Play for Pay: Video gamers earn big payouts through E-sports industry
NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - For most people, video games serve as entertainment and an escape from everyday life, but there is an elite group of people who have turned playing games into a career, where the stakes are high and the payout can be even higher.
"I am smarter than a lot of people that play this game, and I prove it in-game too," New Orleans professional gamer Jamal Lee said.
Lee's sport is one most people do not know about even though he has a larger than life following who hang on his every move.
"I have about 70,000 followers on Twitter," Lee said.
Most likely can recall Call of Duty II from commercials pushing the interactive video game. In the past five years, young men and woman have performed at these games at such high levels that even New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft owns his own E-sports team.
"I was just playing this to have fun. It was a good escape from the thought of (Hurricane) Katrina to play Call of Duty, and it ended up being a job which is great," Lee said.
Every day in his Gentilly bedroom, surrounded three computer screens, Lee plays for his life. The virtual one of course, but he is also playing for the life where he spends 70 hours a week, honing a craft and taking millisecond by millisecond off his reaction time.
"I want to keep getting better and keep my position as being better than people," Lee said.
He boasts he is in the top 10 at Call of Duty II in the world.
While there is no actual record of that, there is no doubt confidence is key to being successful at playing video games, and his successful earnings turned his own mother into a believer.
"Once (my family) saw that I was making a good amount of money, they stopped bugging me about it and let me do what I wanted to do," Lee said. "I make a good living. With all this stuff, you've got to have a lot of money to buy it."
Lee would not disclose his earnings but he does have three sponsors who back him.
Lee and his team of three other gamers, he has never actually met in person, play only a handful of games a week that count toward their actual score and ranking.
"Winning matches give you pro points. Getting first place gives you 3,000 pro points each, which is really good for seeding and getting into the next league. So this is very important," he said.
Those league games last about an hour and a half each. While 70 hours of preparation for just a few hours of a game may seem excessive, other professionals like Drew Brees and Anthony Davis are on a similar regiment during their respective seasons.
Like those sports athletes, competition on the elite level is fierce.
According to the esportsearnings.com, the highest ranking American Esports player made more than $220,000 last year.
"It really depends on your placings, but with the salaries of the pro teams that are in like the global pro league, I would say it's almost a guaranteed $50-75,000 a year just off salary. That's not counting if you're doing a lot of stuff on Twitch and Youtube...If you're doing well you're making a pretty good living for yourself," 21-year-old professional gamer Dillon Price said.
Last month, Price competed at the New Orleans Call of Duty II World League Tournament against Lee and hundreds of other gamers.
In a sport mostly dominated by men seeking stardom and glory, Price, a California native, is a bonafide rock star who travels the world and lives out his dream all on his sponsor's dime.
"They really just take care of you. They have our manager who books our flights, tells us where to go, plan all the tournament travels and stuff, and also they'll help us with brand deals too," Price said.
He is contracted to a team like any other athlete and the more he wins the more he gets paid, and in E-sports, winning is lucrative.
"Hundreds of players out there competing for a $200 thousand dollar purse this weekend," Director of Product Marketing for Call of Duty Esports Kevin Flynn said. "That's actually just part of $4.2 million this season."
Flynn is the man behind the digital curtain. He runs the the World League tournaments.
He said while gamers may have a stereotype of being couch potatoes, most elite players are physically fit.
"They've started to realize that healthy body can lead to healthy mind, and that actually translates into the smallest of margins but potentially the smallest of advantages up there on the main stage," Flynn said.
The tournaments have grown so large they have created an offspring of media coverage and its own channel streamed online where every push of a button is critiqued by commentators and broadcasted.
"Even the casters, the commentators as you say, they're personalities in their right as well. This whole world is establishing itself," Flynn said.
Flynn admits there is no cheat code or secret passage way to the Esport's success, and he promises its future will continue to spawn profit.
"I think as the skill level becomes more sophisticated as the level of competition increases. This is a natural evolution of that combination and seeing it competitively played on the big stage is how that manifests itself now," Flynn said.
That prosperity is what Lee aims to take advantage of, and he believes he only has a short window to do so.
"I hope it creates a future, as in I can be stable in ten to 20 years because eventually my reaction time and all that stuff is going to deteriorate," Lee said.
Even though Lee spends more than half of his week inside a bedroom, there are hundreds of thousands of people working a 9 to 5 who fantasize about having his job. A job that is comfortable where you do not have to wear shoes to the office, and you have reached a level where playing a video game changes your life.
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