Anyone who still clings to old stereotypes about professional gamers might be shocked by how polished the industry — and the pros themselves — look today. Pro gamers aren’t basement-dwelling nerds. They’re incredibly cool under pressure, they’re impeccably well-groomed, they give confident interviews, and they engage with fans across a wide array of channels.
But it doesn’t always come naturally. The gaming world has increasingly borrowed practices from traditional sports and entertainment. Pros now undergo a regimen that includes nutritionists, personal trainers, sports psychologists and, yes, media trainers. Playing three hours of video games in front of thousands of fans in an arena, and millions online, all while maintaining the precision required to succeed, is stressful as hell. Giving a smart interview while you’re still sweating from a win may be even tougher.
“We do two big media training sessions per year, one for new players, and one for all players,” says Nicola Piggott, lead of esports communications for Riot Games. “But we also have a dedicated team that is looking after these guys on a week to week basis. We even offer services to owners and trainers. It’s not about giving them a message, but about giving them a sounding board and building confidence.”
Piggott has been in the industry for a while and has learned how to cater to the strategic thinkers who tend to rise to the top of esports like League of Legends. “These are very thoughtful, cerebral guys,” she says. “Given how smart they are, some can suffer from shyness. Yet on the other end of the scale you have these supremely confident guys who have no problem speaking their mind.” In either case, Piggott tries to embrace each player’s innate style, rather than forcing them into a mold.
The trend is embodied by two very popular Counter Logic Gaming stars – Aphromoo and Darshan. “Aphromoo has this naturally bombastic, calm-yet-confident swagger to him, and he has always had that style, even when we first met him three years ago” Piggott says. “Darshan has a more shy side – but has blossomed since conquering the world.” Darshan’s insanely clutch play helped take CLG to the finals against SKT at the 2016 Mid-Season Invitational, boosting the hell out of my fantasy team in the process.
Piggott never tried to force Darshan to become extroverted like Aphromoo. “He has a more serious, analytical style,” she says. Instead she encouraged him to focus on the strategic narrative during interviews and media events. “These guys are so analytical, they are so fact- and detail-oriented. The more they prepare, the more they know they have a strategy going in, the better they are going to feel.”
Piggott notes that even League’s greatest star, the Korean mastermind Faker, was something of a wallflower before embracing his famous cool. “When I first met him, it must’ve been 2013, he was extremely shy, you would put him into interview rooms with media and feel bad, he was not having a good time. But now – he’s still got a very solemn style but he’s poised, he’s confident.”
It’s no surprise that pro gamers may be prone to shyness, but Piggott says the stereotype only goes so far. After all, these are people who specialize in remaining cool under pressure, at improvising, at maintaining an astounding level of mental focus. For Piggott, it’s all about helping them direct that focus to the interview room as well as the battle arena.
Some come to her more prepared than others. By the time they turn pro, many gamers have already developed online followings, and have gained considerable on-camera experience as streamers. It’s a type of natural conditioning that she welcomes. “Imagine if Lebron James was wearing a GoPro and taking layups while talking to fans about it,” Piggott says. “He would quickly develop a way to talk to people and a natural awareness of being on camera. Many of these guys come to the League of Legends Championship Series with a degree of confidence and presence online that you won’t always find in traditional sports.”
Piggot is not the only one providing support for young players as they learn how to navigate the media. Teams and teammates play an important role too. Hans Christian Dürr, Esports Director, Europe for Splyce, notes the trickle-down effect in which older teammates help new players learn the ropes. “When we picked up our rookie (Mikyx) last year he was nervous in the beginning. New players are always shaking a bit. But he got tips from the veteran players. We didn’t just throw him into cold water. We helped him understand what was coming. And then, eventually, it becomes routine.”
For a handful of pros, representing esports becomes more than a routine: it’s a passion. Piggott notes, “Some of the guys enjoy it and are actively good at it. They like the idea of spreading the word about esports and challenging stereotypes. Those are definitely the guys you want to encourage to talk whenever possible. Pros generally are amazing ambassadors for the sport, much better than publishers or spokespeople… because they are investing everything they have in it, they are the embodiment of it.”
Whether it’s the pressure of the battle arena or the interview couch, having a clean, well-groomed look can give players some much-needed confidence. It’s a dynamic that’s well understood by Carlos “Ocelote” Rodriuguez Santiago, one of LoL’s earliest stars and the founding CEO of european powerhouse G2.
“When they look good, it’s one less thing they need to think about while playing. They know that when the camera is on them, they are taken care of. They can focus on the game” Rodriguez has noticed that his players are increasingly conscious of how they present themselves, and will take the time to get their hair styled, to shave, and even to get their makeup done before competition. He encourages this, not only because it makes his stars more confident, but because it presents the team in a more professional, aspirational light. “They want to make sure they are looked upon as someone you would like to become.”
Asher Ross covers arts and culture for a variety of publications.