Playing games for a living

Playing games for a living

During the month of July an unlikely worldwide sports championship took place that you may not have heard of. There were no uniforms, the equipment used included headphones and a PC, and there was never any risk of physical injury. Yet the International DotA 2 Championship is one of the biggest of its kind in the world and the players are no less motivated to win than your average professional footballer.

You may be asking yourself now, what is the International DotA 2 Championship? Firstly, you need to know what DotA is. DotA is an acronym for Defense of the Ancients, a multiplayer online battle arena mod. A mod is the alteration of a video game’s code to make it operate differently from the original version. The DotA mod was created from Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos and the Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne expansion. It is based on the Aeon of Strife map from Starcraft.

The objective of DotA is for two teams of five (called the Sentinel and the Scourge respectively) to battle against each other to destroy the opposing team’s Ancient, a heavily-guarded building at the opposite corner of the map. Each team member gets to choose a hero (there are 112 heroes in total), each with their own unique abilities that potentially give one an advantage over the other. It is said that DotA is the most popular and most-discussed free, non-supported game mod in the world, and has been the inspiration behind the entire MOBA genre.

The International DotA 2 Championship works almost like a Kickstarter crowd-funding campaign. The DotA 2 community puts money into a prize pool and Valve, the brains behind the Championship, offers rewards to fans for reaching certain benchmarks. For example, when the prize pool reached $8 million, an afterparty was organized with an appearance by Darude (the DJ responsible for the “Sandstorm” hit). The money is not only used for awarding prizes to the DotA 2 competitors but also helps the development of new features in the game.

You may not associate playing games with sports but the stakes are high for those who participate and it is just as competitive. The players prepare just as vigorously for gaming tournaments as rugby players would, just in a different way. Gaming is no longer merely a hobby or pastime for the socially inept thanks to the rise in popularity of events such as Blizzcon and the Cyberathlete Leagues. Gaming has become a mainstream lifestyle and now also a potential way to make a living. At the 2014 International DotA 2 Championship the winning team from China, NewBee, won $5 million (the biggest amount in professional video gaming ever) for simply playing a game mod. Not bad, right?

DotA is, however, not the only game to have been turned into a sport in which people play on a professional level against other competitors. Games like Quake, League of Legends, Starcraft, Warcraft III, Painkiller and more have been the focus of worldwide championships. The League of Legends World Championship was watched by more people than the World Series of Major League Baseball. However, DotA is the most popular of them all.

Being a professional gamer is not something you get into if you are expecting a monthly salary, as it is not yet on the level of football or rugby where players get paid regularly for merely participating. Players often rely only on winning prize money at championships and, of course, winning is not something you can guarantee will happen. There are a few players that have become extremely well-known in competitive gaming because of their superior skills (like Johnathan “Fatal1ty” Wendel and Clinton “Fear” Loomis) and ultimately get sponsorships from major computer hardware companies. South Korean professional gamer Lee Jae Dong, whose online names include “Jaedong” and “Legend Killer”, has made $522 000 during his impressive Starcraft-playing career. But even the biggest professional gamers have to play many tournaments and not win anything before eventually hitting the bigtime. No matter how well-known a particular player is, it won’t guarantee him the fortune that is often associated with the fame. Despite earning money being an issue, almost all of the gamers talk more about their passion for gaming and not for what they can financially gain through doing it.

Recently a documentary called “Free to Play” was released by Valve, which delved into the lives of 3 players taking part in the tournament. It is in this documentary you see the dedication professional gamers have and how they view gaming as way to represent their country much in the same way as Olympians do.


Playing games also becomes an all-consuming part of these participants’ lives, often helping them cope with difficult events in their lives. This is what makes gaming just as great and valuable as “normal” sports because the gamers emotionally gain a lot through participating. Sports and e-sports (the term used for professional gaming) have the same principles but they simply play out in different arenas.

Competitive gaming wasn’t really big until games went online. Usually you would be playing games by yourself or against friends. When gaming went online, you were now not only competing against people in your immediate vicinity but also against players from around the world. That alone is a good motivator for becoming better than you were yesterday and moving up in the ranks to become the ultimate player of the game.

There is also the same comraderie between players of these games that you would see on any sports field. Except with e-sports there are no restrictions placed on those who want to join in. There is no fitness test you have to pass in order to participate. All you need is a PC, the game, a pair of headphones and your mind. With that being said, female gamers are often left behind. Not because there is an active campaign against keeping them out of this sport but because they are often deemed not good enough to participate.

Physical sports and e-sports have even more in common when you delve deeper. As with any event where competition comes into play, there will be people who want to cheat the system. Players who are very successful and often win have been approached with bribes so that they would purposefully “throw” the game. Often bribery happens because the briber wants to win a bet they’ve placed on or against a certain player.

Watching a gaming championship is much like watching a rugby game. You have fans chanting their favourite team’s name over and over again. One of teams that started this fanatical response was the Ehome Sports Club because of their amazing and charismatic players. There are commentators who talk lightning fast and give a play-by-play of the game as it happens. There are fans that mob the more popular gamers and vie for autographs. In Asian countries this is even more prevalent because gamers are treated like rockstars with fangirls fawning over them and even top soccer players asking to meet their “idols” before a game to give them motivation.

The families of professional gamers are, however, not as supportive of what they do as the public is since there is still a stigma attached to gaming. The older generations did not grow up with the type of technology we now see as commonplace, so the parents of these gaming prodigies have no reference point to help them understand this. With traditional sports, they can see how successful a person can be, what type of money they can potentially earn or what they need to do to achieve the top spot. In professional gaming, however, there are no guidelines for following this career path. Because of this gamers often turn to their peers for support and become like a second family to each other. This fact reinforces the sense of community amongst gamers and helps them cope with family rejection because of their choice of career.

Asian countries (especially South Korea with their advanced technology) are at the forefront of professional gaming as these countries actually openly encourage people to take up gaming as a career. There are even gamer houses where gamers live and practice together all year round to later compete in tournaments. It is almost like being away at boarding school to study.

In Western and European countries professional gaming is not yet on that level but it is getting there. Since tournament prize money increases every year and coverage is becoming more prevalent, gaming as a full-time career is now more acceptable. Couple this with the fact that the children that are now growing up and getting into gaming come from families in which the parents grew up with computers, thus doing away with any reluctance on the family’s part.

Seeing as the DotA Championships has raised more than any other crowd-funding project in history so far, there is definitely a future in professional gaming. Perhaps this future will be much brighter as soon as the audiences grow even larger. Pro gaming as a spectator sport already sells out stadiums and millions watch online. There may soon be a whole generation who make a living off playing games without anyone thinking of it as strange.