"Oh man, I'm tired," Austin Pamajewon told me in a phone interview, a few hours after returning to the Chicago mansion he shares with seven other professional video game players. He had spent the last few days driving from Anaheim to Las Vegas as part of a promotional tour for Turtle Wax, one of the sponsors of his eSports team OpTic Gaming, where Pamajewon is an official representative.
That trek might sound like a pain, but the 20-year-old sees it as one of the perks of his job. And it's a job with deadlines and responsibilities, even if Pamajewon is getting paid to play video games, a dream career to every gamer like him.
He is a rising star in the Let's Play community, which features YouTube videos of gamers scorching the competition while adding their own running commentary as they play. These comments, paired with a live video feed of the gamer going through first-person games, are often full of boastful trash-talking, and sometimes include tips on how to beat certain levels or challenges.
Pamajewon, whose game of choice is Call of Duty, has a YouTube channel with close to 2.7 million subscribers, which he began on his own six years ago. By comparison, the Toronto Raptors YouTube channel has just over 45,600 subscribers.
This kind of success is eons away from his hometown of the Shawanaga First Nation, close to Parry Sound in northern Ontario.
In grade 9, Pamajewon was a normal kid, playing sports and "being happy with B-average grades," he said. He started watching YouTube videos of gamers excelling at Call of Duty, and he was hooked.
"That's when I realized I wanted to be the best among my friends in that game," he remembered.
As he practiced his kill shots, he also began to play with video-editing software, more for the fun of it than anything. (Those skills eventually came in handy for making his own YouTube videos.) Growing up in his First Nations community made his tech hobby arduous: as is common in many rural communities, the internet speed was sluggish and unreliable.
"I had to upload the video when I went to bed, since it took eight or nine hours to get it online," Pamajewon said. He laughed. "I guess I had to learn about time management as early as grade 9."
Today, when he visits his family back home, he still struggles with internet access. So he decided to rent office space in Parry Sound, to make sure he could still upload several videos daily tor his two YouTube channels.
"I'm a small town kid doing what he loves, and other kids can relate to that"
Pamajewon would like to see a solution to the digital divide that affects many Aboriginal communities in Canada, primarily because it would help Native youth.
"It would allow kids there to be more ambitious with what they want to do. There aren't many jobs for First Nations kids… I'm sure if all those kids had the opportunity for good Internet, they would have no need to get caught up in bad habits and would have more doors opened to them for what they want to do. Anything is possible if the opportunity is presented."
His family wasn't always on board with his passion for gaming, he remembered. "There were times when my mom would take away my keyboard, my Xbox, when I wasn't getting good grades. But then I would pull out a stashed keyboard from my closet when everyone was asleep at 2 a.m."
Pamajewon has opted to honour his background in his own way. "I was never into Pow Wows or all the rituals," he said. "My native name, given to me by my grandmother, means Northern Lights, and I added that Northern Lights design to my branding colours on YouTube."
When he visits his grandmother now, he told me, he's overjoyed that he's made her proud. He remembers seeing a picture of himself in a local news article framed on the wall in her house. She explained to him, "I put it there because it's in front of my favourite chair and so that means I can always see you."
"Oh man, I admit, I was tearing up then," said Pamajewon.
The Let's Play army to which he belongs has become massively popular. Although some YouTubers attract only dozens of subscribers to their YouTube channel, the gold standard in this world is PewDiePie, with 45 million subscribers and day-old videos accumulating 2.6 million views.
Pamajewon said his videos stand out because it's all about personality and showing off his well-honed skills. "For one, I'm good at what I do, and my vibe, it's relatable. I'm a small town kid doing what he loves, and other kids can relate to that."
He also peppers his live commentary with non-gaming anecdotes. In one, he explains how he visited his old high school recently, and instead of the kids walking up to shake his hand or high-five him, all he got were non-stop dabs. But in his videos Pamajewon will quickly switch gears and return to the gameplay, narrating how he sniped an opponent, or insulting another player for trying to use an unwieldy weapon.
Although he didn't reveal how much he earns every year, Pamajewon said that he helps out his family financially.
Being a professional video gamer takes hard work and skill, he emphasized.
"Some people don't understand how I can make a living playing video games," he said. "They think it's an easy life. Oh really? You try gaming and uploading videos every day and you see where that gets you. If it were really that easy, everyone would be huge on YouTube."