Updated January 23, 2018 - 10:57 am
The Mustache Club has gathered on a Tuesday afternoon to watch its hero blow stuff up.
Thousands strong, they’re here to cheer on a thick-whiskered young Swede with his own line of clothing — and, yes, coffee mugs — all adorned with his distinctive facial hair.
“Poop on a stick, dude,” Ludvig “Stormen” Storm sighs, bemoaning a bad move during an eight-hour streaming session of “Fortnite,” a survival video game where he guides a mace-wielding combatant through a pastoral landscape, swatting at anything that moves.
In addition to offering his own, F-bomb-laden commentary of his performance, Storm talks privately with fans who’ve paid $4.99 a month to subscribe to his page on the Twitch streaming site, gaining special access to converse with him via headset as he plays.
He also continually fields questions posted in his page’s chat room, sounding kind of like a Scandinavian version of Keanu Reeves back in his “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” days as he answers into his webcam.
“Stormen, does your wrist ever hurt?” one viewer asks.
“Would you ever consider a career in music, like singing or something?” another wonders.
Storm’s following is substantial: He boasts 146,000 subscribers to his YouTube page, where his gaming videos have been viewed nearly 12 million times.
He’s been streaming for close to three years, but his audience really blew up after a successful showing at TwitchCon 2016, a convention for gaming streamers that drew 35,000 fans to the San Diego Convention Center.
In the increasingly crowded and competitive world of professional esports, this is how you get discovered: Build name recognition, showcase your skills and establish a fan base through online streaming; consistently top gaming leaderboards; then — if you’re good enough — a pro team just might come calling.
It worked for Storm.
Last January, he was recruited by the Vegas-based Rogue esports organization to join its “H1Z1” team.
Now, he’s a professional gamer living in America.
“It’s crazy, just the fact that gaming can take you across the world right now,” he says from the Rogue support staff’s house on the city’s southwest side, a rose tattoo brightening one of his forearms. “That it can take me to Vegas is insane.”
As little as five years ago, none of this would have been possible.
Back then, there was little money to be made in competitive video gaming.
But the rise of Twitch has created a platform for a whole new world of esports opportunities.
Now, business is booming — from Vegas to Beijing.
“Everything has happened so fast,” Storm says. “Everything is kind of like … surreal.”
Want to play a game — for a living?
Look, you don’t get your ’stache emblazoned on a $24.99 camouflage T-shirt for nothing.
To get popular enough to sell your own fan gear, like Storm, requires years and years of immersing yourself in something akin to video game boot camp.
“You gotta practice a lot. Ten hours a day, for sure, to become a pro,” says Storm, who started gaming when he was 8. “And even if you do that, there’s so much competition, 10 hours a day might not be enough.”
Upon signing with a team, the demands become even more intense.
A typical day for Storm as part of his Rogue regimen: Start practicing at noon. Take an hourlong break at 4 p.m. Resume practice from 5 to 7 p.m. Switch games and play until 10 or 11 p.m.
And then there are all the tournaments.
Most esports games follow a general schedule: There’s a spring and summer season, fall is for playoffs and world championships with winter passing for a brief offseason.
It’s a grind: Some players travel up to 150 days a year.
What’s more, competing live in a team context in arenas full of screaming fans is a wholly different experience than playing online from your bedroom against friends. Plenty of talented gamers fail to make the transition (they’re derisively referred to as “onliners”).
Competitive gaming requires a unique skill set.
“It’s insane,” says Rogue CEO and co-founder Derek Nelson. “Some of these games will go on for hours without a break.”
One of Rogue’s “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive” players, Casper “cadiaN” Møller, recalls a tournament in Germany where a match lasted from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. — this after starting the day with a game at 9 a.m.
Players have specific roles in esports in the same way that, say, an NBA squad, has established positions, each with its own demands and responsibilities.
There’s near-constant practicing, scrimmaging and plenty of homework involved.
Each team has a coach — and some of them an analyst, as well — who breaks down game film of the opposition, attempting to identify weaknesses and patterns while developing winning strategies.
Most games are “patched” numerous times a year, meaning changes are made — characters might be added, game maps might be altered — to keep them fresh by providing new twists and challenges.
A pro has to keep on top of all of this.
Even if a given player can check all these boxes, becoming a professional gamer is still a long shot: There are more than 200 million regular gamers in America alone, and the competition is fierce.
“I’m looking for the top .00001 percent of players in the game,” says Rogue President and co-founder Franklin Villareal, who assembles Rogue’s many teams.
He’s also looking for players that people will actually want to watch.
In the same way that traditional sports have evolved into an entertainment business above all else, esports is becoming predicated on personalities capable of attracting viewers, their lives forming the backstory of the sport.
As such, today’s pro gamer tends to stand in stark contrast with any pasty-skinned, gamer nerd stereotypes.
“They care about how they look. They work out every day. They eat healthy,” Nelson says. “Everything to them affects their performance. That’s why they’re the best.”
A connection is made
OK, so maybe that pear-shaped pro bowler is an exception.
But for most professional athletes, the possession of otherworldly physical attributes is a given — even the towel waver at the end of the bench.
We don’t identify with them, we’re awed by them — the 275-pound defensive end capable of shedding blockers with arms thick as railroad ties; the 6-foot-11-inch forward with a ballerina’s grace and a Clydesdale’s power.
But esports turns the relationship between player and fan on its head — and this is where much of its appeal lies.
If there is a parallel between esports and traditional sports in terms of the connection between pro and spectator, golf might come closest.
“A lot of people who are fans of golf also play, and they recognize that professional players are much better than they will ever be, but on any given day, maybe they could have a round that’s as a good as a professional,” says Chris Grove, an adviser and investor in Rogue and a veteran analyst in the gaming industry. “I think there’s a similar thing happening with esports. It’s not that everyone who watches esports believes that they could be an elite-level player; it’s that the distance between them and an elite-level player is shrunken to the point that there’s more of an ability for empathy, a deep connection.”
This connection is key, and esports is uniquely suited to fostering it.
Think about how streaming reduces the distance between a guy like Storm and his following: You can interact with him in real time on an almost daily basis as he plays games that you probably play as well.
There are no intermediaries, no gatekeepers.
The back and forth is unfiltered and real.
“It’s kind of like if LeBron James wore a GoPro every time he practiced and just talked the fans through his practice,” Groves says. “That sort of intimate relationship is something that doesn’t have a great analog in traditional sports. That’s one of the things that really allows players to build incredibly large and incredibly loyal audiences.”
An increasing number of media powers have begun to realize as much, with Twitter streaming more than 1,500 hours of esports content in 2017 and television outlets such as The CW, TBS, NBC and DisneyXD getting in on the action.
But, like blood in shark-infested waters, the money flooding into esports has attracted plenty of predators.
Out come the wolves
Tom Brady’s boss is in.
As are the owners of the New York Mets, the L.A. Rams and the Philadelphia Flyers.
Those are but a few of the parties who’ve kicked in a reported $20 million to purchase a franchise in the new Overwatch League, which launched its inaugural season Jan. 10.
With 12 teams spread around the globe, from Houston to London to Shanghai, it’s the biggest, most well-financed esports endeavor yet.
But with billionaires such as New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft entering the fray, organizations such as Rogue are suddenly competing with teams buoyed by more money at their disposal than esports has ever seen.
“It’s an arms race,” Nelson says of professional sports franchises buying into esports. “They want to snatch up these franchises before anyone else does so that when it finally becomes organized, they’ve got the real estate. It’s a land grab.”
And they’re not being coy about it.
“Some of them have specifically told us face to face in meetings, ‘You’re never going to be able to compete with us because we have a marketing team of 50 people,’” Nelson says.
Already, the winnowing process has begun.
“There are less teams now than there were two years ago, because people are realizing you need so much money at this point,” says Villareal. “Two years ago, you could get in and maybe spend $10,000 a month and have a very nice organization. Now, you have to spend a lot more than that. It’s pricing out people who have spent their entire lives in esports.”
Rogue has garnered its share of interest from the corporate world — Nelson says he was on a call with an NBA franchise a few hours earlier, with Rogue being contacted by a number of professional sports franchises about possibly getting in business together.
And so when the initial Overwatch League roster was being assembled, Rogue took the plunge, secured financing and applied for a spot.
“It was a big, expensive, crazy process. But we pursued it,” Nelson says. “We went through the whole application process, we had the requirements, including the funding for the franchise.”
Ultimately, Rogue didn’t make the cut, disbanding its “Overwatch” team in October so that its players could sign elsewhere. (Nelson had to sign a nondisclosure agreement as part of the application process and can’t reveal why Rogue was denied a franchise.)
The Overwatch League plans to expand to 28 teams eventually, so Rogue could vie for entry as early as next season, though Nelson says he’s not sure they’ll go for it again.
Either way, the “Overwatch” team served its purpose, putting Rogue on the map and establishing it as an industry player with the ability to sign marquee talent for its other squads.
“Without that year of being at the top of the game in ‘Overwatch,’ we would not have grown the brand the way that we did,” Nelson says. “Teams traditionally come and go. It’s just part of the journey.”
Crucially, Rogue’s “Overwatch” success attracted the investors needed for long-term growth and a measure of stability: Just last week, Rogue was acquired by esports infrastructure services company ReKTGlobal, Inc. for an undisclosed sum.
No one’s crashing on anyone’s couch anymore.
Now, with a bigger profile, Rogue is poised to reap bigger dividends as esports continues to grow swiftly, especially in Vegas.
“It’s a new sport for a new medium,” says Seth Schorr, CEO of Fifth Street Gaming and the chairman of the Downtown Grand, who’s also a Rogue investor and adviser. “Rogue is the center to build a universe around.”
Contact Jason Bracelin at email@example.com or 702-383-0476. Follow @JasonBracelin on Twitter.