April 10, 2016. In a small conference room quartered off from the bright purple lights of Seattle's KeyArena, the five members of Arizona State's Real Dream Team prepare for war. Austin "Shot" Lansert, Parpham "Pham" Emami, Michael Udall, Stefan "akaface" Anderson, and Isaiah "Snickers" Rubin are students, but tonight they'll be the faces of eSports for an unprepared world.
Heroes of the Dorm is—well, was, for 2016—without a doubt, the most public demonstration of eSports in the history of the industry. It's a collegiate, bracketed tournament for amateur Heroes of the Storm players, with the final four broadcasted live on ESPN. In a few short days, these boys will sweep the finals and be biting into custom gold medals for a national audience. But right now, you can feel the nerves. Competitive gaming has long lived on Twitch and YouTube, far from the eyes of any doubting, judging Colin Cowherd types, but the landscape is changing quickly. The winners of Dorm get the remainder of their college tuition paid off by HotS makers Blizzard, but they will also be left with a lot of lingering ambiguity about the future.
"It's super time-consuming, and right now, there's not a lot of money to make in the Heroes of the Storm scene," says Pham, perhaps the most talkative player on ASU's team. "It's a really hardcore dream. I'm gonna ride this until it hopefully picks up."
Pham is staring down the question of either focusing all of his energy on his burgeoning HotS career or resigning to more traditional employment. This is a very 21st century predicament. Being profoundly talented at a certain video game was cute, but it was never a marketable skill. At best you might earn a spot on Starcade. But in 2016, "eSports" might be the most popular term in boardroom meetings across the world. League of Legends is scoring huge sponsorship deals, player contracts are reportedly reaching seven figures, and a game like HotS—which has only been officially out for a year—is available on the same channels your parents watch. We're in a rare moment where a passion for gaming can be an entrepreneurial endeavor. It's not an easy path, but it's there.
"For me, it's the current goal," says Michael Udall, one of ASU's centerpieces and the only player who operates without a gamertag. "I don't necessarily want to do it my whole life, but eSports is what I'm really passionate about right now. I was very athletic growing up. I did a lot of football and basketball, and my freshman year at Heroes of the Dorm last year I found myself on a massive ESPN stage playing video games. It catapulted my professional career."
There are a select handful of men and women who get to call themselves full-time professional gamers. And like anything competitive, eSports requires some transcendent talent and a lot of dedication. But unlike football or basketball, the average age of players burning out tends to be very young. It's hard to find someone on a high-level LoL, DOTA, or HotS team above the age of 24. That's partly because of the emotional and physical demands, but there's also a real lack of infrastructure in the eSports industry.
Article continues after the video below
The pro scene in HotS is incredibly nascent. Sure, Blizzard is putting on massive competitions like Dorm, and handing out ridiculous $500,000 prize pools at the seasonal championships, but that's it. If you win big, you earn a life-changing amount of money. If not? You're scraping for peanuts. There's no room for a workmanlike career in pro gaming right now, and that inevitably leaves a lot of people out in the cold.
"The burnout age is more to do with stress and lack of job security and not knowing what your plans are," says Pham. "It's also still unstable, where some people think it's cool, and some people want to call you a nerd."
Almost all of the players on ASU have some sort of professional ambition in gaming. Maybe not long-term, but they're certainly dedicated until they can't do it anymore. Heroes of the Dorm is an ephemeral competition. It's an advertisement for HotS and the raw concept of eSports, a transparent attempt by ESPN to dig into a esoteric industry. Sure, these boys will keep playing and keep competing. They might go pro, and they might even prove amongst the few who make enough money to truly do this full time. But there's also the very realistic chance that this moment, the winning of Dorm, might be the peak of their careers. And they're trying to act accordingly, at least before their triumph.
"I grew up with a big family, and the guys my age all played games together," says Udall. "We all watched Artosis and Tasteless, and they all wanted to play games professionally, so they're kind of living vicariously through me. They might be more hyped than I am. I'm hyped but stressed. But for them, they get to see me on stage and on stream. It's been an awesome experience."
I often think about the commercial timing of professional gamers. There are transcendent Quake and Duke Nukem players who never ran into any significant financial rewards for their efforts, simply because they were peaking at a time where the scene wasn't as comprehensive or well funded. But even as the eSports business grows, you can't help but wonder what the fate of these young men from ASU might be now, compared to had they been born maybe five or ten years later. Perhaps they've blossomed a little too soon, before HotS develops a robust pro scene, before video games on TV is a usual sight on a Sunday night, and they'll ultimately be left out in the cold.
The situation reminds me of John Havlicek or Oscar Robertson or any great basketball player who worked tape-delayed games and microscopic paychecks before the NBA turned into the juggernaut it is today. These kids are holding onto a crazy, quite possibly unsustainable dream as hard as they possibly can. It's unfair, but it's out of their control. So they smile wide, and they only think about the future when they have to.
"I love LAN events. I adore LAN events. They're so much fun, and I don't know how many more I'll get to go to," says Shot, toward the end of our conversation. "You never know, a million things could happen. eSports is a huge experience. If I don't do it now, I might never get the chance, so I'm going to cherish every second of it."
Follow Luke on Twitter.