Complexity Gaming Opens Up About Tournament Play, Shifting Attitudes And The Future of eSports

compLexity Gaming
compLexity Gaming Photo: compLexity Gaming

Formed in 2003, to compete in the early Counter-Strike scene, compLexity Gaming has become one of the most recognizable names in eSports over the last decade. The organization has been featured in the Wall Street Journal and CBS' 60 Minutes, and even appeared in a few books and documentaries. And it's grown from a single-team organization to fielding players in some of the world's most competitive games.

Though its original focus was Counter-Strike, compLexity's umbrella has expanded to cover several other games, including Dota 2, Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm. The team currently employs more than 30 professional gamers, all of whom collect regular salaries, and the compLexity logo remains a consistent presence in championship events. In fact, after severing ties with its 2013 Dota squad, and sitting out the entire 2014 "season", compLexity's new team managed to climb back to the top in just one year's time, taking home more than $200,000 during The International 5. And that's a far cry from the sort of checks the team, and its players, were collecting in the early aughts.

“Back then, we were still kind of doing professional gaming inside of hotel basements,” compLexity Gaming owner Jason Bass told iDigitalTimes. “Back in those days, prize pools were maybe $50,000. So prize pools have obviously exploded at this point in time. Viewership was a limiting factor. You had to own the game in order to watch what was happening in a competition. Nowadays, you’ve got and other platforms that [give] access to anyone with a computer or mobile device.”

As a result, prize pools have skyrocketed in the last couple of years. Valve's Dota 2 world championship event offers the best example of that fact, growing from $250 thousand to $18 million in just five years. But that growth hasn't been limited to Valve's MOBA. League of Legends players regularly compete for prize pools worth thousands (sometimes millions) of dollars. CompLexity Gaming team captain Kory Friesen says there's been a noticeable cash influx in the Counter-Strike scene, too.

“Two years ago, no one was really salaried except for the top three, [maybe] top five teams,” Friesen told iDigi. “Now, pretty much everyone is salaried…it lets people not have to go to school, not have to work, and I think it just elevates the competition.”

“There’s a lot more space for individuals, who aren’t yet the best, to continue working and competing,” Dota 2 captain Kyle Freedman adds. “Even though they lose, they don’t go home with nothing; which was the case not so long ago. And I think that’s one of the most interesting things about the scene just makes for better competition.”

Both captains point out that, just a few years ago, being a "full-time gamer" didn't mean the same thing it does today. For starters, most full-time gamers still needed to work (or attend school) in order to pay bills, keep family off their back, etc. Many could only practice after class, or once their shift was over, and crunching for a tournament would frequently require the shirking of other responsibilities. These days, between the rise of Twitch, the increased commonality of proper salaries and the various other means of building revenue off competitive gaming, those hoping to make a career in eSports no longer have to split their time and/or attention.

“It’s far more realistic for people to take this seriously," Freedman says. "By that I just mean you can make a living from video games. It’s not just reserved for any actual, individual best. Or the second best. You can be a Top 50 Dota player and make an above average living. So the number of people who treat professional gaming as their career has increased exponentially because the money has gone from a couple million spread throughout the scene to, I believe, $30 million.”

Of course, when it comes to Dota 2, the lion's share of the tournament winnings still come from The International. As we mentioned, last year's $11 million prize pool ultimately convinced Freedman to focus on Dota 2. Of course, switching games can be a little like trying to switch sports; something only a handful of professional athletes have managed to do successfully.

For a time, it actually looked like compLexity's Dota 2 captain would leave professional gaming in the rearview. After his Heroes of Newerth squad imploded, Freedman briefly considered retiring from the scene. But a few months later, Kyle declared his intent to become a professional Dota 2 player and, joined by his brother, Zakari "Zfreek" Freedman, was quickly recruited by compLexity. He attributed the decision to watching another player, one he believed to be less-talented, win thousands of dollars at TI4.

“I always had a passion for traveling and I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life. So gaming kind of started as a placeholder,” Freedman told iDigi. “[I saw] this guy, that I knew I could beat, won like 200 grand. And I’m like ‘I’m a fucking idiot if I go try and be a bartender at a local spot.'"

It seems to be a shot at Peter 'ppd' Dager, an Evil Geniuses player who Freedman has something of a history with and whose share of EG's million dollar third-place prize would have been around 200 grand. But the captain stops short of naming any names. Regardless of who is/isn't the target of Freedman's ire, the results seem to speak for themselves.

Roughly one year later, Freedman and his compLexity Gaming teammates took home a similar check from the biggest eSports tournament in the history. The team's placement was impressive for any number of reasons, including the depth of competition in the professional Dota 2 scene and the relative brevity of the compLexity squad's Dota careers. There's also the fact that compLexity wasn't originally invited to TI5.The newcomers were forced to play their way into the tournament, via the Americas Open Qualifier, and managed to parlay that into a successful showing at The International. It wasn't easy. But Freedman says the effort was more than worth it.

“Once you make it there, you sort of cement yourself,” Freedman told iDigi. “This is what you do. You are a Dota player. And that was the main goal for the first year.”

Winnings are spread out a bit more in Counter-Strike, and most of the other games that compLexity currently competes in, but there's still plenty of cash to go around these days. There aren't any events with the kind of prize pool fans have come to expect from The International, or even some of the bigger League of Legends tournaments, but it's pretty common to see a $250K (maybe more) at the marquee events. It's enough to make Friesen, whose been playing since Counter-Strike 1.6, stop looking at professional gaming as something players must turn their backs on if/when they decide it's time to start thinking about a family. That's a pretty major shift for someone who briefly considered retirement in the months after Counter-Strike: Global Offensive's lackluster launch.

It's a familiar refrain; one the players say they hear from many of their peers, too. Unlike traditional sports, which tend to fill professional teams with athletes who've dedicated most of their lives to the sport in question, Friesen and Freedman say many professional gamers just sort of fall into it. Obviously, they're aware they have some skill at the game(s) they play; however, both Friesen and Freedman were adamant about their currently title never really being in the plans. It just sort of happened.

“I was actually going to quit,” Friesen admits. “But then I just kept winning. And I just kept going to events. We weren’t being salaried. And then, eventually, we started getting salaried.”

“The common storyline with each of us is…nobody knows why or how it happens. It really just happens for a bunch of people. And I’m no different,” Freedman says. “It just happens. Then you show up. Then it’s like six years later and you’re going to go move into a house with your teammates. And your whole life revolves around becoming the best at a video game.”

While tournaments remain synonymous with the best opportunities to earn a living, as a professional gamer, few could argue that Twitch has permanently altered the competitive gaming landscape. The benefits aren't always tangible, at least for players without their own individual followings. But all three of the compLexity representatives who spoke with iDigitalTimes agreed that the rise of streaming has been nothing but a boon for professional gamers and their teams.

“From a business perspective, it’s really opened up the audience. It’s allowed us to have a metric that we didn’t have in the past, which is Streaming Hours. Which is something that advertisers and sponsors really understand. They understand how that translates to brand value,” Bass told iDigi. "So it’s really made a big difference for organizations such as mine, and for tournament organizers, to really increase the accessibility of the content.”

That 'brand value" doesn't always translate to individual competitors. Both Freedman and Friesen were quick to point out that, while it's obviously good to get competitive gaming in front of as many eyeballs as possible, fans shouldn't assume their favorite players are all Twitch-made millionaires. In fact, many don't even earn a livable wage from the streaming service.

“Certain people can make a lot of money. People can make anywhere from a couple hundred to a couple thousand a month,” Freedman says. “But I don’t think it helps everyone directly.”

What the services do help, though, is team visibility. Which can translate directly into cash in a variety of ways. There are the aforementioned sponsors and advertisers, lured in by new metrics and hundreds of millions of hours of monetizable content. But there are also other revenue streams, like cosmetic item sales or sticker/pennant purchases that allow fans to monetarily support their favorite teams.

As you might expect, the increased visibility is leading the eSports scene to experience a few growing pains. Despite the amount of money on the table, professional gamers frequently run into visa problems when traveling outside their home country, making it especially difficult/stressful for teams to attend some international events. Families and friends still aren't always convinced it's a viable career strategy. And, yes, like most "real" sports, competitive gaming has its fair share of armchair quarterbacks.

“I do know that people I meet, across the world, they tend to think video gaming is so accessible. A lot of people play games and they’re like ‘Oh, I play Counter-Strike. I’m good at that,’” Bass says. “It’s like saying ‘I play football. I can be Tom Brady.’ I think that everybody needs to respect the fact that we have Tom Brady's in this game. And they are just that good. And they are just that much better than the average person who plays games. No matter how good they are in a pub.”

Despite both being in their early/mid-20s, neither Freedman nor Friesen is particularly concerned about retirement right now. When asked whether or not they've thought about life after professional gaming, given conventional wisdom about player retirement, both players challenged the idea that their careers already have one foot in the grave. The captains know players used to abandon professional gaming in their late 20's, either to return to school or pursue another career, but they're not convinced that will always be the trend.

"I think people were quitting because the money wasn't there before," Friesen says. "I don't believe that you get phased out at 25. There's no reason you can't be good until your mid-30's. If anything, age should give you an advantage over younger people."

More time to compete, combined with a much larger potential payout from many tournaments, does mean we can expect to see some players emerge from their competitive gaming careers with enough cash to retire. Even if that won't be the case for everyone or even the average professional gamer. But the players don't see that as a reason to worry about what comes next before the current phase of their life has ended. For these players, a five-year plan just doesn't make sense.

“I don’t think it’s something that anyone’s really aware of.” Freedman told iDigi. “Two years ago, if you were playing for first place in the biggest eSports tournament ever, it was going to net you, personally, a couple hundred grand. Now it’s getting you 1.5 million. Next year it could be three million. It’s impossible to know because everything is still growing..”

He adds: “I think a lot of people are attracted to eSports because of the unpredictability and because of the freedom it gives you to not think about that. You kind of live in the moment and enjoy.”

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