Robb Read: Meet The Teenage Gamers Raking In Millions
All those hours in front of screens might just pay off.
It was clear as the game reached its climax that Kyle Giersdorf was in the zone. The athlete had positioned himself in a prime spot on the field. He even cracked a rare smile as he made another solid play. Giersdorf was leading by a commanding 15 points going into this final round; his closest competitor was already out of the picture. When the match was over, the crowded arena erupted in cheers, and confetti filled the air. The 16-year-old looked a bit shell-shocked. As fog machines spouted mist, he carefully made his way down a glowing runway to claim his trophy and US$3 million prize. He was, after all, the Fortnite World Champion.
Yes, Fortnite: the wildly popular video game in which players assume the roles of cartoonish, gun-wielding avatars and compete in a last-man-standing slugfest. It has been likened to the Hunger Games on more than one occasion, except, unlike Katniss Everdeen, participants can quickly erect walls and conjure towers to use for cover and vantage. Competition for the inaugural World Cup was fierce. About 40 million hopefuls in the individual and duo categories duked it out in open qualifiers sponsored by Fortnite’s creator, Epic Games, a process that took place over 10 weeks in 2019 and brought together top-tier talent from more than 200 countries. Only 100 solo contestants—among them the underdog but soon-to-be champ, Giersdorf—made it to the finals at Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York City. (The 2020 event was canceled because of the pandemic.)
Giersdorf’s seemingly overnight success was no aberration in esports, as the world of competitive video games is known. Their intrinsically democratic nature—can you imagine 40 million tennis kids trying to reach the US Open or, for that matter, 40 million athletes in any mainstream sport having the opportunity to advance to a world championship?—is one reason their popularity shows no sign of waning. According to games-data company Newzoo, esports will generate $1.1 billion in revenue this year. The majority of that number comes from media rights and sponsorship opportunities, which, with a global livestreaming audience of 663 million in 2020, look more appealing to brands than ever. New fans deprived of other spectator sports in the pandemic “ultimately accelerated esports into the mainstream fairly considerably,” says Stephen Bradley, a managing director at Deloitte Consulting who co-leads the firm’s US gaming and esports practice. “I don’t think all of them are going to stay by any stretch, but some of them will.”
Esports’ growth has been meteoric in this century, but they started small. Many cite a Spacewar tournament with some 20 players at Stanford University’s Artificial Intelligence Lab in 1972 as the first formal video-game competition, but larger gatherings with more substantial prizes—the Spacewar winner received a year’s subscription to Rolling Stone magazine—didn’t materialize until around the turn of the millennium, when StarCraft events became increasingly popular in South Korea and events like the Red Annihilation tournament for the game Quake slowly cropped up in the US. The Red Annihilation champion in 1997, college student Dennis Fong, took home a Ferrari 328 GTS that belonged to the game’s lead programmer. Suddenly, gaming wasn’t just for geeky computer nerds anymore.
Today’s parents worrying about their teen’s astronomically high screen time should take a glance at their standings before locking up their devices. Pro athletes in the field, who are by and large male, stand to make six-figure salaries or more, plus prize earnings, which can be in the millions, on teams owned by sports moguls such as Robert Kraft of the New England Patriots and Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys. The winningest player in esports’ short history is Johan “N0tail” Sundstein, who’s considered the best Dota 2 competitor ever and has a lifetime prize total of $6.9 million. He’s 27 and now a team captain. Purses have been creeping upward. Giersdorf ’s $3 million World Cup pot amounted to a bigger payout than the one Tiger Woods won at the 2019 Masters. Not bad for a 16-year-old’s first real job. But rest assured: It seems he saved most of the seven-figure check. His only splurge was a new desk… for practising Fortnite.
The championship was the teen’s first time in the Big Apple. Giersdorf, now 18, grew up in Pottsgrove, Penn., a tiny suburb northwest of Philadelphia proper. “I was young getting into video games,” he says. “I was mostly playing with my dad, though. Once I was in kindergarten I started playing more independently and with friends and stuff like that.” Back then, some of his favourite titles were LittleBigPlanet, a game you play as a charming, Pixar-esque character that can best be described as a strikingly humanoid sock puppet, and Call of Duty, in which you shoot enemies in various militaristic settings. Those may sound like strangely divergent briefs, but opposites attract. Fortnite, with its kid-friendly graphics and shooter gameplay, combines elements of both.
Giersdorf secured his first big competitive paycheck in 2018. It was at a small event at a Microsoft store: He finished in second place and won $5,000. He’d been practising Fortnite for only about a year when he competed at the World Cup, which, since it was the first ever, was easily his most high-profile outing yet. “That was definitely a huge change in my life,” he says. “I wasn’t expecting to do too crazy well, but I had been practising a lot. And then I ended up winning, I guess, and everything just hit me. Mentally, I don’t think I was prepared for it yet, just because I’ve never really been that person either to just have or want tons of attention.” These days, Giersdorf is best known by his in-game tag, “Bugha,” a pet name his grandfather gave him when he was a baby. He plays Fortnite for a professional team called the Sentinels, has appeared in a Super Bowl commercial for Sabra hummus and has released the Bugha Gaming Collection of accessories—think LED keyboards, microphones, headsets and such—with Five Below. Meanwhile, he’s finishing high school via online classes.
Giersdorf and other esports athletes also make money by being active on Twitch, a popular livestreaming platform that was bought by Amazon for $970 million in 2014. It’s used primarily by gamers to broadcast themselves playing through different titles, although theoretically you could just turn on your camera, go live and let the world watch you do homework (if that’s your thing). As they play, streamers will comment on the game via voice-over. Some show their face in a thumbnail in the corner of the screen so viewers can see their reactions. Just as in a tournament’s packed arena, fans watch their virtual trick shots and combos with the attention to detail that baseball buffs analyze a slugger’s swing.
Very good players can make money from the Twitch Partner Program, raking in cash from ads, subscriptions and in-chat tips from viewers who like what they see, but world-class gamers like Giersdorf can land even more lucrative exclusive streaming deals with the company. Most keep their Twitch earnings under wraps, with a few exceptions. Popular streamer Jeremy Wang revealed in 2018 that he made $20,000 a month from the platform. At the time, he had 800,000 Twitch followers. Giersdorf, meanwhile, has 4.1 million. Good money, but it can be tricky to balance Twitch obligations with team practice and scrimmages. “Playing on stream messes you up a little bit because you’re more focused on the entertainment side of things, rather than just purely competing,” says Giersdorf. Between streaming and practising, he spends about 10 hours a day on video games. Not your typical extracurricular activity. “Fortnite and streaming, and then playing scrims and schoolwork, it all kind of goes into a loop. I usually do my schoolwork late at night, kind of when I’m done with everything.”
Esports’ primary audience—the 18-to-34-year-old bracket—is one of the most sought-after and elusive demographics, one that traditional sports like football and baseball have long struggled to capture. Better still, it’s a young viewership with some spending power. Many of the kids who watch athletes like Giersdorf are also into playing video games themselves, at least to some degree, and it isn’t a hobby that comes cheap. “To play a really, really high-performing game, you need a really expensive system. Right off the bat, every computer is $2,000,” says Dan Dinh, cofounder and president of TSM, a US-based global esports organisation that competes in 10 different games and has upwards of 30 players on its active roster. “What kid can afford a $2,000 PC? It really segments out a higher-value audience.”
That barrier to entry is true in the US, but not everywhere. In South Korea almost anyone can go practice at a PC bang, a gaming centre where patrons pay around $1 an hour (or less) for access to high-end computers. It makes competitive gaming not only more equitable but more social—and has helped launched such stars as Heo Seunghoon, better known by his gamer tag, “Huni.” “My father was playing, my cousin was playing, my younger brother—everyone was playing StarCraft daily,” he says. “If you’re not playing StarCraft as a South Korean student, you can’t even talk with friends.” StarCraft debuted in 1998, which, for perspective, was the year that a couple of Stanford grad students named Larry Page and Sergey Brin founded Google in a mutual friend’s garage. The game was never quite as popular in the States as it was in South Korea, but StarCraft is largely recognized as one of the first big esport scenes, with high-profile tournaments dating to 2003 and teams sponsored by Samsung and other major companies. It wasn’t the game that ultimately clicked with Heo, though. Now 23, he picked up League of Legends in 2012 and has scarcely put it down since, clocking in an average of 12 to 14 hours of practice every working day since going pro at age 17. He bet on the right horse. League of Legends has exploded in popularity: Its 2020 World Championship final had an average audience of 23 million viewers—per minute.
Heo signed his first professional contract with Fnatic and moved into the team home in Berlin in 2015. His new teammates became his roommates—even their coach lived in the apartment. That may sound like a recipe for disaster (or, at the least, a disastrous cleaning rotation), but the “gaming house” has been a common esports practice since StarCraft’s competitive boom. The idea is that all of a pro team’s players should live in one house so they can more effectively bond, strategize and, nowadays, create video content. Who has the best gaming house has become a competition in and of itself, with teams like 100 Thieves and FaZe Clan occupying increasingly extravagant mansions, the price tags of which are often noted in video titles such as “Revealing the New US$30,000,000 FaZe House.” Many have on-site chefs and nutritionists who prepare meals for the team. But it’s not a universally accepted model. Some feel that gaming houses too thoroughly blur the work-life boundary. “It can feel a bit overwhelming if you’re on top of each other all the time,” says Dinh. “Instead of having a house, we have small communities where the players have their own space and their own apartment, and they can come into work and interface there.” Bugha, meanwhile, lives and practices at his parents’ home in Pennsylvania, travelling for competitions as necessary.
For Heo, living at the Fnatic apartment had its challenges—namely the language barrier. Since the team recruited members primarily from European countries, English was the language most had in common. “It was really tough because I was not able to speak English at all. I should have studied it in school more instead of playing games,” he says with a laugh. He returned to South Korea in 2017 to compete for SK Telecom T1, one of the best teams in the world, a residency that culminated in a trip to the League of Legends World Championship at Beijing National Stadium. “I was playing in front of 45,000 people. That was crazy. They were shouting my name, and the stage was shaking because there were so many people out there,” he says. “It will be hard to experience that again, honestly.” He and SK Telecom—led by Lee “Faker” Sanghyeok, aka the “Michael Jordan of esports”—finished in second place overall, falling to Samsung Galaxy, another South Korean team, in the final round. Heo now plays for Dinh’s TSM in Los Angeles and competes in the League of Legends Championship Series, a regional circuit that includes the US and Canada and where the average player salary is about $463,000. Lee’s contract at SK Telecom, meanwhile, gives him an ownership stake.
But getting started in professional esports can be an uphill battle. “A couple years ago, gaming was never something for your career. And, initially, my family didn’t really approve,” says Jake Yip, a professional Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) athlete who goes by the tag “Stewie2k” while in-game. “I made my own decision to go pro when I turned 18 because I had the opportunity.” While his parents weren’t happy, it was Yip’s older brother who first introduced a version of Counter-Strike to him when he was about six years old. CS:GO is a more sophisticated version of the same formula: Play on a team with friends, and shoot the other team a bunch before they shoot you.
Yip grew up in San Francisco and was frequently at odds with his parents when it came to CS:GO. The teenager would compete in pick-up games late into the night, which caused him to oversleep the next day and skip class. On a few occasions his parents—who were often travelling overseas for work—confiscated his computer. Naturally, they refused to sign off on a team contract, which is why he had to wait until he was 18 to officially say yes to Cloud9, a Santa Monica–based team and one of the biggest names in CS:GO in North America. Even then, there were naysayers. Fans criticized Cloud9’s decision to hire him because they wanted talent with a more extensive résumé, since Yip had been playing for only about two years at the time. Today, the 23-year-old has been competing at the professional level for five years. He has collected over $1 million in prize money during that time and was the first North American player, along with his teammates, to win one of CS:GO’s major championships. It’s a lot of glory (and payout), but competing can be incredibly taxing, and there’s no such thing as work-life balance. “I have recently started experiencing burnout,” he says. “Traveling away from home for months, that can take a big toll, and you’re around your teammates so much sometimes. It’s not too healthy.”
Nobody is saying it’s an Ironman, but professional video gaming requires plenty of physical and mental stamina. “People shouldn’t think, like, if you can use a mouse and a keyboard, then you’re good to go, you can be world champion,” says William Collis, an esports professor (yes, that’s a thing) at Becker College in Worcester, Mass. “Obviously, the people who excel at these titles are really rare specimens who have just incredible combinations of desirable attributes.”
There are numbers to back up this assessment. A 2016 study at the German Sport University in Cologne found that esports athletes perform about 400 movements per minute on their mice and keyboards. Their levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, were on par with those of strapped-in racecar drivers. Athletes also have to know their stuff and be able to apply it quickly and strategically in high-stakes situations. League of Legends, for example, has more than 150 playable characters, or “champions,” all with different strengths, weaknesses and special abilities. A pro like Heo has to understand every single one inside and out so that he can defeat his opponent no matter what option they choose.
In its simplest form, then, esports are just like any other pro sport. Some of us have a natural aptitude for it, but getting good requires a lot of work, and becoming world-class is an elusive dream for all but a very few. If you do make it, there’s always someone younger and hungrier nipping at your heels, and packed tournament and practice schedules can drive even the best to retire early. Which means that the Tom Brady of esports will likely need that phenom’s competitive drive and near-monomania to weather the job’s many ups and downs. Yip, for one, wants to make a go of it. “I feel like I’m still very young and I still have a big future ahead of me,” he says. “I’m just kind of riding the wave right now.”