Early on in his career, Yogi Berra wasn't "just" a baseball player. Nor was Jim Brown exclusively a football star. In the days before multimillion-dollar contracts were commonplace in the big leagues, both men worked odd jobs during the off-season: Brown traveled the country as a spokesperson for Pepsi; Berra eventually appeared in ads for Yoo-Hoo. Today, many professional athletes can earn enough income to last a lifetime, but that hasn't always been the case—and in smaller leagues, athletes still find themselves needing to supplement their sports-related salaries.
This is also how things work in esports. Games like League of Legends or Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, where almost everyone at the highest level makes a cushy living, are anomalies. Far more common are competitors who just scrape by as full-time players, or who have to juggle second careers. That's especially true of the fighting game community. If League and CS:GO are equivalent to Major League Baseball or the NFL, fighting games are more akin to the American cricket scene.
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Take Justin "JWong" Wong. For much of his early career, Wong made esports his full-time job. The 30-year-old Street Fighter V pro competed almost every weekend throughout the country, but like many players the bulk of his income came through tournaments and, later, by broadcasting his practice games. Wong eventually found financial success as a full-time streamer, which started doing in the summer of 2014. Wong, who declined to disclose his exact streaming earnings, says his most lucrative time was during the launch of Mortal Kombat X in April 2015, when he saw 15,000 concurrent daily viewers. "It was obviously really fun, more freedom, able to wake up at any given time I want," he says.
Gradually, though, Wong arrived at the same realization that athletes in all sports eventually come to: He needed an exit strategy, because his time at the top wouldn't last forever. He stopped the full-time streaming after about a year, and decided to scale back his gaming, the better to pursue a more sustainable, long-term career elsewhere.
Perhaps fittingly, Wong wound up working in the tech industry. While he's unwilling to reveal his employer or specific job title, he says that the company was looking to hire gamers just like him.
"As a pro gamer, our eye coordination is probably above average, because of the intense competitive training that we were used to," he says. "So, it really worked out."
The move also worked out for his esports career. Because Wong's gaming background played a role in his hiring, management usually approves his requests for time off to play in tournaments.
"They really want to see me play, they really want to keep my pro gaming up on par," he says. "They feel that if I stop playing professionally, then it's possible that my work might be not as good—the results might not be as good. So they want me to stay active."
It is hard to hide an esports career at a tech company, though Wong nevertheless tries. He is uncomfortable with the idea of being perceived differently at the office because of his other career. "I don't want to get benefits compared to other employees," he says. "If I abuse such a power, I feel like it kind of causes like a rift in like our relationship."
Wong's secrecy extends not just to his co-workers but to his family, as well. He says he had been playing for about a decade before he finally let them in on what he did for a living, and that he was incredibly good at it. He says his furtiveness stemmed from cultural differences. "'You need to study, you need to go to school and get a job so you can take care of us in the future,'" he says. "That's like typical Asian etiquette where it's really hard to control our destinies in our lives."
In both cases, his other life only remained buried for so long. JWong's family eventually learned of his esports career when, by chance, they stumbled onto a reality TV show he took part in. His co-workers, on the other hand, required no such serendipity.
"Sometimes people at work do recognize me, and then they're like, 'Oh, I didn't know you worked here,'" he says. Eventually, JWong will be left behind. He's fine with being known simply as Justin.
Unlike Wong, Juan "Hungrybox" Debiedma never considered being a full-time esports athlete. The 23-year-old Super Smash Bros. Melee pro had played video games for years, but the idea of pursuing it professionally seemed far too risky. " I just wanted stability," he says. "When I was young, people would ask me what I wanted to do when I was older and I always would just think, 'I want to be happy.' So I knew that having stability in life and staying occupied was important to happiness."
While attending the University of Florida in 2014, Debiedma was signed by Curse. The next year, Curse merged with Team Liquid, making Debiedma part of one of the largest esports organizations on the planet. He has been ranked as high as second in the world, and a recent Red Bull ranking placed him at No. 1.
Still, Debiedma's desire for long-term stability hasn't changed. He earned his undergraduate degree in chemical engineering and now works at WestRock, a paper supply and manufacturing company. He's part of a rotational program that has new hires working at different parts of the company for six months at a time. Esports are just something he does on the weekends.
"Making Smash a pleasure rather than a personal business [has] helped out my mindset tremendously," he says. "If you make Smash everything, then losing is three times as detrimental."
Debiedma has no problem sharing details of his other career with his coworkers at WestRock, who are supportive. "When you talk to him, and knowing him now, he loves that world," says Dana Kahlbaum, the company's byproducts supervisor. "He loves the people and the competition and the camaraderie, and he loves his sponsor…. It'd be detrimental to his soul not to be able to game."
"He's definitely got the classical gamer kind of feel to him" says James Gattis, who sat in a neighboring cubicle during one of their rotations. "He has headphones on all the time. He's in his zone. He's working, but he's always in his own little zone."
Although they chose different career paths and have different motivations for competing in esports on a full-time basis, Wong and Debiedma face similar issues, like time. While full-time players schedule their entire lives around that weekend's travel, both Wong and Debiedma often have to cram tournament play into whatever window they have between 5 PM on Fridays and the start of business on Mondays.
"A tournament weekend will look like me driving from work to the train station Friday night, taking the train to the airport, getting into the city of the event around midnight before the event starts the next morning, competing Saturday and Sunday, and then either leaving back to the airport Sunday night or Monday morning at 5-6 AM," Debiedma says.
Then there's the matter of vacation days, or the lack thereof. Some tournaments begin on Fridays, and because the fighting game circuit runs year-round, it eventually takes a toll. In Wong's case, even with his bosses' leniency, he says, "it's really hard for me to actually have a real vacation." So many of his days off are poured into simply getting to where he needs to be. "It's really stressful, because international travel [makes] you feel like crap when you get off the plane," he says.
For Debiedma, part-time competition not only has cost him time and money; he has also missed a possible chance at making esports history. This year, he has taken first place at eight tournaments, including Evolution 2016, the largest and most prestigious fighting game tournament in the world. But he says he is going to run out of vacation days after Big House 6, a top Smash tournament series, in early October. After that, his run could come to a premature end, costing him a shot at a unanimous No. 1 world ranking. Debiedma believes that could cement his reputation as the world's best Melee player. So while he respects his company's decision, he wishes he had more job flexibility.
"My philosophy is that if you can get the work done, you should be able to miss a Friday or even a Monday if you have to," he says. "All of my current work involves Excel and Visual Basic programming and survey technology, so it's like if I wanted to, I could just bring my laptop home and work from there, or even work from a tournament."
As it is, work-life balance is mostly nonexistent for both men. "I don't have a social life," Wong says flatly. It's not much better for Debiedma: "After work ends on Monday, I run my dodgeball club, get home, and pass the fuck out."
Staying competitive is perhaps the biggest challenge. Forty hours spent in the office means 40 fewer hours to strategize, play, practice, and compete. Debiedma compensates by employing a coach, a rarity in the fighting game community. They convene online via Skype every week to look over tournament matches and develop strategies against top players; Debiedma also practices with his roommates and attends local tournaments. Among the quintet of players who comprise the game's upper crust, however, he is the only one who works full-time. Every time he faces them, that's a handicap.
Wong believes that his game isn't as strong as it could be. "I do think that I don't get enough time to practice at my max potential," he says, never mind that he has still scored multiple first-place finishes in 2016. Still, he doesn't regret his choice. It's just the cost of doing business.
"That's definitely my choice," he says. "I can't really blame anyone for that but myself."
The balancing act recently became even more difficult for Debiedma. He was recently relocated to Demopolis, Alabama. The nearest Smash players are an hour away in Tuscaloosa. The closest international airport is now a two-hour drive, making scheduling and travel all the more taxing. He says he's mulling over a career change to computer programming if he finishes any lower than third at Big House 6. He'll probably be fine for now, but the looming question remains: How long will esports continue to support players like him? Debiedma and Wong may be a dying breed of gamer, the last to play at a top level while not devoting their entire lives to winning.
Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey recently said that esports are in the same state that basketball was in during the 1950s. As the field grows, so will competitor compensation, which will create greater incentive to compete full-time, and a bigger financial cushion for those who do. There's a reason why League of Legends and Dota 2 pros match and even exceed the playing and practice hours of their peers in conventional sports: the level of play, and of spectator value, increases accordingly.
Established sports leagues came to this conclusion long ago. If esports follows suit, will that be a good thing? It depends on your perspective. If you want to see the very highest level of competition, or to make a living by winning, the future looks bright. But if you're a player with an eye on outside interests, someone who wants to do more and be more, the picture gets murky. The time will come when holding down a second career will be not only impractical but also impossible. For now, though, Debiedma and Wong will just keep fighting.
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