Talk me through the transition from enthusiastic video gamer to actually playing for money?
Well the big transition was from GoldenEye to Counter-Strike. My best gaming friend at the time, Ari, told me I had to go to this new type of place called an Internet Cafe and play Counter-Strike. That it was “GoldenEye on crack”. Ironic that I didn’t really know what crack was and now the mayor of my city is smoking it, but that’s neither here nor there.
He took me there and I walked in and there were all these guys shouting commands at each other and saying “good job” and laughing and high-fiving. It just looked like the most fucking fun ever. And it really, really was.
I was already really into sports and a really athletic kid, but I never wanted to stop. But kids get physically tired, or they have to be home for dinner, or they have homework to do – not with Counter-Strike – no cell phones back then pal.
I was free of my parent’s very reasonable demands and people didn’t get tired. They either ran out of money ($2 an hour) or it was the next day and it was time to get to school. We would barter with the owners about prices for us to do all nighters – like $8 from midnight until 9 am.
And people wonder how I got so good at that game!
How do you get paid for playing video games?
Well at the end of the day it’s all about products. Video games were booming, and companies like Intel, NVidia, etc wanted people to buy their shit. So they would sponsor these events like the Cyberathlete Professional League bi-annually in Dallas and offer a first prize of like $25k for a team of five, which was beyond any other prize money given out at other events.
How difficult was it to earn money as a pro gamer?
It was very difficult, almost next to impossible to secure a sponsorship from the biggest product companies, because they needed to be assured of the legitimacy of your internet celebrity as a team and as individuals, and it was still the early days of the internet so we were very inexperienced in that sense.
Eventually, these companies saw that if everyone thinks I’m a Counter-Strike god and say “thank god for my Sennheiser headphones or I wouldn’t be able to hear shit, without them I’d be nothing!” that these kids would buy their headphones.
I mean it’s just like anything else: Jordan shoes, Tiger’s clubs, etc.
I never really made much salary from Counter-Strike, it was all in the prize money and unfortunately, due to a few dodgy characters and trust in the wrong people, and our “manager” ripped me off out of some of my prize money.
So no Lee, I didn’t learn shit from the video game store hustler!
What is the most difficult part of being a professional video gamer?
When playing stops becoming a game and it feels like work. Also the hours were pretty shitty. It was difficult to have much of a social life when your team practices were from like 6 pm – 1 am. So I know how European online poker tournament grinders feel as the online schedule is very similar.
What did your parents think of your choice of career?
My father thought I was “wasting my potential” as parents say. My mom was just hoping I was happy and often defended me although I’m sure she wished I were doing something different.
What do they think now?
My Father still isn’t crazy about it but they both know I work hard and that I’m happy and get to see the world. My Dad likes to brag to his friends when I’ve accomplished a milestone like when I became #1 in the world on PocketFives he loved saying “My son was the best in the world at two different things! How many people can say that!”
What would you say if your child wanted to be a pro gamer?
If you can beat me I will allow it.
Do you think you could survive as a pro gamer today?
I just think I did it for so long that I hit a motivational wall. I hate to put it this way but I got to a point where I couldn’t really get any better than I had gotten, and then I lost the drive to compete as hard and just slowly got worse until I was still moderately elite but not one of the best players in the world. I think that’s why I love poker so much, because it’s next to impossible to peak in skill level. There’s always something someone is doing better than you or things you can learn from people that are successful and it always has me coming back for more.
And that’s the thing like when poker players are asked how long they think they will be doing this, and they always say something like “just a few more years, I don’t want to be doing this forever, I have other interests.” I feel like that’s such a cliché. I’m sure a lot of people genuinely feel that way, and a part of me feels that way too, and they’re entitled to that, and I commend people who actually follow through with their other passions after poker, but poker is a game that’s constantly challenging and motivating me, and I don’t see a day where I just won’t be interested in flying to the Bahamas with my family for a week when I’m old and grey and smashing up the young kids in the PCA even if I’ve moved on from the game.
Sure I still go through spills like anyone where I’m frustrated and need some time away from the game, like even in the last year I only played maybe once or twice a week, but I’ve got the bug again and feeling really great about my game and what I can accomplish in the next half-decade.
Also, check out the Life Outside Poker: Griffin Benger – Professional Video Gamer Part 1.