Cash for kills: why are people paying for coaches to get better at video games? | Games | The Guardian
E ighteen months ago, Fabio Dores was making good money as a drag queen.Performing under the name Felicity Suxwell, he had a club residency and worked hen nights throughout the UK, attracting enough bookings to quit his day job at a lettings agency.Then lockdown came and everything shut down.
Bored at home, he was browsing Facebook and spotted an advertisement for LegionFarm , an online video-game coaching platform that offered to match pro gamers with clients looking to improve their abilities.As a skilled player of battle royale hit Apex Legends , he applied to become a coach.Four months later, he’s in the site’s top 20 pros, making $3,500 a month from around 80 hours of coaching to supplement his re-emerging drag career.
“It runs the gamut,” he says.“I’ve had a grandfather, a father and a son learning to play Apex together.I’ve had mothers and kids, I’ve had husbands and wives… Some are very experienced; they have a really open mentality when it comes to figuring stuff out.”
Apex Legends is one of the most popular games across coaching platforms Photograph: Electronic Arts Video-game coaching is a rapidly growing business.The rise of esports as a global spectator phenomenon (with annual audience figures now at 450m ), together with the exploding popularity of competitive online multiplayer shooters such as Fortnite, Apex Legends and Call of Duty: Warzone has created a vast customer base of players desperate to improve their skills.
Major sites such as LegionFarm, GamerSensei and ProGuides essentially work as global matchmaking platforms, putting eager learners together with established pro players who work as independent contractors – like Uber drivers.
“We take a lot of principles from the ride-hailing sector to balance the supply and demand side,” says LegionFarm founder, Alex Beliankin, an ex-pro World of Warcraft player, who founded the company five years ago.“We have a big operational team and they’re all from services such as Uber and Bolt – we were the first company to build the proper balancing and allow pros to make money.”
“When the schools were shut down, we saw a big effect,” says Sam Wang, co-founder of US-based ProGuides and another ex-pro player.“Students were at home trying out online games, many for the first time ever – and a lot of them have stuck with those games, making friends, building communities, and using ProGuides to get better.”
ProGuides web and app.Photograph: ProGuides Players can pre-book regular sessions with preferred mentors, or just go online and see who is available.
There are various tutorial options, from playing alongside a pro for 30 minutes to longer analysis sessions, and the truly committed can pay monthly subscriptions, like joining a gym.Most coaches work by asking players to send them video footage of their latest matches, which they’ll then analyse together via video calls.
The cost depends on the skill level and prestige of the coach.
A 30-minute seminar on how to succeed in esports with famed Valorant streamer and pro player Dicey costs $30, but a spectator game with him for 60 minutes is $120.“He also offers a boot camp,” says Wang.“For $500 you get a session every week and he’ll try to get you to the highest rank possible.He is always booked out.”
Coaching makes financial sense for skilled players.
“If you want to earn a sustainable income from competition alone, you have to play years of tournaments and there’s only a tiny chance a team will take a look at you,” says Alex Beliankin at LegionFarm.“But in our case, you just have to be a top 0.1% player, maybe 0.5, and be a friendly, polite and helpful team-mate and you can make a living.
We have a lot who have left their previous jobs to coach full-time.
One of our pros is a doctor from Turkey; we have retired marines.They’re from 50-plus countries worldwide, from different professions and cultures.”
For many younger students, the aim is to become pro players or Twitch streamers themselves – just like their heroes.But the challenge is huge.A common misconception about online shooters is that they’re just about running around blasting anything that moves.But consistently winning matches requires a highly tactical approach – players have to carefully consider which weapons and items their characters carry, depending on their own skillset and the differing stages of a match.Positional awareness, combat preparation and threat analysis are also vital.“One of the biggest discoveries for clients is that they are often going wrong 30-50 seconds before the fight even starts,” says Apex Legends coach Darian Chen, who goes by the name Hagabao on GamerSensei .
When playing in a squad, effective team tactics are vitally important, too.
Whether it’s League of Legends or Call of Duty, each player in a pro team has a role, some attacking, some defensive, some based around specific classes of character – and serious players want to be trained in these play styles.“Just like a kid who wants to be a quarterback would go to a quarterback coach, ProGuides is now helping gamers become ultra specialists by pairing them with specialist coaches,” says Wang.“That has revolutionised the economies around coaching.Coaches are able to charge more because of that speciality, and gamers are able to get more out of their coaching sessions.”
And it’s not just about learning hard game skills: most coaches agree that developing the right mentality is a key part of success in competitive games.“Over the last few years, pro organisations have been concentrating more and more on the mental side,” says Chen.“They’re hiring psychiatrists and a host of other mental-health professionals.It’s one of the biggest parts, especially in a team environment.
Negativity spreads like wildfire – if you have that one guy who’s like, ‘Oh, we’ve lost, I’m shit, we can’t do this’, it affects the rest of the team.”
League of Legends has helped turn esports into a global spectator event.Photograph: Thibault Camus/AP League of Legends coach Julia Obara, who goes by the name Akemi online, says emotional intelligence is a key attribute in her field.“A player could be really good mechanically, but if they don’t have the mentality they’re always going to be stuck at a certain level,” she says.“I teach players how to work on themselves, how to de-stress, how to stay positive.When they lack confidence or have anger issues, it is generally stuff they’re bringing in from their real lives.
Empathy is important.You need to be able to talk to the person to get to know what’s inside their head so you can help them.”
“Coaching has improved my confidence and helped correct mistakes I’ve made in the past,” says EuphyGames, who pays for regular marathon sessions of Apex Legends with two pro players.“After every match, we analyse our gameplay videos and talk about what we could’ve done better.It is super beneficial for me.
I don’t have to play with randoms in ranked matches any more.I enjoy spending time with my coaches.A friendship has bloomed.We are in constant everyday communication, whether it’s about tactics, aim training tips, or just to see how we are doing.”
It isn’t just super serious teenagers looking to turn pro who seek out coaching.
Many are older players – people with careers and families – who are just looking to become more competent at something they enjoy and gain status from.Think of the way their parents’ generation might have taken golf lessons to impress the boss.“A lot of them want to rank up in the games they love the most,” says Wang.“It’s also a great way to make new friends at a higher level who are equally enthusiastic about the game.”
Wang feels that the pandemic has changed the wary relationship many adults had with games.
“We saw a rise in intergenerational clients,” he says.“A lot of families were stuck at home together – and although some parents were saying to their children, ‘OK, go play games alone’, we also saw others taking the initiative and booking in sessions to learn about Fortnite so they could play with their kids.”
Felicity Suxwell (Fabio Dores), Legionfarm awards, Dubai 2021.
Photograph: Fabio Dores The relationship between game coaches and clients is an interesting hybrid, combining traditional teacher/student interplay with fandom and, yes, friendship.Most of the coaches I spoke to feel there are times when their role is as much about emotional support as it is about gameplay.
“We speak to our customers and we know a percentage of them suffer from anxiety, depression or PTSD ,” says Beliankin.“Our pro players often say: ‘Sometimes I feel like I’m a therapist’.Customers tell us about their lives, their pets, their families, their jobs – they don’t just come to play, they come to talk.” Dores tells me about one client of his, a married father, who felt particularly able to open up about his problems to a gay man.“We spoke about his problems, I tried to reply.
After that first session, I got a message from him and it broke my heart – he told me I may have stopped him taking his own life.You just never know what people are going through.Some people don’t want to be the best in the world, they just want someone to play with.”
What the game coaching industry shows us is the increasing social and cultural capital of gaming.Being good at games has become a lifelong aspiration, something we’re willing to put resources into.Games are a place to perform and exhibit competence – like cycling to the office in skin-tight bodysuits, but not as mortifying.
Games are also places to talk and process emotions, fulfilling the same roles as five-a-side football pitches and bowling alleys, somewhere between competition and companionship.With average play times passing eight hours a week, it’s no wonder games are so linked with self-worth now.For both players and coaches, it’s rarely jus t about the win.
“I really enjoy challenging stereotypes,” says Dores.
“I’m gay, I’m flamboyant, but that doesn’t stop me from being better than most pro gamers out there.Gaming can be very toxic, we all know that, so I feel like I’m not just doing this for me, I’m doing it for the LGBT community.I may wear a wig and put six-inch heels on, but I will still happily murder you in a video game – with my eyes shut if necessary.”
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com .In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255 .
In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14.Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org .