how female gamers are treated online.
How to Support Female Esports Players
Whether you’re a fan, work for an organization, or are a fellow esports player, you have several ways you can support female esports players.
Guarantee Opportunities for Female Players
Formula One introduced F1 Esports Series Women’s Wildcard to tackle the lack of representation among female drivers. This initiative was part of Formula 1’s environmental, social, and governance (ESG) program called We Race as One.
The program guarantees a female player will qualify to the Pro Series to encourage more gender balance in the competition. This is a great initiative to let female esports drivers showcase their talent and be recognized for their performance.
Encourage More Representation
A big issue esports female players face is the lack of role models. Greater visibility can lead to more women interested in participating, and it can even deter harassers and trolls from picking on what they perceive to be an outlier in esports.
Representation can range from more high-profile female pro players and better footing in esports clubs, to better promotion and stronger female game characters. Better support for those faced with online toxicity would also go a long way.
Join or Build a Support Network
Luckily, several organizations are fighting the good fight. You can support them by donating, joining as a member, or sharing their message. Here’s where you can get started:
- Women in Games is a not-for-profit organization advocating for more women in the video game industry.
- AnyKey is a non-profit organization advocating for diversity and inclusion in gaming and esports.
- Smash Sisters is an advocacy group supporting women playing Super Smash Brothers competitively.
- the*gameHERs is an online community dedicated to empowering female gamers.
- Global Gaming Women supports women from all segments of the gaming industry.
Esports Pros Are More Athletes Than Gamers
Despite popular belief, it’s clear esports pros have an arduous road in front of them. Long training hours, tight schedules, and a highly competitive industry leaves many players burnt out. Esports players also don’t enjoy the same respect and appreciation for their talents, as video games are still widely regarded as a waste of time or a leisure activity at best.
But esports players are very passionate and enthusiastic young people who focus on the positive and tackle challenges head-on. This is what makes tournaments so attractive to fans and investors alike.
If you’re putting in so many hours, and you don’t enjoy it, I think it’s just gonna hinder your overall performance.Aleksib, CS:GO pro
While the industry still has a long way to go in terms of equal opportunities and fair compensation to everyone involved, there’s no denying that esports will continue to be a staple in digital entertainment for years to come and may even overtake traditional sports at some point in the future.