With only a sliver of health left, Daigo Umehara takes the dangerous decision to force his opponent to attack, knowing that he’s about to face a flurry of kicks at blistering speed.
As the attack comes, Daigo is able to parry all of them. A single parry is difficult to pull off at the best of times, let alone 16 times in a row during the pressure of a tournament.
The room erupts, with a buzz to rival the crowd at any other major sporting event. Some people hadn’t known that what they’d just witnessed was even possible to do.
Daigo instantly follows up with a tricky combo to finish off his opponent and win the match.
This took place ten years ago, but it remains one of the most memorable moments in competitive gaming.
Since then, eSports have exploded in popularity. Last year, an estimated 2.4 billion hours were watched around the world.
The growth can even be seen by looking at individual tournaments The International is a tournament for the game Dota 2. It began in 2011 with a $1.6 million prize pot, but this year that pot reached a record-breaking $10 million.
This growth has meant more sponsorship opportunities for players, and has helped many of them turn gaming into a full-time profession.
This might sound like a dream job to many people, but it involves a lot more work than you might realise.
Life as a full-time gamer
Sam Morrissette, better known as Kane, is just 21, but he’s taken the last year out of his studies to pursue a full-time gaming career. His game of choice is real-time strategy game Starcraft II, which is one of the biggest games in eSports.
“When I was starting university my buddy said I had to try this game,“ he explains. “I’d heard of it but I never thought it was my kind of game, so I was really reluctant at first.
“I thought it might be fun to play with him though so I got it and I actually kinda loved it.”
While playing for fun, Kane gradually climbed the game’s leagues, eventually reaching the grandmasters made up of America’s top 200 players.
“In my first two years of college I was really focused on school. I’d play Starcraft when I had spare time. Then in my third year I started playing more and more, more than I should have actually.
“I was half-assing both, not putting 100 per cent effort into either. So I thought I’d either have to quit Starcraft or take time of school, and that’s what I did.”
The opportunity came after he won SHOUTcraft America in May 2013. More important than the $4,000 prize was the confidence he gained.
“I thought ‘hey, I’m not too bad at this game, maybe I could make a living out of this’. I’m still young and I don’t have a family or anything so I went forward with it.”
The Canadian joined the European gaming team mYinsanity and moved 4,000 miles away to live at their team house in Switzerland.
“I had to explain to my parents what eSports were. They were very supportive once I told them what it was all about, but to be honest they’re more excited about me travelling everywhere.”
Now based in a house with about eight other professional players he was able to dedicate himself fully to improving at the game.
Rather than just a bunch of lads playing games all day, the team maintains discipline and treats its training like any other job.
“I usually go to bed around 4am and wake up around 12pm. From noon until 2-3am it’s all Starcraft.
“We eat dinner as a team, which is important because it gives us a chance to speak to each other more about the game, or stuff going on in the house. It’s a family atmosphere.”
Spending all of your time on a single game inevitably leads to moments when it becomes difficult to go on.
“There’s days where you don’t really feel like playing, when you feel like you’re playing at a lower level. During those days it’s important to take a break and re-evaluate your play.
“But it’s still important to watch videos and replays. You don’t want to take days off where you just do nothing Starcraft related.
“It’s like a full-time job. If you don’t feel like going to your job, you still go and do what you can.”
Starcraft matches at this level take place at breakneck speed. During a match, Kane’s reaches up to 200 effective actions per minute, meaning that every second he’s making more than three moves.
“For me it’s nothing special, it’s not like I look at my hands and thing ‘wow, I’m playing fast’. For someone looking from the outside it might seem a bit special I suppose, but it’s the same as a four-year-old wondering how you work out 5+5=10 so fast.
“It takes a lot of practise. I turn on my own music and try to relax myself as much as possible.”
Kane is taking this year off his studies as well to continue gaming, and may take next year off if he’s still doing well.
“If an opportunity presents itself where I could have a somewhat stable career in eSports, I’d prefer that to an ordinary career. But I can’t really comment because I don’t know what’s in store yet.”
Despite his passion for gaming, he issues a warning to anyone who would pursue an eSports career too hastily.
“Keep playing part-time until you feel you’re good enough to go full-time. But only go full-time if you don’t have other obligations, like a family, where you can’t travel very much.
“Just be very smart about it. It’s not just a snap decision you can make. It takes a lot of time and planning. It’s not for everybody.”
Smashing back into the competitive scene
Perhaps fate drew him to it as the first game in the series, on the Nintendo 64, was released on his 13th birthday in 1999.
“I played a lot and I was the kid who beat all his friends in high school, so I thought I was the best.”
In 2004, having just turned 18, he went to his first tournament. He hadn’t expected much to come of it but found himself hooked.
“It was one of the most fun things I’d ever done.
“I realised I had to go again, then after that I had to go to the next one, and then the next one, then it just kind of turned into what it is now.”
He continued competing over the years, peaking in 2006-7 with a string of top 10 finishes and second place at EVO World 2007.
Despite this, he still wasn’t able to make the switch to playing full-time.
“Nowadays it could happen but back then it wasn’t an option. I was part of a team called Carbon, but that sponsorship didn’t really pay anything. It was just a name we could attach to ourselves.
“It’s definitely way different now.”
HugS was very active in Smash until 2011, but at this point he was studying and in the process of starting a career in corporate public accounting.
“At that point I took a complete break. I didn’t enter a tournament for two and a half years.
“Then Evo happened and I tried to go back into it, but I was still working and I realised that the two couldn’t coincide.
“I realised that if I wanted to have any kind of success I needed time to practise and to avoid being so overwhelmed with life in general.”
Despite the years spent studying for and launching his career, HugS took the life-changing decision quit and find more flexible work. He was also picked up by the team Frequency Gaming, who are helping to support him.
His colleagues offered nothing but support when he broke the news to them.
“If you were to quit and say you were starting a business, people would be super supportive because they understand what that means. With video games, you have to ground the idea into their reality, so that’s what I did.
“Whenever I write any status on Facebook or Twitter, tons of people from my old job will like it, because they understand what it means to me.”
He’s been making the most of his extra time by practising, and since the summer has improved his rank in the strong Southern California region from 10th to 7th.
“I feel myself getting a whole lot better. I’m putting in somewhere around 10-15 hours of pure practise every week.
“On top of that is hours of watching videos and thinking about the game and other players.”
The highest levels of Smash involve a mix of high technical skill and psychology, requiring a certain mindset from players.
“When you’re doing poorly you’re very conscious of what you’re doing wrong. When you’re playing well your mindset is almost non-existent. You’re completely in the zone, you’re absorbed by it.
“You hear people yelling or screaming things and they blur right by you. It’s like some kind of hyper focus. When you achieve it you feel like you’re on top of the world.
“The better you are the less you think when you’re in the middle of matches. I just kind of work on a subconscious level.”
At 28, HugS is older than many of his fellow professional gamers, who generally tend to retire at a young age.
“I try not to worry about the whole age thing,” he says. “I think it’s more of a mindset when it comes to youth because they don’t know what losing is yet.
“Even if it’s happening to them they don’t have the same reaction that a veteran does.”
His advice for anyone thinking about becoming a professional is to treat games as games.
“The most important thing period is that you have to have fun with the game. You have to legitimately enjoy learning and playing it.
“Also, put yourself in harm’s way to lose a lot and be critical about why you’re losing. It’s part of life and happens to the best player in the world. Be willing to accept that.”
The busiest gaming legend in the world
One of the most recognisable faces in professional gaming belongs to the UK’s very own Ryan Hart, known to some as Prodigal Son.
Now aged 35, he’s been playing fighting games competitively for the past 20 years.
Having entered nearly a thousand competitions around the world, winning 500 of them, as well as holding three Guinness World Records for Street Fighter, many people assume that gaming must be all he does. This is far from the truth.
“Gaming is never something I thought could or should be a career, it’s just something for fun.
“Gaming is something that brings people together socially, that exercises your mind, it’s brain stimulation. But that’s the extent of it. I don’t think you should give up everything you’ve ever worked or studied for in life for fighting games. There are better ways to be productive with your time.
“For a hobby however, as long as there is always an appropriate balance between gaming and everything else in your life then it can be good.
Looking at Ryan’s schedule, it’s almost impossible to work out how he fits it all into the hours of the day.
Alongside jetting around the world winning tournaments, he’s also a writer, a presenter and a consultant for developers and publishers.
“As long as I have my laptop and the internet, I can work. And because I’ve got a lot of experience, I don’t have to put the same amount of time into training that I used to. I can get straight into the meat of what I need to work on.”
But unlike Kane and HugS, Ryan has never stuck to a single game, instead competing in a variety of fighting games.
“If you factor in all the iterations, I’ve competed in 70 to 80 games, which is a lot.”
Every game has different mechanics, meaning that each time he picks up a new game he must adapt and develop new strategies.
“I guess that’s what keeps my mental motor running. Some games take longer to adapt to than others because the psychology you have to put into each one is completely different.
“It’s very difficult for people who don’t play to understand that it’s very psychological. On the screen there’s no way you can see a psychological connection between two players. You don’t know when someone’s mind is being read accurately.
“I couldn’t really care less that it’s two people fighting, or that one guy’s throwing a projectile, or that one guy’s got fire on his hand. It’s only because the psychology is so deep that it’s really interesting.”
Ryan has always been competitive, and entered his first gaming tournament in 1994 at the age of 15, Though he and his friends “got absolutely obliterated” the tournament left a lasting impression on him.
“I thought ‘wow, this is mesmerising‘, I didn’t even know you could do all those things. I wanted more, I wanted to be that good.
“I just enjoyed competition. The interest stems from the fact that I’m very competitive and I wanted to challenge myself.”
After causing a huge upset in 1995 King of Fighters tournament by knocking out the favourite to win, Ryan was determined to be the best.
He spent his evenings and weekends practising in the arcades and just a year later won the King of Fighters 96 tournament at the age of 17.
This was just the first of many victories. He held on to his title in the King of Fighters 97 tournament and the following year traveled to Japan to take his first world championship playing King of Fighters 98.
“Passion. Passion drove me. I wanted it. There was purpose now, I had something I was striving for.
“Whereas before I was playing to just see what happens, this time I was determined to be the best. That’s what changed how I practised and how many hours I put in.”
For HugS, the friendly Smash community is one of the reasons he‘s kept playing for the past ten years.
“The community makes up the majority of my social circle and my best friends,” he explains. “I feel like Smash is what eSports should have been this whole time.
“For example, competitive Halo was very impersonal. You couldn’t win a tournament and then hang out with the 3rd place team for dinner. You just went home, there was no sense of community. Smash had that though.”
For Ryan though there’s too much friendship in the competitive scene.
“I’d like to see a little bit more rivalry to be honest. It’s just too chummy at the moment. Everyone comes and chats, there‘s no tension.
“I think the console world has done that to people. You can go online and play from the security of your home. It doesn’t mean anything to win or lose anymore.
“Back in the arcades it meant a lot to lose because it was a public event and you were in a social environment. There were so many reasons to stay on the machine. It just created a more thriving, competitive environment overall.”
In his ten years competing, HugS has also seen changes in the way society views professional gaming.
“It’s becoming a thing which is totally acceptable now. I walk around the streets with a controller in my hand and it’s not a thing anymore. Back then, people would wonder but now people don’t really question it. They kind of already know that there’s gaming going on.”
But Ryan isn’t convinced that attitudes have shifted that far yet.
“It’s become slightly more exposed, so now if you mention professional gaming it’s not something that’s completely alien. But I don’t know if it’s that accepted or that people just know about it and they still make a bit of a mockery about it.
“But it’s good that there’s been more things attached to pro gaming, more awareness being raised and now people know about it. It’s something that’s not as obscure and underground as it once was.”
His advice to people wanting to become professional gamers is to “just do it from the heart”.
“I’ve heard about lots of pro gamers who just try to get money. If you’re just scraping at things like that I don’t think the enjoyment you get out of it will be maximised.
“If you do something you really enjoy, you’ll be better at it anyway. If gaming is for you then do it for the fun, do it for the laugh, do it for the enjoyment of what actually playing is.
“Just let it flow naturally. That passion inside, just let that go.”