Getting Into Esports, and How I Started Designing

I started working in esports in June of 2016, when I was just 13 years old. It might be more accurate to say that I joined the Call of Duty community at that time. I wasn’t actively playing CoD at that point—the last CoD game I seriously played was Black Ops II—but I had designer friends in the scene that made it alluring. It had been a couple years since I had been active in an online community, and the CoD community provided a convenient way to surround myself with talented individuals to learn from. I quickly found myself immersed in a whole new world. Designers I could previously only admire from a distance were suddenly within reach. Through Twitter I could talk to them, learn from them, create with them. It was enlightening in a way that I had previously never experienced.

Within a year, I was already shifting from the CoD community to the more conventional esports community. There was a heavy overlap between the two at the time, but even at the age of 13 I could sense that the larger esports space had a brighter future than CoD in particular. I didn’t have any particular emotional attachment to CoD and was largely only in the community because it was a convenient way to learn from more talented designers. Shortly before I turned 14 years old, I began working at Epsilon Esports. I wasn’t getting paid, but I managed to land a spot at a “legit” esports team—unlike the CoD teams, which were effectively little more than high school clubs at that point in time.

I was still in middle school when I joined Epsilon. Of course, I selectively chose not to tell them how old I was, but nobody bothered to ask in the first place. Throughout the rest of 8th grade and all throughout high school, I continued to work my way up. Even during the rough periods in that 5 year span, I found myself passionately moving forward. I was building valuable connections. I was building valuable skills. There was a clear sense of progression. It wasn’t perfect—I barely knew what I was doing (and still don’t)—but I could intuitively feel my progress.

At age 15 I created LogoHive, a marketplace for logo designers. Later, I co-founded a design studio called Themes with some of my best friends. I created the Gamosphere, a group that was built around exclusivity and dedicated to the career advancement of all its members. The members of the Gamosphere—consisting of just over 10 individuals—have all achieved top design roles in the industry. These organizations span from 100 Thieves, to TSM, to Paper Crowns, and of course eFuse. I too found myself in tier-one esports when I landed a job at Evil Geniuses during my junior year of high school. By the end of my senior year, I had became the Art Director of eFuse.

I had many life-changing experiences throughout those years. I was still living in Minnesota during that time. I lacked any genuinely impressive role-models in my real life, and through the esports community, I found those people. I will never forget going to CWL Anaheim in 2019 and meeting all of my best friends in-person for the first time in my life. I will never forget going to Tokyo during my freshman year after months of saving up for plane tickets by farming client work. I will never forget the people I’ve met and seeing how far we’ve all grown, and I look forward to seeing how everyone will continue to grow. The esports community has been immensely important in my life, and I would never want to insinuate that it wasn’t a deeply meaningful experience. It has truly been life changing, and without this community, I don’t know what my life would look like right now.

That being said, I do not foresee myself working in the esports industry post-eFuse. If you’ve been following me on Twitter you’ve probably seen some indicators of why this may be. This development can’t be pinned on a single factor, and I’ll go through most of them here.

Bad Practices in Esports

Although there has been steady improvement over the years, the fact of the matter is that compensation in esports is disproportionately low—especially when compared to something like tech. When I say this, I’m not speaking strictly in terms of cash. Many esports teams will try everything they can to avoid giving their employees benefits. The most common method is the practice of selectively employing “permanent contractors”—people that are effectively full-time employees in everything but name. A Washington Post article recently “exposed” TSM for this practice, but this practice is by no means exclusive to TSM. Odds are, TSM isn’t even close to the worst offender. I’ve even heard of C-suite executives being contractors. One might question how legitimate a C-suite title really is if the “executive” isn’t even a real employee, but that kind of uncertainty is just par for the course in esports.

Another major point that I’ve made before is that esports teams essentially function as tech startups—as in they require startup hours, a startup work ethic, startup sacrifices, and have startup resources—without providing any of the benefits, such as equity (or even the basic aforementioned benefits). This is in addition to the salaries that are already lower than an average tech startup. At this point, continuing to work in esports becomes a simple math problem. Do you want to do more work for less money? Then esports is a perfect option. Alternatively, you could go into an adjacent industry and find a more lucrative (and more enjoyable) job.

Why would a job outside of esports be more enjoyable? Obviously this all boils down to personal preference, but there are a number of unpleasant factors that poison the experience of working at a gaming company—in my case, at the very least. Esports is highly “partnership dependent”—as in virtually all of the revenue an esports team generates rides on the success of partnerships. This isn’t a huge issue, particularly if you have a very agreeable personality, but it quickly becomes an issue if you intend on criticizing any entity in the space. Even constructive criticism—even mere implied criticism—can be enough to land you in hot water with your employer. I would cite examples, but for the reasons I stated above, I am simply not allowed to publicly display the (ridiculous) things I’ve previously gotten in trouble for saying. Unfortunately you’re going to have to take my word on this.

Some may say “criticize by category, not by name” as a response. But that’s the thing—that’s exactly what I was doing, and even so, certain entities in the space interpret such open-ended criticism as being a threat to their brand. While this is inevitable to some degree in all industries, the issue is undoubtedly heightened in esports since partnerships are one of the very few lucrative ways to monetize an esports team. This kind of culture doesn’t facilitate an environment where you can comfortably voice constructive criticism. Virtually all authentic conversation between esports staff happens behind closed doors, because it’s simply too risky to say anything publicly. This also creates a very cliquey culture, where groups inevitably turn inwards if they want to have any chance of making genuine progress. The alternative is to simply turn your brain off and not contribute anything meaningful—even when things are very obviously being run poorly and speaking up would (normally) be the most productive option.

The poor financial incentives for working in esports, combined with a culture that actively shuts down constructive criticism, creates an environment that disincentivizes ambitious people from contributing to the industry. Once you’ve reached a certain point in your career, it is simply not productive to continue working in the space. It’s a great entry into the startup world, but it’s probably not a great place to work beyond your early career.

I’ve Left Esports—What’s Next?

eFuse really was the perfect place to land, being both a tech and esports startup. I view eFuse as my bridge between the two. I entered it from the gaming community and will exit it in the tech community. I do not intend on fully cutting ties with the esports community. I value the continued support many of you provide to me, and I would never want to betray that. I hope that you will continue to follow me throughout this new journey, but ultimately I understand that the choice isn’t mine to make. In either case, I completely understand.

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