Every day is Christmas at the Philadelphia Fusion esports mansion. The team’s marketing and content director Hung Tran gestured to the towering decorated pine tree to the right of the front door by way of explaining the joke: the pro gamers who live here get whatever they want and do whatever they want. But Christmas wouldn’t seem as exciting if it happened every day.
From the outside, the Philadelphia Fusion house fits right in with the rest of the stately homes on its block. Well-manicured foliage lines the front walk, and there’s a swimming pool out back. Inside the house, the decor honours the gamers who both live and work there, and painted murals of Overwatch characters cover the entrance hall and staircase. A massive painting of all twelve members of the team hangs over the fireplace in the den.
That family portrait would get awkward if any of those pros got fired or traded to other teams, but the Fusion is the only team in Overwatch League that hasn’t made a single change to its roster. Two players have been suspended—one for account boosting, the other for a racist gesture. But, for now, no one’s face has gotten painted over in the portrait.
The Fusion’s coaching staff hasn’t changed, either. The only new employee the Fusion has hired since their inception is Chef Heidi Marsh, who joined the staff in February. She cooks lunch and dinner for the pros in the team’s kitchen. The team has also hired a maid service to come in once a week.
Tran and Yoo say the players swim in the mansion’s outdoor pool “every day.” The garage has been stocked with gym equipment and a ping pong table; in the yard, there’s a football net and bean bag toss boards, all of which see regular use. A basketball hoop hangs over the driveway. “I’m really good,” Tran says of his basketball chops, “so they get discouraged.” Joe “Joemeister” Gramano walked by in the midst of Tran’s brag: “Joemeister thought he was good at basketball, then he played with me and realised he wasn’t!” Joemeister shrugged and smiled.
Tran doesn’t live in the mansion; he has his own flat. Roston Yoo, the team manager, lives upstairs in a bedroom of his own. Yoo’s bedroom is the only one with a fully stocked liquor cabinet. “That,” Tran says, gesturing towards the bottles, “is how you make it four months with four days off.” Yoo, for his part, joked that whenever he’s had a drink in the past, he has “walked it off” whenever any of the pro gamers comes to his room in the middle of the night to tell him they had a nightmare.
Roston Yoo’s bedroom setup.
If these gentle japes have the sort of soft arc associated with the genre of anti-humour known as Dad Jokes, there’s probably something to that. Yoo and Tran really have taken on parental roles in their jobs for the Philly Fusion, and though Tran doesn’t live onsite, he says he’s come to see the young pros as family. “I consider all of these guys my little brother,” he said. “I took two days off, for my first weekend off, and my family flew out here. I was getting texts from the guys like, ‘Hey, when are you coming back? We miss you!’”
“This is the first time some of them have left their parents’ house,” Tran said.
“None of the guys have had real jobs,” said Yoo.
“We’ve got two guys who are 25 and 27,” Tran added. “They’ve been on other [esports] teams, but that’s it.” Tran described the transition as “like college,” but no one’s paying to be here. The opposite, actually. Overwatch League players’ annual salaries start at $50K (£37,750), and the team pays for their housing.
In addition to the liquor cabinet, Yoo’s room is also the only one with a desk and a computer. The lack of computers in bedrooms is another house rule. “It’s part of our plan,” Tran explained.
At the same time, Yoo said, “It’s a requirement. Well, not a requirement.”
“If they wanted to, they could,” Tran admitted. “But none of them care, because everything downstairs is way better than any laptop they could buy.”
“It’s almost like, a lot more forced facetime, bonding time,” said Yoo, then backtracked. “It’s not really forced… Nothing is forced. But I would just say, to me, the moment you start putting desks in there, you stop seeing them as much.”
The pros have only lived in the house for a few months, but their rooms have remained sparse since then—just a bed and a dresser for most, no posters on the walls or towers of beer cans. A few crumpled shirts serve as the only evidence that teen boys live there.
Photo: Maddy Myers
Photo: Maddy Myers
Photo: Maddy Myers
The Philly Fusion gym area (Photo: Maddy Myers)
Photo: Maddy Myers
Neptuno’s guitar collection. (Photo: Maddy Myers)
One corner of the walk-in wardrobe off the master bedroom, shared by Carpe, HOTBA, DayFly and SADO. (Photo: Maddy Myers)
Roston Yoo has a nickname for the four players’ shared room: “The Korean Bunker.” (Photo: Maddy Myers)
The four teens have a shower, but they also get access to this fancy bath in the master bedroom suite. (Photo: Maddy Myers)
Alberto González Molinillo, a.k.a. “Neptuno,” is one of the few exceptions; two guitars in cases lean against his bedroom wall. “He’s one of the older guys, so he gets a giant room,” said Yoo. Only the older players get private rooms.
The four young Korean players—three are 19, one 18—share two bunk beds in the master bedroom, with a walk-in closet and a massive bathroom. Josue “Eqo” Corona also has a roommate, but he moved his bed into the room’s big closet to get more privacy. As Tran and Yoo walked by, Eqo took one look and shut himself into his closet.
“Sorry, buddy, we’re coming in,” Tran announced cheerfully. “Sometimes, he just likes to troll us.” I refused to go in, opting instead to give Eqo some alone time. The players don’t seem to get much of that.
Hung Tran used to do marketing for the Philadelphia Flyers, who share the same owner, Comcast Spectacor, with the Fusion. The Flyers all have their own mansions, said Tran: “You don’t have the access that we have to the guys.” That access, says Tran, is “part of the reason” why Philly decided to get a team house. “We knew the content that we could shoot around it,” he explained.
“I knew that Fragi and Poko hadn’t really seen too much of LA yet, so we booked a helicopter tour for them to see the whole shore,” said Tran. “ShadowBurn I knew loved cars, so we had him and Boombox drive some exotic cars. Boombox drove the Lamborghini that week, and ShadowBurn was drifting in a Hellcat.”
Tran described the process of negotiating with the gamers as, “‘Hey guys, we can drive this Lamborghini, but I’m gonna stick this camera in your face.’ ‘Okay!’” Lamborghinis tend to make for easy bargains, but not for these guys, says Tran. “They’ll practice for six, seven, eight hours a day, just like you and I would go to work,” Tran said. But even after the workday’s done, the Philly players prefer to stay put. “They’re gamers,” says Tran. “They just want to play games on the side.”
At first, the players chafed at the “reality show” featurettes, but according to Yoo, the pros have gotten used to it. “It’s that trust level, I think—the amount of face time they’ve had with us,” he said. “Whatever we do with them, they feel safe. We are all like their parents here.”
“They really trust us,” Tran agreed. “Because we’re always around, and always spending time with them, they know we’d never put them in a bad light. And everything we’re doing is to grow them.”
The trend of esports pros all bunking in one house started two decades ago in South Korea, with StarCraft pros. In the early 2000s, Brood War players Lim “BoxeR” Yo Hwan and Hong “YellOw” Jin-ho moved into a gaming house and inspired other pro gamers to follow suit. Some of the pros in the Championship Gaming Series in 2007 described coming up in the pro scene while living in similar gaming houses.
Team Liquid, an esports organisation founded in 2000, used to have gaming houses for its esports teams. Everybody did. Many teams still do.
“For League of Legends, absolutely. Gaming houses were, in my eyes, a requirement,” Team Liquid COO Mike Milanov said. “There were some teams that had everyone remote, and then they would have to fly every Friday and waste that time to fly to LA, then compete Saturday, Sunday, then Sunday night, fly back. People were losing practice, they were losing development, they were losing team bonding.”
The Alienware Training Facility. (Photo: Maddy Myers)
This year, for the first time, the company built a training facility. The players still eat every meal together and spend almost every single waking hour at the facility, but there’s one big change: they sleep off-site in an apartment complex ten minutes away.
After only a month in the new space, Milanov said the pros had already told him they prefer it: “Even to the point where they’re saying, ‘I was skeptical at first because I’ve been in a gaming house environment for four years, and I wasn’t actually sure if Liquid was going to to do the facility in the right way, or if it would have any competitive advantage,’” Milanov said. “But now I think they’re super into it and super convinced.”
Eugene “Pobelter” Park, Team Liquid’s League of Legends mid laner, affirmed that to Compete via email. “It feels good to have that morning ritual of getting ready, getting dressed and going to the office to scrim and start the day—rather than crawling out of bed onto my computer chair in the gaming house,” he wrote.
Jun “Dodo” Kang, assistant coach of Team Liquid’s League pros, also supported the move to a more traditional work environment. “Even though these team houses are giant mansions that have excessive space and good living conditions, going to work straight from your bed is a lot different from actually going out to the office for practice,” Kang told Compete via email.
Team Liquid staff still keeps tight control of the pros’ living situations. The team cleans up after them, too. “We do have maids three times a week in the apartments and three times a week in the facility,” Milanov said. There’s also a curfew: “We don’t want anyone up past 2 am. We actually enforce it by having the internet automatically shut off at the dorms at 2 am.”
The pro players don’t resist these rules, according to Milanov. “People crave structure when they’re a player, because a lot of them are young. Sometimes they join the org at 17.”
Many of these pros have never had any other job, although a few have been on other esports teams. “We have a translator and a tutor and a life coach for those reasons, because they won’t go through the uni experience, right? We are the uni living experience,” said Milanov.
Again, unlike university, these teens get paid. “You could easily get a six-digit contract as soon as you hit 17 years old,” said Milanov. “And then you’re doing your university experience for the first time, you’re doing your first job experience for the first time. The team manager is really kind of like the mum, the dad, the agent, the manager, the landlord, the life coach.”
Team Liquid COO Mike Milanov shows off his own adjustable standing desk at the facility. (Photo: Maddy Myers)
The front desk chair says “Hello.” (Photo: Maddy Myers)
One of Team Liquid’s meeting rooms. (Photo: Maddy Myers)
1UP Studios, Team Liquid’s in-house production company, films confessionals and other segments here for the organisation’s esports reality shows. (Photo: Maddy Myers)
Anthony “Hard” Barkhovtsev, a player on Team Liquid’s League Academy team, sits at his station in the team’s practice room. (Photo: Maddy Myers)
Even during practices, Team Liquid’s League of Legends pro team sits in a horizontal line, in the same formation that they would on stage at tournaments. (Photo: Maddy Myers)
Mike Milanov shows off the touchscreen podium that coaches use to show plays on the corresponding big screen. (Photo: Maddy Myers)
Team Liquid’s eat-in kitchen. (Photo: Maddy Myers)
The Team Liquid pros work long hours. On Saturday and Sunday, the League of Legends team heads into competition, unless it’s the offseason. Tuesday through Friday are “normal” working days for the League pros; they wake up at 9 am and go to the gym together. Monday is their only day off, although they still get called in that day sometimes to film promotional content for the “reality show” Team Liquid produces.
After their daily gym sessions, the League pros head over to the practice facility by 9:45 for their catered breakfast—“fruits or a Mediterranean omelet,” Milanov explains, “no breads or doughnuts or anything like that”—and then a team meeting. From 10:45 am to noon, the players get a break. At noon, they have their first block of scrims. Three hours later, they get lunch prepared by Team Liquid’s executive chef. After another three-hour practice block, they have dinner at 6 pm, then “required solo queue” practice hours until 9 or 10 pm. They can stream those practices on Twitch if they wish. Some stream until 2 am, either in the facility or back at their bedrooms. Others opt to return to the gym at 10 pm.
There’s a whole system in place to keep the pros healthy, Milanov says—“the gym and the personal trainer, or the physical trainer, along with the nutritionist working with the chef. Some people like spicy food, some people don’t really like spinach or mushrooms or certain types of fruits.”
Team Liquid’s Counter-Strike team and League of Legends Academy team have similar schedules, staggered slightly so that the lunch room doesn’t get overcrowded. “All of them do gym once or twice a day as well,” said Milanov. “We have gym-hungry athletes. It’s just the culture.”
Since Team Liquid’s pros spend so much time at the practice facility—well, when they’re not grinding out reps at the gym—Milanov has gone out of his way to cater to their comforts. Each room has its own Nest thermostat calibrated to each gaming team’s sensibilities. The League pro team prefers to keep their practice room toasty, at 72-74 degrees. Pro gamers often use hand warmers to aid with circulation, and for these pros, keeping the room warm supposedly helps, too. It’s hard to type fast if your hands are cold.
The League and CS:GO teams each have a separate meeting rooms for video review, and those rooms are kept chilly so the pros can concentrate while they hear their coach’s feedback. “This room is not for popcorn, girlfriends, viewing parties,” Milanov explained. “This is for work. You’re not supposed to fall asleep in here. The lighting is not supposed to be comfortable.”
These meeting rooms have a podium with a touch screen that syncs up to a huge monitor, all for watching replays of scrims. “Before, in the gaming house, and what you’ll see at a lot of other orgs is, they have a big TV in the living room that they gather around,” Milanov said. “It’s a lot of pointing at a computer monitor. We’ve seen an ease of that happening in here.”
In addition to the podium and big screen on the front wall, this coaching feedback room has a top-down print of the League of Legends map for reference. (Photo: Maddy Myers)
Despite the huge benefits offered by the training facility and the closeness of the pro players’ apartments, Milanov insisted that Team Liquid had also found ways to mentor remote teams and staffers. “Some orgs will say, ‘It’s the gaming house or nothing,’ or ‘No, if you join, you have to live in the apartments,’” said Milanov. “But for us, mental stability is also really important. If they’re not a person that can live with others, or they want to live with their girlfriend, but they’re still at the top of their game and will show up on time, then we’ll allow that.” Team Liquid’s Nick “Nitr0” Cannella took advantage of that flexibility. The CS:GO pro bought a house in Louisiana with his wife and spends four months out of the year in Los Angeles for bootcamps with the team.
Team Liquid’s Dota 2 team is almost entirely remote. “Our Dota 2 roster is one of the historically most winning rosters in that game, and also holds the record for prize money won of any esports team, and they don’t live together,” Milanov said. “One lives in Egypt. One lives in Berlin. One lives in Finland. One lives in Bulgaria.”
Even when Team Liquid had shared living spaces, the company focused on giving the players their privacy. “We were the first organisation to put people in their own rooms,” said Milanov. “We would see a lot of imports from Brazil or from Korea or even within North America, and they were like, “Oh my god, I get my own room here?’”
It’s a work in progress, but it’s working. Team Liquid’s CS:GO team placed first at Beyond the Summit’s CS major this year. “We have been winning more over the last two years like this,” Milanov said. “We have never been hotter as it comes to winning.”
The Immortals esports organisation has also moved out of their esports houses. Team Liquid approached the decision with the benefit of almost two decades of international esports experience, but Immortals CEO Noah Whinston came at it with fresher eyes. Whinston founded his company in 2015 after dropping out of Northwestern. He’s 23 now.
“I got some good firsthand experience in how difficult a team house can be, because I lived with our League of Legends team for 18 months after starting Immortals,” Whinston said during a sit-down interview in the team’s gym area. “And I don’t really know how I’m still sitting here today able to speak, sane. It was hard enough on me, doing my job, which was much less day-to-day performance-based than a pro player’s job.”
Immortals CEO Noah Whinston huddles with his League of Legends team at the 2017 World Championships. (Photo: LoL Esports Photos/Flickr)
“When you have these teams that are living in separate houses, it’s really hard to build overarching culture,” Whinston went on. “You’d end up with an Immortals CS:GO culture that was different from an Immortals League of Legends culture, because the teams would never interact with each other. They were just islands.”
Both the Immortals CS:GO team and League of Legends team have dissolved in the past year. These days, Immortals is best known for its Overwatch League team, the LA Valiant. Immortals’ League team, which once boasted one of the most comprehensive coaching staffs in Riot Games’ League franchise, got cut out of the series in 2017 by Riot, which cited concerns about Immortals’ finances. Whinston pushed back against that, telling ESPN at the time, “We do not operate at a different financial structure than other esports teams in the industry.”
Whinston stands by that response, decrying the supposed poor state of Immortals’ finances as “just a rumor. Like, that was not at all a reason.” Whinston declined to speculate as to why Riot Games rejected his team, but he did open up about the circumstances surrounding Immortals’ CS:GO team.
Last year, three of Immortals’ CS:GO pros showed up late to a tournament, which forced them to forfeit the first map. They lost the second one, and given that it was a best-of-three contest, they ended up winning only $20,000 instead of $50,000. Pujan “FNS” Mehta, a player on an opposing team, joked the Immortals players were hung over. Immortals player Vito “kNg” Giuseppe responded, “You prove it or I’ll kill you!” Esports journalist Richard Lewis claimed to have heard “on the ultimate authority” that FNS and kNg had an in-person altercation as well: “kNg was raging so much after FNS’s tweet that he did have to be sort of shepherded by his coach away from FNS, while people told FNS to get to a safe distance.”
Whinston cut kNg from the team and benched the remaining two tardy players, the twin brothers HEN1 and LUCAS1; they later transferred to a new team with kNg. (A month later, kNg angry-tweeted his way into getting fired from that second team, which dissolved soon after.)
“I think they’re good people. I don’t hate them. They were just not aligned philosophically with the way that we think about competition or behavior,” said Whinston. “It’s not a knock on them, it’s just a difference. The twins and kNg? Very results-oriented. If they’re winning, everything’s good. If they’re losing, things suck. We, and players like Boltz and Steel, are more process-oriented. If we’re doing the right thing, and giving ourselves the best chance of winning, even if we don’t win, we’re good. If we do the wrong thing and we don’t give ourselves the best chance of winning, even if we win, we’re not good.”
Team Liquid serves as an apt counter-example here. Milanov’s describes his team’s “winning culture,” as coming down to one key question: “Are we doing this because it will help us win?”
Immortals has hired a new general manager for CS:GO and plans to pick up a new team. In their outlook for drafting and training that team, as well as for Overwatch and their other esports teams, Whinston holds steady to his “process-oriented” mindset.
For Immortals, that process has been notably transparent relative to other esports teams. Noah Whinston makes his own personal vlogs about the organisation’s ups and downs, speaking frankly about tricky situations like the CS:GO team drama. All of Immortals’ peers in esports are making “reality show” featurettes about their players, but Immortals’ videos tend to have a much more raw and personal touch.
In one of these videos, Whinston pulled aside LA Valiant’s star DPS player Brady “Agilities” Girardi in the car park of In-N-Out, a local burger chain, telling him he had one last shot to make the starting roster. References to In-N-Out became a meme in Overwatch fandom as a result, and Whinston is more than cool with it. “We believe it is infinitely better to have 50 per cent of people love you and 50 per cent of people that hate you, as opposed to 100 per cent of the people that generically like you,” Whinston explained. “So we are trying to show, memes aside, a transparent and honest look as to who we are as an organisation, as to who the players are as people, not just as players. Whether that’s showcasing their successes or their failures, their mistakes or their good decisions. Because we believe that unless people can see the downs, the ups don’t matter.”
This means that sometimes the internet gets to see a video version of Whinston’s best “disappointed dad” speech. Like his peers at other esports organisations, Whinston acknowledges the parental tinge to his role. He and the rest of the staff of Immortals try to model a good work/life balance for the up-and-coming esports stars, because again, most of them have never had any other job or lived away from home.
The pro gamers don’t work onerous hours, Whinston claimed: “They usually get here at eleven, leave here at seven.” The LA Valiant coaching staff estimated that their pros log nine hours of practice in total per day, with frequent breaks. The same can’t be said for Whinston and the rest of his staff, who admitted that they often work long hours and even sometimes sleep at the Immortals esports compound. (“Some people,” Whinston admitted. “I’ve done it once or twice.”)
The new facility is supposed to be a move away from the gamer house tradition, but it’s still a mansion with washing machines and “lots of showers—really easy to sleep over.” It’s an office, but it looks like a home. Again, there’s a kitchen area that provides lunch and dinner every day.
“We’ll never make it a requirement that somebody works 14 hours a day,” Whinston said. “But if you are not bought-in to the company enough, and you are not motivated enough to sometimes work 14 hours a day, we’re probably not going to hire you.”
At the same time, though, Whinston admits that this isn’t quite the cultural model that he hopes the players adapt. “We’re total hypocrites about this. We tell the players to have work/life balance. Nobody on the business side has work/life balance,” he laughed. “Your parents weren’t hypocrites? My parents were hypocrites! Every parent is a hypocrite.”
Whinston may not be far off in age from the pros that he leads, but he still sees himself as the father figure—no biological children required. “I have 25 children already,” he quipped. “They just happen to have contracts. Luckily none of them are literal children anymore. All of them are over 18. They are emancipated.”
Like any proud parent, Whinston wants the best for the kids, and that includes player unions. He’s been on the forefront of speaking in favour of esports unions long before it was popular, having done a TEDx talk at UCSD called “Evolution of Labour Rights in Tech.”
Whinston’s own dad is an economics professor, so he “got lectured on that shit since the first grade.” Nowadays, Whinston’s pet topic is “the intersection of Marxism and esports.”
“So, there’s a Marxist political science term: Gattungswesen, species essence,” Whinston said, his eyes lighting up. “In order for workers to collectivize, they need to have a collective identity. Players in esports don’t have a collective identity. And unless you have that collective identity—basically, in order to unionize, you need to be able to have the highest earners feel kinship with the lowest earners and be willing to give up some of their earning potential in order to help everyone else lower on the totem pole. Right? Like the salary cap in the NBA hurts LeBron James, helps the minimum salary requirement.”
Whinston is familiar with the latest efforts among older esports pros to create unions. Former Overwatch pro and coach Thomas “Morte” Kerbusch, as well as Counter-Strike veteran Scott “SirScoots” Smith, have each partnered with lawyers to lay the initial groundwork for Overwatch and Counter-Strike pro player unions. Noah Whinston would love their efforts to succeed. But he doesn’t think they will.
“If you look at traditional sports player unionisation, unionisation only happened after the first wave of professional athletes retired. And then those professional athletes led the unionisation efforts. But you have not seen a wave of retirement yet in Overwatch. You have not seen a massive wave of retirement yet in Counter-Strike,” Whinston explained.
Although Counter-Strike has been around for over a decade, the scene never quite recovered from the splintering between the Counter-Strike 1.6 and Counter-Strike: Source scenes in the late 2000s. The newest iteration of the game, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, is only a few years old. Whinston doesn’t think the 1.6 and Source old guard have “stature in the player community. If anything they’re viewed as johnny-come-latelies, because they quit the game when there wasn’t money in it, and then tried to come back when the money was there.”
Without unions, there’s nothing to keep esports staffers honest, and the young pros have no past work experience against which to measure their current jobs. Burnout is already a noticeable pattern in Overwatch League, even though it’s only been a few months. Florida Mayhem’s coach stepped down due to “burnout and various health issues.” Shanghai Dragons, the only team in Overwatch League that has yet to win a single game, lost their second coach of the season due to “health issues.” Since then, Shanghai has posted that they practice from 10:30 am to 10 pm or even midnight, “six days a week with one day off.”
Players have had health concerns as well. One of the Dallas Fuel pros went to A&E for health issues brought on by “extreme stress,” and NYXL’s star player missed games due to stress, depression, and panic attacks.
Dr Doug Gardner, who works with Immortals’ Overwatch League team, sits at his desk in the gym area. (Photo: Maddy Myers)
An Immortals team practice room. (Photo: Maddy Myers)
Photo: Maddy Myers
The Immortals esports offices are located in an adapted mansion, with multiple eat-in kitchens, as well as washing machines, dryers, and bathrooms with showers. Do people sleep there? “Sometimes.” (Photo: Maddy Myers)
Another Immortals kitchen area. (Photo: Maddy Myers)
Photo: Maddy Myers
Photo: Maddy Myers
In January, Immortals tapped Dr Doug Gardner, a certified mental performance coach from the world of traditional sports, as well as former esports coach Mike Schwartz, who serves as the Valiant’s team manager. Both Gardner and Schwartz agreed on the structure and hours that would work best for the team: mandatory gym training in the morning, then nine hours of gaming practice split up over a 12-hour period.
Schwartz doesn’t think that practising for 12 hours straight gets good results relative to maximising the value of shorter practices. “Say you do an hour of working out, an hour of video review, and maybe an hour of individual time, all at 100 per cent,” he explained. Combine that with a three-hour block of scrims “at 100 per cent,” and “you’ve gotten six hours of more effective practice. As opposed to: ‘Well, I just practised a lot.’ It’s the quantity versus quality argument.”
Dr Gardner echoed the sentiment. “I’m trying to institute a mindset of quality practice, not quantity of practice. There is this huge misnomer in esports: ‘grind it out.’ Play more, compete more. There’s a point of diminishing returns.”
Gardner is a relative newcomer to esports, but he already has learned the gamers respond well to data. “They’ll believe what’s on the computer screen,” he said. That’s why he’s gotten a Fitbit for every pro on the team and will be monitoring their sleep and activity. There is no official curfew at Immortals, but if a player performs badly and they went to bed at 4 am, they can expect a chat with Dr Gardner about it. He is “old enough to be their dad,” and admits that he’s got his eye on his players’ bedtimes, but he wants to impart a sense of personal responsibility. “I let them know: ‘I’m not your parent... I’m not going to tell you what to do. It’s your career.”
In addition to having to grow up while taking on their first-ever job, esports stars also have to grow up in the public eye—on stage at tournaments, and on their Twitch live-streams. “I believe we have agreements with Twitch and other companies where they do have to livestream X amount of hours per month,” Gardner said. Noah Whinston wouldn’t confirm that, however, saying that “our contractual details with our players aren’t things that we disclose on a public basis.”
Whether it’s a requirement or not, a lot of esports pros stream on Twitch because it can serve as a fallback career after they exit esports. Or, in the case of pros like Félix “xQc” Lengyel, it can serve as a career pivot after you get fired from Overwatch League. Noah Whinston doesn’t want to see any of his Immortals pros ending up like xQc, though. Like Gardner, Whinston knows the pros have to grow up fast, and he doesn’t want to let them down: “When you don’t worry about it as a boss, you end up in a DreamKazper or an xQc or an Eqo scenario, right?”
Jonathan “DreamKazper” Sanchez, formerly of Boston Uprising, got fired after two underage girls came forward with stories about the pro pursuing sexual relationships with them. Josue “Eqo” Corona, who lives in that spacious Philly Fusion closet, got fined for making a slant-eye gesture in reference to Korean players.
Whinston concedes that while these offences vary “in terms of severity, I think they all come from a very similar place... I don’t want to make excuses for anyone. By the time that you are as old as these people are, you should know that this is unacceptable. One hundred per cent. But at the same time, there’s no harm in reinforcing that these things are unacceptable to make sure that they don’t happen.” DreamKazper’s behaviour in particular had inspired “very long conversations spanning multiple days and multiple different topics.”
Whinston doesn’t think these problems are new or unique to Overwatch. “All the problems that Overwatch is having, they were happening the same if not worse in the early days of every other esport,” he said. “The difference was, number one, esports were on a much smaller platform, and number two, in 2011, social media use was not as prevalent as it is in 2018. And Twitch was not nearly as big, right? Literally, in the dark ages of esports—like, 2011 and before.
“As somebody that comes from a very similar background from a lot of these players,” Whinston went on, “understanding the social interactions and norms that come with being a geek, and understanding from an age perspective, and understanding the toxic appeal of power and influence once you start achieving a public persona after not having that public persona and not being cool for your entire life, it’s a conversation about—here are unacceptable and acceptable behaviours, independent of how you’re feeling.
“If left to their own devices, they’ll just grind the game and interact with the same pool of people as always, because that’s what they’re used to,” he went on. “And it’s important—this is kind of where the combination of boss and parent comes in, right?”
In Whinston’s case, that means organising events for the team to develop their public personas in healthy ways. One of these came at an art gallery party that celebrated fan artists’ tributes to Immortals. At the party, Indy “SPACE” Halpern, who only recently turned 18 and made his debut on the Overwatch League stage, admitted that it was his first time in an art gallery, ever. In a brief interview with Compete during the party, SPACE and Agilities struggled together to think of an artist—any artist from any time period—that they could name. At length and with great triumph, they remembered Van Gogh and Picasso. They grinned, congratulating each other in what seemed like genuine delight. Their surrogate parents should be proud.