Multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) video games are a multimillion-dollar esports industry. Glitzy tournaments draw thousands of game fans to light-studded stadiums with millions more watching the streamed event, all eager to see their favorite digital athletes show off their skills and emerge victorious. For two years, I have observed and assisted several Mexican semiprofessional League of Legends (LoL) teams as they trained together, each player aspiring to make gaming a full-time job and earn big money. For these young players, training is about more than state-of-the-art laptops and playing the game; it involves a process of socialization, dreams, tactics, and the ability to communicate with one another to win.
One of the world’s most popular esports, Riot Games’s multiplayer LoL involves two teams of five players in a competition of player-versus-player combat to defend their half of the map and destroy the opposing team’s base. To achieve this goal in the game’s flagship mode, “Summoner’s Rift,” players select from over 140 “champions” (characters) for each of the three lanes leading to an opposite base: assassins, fighters, mages, marksmen, supports, and tanks—each with specific abilities and flaws. Teams must carefully choose which characters, weapons, and tools to bring to each game in such a way that there is a balance between strengths and weaknesses and attack and defense strategies. But to triumph in the national leagues, they must also train.
“Let’s warm up together, everyone… First stretch your arms forward. Join the palms of your hands. Now take your fingers of the right hand and stretch them up…” the physiotherapist intones, putting us though our warmup paces via our computer screens. It is June 2020, and COVID-related lockdowns have forced the team to train online. The young players, already video game fans, are taking the pandemic quarantine as an opportunity to test their abilities and try to forge a professional gaming future. I am not a player; I simply haven’t accumulated enough play hours to pass the minimum level the teams require. Instead, my role is to put my psychology degree to use to support the coach and physiotherapist, who also works as a team analyst. During training, I keep a detailed record of attendance, delays, and any difficulties or frustrations that arise among the players.
Training to become a LoL digital athlete takes more than tapping away on keys. It not only means learning to play well, but also maintaining a good physical condition to promote overall health and performance. The physiotherapist-analyst continues, “Now we are going to do an exercise for our back. You must remain seated with your back straight. Now, taking your waist, turn as far as you can to the right and then to the left….”
The physiotherapist is a 24-year-old woman who started playing when she was 17. Little by little she got to know players, some of whom were dedicated to competing professionally, and heard about the work that physiotherapists do in the competitive scene. The main trainer is 22 years old, and about to finish his veterinary degree. Stuck at home under lockdown he decided to give training a go and soon discovered that he enjoyed analyzing team performance more than playing the game: “It’s actually more fun for me to interpret the graphs of what a team does, from how many times they die to how many times they reach certain objectives together. You can really tell a lot about the players just by looking at that statistical data.”
On my screen I see two of the five players on Discord, doing the exercises and following the physiotherapist’s instructions. Of the other three, one says that his camera does not work, and the rest prefer to leave it off so as not to affect their connection speed. The players are aged 17 to 24 years old and are spread out across different states in Mexico. Most of them live with their parents and are at some stage of transition: from high school to college or from college to looking for a job. They don’t know one another face to face, and yet here we are online, warming up to start off the day’s training. We will spend a large amount of time sitting and the physiotherapist reminds us to notify the team at the slightest sign of discomfort and to take a break to stretch our legs, drink water, or eat a piece of fruit. The team’s owner has plans to rent a house so that players can train together in person, but until then we watch our screens and stretch our arms, limbering up for virtual combat.
Living the dream
The aspiration to earn money as a digital athlete begins as fantasy for many players. Every once in a while, I hear someone call this “living the dream”: playing games online all day, earning money, travelling to compete in tournaments around the world, and being watched by millions of fans.
But achieving this dream also means overcoming certain obstacles, not least of which is the opinion of family and friends. The parents of one gamer think that spending so much time on a video game is a complete waste of time, nobody in their right mind could do anything useful by sitting and anxiously pressing buttons—and they are not alone. Another player is allowed to train as long as he maintains good grades. Sometimes players must choose between going out on a Saturday night or staying to compete in a small online tournament, a conundrum one player joked about by saying, “Remember that friends don’t help you win tournaments!”
The next big hurdle is realizing that training can be tedious, yet one must stay motivated to learn as much as possible. The onset of training-induced boredom is often the time when players realize how committed they are to living the dream. Plenty of young players decide to leave the team after long hours repeating a single task or analyzing past games to exhaustion. Team players, coaches, analysts, physiotherapists, and psychologists often leave the projects. Sometimes this is because they find a more formal job, sometimes because they can join a larger team with the prospect of remuneration. Such turnover in players and personnel seems part of the dynamics of semiprofessional teambuilding in the current moment. The first big challenge for a team, therefore, is to get a stable lineup in place and then help those players to develop some synergy in their communication and game play.
The team is complete for today’s group training session, with two newly recruited players joining for the first time. The first training sessions serve to evaluate new players without neglecting the progress of the others; we will dedicate the training to observing and listening to how they communicate during a game. As I have learned, coaches tend not to look for perfect technique in a player; more crucial is the ability to anticipate or understand what the team wants to do or should do at a given moment.
Let the game begin
Today the team will play three games against randomly selected teams as a kind of warmup before a friendly game. Each game lasts approximately 25 minutes. The plan is for the team to go through all three games and then get feedback. Our team is nervous—especially the two new players—because they must show everything they have learned in the past week. Coach knows that we are likely to lose the friendly, but that is not the point—we want to see how the team copes with stress and how the rookies manage to control their tempers and keep sight of the objectives to be achieved in the game.
The team recently lost coordination with the departure of two players, and lately they have had a hard time making and agreeing on decisions during a match. We are looking out for a player with a commanding voice, someone who knows how to give orders and delegate actions without humiliating his teammates. Coach calls this “leadership attitude”—the player must be able to focus on his role in the game but remain attentive to what all his teammates are doing. It is a level of reading that requires a lot of concentration and so we often spend a lot of time developing this skill with the players. The two rookies have been training with other teams for some time, so coach expects to see some strong leadership qualities on display. While we watch the games with the game spectator tool, the coach, the physiotherapist-analyst, and I discuss our impressions in a private Discord chat room.
The players are tense as the first game begins, but the team does its best to integrate the new players. Then, during the friendly game, we begin to hear frustration and scolding: “If you are going to attack, tell the team: you can’t do everything by yourself,” “You are wasting the character’s skills at least,” “Are you blind? I’m far away, I can’t help you.”
The player chastising his teammates is in the jungle position. Before the session begins, he tells us that he always uses Shyvana, a half-human and half-dragon figure. Jungle stance is often tricky because the player must move between all three lanes of Summoner’s Rift. Because of this constant movement, experienced junglers tend to watch what’s going on around the stage and are often the ones to come up with the team-wide plays to attack, ambush opposition players, or acquire bonuses.
The team make a lot of good ambushes and the newcomer jungler clearly has the experience to know how to hide on the map so as not to be seen by the enemy. The problem is that the other players on the team have never played with a veteran jungler before, so they sometimes attack too early, letting the opponent escape, or call for help when the jungler is too far away to assist. The jungler’s play style is aggressive and fast, unlike the team’s overall style, which errs toward thoughtful and slow movement to secure a goal, whether killing an opponent, gaining a bonus, or destroying part of the opposing team’s base. The new jungler is soon frustrated by the maladroit coordination and miscommunication. “We will have to plan activities to deal with that attitude [….] If he continues like this, no one will pay attention to him and they will only expel him, more so because he has just arrived,” coach cautions via the chat.
Feeding back and looking forward
The team wins the friendly, but they know that they will need to spend more time playing games together, to get to know each other and understand why each player makes certain decisions at specific moments in the game. Once players can intuit the rhythm of the new jungler and anticipate how teammates will move and improvise, they can develop a more responsive, seamless—and likely successful—style of play. Until then, there is work to be done.
Although the coaches and analysts can work with individual players to fine tune specific techniques, it is important that those things come through in a match. Coach prefers to correct issues with the team together, because that way everyone learns to observe their teammates and to talk about the mistakes the team makes.
The new player feels somewhat stressed during this feedback session. He cannot grasp why the team has not immediately adapted to his way of playing and why they do not attack when he asks for it: “I think they need to pay more attention when I ask them for something. If I see an opportunity to attack, I always take it, and, well, I think they should support me when I do it.” His comments show us that he is not thinking about the needs of his teammates, he just wants to make the plays that he imagines in his head.
While we (the coach, physiotherapist-analyst, and I) discuss all this in more detail, we ask the team to take a 30-minute break. Some players will use the time to go get something to eat, others will start new games. Two teammates tell us they might watch fail videos on YouTube. Some of them have built such a deep bond of trust during this time of physical distancing that even when there is no training session, they come to the Discord app to chat, watch series on Netflix, or just hang out with one another.
It is in these moments that living the dream seems a long way off. Until the team coheres and improves enough to acquire a sponsor or win a big enough prize, they will need to sign up for as many local or national tournaments as they can in an effort to gain valuable experience and win virtual money to spend on gaming supplies, including keyboards, mice, screens, and chairs.
“Training players is one of the most expensive investments because it takes a lot of time,” the team’s coach explains to me. Winning competitions doesn’t happen overnight and as coaches and players work toward this goal, team owners spend their time inventing and implementing strategies to monetize their team’s pages on various websites and social platforms. This might include recruiting community managers and content creators, streaming games, or making player accounts to develop their image as influencers. The aim is to cultivate continuous visitor traffic and build a loyal fan base.
Next week we will meet with the team owner to talk about a new project: selling team caps and jerseys through the team Facebook page. Deep down, we’re all a little skeptical about who would buy a shirt for a little-known team, but the idea has got the players excited. They will likely be the first ones to purchase the shirts.
It is two o’clock in the morning and I feel exhausted. Week after week I spend a great deal of time with teams as they play and talk about games, players, character abilities, team formations, and match-day tactics. This has made my fieldnotes and diary grow at tremendous speed. In fact, I feel a little nervous just thinking about what I am going to do with so much information.
In the early hours I wonder if the game and esports really do turn young people into techno-entrepreneurial types seeking employment in an industry that, at least in Mexico, is not fully regulated. What are the realistic, stable, game-related job opportunities that young people can aspire to in the coming years? For some players, living the dream might have more to do with playing with others, with building friendships with people who share similar aspirations of LoL stardom and success.
Before I go offline, I quickly check Discord to see if there are any new messages from coach or pending tasks for me to complete. I’ve finished reviewing my fieldnotes, I’m hungry, and my back feels stiff. I think I’ll repeat the exercises with which we warmed up before heading to bed. Training officially ended a few hours ago, but the players are still there on the app, and they are about to start another game. I say goodnight and warn them not to stay awake too long because tomorrow we have another day of training, playing the game, and living the dream.