Internet & Tech

Going pro at 15

Meet the kid who dropped out of school to become an eSports star in China


Ming: he lived the eSports dream that many Chinese teenagers aspire to

What would you say if your 15 year-old son told you he wanted to drop out of school and become a professional video gamer? This was the dilemma that Ming Han Gao offered his mainland Chinese parents.

Ming dropped out of a prestigious school in Hong Kong and for a year played for a top eSports team based in Shanghai (soon after he ‘retired’ his OMG teammates went on to win the PUBG eSports World Cup). Here the now 17 year-old ex-gamer speaks to WiC’s summer intern Jonathan Gu, describing a typical day for an eSports star, the economics of this fast-growing industry and whether he considers it a viable career for a teenager.

When did you start playing video games? How did you get good at them?

I began when I was 13 years-old. I started playing mainly due to the fact that many of my friends were playing too. The first game that I played was League of Legends, but I figured I wasn’t very good at that game. I then played Overwatch, where I was able to make it onto the global leaderboards. I then switched to playing PUBG [Tencent’s PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds] later on.

I was on the leaderboards pretty frequently. That was when I knew I was one of the better PUBG players.

When I was on the professional gaming team, I had to play five to six hours a day to meet the requirements. When I played the game for fun, I could play up to eight to 10 hours of the game non-stop as I was very passionate about the game.

How were you approached by the professional team? Were you scouted?

I started out playing for an online team, which was not very serious. It was not an official team, but it was the first team that I played with. I was scouted after my initial team got into an argument and we split up. One of my ex-team members added me into a group-chat that many professional scouts frequent. That was where the manager of my professional team first approach me. I joined OMG in 2017, right after Christmas. OMG was founded in 2012 as a dedicated eSports team [for our backgrounder on the rapid growth of the Chinese eSports industry see WiC410].

OMG is a very large gaming franchise in mainland China. The organisation has different teams for different games such as League of Legends, Overwatch and so forth. I was part of the PUBG division, which was a five-man team. Only four people play at a time, so we rotated between our players.

How did your parents react to the news that you would leave school to go pro?

My mother was against the idea, but my dad was supportive of what I wanted to do. I contacted my dad about the job offer. We came to an agreement that he would allow me to play professionally for a year, and then go back to school afterwards. This was because I was younger than almost all of my classmates, so the idea being held back a year had been in my father’s mind already. He took a week to mull over my joining the pro team and then agreed.

It was kind of a gap year, or ‘a gap year before the gap year’.

What was your experience of playing for a professional team like? Was it as you envisioned?

The five players would live together in the same apartment, which was provided by the OMG team’s organisation. The facilities were nice as it was in a good district in Shanghai, and it had a gym and multiple bedrooms. The fridge was always filled with Cokes, juices and energy drinks.

We had a coach and they told us to go to the gym for an hour each morning – the theory was that exercise improved our gameplaying. Otherwise there were a lot of hours of sitting down in front of the screen playing and practicing.

That would be a standard day, but we’d play a tournament roughly every two weeks, mostly travelling around China on high-speed trains to take part. I probably played tournaments in around 20 locations. They were all in China, except one tournament where we flew to Romania.

Each tournament would either host all of the players in the same venue, or allow them to play from the team base. The live tournaments would usually have each team sitting separately, with a large monitor in the front of the stage broadcasting the game. There was one time where all the players were sitting next to each other, and we won that tournament because we were in the centre and because the other teams were talking loudly over their headphones and we could hear what all the others were saying, thus figuring out their targeted locations.

My most frustrating experience, however, was when I was in second place in a game when my computer just froze. If my machine hadn’t crashed I reckon I would have won that tournament.

In PUBG, teams are ranked by the division that they are in, with division one being the top and division three being the bottom. I played on a division one team. Competitions can vary depending on how many division one teams are in attendance. If there are four or more division one teams, then the competition to win is pretty hard as they are usually the ones to last until the end of the game. In probably the toughest tournament I played in the game lasted 29-minutes, and that required a lot of concentration.

Each tournament has a different prize pool, and the prize pool can attract certain teams to attend or not attend. Most division one teams would not participate in tournaments with a prize pool less than Rmb100,000 ($14,528).

OMG was the top team in China, so tournaments were very keen for us to attend. Shortly after I left my OMG team won the PUBG World Cup. That had the largest prize money – of around €400,000 ($447,894) for the winning team – and was hosted in the Mercedes Benz arena in Shanghai. The World Cup involves around 25 teams from different nations around the world.

Players play to win cash prizes in tournaments, and are then paid a salary, which includes bonuses for winning tournaments. Teams get money not only from winning tournaments, but can also get paid from sponsorships and advertisements. For instance, we’d be paid to hold a particular brand of bottled water after a match.

Were there any difficulties in being a younger player on the team?

The other players sort of viewed me as a younger brother. For the first three weeks or so I was the sub and they taught me the strategy that was used for most of the games. After a month I was basically on the main roster.

My teammates would make a lot of jokes at my expense. I come from a pretty wealthy family, so they felt like I was only doing this just to get out of school while they were the ones taking this job seriously as a long term career. My teammates came from pretty average backgrounds from different parts of China. Their ages were between seventeen and nineteen.

How long can the best players make a career in the industry? By the time you are in your late 20s, are you past it?

I would say that the “prime” of most players would be between their teenage years and early adult years. Part of the reason why I was recruited was due to the fact that I was young. I would say that the average career length for professional PUBG and other shooter-based games would be till around 26 years-old, as people start to lose their reflexes after that point.

For other more strategy-based games such as League of Legends, players might last to around 30. And for games that don’t involve reactions or reflexes, such as Hearthstone, professional players can be up to 40 years-old.

To be a top player I’d say it boils down to three things: genuine talent for playing the game, putting in extensive practice time – and also some luck. I’d weight it as a third, a third and a third.

How does a professional eSports career compare to other jobs?

Being a professional gamer is a pretty unstable job. Although the top players can earn millions of dollars, there is a big risk in having to win tournaments to earn that money. A gamer’s career can also be affected by the popularity of the game they are playing, as viewership determines how much money a gamer can make. If viewership drops, player’s salaries are cut and sometimes teams may be disbanded due to lack of interest. It is also difficult for players to switch to other games, because they have trained so long and hard to become good at a particular game.

So to have a good career you basically have to hope the game you are good at stays really popular for about six or seven years. You kind of take a risk on the game’s popularity.

Is Chinese censorship a risk to professional gaming?

I know that a lot of the gore and violence has been censored out of games in China, and that can deter players from picking up the game. Casual players – i.e. those that play at home – may also lose interest in a game if they feel like the realistic elements of the game (blood/gore) are too heavily censored. This affects pro players as casual players are the audience that watch their tournaments on video streams and these streams are the team’s main source of income – because it is more stable than prize money. I think censorship does affect eSports in China a lot.

Once they finish playing at the top level, do players go into other roles in the same industry (marketing, product development, team ‘coach/manager’?)

People who are “past their prime” (usually after 26 years-old) could sometimes switch to coaching, as they have the professional experience to guide younger players. But most retired pros switch to video streaming full time, as they are still very good at the game, and can make expert commentary on what is happening and help amateurs to get better at playing. Those with strong personalities can make a lot of money from streaming as they can generate big audiences.

Many retired players, mainly the top ones, retain their fanbase when they switch to streaming. Many players are reluctant to waste the fame and attention that they worked for playing professionally, so they continue to play the game on streams that people can watch.

Presumably there are hundreds of millions of gamers in China, but how many pro players are making a decent living?

Each major team will have pros playing all of the major games. However, the distribution of earnings is a bit like tennis where there may be hundreds of pros on the circuit, but only a handful of the really top players have a really high income.

Are Chinese teams the best at PUBG?

From my experience I think that it is the Europeans that are the best at shooter games. Although we won the World Cup, European teams came very close to winning. When our coaches showed us training videos, they usually were of the European players who they considered to be the smartest.

Are there particular roles or positions in PUBG that are most in demand?

In a team of four, there are three main roles played: the Assaulters/Infantry, the Snipers and the Scouts. I played as an Assaulter during my time with the team. Each role requires a different set of skills. Assaulters were responsible for charging into buildings or other structures where the enemy teams are, and usually fight in the front lines with assault weapons. Assaulters need to have good reflexes to win high speed gunfights. The scout surveys the area to look for other teams and make sure that there are no teams that are nearby. The scouts generally come up with the strategies and captain the team under their command. The sniper tends to stay in the back and pick off targets, making the fight more favourable for their team. Snipers need to have good aim and timing.

So you could say it’s a bit like a basketball team, where you have to combine offence and defence.

Is the fan base mostly people of the same age as the players? How do they get involved in ‘supporting’ their favourite stars/teams?

Our fanbase was comprised of PUBG players, who support their favourite teams by buying tickets for the live tournaments, or watching them on video streams. The streams go live on DouYu, a Chinese streaming site, and can rake up to a million viewers at a time depending on the tournament [DouYu launched a $775 million IPO on Nasdaq last week; see WiC460]. The team I played for, OMG, was one of the more popular teams in China, so we also had more fans as well. Our social media followers were in the millions. If I went into an internet cafe, I’d usually be recognised by fans.

Why did you choose to leave the team?

The year that I’d agreed with my dad was over, so I ended up having to quit anyway. However, after playing professionally, my interest in video games is gone, and I no longer feel enjoyment playing them. This was because devoting all of your time playing it with laser focus was very exhausting and repetitive. I rarely play video games nowadays.

Before my year on the team I used to be very much addicted to playing video games, playing them for hours a day without rest. In a way, I was able to cure my gaming addiction by playing professionally as it killed my interest in games completely.

So in a way did your father make a smart move sending you to play professionally?

I don’t think he intended for me to play pro to cure my addiction, but he was pleasantly surprised to find that I no longer had an interest in video games. He basically let me run wild for a year.

Why did you end up going back to school?

My mom took me to America to see some schools, as I would have to be enrolled into them. I now go to school in California. I retain some business interests. I have an online platform for trading rare watches, for example.

Do you have anything to say to aspiring players your age who would like to enter professional gaming?

It’s really not as fun as it sounds. Spending hours every day playing the same game is very exhausting. I would say go for it if you want to, but make sure to have a back-up plan as pro-gaming is not a good long-term career for most players.

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