The lights are on
Professional gaming, the loose confederacy of leagues, organizations, and tournaments that fall under the large banner of “eSports,” has experienced dizzying growth in the last decade. Once little more than glorified LAN parties with some sponsors and prize money, the popularity of watching the world’s best players compete in games like StarCraft II, League of Legends, and Dota 2 has turned professional gaming into a bona fide industry. But what do pro gamers do when they hang up their controllers?
An influx of corporate sponsorship dollars and a rapidly growing audience that watches live matches online has created a new breed of professional gamers. These young, driven players push their reflexes to the limit for live audiences of thousands and online audiences of millions, raking in money from tournament prizes and endorsement deals. The best can earn a good income living the dream of every kid: doing nothing but playing video games.
But what happens when it’s over? As in traditional sports, the time comes when every player’s career ends. Unlike established sports like football or baseball, there hasn’t been a clear career path for retired pro gamers. Like so much about eSports, ex-players are writing – and rewriting – their own rules, and finding creative ways to stay involved with the game.
[Ryan "Fwiz" Wyatt (right) and Chris Puckett (left) on an MLG broadcast]
The Dream And The Reality
While history tends to focus on the superstars of any given sport, the reality is most of those who pass through the professional eSports ranks don’t achieve the heights of fame or bring home multimillion dollar prize money. Ryan “Fwiz” Wyatt is one of them. Like many young men, he grew up obsessed with gaming, and grew his skill on tactical PC games like Team Fortress and Counter-Strike.
At the age of 14, he began playing Counter-Strike competitively well enough to have some success in tournaments, but even by his own admission he wasn’t a major factor in the scene. “[With] Counter-Strike, I never played at a high enough level to earn any serious income,” he says.
In 2008, Wyatt moved over to playing Activision’s Call of Duty and continued to have some success as a competitor. However, even as Call of Duty was becoming the world’s most popular franchise, the eSports scene around it was in its infancy. “When I got involved with Call of Duty the space was so new,” he says. “We were competing, but for bragging rights with no economic structure in place. You could win these small-prize tournaments of $250. It was difficult to make any kind of legitimate income playing Call of Duty at that time.”
Still, Wyatt loved the world of eSports and knew it was destined to grow. And, for a college student at Ohio State, it had its benefits. “It was beer money,” Wyatt recalls.
Wyatt eventually earned a spot on the up-and-coming OpTic Gaming Call of Duty team, and later served as a coach during the team’s rise to prominence. As he approached the end of his four years at Ohio State, Wyatt began to realize that a long-term pro gaming career was probably not in the cards, but he knew eSports had a bright future and wanted to stay involved. It brought him to a decision point that – sooner or later – all professional gamers face. What should you do when you hang it up?
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