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The delicate balance between esports and higher education

When Darshan “Darshan” Upadhyaha took the leap into pro gaming it came along with the pivotal decision of whether or not to pursue his college education.

After careful deliberation, the then 18-year-old chose to set aside his academic aspirations and commit to gaming full time. Now four years into his League of Legends Championship Series career and a top laner for Counter Logic Gaming, the decision does not seem so difficult in retrospect.

“I decided on doing this, and honestly I’m really glad I made this decision,” Darshan told Slingshot. “It’s hard to tell if I made the right decision because you can’t tell with 100 percent certainty if every major life decision is right or not, but it sure as hell feels like I made the right decision.”

It’s easy to put future plans aside while grappling for the top ranks and championship titles, but with the reality that one day (sooner than later) it will all come to an end, one begins to wonder what players like Darshan will have to fall back on when their gaming careers are over.

Early to Rise, Early to Fall

Esports lacks a predetermined timeline of the likes seen in “traditional” sports, where players begin in little league, then go on to play for your high school team and finally college where — luck abiding — you’ll be drafted for a pro team. If gamers shows promise at a young enough age, they could become professionals before they turn 18.

The amount of time players practice make it almost impossible to stay in school while being a professional in esports, meaning as the industry continues to progress and the earning potential of players increases, it becomes more and more common for players to drop out and pursue their game full time.

Nickolas “Hakuho” Surgent, a League of Legends player for Team EnVyUs, tried to do both. He was attending Point Park University in Pennsylvania while playing in the Challenger Series, an online-only league that feeds into the LCS. But when Hakuho had the chance in March to play for Renegades, an LCS team in need of a new support player, he took it.

“I would wake up, go to class, scrim, play weekend tournaments. So I was always super busy,” said Hakuho, adding that he didn’t think he’d need to complete his degree upon the end of his playing career. “There were certain days I would have to skip class if there was an important tournament. I would prioritize League over some classes just because I generally liked school. I did well on tests and never had any issues. Trying to do them both is really difficult, so eventually you just have to make a choice what you want to do.”

Hakuho (right) talked with his teammates after a North American League Championship Series match. (Photo courtesy of Riot Games)
Hakuho (right) talked with his teammates after a North American League Championship Series match. (Photo courtesy of Riot Games)

 

This new generation of cyber athletes rises early, but their retirement is equally swift. Most players in the LCS hang up their controller by their mid-20s, when diminishing reflexes among other factors see them fall to a fresh batch of young champions.

At only 25 years old, CLG’s Jake “Xmithie” Puchero is the oldest player in the LCS. Given Riot Games’ restriction enable only players over the age of 17 to compete, this severely limits the time frame one has to pursue a pro career.

The Numbers

Although the average length of a pro gamer’s career is on par with that of other professional athletes, during this time they make considerably less money than their mainstream counterparts.

When Kwame Brown became the first ever No. 1 NBA draft pick straight out of high school in 2001, he signed a three-year contract worth a guaranteed $11.9 million. Brown’s decision to put the game over education was far less risky because of the amount of money he signed for, and the same can be said of the majority of professional athletes (though the NBA now limits players joining the league directly from high school).

But Brown, a historic bust to many NBA observers, still made enough money to seemingly justify his decision. In esports, though salaries and tournament prize pools can earn gamers six figures a year, it remains a far cry from guaranteeing them financial security at the time of retirement.

Despite the financial growth of esports as an industry in the past few years, paid positions, sponsorship deals and tournament prize money are still an elusive fare. For instance, of the 27 million people who play League of Legends each day, there are only 50 starting spots each for players in the North American and European LCS. There are coaches, staff, substitutes and the Challenger Series, but the number at the top is small. The numbers are even weaker when talking about less aggrandized titles

Thus, the importance of having a career to fall back on at the time of retirement is arguably much greater for a pro gamer.

“I would definitely recommend not dropping out of school because it’s definitely a risk,” said Nicolaj “Jensen” Jensen, mid laner for Cloud9. “It’s kind of weird to think about. I don’t know what I’m gonna do after I’m done being a pro. It’s not something I thought about too much.”

Jensen prepares for a summer split North American LCS match. (Photo courtesy of Riot Games)
Jensen prepares for a summer split North American LCS match. (Photo courtesy of Riot Games)

 

Making it Work

Professional League of Legends players live in team houses and practice sometimes up to 10 hours each day. That environment makes it nearly impossible to even think about schooling alongside their careers.

For Super Smash Bros players, though, it’s a bit different. There’s no league, so everything is tournament based. There is also significantly less money in the scene, so the need for a backup plan is much more prevalent.

Juan “HungryBox” Debiedma, EVO champion and one of the best Super Smash Bros Melee players in the world, managed to take on a college education while keeping his career afloat.

He graduated from the University of Florida in chemical engineering, all while grappling for dominance in Melee and becoming the No. 2 player in the world, according to Melee It On Me’s annual rankings.

HungryBox emphasized the importance of prioritizing studies above all else — even the game he loved — in order to succeed. He faced the same struggles as any other student: daydreaming, distraction and difficulty retaining the information necessary to pass exams.

But sometimes the choice to put education above a pro career is more difficult than others: when an important tournament falls on a weekend that would ideally be spent studying for an exam or completing assignments, the delicate balancing act threatens to topple.

Nonetheless, Hungrybox successfully completed his degree in four years and even said that it invigorated his esports career.

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Hungrybox after winning EVO 2016 in July. (Screenshot)

After receiving his diploma, the seasoned player gave a “Graduation Speech” on his Twitch channel. In the insightful message, he highlighted the importance of admitting when you need help and urged his fans to reach out when needed. He fondly told Slingshot of his friend Jacob, who “became my tutor and carried my ass through junior year.”

In Hungrybox’s words, you need “an intense dedication to the stuff in order to get top tier grades” in college, which sounds remarkably similar to the passion required to rise through the ranks of esports.

Hungrybox is not alone. Those driven to make the necessary sacrifices — and capable of spreading themselves thin across the two realms — are succeeding. Members of the Counter-Strike team Astralis, for instance, completed masters degrees while playing professionally. Many times it requires prioritizing a tournament over an exam, or vice versa. As Smash 4 player Eric “ESAM” Lew told Slingshot, it doesn’t afford you the most “typical college experience;” but for those who love the game, it’s all worth it.

Not Without Options

Younger generations are growing away from the long-held belief that attaining a college degree is necessary to guarantee success in life. As many step away from this path to follow another calling — whether esports or not — they still face age-old stigma of the college dropout.

If Hungrybox had the opportunity to earn a living from gaming alone, he said he wasn’t sure if he would have continued his education.

“Maybe,” he said. “I was raised with the sentiment that I needed to do well in school to succeed. Smash kinda just…happened to get big.”

And though Darshan recognized the societal constructs at play, he remained unphased.

Darshan (left) with his teammates at the Mid-Season Invitational in May. (Photo courtesy of Riot Games)
Darshan (left) with his teammates at the Mid-Season Invitational in May. (Photo courtesy of Riot Games)

 

“I would say if you’re in a decision where everyone else is going to college, there is that pressure or weirdness where it’s like, ‘Why aren’t you going to college?’” he said. “For the most part, I don’t really care about that. I’m completely comfortable that I took this path, and I realize that while most people do go to college after – and that is a great choice – you don’t have to do that.

“I’m really content that even though I’m a pro gamer right now and anything could happen, whatever happens, if esports poofs in a year and I lost all my money, I’ll be able to find something I’m passionate about or do the next thing I’m passionate about, and follow that and be successful.”

Many pro gamers do find success without ever needing to rely on formal education. As esports grows in both size and recognition, so do the career opportunities for ex-pros within the industry. Much like in traditional sports, players can use their expertise to go on to become on-air casters and analysts, coaches, or tournament organizers.

Alex “Xpecial” Chu is one of the oldest players in professional League of Legends, having just completed the summer split with Apex. He said he hasn’t figured out what to do when his career ends, but he mentioned going to school.

“There’s plenty of players that work behind the scenes too in esports, and there’s plenty of players that go back to school,” Xpecial said. “Esports is growing and (other positions) just aren’t as popular or just don’t remain in the public eye.”

For some, remaining in the public eye is exactly the path they choose to take: spring-boarding off their fame to launch careers as online personalities or full-time streamers. Popular Magic the Gathering streamer NumotTheNummy began streaming as a disillusioned college graduate. Having completed his studies in anthropology and sociology, he found himself uninterested in continuing this path. While working full-time as a grocery store night stocker he began streaming as a hobby and made the decision to go full-time after three months.

For those willing to put in the time, streaming has potential to be a viable career. Forbes estimates that gamers can make around $100,000 annually from their live streams alone, and when YouTube, sponsorships and guest appearances are taken into account this number jumps to $300,000.

A Helping Hand

Over the last couple of years, universities have begun providing esports scholarships have in the United States and Canada. Along with varsity esports, these programs can help take some of the pressure off gamers: eliminating at least part of the financial burden, and opening up more time that can be devoted to honing their game.

Blizzard’s Heroes of the Dorm tournament done in coordination with ESPN brings together collegiate Heroes of the Storm teams from across the US and Canada to represent their school and compete for up to $75,000 in tuition money for each member on the winning team. A handful of colleges have also founded varsity esports programs.

The captain of University of British Colombia’s League of Legends team, Wesley “DaiJurJur” Lee has repeatedly denied offers to join professional leagues, preferring the opportunity to complete his degree in computer science while playing at the varsity level. Lee is one representative of the student-gamer population who stand to benefit from the rise of college esports.

Adrian (left) during a summer split North American LCS match. (Photo courtesy of Riot Games)
Adrian (left) during a summer split North American LCS match. (Photo courtesy of Riot Games)

 

Still, there seems to be a disconnect between college esports and the professional ranks. Adrian “Adrian” Ma is the first — and still the only — player to transition from a college team into the LCS. As the first player to ever earn a scholarship for college esports, Adrian left Robert Morris after only a few months to become a pro. The decision to leave school behind wasn’t a hard one:

“I got this chance,” he told Slingshot. “I gotta go.”

Adrian said he intends to return to his studies once he retires, and presumably rejoin the school team for — as he put it — the “best of both worlds.”

After The Game

What may be of more use to these retirees in their mid-20s are programs designed to help them in returning to school after their playing days have come to an end: a sentiment expressed by many players when questioned about their retirement plans, though often with a grain of salt.

The NFL offers continuing education assistance to current and former players, partnering with colleges and universities to come up with plans to help athletes complete their undergraduate, graduate or training programs. Designed to address the many players who voiced their desire to return to their studies. Likewise, University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Business School is offering courses specifically designed for former NFL athletes.

Programs like these help make the transition out of professional sports easier: guiding athletes step-by-step through the process of returning to school and preparing them for an alternate career. Esports is still very much in its infancy, but programs like those would be a good step. Riot Games is already stepping in, holding summits to coach players on how to build their brand to ensure both lengthy careers and provide them something to stand on when they retire.

As this industry still continues to navigate through a period of infancy, there are plenty of questions left to answer about education. But, as Darshan says, it’s all about having the right mentality.

“I think it’s all about having the right mindset,” Darshan said. “and being confident that whatever you’re doing in life, you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing.”

Cover photo courtesy of Riot Games, remixed by Slingshot.

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