The life of a gamer isn’t always glamorous. While top stars sign contracts for huge annual salaries and have more fans than most popular sports heroes, being a professional gamer takes time and effort and only a few find themselves in the limelight.
A recent visit to the living quarters of Pantech’s EX professional gaming team revealed that professional gamers ― more precisely referred to as professional e-sports players ― live anything but a glitzy life.
The team moved a couple of months ago to their new location in Bangbae, southern Seoul. Located on the first and lower floor of a four-story apartment building, the duplex would be quite spacious for a regular family, but feels more like a college dormitory with 20 young men living in the house.
The floor space of the apartment is about 529 square meters (5,693 square feet) and is comprised of seven bedrooms, a living room, practice room, meeting room, kitchen, dining room and four bathrooms, one of which has two shower stalls. The “top” players get single beds, while “newbies” sleep in bunk beds. Two middle-aged women attend to the meals, cleaning and laundry of the young men ― the women claim that they have become like substitute mothers and know which underwear belongs to which gamer.
In addition to the 20 players, there is also a coach, who oversees the team’s management, as well as two staff members, who assist players to develop individual strategies and analyze terrains on different game maps.
The average age of players with EX is 20. Most join after high school and stay on the team until they go to the military for their mandatory period of service. The youngest member on the team now is 13, and he’s in the sixth grade at elementary school.
“We really didn’t want to accept him since we have to assume many more responsibilities in taking care of him and we thought younger children should receive a regular education instead of playing games full time, but his parents begged us to admit him, so we decided to let him go to public school during the day and join in with the evening practices,” said Coach Sung Jae-myung. The eldest player on the team now is 23.
Most of the young game players spend 24 hours in the house, only going out on rare occasions to meet with friends or family.
The main players, or leaders who represent the team and appear most often in matches, receive one or two days rest per week. Rest for the others is not a pre-determined matter, but the players are given some free hours during the weekend and a few hours every evening during which they can exercise, meet friends, watch television or pursue other leisure activities. However, when under the intense pressure of a competition series, many gamers continue to play during their spare time, risking early burn-out.
Mr. Sung noted that corporate sponsorship has done much to improve game culture in the sense that many gamers are now “working” regular hours.
“In the past, gamers would stay up all night playing games and then sleep through the following day. Many people became night owls and this gave game playing the reputation of being a night-time activity. However, now it is different. We practice during the day. It’s my job to get the boys in bed before 1 o’clock. We make sure their lifestyles follow a healthy routine. They have to take exercise and eat three meals a day.”
That routine begins at roughly 10 a.m., stopping for an hour-long lunch break at 1 p.m. Then they practice again until 6 or 7 p.m. Practice hours are not strictly monitored, because games require a high level of concentration, and players are not expected to exert themselves non-stop. However, to prevent slacking and enhance their competitive edge, players take turns going to a small “stage” placed towards the front area of the practice room, where they take on one of the other residents. The game played between these two players is relayed on screens that hang on the ceiling so that other players can watch and analyze games played by their peers.
Shim So-myeong, leader of the EX team, emphasized that game-playing is not just about having fun, but is an activity that requires great mental acuity, as well as speed and agility. Tests on APM (actions per minute) for Shim show that, when he plays, he makes about 400 APM, many times more than an average game player.
“And we’re not just talking about random key strokes, but planned actions,” Mr. Sung, the coach, added.
Mr. Shim, speaking in a shy, barely audible voice, said that most professional gamers are “naive” and simple-hearted and “do not fit the negative stereotype forced upon them by prejudiced sections of society.” Mr. Shim himself said he spends his weekends going to church, taking exercise and talking with fellow teammates.
“People equate gamers with the image of smoke-filled PC rooms, but hardly any professional gamers ― maybe just one or two in the entire pro-league ― smokes,” he said. “We’re just kids who really have a passion for games.”
When asked if he found having a private life or watching adult films difficult because of living in a group situation, Mr. Shim said that EX members were like a family. “We don’t really think of it as a sacrifice. We are competitors, but we’re a team and we really love and care for each other. And we actually watch those videos together,” he said, much to the dismay of his coach.
Mr. Shim said that the pressure of being a professional gamer was just as bad as that faced by professionals in any field. “It’s so hard to become a pro-gamer, since there are only several hundred, but even if you do become one, you have to be in the top three, or else no one will notice you. And the thing is that you only have a limited time to make your mark, because guys have to go to the military,” he said. “I think there are gamers who regret their choice because they think of all the things that could have happened if they had chosen college instead, or done something else. But we have to live with our choices.”
“I feel sorry for the players because they are so young and are so specialized at an age where perhaps they should be going to college and learning a range of new skills with their friends,” said coach Sung. “It disappoints me sometimes when the players get lazy, but I know each and every one of them has his own dream and we all believe that the game industry is going to grow.”