Paid to Play
A day in the life of professional gamers
Redondo Beach has a way of looking pre-Instagrammed: warm afternoon light, happy beachgoers, particularly sandy-looking sand. But just a couple blocks away, in a large and darkened Mediterranean-style home, a handful of young men sit behind drawn shades. They don’t really smile or not smile; the main thing about their faces is the light skittering across them, reflected from the computer monitors they’re contractually obliged to stare at for three more hours. Later there will be another three-hour block, then bed at 2 a.m., atop spare mattresses in shared bedrooms. Then it begins again in the morning, a job so wonderful they don’t give a damn about making it to the beach.
For now, all thoughts at the Team Impulse gaming house coalesce around a worn stone path above a hazy mountain valley, terrain intensely familiar to players of League of Legends, the most-played PC game in the U.S. and Europe. Today, as they do every weekday, the five Team Impulse players scrimmage other teams, each trying to destroy the other’s base and surrounding towers. Weekends bring real matches, in Santa Monica. Winning those means a shot at the playoffs, which means a shot at the 2015 World Championship, which means a million dollars. Down the stone path lumbers a muscular panda-like character, followed by a tall figure in a cloak. There are pine trees here, little fires there. Grasping the multiplayer battle-arena game seems possible for a moment. Then many more characters appear, whipping right and left, firing things and slashing things, and words pop up all over the screen, and it’s like trying to understand a demented beehive.
“I’m pushing bot, pushing bot!” shouts one of the young men — Apollo, it sounds like, though things are moving pretty fast. Apollo is handsome and polite, the friendly neighbor kid. He was studying computer science at the University of Washington when he got recruited.
“Do you have flash?” another cries — Adrian, maybe? He’s a skinny 18-year-old from Houston with big ears.
“No TP, no TP!” No teleport. I think this is XiaoWeiXiao, who’s 20 and from China and honey-bearish in presentation. Later, after another scrim, his teammates will rub his belly.
“Kill! Kill! Kill!”
Not screaming is Sangchul Kim, who has a soft face and small, delicate hands. He was a decorated gamer in Korea. But at 23 or 24, the fingers slow and the lucky players pivot. In late January, Kim, now 28, left all his friends and family in Seoul to become head coach here at the Team Impulse gaming house, which is supported in part by an e-sports media company called Azubu. His thoughts on the United States are nascent. “It’s always shine!” he says. An interpreter moved in, too.
One day the anthropologists will come. They will observe what happens when you quarter professional video gamers — barely through adolescence, from Korea and China and the U.S. and wherever else young men shout at screens — in fancy Southern California homes for months at a time. The anthropologists won’t need to stay that long. What happens, almost exclusively, is the video gamers play video games. During prescribed breaks, they also play video games. Conversation centers on video games. Takeout ziti and Domino’s fuel the video games. The players wake up at 11. There’s not much stress around recycling the Sprite cans, or hanging art, or hanging clothes, or having those clothes not be sweat pants. The six-burner Viking range exists to stack bulk Kleenex and bulk lotion and bulk protein powder and bulk Choco Chimps. Girlfriends are barred.
The current scrim is winding down and the mood — the dizzying freedom and the stuffy, snack-dusted air — is reminiscent of a day home sick from school. Coach Kim, green notebook in hand, watches the match on the massive screen above the living-room fireplace. The five players hunch in a small annex off the kitchen, emitting occasional sounds in any of three languages. Kim jots here and there.
The gaming world adopted the language of traditional sports early on: fans, scrimmages, coaches, and so on. (Adrian was one of the first recipients of a Robert Morris University e-sports scholarship last year; he was among the first in the country to leave college for the pros.) But up close, the Team Impulse squad has more the complexion of an assembly line than a starting lineup: the indoorsmanship of it all, the tiny repetitive motions, and the fastidiously honed product — in this case, entertainment for legions of fans and hungry advertisers. Alex Gu, the team’s general manager and chief operating officer, doesn’t want to reveal how much the players are paid. Generally, he says, guys at their level can bring in between $4,000 and $7,000 a month, factoring in fan donations and ad revenue. “Maybe $10,000.” He reflects a moment. “More than $10,000, probably.”
The factory-worker analogy breaks down when you consider that these workers get begged for autographs on the street. The level of fandom that Team Impulse elicits is shocking only until you review the numbers. Take the entire population of Los Angeles and throw in the populations of New York, Chicago, Hong Kong, and Rome — this is the number of humans who will play League of Legends today. Nearly all will be males between 16 and 30. Twenty-seven million people watched last year’s World Championship games, roughly the viewership of the Grammys.
“There is … stress in the game,” Kim says, through his interpreter now. “Some players can’t control their minds. Sometimes they need a coach to teach patience, manners. But more in Korea.” He sweeps his arm in the direction of Team Impulse and smiles, a little shyly, to indicate these minds are all right.
It’s getting late and another scrim has begun. Kim continues to do what he did all day, watching the screen above the fireplace, jotting stuff down, occasionally drifting over to stand behind the frantically tapping players. Except for the occasional suggestion (“Go back,” “Teleport”), he doesn’t say much. Inspirational, Vince Lombardi–style life lessons hold little appeal; Kim’s coaching mostly involves helping his players not get a fireball or crescent blade to the dome.
If the job does not look altogether strenuous, that’s because this isn’t the tough part. “The hardest is losing. It means I did not teach them well,” Kim says. “I cry on the inside!” He smiles. “But it’s OK.”
At last the scrim block ends. “GG,” a few players mumble. Good game. Three slip out for food. Weirdly, and sort of sweetly, they leave the front door wide open. Either they’re one with the goodness of Redondo Beach, or really they’re still just kids, living a fantasy within a fantasy — behind the scrying orbs and the menacing minions, the teenage dream of getting paid to play video games all day and all night. Coach Kim stays behind, thumbing through his notes. Through the blinds, the sun is setting. A beachy breeze comes in from the front door and up the grand staircase. Has Kim been in the ocean yet, just down the street?
“Not yet,” he replies with a bashful smile.
The interpreter explains the question. “Probably no,” Kim answers, still smiling.