Getty Images

Last August, an event at the Staples Center in Los Angeles sold out in less than an hour. It wasn’t a Lakers game or a Beyonce concert. It was the World Championship Final of League of Legends, arguably the most popular eSports game in the world. Thirty-two million people tuned in from home to see teams compete for more than $2 million in prizes.

It’s safe to say eSports has gone big time. But how do you go from casual gamer to professional athlete? A panel of experts broke it down to a standing-room-only crowd at Wondercon 2014, an annual comic book, movie, sci-fi and pop culture convention that’s a sister show to Comic-Con San Diego.The panel was moderated by author and eSports expert Genese Davis and featured World of Warcraft player John “Nuvas” Liao, Counter Strike streamer and eSports expert Scott Smith, game developer and eSports announcer Margaret Krohn, and World of Warcraft player Eric “Ararat” Abramian.

Here, according to them, is how you become the next - well, them.

1. Find a good team.

Every professional eSports athlete is part of a team. Even if the game you want to play isn’t team-based, you need to train with others at your level and have a support system in place.

Advertisement

“It has to be people who are dedicated, like-minded, and right for your crew - even if they aren’t necessarily the best,” Krohn said.

Your team probably shouldn’t be just a group of your friends, either, unless they’re all 100 percent as committed to professional gaming as you are and are just as good as you.

“Iron sharpens iron,” Abramian said. “Play the best to get better.”

“Kobe Bryant has to play with the other good guys, not his buddies,” Smith added.

Advertisement

Another way to find a team is to watch streamers, people who livestream their practice or exhibition games on YouTube or Twitch.tv. Stream your own games so other aspiring athletes get to know who you are and what your style is.

2. Make money like a real gamer.

Raking in the cash as playing eSports isn’t easy. Even the top-level professional athletes aren’t relying on team sponsorships and prize money alone. Although tournaments tend to have huge payouts this cash is split among teammates.

You have to find alternate sources of income. Even gamers who aren’t at the highest level can get in on the action: Smith isn’t a professional-level player any more, but he still makes money from ad revenue streaming himself playing and commenting on Counter Strike a few nights a week. To really make money that way, however, you have to be either playing well enough that people want to tune in to see your amazing moves, or provide compelling commentary on the game.

“We’re in the first generation where eSports is a career,” Krohn said. For aspiring pros, she said personality matters: “You have to have a personality where people want to be your fan or hate you.”

Smith emphasized that aspiring players absolutely have to take advantage of every opportunity to make a name for themselves. Twitter and Facebook are great ways to create buzz.

Advertisement

Another possibility is merchandising. After all, if people will buy a jersey with their favorite football player’s name on it, why not a keyboard with their favorite DOTA team logo?

3. Take it seriously.

Just like NBA players and Olympic athletes, professional gamers don’t play to have fun and relax, but to hone their craft.

Advertisement

“Treat it like a job,” Smith said. “If your time is limited, spend it smarter: Watch replays and watch your own replays.”

Watching yourself playing is a critical step in getting better at your chosen eSport.

“Be willing to critique yourself,” Krohn advised.

Learning to play under pressure is also key. Liao explained that he and his teammates used to practice late at night when they were exhausted so as to prepare for day-long tournaments.

Advertisement

Try to get your parents to take it seriously too. Abramian said he, like most eSports athletes, got some pushback from his parents when he told them he was playing World of Warcraft professionally. But he understands where the sentiment is coming from.

“They’re giving you a hard time because they care,” he said. He and other panelists suggested showing parents streams and professional tournaments so they can get a sense of the scope of eSports and realize it’s a real thing people do.

4. Maintain balance.

Gamers are known for pounding Mountain Dew and mainlining Cheetos and pizza, but you need your mind and body to be at their peak to really succeed in eSports. Davis recommends stocking your desk with bottles of water and fruit and scheduling breaks.

“I had to make time to go running and exercise,” Davis said.

And like runners, plan rest days. Your body and mind need time to recover from the exertion and let the muscle-memory sink in.

Advertisement

Throughout the panel, the speakers mentioned how eSports is an up-and-coming field that’s finally getting the attention it deserves.

“If you want to be a pro gamer, just do it right now,” Liao said. “It’s a good time.”