As the first generation of professional gamers enters retirement, eSports is forced to confront a vexed question: after years spent killing rivals in a virtual world, what next?
It is a quandary that comes far earlier than in most sports — in the most frenzied eSports games, players can be finished by 23 because reactions supposedly slow after that.
Milliseconds can be fatal in the online battlegrounds of eSports, a fast-emerging world where the financial rewards are rocketing.
There is a record prize pot of $33.7-million — and still growing — this week in Shanghai at The International, a world championship where players compete in Dota 2.
In Dota 2, a multiplayer game featuring a “Phantom Lancer” and a “Chaos Knight”, players often talk about a comparatively late cut-off point of age 30.
“People think that at that age you’re slow, you’re not good enough, but I think it’s a mythical number,” Jingjun “Sneyking” Wu, 24, of the Newbee team, told AFP.
Michael “Ninjaboogie” Ross, of Dota 2 rivals Mineski, hopes to defy the age barrier.
He has spent more than half his life gaming, but at 27, retirement is already looming.
“Hmm, now that’s the one thing I’ve never really thought about,” he said, when asked what he plans to do next.
According to those with knowledge of the scene, the “What next?” question is a hot topic among pro gamers.
Coaching an eSports team or becoming a commentator or analyst are prime among the options after hanging up their keyboards.
But a few say that after spending up to 12 hours a day practising, and in some cases with their eyes and wrists suffering, they are looking forward to escaping the sport.
Duncan “Thorin” Shields, a self-styled eSports historian, said that burnout is a major reason why gamers tend to retire so early.
But he also told his YouTube channel on a segment about retirement that teams have been too quick to dispose of older players and experience has been undervalued.
The good news for the likes of Wu and Ross is that this seems to be changing and retirement ages are creeping up.
“Most people’s peak probably was when they were 21 or 22,” said Shields.
“But from an objective sense, it’s absolutely not true.
“The idea that in your late 20s you’re just completely done… it doesn’t seem to fit with sport.”
Kurtis “Aui_2000” Ling said that growing riches in eSports — the best players are multi-millionaires — are keeping gamers playing longer than ever.
The 26-year-old has earned close to $2 million, according to esportsearnings.com, and is now coach of Newbee having retired as a player after injury.
“Five or 10 years ago you retired because you wanted to settle down and you couldn’t support yourself in eSports,” said the Canadian.
“Now we’ve clearly reached the point where you can begin to do that [support yourself].
“Sports players can play into their 40s so I don’t see why you can’t in eSports.”
As the scene matures and money tumbles in, there will be growing opportunities for retired gamers in the business, management and media of eSports, said Roman Dvoryankin, general manager of Virtus.pro.
Dvoryankin wants to employ a sporting director but there simply is not a candidate out there because many of the first generation of gamers are still playing.
He dismissed accusations that many eSports players lack the social skills to thrive after they stop pro gaming.
“They are totally fine at communicating with other people, just not face to face,” he said.
“But it’s not a unique eSports thing, it’s a generational thing.
“People think they are just sitting at their computers, but the fact is they are talking a lot — but they are just chatting [online].”