This article is part of a collaboration with iQ by Intel.
After church on Sunday, 13-year-old Christine “Potter” Chi followed her brother and his friends to an amateur Counter-Strike tournament at the Mug and Mouse LAN cafe in Dallas, Texas. While sipping boba tea, Potter and her reluctant friends watched as the teams faced off with nothing but pride on the line. “Once I realized they were going versus each other, it sparked my competitive side,” she said.More than a decade and a half later, Potter has five Counter-Strike world championships under her belt and is a reminder of just how far professionalism in eSports has come. Today, players compete for millions of dollars, engaging in grueling training regimens to prepare for matches and purchasing the newest, fastest equipment to stay ahead of their opponents.
Rising from the undisputed birthplace of competitive Counter-Strike in North America, Potter went from sneaking around LAN cafes in Dallas to competing in the Electronic Sports World Cup (ESWC) in Paris six years later. She saw eSports through the basement phase, before beginning her rise to the top during the stadium phase in 2006, only to weather the scene’s crash in 2008-2009.Despite her status as a gaming veteran, Potter said not even she could have imagined what Counter-Strike and eSports as a whole would grow into today. In the past two years, it’s become common to have a $250,000 to $1 million tournament every other weekend. A far cry from the BYOC (bring your own computer) Mug and Mouse LAN cafe tournaments, almost every major event now is played in stadiums usually reserved for Kanye West concerts and NBA games.
This past October, Potter and her team, CLG Red, returned to defend their reign as champions at ESWC. Unlike the first time, she won’t be returning to her parents’ house and day job to await next year’s tournament. Instead, she and her team members will immediately resume their strict training schedule at the designated CLG Red team house near Los Angeles, which comes complete with a team coach, personal trainer for working out and personal chef with pre-planned meals.
As the number of tournaments in eSports tripled over the past five years, the prize pools skyrocketed. Consequently, players’ level of investment, commitment and competition has reached a fever pitch.“In the early days attending events and practice was very much free time, or free time you made, in the same way a local softball team meets and practices,” explained Trevor Schmidt, Senior Manager of ESEA.“Now CS players have full time jobs with 24/7 expectations and million-dollar housing with practice rooms.” CS:GO (Counter-Strike: Global Offensive) players can pick and choose between events, creating an entire ecosystem of big and small prize tournaments. It has allowed players like Potter to create full-time careers around competing.
The price of all this opportunity is steep. The level of play increased exponentially along with the professionalization of eSports, but according to Potter, many veteran eSports stars began playing games in their basement because they liked it, not for the fame. “As pro gamers, we’re all learning a lot about work ethic,” she said. “The skill gaps have grown tenfold. People are becoming robots — perfection is everything.” Surprisingly, in this new world of highly professional competitive gaming, the biggest issue facing pro players is burnout. The CLG Red’s coach, Erik Stromberg, now considers enforcing a balance of life outside CS: GO to be key to any team’s success.
“We’ve gotten to a professional level where players can focus solely on getting better at Counter-Strike. It lead us to reach new heights,” he explained. “But we need to be able to do things outside the game so that when we play eight or 10 hours a day, we can stay hungry to win.” According to Stromberg, Potter can sustain the hunger through just about anything. She also remains one of the hardest players to convince to take a break. This level of intensity is fairly common given how eSports has grown and transformed into the monolith it is today. Because aside from the sheer surprise of eSports’ professionalization, the speed has also been unprecedented. Most major modern sports leagues like the NFL, NBA, FIFA have taken decades to reach any decent size.
“I can’t think of a single sport that spawned and, in less than 20 years, grew to be this big,” Schmidt said. The reason for this is at once expected and surprising. As with most sports, sponsors lead to growth through tournaments and prize pools. But what is truly unique to eSports is how the biggest sponsors push the technology that makes the sport possible. Historically the biggest sponsor, Intel, had a vested interest in providing the tech and tournaments that would raise the level of play. “You just always need the best technology to play Counter-Strike well,” said Potter, adding that at practice or a tournament, technical hiccups can be dire. “The first thing I notice in my PC experience is FPS (frames per second) and hertz (gigahertz processor speed).”
Consistently high refresh rates on the game and a high performance CPU gives Potter the results she needs. She said that one little kink in the chain, no matter how small, can throw the entire game off. Playing on i7 6700k processor enables her to stay focused on staying on top of the cutthroat competition. Despite her hunger to win and stay competitive, it wasn’t playing for an audience of thousands in stadiums around the world that convinced Potter of her success. She knew she’d made it the day her mom learned to text message to ask what her gaming nickname was.
“She wanted to Google me,” Potter said, “so she could show her friends and brag.”