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The Biggest Prize in E-Sports Today: Talent

The Biggest Prize in E-Sports Today: Talent

An unusual recruiting meeting was set to take place one afternoon last May at Margot, a popular nouveau-Mediterranean restaurant in Culver City, Calif. Around several pushed-together wooden tables sat a makeshift hiring committee: Matthew Haag, a 27-year-old former professional video-game player known as Nadeshot, who is now the founder and chief executive of the e-sports company 100 Thieves; his president and chief operating officer, John Robinson; his director of business development, Jackson Dahl; and a junior business-development employee named Ibrahim Eljeilat.

As they waited for their prospect to arrive, Haag scanned the menu, looking slightly out of his depth. He was dressed in a crisp red-and-black 100 Thieves pullover and bright collectible New Balance sneakers, with a week or two of beard on his angular jawline. In what appeared to be a familiar dynamic, he turned to Robinson, who at 38 is one of 100 Thieves’s older employees, and asked, “What’s idiazabal?”

“It’s a kind of cheese,” Robinson said, sagely.

A few minutes later, the candidate walked in: a professional video-game player known as Yassuo, who was then 19. Quiet and polite, with short black hair and dark eyes, Yassuo — whose real name is Mohammad (Moe) Abdalrhman — looked both smaller and younger in person than he does online, but he exuded an understated confidence. The self-assurance was justified, because it was obvious that Haag and his colleagues badly wanted to sign the gamer, who was coming to the table with a unique combination of skills.

Today there are generally two kinds of professional video-game players — competitive pros and “lifestyle” gamers. The former can be thought of as pro athletes, competing on teams in games like League of Legends, Call of Duty and Overwatch, the way teams compete in baseball or soccer. Excelling in that world involves coaching, training, hours and hours of daily scrimmaging and, of course, raw talent.

Lifestyle gamers, by contrast, are entertainers. They ply their trade through digital channels like YouTube and Amazon’s live-streaming service Twitch. They seek to build fan bases in the millions; perhaps the best-known streamer is Ninja, a.k.a. Tyler Blevins, a former professional Halo gamer who shot to crossover stardom playing Fortnite. The most successful streamers can earn seven- or in some cases even eight-figure incomes. To get to this level, it helps if they are very good at their games, but they aren’t necessarily elite players. Above all, lifestyle gamers need to be compelling to watch — some combination of funny, attractive, edgy and skilled.

100 Thieves was fielding teams in multiple leagues, but Haag’s vision was to create something bigger — to also sell streetwear fashions and form a social-influencer-fueled media company — which meant he needed to attract both kinds of talent. And in Yassuo, he had found the rare gamer who straddled both sides of the divide, like a Heisman Trophy winner who’s somehow also a movie star. Yassuo already ranked among the bigger lifestyle gamers by then: 1.2 million subscribers on YouTube, more than a million followers on Twitch, nearly 300,000 on Instagram and 215,000 on Twitter. Appealing and charming and handsome, he was the kind of person advertisers and sponsors are happy to be affiliated with.

But Yassuo also had the skills of a competitive pro. Famously, he beat Faker — real name Lee Sang-hyeok — who is considered the Michael Jordan of League of Legends and whom some call the greatest e-sports player ever. At the time of the lunch meeting, 100 Thieves was fielding a competitive team in League of Legends, as well as three other games, but its existing lifestyle gamers were mostly focused on Fortnite. Landing a pro-level League of Legends streamer would be a big deal.

Yassuo had options, though. Not only could he sign with a bigger lifestyle organization or another top-tier competitive organization — teams like Team Liquid had approached him — he could also, with his following, just continue to go it alone.

At the restaurant, Haag peppered him with questions about his future. There was no hard push to talk terms or sign a contract. What Haag was really offering, though he never said it directly, was support. Staff to help promote Yassuo’s YouTube, Twitch and social channels. A production team to help dream up and film nongameplay content. And the embrace of something bigger, a team. Yassuo fidgeted in his chair. He was taking his career slowly, he explained, committing to his daily streaming, trying to manage a consistent six hours a day. He congratulated Haag on 100 Thieves’s recent Call of Duty tournament win in London.

“We went out and got them all Louis Vuitton Bags!” Haag said with a wide grin. It was great for team morale, he explained. “But you know,” he added, “also a chance to make content.”

Finally, Haag asked the big question on his mind: “Are you going to turn pro?” Haag knew that one of 100 Thieves’s strongest advantages was its having both a social-and-lifestyle presence and a pro League of Legends team — a combination that might make 100 Thieves as intriguing to Yassuo as Yassuo was to 100 Thieves.

“I’m thinking about it,” Yassuo said flatly. Then he went on, “I’d make it one of my story lines.”

In other words, the draw of becoming a competitive pro gamer for Yassuo wasn’t about winning championships or becoming the best player in the world as much as it was about generating reality-TV-style fodder for his streaming life on Twitch and YouTube. The situation was akin to Zion Williamson’s being excited at going No. 1 in the N.B.A. draft last year because of what it could mean for his podcast downloads.

Haag didn’t blink. “You always got to think about those story lines,” he said.

Yassuo streaming to followers.
Bill McCullough for The New York Times

Four decades after the first Space Invaders Championship, the world of professional gaming remains a strange and unsettled realm. In fact, there’s no concise way to define what has come to be called “e-sports,” even as it is quickly becoming one of the world’s biggest entertainment industries. According to Newzoo, a games-and-e-sports analytics company, competitive e-sports revenue last year was approximately $1.1 billion, an almost 27 percent increase from 2018. A dizzying array of entities worldwide are buying in: Michael Jordan, Drake, Jennifer Lopez, Steve Aoki, the Kraft Group (which owns the New England Patriots) and Sequoia Capital are all e-sports investors. Last September, Louis Vuitton announced it would be designing clothing for characters in the League of Legends World Championship.

Traditional sports offer some points of comparison, especially in the biggest gaming leagues like the League of Legends Championship Series and the new Call of Duty League, which are owned by the game makers themselves. These leagues sell franchises that resemble regular sports franchises. The N.B.A. has the Boston Celtics and the Golden State Warriors; the Call of Duty League has the Seattle Surge and Minnesota ROKKR. (A major difference, of course, is that the N.B.A. doesn’t literally own — and make most of its money selling — the game of basketball.)

There are also independent leagues and tournament series that look more like professional golf or tennis: Players and teams qualify in order to compete on a circuit. And then there are one-off events like last summer’s enormous Fortnite World Cup, whose finals were held at Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York, where a 16-year-old gamer who goes by Bugha won the $3 million solo grand prize — a haul bigger than that offered to the champions of the Masters golf tournament.

Perhaps the e-sport that most closely resembles traditional stick-and-ball sports is the Overwatch League. Owned and operated by the game’s maker, Activision Blizzard, the league has sold franchises around the world, in cities like Seoul, Los Angeles and Paris. For the first two seasons, regular-season matches were all generally played at a theater in Burbank, Calif., that used to host Johnny Carson’s version of “The Tonight Show.” Starting this month, though, teams began to play in their own cities in the home-and-away model of traditional sports. In the United States alone, Overwatch League games last year were streamed on Twitch, ESPN, Disney XD and occasionally ABC. (For the 2020 season, the league is replacing Twitch with YouTube.) Globally, the league broadcasts in four languages to more than 100 countries; the opening week of the 2019 season reached 13 million viewers over four days.

Last season’s Overwatch champion, San Francisco Shock, is the crown jewel of NRG, an organization run by Andy Miller. Miller is a longtime tech executive — in 2006 he founded the mobile advertising company Quattro Wireless, which was purchased by Apple in 2009. In the last few years he started dabbling in sports, buying a stake in the Sacramento Kings, an N.B.A. team, and the Modesto Nuts, a minor-league baseball team. When the Overwatch League formed, he saw a comparable opportunity, and bought the San Francisco franchise for $20 million. (When the league expanded in 2018, new franchises reportedly sold for between $30 million and $60 million.)

At his Palo Alto office last summer, Miller broke down for me how the numbers look to a team owner. Generally speaking, he said, Overwatch was reaching as many people in one day during the 2019 season as attend roughly five to seven home games of an average N.B.A. team. “This weekend there were four Overwatch games. The average had something like 130,000 to 140,000 concurrent viewers on the English stream. That was just Twitch. So let’s not include the fact that the games were on Disney at some point and that there is the China stream, which is even bigger, and the French stream and the German stream.” He then compared that to the N.B.A., where many games get 20,000 to 40,000 household viewers in their local markets. Miller paused to consider how small the viewership numbers really are in comparison. “That’s one of my guys, you know, just [expletive] around on his streams at night,” he said, referring to Twitch.

But fielding a team isn’t cheap. Overwatch is a six-player game, and many teams maintain a roster of 12 so the team can “scrim” (scrimmage) against itself. The minimum salary for a player, as set by the league, is $50,000. According to Miller, the top players make closer to $300,000, which is still relatively cheap; League of Legends player salaries can reach seven figures. Overwatch requires teams to provide health insurance and a retirement plan. (Miller also supplies food.) It’s a lot of money for a 19-year-old, but not necessarily life-changing the way, say, being drafted in the first round of the N.B.A. is.

As in traditional sports, a team receives a lot of money from the league itself. The league signs sponsors, which last year included Coca-Cola, Bud Light and Toyota. It also has partnered with Fanatics — the same company that makes merchandise for M.L.B., the N.F.L., the N.B.A. and the N.H.L. — to make and sell official jerseys, shirts and other merchandise. And of course, the league sells broadcast rights. Fifty percent of the net revenue from sponsorship, advertising, ticketing, broadcast rights and merchandising is split among the 20 teams. Of course, this revenue isn’t enough to cover team costs. “I would love to start a year like N.B.A. teams do and get a check for $100 million as one-thirtieth of the television deal,” Miller said.

According to Newzoo, total worldwide viewership for competitive e-sports is expected to jump to more than 550 million in 2021 from 335 million in 2017. But lifestyle gaming is growing unquantifiably faster. While most streamers make close to no money, a breakout star earns far more than even the top competitive pros. Such players can exploit all the revenue streams available to modern influencers — personal sponsorships, product endorsements, appearance fees, merchandise sales and so on. Then there are new inventions like “creator codes”: Popular Fortnite players have a special code assigned to them, and when their fans use the code to purchase in-game items — such as dance moves or character skins — the gamer gets a cut of the sale.

Despite all the money sloshing around, virtually no e-sports organization is profitable right now. E-sports is a multibillion-dollar industry short on surefire business plans. This is why outfits like 100 Thieves and Miller’s NRG are experimenting with blending the two sides, competitive and lifestyle, in an attempt to tap as many moneymaking opportunities as possible. In practice, that means capturing talent from a pool of mercurial and sometimes unruly teenagers and 20-somethings who have risen to prominence in a brand-new field that has very few rules or norms.

Matthew Haag, founder and chief executive of 100 Thieves.
Bill McCullough for The New York Times

After the lunch with Yassou, I joined Haag at the 100 Thieves’s “content-creator house.” Gaming houses have become a widespread phenomenon in e-sports, as many teams opt to live together 24/7 in a sort of suburban dorm-meets-training-facility-meets-production studio. “Cribs”-like house tours are popular on YouTube. Last May, 100 Thieves was maintaining three such houses. One was in Atlanta, where its Fortnite team was holed up trying to qualify for the World Cup. Another one in L.A. housed its League of Legends Team, sponsored by Rocket Mortgage. And finally, this four-bedroom, two-story modern rectilinear structure was the home of the 100 Thieves content team.

Haag himself lived at the house, along with two full-time roommates. CouRage, real name Jack Dunlop, is one of 100 Thieves’s biggest lifestyle stars, with more than two million subscribers on YouTube alone. CouRage, who is 25, came up through e-sports as an announcer for Major League Gaming, an early attempt to build an organized competitive organization. When he started streaming Call of Duty games, his following grew. He began playing more and more Fornite after that title was released in 2017, and he noticed his fans liked the game. Then in April 2018, he was invited to be a commentator at a big Ninja Fortnite event in Las Vegas, which cemented his association with Fortnite as the game mushroomed into a pop-culture phenomenon.

After spending some time with a different team, CouRage, who had been friends with Haag in the Call of Duty streaming world, joined 100 Thieves. “It’s a win-win for both sides,” Cou­Rage says. He helps the team get “more eyes on everything they’re doing,” he says, “and there’s value for me — I now have another huge organization to get help from.” Last August, thanks to the influence of the music-industry mogul Scooter Braun, one of the owners of 100 Thieves, CouRage created a special music video as a homage to Ariana Grande’s song “Boyfriend,” which included footage of him backstage with the singer. The video ran on his personal channels, racking up 2.9 million views to date. CouRage knows this is the sort of connection he would most likely be unable to make on his own.

The house’s third full-time roommate was Valkyrae, real name Rachell Hofstetter. Valkyrae, who is 27 and also goes by Rae, got her start while working at a GameStop when she realized that game-related content did well on her Instagram feed. She soon discovered Twitch, where she streamed various games. She says she was a bit of a loner in those days, a half-Filipina girl in rural Washington whose parents were divorced. She didn’t like drinking or partying and didn’t have many friends, which made the small community she was forming on Twitch precious to her.

Eventually, she started playing Fortnite almost exclusively, and her viewership ballooned. This changed her life. When her mother lost her job, Valkyrae was able to use her Twitch earnings to buy a house for her. When her father got cancer, Valkyrae was able to pay for his hospice care until he died.

Quick-witted, with infectious energy and well-honed battle skills, she soon found herself a hot prospect. “I’ve had over eight offers,” she says. So why 100 Thieves? “I knew about their apparel, and I just loved the aesthetics of it, and I knew they had a great reputation.” 100 Thieves wasn’t the biggest organization to approach her, but she felt a kinship and took the opportunity. “And I’m glad I did,” Rae says. “They turned out exactly how I thought they would be. It’s great having a team — if I need an editor, if I need to have someone to help film, if I have questions about anything business-wise, there’s always someone there.”

Valkyrae, whose real name is Rachell Hofstetter, is one of the most popular creators with 100 Thieves.
Bill McCullough for The New York Times

Every team in e-sports offers merchandise, but 100 Thieves makes apparel more central to its business than most. To improve style and quality, the company recently hired Doug Barber, the former head of brand at the independent clothing company Reigning Champ. “I know and understand apparel, and I know and understand brands,” Barber says, “and I felt like this was a rocket ship taking off.”

Like the typical streetwear brand, 100 Thieves is taking a “scarcity model” approach to its clothing lines, releasing only limited-edition offerings, organized into “drops.” “We’ve sold out all of our drops in less than 20 minutes,” John Robinson, the chief operating officer, says. “We’ll do about a half-million dollars of revenue on a Saturday morning.” Haag is quick to add that because they purposely limit supply, “that’s only scratching the surface.”

Robinson explained to me that 100 Thieves has three main revenue sources: competitive gaming; entertainment and media; and apparel. Each of these, he said, is a multimillion-dollar-a-year business on its own, and right now, they are all roughly the same size. In Robinson’s view, the divisions amplify one another. “Our sponsors typically want to work both with our professional gaming teams as well as with all of the content we produce and the entertainers and content creators we work with,” he said. In other words, 100 Thieves gives brands an easy way to gain access to the entire e-sports universe without forcing them to distinguish lifestyle gamers from competitive pros or League of Legends from Fortnite.

As we made our way to Haag’s room, the site of his elaborate three-screen streaming setup, we stopped to talk with James Crowder, who was temporarily staying in the house. Crowder was 100 Thieves’s Call of Duty coach, as well as a burgeoning Twitch streamer himself. A lot is made of how much time and dedication it takes to be a competitive player, but streaming doesn’t seem much easier. Crowder, for example, has lots of European fans, which means that he normally begins his stream at 7 a.m. Eastern. On trips to the West Coast, though, this has meant a 4 a.m. start time. “You have to go on when they know you’re going to be there,” Crowder said. He added that when he logged in at 4 a.m., he already had fans waiting in his chat room.

Twitch is a complicated platform. It comes with far more metrics than a typical social media service, and all of them have distinct implications. As on Instagram, your channel has followers, and they receive alerts whenever you are active online. Other measures include the average number of people watching your stream at any moment and the total viewership for a given stream.

Perhaps the most important metric, however, is subscribers. Even though the core service is free, fans on Twitch can subscribe to streams, which differs from just following a streamer. Typically, the cost is $4.99 monthly per stream, though there are $9.99 and even $24.99 options. (Amazon Prime members receive one $4.99 subscription free.) Twitch generally splits this money with a streamer 50-50, explained Haag and Crowder, who added that the service will give really popular streamers a bigger cut as a way to keep them on Twitch. (Twitch doesn’t share details about streamer revenue.) Fans can also make spot donations to streamers in Bits, a virtual currency.

Subscriptions are essentially a patronage system, a way for fans to support their favorite streamers. Subscribers can get special “emotes” from the streamer and sometimes access to special chat rooms or events if the streamer wants to set up such things. Crowder has built his subscriber base from essentially zero, when he joined 100 Thieves, to more than 2,000 a month, which doesn’t exactly equate to riches but means a few extra thousand dollars a month for him. He gives away signed gear to subscribers (T-shirts, game controllers and headsets, for example) and regularly holds subscriber tournaments so his fans can show him their skills.

Viewers frequently change their subscriptions, and Amazon Prime members have to actively resubscribe to a streamer every month. This makes subscribers a fickle lot. If you’re not constantly streaming — Haag and Crowder suggest six to eight hours a day, five to six days a week — you are losing subscribers.

Haag said he never has to prod his content creators to go stream. Indeed, problems are more likely to arise in this self-motivated community when they spend too much time online. Haag told me that he has seen players go nonstop, seven days a week without break, and then snap, walking away for a few weeks or even months. This can wreck their audience. When they come back, their fans have moved on. “If you’re not feeding your following,” Crowder said, “you’re falling into obscurity.”

For all its popularity, 100 Thieves is tiny compared with FaZe Clan. With more than 75 members and a self-reported social reach that exceeds 200 million, FaZe is gaming’s streaming behemoth. If NRG resembles a traditional sports operation that is now branching into media, and 100 Thieves is a boutique lifestyle brand built on gaming, FaZe looks more like a major record label. Its philosophy: Sign lots of talent, connect them with skilled producers, promote them and share the revenue. The Clan has grown so popular that it has become a draw for celebrities: The rappers Lil Yachty and Offset are official FaZe members, and JuJu Smith-Schuster, a wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers, has lived in a FaZe house during his off-season. In 2018, when Chris Rock and Adam Sandler were promoting their Netflix film “The Week Of,” they made an appearance on the “FaZecast” streaming show.

FaZe maintains its own gamer house in the Hollywood Hills. Ten FaZe members live in the house, which is a massive, glass-encased edifice with four stories and 10 bedrooms, along with a pool, theater, multiple balconies and an elevator. The day I visited, three teenage fans were circling the house out front on electric scooters, hoping to spot some of their favorite gamers.

Even by gaming standards, FaZe is overwhelmingly male, which gives it a somewhat bro-y reputation in the gaming world. The organization signed its first female member only last summer, a 13-year-old deaf Fortnite streamer named Soleil (Ewok) Wheeler. But Wheeler told me that she had a great experience visiting the FaZe house. “Everyone there learned how to sign with me,” she wrote in an email. “They embraced who I am. I see them looking out for each other.”

Vera Salamone, a talent manager for FaZe, gave me a tour of the house. Impressively tidy, it didn’t have the frat-house vibe I was expecting — the one notable exception being the stripper pole in the movie theater. (Salamone told me that they once tried to move or hide it when a group of Make-a-Wish kids were visiting. They failed, she said, but many of the kids nevertheless reported that the visit had been the best day of their lives.)

FaZe has also become controversial, in part because of a lawsuit filed in late May by one of its most prominent gamers, Tfue, a.k.a. Turner Tenny. Tfue’s suit argues that his contract should be voided because FaZe is effectively acting as a talent agent, but his contract doesn’t adhere to California’s Talent Agency Act. Reactions quickly poured onto YouTube. Ninja weighed in. The popular, mustachioed streamer DrDisRespect had thoughts. And FaZe Banks, a prominent member of FaZe Clan (real name Richard Bengtson) posted an emotional, 21-minute video expressing his deep sense of betrayal. To date, it has more than 9.6 million views on YouTube.

FaZe Clan’s chief executive, a former record executive named Lee Trink, knew that something like Tfue’s suit would probably happen at some point. When I met Trink, he looked like someone accustomed to hanging out with rock stars, in his tight black T-shirt and Virgil Abloh Nikes. “The reason that there’s been so much hoopla around this is that this is the first time in this industry,” Trink said, in a reference to the Tfue suit. “If this was in the N.B.A. or a renegotiation for a TV show or anything like that — we’ve seen those time and time again.” He added: “This is just the first one in gaming and e-sports. And it’s not going to be the last one.”

To many in the gaming community, the contract did seem excessive. One clause declares that FaZe can claim up to 80 percent of a gamer’s brand deals, if the company originated the deal (the cut would be significantly smaller if the gamer brought the deal to FaZe). FaZe has repeatedly asserted that it never enforced this provision; in fact, FaZe claims, it earned only $60,000 from its partnership with Tfue, during a period when his earnings, according to FaZe, were upward of $20 million. The Clan has since filed a countersuit. In November, a judge rejected Tfue’s request to have the countersuit stayed or dismissed, and the legal wrangling continues.

Trink and his partner, Greg Selkoe, had been running FaZe for less than a year when Tfue filed suit. While Trink believes that FaZe was legally in the right, he acknowledges that better contracts are important for the growth of the industry. One issue spotlighted by Tfue’s lawsuit is the youth and relative naïveté of many gamers when they sign contracts. But as Miller at NRG points out, professional video gamers and professional athletes are virtually the same age when they turn pro — somewhere in their late teens to early 20s. Child and young-adult actors have long been a part of the entertainment industry, too. The difference is that there has been so much money in these other industries for so long that an entire ecosystem of agents, managers, lawyers, players unions and other representation has evolved to service these figures. This is just now happening in e-sports. “There is no chance that the future of e-sports doesn’t have personal managers and personal agents in the fabric of it,” Trink said.

Miller shares this sentiment, and points to his Fortnite players. Fortnite skews young, and many top competitors are in their early teens. But according to Miller, these players at least have one form of representation: their parents. “It’s almost better, to be honest,” Miller says. “Then the kids know what their obligations are, and someone is looking out for them.”

Contracts come in a lot of shapes and sizes in the industry. Competitive contracts tend to be relatively straightforward. The leagues themselves often dictate terms — players earn a salary in addition to other specified benefits. But these contracts can be highly favorable to the gaming organization. “Let’s compare Sinatraa on the SF Shock and Steph Curry on the Warriors,” Andy Miller says. If you’re Steph’s sponsor, “you go to Steph Curry to do a deal — it has nothing to do with the Warriors,” which would not always be the case for Sinatraa. The Shock can directly license Sinatraa’s name and likeness to sponsors, which Miller sees as one of the big advantages over traditional stick-and-ball leagues.

That, of course, would be less palatable for popular lifestyle gamers, who bring in their own revenue, work directly with sponsors and are, in effect, individual brands within a larger organization. 100 Thieves tends to have comparatively generous lifestyle contracts. It frequently signs gamers to one- to three-year deals and, according to Robinson, doesn’t take any portion of a player’s personal income. What it asks for, instead, is that the gamer commit to promoting 100 Thieves as a brand and to make appearances on its various content channels. CouRage, for example, does “The CouRage and Nadeshot Show,” a bimonthly talk show about gaming and pop culture whose revenue goes to 100 Thieves, and shows up in wide range of 100 Thieves content. But 100 Thieves helps make content for CouRage’s personal channel, whose revenue he keeps. According to Robinson, this system is working well for now; players enjoy making content with the rest of the team.

Meanwhile, though, the entire future of video games is evolving — as Fortnite’s runaway popularity has shown. That success has hinged on the constant evolution of the game itself, which has introduced not only ever-changing new forms of competitive play but also new game modes. There are now creative spaces for friends to get together and build things and even social events, like an in-game concert by Marshmello that was “attended” by almost 11 million people simultaneously.

For many players, the game has become the place where they go to hang out. It’s more than a basketball arena; it’s their skatepark and also their shopping mall. The question, then, is what else can it be? Squint hard enough, and you can see Fortnite as a challenger not just to the N.F.L. and to M.L.B., but also to Netflix or even Facebook. As the tech analyst and venture capitalist Mary Meeker noted in her 2019 Internet Trends report, interactive games might be “the new social and friend networks.”’

With venture capital and famous investors now pouring money into e-sports organizations, there has been recent talk of an e-sports bubble. How much investment can the industry actually support? But inside all the organizations I talked with, there is a distinct feeling that we haven’t yet seen what gaming — and therefore e-sports — can become. “Platforms around gaming and the way people interact with virtual worlds are going to change so dramatically over the next 20 years,” Haag says. Who knows what the limits really are?

On Super Bowl Sunday, the work force at 100 Thieves was getting ready for a high-stakes game of Uno. In the warp-speed world of e-sports, much had changed in the months since my visit to the content-creator house. For starters, I would be watching the Uno game from within the “100 Thieves Cash App Compound,” an imposing new 15,000-square-foot e-sports facility in Culver City that opened the week before. Located in an industrial stretch running along the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook, the compound includes facilities like the “Rocket Mortgage League of Legends Training Room” and the “Totinos Fortnite Training Room,” along with multiple soundstage sets, streaming pods, lounges, business offices, an apparel-design studio and a retail store. The gaming houses have been closed, with the exception of a content-creator house where Haag and CouRage still live — though I’m told that it’s a new, bigger and better creator house (YouTube tour coming soon).

Matthew (Nadeshot) Haag, Clint Evans and Jack (CouRage) Dunlop at an Uno game during the Super Bowl at the 100 Thieves headquarters in California.
Bill McCullough for The New York Times

The Uno game, like the compound itself, was sponsored by Cash App, Square’s mobile payments app (Jack Dorsey, its chief executive, attended the building’s opening), which put up $500,000 in prize money. Some $100,000 of that would be given in $50 increments directly to Twitch viewers in a special Super Bowl halftime stream; the rest was the prize pool, with a $120,000 grand prize going to the winner. Haag was standing against a wall, wearing a red 100 Thieves jersey and clutching a White Claw seltzer. A temporary poker-table-style film set had been built in what is ordinarily the apparel shop. The game had been modified: There would be multiple seven-minute rounds, and the two players with the most cards at the end of each round would have to engage in a special challenge, and the loser would be eliminated. The scene at the compound felt like a party tinged with the stress of a live broadcast.

The 11 competitors, sorted into eight teams, included Yassuo, who signed a one-year deal with 100 Thieves a month or so after the May lunch. Dressed in a white anime sweatshirt and enviable Nike sneakers, Yassuo bounced with energy — the quiet reserve from the restaurant had vanished — and he was eager to get to the table to win some money. “They sold me on the point that they want to make content with me,” Yassuo said. “And that they want me in their videos.”

The biggest draw, he explained, was being able to do things outside of League of Legends. Sometime between our lunch and today, it seems that Yassuo made a critical decision: He’s not going to try to turn pro. His heart lies in creating content and connecting with fans. While it’s nice to think that you could do that and still put in the time, effort and focus to compete at the highest levels, in reality the two sides of gaming may be further apart than they sometimes appear.

He seems both relieved and invigorated by the decision. Since joining he has become a regular in the menagerie on 100 Thieves’s YouTube channel. One video follows him and CouRage as they compete against the 100 Thieves streamer BrookeAB and Haag to see who can do the best job recreating viral TikTok videos. In another, he, Haag and BrookeAB, in the kitchen, try to remix dishes they ordered off GrubHub into strange mash-ups for a Friendsgiving dinner with four 100 Thieves streamers who collectively call themselves the Mob.

For its part, 100 Thieves is not upset about Yassuo deciding not to turn pro. They also know the rigors of pro gaming — hours and hours of scrims and reviews — would leave no time for streaming or creating content, and his audience would inevitably shrink. They want to support him in whatever he does, but in truth, someone with Yassuo’s following is likely more valuable to the organization than even another top-tier competitor.

As Yassuo sees it, he now has a few fresh new obligations but also new opportunities. Perhaps the greatest is a chance to build his fame in a way that might someday transcend gaming. In the kind of videos he’s making with 100 Thieves, Yassuo is becoming an all-around personality rather than just a gamer. Will there be life after streaming? It’s hard to say. YouTube, after all, is only 15 years old. Twitch is only 8. This whole industry, with its streamers and creators and clans, simply hasn’t existed long enough for there to be reliable career paths on which to model yours.

Yassuo is clearly happy at 100 Thieves, but he still has options. It’s only a one-year contract. So for now, he will create jokey videos with Haag and CouRage, exercise discipline with his daily Twitch streaming, play the occasional competitive Uno tournament — and, of course, continue to mind his story lines.


Robert Capps is the former editorial director of Wired. He frequently writes about the intersection of technology, business and culture. This is his first article for the magazine.


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