So, you’ll have seen that ESPN Magazine broke new ground recently by taking the world’s number one streamer, Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, and putting him on a cover traditionally reserved for sports stars. Inside a lengthy article called “Living The Stream” it talks up the life of the person who is undoubtedly the number one gaming personality on the planet right now. Of course, there was much rejoicing. Gaming so often gets a bad press, what a wonderful antidote to the mainstream media’s infatuation with linking our hobby to the worst behaviors humankind has to offer. I could have shared in that rejoicing too if it didn’t come at the cost of something I care about even more. You see, as unpopular an opinion as I am sure this will be, Tyler Blevins isn’t a “professional gamer” as I understand the term and by pretending he is I think it denigrates the world that esports has built for itself.
In fairness, the word “esports” is used sparingly in the article but there is some conflation of the two very different worlds as it unfolds. The author, Elaine Teng, says he exists in the “sports world” when speaking about his huge influence on social media. She also speaks about how he could assist mainstream acceptance of women within esports by streaming with them, erroneously stating that Se-yeon “Geguri” Kim from Overwatch as the “only” woman playing on the biggest stages. It’s clear the lines blur when it’s convenient for the story but it shouldn’t be news to anyone to point out that Tyler Blevins is not an esports professional by any conceivable metric. The truth is that there is a large number of people in the esports world who are very happy for this label to be wrongly applied. Why? Because right now he’s a huge celebrity and everyone loves to ride on those type of coattails when the opportunity presents itself. The new wave of esports personalities are some of the hungriest for collateral fame you will ever see.
This is the trend now in the world of esports. The endemic crowd have always been a welcoming bunch. After all, we’ve been wanting to grow and achieve mainstream acceptance now for two decades. I think the only “rule” is that you respect the space and don’t do anything actively harmful when it comes to stifling that growth. About two or three years ago people who were formerly rubberneckers decided to fully commit, certain that this was going to be the next big thing and, as we always do, we welcomed them and their expertise. Now, for reasons beyond me, these people are lauded as being experts about the business despite their only measurable achievement being “getting in at the right time.” It’s sort of like declaring all those people that were able to exploit the Bitcoin frenzy for a quick buck to be financial whizkids.
These people have become our loudest cheerleaders but you’ll notice that everything is esports to them now. A game with a huge casual playerbase? Esports. Streaming culture? That’s esports. Prize money thrown into a game with no recognizable competitive format? Definitely esports. And as we all know esports is fucking great, right? What these people have done is taken two decades of rich history and basically reduced it to a buzzword, while lining their own pockets along the way. To investors esports hops them up as much as the word “blockchain” does. They don’t understand it but they know it’s a license to print money.
Now Mr. Blevins has nothing to do with this. In fact, his esports pedigree is there for anyone interested in doing the research. He played Halo professionally from 2009, a time when esports was really struggling to get back on its feet amid a global recession and the last wave of grifters had bled it dry. Many have tried to say he was an “overnight” success, which is some of the most ridiculous bullshit ever perpetuated and you can smell the jealousy on the lips of those that utter it. The reality is though he wasn’t “famous” as an esports professional and realized, like a lot of professionals do, if you don’t have the drive to win tournaments any more and you have a streaming career that is flourishing you are almost always better off committing to the latter.
As someone who has worked with and covered the life of esports professionals for close to fifteen years I can tell you that the rise of streaming created a new issue. Popular pro players now had a way to make more money, with less effort and more autonomy than being a professional could ever yield. Your fan base becomes more forgiving – no longer are they wearing a team jersey yelling at you to win. Now they wear your jersey and just want you to play. Sponsorships that were controlled by the organisation that paid your salary are now yours to decide, with all the money going solely to you rather than into the pockets of the person who sends you to events. No more travel, you set your own schedule. Suddenly there is time for relationships, pets, work-life balance. You, not a manager or a coach, set how hard you have to hustle. So, being a top streamer isn’t an option open to everyone and certainly not to every esports competitor, talented or otherwise. Those who are able though will often veer towards that because, honestly, it takes a very different kind of hunger to want to win trophies for less money.
Now that isn’t to say streaming isn’t a tough job. As a part-time streamer myself every time I’ve ever tried to commit to a regular schedule quickly realize just how difficult it is to have anything else going on. Like everyone else from my generation my attention span has been burned out of my brain by the glare of a million screens and gadgets. Four hours playing the same game feels like a marathon session, a triumph of the will. Streamers regularly go for eight to ten hours a session, playing the same titles day after day. It can be tiring and monotonous and streamers very often feel trapped into repeating the same process that gets them big viewing numbers rather than doing something new that will diminish their audience. Your income is also viewer dependent, no way to gauge how much you will make day to day. None of this is vaguely linked to sports or athleticism though. In fact, these feelings are close to how I felt when I had a cubicle based customer service job… And I don’t think there should be any shame in showing these parallels either.
Often streaming is like being on the lowest rung of the entertainment world’s ladder. Think about those insomnia-fueled late night channel-hopping sessions where you stumble across QVC… See their fixed mannequin grins and desperation in their eyes that says “I’m going to be bigger than this?” That feigned enthusiasm that is the most wearing part of the job? Streamers exist in a mad world where they are on live television for hours and hours at a time while a not insignificant percentage of their audience tries to bait them as if they were zoo animals, desperately hoping for an outburst or a reaction that will lead to them being banned or subject to endless coverage in the failing games press. It’s a live tightrope act where the donations come in the form of pennies hurled at you in a bid to knock you off balance, even more true in a world where platforms now hold the entertainer responsible for what donators say on their platform.
The very best transcend the medium. They are able to make multiple games entertaining, projecting their personality onto the blank canvas of multiple titles and produce memorable moments, both poignant and hilarious. This is achieved without a script, lurching from one hour to the next never knowing what is going to happen, trying to make jokes land or produce something that shows the sheer joy to be found in video games as a pastime. There are few divisions between the streamer and the fan, people can interact in real time, often free of charge either through the game or live chat. Due to the lack of barriers these days streaming comes with an element of danger too. The SWAT-ing epidemic that has already claimed one life, even people shooting at your house, obsessive fans and stalkers who could give Kathy Bates in Misery a run for her money.
So yes, as someone who knows he isn’t really cut out for being a public figure, I respect the hell out of what streamers do. Anyone who thinks it’s as simple as “playing video games for a living” can be summarily dismissed as an idiot. Think the cheap laugh Jimmy Kimmel went for on his show after the cover was announced, where he played it safe for his gallery of goons and mocked what he clearly has no interest in even trying to understand.
“This is the first time a video game player has been on the cover of a major sports magazine” he said. “Some people consider this guy Ninja to be an athlete because he streams for up to twelve hours a day and he has a lot of physical dexterity and if that’s true congratulations masturbating teens, you’re going to the Olympics.”
A cheap laugh, the inexcusably ignorant feeding the insecure, a staple of late night shows. And yet I do find myself inclined to agree on the central premise. It’s not that I don’t believe professional gamers can be athletes. Far from it. It’s that I simply do not believe Tyler Blevins in his current form is the example I would want the mainstream to be dissecting. Actually, this is one of the rare examples of his popularity hurting esports and the public’s perception around it. We now have more eyeballs than ever gaining misconceptions about what it means to be an esports professional because the mainstream continually conflate streaming and competing.
Now let’s talk about what is so insulting about that ESPN space being used to promote a streamer, ostensibly a children’s entertainer, as an esports professional. First ESPN has a very successful esports news division and have sent mainstream reporters to cover events. Remember this is the network whose former president, John Skipper, declared that esports wasn’t a sport and downplayed their desire to commit to esports content in 2014, only for each subsequent year to see them try and walk back that statement year after year. Hell, I like John Skipper… He was honest about the drugs and the booze but he was way off the mark on that one. How could the publication that ran a piece about one of esports all-time greatest competitors, Korean League of Legends icon Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok, suddenly forget what a professional gamer actually is?
I genuinely believe that people have forgotten the level of commitment and discipline required to be an esports professional and how, unlike streaming, it has many similarities with being a mainstream athlete. Professional players have mandated practice hours, with set dates and times. Typically one person, be it an in-game leader or a coach, will come up with tactics – think of them like drills – to run through. Before practice sessions against other teams players warm-up for an hour or so, training their reflexes and precision to be at their best when game time comes. After a match, a debrief or feedback session takes place. What went wrong, what went right, what can we do better… Rinse and repeat between tournaments usually to the tune of eight hours a day. Is someone having a problem with their mentality? Sit them down with the coach or, for the very best organisations, a sports psychologist. Are they having endurance problems? Bring in the dietitian or the supplements.
Many players live in “team houses,” always presented as a way to optimize performance but in reality they are simply a cost-cutting exercise. Get all the players and staff in one place and make them grind away. I’ve called them “misery factories” and I’ve been inside many in my time. Often players share rooms and have no personal space to get away from their teammates and employers. Days are entirely consumed with team practice and then at night meeting contractual obligations for sponsors through streaming or content. Even if you’re one of the professional players lucky enough to not have to live in a team house, you will be expected to spend weeks at a time in one ahead of competitions. Have you really never questioned why they are called “boot camps?”
The sheer volume of hours that esports professionals work has been something I’ve railed against for years. If you’ve ever wondered why some players are burned out by 24 then you only need to look at the greedy bastards that lit the fuse. Barely anyone batted an eye-lid when it was reported that Shanghai Dragons, the embarrassment of the Overwatch League, said they were practicing twelve hours a day, six days a week in a bid to just win a single match. There’s an Adderall problem bubbling up under the surface of the sport too and it’s no wonder. The players know what they are doing but the same cannot be said about the vast majority of the coaches that have a significant input into the quality of player’s lives.
Then after the intense training comes the travel. This isn’t an NFL style chartered jet flight to the next state over. This is flying coach to the other side of the world because the organisation or the tournament can’t afford to seat you in business class. This is turning up to your entire first day of competition jet-lagged and possibly sick, cold comfort to be found in the sterile hotel room provided.
So the pro then sits down at an unfamiliar set-up with fifteen minutes to get it to feel as much like theirs at home as possible. The PC isn’t quite as good. There’s a monitor with a different refresh rate because a company you would never use paid the most to sponsor the event. Noise cancelling headsets placed over in-ears to preserve competitive integrity. Are the right drivers installed? Is there some obscure setting active in Windows that will fuck up your whole performance? No time for that now, the admins are sending the match live.
And now you play and you better win because you signed a two year contract with an insane buyout clause no-one in their right minds would meet. Under perform and “warming the bench” means you don’t play professionally for some time, losing your market value, losing your reputation and the skills that helped you acquire it while your team moves on without you. After you crash out of the tournament you better plaster on that fake smile and line up to sign the fan’s autographs and here’s a camera following you to your hotel room to meet sponsor requirements for content that was signed without you even being consulted. This is how your salary gets paid.
But the winning. Doesn’t that make it worth it? To make the play that wins the game, to lift the trophy because fuck the check, to hear a stadium of fans erupt when they realize you rewarded their belief in you and the logo on your chest, the one that matters more than all the sponsors. You’ll look around at the people you did it with and you’ll believe in bonds that transcend even family in that moment. After, even though you will read in reports and on social media how great you are, you’ll get to look yourself in the mirror and say “I did this” and know it was all down to that hard work. Then the silence and the knowledge you have to get up tomorrow and start work for the next tournament, to reclaim that feeling one more time knowing it’ll be tougher because the disappointed are working harder.
This sounds like the life of a sports professional to me. The only difference being they get millions in the bank for their sacrifices. We certainly are not there yet, not unless you win The International in Dota 2 at least, and I know first hand if you can transition to even being a semi-successful full time streamer the financial rewards eclipse salaries even supplemented by tournament winnings. I find it hard to believe that you are truly passionate about esports if you want to compare all of this to the life of a streamer, even the hardest working and most successful ones in the world.
When you say to me “professional gaming” I don’t think of someone who can pick and choose their own hours, who never has to meet a training schedule, who has no commitment to a team or an organisation. I don’t think of someone whose principle goal is entertainment over excellence. I think about the athletes grinding off camera, for no accolades or profit, to be the best in their field, to win for themselves and the fans, those who want to carve their names into the annals of a history that will matter. I couldn’t tell you who the number one streamer in the world was two years ago but I can tell you who won the World Cyber Games in 2005. Give me a Faker, a s1mple, an Mvp, a Daigo Umehara, a Miracle-, I don’t care which game but just spare me the pretense that anyone bar a handful of streamers know anything about the paths these players have had to walk to succeed or what they gave up to dedicate themselves to being the very best in their respective disciplines. This is what esports is. ESPN knows this. But fuck it, whatever sells your magazine.
Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the author do not reflect the opinions or viewpoints of VPEsports.
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