From popularity to viewership, net worth and more, just about everything about esports has grown in the past 10 years. But as the industry has advanced, and the pool of professional players has widened, many questions remain about how exactly players reach the highest level. What is the process like for young, up-and-coming players? What pathways do they take? How do each of them differ? Which one has the higher chance of success? Which one attracts the most talent?
Here’s a brief look into what the roads unseen actually look like.
Esports is fundamentally different from many of the traditional American sport organizations. The NBA, NFL, NHL, and MLB all have drafts, and the pipeline for those leagues overwhelmingly involves college participation. The process a young player takes, from high school where they’re likely to be heavily recruited, to college where their draft stock can be monitored, to finally the draft itself where they go to a team, is all pretty streamlined and out in the open. For the most part, esports doesn’t really have anything like that.
A big problem is that esports really isn’t a whole organization itself, but rather an industry comprised of multiple communities around games that are independently run. Thus, it’s tough to create a simple process for younger players, as there’s a lack of oversight due to the non-existence of an entity that oversees everything. And there certainly isn’t a scouting site on the likes of Rivals or Max Preps to creates a tier list to assess a prospect’s talent. That process is public in sports, which often leads to a recruiting industry that regular fans can easily track.
By contrast, aspiring esports players often must depend solely on themselves to earn a reputation and spread their name. The recruiting of new talent in esports is far less organized. There are college esports teams, but they are hardly a pipeline to professional play. Instead, the teams themselves search for new talent in a largely unknown and unregulated market.
In place of a draft, what usually happens for younger players is instead something more akin to free agency, which can start at extremely young ages. The aforementioned organizations usually scour smaller competitions and online ladders looking for promising talents. Those players, if they’re good enough, will usually win more and more and get more and more noticeable. Then, they usually end up singing with a high-profile organization and join the team of the game they’ve made their fame from. It’s a pretty competitive grind to even get noticed, as it usually starts from becoming the best in a local region.
"People underestimate how hard it is to become a pro," said Daniel "vice" Kim, an up-and-coming Valorant pro. "In some ways it’s harder than stuff like basketball or football because there’s not a lot to help us get noticed. There’s no grand scouting and recruiting organizations to help; it comes down to you just winning and winning and believing and establishing yourself.”
Aidan Garde, an individual in college who participated in numerous Esports tournaments in high school and still holds interest in a potential career, echoed that sentiment.
"It really is just you versus the other bunch of people you see at a local tournament," Garde said. "It’s a lot harder to just get coached up or receive mentorship. Most people at local tournaments are in the same boat too. It’s just a gathering of people who have to use their own power to win and advance. And if they do advance they just face even harder competitors until eventually they reach a limit or achieve the dream of getting picked up and noticed.”
While nowhere near the pillars of development that NCAA basketball and football are, college esports offer another path for young gamers. But the outlook overall of players in college leagues is often different than those grinding through tournaments, some players said. For one, not all participants harbor ambitions to become pro players. The fact that they’re in college can mean they view esports as a side hobby, with their studies still taking precedent. One college esports player, who requested to be anonymous, said ambition is one of the biggest differences in college leagues compared to other amateur tournaments.
“I don’t think you’ll see every person on a roster want to go pro," the player said. "Most of us do take studies seriously, so the time available can be different. I guess I’d say that even if we’re on the esports roster, we have future plans and career goals that don’t always involve esports.”
It’s certainly an interesting reversal from norms we’ve grown accustomed too. Whereas investing in something in college usually implies they seek a future career in that field, for college esports, often that isn’t the case. For one, the scale of college esports is much smaller than the scale of other college sports, and certainly smaller than professional esports. Whereas college football and basketball can actually compete in terms of popularity to their professional counterparts, there’s a much wider gap for esports. This rings especially true when there are still only a handful of college esports leagues and conferences. There’s a less serious, intense air around it, and it rarely reaches the fervor that college football bowl games or March Madness can maintain for weeks. In a sense, the smaller size and scale of college esports can often make it feel more like an enjoyable hobby that players can use to boost their resume or explore themselves individually, rather than a gateway to the pros.
Aditya Tyagi, another college esports player, emphasized that idea.
“We’re in a more interesting spot compared to other student athletes," he said. "I think for the big time sports in the best colleges, a majority of the players do have dreams to go pro. But for us, even in the best college league, it’s a lot more diverse. I’ve met people who do see it as a way to advance to the next level, but I’d say there are more people like me who just enjoy gaming.”
Neither of the paths are easy, and both can be extremely cut-throat. That being said, the reason esports can feel some foreign or strange to people is because it is, in many ways, an inverse to traditional sports. Whereas college is the way to go, to get on the radar and put yourself on the map for most of the traditional sports, it’s different for esports. They have less help or a clear pipeline sure, but it also means they have more independence and freedom if they choose to go the non-college route. It’s very possible for skilled players to build their own brand without having to go to a university, and many high level organizations' players actually consist of players who didn’t participate in college esports.
In a sense local tournaments almost serve as lesser, minor leagues, as well as breeding grounds for young talents. The very same purpose college baseball, basketball, football, you name it, is meant to serve for their respective professional leagues. And like those professional sports leagues, only the best of the fresh blood end up getting scooped up by top tier organizations. Make no mistake, this road might lack visibility compared to its counterparts, and it might feel incredibly unnatural and bizarre to some. But it’s real, it’s there, and it’s extremely competitive. It’s certainly not a path to make light of.