Grooming the Champions of the Keyboard
The New York Times
ALAMEDA, Calif. — On a picture-perfect East Bay afternoon — 75 and a clear blue sky — a few top players for the Evil Geniuses were holed up in the Lair. Preparing for a qualifying match, a StarCraft prodigy named HuK was sitting in one of the gaming rooms, communing with his monitor and limbering his fingers on a keyboard. Down the hallway, his teammate DeMusliM was running through a replay of his own last match and working on his manual dexterity, swirling a pair of worry balls in his hand.
It was 3 p.m. and the California sunlight was beating at the windows, but the Lair’s front shutters were drawn tight, leaving the gamers to focus in the darkness on their training, which meant playing video games from dawn to dusk each day, or from dusk to dawn each night. Their physical needs had been seen to: the kitchen refrigerator was stocked with bagels, the living room cooler with caffeinated sports drinks. At their flashing terminals, the four young men were immersed enough in work that they hardly noticed the two maids feather-dusting everything around them — and occasionally poking a vacuum cleaner between their legs.
Like sports stars everywhere, professional-level video gamers need a place to practice, and for the high-tech athletes of the Evil Geniuses — the Yankees of the video gaming world — that place is the Lair, a sock-strewn tract house on an ordinary side street in this breezy island city east of San Francisco. With its redundant Internet connections and eight-to-a-toilet dormitory rooms, the Lair is a clubhouse and a crash pad: a residential exercise space where digital Derek Jeters can roll out of bed and stumble downstairs for workouts in the gym.
“If I lived by myself or with a roommate, I’d probably surf Reddit all day,” said HuK, a 24-year-old Canadian player, whose real name is Christopher Loranger. “But living in the gaming house, everybody’s playing all the time or talking about playing. That’s the biggest thing about being here: it motivates your game.”
For almost a decade, pro-circuit video gaming has been inching toward acceptance as an e-sport. Organizations like Major League Gaming, which calls itself the N.F.L. of Internet athletics, have established online matches and annual contests at actual arenas, not infrequently attended by thousands of screaming fans. While the games themselves, like Call of Duty and StarCraft II, have not yet managed the conventional success of Nascar, say, or Major League Baseball, they have brought fame and fortune to their players, some of whom have achieved immense celebrity, with soaring salaries and corporate endorsement deals.
All of this is in part because of houses like the Lair, which have fostered the financial health and increased the visibility of teams like the Evil Geniuses and competitors like Dignitas and Curse. If you search “gaming house” on Google, dozens of video clips will pop up, offering tours of similar places across the nation. Late last winter, the phenomenon achieved a defining mark of cultural validity when CBS Interactive set a reality show inside a gaming house. Its title? “GameCrib.”
A two-story structure with drab beige walls and little in the way of interior design, the Lair is as close as one can get to a classic gaming house: it bristles with equipment, but is otherwise furnished in what could be called Spartan Frat House style. The downstairs gaming rooms are strewn with moldy pizza crusts and day-old bowls of cereal, and a vinelike tangle of Cat-5 Ethernet cables creeps across the floor. The living room has a sectional sofa and a 60-inch television set. Aside from a few homey touches, the house’s only other decoration is a row of packaged flash drives arranged atop the mantel like art.
The Evil Geniuses — or EG, as the team is often called — was the first pro squad in North America to establish a gaming house for players, adhering to a tradition that began in South Korea, the center of the gaming world, in the 1990s. The team’s first Lair, in Phoenix, opened in 2010, but it closed in August when its players and their managers moved here.
The relocation was a strategic decision by Alexander Garfield, EG’s chief executive, who wanted the franchise to be closer to the thriving online culture in Silicon Valley. Unlike N.F.L. or N.B.A. teams, which earn money from ticket sales and television deals, video gaming outfits tend to rely on advertising revenue. EG’s business model is more or less to advocate the hipness of its clients to its core demographic: 18- to 30-year-old men. The team produces videos for companies like Intel, eBay and Papa John’s Pizza, promoting the products to its youthful, wealthy fans.
“We’re kind of like this bizarre combination of the Yankees, ESPN and Ogilvy Mather,” Garfield, a tattooed 28-year-old, said recently. “EG is primarily a sports team, but we’re also a television network and an advertising company wrapped in one.”
The Lair sits at the center of these intertwining strands. It is, most important, where EG’s gamers go to improve their games, and thus improve their marketing potential as a brand. But given its atmosphere of intimate community, it is also a private studio of sorts where a number of the videos are made.
“What our fans want most of all is behind-the-scenes content,” said Anna Prosser Robinson, EG’s creative and account director. “So it’s great if we can film our guys walking around and talking about a product, or pounding down a burger in the Lair.”
One might not think that playing video games (or pounding down burgers) would be a lucrative career choice, but in fact, pro gamers are surprisingly well paid. Although Garfield refused to say precisely how much his players make each year, he acknowledged that his team’s top stars earned annual base salaries “well into six figures.” In addition, they have income from product endorsements and earnings from tournaments, like next month’s League of Legends competition at Staples Center in Los Angeles. The first-place team at that event, which recently sold out, will win $1 million.
“Take a guy like Ben,” said Garfield, referring to DeMusliM, whose real name is Benjamin Baker. “He’s been doing this since he was 15. Now he’s 23. He earns, let’s say, 60 to 80 grand a year, plus tournaments and endorsements. After a while, it starts to add up — especially when he’s living here for free.”
The attractions of the Lair are such that one of EG’s most exciting prospects, a StarCraft player named Conan Liu, or Suppy, is considering moving into the house this fall after he takes leave from his junior year of pre-med studies at the University of California, Berkeley. It is typical for players to spend a year or three living in the Lair, then return to ordinary life. Another EG star, Ilyes Satouri, a French-born StarCraft player known as Stephano, retired last month at 20 and left the house. He took with him nearly $250,000 in tournament earnings, which he plans to use to pay for college.
EG also keeps homes in Seoul, South Korea; Stockholm; and Cologne, Germany, all of which are important gaming hubs. The American Lair was built to house eight players, but because the team was still settling in after moving from Arizona, only four were living there this month.
They were Loranger (or HuK); Baker; Clinton Loomis, a Dota 2 player who is known online as Fear; and Bryce Bates, a StarCraft gamer whose handle is Machine. They ranged in age from 23 to 25, and their daily habits showed it. Most remained in bed until after noon, when they wandered down the Lair’s front stairs in surfing shorts and T-shirts. All of them went barefoot and were somewhat lax with hygiene. Dirty dishes sat at Baker’s desk for two days one weekend. Loranger kept some Lady Speed Stick deodorant at his desk, handily in reach.
“I was here yesterday and did four loads of laundry,” said Prosser Robinson, a former Miss Oregon, who, in an online twist to an old sports story, married EG’s captain, Geoff Robinson, known as iNcontroL. Prosser Robinson had the unenviable job as the house mom at the since-shuttered Lair in Phoenix. As one of the new Lair’s infrequent female visitors, she labeled the players’ sheets and pillows (which tend to disappear) and put up a note on the refrigerator, encouraging them to write their names on food they wished to keep.
“Most of the guys are in their early 20s and haven’t had their own apartments yet,” she said. “They’re all well meaning, but they don’t see what a 28-year-old woman sees.”
Indeed, while living in the Lair, EG’s gamers concentrate on gaming, and their training regimens are as gruelingly monotonous as any pro athlete’s. They regularly spend at least eight hours a day scrimming, that is, playing online scrimmages with friends. In between, they might find time to post on Twitter or shop online, but even these brief breaks are restricted to the boundaries of their monitors. Within the Lair, a tautly focused silence tends to reign. It is broken only by the patter-clack of keyboards or by occasional exclamations: “Nice shot, dude!” or “Dang, I just got killed!”
Something of an oddity in the house, Bates likes to run in the early afternoons and has tried, with only marginal success, to interest his housemates in the Insanity workout plan.
“We all take gaming pretty seriously,” Bates, a former high school athlete, said. “But you can’t be focused on it 24/7.”
Looking up from his computer, Loranger agreed.
“You can definitely play too much,” he said, surrounded by a bagel with cream cheese, a pair of old chopsticks and a rubber-gripped hand exerciser. “People tilt,” he added, “just like machines.”
What causes tilts most often, gamers say, is entering the black hole of all-night gaming sessions: it is an occupational hazard that players will sometimes choose the darkness over the light. Baker said that when he lived in Arizona, he often played games until 7 a.m. and then went to bed until 4 p.m. Recently, he has placed himself on a much more wholesome schedule.
“These days,” he said proudly, “I’m getting up at 8 a.m. I don’t like to totally exclude myself from the world.”
The world — or perhaps more specifically, the real world — can often be an uncomfortable or an unfamiliar place for introverted gamers.
“Our players tend by nature to be fairly inward people,” Prosser Robinson said. “Most of them have never known anything except for video games. The nicest way to put it is that it sometimes colors how they go about their lives.”
One night, for example, the players in the Lair went out for dinner. Garfield, the boss, was picking up the check. As the sun went down, they all piled into Bates’s car — his was the only vehicle among them. Their destination was Ozumo, a trendy sushi restaurant in Oakland.
Sitting in a private room, surrounded by displays of bottled sake, they looked a bit uneasy, and at first, their conversation was a halting mix of silences and shoptalk. Then the others noticed that Baker was sending a text message to someone on his smartphone. Garfield, in charge as always, asked, To whom?
It was a young woman, and Baker needed help. Roused by this romantic challenge, his teammates came to his assistance. Joining forces, as a multiperson Cyrano de Bergerac, they offered suggestions for Baker’s texts. In the end, their communal gambit worked. The woman was intrigued and texted back.
To Bates, the effort was in keeping with the Lair’s collective spirit.
“It’s what we do,” he said. “We help each other and hold each other accountable. It’s just pretty cool when you can live with your best friends.”