With the rapid growth of eSports locally and internationally, it’s becoming more and more appealing for those with a love for gaming to find their way into the scene. Let’s be real: working in eSports is a dream job for many people.
The reality within the South African scene is that there simply aren’t enough consistent income opportunities to fully support a comfortable lifestyle. As such, freelance work is a necessary requirement for those who wish to wish to pursue a career in eSports.
I’ve been living the “eSports life” I’m going to discuss here for the past year, and I can tell you that even when I’m required to perform similar functions to those I had during my days as a full-time employee, my life is simply better. I no longer feel that my efforts are fuelling the growth of an entity whose success has little effect on me. Instead, I’m contributing towards my own growth via proxy.
Let’s address some of the local opportunities in eSports. The most obvious is becoming a competitive player. If you’re capable of consistently placing first in solo tournaments, you can obviously expect some reasonable rewards – but if you look at games that include teammates, a R10,000 prize pool becomes quite a small figure, with only R2,000 making its way into your pocket. That’s assuming you aren’t working for an MGO that expects a portion of your winnings, which isn’t uncommon. You need to be winning the really big tournaments with R100,000+ prize pools, and even then consider that you’re likely required to travel, which will have its own expenses.
Then you get what I affectionately call, Talent. Talent is any role in which you are audience-facing, from shoutcaster to MC to panellist. At any major LAN event, you can expect to earn anywhere from R3,000 to R15,000 in today’s climate, but that’s largely dependent on the demand for your services. If you can’t compete with the best, you can’t expect to be on the high-end of that figure. Be realistic: if you’re just getting started, you’re facing a lot of very stiff competition, and you may have to invest hundreds of hours before earning a single rand, if anything at all.
A more consistent way to earn and something that’s in quite high demand is production services. This can be hit and miss. It’s often the area where tournaments skimp on expenses, but it also means you’ll have fewer competitors. Production is a large field, so it’s entirely possible to carve out a niche for yourself and start at the top. This does present a major caveat though: you have to actually know what you’re doing. Being a good production person means understanding the technical requirements of your position, and any mistake can be catastrophic to your career. Examples of production include setting up technical environments for events, generating content for streams, and producing adds-ons to the streams, like replays or design.
Lastly we have the biggest category, which I call fringe items. This can be anything from being a social media manager, to writing eSports articles, to being a YouTuber. It’s impossible to say how lucrative this is, as income varies wildly.
Now that that’s all out of the way, let’s chat about the first step to attaining this goal. Firstly, have a foot in the door. It’s very unrealistic to expect to give up your day job, approach the organisation/person with the keys to your dream, and get a pat on the back as you march your way in. Get grinding. Make the connections you need, prove your worth and be consistent. My advice: do it for free at first. It’s not a great pill to swallow, but asking to be paid for something you haven’t yet proven you’re proficient at, that’s a hard sell.
Once you feel that you’ve earned enough notoriety in the industry, it’s time to start generating funding. You’re going to need at least enough money to survive a year to take a real stab at it, so save as much as you can and pay off the things that’re going to keep you grounded. It’s probably the hardest step, but if it’s your dream, it’s a step you need to take.
Once your finances are settled, keep in mind that you still need to find reliable income and since time is now your most precious resource, you should find some freelance or part-time work. I wish I could call this an optional extra, but having done this myself, I’ve learnt that when you need an emergency plumber, you’ll be glad you put in those extra hours. Life has a way of sneaking up on you, so make sure you aren’t left down-and-out because you thought you had it all figured out.
Don’t underestimate the power of networking. Try to create work for yourself by being in touch with people already in the industry. Endear yourself to them, as well as to anyone who may be able to add value to the industry. That fish-and-chips shop next to the Internet cafe might be an event venue in disguise, which you can leverage to further your career. Don’t get too attached though: remember, being the initiator means you’re likely to be hired again, but don’t see the job as forever yours. See it as a temporary opportunity for exposure and revenue.
Finally, work harder than ever. You aren’t unemployed. You work for yourself, and whatever you choose to do, that’s your 9 to 5. Actually, it should be your 9 to 12 if you can handle it. Don’t treat this as a year-long vacation, or you’ll find yourself looking for a new job before you make any real impact on the scene.
I asked a friend of mine, Gareth Woods, to weigh in here, as he too has experienced the eSports life:
“I got into eSports when I hit a bit of a mid-life crisis. Yes, at 30 years old I know it’s a bit early for that, but what can I say, I’m advanced for my age. I’d been working a well-paying corporate career for ten years, and a reasonably successful comedy career for about seven, when I began to ponder that most clichéd of all existential debates: what’s it all for?
After a bit of soul-searching, I came to the conclusion that the one thing I’m most passionate about in life – that I could easily spend 24 hours a day doing, that I spend most of my thoughts on, that I feel most alive, connected and powerful doing and where “my people” exist – is gaming.
Once I’d come to that realisation, it became about exposing myself (not in that way) to the gaming market in South Africa – learning who’s who, who does what, getting to know people and getting people to know me.
During my years in comedy and working in sponsorships/events/marketing, I’d developed a skill set which allowed me to fill a niche in the gaming community as an opinionated, bearded content-creator. It was only after filling various roles in gaming for over a year (like shoutcasting and writing) that I took the plunge and went full-time into the gaming community.
That being said, the eSports lifestyle is a bit of a vague concept at the moment. What does it mean?
I think the biggest part of the job at the moment is just about doing whatever it takes to grow eSports in SA. I spend a LOT of time canvassing brands, agencies and various corporates trying to introduce them to the power of eSports and the potential it has for growth. It’s about having an elevator speech ready to explain why someone should be interested in eSports, because you never know who you’ll need to convince in under a minute.
It’s about promoting local eSports events (even the less glamorous ones). It’s about getting to know the players (even in games you don’t watch/play). It’s about analysing Twitch streams and international productions to make sure you understand what works. It’s about networking tirelessly with players, casters, organisations, teams and brands. It’s about understanding the intricacies of the games.
As much as I love casting and MCing and being a panellist at eSports events, it takes months of work to make those things happen. It takes hours of editing videos and meeting with brands. It takes thousands of calls and emails chasing up sponsors, writing blogs, filming vlogs and hosting podcasts focused on eSports. Those things build towards what the “eSports lifestyle” is really about.
It isn’t easy. The pay is minimal (if at all), but we’re growing every day and my hope is that we can create an industry that’s able to sustain my insane consumption of beard oil, that’s able to provide meaningful careers to numerous individuals in various areas of expertise.
Try to use the skills and expertise you already have to add value to the community. If you’re a lawyer, help teams and players with contracts – for free at first, but eventually you’ll become known as the go-to lawyer for eSports. If you’re a camera guy with access to high-end equipment, go find a caster or YouTuber and help make rad content for eSports fans.
There are so many opportunities out there. You just need to know how to turn them into something tangible.”