The five young men of Team Liquid earn around $US60,000 each, plus what they get through sponsorship and streaming deals, and live for free in a LA condo just for being good at League of Legends, the most popular competitive video game in the world
Despite a roster loaded with top players, it has been stuck around fourth place in North America. With the addition of a former world champion, however, hopes are high that the team will earn a shot at the World Championship’s $US1-million prize.
Being a professional gamer is a sweet gig, but it’s not all fantasy. With high pressure and low job security, gamers play up to 14 hours a day to stay on top of their craft, all while devoting their formative years to skills that may have little marketable value later in life.
That’s why Alex “Xspecial” Chu told his younger brother, a talented gamer in his own right, to stay out of pro-gaming. “I know how hard it is,” he says.
We visited the team in Santa Monica, California to get a first-hand look.
Team Liquid lives in a Santa Monica duplex just off the I-405 freeway. I arrived late in the morning to hang out with the team as they prepared for game day.
When I arrived around 12:30 p.m., most of the team was still asleep. As Team Liquid owner Steve Arhancet told me, 'Gamers run on a different schedule than the rest of the world.' Most of Team Liquid wakes up around 12 p.m. and many stay up late playing the game until 3 a.m. or later.
The only people awake were Liquid coach Peter 'PtotheD' Zhang (left) and Diego 'Quas' Ruiz, a quiet 23-year old from Maracaibo, Venezuela. Ruiz honed his skills at League by using the computers at an internet cafe run by his mother. He's in the US now on a professional sports visa.
As the players woke up, the first thing they did is get on their computers. They checked Twitter and Reddit and started watching another match in the League Championship Series (LCS), which they were competing in later that day.
Zhang gathered the team to go over strategy. After being a preseason favourite, they had underperformed and were then in 7th place, needing a win to keep their playoff hopes alive and avoid the possibility of relegation.
One of their biggest problems has been integrating two new Korean players -- Kim 'FeniX' Jae-hoon (seen here) and Chae 'Piglet' Gwang-jin. South Korean players are considered the best in the world by many, but the team has had difficulty working through language and culture barriers. The Korean players tend to practice for extremely long hours, which some players feel makes them distracted during team scrimmages.
The loudest member of the team is Christian 'IWDominate' Rivera (center), a hot-tempered 24-year-old from Miami, Florida, who was once banned for a year for his 'persistently toxic behaviour' in the game. He's since reformed in the game, but can still be mercurial. The night before, IWDominate had openly contemplated retiring after the team lost to Cloud 9, one of the best teams in the league.
Around 1:30 p.m., the players packed up their keyboards and mice. Team Liquid is sponsored by gaming peripheral company Razer, and most of them use the Razer Imperator mouse ($80) and the Razer BlackWidow Chroma keyboard ($170).
Piglet (second left) was the team's big free agent acquisition prior to this season. A former world champion with Korean team SK Telecom 1, he is considered one of the best players in the world, but his talent has failed to translate so far, and he was recently benched for several weeks. When I asked team owner Steve Arhancet if the benching was due to 'superstar' issues, he shrugged. 'Something like that.'
Riot Games, which publishes League of Legends and runs the LCS, provided a black car to shuttle the team to the studio fifteen minutes away.
This is the LCS studio in West Los Angeles, where about every weekend from January through August, ten teams of professional video gamers face off in League of Legends.
More than 27 million people play LoL daily, and last year's world championships had a peak concurrent viewership of 11.2 million people. When I arrived, fans were stretched around the block.
Here's a picture from the 2013 World Championships in Los Angeles, with SK Telecom hoisting the Summoner's Cup. Piglet (who now plays for Liquid) is the furthest on the left.
After arriving, Team Liquid headed to a backstage room with computers for last minute practice, a TV for watching the current game, and a generous catered lunch.
Xpecial did a little last minute cramming before the match. At 22-years-old, the California native is considered a veteran of the scene. Like most players, he is hyper-competitive. He told me that as a child he struggled with the concept of losing and would often cry when his grandfather beat him at Ping-Pong.
Despite Piglet's reputation as a diva, he (right) comes off as a very goofy guy. He speaks English poorly, but often teaches players Korean swear words, loves to party, and laughs wildly when joking with other players.
On the stage floor, the emcee warmed up the crowd and told them to post everything to social media. 'We want everyone to know how awesome League of Legends is,' he shouted. The LCS is itself a money loser but is seen as a successful promotion for the game, which last year brought in nearly $1 billion.
The stands were packed with fans wearing team gear, holding figurines or wearing costumes of their favourite game characters. More than 200,000 more fans were watching online.
League of Legends matches teams of five in 20 -- 60-minute battles to capture each other's base. Players choose one of hundreds of characters called champions to go into battle.
You can understand the basics of the game by looking at the map below. A team wins by destroying the opponent's 'Nexus.' Most teams send a player over the top ('Top Laner'), one down the middle ('Mid Laner'), two via the bottom ('Carry' and 'Support'), and one to roam the Jungle ('Jungler'). The map is also filled with monsters that players can kill to earn gold and experience.
On Team Liquid, Quas is the Top Laner and FeniX is the Mid Laner, good positions for well-rounded and nimble players. IWDominate is the Jungler, able to see lots of the map and shout out orders. Piglet is the Carry, able to deal high damage, but defensively weak. Xpecial is the Support, tasked with protecting the all-important Carry.
Their opponents, Team Coast, were currently the worst team in the LCS. In this sport, however, any team can beat any team, as seen in an earlier match that day when perennial winner Cloud 9 lost to bottom-dwellers Team 8.
Each team gets to ban three champions from being used before picking their own. When Piglet was able to choose his favourite champion, the marksman/assassin Vayne, the crowd went wild. Vayne is the champion Piglet used when he won the World Championship.
Team Liquid's strategy was to select a powerful offensive champion for the Carry, with versatile champions to protect him until he is able to level up to an unbeatable strength. Team Coast's strategy was to counter by picking multiple mobile champions who deal lots of damage early.
Team Liquid started with an unusual and risky strategy, sending Carry Piglet by himself to the top lane so he can kill a bunch of stuff and level up quickly.
Liquid had an early setback when Mid Laner Fenix got killed by the other team (his character will regenerate soon). Teammates refer to Fenix as 'the scrimmage-god,' because he plays unbelievably in practice but often cracks under the pressure.
Liquid responded quickly, as Piglet attacked Coast's Cris and evened the score. While the game is not won or lost on which team has the most kills, each kill yields gold and experience.
The players wear noise-cancelling headsets during the game, but sometimes it isn't enough. The crowd cheers loudly when any big play is happening and some players complain that the noise can be distracting.
Ten minutes later, Piglet ambushed an unsuspecting player. Because of the language barrier, Xpecial, who plays alongside Piglet in the lane, is often left guessing what Piglet is trying to do. In this case, it worked out.
Watching a match can also be eerily quiet, as the crowd sits silently and the only sounds are taps on keyboards and the announcers in the background.
Around the 20th minute, Liquid made a game-changing play by killing one of the big neutral monsters on the map and gaining significantly enhanced abilities. In the next few minutes, they would press their advantage by killing another big monster.
Fans could sense the match getting out of hand, and some decided to leave, chanting Team Liquid as they did.
After killing another big monster, Liquid is ready for the finisher. They blow through the entrances to Coast's base and smash the Nexus, winning the game.
The celebration feels authentic, but it's also part of Riot's precise post-game guidelines. Players are expected to have a 'win moment reaction' for the broadcast, shake hands with the other players, and then head to the front of the stage to either wave or shake hands with the crowd.
Liquid high-fives the fans that make it to the front of the stage first. Piglet had a huge grin on his face.
After their big victory on Sunday afternoon, Team Liquid stuck around the studio for another few hours goofing around and talking with journalists. They would finally get a break on Monday, which was supposed to be their day off from gaming.
But when they get home around 10 p.m., most of the players headed straight for the computer to talk with friends or girlfriends, browse Reddit, or, most likely, play more League of Legends by themselves late into the night.
In the weeks that followed, Team Liquid would sneak into the playoffs and make it to the semifinals, where they were knocked out by Cloud 9. You can see more of this season's exploits in the surprisingly candid Liquid-produced YouTube series 'Rebirth.'
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