E-sports are turning silly teenagers into disciplined professionals ... To get an insider’s perspective on the rigors and sacrifices demanded by a career in gaming, I spoke with two veterans of the trade: 22-year-old Peter “ppd” Dager and 25-year-old Saahil “UNiVeRsE” Arora from Evil Geniuses (EG). In spite of their young age, both have years of competitive experience and are the most senior members of a five-man squad that includes a pair of teenagers. They carry the EG banner into mythical battle in Valve’s massively popular Dota 2 multiplayer game, which today hosts the grand final of a $10 million tournament known as The International. Captained by ppd, EG came within just one win of reaching tonight's final against Team Newbee, but in the end had to settle for an honorable third place and a $1 million prize. ... The life of a pro gamer requires uncommon discipline and perseverance, because the obstacles to success are as numerous outside the game as they are fearsome inside it. Parents won’t respect what you do, fans won’t understand when you fail, and most of the money goes to only the very best. As tough as that is, passion, team camaraderie, and a growing acceptance of e-sports as a legitimate career path are making competitive gaming bigger than ever.
In the spring of 2014, after a decade of visa problems, the Hassan family moved out of its spacious house in Karachi, Pakistan, to an apartment in Rosemont, a suburb of Chicago near O’Hare International Airport. They were a family of eight, two parents and six kids, jammed into a three-bedroom space. Money was tight and work unsteady; for most of them, the move was a struggle. But their 15-year-old son, Sumail, was thrilled—being in the U.S. meant less lag time when he played Dota 2. ... Sumail started playing Dota 2 as a 7-year-old. Now 16 ... His payday after one month as a professional gamer, and just before his 16th birthday, was $200,000. By mid-August, he could be a millionaire. ... By now, Cinderella stories like Sumail Hassan’s are a reliable staple of e-sports. These are, after all, games anyone can play at home, and the prevalence of high-speed Internet allows practically everyone to play everyone else in the world. The promise that a player can be plucked from obscurity and win huge prize money is part of what makes e-sports so popular—and it's wildly, crazily popular. About 27 million people watched the final of last year’s League of Legends championship, about 9 million more than watched the San Antonio Spurs clinch a stunning Game Five in the NBA Finals. ... As Sumail put it in one of his first interviews at the Asia tournament in February: “You have to go pro or just leave it. It’s a time waste if you’re not going full pro. It’s not for noobs.” ... A pool of maturing talents who by now have been playing games since they could walk, and the increase in tournaments, has transformed e-sports. ... But what’s really making it stick this time is live streaming.
Mitchell is probably the greatest arcade-video-game player of all time. When the Guinness Book of World Records first included a listing for video games in 1985 (discontinued in 1987), Mitchell held the records for Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong, Jr., Centipede, and Burger Time. In 1999, he achieved the Holy Grail of arcade gaming, executing the first-ever perfect game on Pac-Man. The feat requires navigating 256 boards, or levels, and eating every single possible pellet, fruit, and ghost, for the highest score of 3,333,360, all without dying once. ... Mitchell enjoys his semi-celebrity status, but he rarely shows it off by actually playing video games. When I convince him to play a game on the well-worn Ms. Pac-Man in the back corner of the restaurant, a waitress hurries over to watch because she has never seen him play, despite working there for nine years. ... He holds the joystick loosely with his left hand, maneuvering it with precise flicks of his thumb and index finger. “I use their personalities and put them in places, positions, and patterns advantageous to me.” ... “Absolute control. I’ve eliminated the mad, scattering chase. That’s probably how they intended the game to be played, running around out of control. But that’s not how I play.” ... Mitchell also seems to possess a genius for recognizing patterns in space and foreseeing the way complicated scenarios will play out—his intuition is set to some higher frequency.
Bridge is a card game for four people. Like doubles tennis, it’s played two on two—although at a bridge table the partners sit opposite each other. (The seats are designated by compass points: North-South versus East-West.) There are many millions of players worldwide, and major tournaments attract thousands of entrants, but the arrival of new talent is a cause for celebration, because older players often worry that the game is aging into extinction. Successful young players stand out for another reason, too: bridge, unlike chess, has never been dominated by prodigies. ... The best players are able to deduce the presence of particular cards in opponents’ hands long before those cards have been exposed in play, based on what’s happened so far, and they think like oddsmakers. One of the longest chapters in the American Contract Bridge League’s “Encyclopedia of Bridge” lists precise probabilities for alternative approaches to playing hundreds of specific combinations of cards. No one would try to memorize all the percentages, but every skilled player acquires an increasingly comprehensive sense of what’s likely to work and what isn’t. ... Within a few weeks, what began as a single accusation had grown into a major scandal, involving the highest levels of international play. ... One of the reasons bridge continues to fascinate players all over the world is that, in order to become even sort of good at it, you have to be willing to be bad at it for a long time. ... Principled players do their best to ignore their partner and play at a consistent tempo, in order to avoid exchanging unauthorized information—and, if they do end up noticing something they shouldn’t have noticed, they go out of their way not to exploit it. Unprincipled players consciously take advantage of such information. And, occasionally, they go a great deal further than that. ... Now that they do understand, cheaters will become craftier in their deceptions, and the main tool for catching them will almost certainly be statistical analysis of suspicious results.
The video game Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, in which players form teams of terrorists and counterinsurgents and shoot at one another, is a favorite of the professional e-sports circuit. A tournament in early April sold out Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, where the NHL’s Blue Jackets play, and generated 71 million online views over four days. In May, TBS and WME/IMG will launch their own league for CS:GO, as the game is called, streaming games online and broadcasting them on TV on Friday nights. ... The game’s current success has made it easy to forget that CS:GO wasn’t an immediate hit for game maker Valve. It was the latest in the aging Counter-Strike series and came out at a time when there was no shortage of other shoot-’em-up games to choose from. Everything changed when Valve introduced something new: decorative virtual weapons, known as “skins,” that could be acquired in the game and sold for real money. ... In-game purchases weren’t new, but the cash trade was Valve’s special twist. Within two years, the number of people playing CS:GO had grown 1,500 percent. Today, there are 380,000 people around the world playing the game at any given time. ... People buy skins for cash, then use the skins to place online bets on pro CS:GO matches. Because there’s a liquid market to convert each gun or knife back into cash, laying a bet in skins is essentially the same as betting with real money. ... By one estimate, more than 3 million people wagered $2.3 billion worth of skins on the outcome of e-sports matches in 2015. ... The best way to get players deeply engaged in games, the company had determined, was to give away virtual items of random value and encourage a robust market to trade them.
Since its July launch Pokémon GO, a free “augmented reality” game by Niantic Labs in which players capture virtual characters mapped to real-world locations, has piled up superlatives. Apple said the game had more downloads in its first week than any other app in history. One in ten Americans plays Pokémon GO daily, according to App Annie, and SurveyMonkey estimates that the game is hauling in as much as $6 million a day from in-app purchases in the U.S. alone (the game is available in 37 countries). ... Just 12 months ago Hanke was an increasingly restless Google employee (he launched Google Earth, among other things) and his company, Niantic, was an overlooked gaming skunkworks lost in the search giant. As Google reorganized itself into Alphabet, Niantic looked likely to be rolled back into the company’s Android division or simply shut down. But Google had the wisdom to let Hanke seek outside investors and spin the company out. That paved the way for Hanke to approach Nintendo and the Pokémon Co., which oversees the brand’s intellectual property, and make the smartest mobile-gaming deal of all time. ... As of May 2016 Pokémon products had grossed $45 billion in lifetime sales.
For the teams of students involved in this year’s RoboMasters tournament, the stakes were clear: 350,000 RMB (roughly $53,000) in prize money, more than four times the average salary of a Chinese worker. Winners achieve celebrity status among the 6 million fans who watch the action stream live online, as well as a shot at landing a job at at DJI, the Chinese drone maker that created this competition. Over the last two years the company has hired around 40 engineers out of the tournament. ... For DJI, the stakes are reversed. It is battling to win top talent in some of technology’s hottest fields: computer vision and autonomous navigation. Over the last three years, the company has emerged from obscurity to become the market leader in the booming consumer drone market, setting the pace for innovation in the category. ... The city became the heart of the world’s supply chain for consumer electronics. But while it conquered the business of manufacturing for others, the quality of products designed and engineered in Shenzhen were largely inferior to those with roots in the West. Over time, however, that dynamic began to change. ... DJI epitomizes that evolution. In 2006, Frank Wang, an engineering student obsessed with remote-control helicopters, started Dà-Jiāng — which roughly translates to "without borders" — Innovations Science and Technology Corporation. His target market consisted of professionals who used remote-control aircraft for filming and photography, and hardcore hobbyists who built their own flying machines for fun. At the time, everyone built their units from scratch, there was no casual consumer market, and few people used the word "drone." ... Like many early Shenzhen companies, at first DJI made just a single component: flight controllers. ... PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that the drone industry will grow from a few billion dollars this year to more than $120 billion by 2020.
He was 5 the first time he saw a pinball machine, at Wally's Burgers in East Vancouver, British Columbia. They had to stand him on a wooden crate just so he could see what was under the glass. The game was called "Twilight Zone." Something in his brain lit up. Even then, they knew he was different. There were doctors at the time who suggested he might never talk, that reading and writing were out of the question, that foster care was an option. His parents remember days when he was content simply to spin for long periods of time in one place. He was drawn to the electricity in exit signs. If he was left alone for a moment, he would bolt. He connected to the world by solving puzzles. ... The IFPA now ranks nearly 45,000 players around the world. A pinball tournament is played somewhere on earth almost every day of the year. Prizes are growing and machines are becoming more technical. ... "It's got flow," he likes to say, which means it's played somewhat chaotically throughout, one combination leading naturally into the next, in contrast to the meticulous catch-and-shoot style it takes to grind down great wide-body games of the '90s like "Twilight Zone." A flow player is thought to be a more natural entity, unpredictable and pure. Robert likes to think of himself as a flow player. And sometimes this instinct gets him into trouble. ... More than his wanting to be the world's best pinball player, Robert wants to be its most charming. Alone in the garage, between the drop catches and target shooting, he diligently practices charm. ... Few subcultures in America are instinctively wired like the culture of pinball to see autism as a gift rather than a disability.