How Far Esports Has Come — An Esports Tale

Truthfully, very few things in this life make me as happy as the current landscape of Esports as it continues to grow in popularity and the possibility for someone to make a career out of it.

But it wasn’t always this way. I know this because I lived that life.

Being a competitive gamer wasn’t always something that would get an “Oh, cool!” response out of people. It was more like “Ohhh.. Cool…?” You know how you can just tell when someone has made a pre-determination about your entire life based off something you told them? For the longest time, that is what telling people you’re a competitive gamer would do. Nothing else mattered after that. You were a nerd.

Or even worse, a geek.

I remember my first tournament like it was yesterday. However, it wasn’t yesterday, it was March 1st in 2003. That would also happen to be my 13th birthday. The event known as IVGF was going on in Seattle over two days. I was at the bus stop, and one of my childhood friends told me he read about how there is a Super Smash Brothers Melee tournament happening in Seattle. We lived in Marysville. When he said how much it cost to enter, my heart instantly sank. $50 entry fee? There was no way my parents would fund that for me. How do you even explain what I was going to do and that it was legitimate? Competitive video gaming was the opposite of main stream in 2003.

I didn’t even own a copy of Super Smash Brothers Melee or a Nintendo Gamecube. Yet, I managed to convince my Mom to give me the $50 and my friends across the street would have his parents take us there both days on the weekend. I was convinced I was going to win the tournament even though I could only play the game on weekends. I was so convinced I told people at school if I don’t come back it’s because I’m rich. First place won $8000, so apparently my younger self thought that was enough to retire. How cute.

My gamertag/tournament name is Jem

The summary of this tournament would be: I didn’t win, but it got me hooked on competitive gaming. I cried when I got eliminated. I have so much self confidence even to this day that I can be pretty tough on myself in the face of failure. I could be going up against a 20 time world champion and that still wouldn’t be an excuse to not win.

However, this post isn’t entirely about me, but more about what I witnessed along this amazing journey of Esports the last 15+ years I’ve been apart of it.

My next tournament after this would be at an apartment of 21+ year olds. Convincing my family that I wasn’t about to be a late night news story was really hard. Back then, having a venue to use that didn’t seem sketchy was incredibly rare. We were just poor gamers back then. There wasn’t enough belief in competitive gaming yet for people to dish out and take the financial losses they likely would have taken back then. “So you’re going to an apartment of 21+ years old while you’re 13 years old.. To play videogames..” Somehow, I managed to hustle out of this situation too. My Dad would take me to this apartment for the tournament of people considerably older than me, and he stayed for the tournament just to ensure my safety. Yep, his son was telling the truth, they really are just playing video games for money. Nothing news worthy will happen here.

I’m the albino looking 13 year old in the front that refused to hold up the $40 he won. I got 2nd in doubles here.

Small venues, apartment/house tournaments, low funding and no sponsors was something that would go on for a long time. Even through the early 2010’s, securing venues without occurring a financial loss was hard. You had to host tournaments for the passion of the game and for the growth of the scene, not because you were looking for a quick payday. Hell, even hosting an apartment and house tournament was costly if people ate at your place or if everyone used your shower. It wasn’t unheard of for people to get eviction warnings for having 20–30 gamers all in one apartment, which was a recipe for noise violations.

There was always debate on what a “professional gamer” truly was. In a lot of people’s definition, professional means you make a living off it. Well, making a living where you are paying for all your expenses was nearly impossible for the longest time except for the top .1%. Nowdays you can own a home through Esports. Back then? “Smash pads” and “Gamer pads” were very common, or living with your parents. Or working full time alongside competing, which is a very hard feat getting the proper days off and being rested enough to compete against some of the smartest people in the world in your game of choosing.

Living frugally was an art as a competitive gamer. Myself, I remember surviving off winning locals before I had a job. I had a pre-paid cell phone plan, I had Myspace/Facebook.. I was fortunate enough to be in a situation where I didn’t have to pay rent. So winning tournaments was my only source of money because I was chasing the dream. I still am today. I knew what I loved and I was willing to live at very near the bare minimum. There were times I went a YEAR without a phone just because. If I had Facebook or the gaming websites we used, I could just arrange practice sessions, tournament practice, carpooling to tournaments and more through those outlets. I flew across the country and across the west coast without even having a phone at times, something people new in the Esports scene might not be able to comprehend. Having so little money that if I missed a flight for whatever reason, I would essentially be forced to try to win tournaments in that region just to get home.

I was one of the first sponsored Smash Brothers players, and I’m damn proud of that. It wasn’t a luxurious sponsorship, but it was a sponsorship nonetheless. It proved to me that competitive gaming, not just for myself, but for everyone was possible and growing. Although I have traits I find redeemable, I felt if I could do this so could others. I wanted newer competitors to have luxuries I didn’t have when I was young. (Do you like how I’m 28 years old and acting like I’m on my death bed?)

2010 when having a “professional photo” taken during tournaments was still new

I’m not going to pretend I was the best player in the world. I wasn’t. I can say though I’ve won over 50+ tournaments and have 100+ top 3 finishes. I remember several discussions in my region that our scene was dying. I remember when a 20 person turnout for a tournament was a really good turnout. The scene were on the brink of extinction on a lot of occasions. At times it was like a high turnover job, the hardcore would stay and we would need to get new employees persay.

What I’m more proud of though is that I can say I was apart of building a better Esports future for those that came into the scene after myself. That they could grow up, see popular players with huge social media followings and a passion for video games and say: I want to be that. You can be that. You can focus on just that and get there. It won’t be easy. Competing against the best in your region and the world takes practice and discipline that you may have to build.

But now with the social media boom combined with the Esports boom? Being a professional has never been more viable. I feel I can safely speak for others and say those who enter the Esports scene do so in part because they don’t feel they follow a “normal life” like others. I knew the exact same thing when I was young. I still feel that way. I didn’t want a typical job. It was a struggle to relate to a lot of people because of this. I just knew I loved video games and I loved competing in them, and I would do whatever it takes to chase that.

Today, you have so many more people you can relate to as a competitive gamer. Seemingly everyday a new famous athlete is trying to create or help fund a new Esports team. Twitch streams live stream big events for you to gain a following that will introduce more opportunities to you. (Marketing is important everyone! You’re marketing yourself in these situations!)

From apartment tournaments to internet and gaming icons. It’s an honor to say I was apart of the humble beginnings that have led to the great peaks Esports is seeing and will continue to see, and I will do everything I can to help ensure that continues. Everyone deserves the chance to pursue this if that is their dream.

-Jem