There's a prevailing sentiment within the esports industry that a professional gamer's shelf life is brief -- players will hit their midtwenties, lose their reaction speeds and mental stamina, and it's all downhill from there ... or so the story goes. This perception seems logical, and there is certainly enough anecdotal evidence out there to explain why this myth is often embraced as reality. After all, most esports pros are in their late teens or early twenties. But I'm far from convinced.
Don't get me wrong, I do believe that age plays a role in the longevity of esports careers. With that said, the relatively short career span of esports pros to date is the product of many factors, only one of which is age. Significantly greater player longevity is on the horizon.
The transition to big business
The esports industry is nascent. Major tournaments organized around games like Quake, Counter-Strike and Warcraft rose to prominence in the 1990s. Even then, the economics surrounding such events were paltry in comparison to modern figures with respect to player salaries, sponsorships, prize pools and more.
With very few exceptions, the career of an esports pro before roughly 2013 was built almost exclusively on passion. Today, that passion is coupled with a dream of wealth, fame and all the trappings that come with it. A top-tier esports player easily earns a living wage; many earn well above that, and some players are even pushing seven figures in revenue. The advent of franchised leagues and player representation bodies is also helping to drive up industry standards with respect to player welfare.
With these developments, the game has fundamentally changed. Playing esports professionally is no longer purely viable for those without the financial commitments that come with the natural progression of age -- namely, families and children -- or for those willing to make extensive economic sacrifices in pursuit of a career they love.
Career opportunities are multiplying
Not only is there greater earning potential for pro players, there's greater career potential as well.
Before the rise of esports, being a professional player didn't exactly set up a pipeline of future career opportunities. As such, the pressure of planning for life following competitive play often caused pro players to leave the industry altogether. But as the industry has grown, so, too, have the number and type of roles available to someone who spent years playing video games for a living.
The current partnership manager on the games team at Facebook is Stephen "Snoopeh" Ellis, a former professional League of Legends player; a similar position at YouTube is filled by Ryan "Fwiz" Wyatt, a former professional Call of Duty player. A pro player who wants to transition to the business side of the industry can now find a job as a coach, team owner, executive, broadcast talent or full-time streamer, or take an esports- or gaming-focused position at a major company or startup.
Age is just a number
We've all heard the argument that reaction times diminish with age, thereby limiting ongoing career success. While this is somewhat intuitive, there's no reliable scientific evidence surrounding the type of reactions required to compete in a particular game, let alone how those reactions are impacted by Father Time.
For all the anecdotal evidence of player performance deteriorating over time, there is plenty that goes the other way. Team SoloMid's Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng is still widely considered North America's most mechanically gifted AD Carry and is the oldest player at his position in the NA LCS. Then there's the seemingly ageless Virtus.pro Counter-Strike team, which includes multiple players in their thirties and recently bounced back from a slump to take SK Gaming to five games in the grand finals of EPICENTER 2017.
Moreover, the career of an esports player can evolve in much the same way as that of a traditional sports athlete. Early in Michael Jordan's and Kobe Bryant's careers, they were able to dominate their opponents in part due to overwhelming athleticism. But as they got older, their games evolved -- they learned how to go to the post, how to create space on a step back, and many other veteran moves that allowed them to thrive while their physical prowess diminished. The same can be true in esports. A once mechanically dominant player will naturally develop other skills throughout their career -- leadership, game sense, shot calling and more -- that will make them valuable even if some other skills diminish with age.
It's time we retire the myth that the career of an esports pro peaks at, and is limited to, someone's late teens and early twenties. Sure, the average age of a pro player in 2017 slants in that direction. But these data points are far more reflective of the relative immaturity of the industry than they are of inherent barriers to career longevity. Esports pros are going to play professionally for longer and longer as the industry evolves. Just give it some time.
This op-ed was prepared with the help of Electronic Sports and Gaming Law attorney Krista Hiner.