In the '80s and '90s professional gaming was a pipedream for a few quixotic kids. At the highest of highs you might best the competition on Starcade and take home your very own personal computer. You didn't get rich. Even Billy Mitchell, perhaps the most famous arcade player of all time, who's held world records in everything from Burger Time to Donkey Kong, sells hot sauce to stay afloat.
But then, in the 2000s, things started to change. Johnathan "Fata1ity" Wendel emerged as one of gaming's first superstars, and earned nearly half a million dollars between Quake III Arena and Painkiller. Tom "Ogre2" Ryan made over $US80,000 in 2007, all from Halo 2. Remember, this was in an era with a nascent YouTube, long before Twitch ushered in the esports revolution. Several years later League of Legends has cultivated a prodigious pro scene that allows a guy like Lee "Faker" Sang Hyeok to rake in the $US207,000 he's made in 2015. These days, trying to get by as a pro gamer doesn't seem so crazy.
However, these are fringe cases. Esports is a place where young men and women are far more likely to burn out than to nurture a long career. Even if you are one of the best, there's no guarantee you'll put together a sustainable way of life. Ryan "Purple" Murphy-Root is currently the third best Hearthstone player in the world according to GosuGamers, but he's only taken home $US28,000 from tournaments. Ogre2? That aforementioned all-time great Halo player? Since 2012 he's made a paltry $US24,000. Esports is a place where you can go from the top of the world to retired very, very quickly, and suddenly you have to figure out what's next.
For a while all Nick Taber wanted to do was be a professional StarCraft player. Every day he'd come home from high school, slip through his bedroom door, and log hours and hours into his Battle.net account. His dad played Brood War when it first came out, which first drew him towards that fabled Korean professional scene, where young men like him would play on national television, in sponsored jumpsuits, making real money.
"The StarCraft 2 beta came out when I was 14 years old," says Taber, who is now 20. "I got into competition shortly after release, and was good enough to be in Grandmaster. I talked to some people who added me to a team and started sending me to events. That's how it started for me."
Taber was 15 when he hit his groove. He became a regular at the top of the North American ladder, and was recruited by organisations like VT Gaming and It's Gosu eSports. That summer he won the grand finals at the World Cyber Games, taking home $US1000, more money than you and I probably saw in one month at our part-time high school jobs. He'd travel to Dallas for MLG, finishing in the top 40, just outside the championship bracket. Look at him, that baby face, that mid-pubescent voice, taking it all in as best he can.
"The advantage I have is that I have a lot of time to do what I need to do in StarCraft 2," he says in the above video. "Even if I don't do well this year I still have many years ahead of me playing StarCraft."
But then, only a couple years later, Taber would hang up his keyboard for good. The kid who lived, breathed, and ate StarCraft throughout the entirety of his teen years had to give up the ghost. Professional gaming is very, very demanding, and he realised he wasn't going to cut it.
"In the summer of 2012 I was going into my senior year of high school, and I thought that as soon as I finished I'd jump fully into StarCraft and go live in a team house and all that stuff. I didn't think I wanted to go to college. I just wanted to keep playing, and that slowly changed over the course of that year," says Taber. "As more and more Koreans got involved it became harder for Americans to stay relevant who didn't play full-time. Pretty much all I did was go to school and play StarCraft, but I still wasn't full-time. It was inevitable that at a certain point I wouldn't be able to keep up."
The burnout rate for esports pros is profound. Players enter the scene as early as 14 or 15. According to the makers of the popular game League of Legends, they're mostly retired by the time they hit their mid-20s. MC, once one of the best StarCraft players in the world, announced his retirement this year at the ripe old age of 24. Another just bowed out at 23. In basketball the age of 24 is supposed to be the beginning of your prime, the moment where you finally combine your athleticism and veteran wiliness and make a push for the record books. But scroll through SK Telecom's roster and you'll find three 19 year olds, one 22 year old, and the veteran, Jang "MaRin" Gyeong-Hwan at, of course, 24.
There are a number of reasons for this. Professional gaming is a profitable enterprise, but only if you're the elite of the elite and happen to play a game with a healthy scene, which freezes out a lot of people who need to make end's meet some other way. There's also some proof that mental quickness and dexterity decreases rapidly as you get older, and as someone who was a much better Halo player at 15 than I am now, that seems like a pretty fair theory.
Nick Taber is not the only kid who threw themselves into eSports, achieved reasonable success, and eventually realised that they weren't going to make this their job. The list of retired StarCraft players grows everyday. Yeah they're young, yeah they will bounce back, but it still must be quietly devastating when you realise that it's time for plan B. A new passion. A college degree. A normal life.
"The decision to officially quit was a hard one, because I didn't really do much else with my life," says Taber. "I felt like I was throwing out part of my identity, like, 'what am I now if I'm not a professional StarCraft player? That was really hard for me."
Most of us probably thought we found something life-defining at high school. But unlike Nick Taber, we didn't get a taste of success from our pipedreams of being famous football players or pop singers. It's easier to swallow when you're not on the cusp.
Coryn Briere has had a similar journey. She was never a bona fide pro StarCraft player, but she did keep a healthy stream schedule which eventually got her picked up by the reputable ROOT Gaming eSports organisation. She spent the last three months of her career working from their team house.
"Playing [on that level] is not an enjoyable thing," says Briere. "If you're losing you're unhappy and if you're winning you're content. You're never just like, happy. I do miss it. There's been some times where I'd try to get back into streaming and I knew if I could handle it then it'd be good,. But I couldn't. I would end up getting frustrated or upset if I lost. I would feel too emotionally attached to a game that shouldn't determine how I feel about my day at any given point. I couldn't separate those two things."
Briere retired to focus on something she's passionate about. She's an artist, a musician, an animator, and wants to be a game designer. Right now she's working as the community manager for Freaks 4U Gaming, a PR and marketing firm based in Berlin, and someday soon she hopes to get involved in development on a more hands-on level. But she still looks back on her time as a full time streamer with a lot of fondness.
"You'd assume that a streamer would be very social, but for me I was still introverted and didn't talk to a lot of people," says Briere, reflecting on her time at the ROOT house. "I've gotten more confident since then, but back then I felt like I was at home even though I didn't talk to the people. Like 'oh these people get me and I don't have to say anything'."
Nick Taber is 20 now and enrolled in college. He's a third-year information technology major. A couple years ago he was weighing the idea of dropping out of high school to solely concentrate on StarCraft. In retrospect he realises what a mistake that could've been.
"There's a lot of people who are average diamond players [a top 15 per cent StarCraft player] who are like 'OK, I really want to be a pro player so I'm going to drop out of school and do everything I can to make that happen,' and I think that's the wrong way to approach things," says Taber. "If you're not good enough to be relevant as a part-time player you'll probably never be relevant as a full-time player."
Has he found his groove after his pro days? Sort of. He's doing the right thing. A college degree can go a long way. But he's still not sure what he wants to do for a living.
"I don't love what I study," says Taber. "I don't know where I'm going with it. Right now, my goal is to get my way through college and then see what happens. Outside of that I do a lot of a capella singing, and dabbled in acting a bit. My parents are both performing artists. I also played Dota 2 for a while, Hearthstone off and on. I'm playing League of Legends mostly now. I've been around all the eSports games, I'm good, but never been good enough to put the time in."
Again, he's only 20 years old. He will find his way. Everything will be fine. But legacies should not rise and fall before you're out of your teenaged years. Taber reminds me of the preteens on the US gymnastics team every four years. These kids have the whole country watching for exactly one moment, long before they figure out who they are as people. It doesn't seem fair.
Like many of those gymnasts, though, Nick Taber doesn't regret the experience one bit.
"Pro gaming is a dream a lot of people have, and you have to enjoy that opportunity while you have it," he says. "I played StarCraft for 10 years before anyone cared about me, it's a little bit surreal when someone cares about watching you play.To this day I still have people randomly recognising my username in something completely unrelated to StarCraft. Making something out of a hobby is really cool, and you have to enjoy it while it lasts. You're never going to know if you're going to make it. Most people aren't. You have to enjoy it while you got it."
Illustration by Sam Woolley