Making a living playing esports? It’s happening

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Elliot Bastien Carroza-Oyrace during one of his tournament matches at Frostbite 2017, a "Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS/Wii U" event in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Alain Rodriguez

Elliot Bastien Carroza-Oyarce during one of his tournament matches at Frostbite 2017, a “Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS/Wii U” event in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Earning a living by playing video games? It’s happening — if you’re good enough

Elliot Bastien Carroza-Oyarce never listened when people told him he was playing video games too much — and it paid off in the form of a full-time career.

As a professional Super Smash Bros. player he does not just sit in basement all day. Instead, he gets to travel around the world playing in tournaments. Just last year, he also joined one of the largest esports teams and won a world championship.

“I thought to myself if I pushed really hard I could make something out of it,” Carroza-Oyarce said.

In the recent years, esports has grown exponentially and is estimated to grow even more. Revenue from esports is expected to reach $696 million this year and grow to $1.5 billion by 2020, according to the 2017 Global Esports Market Report produced by Newzoo.

“Clearly, this is the next wave of interactive media as sports,” said Andrew Dennis, a Media and Information professor at Michigan State University.

Carroza-Oyarce posing for pictures in his Cloud9 jersey during his free time at Frostbite 2017.

Alain Rodriguez

Carroza-Oyarce posing for pictures in his Cloud9 jersey during his free time at Frostbite 2017.

Last summer, Carroza-Oyarce took a gamble on himself and went all in. He parted ways with his original team, Boreal eSports, hoping he would prove himself to be one the best players in the world and earn an offer from a larger team. But that risk also meant he had to pay for all of his trips across the United States and Canada out of his own pocket.

That could have bankrupted him, but instead he hit the jackpot.

He started the summer off by defeating Gonzalo “ZeRo” Barrios, the No. 1 ranked player in the world, at Get On My Level 2016 and at Smash ‘N’ Splash 2. Then he won Evo 2016, which is essentially the Smash Bros. equivalent of the Super Bowl. He became the No. 2 ranked player in the world by the Panda Global Rankings for 2016.

“Just winning one of those tournaments is more than enough for me to feel like I achieved esports ASF 1 EDITsomething in my life,” Carroza-Oyarce said.

“The happiest moment of the day wasn’t even when he won,” said Jordan Reed, a close friend of Carroza-Oyarce, said. “He bought everyone from Michigan at the event dinner and got an email from Cloud9 asking if he was interested in joining the team.”

“That moment was so surreal,” Reed added.

Now Carroza-Oyarce can be spotted wearing Cloud9’s signature jersey in sky blue and white. He signed a two-year contract with the team and receives stipends to cover travel and basic living costs as well as a salary of approximately $1,000 per month.

“If it wasn’t for them it would still be really hard to live just off of Smash Bros.,” Carroza-Oyarce said.

With that endorsement also comes the brand recognition that instantly boosts his reach to potential fan – something Dennis said is critical.

“Being sponsored means they’re instantly a celebrity in their area,” Dennis said. “They have the marketing, attention and management to get your name out there.”

To get there, though, takes practice and effort – just like in any sport.

Carroza-Oyarce’s, known as “Ally,” attended his first Smash Bros. tournament back in 2008 with the release of “Super Smash Bros. Brawl” on the Nintendo Wii. He thought he was good at the game and he wanted to see how he measured up to others. So Carroza-Oyarce took a short car ride with a few friends to a tournament near his home town of Brossard, Montreal.

He won his first tournament and continued to win other events around Canada. He decided to then start travel across the border to the United States as the tournaments were larger and the talent pool was deeper. He wanted establish himself as a world class player and did such when won his first state side major tournament in 2009.

After that, he began traveling the globe. He has attended tournaments in Spain, France, Mexico, Brazil, Japan and to most parts of the United States and Canada. He hopes to get the chance to travel to Germany and Sweden soon.

Carroza-Oyarce believed it might be possible to make it a career then, but attendance
numbers at tournaments dropped over the years to the point where studying computer science at Collége Ahuntsic in Montreal, Quebec seemed to be more worth his time.
Smash Bros. became just a hobby.

Then, when “Super Smash Bros. for 3DS and Wii U” was release in late 2014, everything changed. Local tournaments went from barely 30 entrants to averaging close to 100. He dropped out school and started focusing on just practicing and playing the game. He decided that if worst comes to worst, he could always go back to get a degree.

“Three years ago I would have never told you to get into Brawl and become the best,” Carroza-Oyarce said. “Now, if you are really good, I think it’s worth going for it.”

Growth of esports

In just two years, Alex “Vayseth” Varga, who was recently hired by Most Valuable Gaming League as a tournament organizer and player manager after 13 years of experience, has gone from hosting local events in Macomb County to becoming the first ever tournament organizer to earn a salary in the Smash for Wii U market. Now, he will be traveling every month to help run most of the largest events of the year.

“I’m used to going to one of these large sized events once a year, but now I’m doing one or two a month,” Varga said.

Alex Varga spectating a match at Frostbite 2017, one of tournaments he has helped run this year.

Alain Rodriguez

Alex Varga spectating a match at Frostbite 2017, one of tournaments he has helped run this year.

According to Dennis, there is a Wild West feel to the future of esports. It is such a new and young industry that no one truly knows what it will look like in a couple of years. However, it is certain there is an ever-growing audience.

The major growth in esports resides in the total viewership. According to ESPN, viewership of esports on Twitch, a video-streaming site, grew from 58 million to 89 million from 2012 to 2014.

“These streams get larger each year and because of that the prize pools grow too,” Dennis said.

Recently, Turner Sports in Atlanta has tried to attract these viewers from their new ELEAGUE program, which is one of the first ever programs to broadcast esports on live television. Throughout the week, most of the streaming is done on Twitch, but will also broadcast on television during some of the bigger matches on the weekend.

Jake Levy, a junior studying marketing at the University of Delaware, spent two months last summer as a marketing intern at the run by Turner Sports in Atlanta. It was a way for him to get involved in a market he is passionate about in a different way.

“I’ve always been a passionate player and I probably won’t ever be a professional player,” Levy said. “This is a way for me to get into the industry in another way.”

Some of the biggest recent investors in esports have been former traditional athletes such as Shaquille O’Neal, Alex Rodriguez and Rick Fox. It might be an opportunity for them to be team owners instead of just players.

“They have seen firsthand what it’s like to be an owner and here’s an opportunity for them to get in on that ground floor,” said Dennis.

Varga said that he attributes the growth of esports to the development of the internet, the wide audience it reaches and the cultural changes it brings.

“I think times are changing,” Varga said. “We’re blowing up because so many people can get access to this information.”

The money in the fighting game community, which includes titles like “Super Smash Bros.,” is quite less. Varga refers to their piece of the esports pie to be more of a cupcake than a real slice.

The vast majority of money in esports is tied to PC gaming, specifically League of Legends. According to esportsearnings.com, the widely considered best League of Legends player, Lee ‘Faker’ Sang Hyeok, earned $418,365.33 in winnings last year. By comparison, Carroza-Oyarce took in an estimated $40,000-$50,000 in winnings.

Varga said esports is still very much in development and the sustainability can be quite difficult to achieve, especially with Smash Bros. There is no guarantee you will win and, depending on the event, you might only cover the costs of traveling, eating and the hotel room. Some form of money, from a sponsor or from fans that donate is almost a necessity.

“If there’s no back up income, it can be hard,” Varga said.

Dennis said that while there is a lot of excitement around esports, there is some worry going forward. Right now, you have game owners, team owners and Twitch all working in their own interests rather than working in unison.

“It reminds me a lot of a Silicon Valley startup in that there’s a lot of excitement and interest, but not a lot of money changing hands,” Dennis said.

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