This feature originally appeared in issue 287 of Game Informer magazine.
eSports may not captivate the world the way traditional sports do, but they’re getting there. According to games and interactive media research firm SuperData, the eSports industry generated $892.4 million of revenue in 2016. Last year’s competitive season was littered with multi-million dollar prize pools for Halo 5: Guardians, League of Legends, and Dota 2 tournaments, with the latter’s The International tournament pool reaching an astonishing $20.7 million.
High-profile players of these games can earn thousands (possibly millions) from a single tournament, join a sponsored team that can make the profession a lucrative six-figure job (on the high end), and land endorsement deals that can ensure they’re financially set for years to come. Getting to that point, however, can take a lifetime of dedication, the right social and financial management skills, and just a bit of luck. And even then, the average person probably won’t make it. Though many players of competitive games dream of going pro, few people will ever make it to the point where their skills will even pay for their itinerary.
But if you’re dedicated, we’re here to help. In order to make the path easier (and manage your expectations), we spoke to players, coaches, managers, teams, sponsors, and lawyers to give you a good idea of what it takes to earn a living as a professional eSports athlete.
Step 1: Find Your Competition
Finding the right game to dedicate yourself to for as long as it takes to become a pro can be as much about your surroundings as it is the game itself.
Professional Street Fighter player Darryl “Snake Eyez” Lewis’ drive to get better came from a typical place: trying to beat his brother. “We played Street Fighter II: Hyper Fighting and I had no idea how to do any special attacks or combos,” Lewis says. “I would press whatever button I could and I had no fundamentals or strategies.”
It wasn’t until years later that Lewis began on the path to becoming a professional Street Fighter player. He met a friend of his older brother, Dave, who would trounce him in any game the two played. Lewis wasn’t having it. “I actually sat down to learn how to play Street Fighter to beat him.” Dave would regularly pick the character Zangief against him, so Lewis followed suit. “After playing with him for a while, I learned how to play the game, how to be patient, how to learn your opponent’s habits, etc. That’s when it all started.” After long sessions of practicing Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix against online opponents, Lewis finally defeated Dave.
For Ryan Towey, who currently coaches Evil Geniuses’ Halo team, the drive to compete came in part from the people around him. A friend of his convinced him to get an Xbox about a month after the release of Halo 2 in November 2004. Although he played the game recreationally for about six months, it didn’t take long before he learned about its competitive scene and began taking the game more seriously with his friends.
Halo 2’s online infrastructure offered him the avenue to improve, and featured “Team Hardcore,” a stripped-down match type for more serious players. Towey’s crew “would try to match against top players and post on the forums and watch tournaments to see who the best players were.”
Towey also met players who inspired him through Halo 2. The game’s clan system allowed groups of like-minded players to band together, and by chance, the clan Towey’s friend invited him to join featured professional players such as Cameron “Victory X” Thorlakson and Kyle “Elamite” Elam. From there, he began honing his skills with higher-ranked players and preparing for tournaments.