Competitive Gamers Are Taking Over the World (Their Worlds, Anyway)

On a Friday night, one of Clutch Gaming Arena’s busier nights, computers illuminate the faces of gamers in an epic quest for victory. They drag their monsters across mysterious lands or inch soldiers around the corner of an industrial complex so as not to be seen by the enemy.

But it’s nearly 2 a.m., and the gamers must return to reality. They power down their PCs and walk past the rows of Clutch’s sixty computers. They pass the black-light-lined white bar, home to the energy drinks that have kept them hyped through the night.

Electronic sports, or e-sports — the competitive branch of gaming — has exploded in popularity in recent years, thanks to more advanced games and faster Internet. Instead of playing against themselves or a friend sitting on the same couch, anyone with wi-fi can play a video game with a neighbor down the street or a stranger in another country, right from their living room. Or they can go to LAN (local area network) centers like the Arvada-based Clutch. Gaming tournaments are so popular that they fill venues the size of the Pepsi Center and make millionaires out of winners. Last year’s The International, one of the world’s largest gaming tournaments, had a prize pool of nearly $18.5 million. Tickets for the tournament, now in its fifth year, sold out in five minutes. Like football or basketball teams, competitive gaming teams have rabid fan bases and are enormously profitable. Former Lakers center Shaquille O’Neal and Yankees designated hitter Alex Rodriguez own eSports teams. Last week, TBS, home to painfully mainstream shows like The Big Bang Theory, began airing matches between gamers playing Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, a first-person shooter game.

“People enjoy watching others who are good at what they do or are entertaining at what they do when it involves a shared interest.”

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Justin Moskowitz and Jake Dahlman started Clutch in 2013. Avid players themselves, they thought the Denver area needed more space for gamers to practice and network. LAN centers like Clutch offer more games, better equipment and faster Internet than what most gamers have at home, as well as the opportunity for gamers to meet face-to-face and team up. 

Just three years after it opened, Clutch has outgrown its current location. Moskowitz and Dahlman have their eyes on a parcel of land in downtown Denver that would host a LAN center five times the size of Clutch’s current 2,100 square feet. The center would have tournaments and research capabilities allowing  academics to study gamers and, eventually, a hostel. Moskowitz and Dahlman say their goal is to unify the local gaming community — and to help make Denver a world-renowned gaming destination. (Moskowitz is working with Visit Denver to bring DreamHack, one of the world’s largest digital festivals and LAN gatherings, to the Mile High City in 2017.)

Dahlman, 28, has always had a head for computers and tech. At thirteen he routed Internet cables from both his neighbors’ houses to his own to boost his own connection. He also hosted one of Colorado’s only Counter-Strike servers, which he built. Players all over the state could connect to it and play the game with each other. At fifteen, he was touring Colorado with a Counter-Strike team.

He started working in construction when he was about eighteen, and got so busy that he lost touch with gaming. The foreman on one of his sites found out that he knew about computers and asked for help with simple tasks. When the rest of the crew heard about his knack for tech, they started bringing their computers to work so he could repair them.

“It got out of hand, honestly,” Dahlman remembers. “I had to put my foot down. I hadn’t really done any construction work for two months.” In 2005, a couple approached Dahlman for help to build seven computers, and he eventually took over the IT work for their business. The more efficient system allowed the business to take on bigger projects, which increased the company’s revenue. Three years later, in 2008, the couple provided Dahlman with investment money for his own gaming center: Geeks LAN Center.

Opening it might have been easy, but keeping Geeks afloat wasn’t. Three years into the endeavor, the center wasn’t making any money. In walked Moskowitz.

Now 33, Moskowitz spent his high-school years in the late ’90s in Aurora’s Korean gaming rooms. (South Koreans are notoriously good gamers. Gaming has been in their mainstream culture for years, and Internet cafes can be found every few blocks in South Korea’s cities.)

“I went in there, and I destroyed all of them,” Moskowitz says.

He was in and out of the scene for years while he worked around the world in business branding and the travel industry. When he came back to gaming, he made his presence known. A trick he found in the system in which he could assume a top player’s name allowed him to play against the 100  best StarCraft competitors in the world so he could improve. In the beta version of Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos, he was ranked fourth in the world.

Moskowitz immersed himself in Denver-area LAN centers and found a home at Dahlman’s Geeks LAN Center. He liked its comfortable environment; covered in black lighting, it looked more like a laser-tag center. Moskowitz started running tournaments and consulting from Geeks.

After running into each other at the center regularly, Dahlman and Moskowitz decided to partner. They closed shop in late 2012 and started building tables, pouring floors and designing the interior of what would become Clutch. They opened in 2013, with forty computers.

Forty computers was a lot of PCs to start with, more than most gaming centers in Arvada had at the time. “But it wasn’t enough,” according to Dahlman, who says the sixty they have now are still not enough. Clutch became a destination for gamers, many of whom would drive from all over the metro area because there were, and still are, very few LAN centers here.

Since opening, Clutch has hosted more than 100 tournaments and weekly meet-up groups for specific games. In 2015, the first ClutchCon was held. The con’s Counter-Strike: Global Offensive tournament had a $15,000 prize pool and brought in some of the country’s top teams. Included in the lineup were two elite female teams, a rarity in a male-dominated sport.

Though LAN centers like Clutch are becoming increasingly popular, most gamers still prefer to play at home, through websites like Twitch.tv. On Twitch, gamers of all levels stream hundreds of video games and play for millions of captivated viewers. For more than 13,000 “broadcasters” — Twitch players who stream their games for others to watch in real time — streaming is a full-time job.

As for the viewers, why would someone watch someone else spend hours playing a video game?

“It’s like saying, ‘Why is the chef watching the Food Network? Shouldn’t they be in the kitchen cooking instead?,’” explains Twitch’s public-relations director, who goes by Chase. “‘Why is that athlete watching ESPN? Shouldn’t they be out shooting hoops?’ No. People enjoy watching others who are good at what they do or are entertaining at what they do when it involves a shared interest.”

The voyeuristic concept behind Twitch began in 2007, after co-founder Justin Kan strapped a GoPro to his head and began streaming his life 24/7, otherwise known as lifecasting.

The novelty of what was then known as Justin.tv quickly wore off; there was a lot of downtime in the stream, especially when Kan was sleeping or eating. Kan and his partners decided to open streaming capabilities to the public, and video-game content grew quickly. In August 2014, Amazon bought Twitch for $970 million in cash. Now Twitch has 9.6 million unique views a day, and viewers spend an average of 106 minutes on the site per day. It’s the world’s fourth-most-visited streaming site.

Twitch has 1.7 million broadcasters, 13,000 of whom are partners. Becoming a Twitch partner is one of several ways that streamers make their living. Once a broadcaster becomes a partner, viewers can subscribe to the broadcaster’s channel for $4.99 a month. Some streamers say they take home 50 to 75 percent of that; considering that those streamers might have a few hundred or a few thousand subscribers, that translates to a comfortable living in many cases. They can also bring in revenue through sponsorships, endorsements and ads. Subscribers are given perks, too, like custom emoticons, access to special chats and unrestricted access to broadcasts.

A lot of streamers make a living purely on “tips” or donations. Colorado-based streamer Summit1G has over 1.3 million followers and is the fourth-most-followed streamer in the country, according to socialblade.com, a site that tracks and measures statistics across social media. According to Summit1G’s profile, he’s received $20,000 in donations from one subscriber alone. Chase’s explanation for tippers is simple: “They want to support their favorite broadcaster.”

Creativity and entertainment are also a big part of Twitch. Chase says that Bob Ross — yeah, that Bob Ross — was the original streamer, performing his craft while talking to viewers as though they were in the room with him. On Twitch, however, the audience comes into the streamer’s room via a chat box.

Twitch Creative launched in October 2015 to organize all of the creative shows on the site under one tab. To kick it off, Bob Ross episodes were streamed 24 hours a day for about ten days. The stream was so popular that it became a weekly mainstay, streaming for about 22 hours every Monday. Twitch even launched a cooking page, streaming episodes of Julia Child’s show. Painters, artists, crafters and sculptors often create work inspired by video games.

“Everything we embrace is based fully on what our community wants,” Chase says. “We don’t try to pretend we know what they want. We listen to what they want and we embrace it.”

Bri streams on Twitch from her home in the Denver area and goes by the name Echoics. (Like most gamers we spoke with, Bri asked that we not use her full name for security reasons.) She started streaming in February 2014, when a friend suggested that she broadcast her World of Warcraft III raids. By August, she was able to quit her restaurant job and stream full-time.

Bri mostly spends her days playing a first-person survival game like DayZ. The game takes up most of a viewer’s screen, with a thumbnail-photo-sized video of Bri playing at the bottom.

Every Friday, Bri puts away the video games and pulls out her easel and brushes. Under two production lights that flank her three computer monitors and a mic, Bri streams herself and a canvas in the full screen from one camera. One corner screen shows her painting from the back, and another goes in and out of a Bob Ross episode. She has sold ten paintings, and even auctioned one off during a May 19 stream for charity. The proceeds (and a couple thousand dollars in tips) went to 8-Bit Salute, which sends video games and related accessories to deployed troops. 

Bri focuses on creating a clean, troll-free environment among her 70,000-plus followers. She makes sure not to fall into the category of “booby streamers,” the gaming world’s term for female gamers who show off a lot of cleavage and use sexuality to boost their viewership.

“I am not sabotaging my roles and values for views, because, of course, there are a lot of guys on the Internet that like to look at boobs,” she says. “I just like playing games. I’m not there to show off assets.” Chase, Twitch’s PR director, says 75 percent of Twitch’s viewers are male, but the percentage of female viewers is growing. Women run about 40 percent of the creative channels.

Still, trolls are an issue, and whoever is in the minority is an easy target. “Keyboard warriors,” or kids trolling channels to cause trouble, have given rise to swatting, a prank in which someone reports to police a fake crime at someone else’s house that would require a heavy response. Gamers regularly target each other.

Colorado-based streamer Chad goes by Lolyou on Twitch and Lolyou1337 on YouTube. He has just over 213,000 followers, and a few hundred subscribers on Twitch, and millions of views on his YouTube content. Playing video games helped him move out of his parents’ house and save for college. Now in his twenties, Chad estimates he’s played 40,000 hours of Counter-Strike.

Chad knows the downside of competitive gaming all too well. When Chad was twelve and just starting to stream games, he arguably cheated in a Counter-Strike match. Someone took a screenshot of it and posted it. To this day, viewers give him grief. “People will get you for anything they can find,” says Chad.

Another instance was more serious. When Chad was streaming in his home in San Diego, where he lived before the Springs, he made the mistake of opening his blinds during a live stream, exposing the color of the soil behind his house and, somehow, its general vicinity. A few days later someone in his chat posted his IP address.

“I am not sabotaging my roles and values for views, because, of course, there are a lot of guys on the internet that like to look at boobs.”

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“I don’t know who he was, just some Russian dude, someone who was just probably bored,” says Chad. If a gamer’s IP address goes public, they may start to get food delivered to their door or taxis sent to their home. Someone might even call in a fake bomb threat or even a homicide to the police. A fully armed SWAT team is sent to the house, breaking down doors and sometimes shooting pets. Because it’s usually in the middle of a live stream, it’s all caught on tape. Many instances of swatting are documented on YouTube.

The worst that happened to Chad was the breach of privacy online. But that didn’t stop him from wanting to live-stream. Even though he hasn’t live-streamed in a few months due to a poor Internet connection, fans regularly ask where he is and when he’s coming back. He and his girlfriend are in the process of moving to Denver for the city life and better Internet. He continues to manage a community group called Dinosower! that he created with his friends. The group provides like-minded gamers a friendly environment and aims to filter out “toxic individuals. We try to make a safe haven for people to hang out in,” according to Chad’s Twitch profile. The group has over 160,000 followers.

(Twitch gives streamers tools to combat negativity. Moderators, or “mods,” are volunteer viewers who delete inappropriate messages and quell disruptions in chats. Both streamers and mods can ban people in a chat for an hour or two hours or indefinitely.)

Chad played his fair share of competitive gaming when he was younger but gave it up about two years ago. He says he doesn’t do well in a team setting and that competing took the fun out of actually playing video games.

“They never work together, and they always pin stuff on each other,” says Chad about teammates. “Unless you have a perfect team of five that can perform together, stuff’s always going to go wrong.”

One of the last times he played competitively, he was playing Counter-Strike. Usually players buy guns to challenge their opponents. One strategy is not to buy too many weapons in the first rounds of a match, but instead to save money and spend it in the end. But Chad went on a bit of a spending spree in the second round of one of the team’s most important matches, and everyone on his team started screaming at him.

“I was at a point where it was a game that I enjoyed so much for so long, and now I’m focusing on trying to compete, sweating, trying so hard,” says Chad. “I figured out a way to make YouTube videos and entertain people. It’s way better than competing.”

When he’s streaming regularly, Chad will broadcast for seven to eight hours a day, seven days a week. He says he comes across people who are lonely or having a hard time, and he’s usually able to bring them back up.

“I really help them. There’s a lot of people in my chat that are lonely people, and they just need life advice,” says Chad. “I feel like I’ve always been able to help them and be available to vent to. Sometimes people just need a stranger to talk to.”

He’s done 24-hour streams, which aren’t uncommon on Twitch. Once, he added a minute to his stream every time he got a new subscription and wound up streaming live for 32 hours. Another streamer, he says, went for a week straight. “That’s dangerous, though,” he continues. “It’s dangerous enough doing 24 hours. I’m dedicated to this. It’s almost like you sacrifice your health, and you’re guaranteed people will enjoy that.”

For Andrew, another Denver-based streamer, streaming on Twitch is one of the best — and, at times, most challenging — things he’s done in his life.

At thirty, Andrew, who goes by TigerWriter, made more money last year than he has in his entire life. Before he streamed, he was a broke touring musician “sleeping on punk floors.” When his tour van broke down in 2013, he decided to go back home to Iowa, regroup and figure out a way to actually make money while finding outlets for entertaining and creativity. He started watching Twitch streams and thought, “I could do that.”

He started streaming as a hobby in November 2014, and by January, he’d partnered with Twitch. The following month he was in the Spotlight, a Twitch feature that highlights small-time streamers on the site’s home page. Now TigerWriter has more than 55,000 followers.

In his earlier days of streaming, Andrew might have been playing video games for only three of the six hours he was online. The other three, he says, were spent partying. Although he’s moved past the partying, he hasn’t given up his flair for the dramatic. A series of flickering images, movie clips and flashing colors kicks off his nightly stream, all set to the tune of ’50s jazz, a DJ set or some dubstep. Finally, TigerWriter appears, spinning around in his chair, dancing, trying to hold a falsetto and making weird faces at the camera. “Who’s in my stream?,” he yells into a mic.

For his six-hour stream five days a week, TigerWriter is his own producer, content creator, marketer and brander.

“I look at it as way beyond me sitting behind a computer and streaming a video game,” Andrew says. “To me it’s about making people laugh, it’s about entertaining them, it’s about giving them a reason to want to come back and watch me. I look at it as being an entrepreneur and having it be my business.”

The concept of making money as a gamer didn’t exist when Moskowitz was coming up in the scene. He says back when he and Dahlman were getting started, there were a lot of really good gamers, but the only way any of them could make a living was by flying regularly or moving to South Korea. Even then, a gamer may only have made about $30,000 a year.

“That was the issue,” Moskowitz says. “Back then, a lot of people spent a lot of time to get good at games, [but] there wasn’t really any upside to doing so. So it’s kind of interesting that now there’s money in games.... [For some kids], it’s replaced violin or piano practice.”

There are even people making money off gamers. “There are so many different opportunities right now,” Moskowitz says. “Even if you’re not a really good player but you know everything about the game, you can be a broadcaster, analyst or coach.”

Another emerging market in gaming is performance training. To train its own gaming team, Clutch has been working with Dan Himmelstein, who in 2015 received a master’s degree in sport and performance psychology from the University of Denver. Through his startup, Premier eSports Academy, Himmelstein is applying sports psychology and performance techniques to the gaming world.

Himmelstein spent a lot of time in arcades in high school and college, but never played competitively except against his friends. Mostly he focused on physical sports. As a wrestler in high school, he was very good physically but says he was “a mess” mentally. He would lose an important match or tournament by one or two points after leading the entire match. His wrestling career, which began in third grade, came to an end when he lost a state tournament by a point with twenty seconds left after dominating nearly the entire thing.

When he began his master’s program at DU in 2013, he was fascinated with the two sides of performance: the physical and the mental. “I started making certain connections while I was learning about all these psychology techniques that brought me back to those days, when I was competing with some of my friends.”

In e-sports, there’s not a lot of physical activity aside from simple motor skills or twitch reflexes. And humans are used to training their bodies, not so much their minds.

“That’s what I do professionally,” Himmelstein explains. “I help teach people how to improve efficiently and perform consistently, using mental skills that will help them adapt and overcome obstacles, overcome adversity; how to bounce back from tough losses, how to maintain focus, motivation, confidence” in the e-sports arena.

In school, Himmelstein conducted one of the first studies to integrate e-sports and performance psychology. He and a colleague surveyed five competitive e-sports players. The players had to be competing in at least two tournaments a year and be at a certain skill level. They surveyed the players on the obstacles and barriers they faced while gaming and what tactics they used to overcome those obstacles.

“Even if you’re not a really good player but you know everything about the game, you can be a broadcaster, analyst or coach.”

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Alyson Calman, Himmelstein’s colleague, has been playing video games since her father introduced her to them when she was nine. At fourteen, she built her own computer just so she could play Counter-Strike.

Calman and Himmelstein meet with their respective teams for about an hour each week — Calman’s is a semi-professional all-girls team — and with each member separately for about an hour every week. Because the players on each team are scattered across the country, the sessions are done over Skype.

For Calman, the mental skills they teach are also life skills. “A lot of what we talk about — motivation, confidence, self-talk, how to prepare for games — it’s very applicable to real-life things.”

Himmelstein and Calman can’t discuss details about their sessions, because it would violate patient-confidentiality agreements. But they say the one-on-one meetings are similar to traditional therapy. Issues arise organically through conversation. Calman may start off an individual session by asking the client about her struggles, which hopefully helps her overcome mental blocks.

So far Calman hasn’t had to counsel her female clients on harassment issues, but if and when the time comes, her advice will be simple: Like a football player blocking out a stadium full of cheering fans, female gamers should mentally block out trolls.

Connor “Hamsword” McCulloch is a member of the Colorado Clutch gaming team (and is the only one of five members who actually lives in Colorado). The team has been working with Himmelstein on mental skills in one-hour individual sessions every week and one-hour team sessions. It’s a minimal schedule, but the team spends six hours a day, six days a week training on the beta version of a game called Overwatch, which was released with maximum fanfare on May 24.

The work that Colorado Clutch has done with Himmelstein has paid off, according to McCulloch. “If we lose a game, it doesn’t weigh down on the team too much. We just look forward to the next. That’s been helping a lot.”

Himmelstein will be heavily involved with Clutch’s eventual expansion. He wants to have on-the-ground coaching support for players and teams, including performance training and biometric feedback research. In other words, Himmelstein wants to hook gamers to instruments that can read their brain waves, muscle tone and heart rate as they play.

On display at Clutch’s current location are two Japanese sleeping pods. Inside each is a memory-foam mattress and only enough room to sit up. At one end is a flat-screen TV flush with the wall, and to the right is a mirror above a small control panel that lets the user control the pod’s temperature and TV. Instead of using traditional bunk beds for their hostel, which they hope to open less than a year after they nail down a location, Moskowitz and Dahlman plan to use the pods. A night’s stay would run gamers about $43.

Rendered drawings of the proposed new location also feature a full bar, kitchen and 132 computers. It will have three virtual-reality booths to satisfy the fast-growing demand for  virtual-reality games; a broadcasting booth and radio station; and a row of computers behind glass overlooking the other PCs, giving gamers a feel for what it’s like to compete in front of an audience. TVs broadcasting different gaming tournaments will be plentiful. Himmelstein says that having more physical locations can make tournaments more transparent, help cut down on cheating, and open up lines of communication between gamers.

“We’re bringing video games to life instead of just living right here in the screen,” says Moskowitz. “I can high-five the dude next to me after we’ve won the game, or we can go do a shot at the bar. It has to be a lot more exciting than being at home."