Click. Click. Clickclickclick. Click.
This is the sound of practice to Robert Chung. He’s moving a character around with a mouse, trying to kill minions for gold while avoiding his opponent.
He is part of a new generation of enthusiasts who play a new type of sport: competitive video gaming. Competitions are massive, filling up sports arenas and drawing millions more spectators online.
Chung plays League of Legends, the most popular video game in the world.
Last season, ending November 2014, he was ranked 27th in North America – out of millions of players. In a game where most of the top players are professionals, Chung stood out.
'I Wanted To Become Better Than My Friends'
There’s a stigma against gamers. People think they’re nerdy or awkward, but you don’t see that in Chung. He’s a senior at Newport High School in Bellevue and does well in school. He has a laid-back kind of walk and dresses sharply in a grey button-up shirt with a baseball cap turned around. He plays pickup basketball games at the Y.
Chung has always loved playing games to compete. “I never liked playing one player games,” he says. “I’d only play if I was competing with someone else.”
In elementary school, Chung’s game of choice was soccer. “I truly wanted to play on the big stage,” he recalls. “I had it all in my mind, but I couldn’t commit because I’m not a very big guy. I’m kind of puny.”
Chung lost motivation. If he wasn’t going to be the best, why try? He turned to League of Legends. Compared to soccer, it's more about mental ability and less about running and kicking, so naturally he found it much less tiring.
Chung was introduced to League by a couple of friends. “When I first played it, I really hated it,” he says, but he kept playing “because I wanted to become better than my friends.”
He put in a lot of hours practicing. In League of Legends, each player has a character, and there are five characters on a team. The teams try to strategically outplay each other online, in real time.
Chung formed an amateur team at Newport High School. They scrimmage a couple of hours every night and compete on Sundays.
An eSports Boom
Chung’s passion for gaming is part of a boom for video game competitions, also known as eSports. Pro teams and pro players compete in sanctioned leagues.
Alex Hsu helps run High School Starleague, an organization that operates tournaments for students, including Chung’s team. He started the League of Legends high school tournament two years ago, as a junior in high school. Since then, it’s grown exponentially to feature 5,000 students from 600 schools.
Alex wants to grow eSports into the next basketball or baseball, but with your average kid as the player. He says the biggest difference between eSports and a traditional sport is that it’s more accessible to potential players. “You don’t need to have participated in eSports for your entire childhood, and then [have] been really lucky in the genetic lottery to play at a high level. You can step into it very easily and work your way up, because it’s a lot about mental skills and teamwork.”
Going For Pro
Mental skills and teamwork is what Chung is good at.
By the end of his junior year in high school, he had professional teams calling after him for a starting position on their rosters. Excited to play in a series of professional tryouts, he was ready to forgo college to pursue a career doing what he loved: playing games.
It didn’t matter anymore that he was puny, just that he was good.
His childhood dream of being the best was finally within his grasp. Chung could make up to six digits a year in prize money and compete for much more.
That’s when the cold face of reality looked him in the eye. He didn’t make the tryout.
Suddenly, the cheering crowd faded away and receded back into the murmur of high school. Chung was spent.
“I had a lot of frustration in seeing myself not improve, so I stopped playing competitively," he says. "I stopped playing daily.”
Now, Chung has new goals. He wants to be an entrepreneur. “Gaming for me isn’t going to be my ultimate goal,” he says. “The competitive drive will always be there, it’ll just be for something else.”
Chung will attend Seattle Pacific University in the fall. He still plays pickup basketball, football and most importantly League of Legends.
Now, it’s just for fun.
RadioActive is KUOW's program for high school students. This story was produced in RadioActive’s Spring Workshop. Listen to RadioActive stories, subscribe to the RadioActive podcast and stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.