Going pro: The making of a competitive video game player

  • Photos by Meghan Ralston
By
From the November 21, 2013 edition

When I first delved into a story about what it’s like to be a competitive video gamer for this weekend’s Major League Gaming Championship in Columbus and was virtually introduced to 18-year-old Coty Heim, I didn’t know what to expect, but I did have some preconceived notions.

I was cynical, and assumed Heim would be some underachieving kid who probably took bong rips all day while wielding arrogance over the inferior players he was destroying in “Call of Duty,” his game of expertise. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Heim is professional and intelligent — way more than I was at 18 — and has a kind, humble nature to his personality. He talks a little “crap” to his opponents, but they’re also competitive gamers near or at his skill level, and it’s all in good fun. What’s most impressive about Heim: He has the skills, dedication and attitude to reach his ultimate goal of becoming a professional gamer.

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Heim immersed himself in video games in 2008 when he was in seventh grade. He was an avid fan of “Call of Duty IV: Modern Warfare” and wanted to play as much as possible. He quickly realized there was an audience watching gameplay on streaming sites like YouTube.

He thought, “I’m pretty good at this game, maybe others would like to see what I’m doing.” He was right; there was a small, but zealous community on the internet consumed by gaming in general and the “Call of Duty” series specifically. Unfortunately, Heim didn’t find the same camaraderie among those in the real world.

“I started uploading videos and got 1,000 subscribers back in 2008 — that was huge,” Heim said a few weeks ago when I visited his home in Milan, Ohio. “Luckily, I found it at the baby stage. Nobody else was doing it. It pains me I gave it up so many times because I was getting crap from people at school.”

After a couple of quits and starts, Heim finally embraced his passion no matter what anybody else said, even his mom, who initially encouraged him to go outside and play sports instead of sitting in his X-Box-green colored room for 10 hours at a time. Heim’s parents are now some of his biggest supporters, proud of his chosen path. Mom is honored by, “What a nice young man he is.”

Heim understands the stigma that comes with hours-long gaming, but he also said those outside the community don’t quite get it. He wonders why it’s acceptable to watch television for hours with no interaction, while gaming — and constantly communicating with players, teammates, opponents and other like-minded individuals — is not.

“A weird reference I made is the competitive gaming community is like the movie ‘Avatar,’” Heim explained. “It’s farfetched I know, but since everybody is on the internet, we’re all connected. And you don’t really understand it unless you’re a part of it.”

That connection is the crux of the gaming community — whether amateur or professional competitor, or just a fan. Heim doesn’t just upload gameplay videos to You Tube or twitch.tv, a video gaming-focused streaming site watched by tens of millions a month. Heim is constantly interacting with a wide-range of gamers through his 5,700 Twitter followers, Facebook friends and his 3,000-plus Twitch followers.

“I may not be the best but I know what I’m talking about, and I’ll reply to them. That’s something I really pride myself on,” Heim said. “Whenever I’m streaming, every single person that comes into my chat room … I may get to 200 viewers, but I’ll try to talk to all of them.”

One of the reason’s Heim is probably so outgoing and willing to open a dialog has to do with that “crap” — the only (pseudo) swear word Heim used in multiple conversations — he got back in the day. It wasn’t until he attended his first Major League Gaming event in Columbus in 2011 that he made a real bond.

“That’s when I fell in love with competitive gaming. I met all these pro players and they were treating me like I was on the same level as them. And I’m looking up to them,” he said.

Major League Gaming is a professional video game organization founded in 2002 that holds tournaments throughout the United States and Canada. Millions of viewers from around the world watch MLG Championship events, like the one being held in Columbus this weekend on majorleaguegaming.com.

The New York Times recently called MLG, “The NFL of the professional gaming world … [and] played a central role in turning video games, once considered mere entertainments, into an organized, and highly lucrative, form of sport.”

Yes, professional gamers can earn six-figure salaries through gaming, whether it’s winning tournaments, earning sponsorships or partnerships from streaming sites where they earn money from getting a high number of viewers. The winning four-person team in the “Call of Duty: Ghosts” tournament that Heim and his team, Elevate Fiction, are competing in gets $20,000 of a $50,000 prize pool.

Heim earns a small amount through streaming partnerships and sponsor Elevate, which also sponsors a handful of amateur teams. Elevate mainly provides the resources for Heim’s team to travel and compete in tournaments. But if Elevate Fiction makes it into the top eight in Columbus, bigger money could come because the team will be exposed to those millions watching the finals on MLG’s website.

Elevate Fiction faces somewhat of an uphill battle to reach the finals, due to some unforeseen circumstances and the way the tournament is set up. For MLG Championship Columbus, teams are split into two brackets, Champ and Open.

How these brackets operate, in a complex double-elimination system that I’m sure makes sense to the competitors, is basically Japanese to me. The Champ bracket, though, is far better than the Open because you don’t play as many teams. Heim said the Champs receive what is basically byes, and refers to the Open bracket as “The Death Pool.”

The Champ bracket is generally the best pro teams, usually those who’ve won previous tournaments. The other way to make it into that desired bracket is through online tournaments where “Pro Points” are earned. Elevate Fiction, like many others looking to secure a better seed, competed in two online tournaments the last two Sundays.

Heim said his team had “a good outing” in the first, which didn’t award as many points as the one last Sunday, but faced a top team and lost in overtime in the second round.

In the second tournament, the tornados that ravaged the Midwest this past weekend made it impossible for two Elevate Fiction teammates who live in Illinois to compete. Heim called it “pretty crappy” and a “heartbreaker” that the entire team couldn’t compete together. The two who could earned enough points with a last-minute ramshackle squad to secure Elevate Fiction the 34th overall seed and 22nd in the Open bracket.

Heim said that top-eight status is still the ultimate goal, but he’s already happy with his gaming lifestyle. He considers his teammates close friends and looks forward to seeing them again this weekend in Columbus. They’re all staying in a hotel room together and look forward to hanging out. Heim and his teammates may not see each other outside tournaments and events, but, in a wise take on the internet age, he said friendship isn’t about location.

“I don’t have actual friends and online friends, just friends,” Heim said. “When you make friends at school or your workplace, you make friends based on where you live. When you make friends on the internet, you make friends based on your interests.”

Heim may have found friends online, but he also found someone special based on location, meeting his girlfriend when they used to work together in his hometown, although their connection is about more than locality.

“She was the first person that really accepted what I did. She’s been interested in it ever since [and] following what I do for the past year-and-a-half,” said Heim of his girlfriend, who’ll be attending her first MLG event. “She’s also going to be sleeping in a hotel with eight people, including us.”

So Heim has found a close group of friends, a “keeper” for a girl and burgeoning success, all through playing video games — and putting in a fair share of hard work. It’s a far cry from the overindulged, obnoxious stoner I was afraid I’d find. It’s rare I have to eat my words, but I sure do here.