Professional Gamer – A Volatile Career

The idea of a career as a professional gaming competitor is met with skepticism and dismissal as a financially secure path. Making a living out of something that isn’t necessarily seen as either challenging or requiring a lot of general job skills goes against the common norm and values most adults expect in work. With salaries of most pro gaming players below minimum wage, the actual decision to go into a sector of work that is completely underdeveloped is risky and not usually suggested by the E-sports community. Despite these views, the reality of a professional gamer is that it is the foundation of the idea behind this E-sports phenomenon. It is also the factor all other companies depend on to make their service(s) a success. Yet pro gaming is also the most volatile and least secure job in the scene dependent entirely on success of the player and his marketable popularity (in conjunction with his successes). With the issues concerning Blizzard’s World Championship Series and the slow growth of personal sponsorships/support, I continue my public worry about the careers of pro gamers.  Their career’s survivability depends both on their ability to play, but also the details of both their competitive game and potential flaws of tournament structure.

Pro gaming players are the central unit of both community attraction and the piece that all other involved parties, event companies, journalists, team organizations, production crews and commentators, rely on. Yet, they are in a career where they can be treated the least well and with the least financial security both long-term as well as the short. For some well-established players and their parent team, there is no fear of being cut or replaced; teams like Team Liquid, Complexity and Evil Geniuses have shown an outstanding dedication to all their players. But is that the case for all teams? Do all teams have that kind of dedication and experience to responsibly understand the ups and downs of players? Some would argue not and with Blizzard’s World Championship Series laying out the foundation for an extended league series, some teams’ understanding and finances may be tested.

When Blizzard’s World Championship for North-America started with a barrage of issues ranging from site delays to reverse effects in terms of qualifying regional players, concerns about the careers of players started being publicly outspoken. The depth of the issue was outspoken best by Michael ‘Adebisi’ Van Driel, to which he said (in response): “[…] think about how many pro gamers were relying on this [WCS NA Qualifiers] and the difference between being a pro gamer for another six months or not.” This scenario is true for players in China, who are not especially promoted in the scene nor have any qualifiers for their region to stand out from (unlike Korea, Europe and North-America). Their opportunities both at home and abroad are limited and with WCS setting the traffic stops on which tournaments can run simultaneously as other events sanctioned by Blizzard, the likelihood that we will see a prominence in Chinese StarCraft II is limited; can the said the same for the North-American scene.

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The NSL Neo Star League is of the few remaining leagues for Chinese players to participate in. Forbes recently released an article detailing League of Legends popularity in China (with Dota 2’s beta just released as well).

Tournament plans, structure and situations have been affecting players since early 2011 (and even before). Issues such as tie-breaking, ‘pointless’ matches and improper administrative decisions have either emotionally affected the players to the point of playing poorly or just not caring for the match such as the situations of NaNiwa vs. NesTea at the Blizzard Cup in late 2011 (courtesy of Liquipedia), XLord vs. Stephano and HomeStory giving the decision of a regame to the players (thanks reddit) or Ret’s poor behavior due to DreamHack’s previously poor  tournament structure of group-play (TeamLiquidPro). User ‘MotBob’ from Team Liquid lays out his opinion and issues with Tie-Breakers (Part 1 & 2), but regardless; these problematic situations occur occasionally between major organizations, even after so much experience. The underlying issue is that despite the occasional hiccup in tournament dilemmas, it still makes or breaks someone’s career and validity in the scene.  In the grand scheme of issues, this amongst the smallest, but also affects the largest and most important body of E-Sports; the players. Evaluating how far this may affect players or how much is just an overreaction to an area that sometimes occurs (no live event happens without some hiccups) would be the tip of the iceberg of pushing towards ideal playing conditions and situations for the players.

What makes pro gaming the most risky and sometimes the most frustrating competitive career (perhaps equal to traditional sports in some aspects) is the fluctuation of balance1. Beyond issues such as latency, improper practice regimen and being on the wrong side of faulty tournament structures, the game that pro gamers dedicate themselves to can be unfavourable. The implicit lack of favouritism in a game’s balance is both unchangeable for the player and a difficulty that scales depending on the developers (and not always in the skillful hands of the player). The issue of balance is both a highly-mentioned complaint of players but also the largest hindrance overlooked by most involved members of the scene. It’s not unusual to read messages from both successful and underachieving players complaining about a certain unit, strategy or a combination of the sorts. In most mainstream sports, the symmetry of rules and capabilities between both teams means all players are typically playing on an even field (at the start) while in video-games, there is, at a minimum, a two-level difficulty scale: one of skillful players improving at different rates and approaches and the balance by game design.

For team games, a debate can be made about how much game balance can affect its participants. Teams outplay one another through strategy, ability to cooperate/communicate as well as through an individual’s aptitude in achieving their role’s tasks.  So in the instance of Dota 2 and League of Legends, one hero/champion may not be the most effective in all situations, players typically must be able to know and play skillfully a large variety of characters that are all characterized with the same intention (or roles: support, ganker, etc.). In addition, to compensate with major perceived imbalances, there is a banning and picking stage to help level the field on both sides (captain’s mode). For StarCraft II, players dedicate themselves to one race for nearly the entirety of their careers (with some exceptions). This dedication must be maintained in order to be able to keep up with other dedicated players as well as the overall demand to execute certain strategies (demand in terms of understanding of key timings to engage your foe as well as actions per minute to execute a vast succession of keystrokes). In addition, maps are changed on a seasonal basis, adding to the layers of possible imbalances or curve disadvantages that may affect the player’s to adapt.

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Previously, shows used to revolve around game mechanics and issues within the game. Shows such as Imbalanced! (2011) and Decision-Making (2012) revolved around analyzing and understanding race/team mechanics and their asymmetries.

Typically no one blames balance (minus a few exceptions) for their losses purely because it cannot be changed. Developers, especially within Blizzard Entertainment, make major balance changes on empirical and cumulative showings, meaning; many may lose until they pick up on an issue. Overcoming adversities for players is definitely a part of adaptation. This is an expectancy everyone has on the players but balance has an even larger arching role beyond the game. Sometimes it can be part of the determinant as to whether a player is contracted to a new team or reconsidered , it’s not the deciding factor but an influence either shown through results (or lack thereof) or the trend of current leaders (which is what most premier teams look for).

The impact of game balance, poor tournament structure and administrative rulings may be the least of effects to ultimately bring some professional gamers into retirement, but they are apparent despite. We didn’t discuss the psychological effects of these issues but I’m sure many have read competitors admit to disliking the game they once loved. As mentioned, pro gamers are the center piece to our dining room of a subculture. We revolve around giving them a setting, publicity and exposure, equipment and communication. However making sure they are at work is something that may coincide with those trying to run a business and there is little to help keep players afloat while they transition into a self-supported lifestyle (with future successes or not).  With the ups and downs of players as well as the game, assuring they have a financial safety net or unionized organization to support them as they continue improving without the worries or fears of their financial stability has yet to be truly conceptualized. Few teams support their players after contracts end and even less try referring them to other companies. Who, in the end, looks out for the welfare of the players?

Next article will discuss the proposal of player unions and the lack of financial support for players.

(1 We dictate balance as a part of the game design in which developers configure the strength or power of a  player-controlled unit(s) to either make more ineffective or less effective in its use or influence towards the game’s overall endpoint (victorious/defeat). Imbalanced systems are seen as undermining the intention of the game or dismissing the validity of intended [other] units).

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