Why you should care
Across professional sports, athletes are exploring a brave new world.
For some, it’s a pastime. For others, it’s a problem. And for a select few, in the future, it may become a second profession.
Gaming has long served as a reprieve from a grueling season for athletes, sometimes to their own detriment — in 2006, Detroit Tigers pitcher Joel Zumaya was infamously benched during the American League Championship Series due to wrist inflammation from playing Guitar Hero. Savvy pros aren’t just playing the games; they’ve been investing in esports organizations — and now, are looking to add esports to their playing resumes.
From football to skateboarding, soccer to basketball, pro athletes are exploring a brave new world where they get paid to play video games. In 2016, Gordon Hayward became the first NBA player to sign an esports endorsement deal when he teamed up with HyperX to exclusively use the company’s gaming headsets during his livestreams. In 2018, HyperX added Pittsburgh Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster to its endorsement roster, to the tune of six figures. On Twitch, the leading livestreaming service for video games in the U.S., Hayward has more than 60,000 followers (Smith-Schuster has more than 80,000). Those viewer counts make investing in these athletes a no-brainer for brands.
For some, esports make sense as they near the end of their pro careers. In 2016, Brazilian pro soccer player Wendell Lira announced his retirement. He had tasted blood the previous year when FIFA Interactive World Cup winner Abdulaziz Alshehri challenged Lira to a game of FIFA. Lira won 6-1.
Others are contemplating playing esports professionally — including pro BMXer Daniel Sandoval, who is sponsored by Red Bull and is an avid Call of Duty and Fortnite player. Pro skateboarder Mitchie Brusco, who counts energy drink Rockstar among his sponsors, is considering a second career playing his game of choice: Apex Legends.
“I rep what I love, and it doesn’t matter to me if anyone else understands it,” says Brusco.
For now, it’s unlikely that many athletes in their prime will quit to focus solely on video games. Ryan Morrison, a top esports agent, has negotiated seven-figure base salaries — but also five-figure amounts. By contrast, the average NFL salary as of 2019 is $3.1 million. That jumps to $3.5 million per year in the NHL, $4.4 million in MLB and $6.4 million in the NBA.
Still, esports is the fastest-growing category of sports. The industry is estimated to touch $2.4 billion in revenue by 2020, according to gaming research firm Newzoo, and by 2022 will boast a global audience of 300 million people, per Goldman Sachs. That’s why pro stars — current and retired — are rushing to invest in them. Tennessee Titans offensive lineman Rodger Saffold owns team Rise Nation in the Call of Duty World League; Los Angeles Chargers offensive lineman Russell Okung was an early investor in esports startup Matcherino; Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry recently invested in esports organization TSM, which fields competitive League of Legends and Fortnite teams. Alex Rodriguez to Magic Johnson, the list goes on.
To be sure, pros like Hayward and Smith-Schuster have only a fraction of the esports following of top streamers like Shroud, who boasts 6.8 million followers. Fortnite streamer Ninja makes more than $500,000 per month from Twitch subscriptions alone, per Forbes. In August, Adidas signed Ninja to its first-ever pro gamer sponsorship, marking a massive shift for traditional sports brands.
Meanwhile, the packed schedule of professional sports makes it hard for someone like Brusco to find time to seriously pursue a parallel career in esports. At this summer’s X Games, ESPN premiered its Apex Legends tournament, the EXP Invitational, which boasted a $150,000 prize pool. The tournament offered 15 automatic bids to some of esports’ most successful teams, like Cloud9 and Team Liquid. But five spots were determined through an open qualifier. Brusco wasn’t able to pursue qualifying so close to the X Games — where he became the first-ever to do a 1260 on a skateboard. He did, however, participate in the EXP Pro-Am in mid-July.
The logistics of managing concurrent traditional sports and esports careers are particularly challenging for athletes who want to be at the top of their fields, says Morrison. “It’s not something you can just transition into because you’re talented,” he says. “You can’t even switch from esport to esport in most cases.”
But sponsors appear willing to bet on top pro athletes dipping their toes into esports careers too. When Sandoval talked to Red Bull about potentially pursuing gaming, the company was supportive. “That’s awesome because at least I’ll have a backing if I try it,” Sandoval says. The energy drink brand is a sponsor of Cloud9.
And while there’s no established precedent for a pro athlete concurrently competing in esports, there have certainly been multisport athletes. Think Deion Sanders, who, in 1992, suited up for the Atlanta Falcons for an afternoon NFL game in Miami and then flew to Pittsburgh for his Atlanta Braves’ NLCS game against the Pirates. Or Bo Jackson, who remains the only pro athlete to be named an All-Star in both baseball and football.
Pro athletes also already have the high level of physical fitness esports increasingly demands. “Many esports pros are in as good shape as their stick-and-ball pro counterparts,” says Morrison.
Sandoval credits BMX with developing his hand-eye coordination and reaction time: “Our reaction time is so much faster, so when we see something on a screen, it’s just as fast as a professional gamer.”