March 3, 2024

Byte Class Technology

Byte Class Technology & Sports Update

Inside the life of an esports pro

Inside the life of an esports pro

LOS ANGELES — The Golden Guardians were up, set to face Counter Logic Gaming. Jaehyun Choi plops in his gaming chair in front of his monitor. His is the farthest left of the five lined up on stage. Behind them stands a floor-to-ceiling video screen. In front, a massive TV streams the action to an audience in the theater-style seats. 

Choi pops his knuckles and curls his wrists. He’s ready. On March 15, Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors were set to take on the Los Angeles Clippers in a pivotal Western Conference matchup. About 30 minutes up Interstate 10, their esports team was set for a League of Legends Championship Series matchup, the highest circuit for the popular video game in the U.S. and Canada. 

Choi — the 28-year-old native of Seoul known mostly as Huhi — has been locked in since he awoke. After a shower, he blasts bangers such as “Congratulations” and “White Iverson” to get his juices going. Post Malone is part of Choi’s superstition at this point. When he arrives at the Guardians’ headquarters in Playa Vista, usually around 3 p.m., he has two options for driveways. If his team won the previous match, he takes the same driveway. If it lost, he uses the other one.

After a pregame meal with his teammates, where they bond and scout the coming opponent, Choi makes his way to Riot Games Arena, located across the street from Riot Games headquarters. He and his boys get ready for the cameras with makeup and hair spray. They ease their minds and calm their nerves by playing LoLdle, a Wordle-type game based on League of Legends trivia. About 30 minutes before the match, Choi puts away a cup of coffee. It’s game time.

This is the big leagues. Choi is a pro.

“The people are screaming and the stage is shaking,” Choi told The Chronicle. “So having that adrenaline in the moment is what keeps me going.”

Eric “Licorice” Ritchie (left) and Choi “huhi” Jae-hyun attend the League of Legends World Championship 2022 Location Reveal on Nov. 21, 2021, at Chase Center.

Eric “Licorice” Ritchie (left) and Choi “huhi” Jae-hyun attend the League of Legends World Championship 2022 Location Reveal on Nov. 21, 2021, at Chase Center.

Riot Games Inc. via Getty Images 2021

Once considered child’s play, video games have evolved into a booming industry valued at near $1.4 billion. Now, full-grown adults can forge an illustrious career in esports. But at this level, it’s no longer a game. According to Golden Guardians general manager Nick “Inero” Smith, the average salary in LCS is around $300,000 — and they don’t have to pay for housing as the team puts up players in an apartment during the season. 

Esports athletes may not run up and down the court, shoot 3-pointers like Klay Thompson or catch lobs like Jonathan Kuminga. But the seriousness of the craft, the sacrifices to win, the pressure and the lifestyle, are comparable. 

Players often live far from home to be close to team facilities. They have full practice days, meetings and grueling schedules. The little free time they do have requires taking care of their physical and mental health. They can be cut, traded or replaced at any moment. They have teammates relying on them, and big-money partners expecting success. 

“It’s just Wild West,” Smith said. “Guys can ask for trades at almost any point in the year, so it’s hard to say there’s a specific process to it. I feel like when you look at the NBA, it feels more (regimented), but it’s more weird here. … Anything could happen at any point.”

The Golden Guardians compete during Week 8 of the 2023 LCS Spring Split at Riot Games Arena in Los Angeles on March 15.

The Golden Guardians compete during Week 8 of the 2023 LCS Spring Split at Riot Games Arena in Los Angeles on March 15.

Colin Young-Wolff/Colin Young-Wolff/Riot Games

Kirk Lacob, the Warriors’ executive vice president of basketball operations and son of principal owner Joe Lacob, was one of the driving forces behind Golden State’s 2017 expansion into the esports space. His active role with the Golden Guardians is limited these days, but the Warriors’ presence in the industry continues to grow.

The Golden Guardians initially competed only in League of Legends. They have since built rosters that play pro matches of World of Warcraft and Super Smash Bros. Melee. 

Golden State also has another esports team in the NBA 2K League. The Warriors Gaming Squad is one of 25 teams, 22 of which are owned by NBA franchises.

“We really wanted to test out new areas for fandom, in entertainment,” Kirk Lacob said. “We thought esports was something interesting. It was growing really fast. It had really strong ties to different demographics that we usually hit with our NBA fans. So it was an opportunity to diversify, but to also learn about the future.”

Chase Center put on a show for the League of Legends World Championship between teams DRX and T1 on Nov. 5.

Chase Center put on a show for the League of Legends World Championship between teams DRX and T1 on Nov. 5.

Santiago Mejia/The Chronicle 2022

If there are questions about the seriousness of the Warriors’ financial investment, look no further than the 10,742-square-foot facility opened for the Golden Guardians on Nov. 15. The state-of-the-art headquarters features creative offices, a streaming studio, a fully stocked kitchen, practice rooms with industry-leading equipment and a lounge for visitors, players, coaches and other staff to kick back during downtime.

It’s not Chase Center, by any means, but they feel like stars in their new digs.

“What separates us from other teams? I think the backing of the Warriors is fundamentally different,” said Hunter Leigh, the Warriors’ head of esports. “The Warriors’ model on the NBA side is that sustained success isn’t bought, it’s built. … We’ve tried to put that principle in place on the esports side and it’s allowed us to build our team deliberately, focus on culture and values and have success come over time.”

The LCS, launched in 2009 and sponsored by Riot Games, features 10 teams made up of players from around the globe. The Golden Guardians’ current LCS roster is made up of Choi, Eric Ritchie, DongWoo Kim, Tae Woo Kim and Trevor Hayes. Three are from South Korea, one is from Canada and the last is from the United States. 

Spectators attend the League of Legends World Championship between teams DRX and T1 at Chase Center on Nov. 5. DRX became champions after defeating T1 3-2. 

Spectators attend the League of Legends World Championship between teams DRX and T1 at Chase Center on Nov. 5. DRX became champions after defeating T1 3-2. 

Santiago Mejia/The Chronicle 2022

The season is divided into spring and summer splits and concludes with a double-elimination tournament between the top eight teams. The top three teams at season’s end qualify for the League of Legends World Championship. This is a world championship in every sense. The prize is millions of dollars and the Summoner’s Cup. Upwards of 100 million people watch the championship match each year. 

The most recent world championship was held at Chase Center in the fall.

Coached by Samuel “Spookz” Broadley, the Golden Guardians clinched the sixth seed in the 2023 LCS Spring Playoffs with a 9-9 record. They had a franchise-best seven-game winning streak, Feb. 9-24. 

The team advanced to the Lower Bracket Finals on March 31 and will face FlyQuest on Saturday at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C. The series winner will compete in the Spring Finals against Cloud9 on Sunday and earn a berth in the Mid-Season Invitational.

“This season has been a pretty crazy one, starting off by not even having our full roster, turning it around, having the longest winning streak our organization has ever had,” Smith said. “It’s felt like no matter what, we have the ability to go far in the playoffs and actually do something, which we’ve never really had that feeling before as an organization.”

For Choi, what started as a childhood hobby has turned into his career. He remembers getting recruited to play for a league in his home country and trying to explain it to his parents. They were worried about their son’s future. They thought he was wasting time.

But he wasn’t squandering his talent. He was honing it. He rose to be among his country’s elite and earned a top ranking.

Rapper Jackson Wang and dancers perform in the opening ceremony of the League of Legends World Championship at Chase Center on Nov. 5.

Rapper Jackson Wang and dancers perform in the opening ceremony of the League of Legends World Championship at Chase Center on Nov. 5.

Santiago Mejia/The Chronicle 2022

Now his parents are his biggest supporters. His brother, WonWoo Choi, conceded his jealousy over the lifestyle esports has delivered for Choi. They’ve watched him compete all over the globe in front of live crowds. They’ve watched him develop fans and get asked for photo ops and autographs in public.

Those who can survive the esports grind experience tremendous payoff. Choi is proof. 

“I used to play 12 to 15 hours a day,” Choi said, “just tried to grind it out and thought that would just make me better at the game. But nowadays with the proper support setup, with the proper resources that I’m getting as a player, I know how to diet better, how physical exercise helps me perform better and how sleep is really important for your health as well. I think it just made me a better person and I think that’s the most upside I can get.”

Reach C.J. Holmes: cj.holmes@sfchronicle.com