Growing up in the late 90s and early 2000s, there was no ‘pro gaming’ or ‘esports.’ If you played games for five hours a day, people said you were going to rot your eyes out and fry your brain. The best you could do was sometimes win a competition here or there, but there was no way to really make a living out of it. Flash forward to today’s world, where you can not only make a living, between streaming, videos, and competitions, you can make a fortune. The 2018 League of Legends world championship drew in 100 million unique viewers while the Superbowl drew 98 million. But what does it take to actually “go pro” in today’s world? We’re going to compare two types of pro gamers: StarCraft 2-style RTS gamers and Fortnite-style FPS gamers.
Obviously, all pro athletes in both sports and esports must have quick reflexes, solid stress management, and developed strategies to beat specific teams or opponents. Some Korean esports teams practice for almost twelve hours a day. Top Fortnite player Bugha said that he practices at least six hours a day while simultaneously going to school, and even more than that on the weekends. It isn’t mindless practice, either; pro gamers study their own games, learn from their opponents, and have teammates drill them on specifics. Esports also gives players their stats after each game, Fortnite with kill/death ratios tracked on FortniteStats.com and StarCraft 2 with APM (actions per minute) and average unspent resources. On top of practicing daily, pro esports players have to retrain for every new patch update changing the balance of the game, adjusting their strategy accordingly.
An example of a patch affecting the APM of Fortnite players was in August 2019, when the Fortnite 10.20 version update changed the Turbo Build building speeds from 0.05s to 0.15s. Players who had dedicated time developing build-order patterns to muscle memory were rendered useless. The change was met with heavy criticism from both professional and regular players, and Epic quickly reverted the change. However, in a community lacking Fortnite’s fan pushback, pro players would’ve had to completely switch up their games.
If being able to clock a tenth of a tenth of a second seems intense, imagine what professional StarCraft 2 players clock when they average between 400-500 APM during a match (and sometimes even higher during intense battles.) In StarCraft 2, players are given a breakdown of their various averages of spent vs. unspent resources, unit count, and more at the end of each match, including their APM. This causes many players to focus intensely on every single keystroke they made and study their replays to see what went wrong down to the second.
To have an idea of what professional APM keystrokes sound like, listen to how many times 2020 Global StarCraft League Season 1 winner TY presses his keyboard in a recent StarCraft 2 guide video. To train to this extent, players usually live with their teammates and practice anywhere from 8-12 hours a day executing different strategies, adjusting to patch updates, and studying replays of their future opponents. This is important in StarCraft 2 because games in the GSL and other competitions are determined by a best of three, five, or seven games each on different maps. This is where a more strategic approach specific to a certain map becomes important on top of the blinding speed players execute their strategies. For example, top-ranking GSL StarCraft 2 player Maru used a “Proxy Barracks” strategy where he would immediately venture an SCV across the map to build a barracks outside his enemies’ base, rush Marines into their base, and then float the Barracks back to his base once the rush damage was done. After a certain amount of games, his opponents knew to plan for this, and Maru switched to a more traditional opening.
The other curious thing in esports is the age of professional players, which is usually skewed to the younger. While football and baseball also skew towards young adult players, esports goes for the younger demographic even more. Being drafted out of college in football or basketball is the goal to go pro, but some Fortnite and StarCraft 2 players are barely out of high school. This is partly due to burnout; for example, most of the former StarCraft 2 top players are not competing now. Sometimes even streamers take breaks because of hand injuries. GSL players routinely use heating pads to soothe their hands in-between matches in a best-of series.
Pro gamers also start very young. Bugha rose to fame at sixteen years old. TY was also one of the youngest pro-gamers ever when he was accepted to WeMake FOX team at twelve years old. So if you’re thinking of going pro, keep in mind that it’s going to take a lot of practice and determination.
Whether you’re an RTS-style StarCraft 2 pro or an FPS Fortnite guy, one thing is for sure: you didn’t get there on your own, and you didn’t get there in one day. Understanding the severity of a pro’s training regimen is key to developing a deeper appreciation for esports as spectacle, so maybe now we can all sit back and enjoy our favorite pros just a little bit more.