Xu Zhilei, also known as "BurNIng," sits in front of his computer at the Team Aster training site. (Photo: Global Times)
"How do you become a professional esports player?"
This was the question posted by a fan to a popular Chinese Warcraft 3 gamer known as "Ted" on video game forum Replays.net. Net on October 17, 2006.
Thirteen years later, the man who asked the question has won more than 35 championships in the combat-centered game DotA and Dota2 (a multiplayer online battle arena video game developed and published by Valve Corporation).
Xu Zhilei, whose player ID is"BurNIng" and also known as "God B" by Chinese players, is an international star in the world of esports. As one of the pioneers of China's professional esports, the 31-year-old is now a veteran game anchor as well as founder of esports team Aster.
"Every day, esports players have to go through repetitive, robotic training. On top of that, they have to sleep during the day and stay awake at night. Their physical condition is a bit run-down," Xu told the Global Times. "It seems playing esports is a glamorous occupation, but in fact, players' daily life is as dry as dust."
Even though he himself no longer plays in competitions, he still wants to maintain a close connection with the industry. "Perhaps I still cherish the memory of playing on the competitive stage," Xu said.
Xu still remembers a TV program on CCTV5 (Sports channel of China Central Television) called "Esports World" during his school days - it was his first impression of esports.
Unable to resist the allure of video games, he began playing Warcraft 3 at the age of 17. "I wanted to get training and take part in competitions like those God-like players to achieve honor," Xu said.
However, even though esports was approved in 2003 by the Chinese government as a sports program, the now State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television issued a notice banning video games and computer game-related TV programs the following year.
The administration's sudden action was the result of a stereotypical view of esports by society. Most people look down on playing video games, a mentality that is still held by some parents today, who treat games as a "passive poison."
This was exactly the view held by Xu's parents, who used to oppose Xu's interest in video games and insisted that he should focus on his studies.
"My academic record was bad. During my senior high school, my parents forced me to study every day. But as a rebellious teenager, I sometimes ran away from home," Xu said. His parents believed playing computer games would turn their son into a couch potato and harm his future, he noted.
Like many teenagers in China, especially those from rural areas, Xu became addicted to online games while he was at school. He went to internet cafes day and night, totally neglecting his studies.
His parents had to search for him in different internet cafes in the town of Tongling, East China's Anhui Province, in order to bring him home.
After going to a junior college, Xu's mother wanted him to find a steady job as soon as possible. She took him to an interview for a job as a toll collector on a highway.
"I feel so lucky that they did not offer me the job. If they did, I think I would be wasted," Xu said.
It took Xu two years to change his parents' attitude toward video games.
In 2008, he went to Shanghai as an alternate for an esports competition. Even though the team lost to China's EHOME esports team, Xu began thinking about making professional esports his occupation.
"That feeling was awesome - I was excited and nervous - in a word, unforgettable," Xu recalled of his first professional esports match experience.
Two years later, he joined EHOME and won a championship, which gained him a bonus of 50,000 yuan ($7,450). Xu gave all of the money to his mother. It was the first time that she believed playing video games could earn his son a living.
"After that, they [my parents] started to search for me online. They knew that my life was not bad, so they became supportive," Xu said, adding that his parents are now very proud of him.
Young man's game
According to CCTV's report, there are currently about 50,000 people working in China's esports industry, with 260,000 job vacancies waiting to be filled. In 2020, the talent shortage will increase to 500,000, the report said.
Xu told the Global Times that the youngest esports players are now 15 or 16 years old, and 30 years old is already considered the peak, as human concentration deteriorates with time.
He said that online games is suitable for people of all ages but esports is for young people.
After undergoing professional esports training in clubs such as DK, iG and VG, as well as taking part in competitions for years, Xu considered his retirement.
According to several competition managers at top-level Chinese esports clubs, preparing for competition usually requires 10 to 12 hours of daily training, which requires intense concentration and quick reactions.
Xu acknowledged that as he gets older, he gets distracted more easily and reacts more slowly compared to younger players.
However, he also noted it will be a problem if too many people enter the esports industry, especially those young students.
"The development of the esports industry should not bring young people away from other opportunities to develop," Xu said. He noted that some people who lack talent in esports still want to be professional players due to the growth of the industry.
"But only 10 to 20 percent of them will make it. Not everyone is suitable for esports," Xu said. He encouraged young students in high school to focus on their studies.
Xu has taken the conventional path favored by most esports players: professional player, coach, game anchor and commentator or founder of an esports team.
Star esports players can make money from their popularity - some fans even help former players start their own team.
Xu's team, Aster, was established in September 2018, and means "stars" in Greek. However, in a recent Dota2 Major mass-election competition, Aster was eliminated.
Xu acknowledged there was no punishment mechanism in the team, and leading an esports team brought challenges that the veteran gamer felt he wasn't strong enough to handle.
"There were so many things I couldn't control. I should have given them a scientific training method and taught them from my own experience. But sometimes, I can't communicate the things I want to my team members," he said, noting that current gamers are not as diligent as his generation was.
He said players of his generation always watched playback of their games and discussed the training afterwards, but some current players see the training as the end of their job. "The conventional method of repetitive training can't bring major progress to the players," he noted.
Xu said he earned 1,000 yuan per month in 2008, a fraction of what current players earn today. The average monthly salary for most esports players now is 40,000 yuan, he said. According to another top-level esports player who asked to remain anonymous, famous gamers in China could earn at least 1 million yuan per year.
It cannot be denied that the large amounts of money flowing into the industry is due to top esports players getting more and more attention. They are treated like pop stars by fans who are willing to spend money on their favorite esports games.
Their diligence will bring in more investment and may lead the industry in a sound development direction.
According to market research company Shanghai-based iReserach, the market size of China's esports industry soared to 94 billion yuan in 2018, surpassing that of previous leaders the US and South Korea. And esports-related business revenue from sources such as popular players' events and the "fan economy" will account for 27.8 percent with 37.5 billion yuan in 2020, the company said.