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What Does it Take to Play Games for a Living?

Card players, sports bettors and pool hustlers used to be the only ones playing games professionally. Now esports joins the fray.

Research  |  Jul 11, 2017  |  By UNLV News Center
esports gaming arena

esports presents a major new frontier in playing games professionally.

Editor's Note: 

UNLV Center for Gaming Research Eadington Fellow Mark R. Johnson is a postdoctoral fellow in the department of computing at Goldsmiths, University of London. His research focuses on professional gameplay of all kinds — video games, gambling games, board games. He will deliver a colloquium, "Comparing the Professionalization of Pro Gamblers and Pro Video Game Players" at 3 p.m. July 14 at the Goldfield Room, Lied Library.


In recent years professional video game competition — eSports – has exploded in popularity around the globe, with hundreds of millions of dollars being handed out in prize money from tournaments that sell out some of the world’s largest stadiums. Numerous scholars, myself included, have focused on the dimensions of work and labour in the practice, and how play and leisure are transformed when they become one’s primary source of financial security.

However, playing games for a living is, of course, not a new phenomenon. Professional gamblers, card-players and hustlers have been doing this for far longer than professional gamers. But each exists in very different ecosystems of tournaments and informal games, legality and illegality, online and offline play, local and international geography, and across very different communities and demographics. What are the commonalities, what are the differences, and what can these teach us about the act of working at play?

I have been examining two bodies of literature to answer these questions. In the first case, I’ve been looking at autobiographies and biographies of professional gamblers, commentaries on their lives and interviews with them. These speak volumes about the lives and struggles of these individuals, from the skills required to make a living in such a competitive and unpredictable domain, to how these tensions have been navigated by the few who have braved those fires and emerged out the other end.

In the second case I have studied a range of secondary literature including manuals on how to gamble professionally: how to beat casino games, how to play skilled poker, and the like. Many of these are replete with passing comments or observations that show much about the lives of those who do find long-term profit in these domains. All of this I am then combining with a year’s worth of ethnographic and interview research I’ve been doing in the world of professional video game players.

My project shows that there are four main axes on which the lives and practices of pro-gamblers and pro-gamers differ. First, the skills of the trade are very different. The games played themselves require different abilities to be mastered, and the broader ecosystems of play require very different sets of social and managerial skills on the parts of the players.

Second is the role of money and becoming professional. Professional gamers have their money come in on a more regular schedule, handled in part through teams and sponsors. Professional gamblers have a deeply irregular schedule of profit, and regularly find themselves losing back through games of luck what was won in games of skill. It's something that's a major challenge for many.

Third, the diversity of play. Professional gamblers tend to master a wide range of games, while professional gamers master only one, reflecting the difference in relative and absolute skill being the determinant of profit.

The final axis is working hours and freedom. Where professional gamers train with the intensity of traditional sports athletes, professional gamblers live a fair more fluid, flexible, carefree existence — one which impacts and shapes their practices and experiences in multiple ways. My paper and talk will unpack these four elements in greater detail, and consider what they teach us about the entanglements of other elements — skill, luck, technology, legality, risk — in the different forms of playing games for a living.