Playing at work – ‘This is not a friends’ club’: Pro-gamers’ negotiations of play and work

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By Diego Arguedas Ortiz

Abstract: Gaming is still seen as a hobby or a leisure activity by the average person out there, including many academics. But there is a massive global community of professional (pro-) gamers that has been disregarded by both the media, society and academia, with most research still focusing on recreational gaming. This paper aims to provide insight into the little-known world of pro-gaming. Specifically, it intends to shed light on the way pro-gamers create life strategies to negotiate ‘work-time’ and ‘play-time’ when gaming online, and how this relates to broader life and career paths within the expanding pro-gaming industry. The research for this paper resulted in two major discoveries: first, pro-gamers ‘label’ who they play with and, based on that, they are able to separate play from work; and second, gamers can commit to months or years of this career because the younger generations they are part of no longer follow the traditional career paths set by society.

Prologue

When I first met Sneaky, the captain of the Dutch pro-gaming team LowLandLions, he was sprinting towards me wearing a gray hoodie and sweat pants. We had agreed that if possible I would reach his house by myself, but the task proved too much for me so he had to pick me up at the bus station just two blocks from his house. He hastily greeted me and immediately said: ‘We have to hurry because I am in champion select!’. In League of Legends, the game he plays, champion select is the pre-match phase where each player chooses a character. After that there is a brief loading screen which gave us just enough time to run.

My first experience with a Dutch professional gamer was thus dashing through the cozy suburban neighborhood of Maarssen, a small town at the outskirts of Utrecht. While running Sneaky joked about how this 500-meter race would compensate for the time we spent on the computer. But, as I learned later, he couldn’t be more different from the stereotypical geek who sits in his chair staring at a screen for 10 hours a day.

Back at his place, his team was waiting online: they were on tryouts for a new team member. A few weeks earlier they had ‘released’ two players due to their underperformance and the hunt to fill the gap was still on. The newcomer, due to the position he applied for, was paired with Sneaky in a similar area of the game map. In their swift performance during the match they resembled seasoned companions rather than strangers. They won the match with ease (a match can last between 20 and 45 minutes on average – this one was rather short) and, after the victory announcement filled his screen, Sneaky turned his chair to me. ‘I like this guy.’

Studying pro-gaming

Professional competitive gaming, or pro-gaming, is a relatively recent phenomenon propelled by young adults. Young men and women in their late teens and early twenties have found a vocation in gaming and discovered that they can earn money and prestige with it, thus forming a worldwide professional gaming legion devoting much of their time, energy, and money to train in video games. Still, most academic research on gaming focuses on amateur or recreational gaming, without taking notice of the growing competitive gaming scene that involves thousands of youths around the world. The emergence of this pro-gaming scene raises questions regarding the nature of the game itself, the boundary between ‘play-time’ and ‘work-time’, and the construction of video gaming as a money-making venture rather than a leisure activity by these players.

On this crossroad, professional or semi-professional gamers attempt to become world-elite players and make a living out of playing video games by means of sponsorships, wages, and tournament prizes. In order to accomplish this, they undergo intensive and time-consuming training and preparation. However, some semi-professional gamers understand their limitations and do not aspire to become world-elite players for a lifetime. Whatever their aspirations and options with regard to making a career in the pro-gaming industry, a crucial condition for succeeding in this field is to maintain a certain distinction between work and play. This aspect is practically ignored in existing research on gaming.

Video gaming is often analyzed from a deviancy perspective, framing it as a negative and addictive activity that can hardly bring positive effects on the users. As a relatively recent phenomenon that has not yet received much public exposure, the gaming scene still tends to provoke outrage in mainstream media and public opinion, similar to how other ‘deviant’ subcultures like skating and punk once did. As something beyond society’s control and unexplainable, gaming is seen as both a waste of time and a risk to its users.

Lange (2011) compares this concern with the moral panic when television was introduced, and he warns against creating a ‘real versus virtual’ terminology in the study of video gaming. Indeed, besides stigmatizing what is nowadays a common and extended activity among youths, the biggest flaw of the deviancy approach is that it disregards the possibilities gaming offers to create what mainstream society would call a ‘respectable’ life: a waged position that provides both economic means and social interaction and that requires outstanding discipline and commitment.

Very little research has been done on professional gaming scenes. One of the few examples is Taylor et al. (2009), and while they specifically focus on the gendered aspects of the scene they also lament the general scarcity of research. As they suggest, the larger theoretical problem in the field of study of professional gaming lies in the boundary between work and play. In general, whereas work is associated with order, play is associated with free ‘flow’. But as Shaw (2010) argues, interpreting game play merely as an encouragement to flow discredits a great many other types of interaction the player has with the game.

Much of the confusion regarding the relationship between work and play can be traced to Huizinga’s (1980, original 1939) approach to play. His book Homo Ludens, ‘Man the Player’, in which he explores the linguistic roots and uses of the words that nominate ‘play’, sheds a necessary light for everyone aspiring to tackle the relationship between play and work. He noted that ‘for us, the opposite of play is earnest, also used in the more special sense of work’ (1980: 44), and that wages are not earned playing, but working. But while he thus separated play from work, his proposal that play is an intrinsic part of culture, not something separated from it, is central to both his work and this paper.

The relationship between play and work has arguably shifted since Huizinga’s time. These days, the boundaries have become more fluid: play can be an intrinsic part of work, and work an intrinsic part of play. To take this fluidity into account I intend to connect professional gaming to Bauman’s (2000) concept of liquid modernity, which proposes that traditional institutions such as education, work, and family dissipate at such speed in our late-modern society that the individual can’t (or won’t) construct what traditionally has been a coherent life-project. In this context the individual is able to construct unconventional life-paths, as the careers of pro-gamers illustrates.

Lions and legends

In my research I have focused on the professional Dutch gaming team LowLandLions (LLL) that competes in the Benelux and European circuits of League of Legends, a multi-player online battle-arena video game. My intention was to shed light on the way pro-gamers create life strategies to negotiate work-time and play-time when online and how this relates to broader life-paths within the expanding pro-gaming industry. League of Legends was chosen for this research since I have played it myself and was even part of an amateur team back in my home country, Costa Rica.

League of Legends
Figure 1: Screen shot of a League of Legends game.

During the time of the research, between October and December 2012, the team participated in several Local Area Network (LAN) tournaments, for which they had to travel to a venue and compete there. This led them to Antwerp in Belgium, Drachten in the northern part of The Netherlands, and Jönköping in Sweden during a period of two months. The months of my research coincided with a period of instability in the team; in the last days of September two of the five members were separated from the team and later on, at the end of November, one of the newcomers who filled one of those spots was also removed from the team. A final change occurred barely one day before I handed in this paper, in mid-December. This allowed me to witness the process of constructing a professional team, with all the little tweaks and tribulations involved.

The research followed four members of the team, here enlisted with their in-game nicknames, position in the team, place of residence, and academic background. First, attack-damage-carry and team captain, 24-year-old ‘Sneaky’ from Maarssen, who studied to be a professional sports coach. Second, mid-laner ‘Groarr’ from Tilburg, who studied Business Economics. Third, support ‘Agronarr’, from Zeeland, who studied IT Management. And fourth, top-lane 17-year-old ‘Morsu’, who was still in high school at the time of the research. Information was gathered through personal interviews with them and following their communication procedures through voice chat software such as Skype or TeamSpeak3, the latter being the team’s usual channel to talk to each other.

During the two-and-a-half months of my research, LowLandLions.LOL (the League of Legends division) traveled almost a thousand miles by land, won three tournaments in the Netherlands, trained 25 hours a week on average, and earned around 3.000 euros in tournament prizes as a team. Plus, their sponsors provided them with equipment and logistical aid, ranging from headsets and keyboards to traveling expenses. During these two-and-a-half months, the team members only saw each other face-to-face when attending a tournament.

Diego Arguedas Ortiz - illustration logo
Figure 2: The logo of LowLandLions on a mousepad design.

Working and playing

The passing from amateur to professional level is a deliberate decision that involves two major calls: first, leaving the ‘real-life’ friends a gamer would normally play video games with to search for a new competitive team and, second, the commitment to comply with the expectations of this squad, including the tight training schedules. LowLandLions trained 3-4 hours in the evenings four times a week (Monday through Wednesday, some Friday evenings and Sundays – these sessions usually extended most of the afternoon and part of the evening).

This is the tightrope pro-gamers have to walk: where does leisure end and work begin? Pro-gaming teams acknowledge the difference between playing ‘just for the fun’ and engaging in serious training and preparations for tournaments. LowLandLions is no exception: its members are aware of the demands of being in a pro-team and divide the time they spend online between play-time and work-time. The team members thus differentiate between the time spent playing casually with friends and the time spent on team practice. As Agronarr explained:

‘With friends you don’t practice, you troll and it’s pure fun. Team is also fun, but you also plan strategies and combinations, make meetings and stuff like that.’ (Agronarr)

This is a trend found: when playing with friends they give the game less importance and choose a position different from the one they usually play as pros. Trolling, Internet slang for someone intentionally disruptive in games or forums, is tolerated in ‘friend time’ but would be unthinkable in pro-gaming. In a way, then, playing with friends is disconnected from their activities in the pro-scene:

‘When I play with friends, I just basically chill out. I don’t play main role and I don’t make calls. You just go and play whatever you like, however you like it, I don’t try my best.’ (Sneaky)

What are they taking a distance from? The weekly training sessions can be burdening, with over 20 hours a week devoted to competitive planning and practicing. For instance, when referring to his performance on a tournament, Morsu explained:

‘When I’m on a tournament I can’t make a mistake. I will rerun that mistake for a long time. For fun it’s like whatever.’ (Morsu)

The four players acknowledged, to a greater or lesser extent, that being part of LowLandLions is not their average gaming activity. Furthermore, three of them tagged this as a job or work, while Groarr called it a hobby. When I asked him why, he said it was because he didn’t make much money from it and because he played when he liked to, not when he had to. However, he still attended the scheduled training sessions, and the low income does not mean it isn’t a job; it can simply be a bad one. For Agronarr:

‘It’s like a job, because without practice you don’t win. In the afternoon we don’t practice with the team, it’s more casual and it’s purely fun. In the evening it’s kind of a job.’ (Agronarr)

The job also implies responsibilities and, as in any other profession out there, if you don’t perform you lose your position. This is what happened to Agronarr’s predecessor and to their last two ‘jungle’ players, the position that opened in late September and was re-opened again after DreamHack  (the tournament they attended in Jönköping) in late November.

‘When people are not good, or they underperform for a certain amount of time, or are not committed enough you talk to them. If they don’t seem interested, we part our ways.’ (Sneaky)

They confessed feeling a bit tired some days, but then still choose to train. Still, if any of the team members has a special situation which prevents him from attending a training session, they can cancel it or train with someone else. Similar to any modern office substitution system.

On the weekends, they party or meet with offline friends as any other Dutch youth would do. Sneaky plays basketball with his friends every Thursday. There is also room for something else or, as Groarr puts it: ‘we still value real life matters more than training sessions’. But does gaming ever become part of their real life?

Colleagues or friends?

Some researchers have studied the relations that gamers create among themselves. Zhong (2011) tries to identify the offline and online social capital of MMORPG (Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game) players. Trepte, Reineche and Juechems (2012) go further and analyze the bridging and bonding social capital of MMORPG players when they group in tribes: a virtual community with a hierarchy, rules, and sense of belonging. But no other phenomenon within the gaming scene resembles the formal structure of professional gaming. Even when players in other games spend more time online or talk more to each other, they don’t have to do so to improve. League of Legends is a team game and, at the elite level, individual skill without strategy will not suffice. Furthermore, team members see each other physically during tournaments and live together in a hotel for the three or four days that the competition lasts. Thus, I believe professional gamers playing League of Legend or similar games have a much more intense relationship with their team than other gamers.

So we have these players spending time together – though mostly online, still in constant virtual contact – for more than 25 hours a week, but doing so in a ‘formal’ atmosphere. Of course, they joke and have fun together. As Morsu said, winning on a competitive level feels ‘way better’ than in a casual match. But overall the relationship revolves around improving their game and maximizing performance, with a clear objective: working for the win.

‘When I began playing, it was fun. Now I see it as work, you have to be on time at practice, you have to be on top of the game and if you fuck up, then you don’t make any money, so it’s important to be motivated. So I see them as my colleagues.’ (Morsu)

‘My teammates are a little bit of both friends and colleagues. Sure, you have fun, but when you play with them it is more as having a co-worker. I don’t have a job, so I need money from gaming, which is a nice bonus. As a team we have won about 3k. Split that into five. It’s less than a regular job, but it’s fun.’ (Sneaky)

Referring to the difference between friends and colleagues, Sneaky explained that League of Legends can turn team members into friends, but only after some period spent playing together. When asked how long he considers that period to be, he said somewhere between six months and a year. I can relate to this, because in my team back in Costa Rica one of the players ‘recruited’ his cousin to play with us, and I know he has become friends with those who were in the team before. Agronarr explained this in a way that perfectly leads us to the next section:

‘If I could still be here in a couple of years that would be great, but I don’t know what’s gonna happen. If there’s a better player around I might get replaced, because this is not a friends club, this is a team that works because we always try to improve.’ (Agronarr)

Dieo Arguedas Ortiz - illustration LLL.LoL2
Figure 3: The team in action, meeting offline only at tournaments.

What next?

The players have different methods to construct their life-paths from this point on. Their first challenge is to negotiate the idea of what should be a decent living occupation. At the time of the research, all of them were in some sort of formal tertiary or secondary education and gaming, while a job, is still something at least parallel to their studies. It seems that the defining point in their careers will be when they finish their current academic cycle.

The most interesting case is Sneaky’s. After his injury in basketball he kept his link to the sports world (he still played basketball once a week, every Thursday) and he studied for sports physics educator, a career that would allow him to be a certified coach in any sports discipline, including electronic sports or e-gaming. This is where he planned to fit, creating a link between professional coaching and the professional gaming world. With this in mind, his intent was to be a known name within the community, so that managers and team owners will count on him.

‘My goal is with my studies and to get my professional sports coach title, then I can work with professional teams to balance their game in life with their bodies, how to use their brains, their bodies. I’m earning some cash now, but I’m also looking at my future, I can find a job in this scene… I can offer stuff to a team while talking to some bosses. This is like career building.’ (Sneaky)

The bosses Sneaky refers to are the team owners. Modern pro-gaming is similar to other major sports, where franchises or millionaires create or buy teams and then recruit coaches and players. By interacting with other teams in the European scene, Sneaky aims to create potential employment opportunities for himself.

The 17-year-old Morsu has a more pragmatic approach: he really dislikes working and with the money he is making now he can accumulate enough to get by for a while. What’s next for him? He feels he is improving his game with the day, so he plans to take a free year after finishing high-school to try this life and attempt to join any of the elite teams that rank high on the best tournaments.

‘But, hey, if I don’t get success, I’ll probably do something with Biology.’ (Morsu)

Groarr and Agronarr don’t see things so clearly, and still struggle with what will happen with their lives when they finish their studies. Agronarr feels that, for the next two years of studies he still has left, he can easily combine gaming with LowLandsLion and performing at his study career. But it is not clear for him whether he has a future in pro-gaming.

Gaming is not the big picture. If I get benched or removed, I’m a bit sad, but the big picture…’ (Agronarr)

The Business Economic undergrad Groarr is convinced that his academic career is also his future. For now, he feels that the money he is getting for the amount of time invested in the game won’t be profitable after he is done with his studies (after all, he is an economics student, the kid knows his math). Unless… Well, he said that:

I will probably try to find a job, unless there would be a future for me with professional gaming. If I would get an opportunity for it, I would definitely choose pro-gaming.’ (Groarr)

It was almost 2:00 a.m. the night we talked about this and we were not in a call since people were sleeping in his house. I feared that, due to the late hour, I might have missed something, so I typed on Skype’s chat box: ‘Why, man?’

‘I cannot imagine a better job :)’

Diego Arguedas Ortiz - illustration LLL.win

Figure 4: Winning on a competitive level feels way better.

Analysis: sociability and liquidity

Chee’s (2005) research in Korean gaming cafés shows that some youths that were on auto-imposed no-playing periods, when questioned further, ‘were found to actually game at least five hours per week on the sole premises of being with others’ (2005: 6). Sutton-Smith (1997; cited in Chee, 2005) argues that players ‘play primarily to be with others’, and Trepte et al. (2012: 832) note that social links are ‘the strongest motivators to engage in gaming’. Thus, contrary to the stereotype of the lone geek, gaming has a strong basis in sociability. All four players I interviewed also reflected this: gaming is still a social activity, largely determined by the people in their environment and the current trend in their group of friends. All members of LowLandLions began their careers in teams with offline friends. This made me wonder about the kind of social interaction there would be in a pro-team formed by offline friends from the start. This is odd, however, and my research shows it’s odd for a reason.

The key element to understand how pro-gamers negotiate between work and play is who they play with and how they play with them. The four gamers all showed a tendency to focus and ‘try hard’ when practicing and training with the team, but when paired with their friends they took roles different from the ones they had on their team or, if they kept their position, played in a more relaxed manner. Morsu talked about how he ‘laughs the whole time’ when playing with his friends, but can ‘rerun a mistake for a long time’ when competing with the team and making an error.

This must not be confused with relative aversion to competitive team gaming. They all play League of Legends because they love it and, in the long run, they have much more fun engaged in a team than playing alone. Sneaky decided to form a team because he was bored playing solo; Groarr disliked joining public match-making (a system in which players are randomly assembled in teams to compete); and Morsu felt that winning on a competitive level feels much better.

All four members of the team acknowledged that the time they spend with the team is not leisure time, even for those who didn’t recognize the team as an actual job. How they label their teammates also illustrates their construction of the collective image: when asked if they felt them to be friends or colleagues, they all explained that while they got along pretty well with each other, their main goal was to perform the best possible in order to achieve success as a team. This is most clearly illustrated by the constant roster change the team underwent while I was with them.

A difference appears in the value each of them gives to the extra effort they put on being a pro-gamer. Sneaky, for instance, as a 24-year old, felt past the dreamy idea of aspiring to become an elite-level pro-gamer and was now, as he put it, ‘career-building’ himself into a professional e-sports coach. Still at 17, Morsu wanted to become an elite-level pro gamer and was willing to spend a year trying to do so. The other two were not sure what direction to take after finishing their studies, but for now they were content with spending their evenings practicing online.

Why would they spend 20-25 hours a week, pretty much a half-time job, on a game that offers no guarantee of having space for them in two or three years? Why didn’t Groarr join a study group in economics instead? Could there be anything more IT-related that Agronarr could be doing? If they don’t reach a successful level in a couple of years, even after winning money and fame in these years, it might all seem pointless.

This is where Bauman kicks in. These gamers are part of a ‘liquid’ generation that rejects the steady planning of life that the adult-centered society advocates: they enjoy gaming and are happy making money and travelling with it, at least for now. The society has changed in a way that they can say now: ‘hey, I will try this for a couple of years and if it doesn’t work out I’ll do something else’. This is not to suggest that playing video games professionally is ‘just a phase’. What it implies is that, if they fail in professional gaming, they still have the safety net of their study-related careers, to which they have devoted as much, if not more, time.

Conclusion

In the pro-gaming scene the role of agency is vital: while society sees them as different and strange, pro-gamers willingly choose e-sports as an occupation as valid as football or chemistry. The members of LowLandLions spend 20-25 hours a week just in training, to study their rivals and plan strategies, keep healthy (Sneaky is strict on this), and complete more than an average half-time job in the Netherlands for a much lesser pay.

Throughout my research there was a question that intrigued me: why do these guys bother so much with training 25 hours a week for a game? Why would they risk spending several years on an activity that might lead to nothing instead of investing that time on something that contributes to their academic careers or a well-paying job?

First of all, they have fun doing it. Gaming is, above all, about having fun and, in most cases, doing it with someone else. Perhaps more than other games, League of Legends is a shared experience: all of the LowLandLions members were introduced to the game by their offline friends. However, even though it is still fun, competitive gaming is not related to friendship, but to work, as Morsu said: ‘this is not a friends’ club’.

This clearly shows they understand the difference between play-time and work-time, and while they can have fun in both, they acknowledge that each has its own realm and that they have to negotiate the peculiar boundary between work and play. The players use several strategies to divide play-time and work-time, but the most common is assigning less value to matches played with friends, stepping out of their usual roles, using their characters in an unusual way, and this way break the monotony of the professional training. Deliberately sometimes and unknowingly at other times, the gamers make a distinction between their friends – the just for fun time – and their teammates – as sort of a colleague.

The night before I submitted this paper, I called Sneaky to check on him and he gave me news: Groarr had been removed from his position and replaced with another guy they had tried during a 9-hour tournament that same day (which they won). Groarr was now benched, which meant he would substitute for any of the members in case something happened and they couldn’t attend an official event, but in practice he was out of the everyday team. The news didn’t surprise me much, since of the four players interviewed he, while still focused and into the game, showed the least interest in the game as a vocation.

This further strengthens my two arguments. First of all, professional gamers negotiate and differentiate work-time and play-time by distinguishing who they are playing with, in order to decide whether they need to put in more or less effort and focus. Pro-gamers mentally label who they play with as friends or colleagues, the first open to unrestricted fun and the latter devoted to operational quality. When gaming online with their friends, they understand it as playing time, but when logged in with the team in the evenings ‘it’s kind of a job’, as Agronarr put it.

My second point is that professional gamers can ‘risk’ spending months or years devoting time to this activity because career building is not what it used to be. Professional gamers, such as the members of LowLandLions, are happy to spend months or even years on strict training in a game because they feel like doing so; they don’t have to construct a career based on the usual standards. Times have changed and they can either become a professional player or they can be biologists and IT developers in four years. In recent years many observers have noted changes towards a new conceptualization of work among younger generations, and such is the case with professional gamers. The question necessarily arises: will these e-sports champions become the next skaters or punks of the 21st century?

(Written for Youth Cultures in a Transnational Context)

References

Bauman, Z. (2000). Liquid Modernity. Cambridge, MA: Polity Press.

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Huizinga (1980). Homo Ludens. Available online at: http://gamifique.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/4-homo-ludens.pdf

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Walsh, C. & Apperley, T. (2008). Researching digital game players: Gameplay and gaming capital. In IADIS International Conference Gaming 2008: Design for engaging experience and social interaction, pp. 99-102. Amsterdam: IADIS Press.

Zhong, ZJ. (2011). The effects of collective MMORPG (Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games) on gamers’ online and offline social capital. In Computers in Human Behavior, 27, 2352-2363.

Photo sources:

Cover illustration & Figure 3 taken from the LowLandLions.Lol Facebook page.

Figure 1 taken from http://www.gamestar.de.

Figures 2 & 4 taken from http://www.lowlandlions.com.

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