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The esports elders defying their age

Every video game has its own Roger Federer.

Nick Summers, @nisummers
March 9, 2020
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    For most people, the phrase 'esports athlete' conjures an image of a teenager or twenty-something hunched over a keyboard, controller or fighting stick. That generalization holds some weight: tune into the next Overwatch League fixture, for instance, and you'll see few competitors in their forties. In almost every esport, though, there's at least one player that bucks the norm; a slightly older professional that can easily compete with and, frequently, overcome their younger foe. Like Roger Federer, a 38-year-old tennis legend that still ranks in the world top five, these people seem to defy their age and the notion that only the young have the mental and physical agility required to compete at the highest level.

    None of them are truly old, of course. Not to the average person on the street, anyway. Inside their respective gaming communities, however, they're old-timers, veterans, part of the 'I can't believe they haven't retired yet' club. Collectively, you could think of them as the esports elders.

    The definition of "old" varies wildly depending on the game. The oldest player in the North America League of Legends Championship Series (LCS) is Jake "Xmithie" Puchero, a 28-year-old jungler (a player that roams around the map and tries to launch surprise attacks from the undergrowth) for esports team Immortals. In the newly launched Call of Duty League, meanwhile, seniority peaks with James "Clayster" Eubank, a 27-year-old starter for Dallas Empire. The Tekken community has plenty of competitors in their mid-thirties, such as Jae-Min "Knee" Bae, and Street Fighter boasts veterans such as Naoto "Sako" Sako, aged 40, who finished third at the annual EVO fighting game tournament in Japan last month.

    The variance is partly due to the style of game. First-person shooters such as Overwatch and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive demand a high degree of "twitch," a term used by gamers to describe fast, reflex-based movements with a mouse or controller thumbstick. Many believe it gets harder for players to maintain these ridiculous reaction times as they get older, which ultimately leads to a dip in their play.

    Twitch reflexes play a smaller role than you might think, though. "I was still watching Counter-Strike: Global Offensive a few years ago," Puchero noted, "when Virtus.pro won one of the majors, and they were all, like, 30 years old." Instead, many professionals believe that the age of the game plays a larger role. The original version of Tetris was released in June 1984, for instance, and attracted players of all ages. It makes sense, therefore, that the Classic Tetris World Championship -- a now-annual tournament launched in 2010 -- would attract older competitors like 38-year-old Jonas Neubauer decades later.

    Classic Tetris World Championship 2010

    Jonas Neubauer competing in the 2010 Classic Tetris World Championship.

    The Call of Duty franchise, by comparison, launched in 2003 and became a true phenomenon with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, four years later. There were teams and professional tournaments back then, but the scene wasn't mature enough to offer a reliable full-time wage. That gestation period forced many older professionals to drop out and pursue traditional work. Eubank, meanwhile, was still in high school. He competed throughout college and graduated just as the industry was ready to support players full-time. "That's why I'm the oldest now," he told Engadget. "Because I was the oldest [of the first players] to be able to quit my real-life job and all that stuff to play Call of Duty."

    Another factor is the average age of each game's player base. Fortnite, for instance, is hugely popular with children and teenagers at the moment, so it wasn't a huge surprise when 17-year-old Kyle "Bugha" Giersdorf won the Fortnite World Cup last year.

    According to Eubank, game updates also play a part. Call of Duty has a new entry that players have to adapt to every year. Classic Tetris, meanwhile, never changes, which potentially makes it easier to compete as an older professional. "Call of Duty is the best-selling video game franchise of all time but has always had a rotating slate of titles where there are new skills to develop with each release," said Mike Rufail, the owner of Envy Gaming and Call of Duty League franchise Dallas Empire. "That's a challenge, I think, for many professionals who have to make a tough choice between truly embracing change and getting excited about the work or moving on from the competition stage."

    "There's a lot of infrastructure and support from the coaching staff and management."

    The final factor that differentiates esports and their ability to support older professionals is infrastructure. If a player is on a team with helpful staff or competing in a league that's well run and thoughtfully scheduled, there's a better chance that they'll play for longer. "That's why League (of Legends) has a really good bunch (of players), longevity wise," Puchero told Engadget. "Because there's a lot of infrastructure and support from the coaching staff and the management. So the health of the (league's older) players is much better."

    Right now, it's impossible to say if the average esports-player age is climbing. Riot Games, the developer behind League of Legends, told Engadget the average LCS player age competing in the summer split (the league's season has two splits, spring and summer) rose from 20.94 in 2014 to 22.45 last year. Generally, though, esports share little data that can be used to make historical comparisons. The situation isn't helped either by the large number of esports leagues that are launching, expanding, restructuring and rebranding each year.

    Jake "Xmithie" Puchero competing for 'League of Legends' team Immortals.

    Tina Jo/Riot Games
    Image credit: Tina Jo/Riot Games

    The impact of physical health

    The rise of the esports elders does suggest that the upper ceiling for each video game is increasing, though. Part of that growth is down to improvements in player health. In the early days of the LCS, few professionals thought about their bodies. Back in 2012, a Team SoloMid (TSM) player called TheOddOne developed a skin condition where "his whole body was peeling off like a snake," according to then-coach JBS. Many suspected that the player had developed scurvy. The player "did not believe in drinking water," according to his coach, and was forced to abandon his unhealthy diet. "All he had was Arizona iced tea, soda and microwave dinners," JBS said.

    Esports players don't need to be as toned or strong as a traditional athlete. But they do need a general standard of health -- the same as everyone else trying to live a long and prosperous life -- to perform on stage. Like the average office worker, players spend a lot of time at a desk and can easily develop back and shoulder problems. They move their hands at a faster rate than the average person, though, which can lead to repetitive strain injury and other wrist issues. "You sit and play for eight hours a day," Eubank explained. "You're probably clicking buttons thousands of times and moving a joystick [or mouse] thousands of times. So, if you're doing that every single day, your hands and your body is going to wear down."

    Inevitably, these problems intensify as players get older. "It's tough to put in those kinds of hours when you have an older body and eyes," Neubauer told Engadget. "Like, my back starts hurting if I play in a seated position for over eight hours. I'm definitely feeling those effects. I've played Tetris for eight to 10 hours and it's difficult on my physical body."

    Many esports players, including the esports elders, have now incorporated gym sessions and hand stretches into their schedule. "I do hand stretches for five to 10 minutes every single day," Eubank said. "I still have relatively dull pain in my wrists, thumbs and joints. I think if I hadn't been doing all these hand exercises, probably my hands wouldn't work as well as I want them to now." Street Fighter legend Sako added, via an interpreter: "Gaming has a reputation for being 'unhealthy', but to become one of the top Street Fighter players demands stamina. If you're not in top condition, you won't be able to deliver your best."

    Team owners have realized the importance of physical health, too. Many have hired professional chefs and offer the players personal trainers and specialist equipment, such as gamer-designed chairs and eyewear, to keep their bodies in shape. Gen.G, an esports organization that owns the Overwatch League franchise Seoul Dynasty, told Engadget that it also offers meditation apps, chiropractic services and sleeping pods. "It's one of those things that's hard to measure and quantify," Martin Kim, VP of strategic partnerships at Gen.G told Engadget. "I suppose the fact that they continue to come to work with a smile on their face and perform at a high level is an indication that things are working."

    Sponsors and league organizers are taking a similar interest. In February 2019, Nike signed a four-year deal with the League of Legends Pro League (LPL) in China. In addition to becoming the league's exclusive kit supplier, the company promised to look at custom esports fitness programs. As part of its research, Nike evaluated RNG's bot-laner Jian "Uzi" Zihao and Invictus Gaming jungler Gao "Ning" Zhen-Ning's at its headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon. Unsurprisingly, it found that both players had an excellent memory and hand-eye coordination but needed to improve their strength and flexibility, Nike then developed a "step-by-step targeted training program" that is now available to every professional player in the LPL.

    Improving mental health

    The focus on physical health has helped everyone in esports, including the esports elders, to extend their careers. At the same time, players and teams alike are realizing the importance of mental health. "You don't have to push your body as hard as sports athletes do, but mental strength and fortitude are that much more important," Daigo 'The Beast' Umehara, a 38-year-old Street Fighter player said via an interpreter.

    Some of the mental pressures come from players' tough practice schedules. Riot warns rookie players about the time commitment at Scouting Grounds, an annual competition that helps LCS teams find and recruit young talent. "We have coaches and analysts come in and sit down with those [rookie] players and talk to them about what it's like to be a professional player," Chris Greeley, commissioner of the LCS said. "One of the very first things they tell them is that if this is your hobby, it won't be your career. You need to be able to sit down and play 14 hours of League of Legends, six days per week. If that's not something you're mentally prepared to do, you're not going to be happy in this career."

    The industry has exceptions, though. Neubauer didn't practice that much for the first Classic Tetris World Championship in 2010, for instance. He had another job and played roughly three times per week to maintain his block-slotting skills. "A couple of games here and there," he recalled. "I wasn't streaming it, I wasn't online. I was just on a TV." Neubauer didn't push himself because there were plenty of Tetris message boards, and he had a good sense of how his skills stacked up against the other competitors. Also the tournament was in Los Angeles, where he lived, so he didn't feel the same pressure that someone who traveled might have done.

    "You need to be able to sit down and play 14 hours of League of Legends, six days per week."

    "So everything just kind of clicked into place," he explained, "and I was able to win it with, well, not the kind of training effort that I have to put in these years."

    In general, even a short period of rest can cause a player's skill and performances to deteriorate. "If I take a little break, [my] game senses will drop so quickly," Bae told Engadget via an interpreter. "So I try to maintain them by playing a lot." Punctuating rigorous training are matchdays and, for many, various 'content' duties, which can include casual streaming on Twitch, starring in sponsor commercials and being interviewed by their team's documentary filmmaker, a journalist or someone from the league.

    It can be a grueling lifestyle.

    Naoto "Sako" Sako

    Naoto "Sako" Sako playing against Arman "Phenom" Hanjani.

    Early in their careers, many of the now-esports elders took a quantity-over-quality approach to practice. Eubank's first team, for instance, would often play from 11AM to 5AM the following morning. "Back then, it was just play a bunch and hope it works out at the event," he explained. "There wasn't really tape or VODs (video on demand) to watch, or anything like that. It was more about preparing your team to just be ready for everything rather than trying to prepare specifically for another team."

    But that's now changed. Players and teams will now focus their practice sessions around a specific strategy or weakness -- applying pressure, shotcalling or better team-fighting, for instance. Many also split up training with coach-driven replay-and-review sessions. "We go in and try to fix specific things, or a specific moment in the game that we keep messing up," Eubank said. "And we won't care what's going on during the rest of the game."

    Neubauer, meanwhile, has found a secret weapon to optimize his classic Tetris practice: alcohol. "I have a couple of drinks going while I play, which causes me to make more errors, and in my personal opinion, be a little more creative with the solves," he explained. "You never think of esports as having a performance-enhancing drug like alcohol, but for me it's actually been an interesting journey to have a drink going. Especially when I'm streaming. And there's a creativity factor. I don't know."

    Some team owners try to mitigate burnout by ramping up practice over the course of the season. Eubanks says there's an "ebb and flow" that starts with a greater focus on watching film and then, as the first fixture approaches, increasing in-game practice with back-to-back training matches known as 'scrim' blocks. The approach is similar to a marathon runner trying to peak in time for the big race or Olympics. "You can't just grind for 12 hours each day, every day, for a whole year," Eubank said. "You're going to burn yourself out and be less motivated in scrims and be less proactive about fixing things if you're tired. So, grinding smarter not harder is the motto we have here."

    All of these changes have helped the esports elders to avoid burnout and continue playing professionally. It might sound obvious, but a reasonable work-life balance ensures they stay happy and healthy, which in turn, allows them to keep practicing and performing at the highest level. "As I've gotten older, I've realized that that time to reset and take a breather makes me more effective when I come back," Eubank emphasized.

    ELEAGUE Street Fighter V Invitational Playoffs &  Championship

    Daigo "The Beast" Umehara competing in 2017.

    Keeping a clear head also means navigating social media. Most esports tournaments are broadcast on video streaming platforms, such as YouTube and Twitch, which both support live chat. These real-time comments, as well as those expressed through Twitter, Facebook and Reddit, are notoriously toxic. If a competitor is playing poorly, they'll often be "flamed" -- online slang for a torrent of criticism and ridicule -- or given unsolicited advice about their playstyle and what they should have done differently. Friends and family will often tell pro players to ignore social media entirely. That can be difficult for an esports athlete, however, who wants to build their following so they can sell personalized merchandise or eventually retire and become a full-time streamer.

    There's no correct answer, and every player takes a slightly different approach. All of the esports elders, however, have faced criticism at one point in their career and developed some kind of coping strategy. Many teams, too, have realized the damaging effects of social media and offer their players sound advice, which can extend their careers in the long run. Bae, who plays for Rox Gaming, explained: "Players are exposed to bad replies and comments. And so many players suffer a lot of mental damage. Since joining Rox that kind of damage has reduced a lot, because they help all the time when a player gets in any kind of trouble."

    The importance of motivation

    All of these health efforts have helped the esports elders stay on top. There are some other factors, however, that have helped veterans extend their careers. Many quote their unwavering motivation, for instance, as the main reason they're still hungry and capable of competing professionally. They want to keep winning and, usually, accomplish something new in their career -- an elusive world title, perhaps, or a seasonal MVP award -- or add more silverware to an already-packed trophy cabinet. Without motivation, players stop practicing as hard and, inevitably, struggle to perform at the same level.

    "Motivation is probably the biggest thing that stops players from competing," Puchero said. "And also competitiveness. If you're losing a lot, then it's really hard to keep going."

    It can be difficult to stay driven, though, if your form naturally slips. Eubank had an infamous 1,400-day drought without a championship win, for instance. The Call of Duty legend questioned his motivation during that period and wondered whether he should do something else. Eubank talked with his friends and family, though, and decided to give it one more shot. He joined eUnited and ended the drought by winning the CWL Pro League Finals last July and the Call of Duty World League Championship one month later. Both titles were the last of their kind before the esport completely restructured and relaunched as the Call of Duty League.

    James "Clayster" Eubank playing for Dallas Empire in the Call of Duty League.

    Joe Brady for Call of Duty League
    Image credit: Joe Brady for Call of Duty League

    Many of the esports elders have also extended their careers by slowly changing their playstyle. "Kobe Bryant wasn't the same player in his early 30s," Greeley said. "He didn't play the same type of game in his early 30s that he played in his early 20s. The game evolves as your physical [condition] begins to change." In League of Legends, many competitors make an impact by playing aggressively and attempting risky outplays. The esport is a team game, though, that requires players to share information -- the position of enemy players, for instance, and when it's a good time to push for an objective or team fight -- and synchronize attacks.

    As they get older, League of Legends players often transition into a leadership or shot-calling role for their team. They're the ones with the most experience and the best placed, therefore, to make split-second decisions across the map. The same applies to Call of Duty and other team-based esports. Eubank was once a kill-heavy 'Slayer' but now performs a more support-focused role. "You don't win two world championships if you're not an elite talent," Rufail said. "But Clayster [Eubank] is more than that for our team [Dallas Empire]: He really understands the game and is a great strategist."

    "I know what you do and either you change it and you get me, or you don't and I get you."

    The esports elders also call upon their experience to shore up any loss in reaction time. They can look at what's happening on screen and anticipate an opponent's movements before they play out. That foresight gives them more time to consider the situation and mentally prepare their fingers and thumbs to execute the best response. Similarly, veterans can build up a form of muscle memory for common strategies and in-game scenarios. With enough practice and tournament experience, they simply know and execute the optimal counterattack without thinking about it. A rookie, meanwhile, might have to make split-second decisions and react instinctively to some of these scenarios.

    Veterans also know how other long-time competitors play. At a certain point, they're so familiar with each other that they start competing based on their ability to out-bluff one another. "I know what you do and either you change it and you get me, or you don't and I get you," Eubank explained. Bae added: "Older gamers have weaker physical abilities than younger players. But older players cover [for that by] knowing their opponents due to tens of thousands match experience, and instantaneous coping ability when in moments of crisis."

    Leadership and ambassador qualities

    Jae-Min "Knee" Bae is one of Rox Gaming's biggest stars.

    Even if a veteran does experience a slight dip in form, other attributes can keep them on the pro circuit. An elder statesman can become a team captain, for instance, and serve as a role model for rookies still navigating the industry. Younger esports athletes can have fiery personalities, too, that trigger unprofessional arguments with management, coaches and other team members. In these situations, the esports elders bring a stabilizing voice that stops any disagreements from becoming irreversible team implosions.

    Many esports, including Tekken and Street Fighter, don't have a team dynamic to worry about. Older players can still be attractive to sponsors and broader esports organizations, though, because of their individual fan following. Most esports brands use a combination of merchandise, sponsorships and tournament winnings to boost their revenue. Still, most aren't profitable and rely on outside investors to stay afloat. The esports elders are lucrative, therefore, because they can immediately increase a team's fanbase and, by extension, pool of potential customers.

    A player's fan following can be particularly appealing to brand-new teams. The rebooted Call of Duty League, for instance, required all franchise owners to create a new geo-branded team. Some of them, like Atlanta FaZe, have obvious ties to an older esports organization that has an established fanbase. Many are effectively starting over with zero fans, however. "I had a lot of teams that were trying to pick me up as the first piece to their franchise team, just to have that initial fanbase," Eubank said. Similarly, Immortals returned to North American League of Legends this year after a three-year hiatus. Puchero played for the team back in 2017 and was perfect for grabbing the interest and loyalty of lapsed fans.

    There's one other factor that many esports elders say is critical to their ongoing success: not thinking about their age at all. More than a few veterans don't realize they're the oldest person in their esport. That's partly down to the esports' lifestyle, which doesn't allow much time for reflection, or because they're still winning as much as their younger competition.

    "There's no precedent dictating how long I can continue. I see it as an exciting challenge."

    "I've never really considered my age in competing," Neubauer said, "because I don't think it was brought up a lot. It was only recently, when the younger [Tetris] players came in, that people started talking about the older and younger crowd. So, I think that's actually contributed to my success. If I always thought of myself as older, I feel like I would go into each tournament with a different, almost defeated mental state."

    So how much longer can or will the esports elders compete? Unsurprisingly, it depends on the person and the game. Eubank, for instance, thinks he could "easily" play into his mid-30s. "For a game like Call of Duty, you have to be fast and you need good, good times, but the time-to-kill is so quick that you don't actually have to be that fast. You just need pretty good positioning, most of the time, and be able to think correctly and make the correct plays. So, hopefully somebody becomes a professional that's older than me because I'm tired of being the old one."

    Jonas Neubauer

    Jonas Neubauer winning the Classic Tetris World Championship in 2010.

    Neubauer, meanwhile, has already left his mid-30s behind. The seven-time champion will only retire once he's happy with his personal Tetris accomplishments. "At its core, it's still me against the game," Neubauer said. Regardless, he'll still attend the annual contest and support the Tetris community. "I have people that I see there, and that's the only time I see them," he said. "I do a little bit of commentary as well. So there is that kind of evolution of my role in the tournament. But I'll always be a part of it and we'll have to see in the next couple of years if my play plateaus. As soon as it starts seriously plateauing, I'll always compete but I won't put in the kind of time, effort and emotion that I usually put in."

    Bae doesn't know if he'll play professionally beyond the Tekken game. "Tekken 8 might be [the] last Tekken for me," he said. Umehara is more optimistic about his chances in the pro Street Fighter scene. "My passion and energy haven't dwindled," he explained, "so I want to keep playing for as long as my body will allow it, regardless of age. I'm Japan's first pro gamer and among the oldest group, so there's no precedent dictating how long I can continue. I see it as an exciting challenge." Sako added: "I'll choose to retire when games aren't fun."

    The future, then, is uncertain. But even if all of the esports elders retire in the next 12 months, their careers will inspire others to stick it out for as long as possible and challenge the notion that esports is a young person's game. That, in turn, will ensure they're not just an anomaly, but an undeniable indication of where esports are headed.

    Images: Video Game Museum (Classic Tetris World Championship), Tina Jo/Riot Games (Jake "Xmithie" Puchero), Daniel Shirey/Getty Images (Daigo "The Beast" Umehara), Joe Brady for Call of Duty League (James "Clayster" Eubank), ROX Gaming (Jae-Min "Knee" Bae), PlayStation.Blog (Jonas Neubauer)

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