The Secret Life of Professional Gamers: What It Takes to Make It in Esports

What the heck is this $1 billion business? And do you have what it takes to get in on the gaming boom?

Some may have heard of esports but have no idea what they actually are. Others may be avid gamers but aren't sure just what goes into gaming at the professional level. To answer these questions about the next big thing (that's actually already huge), has gone behind the scenes with an esports team and what we found may surprise you.

What Are Esports?

Video games have been a booming business since long before today's technology allowed players to immerse themselves completely into unbelievably lifelike scenarios. What is new is the increasingly popular world of playing those games for what are often fat wads of cash. 

Teams from across America and the world come together to play mega-popular games like Overwatch, Rainbow Six and Call of Duty in much the same manner as conventional sports teams, according to Julian Castro, general manager of the team, Obey Alliance. 

"Rainbow Six basically follows a seasonal structure," Castro told during a visit to their Frisco-based training facility back in May. "The game is changing every season. Last season was season seven. This upcoming season, which is going to be on June 13, which is when the pro league starts, is season eight."

So just like your favorite sport, be it basketball, hockey or football, many esports run in seasons. And just like those sports, eSports have major season-capping events.

When spoke to Castro and the team he manages at the young age of 21, they were preparing for a major esports event called DreamHack Austin. Branded as the premier digital gaming festival, DreamHack Austin is the stadium, of sorts, where star athletes compete to win cash prizes, totaling some $400,000.

Are They Athletes, Though?

In a word, yes. And that is precisely how Obey Alliance team members are treated. As they trained for DreamHack Austin, the Obey Alliance Rainbow Six teammates were flown in from where they live around the country in order to participate in a days-long bootcamp.  

During these training periods, esports players not only practice their game, they work on personal fitness, nutrition and team-building. 

"I think that's what's great about Obey at this time, is that in offering this bootcamp, they're able to come in here and experience something new as competitors to improve their performance," Castro said. 

Just like more traditional athletics, in the highest levels of esports, it's all about the team.

"It's just very common for teams that are high level to want to pursue [bootcamps] because it just gives you the edge in competition," Castro said. "Players gain the ability to bond with each other, to bond with me, to bond with the organization, to practice and really strategize what they're going to be looking to do going into the event.

Infiniti, the company under which Obey is housed, even keeps a staff of nutritionists and other professionals tasked with keeping the gamers fit — body and mind. They call it their Innovative Performance Institute (IPI) and it's run by Taylor Johnson, who urges gamers both aspiring and pro to be mindful of what their bodies need.

"My overall suggestions for gamers at this level is to take care of your bodies, take care of your minds, do a great job of eating good healthy food. Make sure you get plenty of sleep," said Johnson, who is president at the IPI. "Make sure you get some daily mobility in and exercise at least 20 minutes a day, maybe three times a week. And have coping mechanisms for dealing with stress."

Big Business

Dreamhack Austin and other major events showcase just how popular esports have become and their growing attendance numbers reveal how they'll only get bigger. While some 30,000 people poured into the Austin Convention center June 1-3 to watch and participate in esports, cosplay and other gamer-related activities, at least 100,000,000 (yes, 100 million) people tuned in from afar via the web to watch their favorite players battle to be the best in the world at games like Counter-Strike, Hearthstone, Rainbow Six, Tekken, Overwatch and more.

And Austin's is just one of multiple Dreamhack events held around the world each year. The Sweden-based company runs events, many of them more attended than Austin's — in Sweden, Spain, Atlanta, Canada — and the list is always getting longer.

The events, though, are just the tip of the iceberg.

Who Are the Gamers?

At the heart of esports are the gamers. They represent not only the players but also the audience, and each player has his or her own fans. An outfit like Obey Alliance looks for many things in the players they represent. In addition to talent, audience appeal is a factor. With games like Fortnite, the survival game du jour that's taken America and the world by storm, a player's personality is on display as much as his skill thanks, in large part, to Twitch. 

Twitch is the streaming video platform most gamers use to show off their skills to the world because it allows fans to view the best and brightest playing live. In this way, gamers amass followings, both on Twitch and on their other social media and video platforms like YouTube.

Twitch and YouTube are where gamers go to see and be seen. With some two million users streaming (mostly games) each month and nearly 10 times more users there to watch, Twitch it is the scope through which the exploding gaming universe can be viewed in all its massiveness. 

The more followers on Twitch and YouTube you have, the more likely you are to get noticed by people like Julian Castro and his team at Obey because, just like in traditional sports, esports teams rely on sponsorships to pay the bills.

"Obey Alliance in itself and esports in general follows similarities in traditional sports, which is the NFL and NBA, in certain ways such as practice, in scouting, and the way that we treat our teams," said Castro, who also points out the similarities in how they make money. "Making money off of YouTube and Twitch, while I understand is relatively unfamiliar to most people, [we] are kind of matching traditional sports where we get sponsorships and endorsements and merchandising."

What's the Future of Esports?

The sky seems to be the limit for the folks at Obey, who see in their Rainbow Six team a lineup of burgeoning champions ready to explode onto the scene in a major way. For the wannabe pro gamers out there, the future looks equally bright. 

For proof, look no further than the International Olympic Committee, where the same folks who oversee gymnastics and ice hockey are seriously considering how esports could fit into the highest levels of athletic competition. The committee will host a forum in Switzerland next month specifically to explore how the Olympic Games might one day adopt esports, according to The Associated Press.

Money talks, too. According to The Street, the number crunchers at Goldman Sachs estimate "esports monetization will reach $3 billion by 2022." The same analysis concluded that, by that year, esports viewership will reach 300 million, or equal to today's NFL.

For Castro and the Obey team, the rise of professional gaming is a dream being built into a reality with a winning combination of passion, drive and an understanding that the future of sports is already in the palm of their hands.

"We're built of passion. That really is what built gaming in general in this whole new space," Castro said. "We have a deep love for people, we have a deep love for making dreams come true. I think we have a great story to be told, and I'm excited to really be part of this and share our story, our players' stories and everything we're going to be doing in the future with you guys."