ESPN caused a little controversy over it’s decision to air its first e-sports tournament, a.k.a, people playing video games professionally — on ESPN 2 earlier this month.
The network’s sports fans and ESPN-affiliated radio host Colin Cowherd — who said he would “retire” if everforced to cover e-sports — have certainly made their disapproval clear with online and radio rants about the network’s decision.
Whether e-sports programming belongs on ESPN alongside other niche competitions such as poker tournaments, eating competitions and the National Spelling Bee is a debate of its own. (As Re/code’s Eric Johnsonnotes, the problem may lie in calling gaming tournaments “sports” rather than a “competition.”) Judging by ratings alone, the answer may be no: the broadcast pulled in just 100,000 viewers, according to Sports TV Ratings, a site that tracks these sorts of things.
But e-sports didn’t just didn’t catch ESPN’s attention out of the blue. It’s actually, to put it mildly, kind of a big deal.
Video game tournaments fill arenas. They command multi-million dollar prizes. Twitch — a site devoted to streaming video games — ranks behind only Netflix, Google and Apple in terms of peak U.S. Internet traffic. (Twitch is owned by Amazon, whose chief executive Jeffrey Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
To learn more about e-sports, we got to sit down with James “Clayster” Eubanks, a 24-year-old Winchester, Va. native — who’s also the MVP of the newly-crowned world championship Call of Duty team. Here are some highlights from our conversation that offer a little glimpse into the world of professional gaming.
1. Breaking out requires skill and luck: Eubanks started playing games, and specifically Call of Duty, in the same way that most people do: by playing with his friends and his family.
“It was always like a sibling rivalry type of thing,” he said. “And as soon as I realized I was better than my brothers – which is funny to say because I’m the youngest of the three – and started beating them consistently, I took to online to try and find more competition.”
This was in 2006 and 2007, when the online e-sports world was relatively young, and Eubanks came in at just the right time to grow with the movement.
“I happened to be in a really good place at the right time,” he said. While he paused his e-sports career to attend West Virginia University, he returned in 2013 and gave a breakout performance that landed him in the spotlight. From that moment, he decided to commit to gaming full-time.
2. You need to practice, practice, practice: Eubanks may not be hopping through tires in two-a-days, but he’s certainly not goofing off. He and his team practice roughly 180 to 200 hours per month — albeit on a slightly later schedule than the normal office worker.
“There’s a lot of practice and preparation that goes into it,” he said. On a typical day, Eubanks will wake in the late morning, take care of errands, upload a video to YouTube and then meet up with the team by about 5 p.m. to map out new strategies or talk tactics.
“Practice usually lasts from 5 p.m. to 10 to 1 in the morning,” he said. That may not exactly make you weep with sympathy, but it definitely shows dedication. Plus, there are no weekends in the e-sports world. “It gets to the point where there’s almost no days off,” Eubanks said. “In the past two months, we’ve taken one day off.”
3. You really need to love your fans. The average person on the street may not know eSports’s greatest celebrities, but they have strong fan bases. Eubanks has over 400,000 followers, which is more than, say, NBA Rookie of the Year Andrew Wiggins of the Minnesota Timberwolves (at the time of this writing, anyway).
Eubanks and his team, Denial eSports, stream practice sessions online atMajor League Gaming (MLG.tv) that draw an average of 1,000 concurrent viewers at any time. The players also regularly upload YouTube videos Keeping fans engaged is a huge part of the e-sports world — after all, it provides a steadier income than relying on landing regular tournament prizes.
That’s crucial, Eubanks said: “If you end up branding yourself the right way with the livestream on Twitter or YouTube, you end up being to make a living off all of those rather than having to think, ‘ I have to win this tournament to make rent this month.'”
4. Rivalries? Underdogs? You bet. Eubanks’s championship team, Denial eSports, had a particularly dramatic rise to the top. To put it in his words, “this denial esports team was literally like the four players that nobody else wanted.” Each had been dropped from their respective teams, and then decided to form a team together. Eubanks had been dropped twice.
But something about the underdog team clicked. While Eubanks may have been the MVP, he credits the team’s good chemistry for allowing him to shine. “It was really the selfless play of my teammates that allowed me to be selfish; that helped me get that MVP.”
And when the this latest tournament came around, Eubanks got a type of satisfaction normally only seen in Hollywood: he got to kick one of the teams that had dropped him, Optic Gaming, out of the tournament.
“That right there kind of set the tone for the whole tournament,” he said. “We went from thinking we could potentially win this tournament to saying, ‘Now we’re going to win this tournament.’
5. There’s money to be made: When Eubanks started playing for money ten or so years ago, “grand prize” earnings for tournaments were in the hundreds of dollars. Occasionally he would see pots of $10,000 to $20,000. (Which, after factoring in travel and lodging, may not be much at all.)
The prize pot from his world championship win? One million dollars.
Sure, it’s not close to the money the MVP of a major league team would earn. But it’s certainly a living, and one that’s bolstered by sponsorships and advertising revenue. Eubanks said he’s not too worried about e-sports getting too commercial, however, as it grows in prominence.
“I don’t think that will ever be a problem on the e-sports scene,” he said. “It’s you and your teammates playing the game. You’re not thinking about your sponsors. You’re not thinking about the money. You’re not thinking about how it will look to all of your fans. All you’re thinking about is how can you win this game.”
Still, he said, it’s certainly nice to see e-sports raise its profile. “When I first started doing it, I was shy about telling people what I did,” he said. “Now, all my friends know what I do, and all their friends know. They watch me play; they support me.”