The atmosphere in Staples Center is electric. The crowd can't seem to decide whether to be stunned or ecstatic as they witness a potential 3-0 sweep by Korea's SK Telecom T1 K over China's Royal Club. Either way the energy in the air pulls everyone to their feet and cheering at the top of their lungs. A fight breaks out. Kennen goes down. Caitlyn goes down. Sona goes down. All Royal Club members. The players and the crowd know it's all over as commentator Leigh "Deman" Smith shouts, "This could be a twenty minute game for SK Telecom... they will be, the Season Three World Champions, here at the Staple Center!"
The Season 3 World Championships at the Staples Center. Lolesports.com
In the midst of it all is twenty-three year old retired professional gamer, George "HotshotGG" Georgallidis. His hands are in the air, mimicking Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok of SK Telecom on the big screen. He can only congratulate Faker and the rest of SK Telecom from the bottom of his heart. He knows the sacrifices it took to get to where they are now – on the biggest stage in the history of eSports, confetti pouring down in celebration of their victory. It isn't easy to be the best. He himself was on a very similar stage only two years ago.
George is known to millions as one of the greatest League of Legends players in the world. Those millions have watched him stream himself playing the video game whether they were from the United States, Brazil, Germany, or Korea. He is the owner of Counter Logic Gaming, the team that he spent his entire professional career playing on and one of the most well known brands in League of Legends eSports. When I talked with George he spoke with the authority and confidence of someone with years of experience. But George was not always known as HotshotGG. If fate had its way, George may have been a network technician in London, Ontario.
He was just like any other elementary school student – he did as well as an elementary school student could do in school and was well liked by his classmates and peers. But one day his father introduced George to a game called Diablo. George would spend hours watching his father play the game and playing the game himself. Eventually, his father stopped playing, but instilled a newfound passion in his son.
When his father stopped buying him games, George would simply save up whatever allowances he received to buy new ones. Diablo, Warcraft, Ragnarok Online, Harvest Moon, Starcraft – the list can go on. Although his younger brother and cousin were too young to play with him, sometimes they would watch him play. His passion for video games never really translated into his social life at school however. Once George got into high school, things were different. The friends that he had that did play video games either moved away or stopped playing. School wasn't as interesting anymore. "Pretty much no one at the school played video games."
Many teenagers go through the experience of trying to find where they fit in the world. George somehow never really found that niche throughout the entirety of his high school years. He hung out with the jocks, native community, preppy kids, and the nerds. But even the nerds didn't play video games. He could only find one friend who shared the same passion – a closet-gamer among the preppy students. "We'd be sitting at lunch with all the preppy kids who were talking about parties and stuff teenagers do and then he'd pull me away and be like 'let's go talk about Warcraft III.'" It wasn't enough however, it was just one student in his entire high school. So George found his social life elsewhere: online.
Online he would find the forums and clans that matched his interests and people that engaged him. He has been a member of one particular forum for over nine years. Although George would not disclose the name of the forum, he stated that "he kind of grew up on that forum." The members were close enough to pull pranks on each other hundreds of miles away. In one instance, the moderator prank called George's mother. Suffice to say, his mother was not happy. But for George, the pranks and interactions with the forum members just meant he had friends whom he could bond with, albeit never personally meeting them.
As much as George did not enjoy school, he could not avoid what was to come forever. Soon he would be graduating and he had to figure out what he wanted to do for the future. Near the end of high school, George found himself taking a class to pass the Cisco CCNA Certification. It dealt with computers, and for George, that was as close as he figured he would get to getting a job dealing with his interests. "I thought if I got all my work done and the network was operating proper, I could jump online, read forums, and play some games. I kind of imagined that," said George. It brought him back into reality. For the first time, George was actually somewhat enjoying school. His teacher, Mr. Prentice, made school enjoyable again. As long as he put in the effort and got his work done, he would get rewarded by getting to eat a bowl of cereal in class, going out to get a hamburger at the local Harvey's, or if the whole class did well – hook up the PCs on LAN and play a Starcraft tournament. It wasn't his dream job, but George decided to pursue a university degree in computer networking.
George tried to pursue a career in computer networking.
As quickly as he found an interest in networking, he happened to find an interest in another. Living in a dorm filled with students who were majoring in game design, George became a little jealous. After all, gaming was what he lived for and what better way to make a living than designing games he thought to himself. At the beginning, everything seemed to be a dream come true. He found classmates who liked video games and his professors were all people who had worked in the industry designing games that he played. But the facade fell after a lecture given by one professor who stated that only fifty percent of the students in the program would graduate. George learned that game designing constituted of multiple elements, none of which was taught at the university. He learned programming, modeling, sound design, but nothing to do with the actual design of a game. "I didn't really enjoy what I was doing. I made it through my classes, but I wasn't doing well at all. I wasn't happy. So I kind of abandoned hope that I would get the job I wanted through game design."
Lost as what to do once again, George took a year off from school to find out what he wanted for his future. He decided to continue to pursue networking as a career, but only as a backup. In his year off, his grandfather found him a job with a family friend. It was not the easiest of jobs – there was no air conditioning in 30 degree Celsius weather, involved a lot of physical fitness, heavy lifting, and packaging of food. It gave him something to do however and in that time he found a relatively new game known as League of Legends.
League of Legends was just barely out of beta when George decided to try the game out.
And he was hooked. Once he got home he would immediately turn on his computer to play the game. After just three months, he noticed he started to get matched with some of the well-known players. He began to stream his online play on a platform known as XFire. From there, he was noticed by Messiah of the popular League of Legends fansite SoloMid and given a streaming partnership. George was dissatisfied with his situation soon after. Andy "Reginald" Dinh, the owner of SoloMid, often would get into arguments with George. George felt that Dinh was too immature to lead the community at the time. "Reginald's grown up a lot, but back then he was much younger, he was two years younger than me, and a lot more immature."
He worked, played League, worked, and played League. Given time, he would start making more money streaming with ad revenue than he did at his full-time job. George's mother set it up so that his cousin could replace him at work so that he could start streaming full-time. With a large existing fanbase, he decided to take the initiative and start his own competing organization – Counter Logic Gaming.
George's success story is known to everyone who follows the League of Legends eSports scene. He and his team would continue to finish in the top of nearly every tournament for the next two years. With a steady source of revenue from streaming and sponsors, Counter Logic Gaming would acquire another two teams: a European League of Legends counterpart and a DotA 2 team. What is not as obvious is how the transition from an average day gamer to a professional player took its toll on George over the years.
The Struggles of a Pro
If the average fan were to be asked what they thought were the darkest days for CLG were, many would point out the organization's time in Korea – and they would be right. The team lost a lot of its fan base, lost twice to the eventual winners of the tournament, and had issues with the streaming organization Own3d.tv. Tensions were high and George could only look back across the Pacific and watch as rival organization Team SoloMid won consecutive tournaments with an ever growing fan base. It was the start to the downfall of CLG, they were no longer an undisputable top team in North America.
The OGN Champions League gave CLG international experience at the expense of their fanbase.
Behind the scenes, George had issues with his personal life as well. The stress of playing League of Legends professionally was getting to him and he had no one really to share and empathize with his experiences. He pushed himself into getting into a relationship, but perhaps too quickly. Although he really appreciated having someone to understand him, he added the additional complication of trying to balance the responsibilities of a pro gamer and those of being a significant other. In the end, he was not quite sure whether he found the balance, admitting that it was a difficult task to surmount.
George's experience shaped his belief on recruiting and developing players. When George was looking into the challenger scene one of the things he was looking into was whether or not a player had a girlfriend. "I see what their goals are," George explained. "[I look at them] and some of the professional players that have left the scene and not succeeded [think], 'how can I accommodate professional gaming to my girlfriend?' And so that makes professional gaming second. You can't have a lot of these young players that may never have had girlfriends before have all these life issues, heart breaks, and ups and downs that relationships bring. It's too mentally exhausting and time consuming for someone that needs to be Faker."
The one constant that kept him stressed for the majority of his career was the community. "A lot of the way the community treated me at times, they didn't really look at me as a human being," George said. He would get constantly criticized and as a young player thrust into the spotlight, he was not sure quite how to deal with it. The volatility of community perception was just too much, "One minute you could be Madlife and a year from that you could just not play well and you could be Badlife." It was hard to block the community criticism and every so often he questioned himself on whether he should retire.
"Being a pro gamer is not easy. It's not easy at all. If it were a choice for me if I could be Madlife or Phantomlord, I would pick Phantomlord. Hands down. You're actually surrounding yourself with fans, you make more money, you make your own schedule, your own path. Being a pro gamer is not an easy life, it is really hard."
George understood that not everyone was against him. But at times, it felt like it did and showed during his arguments with teammates and rants on stream. He was famous for his "raging" on stream and admits that he sometimes stepped out of line, but thinks that he has changed for the better. It was close friends, family, and some self-reflection that allowed himself to change and take a more positive approach to his view on the world. In that light, amongst all the negativity and stress, he still values his time spent as a professional gamer. He was able to travel all over the world, make connections in the gaming industry, and interact with fans on a daily basis. Even now, the fans he gained over his career brighten up his day whether by recognizing him at the supermarket or having a game developer offer him a free copy of the game he or she developed.
If his father had never brought home Diablo; if he did not have to go online to find friends with common interests; if being a network technician really was his calling; if millions of people around the world did not find his stream engaging and entertaining – the past few years of League of Legends eSports may have looked very different. But with a little luck and the right pieces falling into place in George's life, he became the professional gamer he had never known he wanted to be. He became one of the most popular streamers at the time, founded one of the biggest eSports brands, celebrated early tournament success, struggled through difficult times, and is still here today to watch his team on the rise once again.
"Overall, my experience as a player was extremely valuable to me. I won't say I know what's going to happen in the future, but I do know that for now, I have my eyes set on the success of CLG."
George, 8 years old, standing next to his first computer.
It took a lot of time and effort for George to manage himself, the team, relationships, and the community.
by Christopher "itsSlicer" Han
Photo Credits: Lolesports.com, Andre Butler (@ATB_FTW), League of Legends