How to Make a Professional Video-Gaming Champion

Visitors cheer for international teams during the tournament of the computer game "League of Legends" on May 8, 2014 in Paris. Launched late in 2009 by American video game publisher Riot Games, "League of Legends" is a game in which teams of five players compete in a virtual arena, killing each other using different powers and equipments in the goal to capture the enemy base.
Visitors cheer for international teams during the tournament of the computer game "League of Legends" on May 8, 2014 in Paris. Photo: Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty Images

Michael O’Dell, better known on the internet as ODEE, began competing seriously in the world of professional video gaming — what's now called "e-sports," among those who take it seriously — in the early days of 1999. He had read that gamers like Fatal1ty, who was among the first prominent e-sports professionals, were earning money, and he wanted to, too. At the time, becoming a professional gamer wasn't exactly considered a smart career move. But four years later, O'Dell had become one of the top-ranked players in the World War II shooter Battlefield 1942 — and he formed Team Dignitas to capitalize on the action. Based in the U.K., O'Dell's e-sports team has since grown to one of the largest in the world — it has 55 players competing in multiple games including League of Legends and StarCraft II.

While Battlefield is a straightforward shooting game, League of Legends is a multiplayer online melee that involves players pitting their various “champions” against each other, and StarCraft is a lightning-fast strategy game that requires controlling hundreds of units in intricate battle plans — like the infamous “Zerg rush” that involves an overwhelming show of force — to take down rival alien empires. One player can’t hope to master every angle of a game, but a team can develop complex strategies and compete in multiplayer tournaments with enormous prize pools over $10 million.

In 2006, though, O’Dell gave up playing e-sports because of money — not because there was too little to be made, but because there was too much. “I was too busy doing emails to sponsors and looking after the team whilst I was trying to practice as well,” O’Dell says. “It was hard to do that and not fail all my teammates.” Instead, he took on a new role — he became a pioneering coach and manager of his entire squadron. E-sports coaches sign new players to teams, listen in on practices to offer advice, book flights to tournaments, and, like a den mother, make sure everyone’s getting along. This job didn't exist a decade ago, but with the professional gaming industry reaching $194 million per year in 2014, coaches like O'Dell are no longer a luxury for the most competitive players — they're key to winning.

“My job now is to make the best environment for the players to compete,” O’Dell says.

O’Dell isn’t just trying to make a career. He’s aiming to legitimize e-sports and build a multi-million-dollar company out of Dignitas’s various endeavors in the process. For that, he needs the best team infrastructure and the best players around. Players on teams like Dignitas are paid a base salary — those who compete in the most popular games might get $50,000 a year — and can make thousands more each month by streaming live sessions through a platform like Twitch. Over the past few years, one of O'Dell's star players was William Li — who goes by Scarra professionally and lives in Houston. Li joined Team Dignitas in 2011 after rising through the ranks of League of Legends, and last year stood to make around $200,000 in total. Though O'Dell declined to say how much of that he himself took home, he let on last year that the team's takings were well over $1 million, and he says that he's happy with the money he's making. "I'm 43 and have a wife and three kids and we're doing okay,” he says.

While e-sports are rising in popularity and potential profit, most of the money is in just a few games — League of Legends, StarCraft II, and Dota 2 top the list. Players have to win those prizes support their teams and earn sponsorships — and to improve their odds of doing so, they increasingly need coaches to coordinate not just their in-game strategies but their lives outside of the game. Even Scarra is getting in on the action–last fall, he left Team Dignitas to become, at age 25, head coach of the American e-sports organization Counter Logic Gaming.

With competitors stuck twitching and clicking in front of computer monitors, e-sports might not seem like a very taxing pursuit. But the most surprising thing about the industry is how much its players have to act like more traditional athletes. E-sports competitors are as fast as fighter-jet pilots in their reaction tests, according to O’Dell — they’ve already got the skills. O’Dell’s job is to hone them and keep them disciplined. In a new sport that stars players often still in school, that’s not always an easy task. Building a champion requires daily training, structured practice sessions, and, ideally, physical exercise. And, like professional athletes, players age out of their most competitive years quickly. Few keep at it past 30, and as the first generation ages, they've made new careers as coaches for their successors. 

Being a good e-sports coach means instilling a team with discipline and an un-gamer-like commitment to healthy living, while giving them the time and leeway to cultivate fans and develop good relationships with teammates. Ideally, players would “come in at nine or ten in the morning, and go straight to the gym,” O'Dell suggests. “Then do tactics talk with coaches, then practices, then go home. That’s what I would love.” The way a basketball player might specifically practice free throws, an e-sports star practices tactics like nailing tricky shots to get in-game kills or works on a clear communication system with their teammates. “Concise information wins games,” O’Dell says. Reality doesn’t quite measure up to his dream — yet. “I woke up at 11:30 a.m. today,” he laughs. “We made the players go running yesterday morning. It was quite funny.”

For O’Dell’s stars, running is a rare test of physical endurance. “Certain players are against physical training; they underestimate the benefits,” says Robert Yip, an academically trained sports psychologist who consults privately for e-sports players. Yip comes in alongside a coach like O’Dell to help structure an entire e-sports regimen, including sleep, diet, and exercise. “Most players have the luxury of building their own day-to-day schedule,” says Andy Dudynsky, the head coach for Microsoft’s own Halo e-sports program. A typical day includes “nutritious meals, regular exercise, several hours of practice and streaming, and some personal time.” Streaming live play sessions on Twitch is important for professional gamers because it allows fans to tune in and follow along, building a fan base and creating greater opportunities for advertisers and sponsors.

Individual team members have a real incentive to build up their own reputations, so one of the most important aspects of a coach's job to keep the players working as a team and to build a strong culture of collaboration. “This weekend we just signed a new Counterstrike player,” O’Dell says. “A team has to be integrated, like real sport. You can’t just buy the best five players and hope it works.” A proper e-sports practice session often involves an entire team, a coach keeping tabs on how the players interact with each other, and a separate analyst breaking down the action within the game — pointing out the habits of other individual players, for instance. Tactics talk focuses on how to counter other teams’ strategies, “reinforcing strengths and working on weaknesses rather than just playing the game for the sake of playing the game,” Yip says. What strategies a coach chooses — whether they go for brute force or sneak attacks, sniper rifles or flamethrowers — makes all the difference in how players approach games.

Building an e-sports champion isn’t just about the volume of training, but its emphasis on goals like improving teamwork and mastering particular plays. In South Korea, the spiritual home of e-sports, where millions of people watch players compete in tournaments, players maintain an ascetic lifestyle, living in group houses and playing 24/7. “All they day is eat, sleep, play,” O’Dell says. “That environment is not normal.” But in America and Europe, e-sports players aren’t expected to be as single-minded.

“Sometimes a player will fall into the training stereotype and try to follow the Korean template, train for 16 hours a day and sleep for four. It really doesn’t work, after a point,” Yip says. “You have to question the efficacy of the practice. What are you trying to improve on?”

To identify a potential champion, O’Dell first listens to the suggestions of his players. “Generally the best way to get into an e-sports team is to be recommended by another professional,” he explains. “When you play kids’ football, everybody in the class knows who the good kid is, and that’s what happens in e-sports.” A truly great player will have catlike reflexes, a mind for memorizing obscure strategies, and an ability to cooperate without ego getting in the way. Pure talent isn’t enough. Digital athletes have to deal with the same performance problems and anxieties as traditional ones. “It’s not just, 'this guy’s good, he can turn up and play.' There’s so much more to it. What’s his attitude like, what’s his work ethic?” O’Dell says. “Anybody can play at home in a nice comfortable surrounding, but put them in front of 20,000 people in a stadium and see if they can cope.”

Part of the job of an e-sports coach, though, is to keep players’ expectations in line. The goal of playing should not just be grabbing tournament prizes. “The coach should be able to reinforce it’s not an outcome goal, it’s about process goals,” Yip says. “As long as you’re improving as a player and as a team, then the attachment to winning and losing is lessened.” Which, ironically enough, tends to yield more wins and more prize money.

Once he worried that e-sports didn't have the same cachet as traditional sports; now he doesn't care. “E-sports is e-sports," he says, "and it’s getting bigger.”