Issue 6 / Play

January 01, 2019
pixelated image of a controller

Image by Celine Nguyen

Not a Boy, Not Yet a Gamer

Christopher J. Persaud

How do you get paid to play video games?

They say you can’t go back, but I have backups of every computer that I’ve owned since I was thirteen years old. That was the year I built my first gaming desktop. Each folder is both a time capsule and a path not taken.

A folder of images 500 pixels wide and 100 pixels tall recalls the time I taught myself Adobe Photoshop in middle school because I wanted to make cool banner images for my signature on Pokémon forums. A few more clicks and I am staring at a mound of receipts for computer hardware purchases, emulated versions of games that came out years before I could even type, and gigabytes of video game soundtracks.

Then there is the graveyard of compressed video recordings from when I used to play competitive Super Smash Bros. Most are of me and my friends (local or online). Others capture legendary fights from national tournaments like Major League Gaming (MLG), Apex, or Evo, or from local tournaments in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, near where I lived.

Getting paid to play video games? It was the coolest job in the world and I wanted in.

From Pac-Man to eSports

My gaming genealogy isn’t so unusual. In countless family photos, I am holding a Game Boy. My cartridges of Pokemon, The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Castlevania, Sonic, and Kirby were constant childhood companions. I was nine when I swore to never return to Europe after losing my Game Boy and a bunch of games on a tour bus in Paris.

Aside from occasional multiplayer rounds on GoldenEye 007 with my brother, being a “gamer” (as I understood it then) was a solitary activity. This changed around the time I wrote my parents a two-page single-spaced letter on why they should pay $5 a month to let me have a premium RuneScape account. We had just moved (again) and my new friends in fifth grade all played together every day after school. Playing games was something I had always loved, but the stakes were higher now that I had a new social scene to fit into.

Many game scholars would argue that competitive video gaming—or “eSports,” as it’s often called today—has been around since the beginning of video games. In the 1980s, players used to jockey for the highest score on arcade games like Pac-Man. In the 1990s, local tournaments were organized for sports, racing, and fighting games. By the end of the decade, these had become big events, often backed by corporate sponsors.

The 2000s brought the growing popularity of eSports to new heights with major annual tournaments like MLG. And eSports became a global phenomenon, with many competitive communities throughout Europe and Asia. South Korea in particular emerged as an epicenter: in 2000, the South Korean government created the Korean e-Sports Association to regulate and encourage the industry.

The most popular genres for eSports are first-person shooters, real-time strategy, fighting games, and online multiplayer battle-arena games. Each genre has its own social rules and competitive culture, and most importantly, its own fan community. In fact, professional gaming is as much about the community as it is about the matches themselves. Every tournament is discussed, every replay is dissected, and every top player has a loyal following.

Game development companies largely see these communities as a lucrative target audience, and have invested heavily in eSports in order to market their titles. Elite players today can walk away with hundreds of thousands of dollars (or more) from competitions, not to mention thousands of dollars in secondary streams of revenue from product sponsorships and live-streaming. The big money flowing in from game companies has further accelerated the growth of eSports: as of 2018, ESPN counts about fifty varsity collegiate eSports programs in North America, not to mention the many more teams associated with student clubs and independent college tournaments.

(Almost) Going Pro

Super Smash Bros. is a series of fighting games that feature characters from throughout the Nintendo universe. The first title, Super Smash Bros.,  was released in 1999 for the Nintendo 64. While the original game didn’t have much of a professional scene in North America, its Nintendo GameCube successor Super Smash Bros. Melee (2001) quickly became a premier title in the competitive gaming circuit.

Subsequent titles in the series include Super Smash Bros. Brawl (2008) for the Nintendo Wii, Super Smash Bros. 4 (2014) for the Wii U and 3DS, and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate for the Nintendo Switch (2018). The exact mechanics differ, but the goal is to damage your opponent enough to knock them off the stage into the blast zones at the edges of the map. Some competitive players find Melee to be most “serious” option due to its fast-paced gameplay and complex on-hit interactions. Over the years, the game’s developers—under the direction of series creator Masahiro Sakurai—have gone back and forth on mechanics that lend themselves well to competitive play.

I never actually owned a GameCube, but I racked up hours and hours at friends’ homes playing Super Smash Bros. Melee in my pre-teen years. A fighting game that pitted all of my favorite Nintendo characters against one another had an appeal like no other. From 2004 to 2008, the golden age of the Super Smash Bros. Melee competitive scene was well underway. Players a decade or so older than me were competing at world-class tournaments, and finding fame and fortune with professional sponsorships.

I followed all of this closely through message boards, YouTube videos, and word of mouth from friends who were equally invested in what I saw as the holy grail of nerd culture. The allure was powerful: imagine being talked about by teens that lived on the other side of the country!

With the release of Super Smash Bros. Brawl in 2008, I decided to jump headfirst into world of competitive gaming. I joined (AiB), a message board that served as a hub for competitive Super Smash Bros. Brawl players. The site encouraged players not only to socialize but to host tournaments using an application called Tio Tournament Organizer, designed by AiB founder “Nealdt.” The appeal was simple: if you used Tio, the results of your tournament would be uploaded to AiB for everyone to see.

The AiB leaderboards were a way to keep track of the top players in the competitive scene. At the height of the site’s popularity, from 2008 to 2012, it was the place to be if you were a serious Super Smash Bros. Brawl player. I joined AiB as someone who was initially too young to make the short journey to the regional tournaments in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. I figured that I would learn as much about the scene as I could through the online community, at least until I was a little older.

But as I entered high school and started to attend a few local events, I realized that the amount of effort required to be an elite competitor was far more than I was willing to expend. I had made a very small amount of money, but I knew I was going to be on the upper end of average for a competitive player going forward.

To reach the top of even the regional leaderboards would have taken hundreds of hours of practice with no guarantee that any money invested would be fully recouped. Yet as I grew more ambivalent about eSports success, AiB and the competitive community around Super Smash Bros. was becoming more popular than ever. Looking for a way to stay involved, I became a moderator of AiB, as well as a writer for the site’s eSports journalism arm. Almost overnight, I belonged to a small team overseeing a monthly active user base that, at its peak, hit just under 100,000 people.  

Choose Your Character

Being an aspiring teenage professional gamer meant many hours after school and on weekends practicing technique, losing repeatedly to better players, and spending as much time as possible keeping up with the “metagame”—popular competitive strategies that dictate gameplay. Being a community moderator meant managing users’ expectations, developing complex procedures for dispute resolution, and coordinating content with other staffers on a weekly or sometimes daily basis. I may have been a mediocre competitive gamer, but I was an excellent moderator.

In the years that followed, I wrote dozens of articles about tournaments, interviewed rising stars, and led coverage of the often-overlooked women and LGBTQ players. It was my first experience occupying a position of power in an online community. It was also my first experience being out as a queer person online, and I did my best to promote others who gamed from the margins.

Being a community moderator for a deeply engaged fandom is hard work. No one teaches you how to advocate for yourself while you’re trying to resolve yet another complicated interpersonal dispute. If you ban someone, will they harass you in other online spaces? Was it worth pointing out that casual homophobia or misogyny wasn’t “funny” to everyone else? It should come as no surprise that these problems are exacerbated when you are both a volunteer and a teenager.

The most difficult parts of community moderation often came from small groups of toxic users and burdensome administrative obligations. After just a few years, I learned how responsibility can eat away at pleasure. While I loved the community that had seen me grow up, I started to distance myself from the site as I neared the end of high school.

These days AiB is no longer accessible and it’s unclear if anyone aside from the co-founders has a complete copy of the website’s archive. While I have some screenshots, draft articles, and chat room logs, a major part of my teen years is nothing more than a pixelated ghost.

I remain an eSports fan, and have been pleased to see increasing mainstream attention for the scene. At the same time, I find myself thinking about how young people today are dealing with the issues that I did. Would you drop out of school to play competitively? What does life look like after you retire from competitive gaming? How do you deal with harassment and abuse in your community? What are you willing to give up? What happens when play becomes work and work feels like play?

Christopher J. Persaud is a writer and new media researcher currently at Microsoft Research New England.

This piece appears in Logic's issue 6, "Play". To order the issue, head on over to our store. To receive future issues, subscribe.