The glory of being a pro-gamer, a job that millions of kids dreamed of when they were growing up. I mean, what's cooler than playing a video game professionally? Not only the pay, but the overall experience — fans cheering you, people clamouring for your autograph like you're a celebrity, and playing in front of millions of people across the world. Today that fantasy is now a reality for teenagers growing up, watching their favourite professional players make a career out of doing what they love.
What could be better?
The thing that kids growing up don't see is the clock behind every player that they cheer on their television or computer screen. Being a pro-gamer is not like being a professional basketball player or football star. Outside of a select few, players aren't making millions a year playing the game. Even then, with all the money the top players make at their peak, they still have the ticking of that clock behind them.
League of Legends is the biggest eSport in the world, watched by millions, with a fanatical core of fans that will sell out arenas and support their favourite teams. But, as with all the top games before, LoL will eventually fall from its perch. Fans will move onto the brand-new shiny game that appears, that game rising to power and it becoming a force worldwide. That game will garner its own pros with their own dreams, and it will start another cycle until that game is replaced by the next in the pecking order.
Atop of the possible expiration date of the game's popularity, the average career span of a pro-gamer isn't long. Most of the top pros are in their late teens to mid 20's, with a lot of the players nearing thirty considered ancient by their peers. So, along with the uncertainty that the game you've put thousands of hours into will even be a profitable career path a year from now, you have to worry about being replaced by the same bright-eyed teenager you once were dreaming of being an all-powerful competitive gamer.
With the suspension of XiaoWeiXiao amidst an investigation into illegal ELO boosting, the question a lot of people have is why? Why would a former MVP of one of the most watched esport competitions in the world throw away possibly his entire professional career for a possible few thousand dollars? Team Impulse is currently on the longest winning streak in the NA LCS, and the team had a legitimate shot of making it to New York City to play in the famed Madison Square Garden in the finals of the season.
The answer, most likely, is a simple one: when your livelihood has a ticking time bomb attached to it, you need the make the most money in the least amount of time possible.
It's easy to romanticize eSports and pro-gaming as a beautiful thing where people across the globe can travel the world, make good salary doing something they love, and make long-lasting relationships. Truth is, the life of a pro-gamer for a lot of players isn't some fairy tale story of growth and joy. They practice all hours of the day and have to worry about their placement as a pro when the scene is always changing with roster movements.
You have people who drop out of high school or college to pursue a career in pro-gaming. For a lot of them, they flat out fail, falling on their faces after a few months and realizing that the life of a pro-gamer isn't for them. Those, a lot of the time, are the lucky ones. They learn straight from the start they'll never make it, were able to give their dream a go, and then return to focusing on a more practical career path. For a lot of others who succeed, the clock starts ticking behind them, needing to make the most money possible and save wisely enough that they have a back-up option if they're kicked from a team, or if they mess up in any way.
Don't get me wrong, there are definite career options for some players who drop everything for eSports. You have organizations like Team SoloMid, Cloud9, and Team Liquid who've branched out to multiple games and know that putting all their eggs into one basket is a bad decision. When League starts to tumble down in popularity, they'll be ready for the next big game and already have a legitimate brand that will put them ahead of the rest. As we saw with Cloud9 and Hai, before the former captain of the team decided to return as a jungler for the squad, he took a background role in the organization, retiring from the life of a pro-gamer but still being able to make a living in eSports through a franchise that will most likely stand long after League fades.
For every Hai and Cloud9, there are hundreds of teams and thousands of players across the globe who don't get the bomb defused. Either the player or the team blows up, the money stops flowing, and things cease to exist. The player goes from getting paid regularly to having to figure out how to pay his apartment bill and what to do next in his life.
Winning championships and awards is a great thing, and every player should strive to become a world champion, but at the end of the day, eSports is still a business. Every league puts money into their game and scene because it gets viewers. As long as NA LCS is out producing most regional cable sport broadcasts with 250,000+ viewers a week, things will be stable. Everyone wants to make money, and as long as that particular title is bringing in cash, there will always be a sixteen-year-old kid in high school with a TSM poster hanging behind him with a dream of being the next Bjergsen.
The most famous case of a player thumbing his nose at the system is Jeong "Apdo" Sang-gil. He's never played a professional game of League of Legends, but he might be one of the best players in the entire world. He's conquered the online ladders of both Korea and China, playing and beating some of the best professionals in the world without the coaching experience or help through the eSports infrastructure.
Apdo, also known as Dopa and various other anagrams, turned down various offers in the early days of the professional scene in Korea. He was a known ELO booster, parlaying his talents at the game by taking over people's accounts, boosting their ranking artificially with his talent, and then getting paid for his services. He was great at his job, always knowing what champions to use on each patch to maximize his record in solo queue. There were no trophies or confetti falling down on his head in his room while he systematically raised some player's rank from bronze to silver, but he was getting paid.
This was obviously not in Riot Korea's best interest, Apdo and Riot playing a game of cat and mouse with them banning him whenever there is enough evidence. It was a classic game of cops and robbers, Apdo trying to use his talents to make money the quickest way possible while Riot tried to keep their integrity by not letting a top player continually boost.
After quieting down his antics and not getting punished for some time, Apdo reemerged at the beginning of 2014 finally trying to become what he seemingly hated most: a pro-gamer. He didn't join the fancy ranks of CJ Entus or Jin Air, teaming up with various friends and other misfit toys from the Korean solo queue to create a team aptly named Team Dark.
They were, essentially, the perfect foil for the polished and famed teams of Korea. Team Dark were led by Apdo, a player people knew used to make money boosting accounts in the past and was flippant in solo queue games, showing little respect to players he thought were below them. The rest of the team were players that were also considered toxic or possible boosters as well. Team Dark were the outcasts of the league, but there was no denying their talent, the team getting through the qualifiers and advancing into the main Champions league.
To put things into perspective, the 2013-2014 Champions Winter season was going to be the greatest tournament in League history. The golden boy of the game, Faker, was coming off his rookie world championship win, and SK Telecom T1 were coming into the league as the most popular team in the world. Apdo and Team Dark were the perfect foils for the KeSPA-approved SKT T1, the classic match of good vs evil that could have started a rivalry that rivaled SKT's Boxer and KT's Yellow in Korea's original eSport, StarCraft: Brood War.
Unfortunately, that never happened. Apdo, before even playing his first official match, was banned professionally for two years by Riot, and his main account was hilariously imprisoned for a thousand years. Everything came crashing down for Team Dark because of a single fan of Apdo, a mid 20's woman who was infamous for trying to seduce pros to get close to them.
She took an incredible liking to Apdo, constantly fighting for his attention online and taking pictures of herself with his ID marked over her body. Apdo, who was apparently already in a committed relationship, saw the girl as nothing more than another business opportunity. She contacted him to boost her account, Apdo obliged, boosted her up like the black market professional he was, and wanted that to be that.
The fan continued to pester Apdo, allegedly demanding that he would show her attention and meeting up with her privately. Seeing their relationship as nothing more another person wanting their silver account to turn to a pretty gold, he spurned her advances, and went along with his day, nearing his debut as a professional gamer with Team Dark. That all changed when the girl finally snapped, servicing Riot with the evidence they needed to catch their biggest target before he and Team Dark could possibly make a big impact in Champions.
He was banned, and Team Dark, a team full of inexperienced rookies without their star and leader, failed to make it out of groups in Champions. As their reputation proceeded them, they even got disqualified from the tournament by trolling and losing in the quickest match in Korean League history, losing to Samsung Ozone in less than ten minutes.
Although their disqualification and substandard record didn't show it, Team Dark were a talented team. They took NaJin White Shield, a team that made the semis that season and finals the next, and played them evenly or better in the laning phase, showing that the players had all the tools to be a strong team with some time and leadership. They failed when the game got into the mid-game where team communication and coaching mattered more, but if they had Apdo in the line-up, who knows what they could have potentially done in a season where SKT T1 ended up stomping through everyone to a perfect season.
Instead of seeing his punishment as his bomb exploding, Apdo shrugged his shoulders and went back to work. He moved to China to participate in an online competition where the player with the highest ranking on the solo queue ladder would receive $80,000. The always consummate underground professional, Apdo cleared the challenge with little trouble, taking home the prize and continuing his journey as an illegal booster to make a living.
When his suspension ends in a few months at the start of 2016, many fans are crossing their fingers and hoping that he returns. That finally Faker's ultimate rival will show up to challenge him on the professional stage, joining a team like KT Rolster or Samsung to create a new war that will take Korean LoL to the next level.
But why should he? He's making a lot of money playing a game that he's extremely good at without the intense hours of practicing, the immense pressure to perform week in and week out, and doesn't have to worry about Riot destroying his career if another crazed fan tries to extort him into having a personal relationship that he in no way wants.
Apdo sees the game as a tool to make money, and he's doing an amazing job at it. The life of a pro, even one that is making a million dollars a year through salary, can be an extremely difficult one. You need to turn your attention away from friends, significant others, and everything around you to try and focus on constantly performing in tournaments or face being replaced by the next kid in line that is coming to take your precious roster spot.
Elite players in their regions come in all different shapes and sizes. Some have secure back-up plans, like Calitrlolz, who has his life planned out. He was going to pharmaceutical school, got into the LCS, and then had the oppurtunity to take one year off to live his dream the best he could. Now with Team 8 nearing the end of its year, Cali can move onto the next stage of his life to pursue a more stable career, while having the memories of being a pro-gamer.
You have players that aren't like Cali and threw everything away to be a pro-gamer. They left their school and homes, threw all their eggs into the League basket, and are riding by the seat of their pants, not knowing what will happen when the bike finally crashes with little to protect them. Will they get a caster or coaching job? Can they go back to school and try to pivot back to the life they once had? Who knows what will happen when the bike ultimately drops to the ground — will anyone be there to help them?
Then there are the people like Apdo, who know their talents and use those talents to make as much cash fall from the sky as fast as humanly possible. Instead of pursuing the path that kids dream of and playing in the world championship, he chose the path of the quiet and dark, clicking away at his computer while boosting a client's account so that he can run to his friends and brag that he is now diamond, instead of ugly platinum.
It's not the life of luxury. He will not have movies made about him. Riot won't give him a video package where he talks about his struggles to become a world-renowned star. While millions of people sit at their homes this fall, wearing their favorite team's shirt, and idolizing the stars they see on the main stage, Apdo will probably do what he's done the past three years: make money in his room efficiently, ignoring the world that he could have possibly dominated alongside Faker.
But when Apdo's bomb goes off and League's popularity comes to an end and people will no longer pay hundreds of dollars to boost their account, he won't be left scrambling. He'll fall back on top of the money he accrued and laugh, knowing that he took an ability he had and made a lot of cash for as long as he could without the stress of being a pro-gamer.
But really, what's better than being a pro-gamer, right?