Fred Savage and Jenny Lewis in The Wizard

Playing video games as a profession, Red Bull flowing through your veins like liquid fire.

Who would ever have guessed that the activities we loved to do as kids could be the very jobs we use to pay our bills as adults?

As an adolescent Adam Heath Avitable growing up in picturesque Ormond Beach, Florida, I read hundreds of books, played video games, wrote stories, enthusiastically filled the role of the class clown, and entertained myself with myriad activities that seemed, at the time, frivolous and carefree.

Now, though? I earn money getting people to laugh. I get paid to write. And I learned this past weekend, at the Red Bull Training Grounds competition at Full Sail University, that there are people who earn a living playing video games.

Everything we did as kids has the potential to be our livelihoods. Well, maybe not everything, though if they ever come up with a way to monetize a certain activity (hint: rhymes with shmasturbation) I did six or seven times a day, I’d be first in line to sign up.

But still. Video games as a profession. What a fantastic concept!

StarCraft II Red Bull Training Grounds

Walking into Full Sail University’s studio, I felt like I was in the movie The Wizard, waiting for stars Fred Savage and Jenny Lewis (mmmmm, Jenny Lewis) to show up, along with the impotent and disappointing Nintendo Power Glove.

Fred Savage and Jenny Lewis in The Wizard

I could talk about three days of professional StarCraft II players demonstrating impressive reflexes, hand-eye coordination, and strategy as giant screens displayed the battles between the Terran, Zerg, and Protoss races. But all you have to do is just imagine how good you might be at playing StarCraft II, multiply it by one million, and then think about the skill involved.

I’d rather talk about the people. Over the course of the weekend, as I sat separate from the audience drinking more Red Bull than any human, animal, or Kryptonian should ever consume, I had the opportunity to observe, talk to, and appreciate many of the individuals involved. Here’s a few highlights from my conversations and observations.

First, there’s Shawn Simon, codename Sheth, on team Liquid. Formerly a professional player, Sheth has now assumed the role of coach for his team after developing RSI (repetitive strain injury) in both his hands and wrists. Years of holding his hands over a keyboard and mouse in the same position, repeating key presses and motions, took a toll, but after therapy and time to heal, he was confident he’d be back in eventually.

Zerg King Sheth and a fan, Beth Jones
Sheth with Beth Jones, The Hungry Freelancer

This soft-spoken gentle giant and I talked for a while about his life, his frustration with not being able to play, and his love of books. It was refreshing to be neck-deep in a swarm of video game enthusiasts and tech geeks and talk about something as mundane and analog as some good ol’ reading. Of course, I gave him a copy of my book, so I’m sure that reading it will leave such a bad taste in his mouth that he’ll give up reading for the rest of his life, but it was fun while it lasted.

There was Dennis “Succeed” Schmuck from team ROOT, originally from Sweden, who has lived in Korea and Peru, and recently moved to the United States in his role as a professional gamer. And Chris “Illusion” Lee, relatively new to the world of professional gaming, who was finally earning enough income through gaming to help support his parents. Both were reserved, well-spoken teens (Succeed is 19 and Illusion is only 17) with a short-term focus on the world, as it should be. “What do you do with this career? Where can it go? Where do you want it to go?” I asked, finding out that beyond making enough income to pay the bills and aiming to rise to the top of the StarCraft II mountain, both were simply content with practicing, trying their hardest to win, and enjoying the support of an enormous community of fans who lined up across the studio just for an autograph and a photo.

Dennis "Succeed" Schmuck, from the ROOT team, for Starcraft II
Chris Illusion Lee at Full Sail University's Red Bull Training Grounds

Those two were joined by six additional professional players: Chris “HuK” Loranger, Lim “NesTea” Jae Duk, a veteran at 30, Ryan “State” Visbeck, Ryoo “SeleCT” Kyung Hyun, Dario “TLO” Wünsch, and the eventual winner of the Red Bull Training Grounds tournament, Jens “Snute” Aasgaard, who walked away with a very cool trophy and a little over $3,000 in prize money.

Red Bull Training Grounds trophy

I went into this event with some trepidation, mentally scoffing at the idea of professional gamers. And then I learned that NesTea has earned $260,313 in the last three years, playing StarCraft II professionally. The highest paid player has earned $373,520. And I left with six Red Bulls, with a street value of about $15.

The gamers were great – surprisingly healthy, friendly, hygenic, and with names that seemed simple and mature (Whenever I play any games online, I’m always playing against guys with names like AssholeBiter4000 and Poopisfunny). But the event wouldn’t have been the success and spectacle that it was without two organizations. First, Full Sail University had an amazing crew, a great studio, and provided a perfect venue for this event, and I was spoiled by an amazing hostess, Full Sail’s own spokesperson Casey Tanous. Secondly, Red Bull ran the event flawlessly, and my time talking with Dana Whitney from ONE PR Studio left me impressed with the thought and preparation that went into planning the entire weekend.

If you had asked me before I attended Red Bull’s Training Grounds at Full Sail University to watch eight professional players wage war on the StarCraft II battlefield if I was attending begrudgingly or enthusiastically, I might have said the former. However, after witnessing this world that I didn’t even know existed and realizing that these players have taken a skill and honed it to such a point that it created a market for them to get paid to exhibit their talents, I walked away filled with respect for everyone involved. I also walked away filled with Red Bull because that’s all they had to drink. I think I had forty of them. I haven’t slept in three weeks. Help me. Please, oh God, help me.

Adam Avitable and Dana Whitney
Me and Dana chilling in the VIP area, high on Red Bull

Credits: Red Bull trophy photo copyright Cameron Baird, Red Bull Content Pool. All other photos, other than The Wizard, copyright We Are Atomik and Jess Etheridge.

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