Competition, Money, Quest For Respect Drive Fierce Pro Video Game Circuit : All Tech Considered Tyler Wasieleski is a professional gamer. But he isn't what you might expect, and neither is the competitive gaming scene.
NPR logo Competition, Money, Quest For Respect Drive Fierce Pro Video Game Circuit

Competition, Money, Quest For Respect Drive Fierce Pro Video Game Circuit

Starcraft II fans watch the ESPN-style live commentary at MLG D.C. Jeremy Pennycook/NPR hide caption

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Jeremy Pennycook/NPR

The biggest professional e-sport circuit in North America -- Major League Gaming, or MLG for short -- makes its national championship stop in Dallas this weekend. Pro video gamers, and amateurs who aspire to join their ranks, compete for a share of this season's $700,000 prize pool and bragging rights as king of MLG.

Last month, thousands of gaming enthusiasts came to the MLG D.C. event at the National Harbor in suburban Maryland. It was the fourth of five events this year, culminating in the championship in Texas.

This wasn’t like a gathering around the giant flat-screen TV in somebody’s basement. Fans and players crowded into the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center to play and to watch games like Halo and Tekken. It's a serious series of competitions with a dedicated following. Many of the players are focused and determined professionals who play for a living, full-time.

With money on the line, the competition is blistering.

“Law school would be easier,” said Tyler Wasieleski. Tyler, 24, plays the real-time strategy game Starcraft II professionally under the alias LiquidTyler. He is also less than a semester’s worth of credits away from a philosophy degree at Duke University.

Tyler Wasieleski -- AKA LiquidTyler -- battles the competition clad in his Duke track-team hoodie. Screenshot/MLG hide caption

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Starcraft II has an almost unlimited skill cap. The game is often described as "adrenaline chess," requiring deep concentration, efficient mutli-tasking and clear-headed decision making. Players of Tyler’s level make between two to three hundred actions a minute on the game machine, executing strategies and counter strategies as their opponents do the same thing.

Tyler turned pro in 2008 playing the classic version of Starcraft. He decided to take a break from Duke, where he also ran varsity track, to pursue pro gaming.

“I just got burnt out,” Tyler said. “I needed something else to put my energy into.”

Much like a boxer climbing the ranks, Tyler made his mark taking down some of the game's top-tier players and winning a few tournaments.  After signing with eSTRO -- a pro-gaming team in Korea -- Tyler spent a short stint playing full-time in Asia.

“I was the best Starcraft player outside of Korea,” Tyler said.

But the move wasn’t a fit.

Tyler, who at the time was engaged and is now married, felt isolated. He never got a chance to learn Korean and many of his teammates barely spoke English. Living in a house with other pro players, Tyler didn’t feel like he was making progress.

“When I got there, I was on the B-team,” said Tyler. “They told me to play a certain way, even if I would never do that, so one of the better guys could practice.”

Tyler also chaffed under the hierarchy that came with living with the team.

“On the B-team, we had to do more of the chores and things like that,” said Tyler.

Staying only two months in Korea, Tyler decided to move back home to San Antonio and focus on the then upcoming Starcraft II. He has continued to make a living off of gaming, becoming a member of TeamLiquid.

Tyler didn't want to disclose how much money he makes as a gamer, but said he and his wife are living comfortably.

His income comes from prize money, sponsorship and from lessons. Tyler didn’t want to state specifics about how much lessons with him cost, but said professional coaching services can run to over $100 an hour.

“If you’re aim is just to make money, then coaching is great,” Tyler said. “But you will never get better and you will never win [tournaments] if all you do is teach.”

He also said some his clients aren’t who you might expect. Some of them are 40-something business guys who just want to beat their friends or their kids.

While Starcraft II wasn’t the only game at MLG D.C. -- much of the event was centered around the first-person shooter Halo 3 -- the double elimination 1-vs.-1 tournament drew a large, engaged audience.

Before his match started, Tyler said, “I feel like I can beat anyone here, but that doesn’t mean I’ll win.”

Moving through the winner’s bracket, Tyler surprised some folks by claiming an early round victory over one of the favorites, SeleCT. After almost eight hours of game play over two days, Tyler would eventually be knocked out of the tournament.

He fell first to his teammate LiquidHuk and then to the same SeleCT he had beaten earlier in the tournament. The players he lost to are ranked number one and two in North America, respectively, by Blizzard Entertainment, the game's publisher. SeleCT earned second place overall behind odds-on favorite Idra.

For Tyler, this means back to practice and many hours of it. His resolve strengthens after a tough loss. He tells himself, “I need to go get better.” Placing 6th was a major improvement from his result in the previous MLG event. But he says he still has a long way.

Like the D.C. event, MLG Dallas will be streamed live on the MLG website, where hundreds of thousands of viewers tune in, according to an MLG spokesperson.

While the audience and the money -- much of it from hilariously cliché brands like Doritos, Dr. Pepper and Hot Pockets -- are there to support a professional e-sport scene, the respect is still missing according to Tyler.

“If someone plays music or a sport, they get respect for working hard to be the best,” he said. “For some reason there isn’t that respect for people who choose to be the best in the world at gaming.”