November 28, 2012
By RICHARD NIEVA
When Sean Plott was 15, he and his older brother, Nick, begged their mother to fly them from Kansas to Los Angeles for a video game tournament.
For Cara LaForge, their single mother, who was struggling to start a new business, the expense was steep. Her sons passionately insisted they could win, so she conceded. But there was a catch: “If you don’t win, you’re going to pay me back,” she recalled.
They didn’t win.
Ms. LaForge didn’t make her sons pay her back, but in a way, they have. Eleven years later, she is the business manager at Sean Plott’s company DayTV, which broadcasts daily videos online geared toward gamers. The two brothers are celebrity personalities in the world of StarCraft II, a popular strategic game. Sean Plott was featured on Forbes’s 30 under 30 list in 2011.
Video games have evolved from an eight-bit hobby to a $24 billion industry in 2011, according to the NPD Group, a research firm. As more people play games, more of them compete in structured competitive tournaments, complete with fans, sponsors and lucrative contracts. It’s a long and tough slog, as Ms. LaForge’s story suggests.
But just how crazy is it to encourage your gamers to get off the couch and hit the road to play for money? Maybe a little crazier than encouraging a child to become a professional bowler or chess master. Professional gamers follow a track similar to professional golfers, entering several tournaments a year and collecting prize money, said Brian Balsbaugh, founder of the eSports Management Group, an agency that serves pro gamers. (Yes, professional gaming has already advanced to the point where the top players have agents.) Major League Gaming — the scene’s largest tournament organizer in North America — hosts four major competitions a year. In November, it held the Fall Championship in Dallas.
Although some players are paid handsomely — the top prize in Starcraft II is $25,000, and corporate sponsorships can pull in much more cash — for most, the prospect of making good money as a pro is still doubtful. Professional gaming’s financial structure is top-heavy, so only the best players earn significant incomes of $100,000 to $200,000. “We’re at a point where only about 40 people in the U.S. can make a living playing video games,” said Sundance DiGiovanni, chief executive of Major League Gaming. “I’d like to get it to a hundred. I think we’re a year or two away from that.”
For a beginner, expenses like travel, hotels and registration fees can be costly, especially for a parent picking up the bill for a teenager with little income. Tom Taylor, who goes by Tsquared and is a champion at the shooter game Halo, recalled selling things like PlayStation games or Pokémon cards on eBay to pay his way.
To cover those costs, talented players can sign contracts to play for sponsored teams, like Mr. Taylor’s squad, Str8 Rippin. The average salary for competitive gamers ranges from about $12,000 to $30,000, said Marcus Graham, a former pro and gaming personality who is also known as djWHEAT.
These players make the biggest commitments, playing about eight hours a day. Some sponsors have the players live together to build chemistry with teammates. Mr. Taylor, who ran team houses in Chicago and Orlando, Fla, said the practice time jumps to 10 to 14 hours a day as a tournament approaches.
A well-known team franchise like Evil Geniuses — considered the Yankees of pro gaming — can dole out lucrative contracts, over six figures for superstar players, said Alexander Garfield, the team’s chief executive.
The most marketable stars — those with a mix of talent and charisma like Mr. Taylor and Kelly Kelley, a k a MrsViolence — can attract individual sponsorships independent of a team. SteelSeries, a maker of gaming accessories, signs deals for up to $80,000 that cover major expenses for the most prominent gamers, said Kim Rom, the company’s chief marketing officer. SteelSeries also makes smaller deals with relative unknowns it thinks have potential. The company sponsors up to 200 gamers in the United States, though only about 20 pros get those top-notch deals, Mr. Rom said.
But while professional gaming is increasingly popular, in recent years the gaming world has had to rework its marketing approach. Organizers have sought to rebuild the scene since 2008, when a few leagues, like the Championship Gaming Series, folded. Before 2009, mainstream broadcasters like ESPN2 featured tournaments on television. Since then, the league has turned to the Web, rather than TV, for its lifeblood. This year, Major League Gaming began broadcasting on GameSpot.com, a division of CBS Interactive. That change in direction is an example of altered expectations — at least in the short term — for the kinds of careers professionals will have. It is also a warning that the odds of making it big are slim. Ken Yamauchi, the father of Coby Yamauchi, a 16-year-old professional and one of the scene’s rising stars, said he always reminded young gamers, “Use this as a steppingstone. You expect to support a family, buy a house through gaming? It’s not going to happen.”
The smartest personalities build their brands enough to make the bulk of their money on peripheral jobs. The Plott brothers are popular eSports broadcasters, providing live commentary during matches. Many gamers also have sponsored YouTube channels and sign contracts with services like Twitch.tv, a Web site that streams tournament video. Morgan Romine, a former captain of the all-female team Frag Dolls, now works full time as an eSports liaison for Red 5 Studios, a video game maker based in California.
If the tournaments aren’t a way to make money for college, one’s experiences on the competitive circuit can look good on college applications.
“Colleges want to see kids who are passionate in one area,” said Bev Taylor, founder of Ivy Coach, a college admissions consultancy. But she suggests framing it in a way that emphasizes the community aspect of gaming. “They won’t accept anyone they think will just sit in their dorm room all day,” she said.
Once a player is accepted into college, gaming can still have its perks. Mona Zhang founded the Collegiate StarLeague while she was a freshman at Princeton, organizing intercollegiate tournaments for StarCraft II players. The league now has over 600 teams from schools like Yale and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The league also gives out two “Excellence in eSports” scholarships, said Ms. Zhang, who has since graduated.
Competitive gaming even has its fingerprints on the corporate world. In 2011, Sean Plott helped start the After Hours Gaming League, a gaming tournament that pits teams from technology companies like Google, Twitter and Facebook against each other.
Mr. Plott describes it as “a modern twist to the corporate softball league.” It’s not going to make anyone rich, but it’s fun. As video games were designed to be.