The robot pursues the monster through a grove of withered trees. As the hulking purple beast fumbles with a scroll, the heavily armed automaton fires a flare overhead, flooding the clearing with iridescent light. Exposed and alone, the beast is stunned by a well-aimed grappling hook, then brought down by a flurry of blows from the robot and his allies.
"Liquid.BuLba just pwned LGD.Sylar's head for 371 gold," reads a line of text on the screen where the battle took place. "Team Liquid Victory." (Pwned is gaming-world jargon for badly defeated.)
Sam "BuLba" Sosale, the automaton's virtual pilot, springs from his chair with an exuberant, ungainly leap that has become legendary in the Dota 2 scene. He storms onto the stage of Seattle's Beyrona Hall, raising his arms and pumping his fists in triumph. It's the International 2013, a tournament held annually to determine the best Dota 2 team in the world.
The venue rumbles with the cheers of thousands who have gathered to watch the pros compete in a video game played on computers by tens of millions across the globe. A fast-paced mélange of chess and Tolkien-style high fantasy, Dota 2 demands the reflexes of an Olympic fencer, the strategy of a grandmaster and the dexterity of a virtuoso pianist.
Sosale, who lives in Cary, is one of the rare gamers who has turned his passion into a career. Although there are probably fewer than 1,000 pro gamers worldwide, North Carolina boasts three of the best: Wilmington's Call of Duty player Patrick "ACHES" Price; Raleigh's Super Smash Bros. Melee player Kevin "PPMD" Nanney, who competes in a tournament at Stuff N Such Games in Raleigh this weekend; and Sosale. [Disclosure: The writer coordinates social media for the GoodGame Agency, which operates Evil Geniuses, the team Nanney plays for.]
Sosale has achieved modest fame (he has almost 32,000 Twitter followers) and fortune in the competitive gaming industry––"eSports," as its fans call it. Since 2011, he has won more than $50,000 in prize money playing Dota 2. Perhaps more importantly, he found his professional calling and self-esteem through gaming, weathering the reservations of parents, friends and complete strangers who saw his life path as a strange one. He claims that playing Dota 2 has been a crucial element of, not an impediment to, his self-actualization.
It took several tries to schedule a meeting with Sosale at Village Draft House in Raleigh because gaming teams kept asking him to sub in their matches. When we finally met, he had the two things he is almost never without: his baseball cap and his notebook, where he writes down new Dota 2 strategies. He wanted a beer, but didn't know what to choose because he seldom drinks, and finally settled on a Berliner Weisse.
Sosale is soft-spoken and kind, if somewhat reserved until he has had time to warm up to you. Even though I'm comparatively awful at Dota 2, he asked my opinions about the game and the scene and seemed to actually value what I said.
"Dota 2 has given me a lot of confidence," he says. "I wouldn't be the person I am without it."
A decade ago, a career in gaming was nearly impossible; now, it's merely improbable. The field has grown rapidly in the last five years. Competitive gaming is included in the X Games, broadcast on ESPN and written about in publications such as The New Yorker, The New York Times and GQ. Recently, theScore, Canada's leading sports website, established a division dedicated to covering eSports. In August, Amazon bought Twitch.tv, the most popular site for streaming professional matches, for around $1 billion.
As an industry, eSports is modeled, to a degree, on traditional sports. Buoyed by lucrative sponsorship deals from companies targeting men between 18 and 35, teams—in practice, more like agencies—pay players a regular salary, provide flights to international competitions and, sometimes, manage a team house where they can practice. In exchange, players promote the team's brand––ideally, by winning tournaments––which attracts bigger sponsors. Sosale plays for Team Tinker, a mostly European squad boasting some of Dota 2's biggest names. Between October and November, the team competed in tournaments in Ukraine, Romania, Sweden and the U.S., as well as in several online leagues, winning nearly $90,000 total.
As a teenager, Sosale was introduced to Dota 2 by a friend and discovered that he had both a knack and a taste for the game. Within months, he was considered among the best in North America by fans and professionals alike. Of course, the discovery of talent was only the beginning: He estimates that he has spent 10,000 hours practicing play mechanics and studying replays.
Although today's tournaments can boast stadium-sized crowds and seven-figure prize pools, professional gaming was far from glamorous in the first days of Sosale's career, with a comparatively tiny audience, no reliable salaries and no international tournaments with paid flights and screaming fans. Sosale's first championship netted him $166. But he was not dissuaded by the comically low return on investment eSports offered. He was driven by an insatiable need for competition, a trait that is common to professional gamers.
"To be a professional player," explains Sosale, "you need a competitive spirit. That's always been a part of me. Even in class, I was a competitive person. Even when the games meant nothing, I was obsessed with winning."
Sosale's parents were wary of their son's budding gaming career, but assumed it was a youthful diversion that would pass with time. As it became more, not less, important in their teenager's life, they grew worried. Sosale's mother, Gayathri Kollengode, works in finance in Cary. She was dubious of her son's commitment to what she regarded as an unhealthy obsession.
Sosale's father, Bala Sosale, is an IBM executive. He says, "I was skeptical about the whole gaming thing at first. It came out of nowhere and it was a huge surprise. But one day, he told me that he was going to a $1 million tournament in Seattle, and both my wife and I were shocked."
It's hard not to sympathize with Sosale's parents. In their not uncommon view, gaming is something young people do when they should be doing something else. The dreaded "gamer" stereotype connotes perpetual sloth, poor hygiene and nonexistent social skills. From this perspective, gaming is an impediment to achieving what's more important in life.
Yet in many ways, gaming had the opposite effect on Sosale. When he enrolled at UNC-Chapel Hill in the fall of 2009, the freedom offered by the collegiate lifestyle did little to stifle his competitive ambitions. If anything, it strengthened them. Joining the Netherlands-based squad Team Liquid near the end of 2012, he competed in The International 2013 and 2014, two of the largest eSports tournaments in history, with prize pools of $2.8 million and $11.8 million, respectively.
Neither did his competitive ambitions disrupt his education. During this busy period, Sosale graduated from UNC, in 2013, with a double major in political science and biology.
At least in part because of their son's stable sponsorship and steady influx of prize money, Sosale's parents have warmed to professional gaming. His father, in particular, has become an avid follower of competitive Dota 2.
"Playing videogames as a job was a hard concept to grasp, but eventually we accepted that it was what makes [Sam] happy," he says. "Now I'm a huge fan and love watching every match."
Over Skype chat, Sosale told me, "In essence, eSports is just providing entertainment as well as creating competition. People love to see people fight and compete ... sports are that by definition."
Critics of eSports refuse to see video games as anything other than a pastime, looking down on their supposed unreality, or even making fatalist pronouncements about the decline of civilization. Yet at a time when commerce means eCommerce, dating means online dating and publishing means Internet publishing, is it so hard to imagine that the distinction between sports and eSports might not be that clear?
After all, professional gamers, even more than professional athletes, have a limited competitive lifespan. By 25, their reflexes have dulled to the point where they play against younger opponents at a distinct disadvantage. Though Sosale, 24, has started to prepare for life after eSports—he's thinking of going to pharmacy school—he wants to play for as long as he finds it fulfilling. Like an aging athlete sticking around for one "final" season, Sosale knows, "I know I'm going to keep saying, 'One more year. One more year.'"
This article appeared in print with the headline "Boss battles."