You’d think that esports, a sport played behind computers rather than on the gridiron or the hardcourt, would naturally empower long, fruitful careers. But so far in the sport’s short history, that hasn’t been the case. Nick Taber, an American StarCraft pro, hung up his keyboard at 20 years old. Matthew “Burns” Potthoff spent a whirlwind career playing high-level Call of Duty before riding off into the sunset at the tender age of 24. Yes, there are some professional gamers who stick around their craft for decades (the legendary Japanese Street Fighter pro Daigo Umehara will turn 38 this year, and is still at the top of his game), but for the most part, the kids in this business fade away once they hit their mid-20s.
It’s hard to pin down one reason why esports careers are so short. We traditionally understand sports retirements through the lens of a devastating injury—concussions, achilles ruptures, and nerve damage that permanently hobble a promising athlete. If you’re a League of Legends pro, you aren’t risking your body in the same way an NFL quarterback does. The reasons for early retirement are less obvious.
The first is that there still isn’t a ton of money at stake for the average esports pro. Yes, the players at the top demand multimillion-dollar contracts, but that’s far from the reality that most pros face. The base salary for Overwatch League players is a scant $50,000, and an anonymous survey by ESPN put the average salary for an American League of Legends pro around $100,000. On top of these relatively low salaries, the professional structures for esports can be unstable. For instance, late last year Blizzard announced that it will be terminating the pro league for the company’s game, Heroes of the Storm, which means all of the pros in that league lost their jobs. It’d be like if the NFL decided to cancel the Super Bowl. That sort of instability doesn’t foster long-term job security.