In a messageboard conversation with other people working in various areas of the eSports industry, the question arose: what is an eSports professional? What defines a professional eSports organization?
The question is not an insignificant one, mostly because it’s such a contentious issue. Partly because eSports is still an up-and-coming phenomenon, the line between professional and amateur is much fuzzier than in other entertainment industries. Many respected writers, team managers, players, and other key people in the various worldwide eSports communities don’t look like canonical "professionals" on paper. They’re often in school or have fulltime jobs completely unrelated to their eSports work. This is the case particularly in the StarCraft-as-eSport scene, and yet paradoxically nowhere does the difference between the passionate, unpaid amateur and the disaffected, salaried professional create such an enormous gap. The gap looms large between Korea and the rest of the world.
It may seem strange to many that there are people who have well-paid, fulltime, high-profile jobs in the pro StarCraft industry who aren’t passionate about what they do. An example is Chen Yongjun, lead eSports commentator for Korean television channel MBCGame, producer of the renowned MBCGame StarLeague (MSL) and owner of the team MBC Heros. He sits in the Yongsan I’Park mall eSports stadium almost every day on the stage right between the player booths, only a few steps away from the likes of Boxer and NaDa, and millions of people in Korea and around the world watch him describe the intricate goings-on of StarCraft games on TV and online. I had the pleasure of chatting with Mr. Chen on several occasions in Korea, and what I learned about his outlook surprised me. At that point I was still convinced I was going to become an SC commentator, and so I enthusiastically sought him out for information and advice. This well-dressed, handsome man in his mid-thirties looked me seriously in the face and told me not to try to pursue SC commentary as a fulltime job. "Perhaps part-time or as a hobby," he said, "but that’s it." Despite the fact that there are people around the world who would kill for the chance to be in his shoes for just a day, he sees his job as just that – a job. "It provides food for my family," he explained. He already considered himself fortunate in life because of his family and financial stability, but from his perspective, his line of work only enabled that fortune and didn’t add to it. He thought I would be better off becoming a doctor or a lawyer.
In stark contrast to Mr. Chen’s point of view, the young diehards in their teens, twenties, and early thirties who populate the staff forums of community sites such as TeamLiquid, GosuGamers, and SC2GG are fiercely passionate … and largely unpaid. These students, engineers, computer technicians, teachers, writers, and paralegals in the States, Canada, Europe, and elsewhere all set aside significant amounts of time during their busy lives to contribute to the online StarCraft community in some fashion. The fascinating capability of the internet to provide niches for specialized communities – along with the allure of building a new identity from scratch with a non-arbitrary name and personality – ensures that as long as fascinating video footage of pro StarCraft players in Korea keeps being leaked to YouTube, there will be something to capture Joe Browser’s imagination and lead him down the rabbit hole. The uniqueness of Korean StarCraft inspires interaction, analysis, reaction, and organization. But, to return to the original question, at what point does ordinary fandom turn into hobby, into personal obsession, into a career path? If a 19-year-old writes 700-word news articles for TeamLiquid which are read regularly by people at Blizzard and WCG, does that make TL a professional eSports organization? If ICCup -operating outside the battlenet fold and presumably not making much of a profit – is an international standard for StarCraft skill and a better-run ladder than Blizzard ever came up with, does that make the unpaid admins "professionals" or just experienced, capable hobbyists?
The fundamental dilemma is whether or not the definition of a "professional" rests on attitude and intention (aka "professionalism") or getting paid for what you do. Ideally a high level of professionalism should correspond to getting a salary or some kind of financial compensation, no matter what the field is, but there’s still a huge discrepancy between the two when it comes to eSports. Eventually, as eSports grows and becomes recognized for the huge marketing potential it offers for sponsors and perhaps even the tourism dollars that live events bring to local economies, the people who are talented and hardworking will be recognized for their contributions in the lingua franca of the business world – cash, and lots of it. Until then, people who have made it to the top of eSports and are getting paid well should cut the rest of us some slack. Until we reach the day when sponsors and entertainment media give eSports its due, an eSports "professional" should be defined as someone who works hard to expand whatever branch of eSports he or she is in and who other eSports people rely on to a great extent to get things done, whether or not that person receives money for their efforts.