Training, fans and transfers: the new 'athletes' of online gaming

May 11, 2014 by Mehdi Cherifia
Visitors listen to commentators after a battle between international teams during the tournament of the computer game "League of Legends" on May 8, 2014 in Paris

They train hard, have their own fans, sponsors and managers, and transfer to rival teams: Online gaming pros are not dissimilar to athletes, adopting rigour and dedication to win and cash in on their success.

Some 30 of these professionals travelled to Paris this week for this year's four-day "League of Legends" championships in an indoor multi-purpose arena attended by thousands of fans of the popular online battle arena game.

Sitting next to each other facing an audience of rapturous fans, team players wearing headsets and eyes riveted on computers battled it out in a game broadcast on a giant screen overhead.

"The life of a professional player is fairly similar to that of a high-level athlete," said Kurtis Lau, a retired online gaming star from Hong Kong better known under the pseudonym "Toyz" in the "League of Legends" world.

"You have to train several hours a day and travel across the world to compete in matches."

"League of Legends" pits champions against each other in a fantasy world and has become hugely popular with over 67 million people playing it every month, according to the game's developers Riot Games.

The 2014 championships that kicked off Thursday in Paris featured teams from North America, Europe, South East Asia, China and South Korea.

They crescendoed Sunday in the final that saw South Korea's "SK Telecom T1 K" win against China's "OMG".

Fame and rigour

In the sold-out arena, thousands of spectators chanted the names of favourite players before the online battles began.

Each team had its own coach, who dished out last minute advice and encouragement to players.

Visitors cheer for international teams during the tournament of the computer game "League of Legends" on May 8, 2014 in Paris

Backstage, some warmed up in private rooms, others ate fruit and carbs to get ready.

"You need a healthy lifestyle to be a professional player," said Nicolas Laurent, in charge of international development at the California-based Riot Games.

"In fact, there are real differences between the Asian teams that are much more serious and the Americans or Europeans. And that often comes through in terms of results."

South Korea's winning team of this year's All-Star Paris 2014 championships will take home $50,000 (36,300 euros).

"Professional players often earn hundreds of thousands of euros a year," said Laurent, pointing to prize money or sponsorship deals.

Before integrating a professional team, the best of the best are often spotted on game servers by managers looking for the next big thing.

Visitors cheer for international teams during the tournament of the computer game "League of Legends" on May 8, 2014 in Paris

And once on the circuit, "League of Legends" players sometimes transfer to the competition.

Last week, for instance, Russia's Alex Ich left his team "Gambit Gaming" to join Sweden's "Ninjas in Pyjamas."

The United States has even decided to facilitate the visa process for foreign players in a bid to attract new talents to US teams.

As for retirement, it can hit early.

"Toyz" retired from the professional circuit when he was just 21, and has already decided what he wants to do next.

"I plan to become a team coach. That would be a natural evolution."

Explore further: China's Tencent buys US Riot Games majority stake

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