Many a young gamer has thought about how cool it would be to grow up and actually make a living from their favourite hobby, by playing video games competitively. And by now, you've almost certainly heard that this dream can turn into a reality if you're good enough – and the very best pro-gamers can make eye-watering money. Chinese Dota 2 team NewBee won over $5,000,000 at last year's The International 4 tournament. 2015's tournament is still a few months away, but the prize pool is over $8,000,000 at the time of writing.
Multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) games like Dota 2 and League of Legends are where the money is at the moment. They attract millions of players – the reason behind the vast amounts of money that flow in and out of the games, and why their online viewing figures are so huge. It's through playing games like these that a great many pro-gamers pay their way, some extravagantly. But no newcomer to the scene should anticipate a long and healthy career, nor should they wait too long before entering the fray. In your early 20s? You've probably already missed the boat. Players in their mid-20s are ancient by pro-gaming standards. Looking at the professional LoL LCS leagues in North America and Europe, not one major competitor is anywhere close to turning 30.
Dr Amine Issa published his findings last year about what, if anything, makes professional eSports players better at games than the rest of us. One thing he noted in a Reddit AMA was that he believes the age ceiling for players is much higher than people think: "As for League of Legends and the age ceiling, I think the game is more about good decisions." Our reflexes dull with age, but he believes that experience and intelligence can make up for that. All the same, other factors beyond physical fitness come into it, and the evidence is there that the pros simply don't play for that long.
Short-lived playing careers have become particularly apparent recently with the retirement of a few high profile players. Hai Du Lam, who featured briefly in VICE's recent eSports documentary (watch it below), is one of the most famous League of Legends players in the world. As the mid laner for Cloud 9, he would often go up against some of the best players from around North America, and would often win. On the 22nd of April, Jack Etienne, the founder and manager of Cloud 9, announced that Hai would be retiring from competitive LoL play. Hai is 22 years old.
We're used to sportspeople not having careers that reach to regular retirement age. Footballers rarely play at the top level beyond their mid-30s, and they can call it quits sooner if they are particularly injury prone. But it might come as a surprise to learn that career-ending injuries are fairly commonplace in competitive gaming, too. The players aren't tearing ACLs or suffering concussions weekend after weekend. As they say, it's all in the wrist.
"My wrist injury is something that I simply cannot ignore," writes Hai in his retirement statement, referring to tendonitis. "It limits my ability to play as much as I need to and my ability to improve. I cannot keep up with the amount of Solo Queue games my teammates play and it's not fair to them. At best, my wrist injury would have only allowed me to play for another split and that wasn't even certain."
Similar injuries have forced many others out of the game. Wai "Toyz" Kin Lau won the second world championship with Taipei Assassins in 2012, but was forced to retire in 2013 after carpal tunnel syndrome became too much for him. An improvement in his condition allowed him to return to the game with the Hong Kong Esports team, but only time will tell how long that will last.
One player quit the game for a more heart-breaking reason. In March 2014, Cheon "Promise" Min-Ki attempted suicide by jumping off a 12-story building. Miraculously he survived, and is doing well today, even appearing for an interview in VICE's documentary. He had become embroiled in a match-fixing scandal in South Korea, which led to his drastic course of action. The owner of Promise's team, ahq, reportedly threatened his players if they tried to win. He lied to them, and withheld wages. For Promise, it all became too much.
This is an extreme case, but pressure forcing League of Legends players out of the game is not unheard of. Yu "Misaya" Jingxi was formerly captain and mid laner of World Elite, later Team WE. In an interview with onGamers after his 2013 retirement, he put the main reason down to stress: "I personally want to live a happier life and the issues our team has been having made my life suffer to some degree... Being a team captain for me personally is a huge responsibility and I still have to think about my personal life."
If it's not one thing, then it's another. A big contributing factor to the retirement of League of Legends players is that they simply aren't good enough anymore. This was the case for Brian "TheOddOne" Wyllie and Peter "Yellowpete" Wüppen, who were each mainstays on their respective teams for several years. "There is no arguing about the fact that my performance within the last couple of months has not been what I want or the team needs it to be," Yellowpete said after his retirement. TheOddOne wrote: "I decided that we'd have a much better chance of winning if I were in a more supportive role such as coach and if we had someone even better jungling."
Even Hai, at one time considered to be the best mid laner in North America, had people doubting his abilities: "Over time, my teammates started to lose confidence in my abilities as a player and a shotcaller. That's what really hit me hard. I don't think that is an obstacle I was able to overcome, and it really got to me." As the game evolved and the meta ever so gradually changed, it became harder for him to be successful: "My play style was not going to work anymore."
For most of these professionals, League of Legends is all they know. They live in a house with their teammates, practising for many hours of the day. And when they're not playing, they're in team meetings, discussing previous or upcoming matches. Some of them have to do work with sponsors; others have a live streaming schedule to stick to. It's a wonder that more of them don't simply burn out, which is what happened to Mitch "Krepo" Voorspoels, Lauri "Cyanide" Happonen and Steve "Chauster" Chau They represent the tip of an iceberg, as many others have retired citing reasons such as losing their love of the game and not being able to keep up with the amount of time needed to remain successful.
It's not all doom and gloom for budding eSports professionals, however. While playing careers only last a handful of years, if you still love the game and don't mind moving into a more supportive role, there are options available to you. Hai is now the chief gaming officer for Cloud 9. It'll be his job to acquire new players for the organisation across all of the games it has teams competing in, and bring in fresh business partners.
Krepo is hoping to pursue a career in shoutcasting, where he would be commentating on live games. He is already one step towards achieving this, making regular appearing on analysis panels for live shows he is not competing in. Michael "Imaqtpie" Santana retired from competition at the age of 22, but is still playing LoL – he now makes a living out of live streaming all day on Twitch. Wei "CaoMei" Han-Dong is doing something very similar, and now reportedly earns $800,000 per year. Riot Games, the developer behind League of Legends, has launched summits to help players and give them tips on how to maintain their personal brands after their competitive careers are over.
So yes, if you're young and seriously good, you can have a (short, stressful, but possibly very lucrative) career playing video games professionally. But if you'd rather play games for the rest of your life, you're better off sticking to the lottery and hoping your numbers come up – that, or that you've such a wonderful way with words that a shoutcaster or streamer role works out for you. It's going to be interesting to see where someone like Hai is in another 22 years – will the professional gaming industry still be supporting him? Will eSports always be home to talents that burn brightly for only the briefest time? Or can it become a place for more mature competitors to coexist beside younger, hungrier rivals? Where careers can be prolonged, moving through roles within the same industry? The exciting thing is that, right now, we simply don't know.
Stills taken from VICE's documentary, eSports