Kyle “Ksharp” Miller, 23, seems, at first glance, like an ordinary young man. He’s had a steady job since he was “17 or 18” and he likes to play videogames. What’s extraordinary about Miller is his job and his hobby the two are one in the same.
Miller is a member of the elite Team 3D.NY, the New York franchise of DirectTV’s videogame league, Championship Gaming Series. He’s played Counter-Strike for almost a decade, has won practically every championship in the sport and competes on live, national television.
“If you can’t catch a sporting event live, then it’s not a true professional sport,” said Eric Shanks, Executive Vice President of DirecTV Entertainment. “We’re giving the CGS the same star treatment as NFL Sunday Ticket and all of our innovative sports programming.” And in the process, they’re turning young videogame players into super heroes.
The CGS is organized like any professional sports league, with a regular season, a draft and a world championship tournament in which the top two franchises of each geographical region will compete for the title of World Champion. Players from around the world can register through the CGS website to participate in the draft and potentially represent their city and country in the international competition, and, yes, make money to play videogames.
But for veterans like Team 3D.NY, making money by playing games is nothing new. Founded in 2002, the Nvidia-sponsored organization has fielded competitors in almost every major gaming competition in the world, including the World Cyber Games, Major League Gaming, Cyber X Games, Cyberathlete Professional Games and the now defunct World Series of Videogames.
“As of late, the competitions have been a little different … because [they’re] being televised,” says Miller. “We usually get to the studio early for a quick rundown of the day’s events and then have some time to practice/warm up before the matches start. During actual events we play every day for a few hours just to stay on top of our game. When we are all at home we try to play four to five times a week during the night as we are competing in online leagues as well.”
Hearing Miller speak about playing in the league, it becomes clear that, as fun and exciting as it may be, it’s still a job, and although “work” in this case involves what most people would consider a leisure activity, Miller and the rest of the competitors are just as serious about their jobs – if not more serious – as anyone.
“It never truly feels like a nine-to-five, but it can get a bit repetitive at times,” says Miller, who, according to his Wikipedia entry, has deferred college to continue competing. “I know you wouldn’t think gaming could ever be hard work, but sometimes you just need a break!”
One wonders what a competitive videogamer would do when taking a break from work, which is playing games. How about managing the team?
“It’s my love, my passion and most importantly my job,” says Dave “moto” Geffon, General Manager of Team 3D.NY. “There’s a lot of stuff that as a player you can get away with because your manager might not know better, but I’ve been there, experienced it all and know exactly what it’s like to be a professional gamer.
“There [are] a lot of people who are amazing at videogames but don’t view it as something very serious and will ultimately never become the best possible gamer they can be. There really is no place for people like this in professional gaming.”
Geffon is a good example of where a career in professional gaming can lead. He started playing Counter-Strike professionally as a teenager, just like Miller, but this year, after nearly five years as a player, he’s moved into management. You could call him the Mike Ditka of professional Counter-Strike.
“I was originally introduced to Counter-Strike by my step-brother, and I just began playing it for fun,” says Geffon. “The more immersed I became in the community, the more I realized that there was a huge competitive side to the game.
“The majority of younger players now that are serious about professional gaming play for the hope of becoming a professional gamer and to get paid,” he says. “We played for the love of being the best and just showing how much better you are than the next guy.”
Talking with the competitors about “determination” and “the love of the game,” it’s easy to start thinking about competitive gaming as just another sport. But that’s just silly, isn’t it? After all, they’re not doing anything, they’re just sitting there, twitching. Watching a competitive videogame match is like, well, watching people play videogames. It’s not exactly an active pursuit. Or is it?
“I would say it is as active as golf or right field position in major league baseball,” says Jim Wagner, a Corporate Attorney and author of the book How to Become a Professional Gamer. “Professional gaming also has an intensity of play and ‘power move’ type play that is found in no other sport.”
And it’s competitive – very competitive – and requires a focus and intensity intimidating to even the most hardcore gridiron warrior, in spite of the fact the competitors sit in chairs. Which is partly what makes professional gaming an endeavor for the young. Videogaming is a sport almost anyone can try, but most pick it up when they’re young, and there’s a reason for that – age degrades the very skills required to stay competitive. And there’s the rub.
According to Miller, it takes “years of experience and practice” to become successful, but also “a good degree of hand-eye coordination and skill,” both of which, as those of us over 30 know, tend to degrade over time.
“Can you see someone hanging in as a pro gamer into their 20s, 30s or even 40s?” asks Wagner. “I honestly do not see a pro gamer making it into their 30s, but there is always the exception. Your George Foremans will always be out there. Also, look for players who hang up their controllers to become announcers [like] Johnathan ‘Fatal1ty’ Wendel.”
Geffon is walking proof that there’s a place in the sport for players past their prime, although he recognizes he may be luckier than most. “I think on some level you can make it a lifelong career,” he says. “Just like in any other professional sport you would play for 12-15 years and move to another area that’s within the game you play.”
But Wendel and Geffon are more than likely exceptions to the rule. Many competitors enjoy only a few brief years in the spotlight and then, like most young men do, drift off to other pursuits, or, heaven forefend, get a real job. Case in point, Matt “Zyos” Leto, the Halo pro who, in his 2005 season, earned over $80,000 in prize money and endorsements, but has been inactive since 2006, when his team failed to reach the Major League Gaming finals. As of last fall, Leto was making a living as a consultant, traveling from convention to convention, showing off his skills and banking on his status as a legendary Halo warrior, but in gaming, the memory fades more quickly than your skills.
There’s also the problem of feature creep. Like the gamers themselves, the games they play age quickly and are frequently replaced with newer models. Leto dropped out of Halo competitions when most leagues switched from Halo to Halo 2, claiming the differences in gameplay made it a completely different game – one he wasn’t interested in playing. In the world of competitive fighting games, the arenas have changed a number of times; with Dead or Alive 4 as the current favorite. And Counter-Strike competitors are now playing Counter-Strike: Source, although this shift doesn’t seem to have hindered longtime shooters like Miller.
“Hopefully I can remain competitive for as long as possible,” he says. “It is a ridiculously fun career with opportunities you aren’t likely to find in any other job. Realistically I would hope for at least another 5-10 fun years.”
And in spite of the money (CGS athletes are paid a yearly salary plus prize money), the television coverage, the trophies and product endorsements, we’re still, after all, talking about videogames. An adult walking into a videogame store in America still draws looks of suspicion, and those who confess to making their living off of the industry are well used to the baleful glances and half-hidden smirks. It may be a multi-billion dollar industry, but to many, games are still for kids, and the idea of competing professionally is patently absurd.
“It’s always difficult to try to explain to someone what it is you do because it’s so unique and the thought of making money while gaming just blows people’s minds at times,” says Geffon, although his friends and family “fully support” his career, as do Miller’s.
“My friends are all jealous, and my family is very supportive,” Geffon says. “Most people I meet that ask what I do are pretty surprised that it’s even a possibility to make a living from gaming.”
“Professional gaming has the stuff to be the first truly international past time,” says Wagner. “Also, it is one of the few professional sports that men and women compete directly against each other instead of being separated.”
“Videogames are a huge part of our culture,” says Geffon, explaining why, in spite of the stigma and the difficulties of staying competitive in a young man’s game, professional gaming is more than likely here to stay. “I think when more and more people learn you can play videogames competitively, they’ll start being more willing to give it a try.”
The Championship Gaming Series’ World Series event is scheduled for December in Los Angeles.