Gamers' Plight: Why So Many Esports Players Retire by 25 — and What Comes Next

ONE TIME USE ONLY-THR-31biz_esports- Illustration by Tim Peacock- H 2019
Tim Peacock

With the average gaming career lasting just four to five years, these 20-somethings must find new ways to make ends meet. As one insider warns, "Once you've peaked, it's too late."

In 2014, at the age of 19, Michael Grzesiek landed a job that most kids only dream about: professional video gamer. Earning money to play Counter-Strike: Global Offensive as part of e-sports team Cloud 9, Grzesiek quickly made a name for himself as a top performer, but by 2018, at the tender age of 23, he announced his retirement. "When I was competing, I was young, I had that drive and I really enjoyed traveling," Grzesiek tells THR. "Now I hate traveling."

Retirement is not a reality for most 20-somethings (or 60-somethings), but for e-sports athletes, most of whom begin their careers as teenagers, the quarter-century mark is a major impasse in their professional trajectory. With the average competitive career of an e-sports star lasting just four to five years, many turn to live-streaming their gameplay online as a way to build their social followings and lay the groundwork for the next stage of their careers.

That strategy worked for Canada-based Grzesiek, repped by Loaded, who cultivated a fan base under the name Shroud while he was still competing. Since retiring, he has become one of the most popular streamers in the world, amassing more than 6.9 million followers on Twitch and landing sponsorship deals with brands like Postmates and Madrinas Coffee. It's a level of success that would have been hard for him to achieve in the e-sports world, though he credits Cloud 9 with helping him build his profile. "Once I got noticed, streaming took off," he says.

Streaming is an attractive financial prospect. Top personalities can make upward of $15,000 an hour broadcasting to their followers, and platforms increasingly have shown an interest in inking exclusive deals with them, like when Tyler "Ninja" Blevins migrated from Amazon-owned Twitch to Microsoft's Mixer in early August or Twitch's move to sign Nicholas "Nick Eh 30" Amyoony later that month. 

That's not to say there isn't money in e-sports, too, where the base salary for a player in Riot Games' League of Legends Championship Series is $75,000 a year and the minimum salary for players in the Overwatch League is $50,000 (though sources tell THR that many competitors can make over six figures in both leagues through bonuses). But because the biggest checks come from winning competitions, earnings are concentrated among only the top players, like 16-year-old Kyle "Bugha" Giersdorf, who netted $3 million in July when he bested the competition in Epic Games' first Fortnite World Cup.

"Right now, if you're one of the very top streamers, you have more financial upside than many of the top competitors," says CAA digital agent Peter Letz. "On the other hand, that doesn't mean that every high-level competitor could retire and make more money." That's because making the transition to streaming requires daily broadcasts and regular interactions with fans, something that Damon Lau, head of e-sports at UTA, says favors "a certain type of personality."

“A full-time streamer really has to engage with their audience on a day-to-day basis," adds Lau. "Every single e-sports pro definitely knows that streaming is a possible career path for them, but sometimes the steps can be a bit confusing.”

"The only way I could do both was to have no social life," admits Grzesiek. "On days when I wasn't practicing, I'd stream for 12 hours."

The average day for a competitive gamer varies, but for players on e-sports organization 100 Thieves’ League of Legends squad, six to eight hours of scrimmages, five days a week, is routine. Coupled with official matches all day on both Saturday and Sunday, athletes are left with limited free time to stream on their own.

“They try to balance it where they’re focused on competing but also focused on building their brand,” says Brice Faccento, the 22-year-old co-founder of the recently formed e-sports agency Bad Moon Talent and former competitive gamer-turned-coach. “I definitely see them preparing their future for when they’re done competing to move into an entertainment role, but everyone’s different.”

“We don’t mandate streaming for our players, but we encourage it and try to educate them on the best way to build a personal brand and following to best position themselves for better career prospects,” says Jacob Toft-Andersen, vp e-sports at 100 Thieves, which operates five professional teams.

Another option is to become an expert on networks like ESPN or soon-to-launch streaming channel VENN. "If we're looking for someone breaking down the highlight from last night's Overwatch Championship, we would make sure that we had the best-in-class talent to do that," says ESPN vp digital programming John Lasker.

Blevins is the only mainstream crossover to emerge from e-sports and streaming as yet, but traditional media opportunities — think appearances on The Tonight Show and sponsorships with brands like Red Bull and Adidas — are becoming more frequent for gamers. Insiders warn, though, that professional gamers have a limited window during which they can grow their profile. "It's a hard market to break into," says Toft-Andersen. "Once you've peaked, it's too late to start building your following."

A version of this story appears in the Sept. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.