September 25, 2022

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The Sports Fanatics

Esports players retire extremely young. It’s not why you think.

(Kailey Whitman for The Washington Post)

Johnathan “Fatal1ty” Wendel was once the greatest professional gamer in the western world. In the nine years he competed, he won 12 championships and five MVP awards across a number of first-person shooter titles such as “Quake III Arena,” “Painkiller” and “Unreal Tournament.” By the end of his competitive career, Wendel earned $458,489 in prize money. He played his last professional match in 2007. He was 26 years old.

Though 26 is a remarkably young age at which to retire in traditional sports, in esports it’s the norm. In Activision’s Call of Duty League, the average competitor is around 22 years old, according to league data. In Blizzard Entertainment’s Overwatch League, the average player is about 20 years old. In both leagues, players retire extremely young compared to traditional sports. While only six players have retired from the Call of Duty League since it was launched in 2020, the median age is 26. In the Overwatch League, the average retirement age is 23.

This stands in stark contrast to traditional sports. The NBA’s average player age is 26, according to a 2021 survey and even in the super-demanding NFL, the average player retires between age 26 and 27, per the NFL Players Association.

Traditionally, it’s been claimed that esports competitors hang up their mice and keyboards because esports is a young person’s game. And similar to traditional sports, the belief is that esports athletes start to wear down physically, with a player’s reflexes, hand-eye coordination and mental agility all take a sharp dive once they hit their mid 20s. But for as often as that framing is repeated, it seems to have little basis in medical science.

“It’s baloney,” Dr. Caitlin McGee said. McGee is a physical therapist and co-owner of 1HP, a group of medical professionals who specialize in treating esports competitors. “Yes, there is research that shows us how reaction time changes over time and one of the things that affects reaction time eventually is age. However, the age at which you start to see substantial decline in reaction time is much older than mid 20s.”

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Age and deteriorating performance are factors that usually weigh heavily on athletes retiring in traditional sports. However, in interviews with The Washington Post, four retired esports athletes said the primary motivation to step aside came from factors related to stress, overwork, job instability and exploring new ventures.

“Basically, the prize money went down a lot,” Wendel said of his decision to retire. “And that’s when I was like, well … If I’m not gonna make money for my time and effort, maybe I can do other things for esports and gaming.”

It was then that he decided to focus on business, doubling down on his contracts with hardware manufacturers to expand his Fatal1ty brand of gaming accessories such as headsets and mice. Wendel is not alone in following that path.

Dennis “Thresh” Fong is one of Wendel’s mentors and, according to Guinness World Records, the world’s first professional gamer. Fong was a Quake phenom who was so influential he was the figure who popularized the now standard WASD configuration of keyboard movement controls in first-person shooters. He also retired remarkably early — at 20 years old.

“I was running a company that was reasonably successful and quite large in terms of team size,” Fong said. “We had raised venture funding and I was CEO. So that in itself was incredibly stressful, being 21 years old and running a company for the first time.”

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Fong and his brother Lyle were the founders of GX Media, a holding company that managed Fong’s other ventures: Gamers.com, FiringSquad, and Lithium Technologies. Fong eventually sold GX Media for over $100 million. Nowadays, Fong works as CEO of his latest venture, GGWP, a game moderation platform aimed at curbing toxicity among players through machine learning. Even at 44 years old, Fong is fiercely competitive and believes he can enter the Top 100 of any game he dedicates time to. But now, as a father and a CEO, he’d rather play more casually.

“When you’re a 20-year-old, you can be all in games 24/7 and be super happy, right?” Fong said. “But when you’re in your 30s and 40s, you’ve got more real life responsibilities. You may have a family, you may have a kid, you may have stuff going on in your life. … I still love games, I still play games, but it’s not a priority for me.”

Many of the professional gamers from the early 2000s retired for those very reasons. As they got older, the time they put into training didn’t justify the meager winnings and salaries they received in return. And now with the rise of streaming, many pro gamers opt out of the big leagues to capitalize on familiarity and fanbases developed during their esports days to become content creators.

Brandon “Seagull” Larned is a Twitch streamer and one of the early trailblazers in the Overwatch League. During his time with the Dallas Fuel, Larned recounted practicing with his team for 10 hours a day, six days a week. His personal practice time bumped the weekly workload up to anywhere from 70 to 80 hours. But now as a content creator, Larned sets his own schedule, can hop around to any game he wants, has a much healthier work-life balance and makes more money.

“Esports burns a lot of players out with its grueling practice schedule,” Larned said, noting that people tend not to think of playing video games as work. “So that becomes an easy excuse to always put in as many hours as possible.”

Larned’s experience is, again, a common one. Burnout is an endemic and pervasive issue in esports, according to those interviewed for this story. Esports competitors are often expected to train at a relentless pace that eventually affects them either physically in the form of injuries or mental strain.

Despite public perception, most esports games are physical pastimes. While a game such as “StarCraft” has often been described as a high tech version of chess, its players also must train for how quickly and precisely they move a piece. In “StarCraft,” a player’s micromanaging ability (how fast players control their units) can determine the outcomes of entire tournaments.

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Overtraining and burnout are two concerns also mentioned by Fong. He said he suffered from a nearly debilitating wrist and shoulder pain, which he attributed to a poor understanding of ergonomics and proper training back in the late 1990s. But even with all the strides made in the past 25 years since Fong retired, both overtraining and burnout persist as major problems.

Madison Klarkowski, an assistant professor at the University of Saskatchewan who researches social interactions in video games, pointed out that the onetime standard of esports team houses create an environment where work and life have no clear distinctions.

“They’re just huge pressure environments,” Klarkowski said. “You have these people in gaming houses playing for 12 to 14 hours a day. They’re scrimming [shorthand for scrimmaging], they’re training, they’re doing drills for over 15 hours a day.

“[And] when they’re not playing, they’re surrounded by their co-workers, essentially — their employers, their managerial staff. There isn’t really any opportunity for them to remove themselves from that space. It’s just constant.”

Overtraining takes a significant toll, esports athletes say. No athlete can sustain a 12 hour per day, six days a week training schedule, medical professionals agree, and esports is no exception. Yet such a grind has become near standard due to several factors.

Albert Yeh, president of gaming operations for Misfits Gaming and general manager of the Overwatch team Florida Mayhem, pointed out that the intense esports grind is what gets players noticed by teams in the first place. Nearly every pro is someone who already accumulated thousands of hours in video games from childhood, many of them signing their first pro contract from as young as 17.

Because there is virtually no physical bar to clear, pro gamers tend to be more fully developed at their game at a younger age compared to traditional sports. Unlike, say, drafting a defensive-minded 7-footer and hoping their offensive game comes around in time, with pro esports, either you can dominate in the game, or you’re not on a roster.

“At the pro level, we’re not waiting [for players to develop],” Yeh said. “These kids don’t need to physically mature for them to be pro level at the time. Whereas for sports, it doesn’t matter how skilled you are at eight years old. You can never compete with a grown man.”

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That same low barrier for entry also creates a kind of Catch-22 when it comes to overtraining. With so many skilled players capable of entering the pro ranks, Yeh said the current professionals push themselves to stay on top of their game, afraid of being overtaken by younger, hungrier prospects. This cycle compounds the fatigue from training, accelerating the pace at which pros reach their breaking point, retire and are replaced by the younger players.

Further fueling this phenomenon is what doctors label a nocebo effect, where subjects believe in negative expectations to the point they become reality. The inaccurate belief that players peak in their early 20s — despite the lack of actual medical research — thus becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“Our brains are highly suggestible,” said McGee, the physical therapist with 1HP. “So if you have multiple generations of players who genuinely believe that they’re going to slow down when they hit 25, they will slow down when they hit 25. It’s not going to be a matter [that] their brains can’t process fast enough anymore. It’s going to be a perception thing. They’re going to filter everything they observe through that lens of ‘I am starting to slow down because I am old.’ ”

There are few mechanisms to curb the practice of overtraining in esports and potentially break the cycle. Unlike traditional sports, no formal players’ union exists in any esport. Enforcing any sort of player benefits or rights is left to the discretion of the leagues, teams and tournament organizers. This makes it easier for teams to usher in new, younger, cheaper players, content to let more expensive veterans walk away.

“You have team owners who are constantly seeing new people come in and try to see if they can get them into mediocre contracts for easy money,” Larned said. “I think that is pretty common in the esports industry. Not as common these days, thankfully. There’s been a rise in the last four years with player agents in the space and more supporting elements to help those people.”

The failure to retain older players also results in a massive loss of perspective and experience. Contrary to popular belief, age could actually be a big advantage for competitors.

Ronald “Rambo” Kim is a content creator and owner of FPS Coach, a service which provides specialized training for first-person shooter titles. During his competition days, he was a legendary “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive” player with a string of championships under his belt. He said that a gamer in their 30s could very well be significantly slower than a teenager, but could buffer those slower reflexes with wisdom.

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“I do think there’s a taper effect in terms of pure mechanics,” Kim said. “But I also think you’ve got a lot more to contribute in terms of your experience, maturity, strategy, and preparation — these X factors that you gain just from time put in.”

The science seems to support Kim. Even the things considered raw, physical ability — such as razor-sharp aim or lightning-quick reflexes — are actually learned by training. A pro player’s seemingly superhuman snap shot on an opponent popping out of nowhere is informed as much by game sense as quickness.

“In esports, we don’t just have pure reaction times, right?” McGee said. “Do you know where to look? Do you know where to expect this person to peek out? Do you know what the other team’s tendency [for] certain plays is? Are you able to tune out other distractions like your teammates talking about other things they’re seeing on the map or the audience around you? It’s never just pure reaction time.”

There are a growing number of players who are proving their ability to compete well into their 30s, including Hajime “Tokido” Taniguchi. Tokido is widely recognized as one of the greatest Street Fighter players of all time. Now in his mid 30s, he remains a dominant competitor.

Taniguchi accredited his precision, mental fortitude, and ability to perform in the clutch as traits he was only able to gain through years of experience. In other words, he had to get older to get better.

“I have turned 36 years old,” Taniguchi wrote in a translated email. “But I can confidently say that I am at my strongest and best form ever in my career.”

Jonathan Lee is a freelance journalist based in New York covering the intersection of video games with politics, economics, race and culture. His work has appeared on Wired, Kotaku and Inverse. Follow him on Twitter @Jondottxt.