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Photos by Jimmy Magahern

Geoff "iNcontroL" Robinson, the team captain, is engaged to Anna Prosser, a former Miss Oregon. They both live in the ultimate pro-gamer house in Phoenix.

The pro-gamer house is a 3,800-square-foot duplex outfitted with banks of computers lining the living room.

At the pro-gamer house, training is serious business. "They sit in a room all day and play video games together, but they don't necessarily have to talk to each other," says Anna Prosser, who lives in the house and was hired by EG to produce videos of the team and to act as the photogenic marketing face of the team.

Brent Schulz, a self-styled e-sports commentator, and his wife. (Photo courtesy Brent Schulz)

Published by Times Publications, Nov. 2012

Anna Prosser knows her whole life sounds like a pitch for an MTV reality show.

She’s a former beauty queen in charge of a houseful of video game geeks. Holed up together in a luxurious five-bedroom house in northeast Phoenix, Prosser, 27, plays the house mom to a half dozen pro video gamers living rent-free in this certified Nerdvana. The house comes courtesy of Evil Geniuses, a leading company in the field of electronic sports, which actually pays the guys, all members of its North American StarCraft II team, to do nothing but play their favorite PC game each day.

Prosser was hired by EG to produce videos of the team and act as its photogenic marketing face. Leading a quick tour through the sparsely decorated 3,800-square-foot duplex—outfitted with banks of computers lining the living room, giant beanbags, a 72-inch flat screen and a complete Rock Band set-up in the family room—Prosser is smart enough to recognize she’s the pièce de résistance in this gamer’s dream house: a former Miss Oregon and 2011 Miss USA contestant, who knows how to bake, looks great in a swimsuit (there’s a pool out back) and is also a pretty decent StarCraft player herself.

She’s happy to play the role, partly because she’s also engaged to the team’s captain, Geoff “iNcontroL” Robinson, and has become comfortable with the lifestyle. She’s even fixed up some of the other guys with her knockout friends.

“I’m kind of the matchmaker of the team,” she says. “A few of the other players have had girlfriends that I’ve set them up with. And I actually matched up one of our players with a pageant friend of mine—a former Miss Portland, who’s now also living in the house.”

It’s The Big Bang Theory with a better ratio: six geeks and two hot chicks, living right upstairs instead of across the hall. Naturally, Prosser can see why people are intrigued.

“It’s funny, I’ve actually talked with people about doing a reality show about the house,” she says. “On the one hand, it is such an interesting life we lead, and there are definitely elements of a Real World-type situation. It’s a bunch of people piled into a house where they spend most of their time and they all work together. And there’s certainly a share of drama.”

On the other hand, there’s the reality that video gaming is about as sedentary as prepping a spreadsheet. “During the day, there’s not going to be a whole lot to watch in the house,” Prosser admits. “They’re just going to be sitting there playing video games.”

She’s right. A full 30 minutes into The Times interview, not a single gamer has so much as turned his head from his screen. For a devout StarCraft fan, there’s a lot to watch. At one station, Benjamin “DeMusliM” Baker, a top UK player recruited to live in the Phoenix house, whips back and forth through the battle map, commanding tanks and militia with blinding speed. Next to him, Canadian Chris “HuK” Loranger—who spent a lot of time training in Korea, where StarCraft tournaments are covered on TV with all the hoopla reserved for NFL bowl games in America—clicks through hundreds of “actions-per-minute” as fanboys worldwide study his moves via a webcam and live stream of the gameplay.

Like all the players, part of Loranger’s job is to be constantly linked to a worldwide gamer community that follows the online actions of these globally recruited players with the intensity of fantasy football buffs.

But to the average person, the sight of six twentysomething guys glued to computer screens moving Protoss warriors and Zergs around all afternoon can get a little, well, tedious.

“They sit in a room all day and play video games together, but they don’t necessarily have to talk to each other,” observes Prosser. “It’s just the very nature of gamers—that they’re very quiet and like their solitude. But that doesn’t necessarily make for great TV.”

Prosser surveys the backs of the players, their noggins ensconced in headphones, and listens for a minute to the incessant clack of keyboards and clicks of wireless mice. “Around now,” she says with a smile, “a camera crew would really start to get bored.”

Scored

Geoff Robinson bounds down the stairs to the training room with his 1-year-old bulldog, Barristan, trailing close behind. Each sharing a muscular frame, a friendly face and a little bit of fur around the chin, the two give credence to the adage that people tend to resemble their pets.

For Robinson, the bulldog build comes from participating in collegiate sports and regular workouts at the gym, where the e-sports star is said to be able to bench press close to 500 pounds. As a physical athlete, Robinson has heard his share of criticisms that video game players do not belong in the same league as, say, a Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods. He disagrees, of course, but the charge doesn’t bother him.

“I don’t have that chip on my shoulder when I hear people say that games are silly and not a real sport,” he says. And why should he? At 27, the Seattle-born gamer has garnered all the accouterments of a pro athlete—tournament wins, high-dollar sponsorships, world travel and, let’s not forget, a beauty queen fiancée—by just sitting in front of a computer.

Clearly, Robinson has got life “pwned.” “For me, gaming has done so much that I don’t even worry about how legitimate a sport it is in other people’s minds,” he says. “A lot of people have conceptions about what gaming is. But they have no idea that stadiums will fill up with 30,000 people to watch these tournaments, or that a million people will be online watching a stream of a game, or that 500,000 people will watch a video of our team.”

Robinson says his parents are surprised he’s been able to make a living playing video games.

“The first StarCraft game, Brood Wars, came out 15 years ago,” he says. “And at that time, it was something my parents tried to stop me from playing so much, because it seemed to be interfering at school or they’d rather see me outside playing. They used to say, ‘Stop wasting your time on that and go do your homework!’ Now they’re like, ‘When’s your next tournament, and where can we watch it?’”

To his peers, training to become a pro gamer is a completely logical career choice.

“EG began sponsoring us at the end of the Brood War era, and during that time, it was unheard of to have a team, like, pay for you to go to New York for a tournament. But now, it’s not uncommon for teams to offer players attractive salaries to do nothing but play games all year.”

It’s still impossible for an American StarCraft player to earn anything close to what players make in Korea, where those at the top pull down more than $100,000 a year. Here, a player is lucky to take home $20,000. But for the opportunity to live rent-free in a house with other pros and still earn enough to stay stocked in pizza and energy drinks doing only what you love, that ain’t bad.

“We’re the highest paid and most supported players in StarCraft II,” Robinson says proudly. Obviously, that standing has a lot of amateur players barking at the door to become part of the elite group living at EG House—so much so that the team strives to keep the house’s address secret. But it’s not easy to get into EG House, or to remain on the team. Already a couple of former residents, Nick “Axslav” Ranish and Cong “StrifeCro” Shu, have parted ways with Evil Geniuses due to lackluster tournament performance.

“We don’t have set schedules, it’s kind of a personal responsibility thing,” says Robinson. “We do have training times, and certainly that’s expected of us. But we’re also expected to strengthen and condition ourselves outside of practice. And if we don’t, our results suffer, and of course that’s what we’re evaluated on.”

Making the Team

The communal experience of EG House is not at all common in the gaming community. In fact, while video gamers frequently engage in multiplayer matches with many other players online, they seldom meet their opponents face to face.

“Honestly, a big part of the appeal of gaming is the ability to connect with people all over the world,” says Kevin “Sixen” Carlino, a 21-year-old ASU senior from Queen Creek who recently became one of five students nationwide to win a $10,000 college scholarship from Alienware, a Dell subsidiary, and TwitchTV, a streaming site that positions itself as the ESPN of e-sports. “I have a lot of fans in Europe who watch my show online. But I don’t know a lot of people locally.”

Carlino hosts a thrice-weekly show on TwitchTV dedicated to the game Diablo III and also works as an analyst and “shoutcaster” for Evil Geniuses, although he doesn’t live in the house with the StarCraft aces.

“I thought I was good at StarCraft, until I started watching some of these professional players, and I was blown away.” Nevertheless, Carlino has been able to carve a niche for himself as an online e-sportscaster, trading tips and offering expert tutorials on multiplayer online battle games like Diablo III, StarCraft II, Call of Duty, and Defense of the Ancients.

“I don’t get any money, but I get some cool things and make a lot of connections,” says Carlino, whose scholarship money has gone into paying for his last year of college. “So I get free World of Warcraft, I get to beta test games. There’s a lot of intangibles.”

Making the transition from enthusiast to pro can be difficult. Even the EG House, in its first incarnation as a smaller home in Queen Creek, started out with a handful of StarCraft enthusiasts who couldn’t all make the cut on the pro team.

“In Korea, the reason they’re able to get so good is because they live in these training houses where they’re surrounded by this video game all day—they just wake up dreaming StarCraft,” says Santa Barbara transplant Bryce “Machine” Bates, the sole surviving member from the first house who made the advance to the second. “I felt like, maybe if we were able to change the environment that we were living in and saturate ourselves in this video game, we could get just as good.”

With two friends who, like Bates, were also already members of the EG team, and Brent Schultz, a self-styled e-sports commentator who had made a name for himself on YouTube, the quartet pooled their savings together to rent a house in Queen Creek, where the housing prices seemed cheapest.

“The nice thing about Queen Creek is there was nothing really out there,” Bates says, with a laugh. “So we didn’t have any distractions.”

Unfortunately, the crew found out they also didn’t all have the discipline of the Korean players, and the atmosphere around the Nerd House, as it was dubbed, sometimes devolved into frat house shenanigans.

“The Koreans, when they’re in their gaming houses, that’s their job,” says Schultz, now married and living back in Oregon, where he and his wife are expecting their first baby. “They’re being paid to play that game, and they take it very seriously. They have coaches who watch them and make sure they don’t go off path. They analyze their game play and teach them how to become better players. Whereas in America, you just have all these guys who are used to hanging out online with each other, and they get in the same house and it’s like a never-ending LAN party.”

It didn’t help that many of the guys had to work day jobs to make ends meet. “Before I took the risk and moved to Queen Creek,” says Bates, “I was working two jobs, doing construction and delivering pizza at night, and I was also going to school as a computer science major. And I finally realized, ‘Hey, this is my passion, my drive. I want to pursue this and see what I can do with pro gaming.’”

Things changed when Evil Geniuses took note of the Nerd House project and decided to fund a bigger and better house in the Northeast Valley.

“They really wanted it to be kind of luxurious, so the players could feel like they were really being taken care of,” says Prosser. “Which is why they decided to keep it in the Phoenix area, because we could get the real estate cheaper.”

For the players at the EG House, that first-class treatment is long overdue, Prosser feels.

“People have this perception of gamers as anti-social and lazy—guys who just want to hang out in Mom’s basement as long as they can,” she says. “But one thing I’ve seen is how hardworking these guys are, how dedicated they are, and how much they sacrifice to make their passion their living.”

Being treated like pro athletes provides a much-needed self-esteem boost, Prosser says. “We have friends who were never able to play sports for whatever reason, and now they’re being put on an equal playing field with traditional athletes, and find that affirmation and community that they’d been missing before.”

Not to mention an increase in attention from the opposite sex.

“Everyone buys into the stereotype that gamers don’t date, that they can’t get girls,” Prosser says. “I don’t think that’s necessarily it. They’re closer to the image of a young career person who’s simply so driven that dating’s been put on the back burner. It’s not that girls aren’t interested in them. Because they do have quite a few fans! If they wanted to have girlfriends, believe me, they could!”– end —