Soccer moms load their kids in minivans, encouraging their dreams of going pro. Dads pace or squirm nervously on sidelines or in the stands. High school coaches steer young athletes toward playing sports in college or beyond.
But while competitive sports can be their own reward, those seeking big money for their efforts often do so in vain. Statistics show that very few traditional athletes that play in high school continue onto college or pro (the NCAA estimates between .9 and 9.1 percent).
Robert Wilson, a senior at Waynflete High School in Portland, is already a pro player, with a sponsor and an upcoming paid trip to Las Vegas to compete in an international competition of skill and endurance. Basketball? Nope. Football? No, he’s never played.
Instead, Wilson’s an eSports player.
Wilson’s among the growing number of millennials who take video games to a serious, professional level. He’s among those sharp enough to monetize what’s often considered a mindless hobby by competing for cash before graduating.
Robert Wilson, AKA BobbyWasabi.
Wilson — or BobbyWasabi as he’s known in gaming circles — recently won a tourney at the HUD Gaming Lounge in Portland, pocketing $125 in three hours. He estimates he spent 500 hours playing Super Smash Bros. to get to that level, from its Nintendo inception in 1999 on N64 to the radically improved newest version on the Nintendo WiiU. Apart from the money, the win gained him notoriety with a sponsor, Super Nova, a company that mainly offers apparel, energy pills, and some gaming news.
“They help get my name out, I help get their name out,’ Wilson said. “I wear their jerseys, help advertise their merch and other teams under the Super Nova umbrella.”
Ben Baker has been gaming around town since 2012, and now runs tournaments in Waterville similar to HUD’s that bring gamers together to compete for moderate prizes. Baker was Super Nova’s first Smash player and helped get Wilson on board. They are doubles partners now, although Baker’s work schedule prevents him from the Vegas trip. He’s going to Florida in June for Community Effort Orlando, another national tournament.
“Back then, I would've never thought gaming could be a career," Baker said. "It wasn't until I got more involved in fighting games that it really clicked with me that it’s possible." Baker says a turning point was when he found the Maine Fighting Gamers Alliance page on Facebook. "I started getting really into Street Fighter IV , and then traveled to Calgary in 2011 for Canada Cup, a major tournament. It really started to sink in with me that it could be a career.”
Super Nova is flying Wilson to Las Vegas in July for EVO 2017, a tourney which bills itself as the "world's largest fighting game event," where he will pit his Super Smash Bros. skills against the world’s best gamers. For a $75 ticket (and another $48-97 ticket to participate in or watch the finals), competitors there will play on a WiiU or Nintendo GameCube decked out in game gear, sugared drinks, and junk food. Big winners will pocket thousands.
“The scene for Smash in the state has grown insanely since I joined, and even at a state level it really can be a worthwhile and profitable hobby,” Baker said. “The better players with the right mindset and passion can easily take it to the next step with all these national events and such popping up.”
Wilson plays as Pikachu (Pokémon) and Villager (Animal Crossing) and is considered the best in the state with these characters. Tournaments usually last anywhere between three to eight hours. Bigger tournaments like Shine and EVO span three days and attract hundreds of gamers from across the globe.
“The most unenjoyable aspect would have to be stress that comes with playing. If I'm ever in an intense match, I sometimes start to shake or get nervous that I could get knocked out of the tournament,” he said. “It's a blessing and a curse though, since I find that I often play better when stakes are high.”
While juggling final exams, he still gets in 30 minutes of practice daily, playing in training mode or online against gamers who challenge him on his Twitch livestream account. He does video game reviews on YouTube, and stays fresh with other games like Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Persona 5. Even when he's not competing, gaming is a major part of Wilson's life.
“I’m working on 100 percent completion of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and looking forward to the release of Splatoon 2 , ARMS, and Super Mario Odyssey,” he says. Wilson is just a high schooler, but already making his first — albeit modest — paycheck doing what he loves.
High school sports are an essential part of the teen years, but parents and coaches who feed their children the line that their time invested in a year of sports will pay them back with college scholarships or professional jobs are often misleading.
According to Forbes magazine, the gaming industry continues to grow. As it does, those within the industry assert that more and more jobs will be available. “The economic impact of the gaming industry to the US GDP was over $11 billion in 2016, and that number is certain to grow for the foreseeable future,” according to the magazine. (This figure includes those in programming and writing code — not simply professional gamers.)
BOYS PUSHING BUTTONS
One trait about eSports Wilson acknowledges is its tendency to foster an environment that is unwelcoming to women.
“It’s a very male-dominated profession. This is in part due to a lot of community’s sexism and discrimination towards female players and enthusiasts,” Wilson says. “A lot of this plays into both the anonymity aspect of players online, as well as a long running stereotype that girls aren't that into ‘real video games.’
That the gaming industry has its problems welcoming women is hardly news. The #Gamergate controversy of 2014, when a female developer was repeatedly threatened, doxed, and harassed online, exposed the deep sexism and misogyny embedded in the gaming world.
And while there's more to that story (and the political alliances behind it), Wilson and others hope the world of eSports can grow into its diversity. "The field is completely open, especially when you consider how sports are separated by men’s leagues and women’s leagues due to biological physicality," he says. "With eSports, that factor doesn't play a part when competing at a high level. Endurance, strong mentality, and overall skill at the game are all that matter.”
As an example, Wilson says his girlfriend doesn't often play video games, yet "has a blast while playing as ‘Kirby,’" an adorable ball of pink puff who was designed to be very accessible to more novice players. "The brilliance is that accessibility in Smash Bros. does not equate to hand-holding or a crutch to stand on, and that's where the true social aspect of Super Smash Bros. shines.”
But securing financial dividends within the young industry is something of a gamble. While 27 million people play League of Legends each day, just 40 professionals earn salaried positions in the North American League. Players can also earn ad dollars when fans livestream their games on websites like Twitch and Azubu TV. But gamers say only a handful of players can earn enough to make a living.
Wilson wants to be one of those handfuls.
Super Smash Bros. Brawl was released two years later, and marked the first time he entered a tournament — at 13 years old, the PortCon 2012 tourney for SSB Brawl .
“I got knocked out immediately, but it was one of the first times I was exposed to a community of people who also play this game, other than my brothers (Ike and Trip) or friends from school.”
Next year, Wilson is headed to Emerson College, where he can add a scholastic approach to his gaming habits. Emerson has recently started a program for eSports gamers in the Communications Department. “It’s what partially attracted me there. I was also looking for journalism and communications,” he said. “After seeing what they are doing with the program there solidified my decision to go.”
He considered other schools — Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont, is known for its gaming design program and offers a competitive gaming community.
The takeaway of all this? There’s big money out there for dedicated gamers, or big fans of the industry and its creative mechanisms. But on top of that, there are job opportunities for those looking to host gaming events like these. Production, organization, planning, coverage, commentary are also possible vocations.
“A lot of people go into game development. The gaming industry is worth more than $70 billion a year, and there aren’t huge CEOs to pay that are taking most of it as a lot of those sales are in indie games and small studios,” said Gabe Letourneau, founder of HUD gaming lounge, which opened in Biddeford and made the move north to Portland last year. VR and AR (augmented reality) are also growing fields and will require new creative minds to learn to program and code games and experiences for them and is sure to become a lucrative skillset in the coming years.”
More eSport events would open the door to a new ripple to economies both local and national. eSports has found its home on Twitch.tv, a website dedicated to livestreams of players playing dgames either by themselves or online with viewers. eSport events are often broadcast on this site, though some major events like League of Legends , Dota 2, and Hearthstone tournaments can sometimes be found on legacy media like ESPN.
While these names may not all be familiar to the general public, Wilson's proficiency in these games is hardly esoteric. The biggest games in eSports now are League of Legends, Dota 2 , CS:GO, and Hearthstone. The biggest fighting games in eSports are the Smash Bros. suite (Super Smash Bros. , Super Smash Bros. Melee , Super Smash Bros. Brawl , Super Smash Bros. ), as well as Street Fighter, Guilty Gear , and Mortal Kombat.
EGAMES IN MAINE HISTORY
Maine's eWorld was created, virtually, by Maine Competitive Gaming founders Marc Patenaude, Jordan Lovell, and Jordan Sage, whom Wilson calls “trailblazers for the gaming community in Maine.”
Late last year, the guys host tournaments at Howard Johnson’s in South Portland and the Maine Mall, both in collaboration with PortCon. They host doubles tournaments every other week at Arcadia National Bar, which offers Portland-area patrons arcade, console, pinball, and board games. MCG currently runs Rocket League and CSGO tournaments at HUD Gaming Lounge, and will be running a Super Smash Bros. event called “MCG Arena” in June.
Gamers going head to head in the first person shooter CS-GO.
Some of the best players in Maine can win money. The average prize pool for a monthly event can yield first placers $200. The tourneys SMCC holds every Thursday do not charge and players cannot win. Monthlies are posted Saturday night events with slightly higher stakes, turnout, and prizes.
Wilson is starting Timber Weeklies at Amigo's on Mondays, and future Timber Monthlies will be held at HoJo's in SoPo, with one planned for this Saturday, May 13. (“’Timber’” comes from a name of a move that the character “Villager” does,” Wilson explained. “She or he plants a tree, grows it and then cuts it down with an axe.”)
On a national scale, Wilson has an opportunity to cash in on his passion this summer. “I don't know what the prize is for EVO 2017,” Wilson said. “It all depends on the turnout of the event, but the numbers have been growing every year.” The prize pool last year was between $26,000 and $100,000, depending on the games. (Prizes at EVO are split between the top eight winners at a 60/20/10/4/2/2/1/1 distribution scale.)
Local eGaming merchants, too, have seen business tick up, often staying open all hours to meet client needs.
“We have seen a few players in our tournaments who could go pro — very talented gamers who blow us away whenever we see them compete,” says Letourneau. “Based on our live streams, comments, and likes on our Facebook page, there are clear favorites who have tons of people rooting for them to win, by commenting and interacting with our tournaments even if they aren’t playing.”
And business can be good for the gamers, too.
“Just as players of football, or baseball, or basketball, etc. who are really good become professional players, people who are really good at games follow a similar path,” he says. “Just as the pro traditional sports teams make money from sponsors and spectators, eSports are exactly the same, except the sponsors aren’t for cars or life insurance. It's for gaming gear, computer equipment, and Doritos.”