By Robert Kolker
July 30, 2015
Sumail Hassan made $200,000 after one month as a professional gamer in the U.S. His team, Evil Geniuses, will compete next week for more than $6 million.
In the spring of 2014, after a decade of visa problems, the Hassan family moved out of its spacious house in Karachi, Pakistan, to an apartment in Rosemont, a suburb of Chicago near O’Hare International Airport. They were a family of eight, two parents and six kids, jammed into a three-bedroom space. Money was tight and work unsteady; for most of them, the move was a struggle. But their 15-year-old son, Sumail, was thrilled—being in the U.S. meant less lag time when he played Dota 2.
Like League of Legends and other free multiplayer online games, Dota 2 (short for Defense of the Ancients 2) rewards obsessives such as Sumail. Set in a mythical world of ogres, magicians, and “faerie” dragons, two teams of five Heroes start on opposite corners of a square map scattered with forests and lava trenches and battle to take over the opposing team’s base. The one and only goal is to secure the opposing team’s Ancient—a fountain with rejuvenating power—before it gets yours. The gameplay moves as fast as basketball, but the complexity of characters, weapons, and spells rivals Dungeons & Dragons. Secure the Eye of Skadi and you can slow a charging attacker to a crawl. The Shadow Amulet will make you invisible long enough to slip behind an enemy line. And for a few select players, there’s more real-world money to be made at Dota 2 than any other game of its kind. The best of the best play at professional tournaments where teams compete for millions of dollars in prize money, and the most popular players can make around $1,000 just by streaming a game directly to their fans.
Sumail started playing Dota 2 as a 7-year-old. Now 16, he’s still small and spindly, with wide, soft eyes and skinny toothpick arms. In Chicago, he put in minimum effort at a local public high school, making no friends and doing no homework; instead he spent all his spare time racking up impressive amateur credentials in Dota 2. While some players are all strategy, analyzing the strengths of different characters and hanging back for the right time to strike, Sumail is pure reflex and aggression—the Dota 2 equivalent of a power forward. His favorite character is Storm Spirit, a quick, evasive avatar that fires lightning balls and drops decoys that injure enemies. Simply put, Sumail kills everything in sight.
After a few months in the U.S., he qualified to play in a North American “in-house league,” a sort of off-season competition for professional players. This was his shot, and it didn’t take long for him to get noticed. After Sumail slayed wave after wave of Enchantresses, Centaurs, and Zombies, Charlie Yang, a 26-year-old Dota 2 player-turned-manager, flew to Chicago from San Francisco to visit Sumail’s family.
Sumail’s mother, Huma, was there, but not his father, Tatheer, a construction manager who had returned to Pakistan on business. The mother’s English wasn’t good enough to understand Yang, so Sumail’s aunt and uncle helped translate. Yang said he managed Evil Geniuses, the highest-earning Dota 2 team in North America. The team would pay for Sumail to fly around the world for training and tournaments. He would earn a small stipend—less than $4,000 a month—but the real money would come from tournaments. After a 10 percent cut for the owners, prize money would be split among the team’s five players. The previous year’s prize pool at the International, the game’s biggest tournament, held annually in August, was more than $10 million.
Sumail’s mother said yes, as long as Sumail could still go to school. “She was a little anxious,” Yang says. “But I think it’s hard to deny your child an opportunity like this.” Yang visited Sumail’s teachers next, planning out his long absences. Yang set up a bank account for Sumail and had his tax forms done. A few weeks later, in February, Sumail and his teammates—each older than he by at least five years, and each a legend in the game—flew to Shanghai for the Dota 2 Asian Championships, with a prize for the winning team of $1.2 million.
Evil Geniuses was the third seed but, with Sumail’s help, it made it to the finals. Its opponent was a Chinese team called Vici Gaming, and the packed arena’s crowd was against them. In the first five minutes of Game Three—the last of the final—Sumail got killed four times without scoring a single kill. It was a devastating start, and the announcers said the game was basically over. But when the other team started scattering players, Sumail struck.
His avatar weakened, he shot across the field in a lightning ball and somehow scored four kills in two minutes, to the disbelief of the opposing team and the announcers commenting for the live crowd. Minutes later, he darted out of the woods to help his teammates in a skirmish and, in an explosion of fire and lightning, blasted three more enemy players to death. Before Vici could respond, Sumail rushed up the center of the map and secured the Ancient, winning the game and the tournament for Evil Geniuses. By the end, the crowd was chanting his name.
His payday after one month as a professional gamer, and just before his 16th birthday, was $200,000. By mid-August, he could be a millionaire.
By now, Cinderella stories like Sumail Hassan’s are a reliable staple of e-sports. These are, after all, games anyone can play at home, and the prevalence of high-speed Internet allows practically everyone to play everyone else in the world. The promise that a player can be plucked from obscurity and win huge prize money is part of what makes e-sports so popular—and it's wildly, crazily popular. About 27 million people watched the final of last year’s League of Legends championship, about 9 million more than watched the San Antonio Spurs clinch a stunning Game Five in the NBA Finals. And while many, including ESPN President John Skipper, maintain that e-sports aren’t a real sport at all—“It’s not a sport—it’s a competition,” he declared last year—that’s not keeping ESPN from covering the International Dota 2 world championships in August at Seattle’s KeyArena, where Sumail and his team will be competing for a grand prize of more than $6 million. As Sumail put it in one of his first interviews at the Asia tournament in February: “You have to go pro or just leave it. It’s a time waste if you’re not going full pro. It’s not for noobs.”
After several false starts—remember the Cyber X Games of 2004 in Vegas? How about DirecTV and News Corp.’s Championship Gaming Series in 2007?—e-sports is finally on a roll, a $612 million global market with an audience of 134 million, according to new analysis by SuperData Research. Ford, American Express, Coca-Cola, and Nissan Motor all sponsor e-sports; corporate sponsorships total $111 million in North America. A pool of maturing talents who by now have been playing games since they could walk, and the increase in tournaments, has transformed e-sports.
But what’s really making it stick this time is live streaming. “Having a platform available everywhere all over the world changed everything,” says Marcus Graham, aka djWHEAT, the Bob Costas of e-sports, who hosts a program on Twitch.tv, the live-streaming platform purchased by Amazon.com last year. Thirteen percent of all live-stream viewers watch e-sports, according to SuperData, and almost half of all e-sports viewers in the U.S. use Twitch. Google plans to launch a competing service, YouTube Gaming, before the end of the summer.
On Twitch, fans can watch games and practices and communicate directly with star players, offering an immediacy and intimacy no televised sport can match. In March, the sports marketing research firm Repucom reported that Twitch averaged more than 600,000 simultaneous viewers, reaching an audience of 51 million worldwide—already bigger than most American TV networks.
The big question is whether live-streaming a competitive video game will ever command the same ad rates as a TV broadcast of a game. Where the audience goes, will advertisers follow? The most encouraging sign they might is that 40 percent of all e-sports viewers don’t play the game themselves—proof, perhaps, of e-sports’ potential as a spectator sport. The tens of thousands of fans swarming arenas to watch tournaments such as August’s Dota 2 International—groupies among them—also signify some sort of sea change. While Valve contributed $1.6 million to International tournament prize winnings, the rest is being crowd-funded. There is no other sport whose fans directly pay the prize money.
The No. 2-ranked team going into the tournament, by most measures, is Evil Geniuses. And the No. 1? That would be Team Secret, whose star player, Artour “Arteezy” Babaev, left Evil Geniuses suddenly last December, creating the opening that allowed Sumail to make his big-time debut. Their matchup will be the one to watch. You couldn’t ask for a better rivalry.
All spring, Sumail’s mystique grew. He amassed 30,000 Twitter followers. He hosted his own live-streamed games, where he appeared via webcam but never spoke. Fans asked about him constantly in chats and forums: Is he Muslim? (Yes.) Does he pray to Mecca? (No, but he keeps Halal, which usually means lots of cheese pizza.) Can he drive? (No.) Does he live alone on the road? (No. Yang, the manager, usually shares a room with him.)
Everything is based on skills, and I’m pretty skilled, Sumail texts when I first contact him in June. He’s explaining why he was so drawn to this game. I liked the part that you couldn’t win with luck only.
Does he want to go to college?
In mid-July, I catch up with Sumail at an office in downtown San Francisco, where he and his teammates are “boot-camping,” practicing for days on end. The International starts in just a few weeks, and the crowd-funded prize pool approaches $17 million. The Evil Geniuses sit in a row in front of new PCs equipped with high-performance graphics cards and processors to support elite gaming. In their matching team jackets with sponsor patches, the five players look like a Nascar pit crew. But to Sumail, the other four are still rock stars—players whose games he’d followed from afar until just a few months ago. “I knew every one of them because every single one of them was famous,” Sumail tells me.
Like Sumail, each of his teammates is, in a way, Luke Skywalker—a small-town kid who left home to embrace his destiny. Saahil Arora, known as UNiVeRsE, is 25; he dropped out of the University of Wisconsin at Madison to play and became one of the top 10 earning e-sports players worldwide last year, making $586,149, according to esportsearnings.com. Arora met his current girlfriend through e-sports; she was a fan. Peter Dager, the team captain from Indiana, known as ppd, is right behind Arora in winnings with $581,748. Kurtis Ling, or Aui_2000, is 22 and hails from Vancouver. “I’m a male in my 20s who lives in my parents’ basement and plays video games all day,” he says, smiling. “I am an exact stereotype.”
Clinton Loomis, known as Fear, is the grand old man of the team, a living legend at 27. The years have been less than kind to him: A chronic repetitive-stress injury sidelined him from last year’s International, but he’s well enough to play this year. “I’ve been playing Dota for so many years I don’t really know anything else as far as work goes,” he says. “It’s really fun—it’s my passion—but I don’t know if I can keep playing.”
Loomis recognizes the potential in Sumail. “He’s just way more confident than most of the other people that I’ve played with that are younger,” he says. “Some people would be nervous on the main stage because they’re new. But I don’t think he cares.” Sumail (whose player handle is Suma1l) plays the middle lane, meaning he rushes up the center of the map alone, picking fights, while the others worm their way up either side. Middle lane players are the team muscle—the most visible and the most vulnerable. Choosing the right time to strengthen your teammates with Vampiric Aura, or drop a paralyzing cyclone on an enemy with Eul’s Scepter of Divinity, comes down to split-second decisions. “It requires a lot of instinct to be able to read your opponent and catch very small mistakes and use them,” says Phillip Aram, the team’s assistant manager. “It’s crazy a kid that young can do it.”
As they scrimmage online with a team from Malaysia, there’s no shouting, no pounding keyboards, no chugging of Red Bull (unopened cans of Monster Energy, a sponsor, are next to their computers). They’ve seen too many pretournament boot camps where teams burn out before they even start their first competition game. They’re trying not to play more than two long scrimmages a day, so they don’t start snapping at one another. It’s a light load for Sumail, who used to play 13 or 14 hours a day in Pakistan. Between games, they talk about when the next pizza is coming. There are no plans to hit town, no talk of anything that will take them away from the computers.
After handily beating the Malaysians, Sumail kills time by watching the live stream of a pretty girl playing a game on Twitch. It’s only a brief detour. Between team games he sneaks onto public servers under a pseudonym—today’s is Straight Ballin. Under his real name, Sumail can draw as many as 10,000 people to watch his live-streamed practice games. He makes money through a mixture of subscriptions, ads, and donations. That’s not an option for most players. Only 40 percent make a living off gaming; One report says that on average, most e-athletes bring home about $7,000 a year in winnings. “For us, streaming money is such a small amount of the money we make,” says Dager, the team captain. “There are so many tournaments. We’re very busy. We have a lot of fans, but we don’t have the time.”
Player compensation is one of many areas where e-sports has some growing up to do. Gamemakers such as Valve and Riot Games still treat the pro scene as a marketing tool, not a moneymaker. Valve produces only the International, leaving others to host whatever Dota 2 tournaments they want during the year; the result is a chaotic, often punishing schedule. And the overall revenue brought in by e-sports is still puny compared with, say, the $10 billion grossed by the National Football League or Major League Baseball or the $20 billion generated by European soccer leagues. The disorganized tournament schedule and the lack of standardization between games and gamemakers leaves most advertisers confused about what exactly they should be sponsoring.
“We’re getting there in terms of media buyers being aware of this,” says Alexander Garfield, the 30-year-old founder of GoodGame, the e-sports agency that owns the Evil Geniuses team (and was acquired by Twitch in December). “But if you’re a mainstream consumer brand and you decide you want to put $10 million into e-sports, it’s very hard to figure out where that money should go.”
To get there, says Joost van Dreunen, an analyst of e-sports with SuperData Research, the gamemakers may need to make the games themselves more tournament-friendly and accessible as a spectator sport—streamlining the rules or making the games easier for newcomers to follow. That, of course, might risk alienating the die-hard fans who’ve brought it this far. The tournament hosts and streaming platforms can also build some stories—team rivalries, human dramas—which make trajectories like Sumail’s all the more valuable. A little posturing doesn’t hurt, either. As Sumail tweeted in July, just before the start of boot camp:
With every ounce of my blood, with every breath in my lungs, wont stop until I am phenomenal
— Sumail Hassan (@SumaaaaiL) July 11, 2015
The highlight of Sumail’s practice day is when he gets to play his 18-year-old brother, Yawar, remotely in a scrimmage. Yawar hasn’t gone pro, though he’d like to. “He plays more than me. He’s like more motivated than me,” Sumail says. When Yawar’s team is trounced by the Evil Geniuses, Sumail seems pleased: “Pretty fun.”
Asked about the Evil Geniuses’ chances next month, Sumail stops short of any bold predictions. Instead, he focuses on what he might win and what he might bring back to his family. His tone is grave now. He knows what’s at stake. The whole family remains in the three-bedroom apartment, and his father, who hasn’t found steady work in the U.S., isn’t back from Pakistan. Two of his older siblings are in college or about to start; a third is paralyzed and needs to be cared for at home. If Evil Geniuses wins, each player stands to gain more than $1 million.
“That’s a lot of money,” he says. “I always wanted to buy my mother a house. That’s all she wants.” If nothing else, that could make all the time he spent in front of the computer back in Karachi worthwhile. “The other kids,” he says with a smile, “were playing cricket.”