Video game pros: How a passion becomes a profession with parental support

Many parents encourage their kids in conventional sports – like football, baseball, and basketball – and discourage hobbies like video games. One mom nurtured her sons interest in gaming, and he is now reaping the rewards.

Jason DeCrow/AP Images for Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
A young fan looks on as gamers try out the upcoming LEGO Batman 3: Beyond Gotham video game at New York Comic Con, Saturday, Oct. 11.

Parents who see their kid as having a future in professional sports might be interested to learn which unconventional sport is turning some young adults into mini-moguls for their tech skills.

Some parents may choose to re-evaluate their push for conventional sports, since less than one percent of high school athletes see a penny from turning pro, while teenage video gamers like Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok, 18, are already worth millions in sponsorships and winnings.

Mr. Sang-hyek of Korea is in the news today because he’s at the center of a million-dollar bidding war between two Chinese media companies which want to to hire him as a promoter, according to the Kinja gaming blog on the tech news site Kotaku.

The teen is also raking in about $98,000 - $147,000 a year from playing the video game League of Legends (LoL), Kinja reports.

Video gaming as a sport has gone mainstream, with a worldwide online audience in 2014 of 71 million viewers – roughly equal to half the population of the United States –according to a press release from Major League Gaming (MLG) based in New York City. An average viewer watches MLG 19 times per month with an average viewing session of about 2.2 hours.

In 2013, $25 million in gaming prize money was at stake via MLG events alone. That doesn’t include sponsorships and prizes paid for live-streaming tournaments on hosted sites like the live-gaming site Twitch was recently bought by Amazon for close to $1 billion ($970 million), according to The Christian Science Monitor.

The news that teens can strike it rich as gamers is no surprise to gamer parents like Palm Beach, Florida elementary school teacher Dawn Birchenough, who raised the Michael Jordan of American video gamers –Tom “Tsquared” Taylor, age 28.

Ms. Birchenough, a single parent, said in a phone interview, “At first, for us, video games were just another way to spend time together and bond. We read together, worked-out together, and we also gamed.”

As a result, Tom knew the names of dozens of video game characters the way other kids know those of famous sports stars.

Then he turned 13, and her ex-husband gave him a video game not on mom’s approved list of G-rated fare like Super Mario games.

“I didn’t like that game or any violent game, but I realized that there were some benefits to his whole Play-play-play mindset and intensity of focus,” she said. “Fine and gross motor skills, combined with eye-hand coordination, and eventually it really enhances memory function in players.”

To succeed in tournaments, he memorized tens of thousands of complex movements, character statistics, and strategies in much the same way a young football player studies game footage, and memorizes plays, or a chess player studies famous openings, combinations, and end games.

“My advice to parents of teens who want to try gaming professionally at around the age of 15 is to listen to your child’s dreams, aspirations, because you just never know. What you are sure is the worst thing may just be the best thing for them,” Birchenough said.

Birchenough said she was thrilled when her teaching skills and work ethic rubbed off on her gamer teen.

“I couldn’t make ends meet on just my teaching salary so I tutored. Thomas founded his own company, where he gets paid to tutor players online in the games he plays,” she said. Her son makes about $115 an hour giving game lessons.

Through all her unconventional years of being a gamer mom, Birchenough said other parents never had anything negative to say to her, but she did have her critics.

“I did have a fellow teacher tell me once that I was setting my son up for failure,” she recalls. “That pretty much ruined our relationship professionally. I made the decision to support my son’s dreams because I knew my child. I did what was right for my child.”

Perhaps as a result of that support, Tsquared has been on MTV, the Tonight Show, ESPN and the front page of the Wall Street Journal as an entrepreneur, player, and captain of the Major League Gaming team Str8 Rippin, one of the most successful teams in the leagues history, according to eSports online. 

He has earned a $250,000 sponsorship from Major League Gaming (MLG) to promote its eSports franchise.

Birchenough says that she believes the odds of a teen succeeding as a pro gamer depend heavily on parental support.

“The odds of success in any kind of sport are never good,” she said.

For example, a teen aspiring to be a pro-gamer can’t be too much worse than one who wants to be the next LeBron James.

According to Business Insider, men’s basketball is the toughest sport to break into with only 1.2 percent of college players playing professionally, and only 0.03 percent of high school players making it to go pro during high school.

In baseball, just 0.6 percent of baseball players go professional in high school, and just 11.6 percent of college players ever play professionally. 

Odds are only slightly improved for football playing kids, with only 1.7 percent of college players playing professionally, and only 0.08 percent of high school players going pro.

“It’s really less about the odds on paper than it is about knowing your child and being willing to support them to follow their dreams,” Birchenough said.

It can be argued that the success of Tsquared came about because his mother, allowed him to follow his own path through the world, which began in the world of Super Mario Brothers and led to him getting a GED while traveling the pro gamer circuit instead of finishing high school.

When our children show talent in any field – conventional or not – nurturing their experiences is a productive way to help them explore the path. You never know, it might lead to more than just a way to spend free time.

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