The eSports scene has grown tremendously in the last decade. With major publishers like Activision and Electronic Arts throwing their hats into the competitive gaming ring, it's clear that eSports has hit the tipping point. At GDC 2016 today, a panel of eSports pros from the early days reflected on where the industry has gone and where it's headed. The panel, moderated by Twitch eSports director of operations Nick Allen, included Dennis Fong (CEO of Raptr and the very first pro gamer), Robin Johansson (a CS:GO personality), Stephen Ellis (eSports ambassador and consultant) and Tricia Sugita (director of eSports at Azubu and former pro player of Starcraft II).
Fong, who became known as "Thresh" in the world of pro gaming, was known for his dominance in Quake. He never aspired to be a professional player because it was unheard of 20 years ago. "I was literally sitting at home in my pajamas, I was 15 or 16 years old and The Wall Street Journal called me and wanted to do an interview. That article ended up being on the front page and literally the next day I was a pro gamer. The CEO of Hasbro called me, the CEO of Nvidia called me and I was making six figures as a 16-year-old," he reminisced.
In the early days of eSports a lot of players had to bring their own equipment. Johansson said that early on when he was only 14, the players didn't earn much money - they were competing for mouse pads and graphics cards and things like that. Now, as companies like Riot Games have really pushed eSports forward with League of Legends, the number of people watching tournaments has risen from thousands to millions and sponsors have gotten involved, leading to bigger prize pools. More and more players are competing, but like in any sport, only the cream of the crop are getting paid well.
"It's still a risky proposition. Let's not kid ourselves," said Fong. "I wouldn't recommend an above average player to aspire to be a pro gamer and give up on school. I know people who practice 15 hours a day and they'll never be the best. You have to know whether you have the [talent]. You need to be in the upper echelon of players."
"You need to think more broadly about yourself as a person and develop skill sets," noted Ellis. He pointed out that there are over 80 million players a month in League of Legends, so staying at the very top is going to prove difficult. And even for players who've managed to remain successful and earn a steady paycheck, it's important to seek out financial advice, look into investments and generally save money. He likened it to NBA stars or other professional athletes who squander their fortunes after being out of the league for a number of years.
Sugita added that even if you're not an elite player you can still get into the eSports scene with other skills like casting. She pointed to what former NBA star Charles Barkley does with his analysis and commentary. He's known for his personality in the world of basketball, and that's equally important in eSports; you can be a personality and it will help to build your brand.
And having a known brand is key if you want to make a living beyond winning tournaments in eSports. "A lot of players don't think about their own personal brand... There was no such thing as a premium mouse pad before I got involved. Understanding how to use your own brand, and becoming good at talking to the press [is key]," Fong pointed out. He talked about how Fatal1ty (Jonathan Wendel) makes half a million a year just marketing his brand and he hasn't competed in many years now. "A lot of players are young and brash and they don't think about the personality and brand they're going to build. I look at the top League of Legends players on Twitch and they aren't the best but they've gotten good at developing their personalities," Fong continued.
While eSports is still a very young field, the entire panel was hugely optimistic about its future. Johansson noted that in Scandinavia they actually have schools opening that allow you to get an eSports degree. He said, as the tournaments and games get even bigger we can expect that more players will get paid decent wages, and he believes that we're going to see entire countries picking up leagues; indeed, a FIFA World Cup scenario could be in the cards for eSports. Counter-Strike already has global competitions across many, many countries.
For game companies interested in joining the eSports scene, however, it's not as simple as just saying that you're going to build a game for eSports tournaments. That approach is likely to backfire. "You can't come out and say you're going to make an eSports title... It's really up to the community to buy into it, to decide this is really something to get behind," said Ellis. What publishers or developers can do, however, is to make sure that their games have ranking ladders and tools that make spectating easy and engaging. If the community takes enough interest in a title, then it might be possible to take that next step into eSports.
Another area to help the field grow among the mainstream will be for leagues and networks to put spotlights on top players. It's the personal angle that draws interest. "It's not really about competition - games have had competition since the '90s. To me eSports is about entertainment - what stories do people connect with?" said Fong. "Riot invested in people, in brands, storylines. People don't care that much about League of Legends per se; it's more about the players that we care about. I was undefeated for five years and so people either were rooting for me or they really wanted to see me lose. It's like the reactions to Tiger Woods. So it's about that connection."