On August 11, 2013, five men won over $600,000 playing a video game.
The International, Dota 2’s world championship, had come to a close, and Natus Vincere (Na’Vi for short), perhaps the most storied team in the history of the game, had just claimed that formidable sum by coming in second place to the Alliance.
Alliance got $1.4 million.
ESports, the industry term for competitive video games, has gained a prominence that nobody could have imagined less than a decade ago. Valve, the developer of Dota 2, can afford to give out over $2.8 million in prize money at an annual tournament. Similar amounts of money are available for champions in Starcraft and League of Legends, and professional League of Legends players are now recognized as professional athletes for the purposes of visa distribution by US Citizenship and Immigration services. Competitive gaming is profitable; it is professional; it is, dare I say, cool.
In the middle of all this fanfare, however, are the same people who were always there.
People who love video games.
People like William Lee, more often known as “Blitz” — because the Dota community, like that of every eSport, refers to players by their screen names.
“I grew up in a traditional Korean home with divorced parents,” says Blitz. “I lived with my mom, and she was really against me playing video games in general, and so, up until the time I was about 15 or 16, I didn’t acquire a PC or anything. I actually had to go to my father’s house just to be on a computer.”
“My sister’s ex-boyfriend randomly took me to play Dota 1 one day, and I remember very clearly I was playing Sven, a really simple hero at the time, and I just absolutely fell in love with the game.”
Dota 2 is, on the surface, a simple game. Two teams of five players, each controlling a character (called a “Hero”) chosen from a pool of 102, fight to destroy a large structure called an “Ancient” in the centre of the other team’s base. What distinguishes the game, however, is how immersive it is as a result of the amount and diversity of heroes players can choose to play from. There are infinite ways the characters can interact with each other and the Dota landscape. By the time the first minute of game play has passed, each game of Dota is different from any other game of Dota ever played.
Blitz graduated from Purdue with a double major in management and classical literature. He had reasonably good grades, took the LSAT, and was ready to go to law school. He has also sunk countless hours into Dota and is famous for being the single best “Storm Spirit” player in the world. He has thought about attempting to pursue a career playing the game professionally.
Stories like his abound, but eSports are a young phenomenon, and very few players can make enough money to survive. “I’d say about maybe five to ten per cent of players could make a livable wage,” explains Blitz, “livable meaning about 23— or 2400 dollars a month, right?”
“I had always kind of done the route that my parents had demanded of me: Go to school; do this; this is what you’re supposed to do,” says Blitz. “And I just felt like being selfish for a little bit, and I found out I really enjoyed it.”
Many fans and players of eSports would echo that sentiment. For them, Dota, or whatever games they play, mean so much more than simple recreation. They inspire a spirit of competition and a shared culture that they do not find anywhere else. “ Before Dota, I was really kind of shy, quiet, awkward. I was very socially difficult to be around,” the famously gregarious Blitz reveals. “And I think that Dota‘s kind of given me a better outlook on life, socially, because it is a social game, for the people who don’t know. You do play with teammates, and how well you do depends on how well you can communicate, and not get upset with people, just working in a team environment.”
And then he returns to what it would mean to try to play the game for a living.
“For top tournaments, excluding the International, there may be a $20,000 prize pool, but that’s paid out over the course of a three- or four-month tournament,” explains Blitz. “Playing Dota for two or three years is fantastic and all, but at some point you have to think about the future, and if you’re only getting by, I don’t think that’s really living.”
“A lot of people say things like, ‘Well, you’re making a living playing games; that’s fantastic that you’re getting anything at all,’ but that’s the wrong way to look at it because playing games for a living, you’re sacrificing a lot,” he goes on. “For a lot of people, they won’t have the support of their families; they have to work another job; they might be giving up a better job for this, because playing Dota is really demanding.”
The very best players in the world can make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year and can afford to play full-time. The vast majority of eSports players — who grew up loving video games and found, in the end, that there is nothing they love more — must work day jobs. They need to find some way not to starve while they pursue their dream, and so, they have less time to practice — making it even less likely that they will succeed.
“I’d like to be optimistic and tell myself I can do anything and accomplish anything,” said Blitz of his chances of ever winning The International, “but, realistically speaking, there’s so many things that are against me.”
“You know what’s always confused me, on a side note? It’s this whole thing like if you believe enough, you can do it. But isn’t every other person in my situation also trying really hard, and putting their all into it? I was always confused by that. Sure, I can believe in myself, and say: ‘Yeah, maybe I can!’ But realistically speaking, the odds are low.”
“A lot of people say things like, ‘Well, you’re making a living playing games, that’s fantastic that you’re getting anything at all,’ but that’s the wrong way to look at it, because, playing games for a living, you’re sacrificing a lot. For a lot of people, they won’t have the support of their families; they have to work another job; they might be giving up a better job for this, because playing DotA is really demanding.”
Blitz is a reasonable person — most professional Dota players are. Blitz, like his peers, acknowledges that his chances of making enough money to live on by playing Dota are slim, and his chances of making enough to live comfortably are almost nonexistent.
An additional caveat is that video games are still stigmatized. Dropping every other priority in the attempt to become a professional athlete in more traditional sports is comprehensible to most people, as is pursuing a dream of becoming an artist. “Playing video games” is very often still shorthand for being an immature, directionless slob.
If Blitz fails, then he will have wasted years of his life developing no marketable skills and will have a résumé that will be laughed out of the door by most employers. He realizes that, statistically speaking, he will almost certainly fail.
On November 14, 2013, William “Blitz” Lee boarded a plane to fly to Korea to begin his Dota career.