Three years ago Juan DeBiedma left his job to play video games—or more accurately, a single video game. And by all accounts, it’s worked out well for him.
DeBiedma, who’s known to the gaming community as Hungrybox, has been ranked as the No. 1 player in the world in Super Smash Bros. Melee, a nearly 20-year-old Nintendo fighting game. At a time when esports is selling out stadiums and attracting enough investors to rival ridesharing companies, some schools are wondering whether the hype around competitive gaming might translate into an established industry with viable careers.
“It just so happens that we’re lucky enough to live in 2019 where this enjoyment, this hobby, can not only be something where you’re cherished as a champion, but you can actually make a living off it,” said DeBiedma at a panel on the topic during the ISTE 2019 conference in Philadelphia. “You can pay your bills with it, pay your family’s bills. It all depends on how you use your avenue and your brand to the best of your ability.”
DeBiedma’s case is exceptional to be sure. He’s been playing competitively for more than a decade, but didn’t start to make more than supplementary income until focusing on the game full time. Yet he described a grinding practice-travel-play schedule—complete with red eye flights to events and long, sedentary days.
“Quitting my job to get [top rank] was necessary,” he said. Not to mention profitable.
According to industry site Esports Earnings, DeBiedma made more than $85,000 in prize money in 2016 and nearly $100,000 the following year. All told, he’s netted more than $332,000 from the tournament circuit. A handful of his peers have made much more, sometimes totaling millions of dollars per year. That’s in addition to what they earn from being part of a league, which often pays players a modest salary or monthly stipend. (Since 2018, DeBiedma has returned to work full time in IT, somewhat slowing his prize winnings.)
But “not everyone can be Juan,” said Todd Harris, a co-founder of game developer Hi-Rez Studios and president of esports consultancy Skillshot, speaking on the same panel. “It’s like the movie industry: Not everyone’s going to be a leading actor.”
Just like Hollywood, Harris says the majority of careers in esports aren’t playing games for prize money. “When you get to the level of events that we’re running or Activision is running, it’s hundreds and hundreds of people,” he says. That doesn’t include those who work on the game development side in design, programming, art and QA testing, which together employ thousands of people worldwide.
Yet unlike Hollywood, esports is very much a nascent industry. While gaming as a whole boasts annual revenues north of $100 billion, reliable numbers for esports are harder to come by. One estimate from research firm Newzoo puts the industry’s revenues as high as $1 billion this year. Generally speaking, that includes advertising, sponsorship and media rights dollars.
But recent reports and industry insiders have cast doubt on the long term sustainability of esports. A widely read investigation by the gaming site Kotaku likened esports to “a bubble ready to pop,” claiming that inflated viewership statistics and venture capital were propping up an industry whose teams run large deficits due to high player salaries. Many experts were uncertain if or when the industry would move toward profitability.
Regardless, esports certainly gives the appearance of big business. Tournaments often stream online or on television networks, such as ABC and ESPN, and in-person events for certain events can pack major stadiums like Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, which hosted the 2018 Overwatch League Grand Finals and sold out the 19,000 seat arena.
Organizing these shows is not a light undertaking; it requires juggling in-person event management with streaming media and complex IT infrastructure, and there are a host of behind-the-scenes positions that need to be filled. Among those roles: hosts, producers, broadcast commentators, technical directors, league administrators—and a huge hype machine of public relations experts, marketers, social media managers and community engagement specialists.
“Every function you would find at a sports organization you’re starting to find at esports,” Harris said.
Coming Into Play
When Daniel Vélez went to the Overwatch finals at the Barclays Center last year, he discovered it was run similar, but not identical, to a traditional sporting event. Vélez is the athletics director at the New York Institute of Technology, a private research university in Manhattan and Long Island.
After the event, Barclays organizers told him hosting an esports event at that scale was technically complex and unlike anything they’d ever seen. “They said to me, ‘You have no idea—we can put on a hockey game or a Jay-Z concert with our eyes closed,’” he recalled. “When it came to putting on to putting on these world championships, they had to hire people. They had no idea what went into those types of things.”
Vélez’s school is betting big on the growth of esports. In December, the school opened its own arena on Long Island to host collegiate tournaments. And it encourages students to build their own majors around game design and visualization for those looking to break into esports careers.
Researchers at the school are also studying the potential health impacts on players, who are at risk for eye strain and repetitive movement injuries. Others at NYIT are looking at how to improve player performance. In other words, they are treating esports as a discipline of sports medicine.
“We know how to train a sports player,” Vélez said. “Practice is part of it, but what happens if I play for 90 minutes, I take a walk, and do some stretches? How does that improve my performance? The same way we can train the traditional athlete, we can train the esports athlete.”
Ideally, students from a wide cross-section of departments could get involved and collaborate, Vélez said. Design students can create custom furniture. Architects can reimagine gaming arenas. And AV experts can work on lighting and sound configurations.
“There’s a billion dollar industry that’s going to need employees—and going to need very specialized employees,” he said. “We like to think that’s where we come into play.”