It's the 2015 North American League Championship finals, and players on Team Solo Mid and Counter Logic Gaming sit anxiously in their seats, knees bouncing erratically from excess adrenaline. Sitting among an ocean of fans is Hawaiian native (and high ping survivor) Matt "Matt" Elento, support player for Team Liquid. At the time, Matt was playing for Team Liquid Academy, TL's challenger team, and arrived in New York with no money and nowhere to stay (he crashed at a friend's place). Afterwards, Matt returned to the West Coast reinvigorated.
"I was amazed at how many people were there," he said. "I was just amazed that all these guys that I played with almost every day in solo queue. It was pretty natural to think I wasn't that far off from them. That if I took the time and effort, I could be on the same stage that they were on. That was a real inspiration for me. So everyday, I would grind in solo queue."
Part of the beauty of esports is that aspiring gamers aren't handcuffed by the same restrictions as beginner athletes. There's no need for a pitch, a referee, a net, or even daylight to practice. There's something magical in its accessibility -- all an aspiring pro needs is their gaming device of choice -- and with a passable internet connection and indelible passion, it gives the impression that anyone can achieve that goal.
It's not uncommon for talented gamers to be gifted at multiple different titles. Some common factors for success include wide champion pools and possessing lightning-fast reaction times. Still, in terms of entering the pro scene, experiences vary widely across game titles. Unlike traditional sports, a game's boon or bust is partially in the hands of the game developer and how they decide it's played, viewed, and monetized.
While having an involved publisher can be problematic, it comes with benefits as well: a strong amateur scene, clear paths to success, more consistent compensation and an avid viewership. The opportunities for pros in different esports vary wildly. In a game that has an online ranking system like League and Dota 2, it's easier to measure who is performing at a competitive level. For a console games like the Super Smash Bros installments, the route is far more treacherous; players jump from tournament to tournament in order to climb the standings. It costs money to travel to national events. Without proper sponsorship or sister teams to play on, it can be difficult for amateur players to get noticed. While tournaments certainly aren't lacking in entrants, the monetary obstruction might still be diverting some of the fighting game community's potential talent pool.
Matt says League was one of the few games he had regular access to as a kid. "I played Runescape, a browser-based MMO game," he said. "I had an N64 growing up, but for the most part I wasn't into console games because we didn't have a console. The main reason I had to play Runescape was because I couldn't afford online memberships. It was just the game I was able to play."
The fighting game community's competitive scene (though blessed with a passionate fan base) has struggled to get the support its pros need. This is partially because of their publishers' hands-off parenting style. At the Evolution Championship Series 2016, the largest game fighting tournament in the world, Nintendo only offered setups for gamers to use and not all of the custom options were unlocked on the systems provided.
In League, teams have a strong structure in place: coaches, support staff, managers, some even have a team chef. Immortals, a professional League of Legends team, has a sports psychologist on staff, who is tasked with the immense job of making sure that players are not only successful, but healthy and happy. Famed Immortals top laner, Heo "Huni" Seung-hoon, credits his team's strong backbone for the success they've found this split.
"First of all, we have a personal coach, and I think that helps a lot. Having a personal coach, being healthy and being happy. It helps you to be successful outside of your country," Huni said. "Having a healthy mentality -- it makes you successful outside of the game."
Coaching was banned at Evo 2016 from the quarterfinals onward. Organizers felt that it gave players an unfair edge. They aren't wrong -- it is an advantage -- though not an untoward one. A few days before Evo started, Team Liquid hired their first-ever Super Smash Bros coach, Luis "Crunch" Rosias. Days later, his longtime friend Juan "Hungrybox" DeBeidma finally secured gold after years of just falling short.
For the fighting scene to truly evolve, tournament organizers need to accept that players need structure to perform at their highest level, so they can continue to improve as games change.
Michael Sherman, Competitive Programs Specialist at Riot Games, says that League's collegiate system is growing. As of this coming fall, there will be seven different schools offering League scholarships in North America, which could set esports players up for careers within the community post-pro play. And while uLoL has no current plans to attach itself to competitive, the collegiate space is expanding--all four teams in the campus series finals had coaches. According to Sherman, should the college community ask for it, Riot would be ready to explore the implementation of a more direct process from college to pro gaming.
"The way I like to think of it, is that you don't sign someone up for little league to go professional one day." Sherman said. "So, we like to think of college as an opportunity to scratch that competitive itch while staying in school. I can't speak for the challenger scene, but we do think of them as parallel paths. We're doing everything we can to help accelerate its growth."
By contrast, opportunities to play fighting games at a competitive collegiate level are essentially nonexistent. Undoubtedly, pros in the fighting game community have been dealt a short hand, but as the scene continues to grow, so does the opportunity for players.
"I kind of think about how my progression as a player. It looks like anyone could have done it. There were plenty of other players who were in the same position as I was, you know, playing the game for fun," Matt said. "I definitely think people should be motivated in whatever situation they're in. Like, sky's the limit."