In Hamburg one Saturday afternoon in spring 2017, 56,000 screaming football fans packed themselves into the Volksparkstadion to watch Hamburger SV take on Darmstadt 98 with both teams threatened by relegation from Germany’s top division. As the home team conceded two goals in three second-half minutes, groans of frustration rippled out of the stadium and across the city.
Relegation for Hamburg’s biggest team would affect hundreds of thousands of fans, as well as local business owners. All eyes are on the stadium.
Well, not quite all eyes.
Right next door, making their way into the Barclaycard Arena, some 14,000 people — predominantly young men — are pretty much oblivious to what is happening just a few hundred feet away. When Hamburger SV pull one back late in the game, ultimately a mere consolation goal, the roar of the home fans fails to prick the ears of any of the guys I’ve just met passing through security.
“That’s a stupid question,” 21-year-old Hannes tells me, with a grin on his face, when I ask why he’s not in the other stadium celebrating that goal. “When they walk out later, would you ask them why they’re not inside here with us?”
Hannes and his friends are here to see the League of Legends Spring Finals. League of Legends, or LoL, is a multiplayer online battle game developed by Riot Games that is a lot less complicated than it looks, but a lot more difficult to master than you could imagine. The aim of the game is to destroy the opposing team’s “nexus” (you could call it a base), which is made easier by killing members of the opposing team.
The event that weekend was to decide which of the four competing teams — G2 Esports, Unicorns of Love, Fnatic, Misfits — would be crowned European champions and progress to the next stage en route to the World Championship finals.
For those who aren’t involved with eSports on some level, it can seem slightly odd to enter a venue full of chanting fans awaiting not the arrival of musicians or elite athletes, but 10 people who’ll sit down to play video games. Where the field, court, or stage would usually be, there is instead a raised area in which two rows of five computer screens face each other (a standard game features five players on each team). The on-screen action is beamed onto giant screens at each end of the arena, meaning spectators have to look up to see what’s going on, rather than at any action taking place below.
It’s exactly the same viewing experience they would get watching at home, but like the football fans next door, it’s not hard to see why they still bother turning up.
“It’s all about the atmosphere,” says Linda, 18, in the seat next to me, before breaking off mid-sentence to cheer as her favorite player appears on the big screen. “Everybody cheers everybody, no matter what team they support. Sure, there’s some pantomime booing, but it’s all good-natured. We all feel at home here. There’s a sense of community.”
When I ask about her favorite player, Hungarian Tamás “Vizicsacsi” Kiss, then of Unicorns of Love, now of Schalke 04 (one of a number of eSports teams started by football clubs), she reveals an aspect of eSports fandom that I hadn’t really considered.
“Because we spend so much time watching them play video games online, they have to be funny,” she says. “If they’re not funny, people won’t watch them — I think most people support the team that contains the players they like best, or that they find the funniest, not necessarily the ones who play the best.”
As the final is about to get underway — a showdown between defending champion G2 Esports and challenger Unicorns of Love — the crowd is whipped up by fireworks, music, highlight reels, and scary-looking demons that roam the arena. When the players finally emerged to WWE-style entrance music, they look like any other kind of sports star. Perhaps not in physical stature, but in the intensity and nervousness of their expressions.
The best-of-five final sees G2 Esports ease to a 3-1 victory, with the showman and undoubted matchwinner, Luka “PerkZ” Perković, ripping off his headphones as he makes the final kill, sparking celebrations around the arena. To my side, Linda, who has been doing her best to pierce my left eardrum in support of Unicorns of Love, is now applauding wildly and screaming PerkZ’s name.
I left the arena wondering what it must feel like to win a video game match and have 14,000 people celebrating with you. I was also curious to know how much players earn for a big win, and what they might spend it on. So I arranged to meet the victorious G2 Esports team in Berlin, where they all live and train together in a frat-style shared apartment.
“Hey, yes, this is the right place,” says Christopher Duff, then G2 manager and head analyst, as he gestures me inside a fairly typical old-style apartment in the leafy west end of Berlin. It’s quite dark and, aside from the odd murmur from the practice room at the far end of the apartment, largely silent. One by one, three of the team’s players, including PerkZ, are led away from practice to meet me at the kitchen table.
I ask if they were out partying last night. “Haha, no, but we do go out sometimes,” says 20-year-old Jesper “Zven” Svenningsen. “It’s more like boarding school. We work through the day and technically we’re free in the evenings, but you’re always kind of working. You’re never really away from it unless you go to your room, which we tend not to do unless we’re going to sleep.”
Svenningsen has been playing video games since he was 16 and turned professional three years ago. “The first time you sign autographs or you take a photo with someone, you’re like, ‘That’s weird.’ But after you’ve signed the 1,000th signature, it gets normal,” he says. “It’s been fun. I get to see the world and do things I never even dreamed of doing — and I get paid to do it.”
According to online records, Svenningsen has already earned approximately $200,000 in prize money. That figure does not include earnings from his contract with G2 (the contracts are generally more lucrative than prize money), nor any other means of income such as sponsorship or streaming revenue from his own channels.
“I remember when I was 17 and I went to the World [Championship] finals. I made 4th place and received about €25,000 (approximately $29,500) after tax,” he recalls. “It was crazy. My mom still had access to my bank account because I was under 18 and she was like, ‘What’s this? Is this suppose to be there? Is this a mistake or something?’ I was like, ‘No, mom, it’s my money from [the World Championship]!’”
In case you hadn’t twigged already, pro eSports players, particularly ones playing at a high level in a game as popular as League of Legends, earn huge sums of money. But whereas in traditional sports like football and basketball, where fast cars and designer clothes are all part of the lifestyle, LoL eSports stars seem a lot more measured. At least that’s the way the G2 players see it.
“Honestly, I think the thing I spend the most money on is food, gym, and occasionally buying dinner for the team,” Svenningsen says. “I don’t have much to buy right now.”
Perković, 19, who was born to a modest family in Croatia, agrees: “Yeah, I earn a lot. But I wasn’t raised to spend money unwisely. I’m not from a wealthy family, so I just save most of it or buy what I have to buy.” Perković’s winnings to date hover just north of $180,000.
Most of the players’ expenses are covered by the team they play for, which means they have few things to spend money on. For most people their age, it must seem like a dream — no bills to pay, play video games all day, a bank account awash with money. But for the G2 guys I spoke to, theirs seemed as mundane as any other job, such was their level of professionalism.
“The whole eSports thing is a lot more serious now than it was before, because everyone is just working harder to beat each other and the pressure just keeps mounting,” Perković says. “I mean, I still enjoy it, but not as much as I did before.
“It’s very important to strike the right balance between life and gaming,” he continues. “Otherwise you’ll just be sick of gaming and it will make your life worse. And when your life is worse, your gaming is worse — you have to be good at both.”
It’s easy to assume that eSports professionals don’t have to care much about keeping their mind and body in shape by eating and drinking the right things. A few years ago, there might have been some truth to that. But now, more and more players are taking their health seriously.
“For the past year, I’ve only been drinking water,” Perković says. “Now I’m not buying any sweets or anything. I’m going to the gym five times a week and I’m out on my bike all the time.”
The reason, they say, is not just to alleviate the boredom and repetitive nature of their training, but also to cope with the stress and pressure that comes with performing live.
“I struggle with the expectations a lot,” says Alfonso “Mithy” Aguirre Rodriguez, 23, from Gran Canaria, Spain. “It all depends on how well you practice, but it’s really about how you perform when it matters. There is a lot of pressure in that regard.”
“The fans are what keep the game going, but it can be stressful,” says Svenningsen, who has just walked in with Perković to grab a drink. “Some people can crack under pressure when they’re playing on a stage in front of thousands of people. Some people crack when they have a bad game and they see the reactions on social media.”
“I really enjoy it,” says Perković. “I don’t enjoy being the center of attention so much, but I just really like to see that there are so many supportive people. People send messages and gifts from all over the world — pictures, artworks, sweets. We laugh in meetings, but it really means a lot to us.”
With eSports growing year on year, G2 and other eSports stars can expect to receive more gifts and prize money in the years ahead. In 2017, the global eSports market was valued at $493 million, and, according to industry estimates, global eSports market revenue could hit $1.65 billion by 2021.
That rise is largely due to annual increases in global viewing figures: In 2012, 1.3 billion hours were spent watching eSports worldwide; current forecasts for 2018 suggest that number will jump to 6.6 billion hours.
League of Legends is one of the core group of OG eSports games, along with Dota and Counter-Strike, and has a large and loyal fanbase. But it isn’t particularly accessible to casual gamers. FIFA and Call of Duty, on the other hand, are accessible to the gaming layman and have thriving eSports spin-offs. The FIFA eClub World Cup took place last weekend, for example. Fortnite, another extremely accessible game (you can watch Drake and Travis Scott playing here), has also launched a new eSports tournament mode with a $100 million prize pool.
Talk of an eSports goldmine has been around for years, and today it seems to be upon us. LoL professionals such as PerkZ, Zven, and Mithy are unlikely to become mainstream celebrities any time soon, however. But the broadening of the industry could herald a new era, one in which new eSports professionals become recognizable to casual gamers or even non-gamers — much like the crossover appeal of today’s Instagram stars.
It feels like a matter of time before the first globally renowned eSports gamer — a David Beckham or Michael Jordan, if you like — comes along and makes everyone take notice. But that person hasn’t arrived yet, and that person doesn’t live in the G2 Esports apartment in Berlin — much, I suspect, to the relief of its inhabitants.
Next up, here’s what my Netflix recommendations say about me.