League of Legends eSports Examined: Why Being an eSports Pro is not Worth It
It isn’t uncommon for our society to promote unrealistic beliefs. According to NPR, “26 percent of U.S. parents whose children in high school play sports hope their child will become a professional athlete one day.” Yet in reality, only a few out of hundreds of thousands of people have a chance of being a professional. Similar unrealistic beliefs have taken hold in the competitive gaming world. While a percentage has not been deduced, many Solo Queue players in League of Legends compete on the Ranked ladder in the hopes of eventually becoming a pro player. While the chances of becoming pro are very unlikely even for Challenger players, a select few will inevitable be chosen for pro play. What many understand is that succeeding in the journey of becoming an eSports professional is likely far more stressful than the alternative lifestyle.
The Problem of Relativism
One of the issues we commonly see in other sports is that no matter how much a team practices or performs, they will be deemed as bad teams or face extreme criticism if they lose. This is the problem of the competitive setting as no matter what efforts one puts in, they can be degraded simply because another team outperformed them.
A look at the Worlds events every year shows the extent of this problem. North American players are consistently criticized for their perceived failure to outperform other regions. Reddit is filled with these types of posts, where lamenting about the issues about North American eSports and players seem to be commonplace.
Yet from a practice perspective, North American players play for more than they did in 2012 and practice is much more structured than before. Players may play as much as 12–14 hours a day and be completely focused on the game throughout the day, while in the past they constantly streamed other games or spent more time on other activities outside of practice. However, North American players were a lot better received in the past than they are now, even though their practice and structure increased tremendously. This is because audiences will quickly forget what goes into training for a pro, as competitive activities of these nature simply promotes criticizing the relatively weakest teams while forgetting what goes into the activity.
In essence, it doesn’t matter how much more work pros in North America put in behind the scenes. If they lose at international events than they will receive both criticism and unjust hatred from people who only see the public score results. It works the same in other regions like Korea in China to. No matter what an individual or team’s achievements are, players can quickly lose faith if they lose standing relative to other teams or players.
Reward for Efforts
With the 12–14 hours that pros put into practice, the rewards are extreme disproportional. This can be seen easily by comparing being an eSports player to other career standards.
If you were to mow lawns for 6 hours out in the sun, you would likely be seen as very hardworking and dedicated. Similarly, even staying overtime a few hours after a job could lead to respect from your peers. However, if you were to be an eSports pro and practice 16 hours a day, you could be hated after every game you played. Even most eSports fans would think you were a hard worker in the first two situations, but they would quickly show hate towards you in the latter instance if you lost a game.
Of course things shouldn’t be done purely for admiration, but entering eSports means entering a world that the fans themselves often don’t understand what goes into it. It’s likely extremely mentally taxing to train in isolation for hours with four other people without any recognition, while every move you make in the public eye could be cast with extreme judgement.
Technically, even in this article I am somewhat criticizing eSports players despite the hours they put in. However, I do not assess player’s worth by arbitrary win or loss values or other statistics, and I look at the system as a whole and see that they are victims themselves. I see the hard work and efforts these players put in, but I cannot praise what they do as I believe they’re existing in an environment that promotes toxicity towards themselves. From my point of view the best thing we can do is stop watching so that the demand for other careers becomes more attractive.
The idea of playing in front of cheering audiences fascinates many, but most Solo Queue players probably have not examined how practice actually works. Most of the day is spent in small rooms in front of monitors with the same people day in and day out. Set times are set out for VOD review, exercise, and breaks. Furthermore, you have to play very specific champions and perform similar strategies over and over, often at the coach’s discretion. I cannot imagine that this would be very appealing to most Ranked players who just want to repeatedly queue games at their own rate or play the champions that they want to play. I think that many people could dispel the idea of being pro simply by attempting the practice schedule and lifestyle of eSports teams. There’s a reason that most former pros choose streaming instead of continuing to play in Riot sanctioned leagues, as they can earn more and have more freedom.
Having relations outside eSports it not very viable either while putting in these long hours. Some Korean teams will not even let players have girlfriends. From the logical point of view of the goal of eSports, their policies make sense, but the issue is that being a pro is critically flawed in itself when it means having to give up friends and family in pursuit of success. I do believe that a degree of sacrifice can be important to having a great career, but in most careers there is ample time to see people and the people at work are far more likely to be amiable. In eSports, I’m sure that at times teams can seem like a family themselves, but generally most players have to be viewed as enemies in some form. This isn’t uncommon even from the same team point of view either, with players constantly exposing issues with their teammates. Link in 2015 released an 18-page essay after quitting CLG, highlighting the issues he had with his teammates. Similar exposes occur with relative frequency on Twitter and other platforms. Because everything in eSports comes down to playing skill, players are constantly going to be called into question by teammates, other teams, analysts, and fans. It can create an intense environment of inter and inter-team rivalry and paranoia.
These players would benefit from having connections outside the eSports worlds where things aren’t only about wins or losses, but while this was possible in the past, increased practice time has pushed players away from having the relationships that could actually be the most helpful towards them.
The average LCS salary is estimated to be $410,000. I believe that the minimum salary for academy players is $75,000. This may seem like a lot but it is important to examine the details behind it. LCS players train for at minimum 50 hours a week but I’d say 70 hours a week is more likely. Additionally they may have to spend time streaming or on social media so they are pretty much thinking about League of Legends at all times. The equivalent 40-hour a week job would require a salary of $200,000 a year to match the income per hour. However, those jobs would come with much more free time and reduced stress.
Additionally, the average LCS career is extremely short. scarra and HotshotGG explored the issue in an interview:
scarra: Talk to me a little bit about player longevity … what would you say is the average lifespan of a player right now?
HSGG: I mean, right now, it’s a year to two years. And that’s incredibly disheartening.
This video was made in 2016, and it’s possible that the average career may have decreased or increased during that time, but 1–2 years is extremely short, even shorter than the average NFL career length of 3.3 years.
A salary of $410,000 for a few years could likely still last for a significant amount of time, but the distribution of most of the salaries is likely skewed towards the top players. Furthermore, eSports may be in a bubble now and these higher salaries are likely to be unsustainable into the future. This salary also does not include all the time that was spent training to be pro, which is often far longer than most people attend school for or receive career training for.
Many LCS players end up going back to school for more prospects after finishing their eSports career, the same thing many were doing before they entered in the first place. It shows that the dream many once had ended up being something that they wanted to leave after a few short years. The conclusion from this is the whole eSports path can simply be skipped, as instead of being a lifelong career it is usually just an interruption in people’s journeys.
The toxicity of various competitive games or regions is usually compared in online discussion, but it isn’t very useful as it doesn’t delve into the main problems. The reason there is toxicity is because by nature a competitive game will promote the kind of tensions that lead to it.
The issue with being an eSports professional is that players must rely on generating attention to earn money. There needs to be enough players to watch for sponsorship interest so that staff can be employed to run a league. The ratio of watchers to players must be extremely high, and even with hundreds of thousands of viewers, leagues are still having difficult times profiting.
The problem is that this massive audience must come from the games itself, competitive games which is toxic by design. Therefore, the same people that the pros rely on to earn money are the same people who will constantly display extreme toxicity towards them. I find both sports and eSports to be somewhat of an abusive relationship between teams and fans. They are both in constant tension with each other and even at times outright hatred but they often remain unaware and keep the cycle going.
Another problem with needing such a high ratio of followers to earn money is the exposure to toxic parasocial relationships. The more ratio of followers it requires to earn money, the more potential harassment, judgment, and erosions of privacy can arise. There are many jobs out there that pay $100,000–200,000 a year where people only need to know their immediate coworkers. However, eSports by nature requires that millions of people be fans in order it to be viable. That means at the equivalent income level of $100,000–200,000 a year someone is going to face thousands of times more exposure to toxicity and harassment, while also dealing with a much more angry audience. The issues enraged fanbases can bring was evident in 2020, when SKT T1 received death threats for temporarily benching Faker. Regardless of how people view the decision by SKT T1, it does not in any way warrant death threats. Although most fans are not involved in death threats, they are just an emergent result from the general harassment in general that is very common. The leagues themselves are often built on the uneven relationships between toxic fans and the players.
Depression and Suicide
Unfortunately, the conditions in eSports often lead players to extreme depression and even suicide.
The player Promise jumped from a roof in 2014 in a suicide attempt after he exposed how his team manager Noh Dae Chu threatened him and forced him to fix matches. Furthermore, Noh had sold the team’s practice equipment in order to pay his own debts.
Fortunately, Promise survived the 12 story fall and was able to recover to tell the story. However, abuse by management is rife in eSports. Match fixing scandals and refusing to play players are events that are commonplace.
Kenneth Dawnix passed away in 2019 from suicide. While he seemed to be struggling with general feelings of hopelessness, it is likely that pro play exacerbated the issue.
Remilia passed away in 2020, likely from suicide due to the traumas that she experienced from the stresses of pro play and a botched transition surgery.
On her final stream, she also expressed difficulties she faced while streaming, such as facing constant harassment from the audience. I think that the stress from attempting to make a career as a streamer just added on additional problems to an already challenging life that she faced.
eSports players live lives that are far more isolated than the standard Ranked players of League of Legends. They may only be able to interact with their teammates or management on a daily basis. Additionally, they may be far from their home setting, living in a place where arguments and tension are commonplace. They face judgment and criticism from their teammates, managers, other teams, fans, and themselves. Competitive gaming is already a significant contributor to depression, but eSports players must be fully immersed in that lifestyle day in and out with no reprieve from it.
It’s unlikely for any of us to become a professional League of Legends player. Even so, we should ask ourselves why we would want it in the first place. The life of pro players is very public and we can clearly see the issues that they face. Many Ranked players have the dream of being a pro player as an ultimate goal but fail to realize that in reality these careers often only last a few years.
Although I didn’t want to be an eSports player directly, I had a desire to be a large League of Legends streamer and someone that would have been known for excelling at the game. I now realize that this need came from my own insecurities and that it isn’t all that important to be known or famous, especially from competitive gaming. I think that when we come from backgrounds of depression or isolation from society, we can tend to think that being something like a famous eSports player would fix all of our issues.
When we realize that we don’t need this dream of fame and fortune of being a pro player, it’s easier to be content with other careers. More importantly, we can realize that there isn’t a true reward for enduring the constant toxicity from competitive games. We can appreciate the friends and family that we have and spend more time with them. For those who matter, we don’t have to dedicate our lives to fame to impress them.