Typically, when we think of retirees, the kind of person that comes to mind is someone with greying hair and decades of experience in their chosen profession under their belt.
However, such is not the norm for athletes, and esports athletes are no different. In fact, as revealed by a Washington Post article, esports players even retire earlier than athletes in the National Football League (NFL), a field that is already considered “super-demanding”.
Why is that? Surely, being a football player is more physically strenuous than being an esports gamer. There must be some other factors at play here that are pushing esports athletes out of the arena while still in their mid-20s.
Furthermore, there are still plenty of harmful stereotypes the general public may have for esports. For instance, in a previous Vulcan Post article, active Malaysian e-athletes spoke up that there are still biases against esports athletes’ academic performances and intelligence.
These biases could culminate in the workforce outside of esports, which may harm former esports athletes’ potential to be hired.
Needless to say, there is a lot of uncertainty when it comes to this career path’s longevity and the prospects it provides.
To understand more, we spoke to three Malaysian esports athletes who have left the arena to understand the journey leading up to retirement and what lies ahead of it.
When to hang up the hat
Having spent 13 years as a competitive player, with almost three years as a paid, professional e-athlete, Aiman Azham had expected to stay in the industry for a “very long time”.
Known as aimaNNN, he played Counter-Strike 1.6 and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive professionally before he left the industry in 2021.
This was after he came to the difficult realisation that the industry wasn’t stable enough for him to make a career out of it.
“I had to take a detour,” he explained. “It was definitely hard to leave your passion that you have worked on and grinded for during the past ten years plus. But I had to start thinking about income and growth as a family man.”
Such thoughts don’t usually come to young players’ minds when they start out, though.
“Initially, I never really thought about how long I would be in the industry,” said Chan Litt Binn, better known as WinteR, a former professional DOTA 2 player.
WinteR has played for notable Malaysian DOTA 2 teams Orange Esports and MUFC and attended The International with those teams in 2012 and 2013 respectively.
“My mindset was always just pouring my heart into it and hoping that it would work out.”
But as time passed, he understood that he could not compete at the same level as before. “It was definitely not easy as I was always a gamer at heart,” he recalled.
For ChuaN, another professional DOTA 2 athlete, his decision to pull the plug on playing competitively was “very difficult”, but he ultimately said it was due to his own temperament.
In the industry since he was 18, ChuaN is considered a “top-tier” gamer by others and has accumulated plenty of accolades in the field, including being the first Southeast Asian player to win The International, an annual esports world championships tournament for DOTA 2.
“Actually, if I could, I’d wish to stay in this career forever,” ChuaN shared. “Because I just like to play games, and I’m not particularly good at much else.”
Thankfully, none of these players seem to cite specific health reasons for quitting the competitive arena. But injuries such as carpal tunnel and other nerve-related issues could also be reasons why some esports athletes have to retire.
To stay in the field or to find new pastures
Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.
In sports in general, there’s certainly a truth to this saying. Many coaches of sports leagues are usually players themselves at one point, and good ones at that.
For WinteR and ChuaN, this seems to be the case.
Now 33, WinteR is now focused on coaching and casting in the DOTA 2 industry. In the words of Redbull, he’s also a “very well-respected Dota analyst”.
ChuaN is also staying close to the game. He decided to become a coach, saying that it’s probably because he can’t play it himself anymore. He’s now coaching for Neon Esports, a DOTA 2 team based in the Philippines.
“If one day I don’t participate in esports anymore, it might just be because I’ve found that there are more important things to do in life,” ChuaN mused.
However, Aiman decided to leave the industry altogether and now works for a telecommunications company.
“Why?” he asked rhetorically. “I’m exploring more into the corporate world, in which the working hours are much more convenient so you won’t be missing out on family time.”
Although he works in a different field now, Aiman believes his time as a gamer wasn’t all for naught.
“Surprisingly, a lot of [my current] skills were acquired from my esports journey,” he said. These skills include leadership, compromise, communication, and active listening.
Life after calling it quits
In most career paths, retirement is when one decides to permanently leave the workforce, but this is certainly not the case for esports.
Even if they’ve made huge winnings, most “retired” athletes must find a new way to make a living. But unless they stay within the industry, their job prospects seem to be limited. This may be because of the perceptions and stereotypes associated with esports athletes.
“It’s definitely true, as esports athletes lack a lot of real-life skills to have other careers,” Winter said when asked about these perceptions.
“If a player doesn’t succeed, it’s a pretty hard life after that as you have no other skills. A lot of players struggle with life after esports after devoting their lives to it.”
But according to ChuaN, it’s hard for athletes to even get jobs within the industry unless they’re very famous.
“Otherwise, [their esports careers] will basically disappear after retirement,” he said.
Creating a more sustainable industry
Retirement is usually seen as a joyous thing. Ideally, it’s a choice that one makes when they’ve felt like they’ve fulfilled everything that can in their career. However, this is not always the case when it comes to esports.
While WinteR, ChuaN, and Aiman all retired from being competitive esports athletes at a young age, this is something that might change for current e-athletes in the future as the industry is still relatively new.
“I think it is definitely possible to have a long career, but it is the mental exhaustion that usually takes a toll on players,” WinteR explained. “Hence, I feel like to have longevity in DOTA 2, players have to take care of their mental well-being.”
To create a more sustainable industry, WinteR also there should be more grassroots programmes that can help players grow and improve.
While WinteR and ChuaN managed to continue their paths in the esports industry, a better roadmap should still be provided for retiring professional gamers.
The general public’s understanding of the career’s legitimacy and the transferrable skills it provides will also benefit players who decide to leave the field.
Players should be properly advised on how to protect their physical health and practise stretches to avoid injuries such as carpal tunnel.
Just as ChuaN pointed out as well, typically only the top players have a profitable career, which makes this career unsustainable for the other players even though they’re needed to create a robust ecosystem.
Hopefully, with the right systems in place, esports athletes in Malaysia will be able to have a longer and more sustainable career before having a proper, celebratory retirement.
- Read other articles we’ve written about gaming here.
Featured Image Credit: ESL – Helena Kristiansson / Aiman Azham / ChuaN