Our Campus: In the eSports ring, Kurtis Ling is king

As far back as he can remember, Kurtis Ling has always wanted to be a gamer.

And now, at 22, the former UBC student is living that dream. In the past two months alone, Ling has made $258,000 playing video games professionally -- and he hasn’t even graduated yet.

Ling, also known as Aui_2000, is a professional gamer: one who earns a living playing video games, winning competitions around the world, and earning tens, even hundreds of thousands of dollars in tournaments.

In fact, Ling is the highest earning Canadian professional gamer, and ranked 13th in the world. He currently plays the role of support in Dota 2, a competitive team-based video game with nearly 10 million active players around the world. He started his studies in UBC in 2010, but left school indefinitely in his third year. He now considers online gaming his full-time job.

“I just decided to take a year off to try to pursue gaming full time. Monetarily … it made a lot more sense to try to go professional in gaming than it did to complete my degree,” he said.

The eSports scene has exploded in the past couple of years. Sponsors for professional game tournaments now include corporate titans such as Coca-Cola and McDonald’s. Prize money is in the millions of dollars and eSports has increasingly begun to resemble traditional sport competitions, with live events attracting tens of thousands of spectators, and professional commentators with in-depth knowledge of the game giving play-by-play commentary at live events and online streams to millions of viewers.

“I think eSports in general is at a time of growth, so this is the best time to sort of get into the scene -- especially in a game like Dota 2,” Ling said.

Ling first started playing Dota 2's predecessor, DotA, when he was in grade nine. Competitive gaming, however, didn't start until he entered university, when he also joined UBC's Starcraft Club. But the eSports scene wasn't quite as established in 2010.

"The highest prize pool tournament I ever competed in with DotA was $500 for first place. There was no reasonable way a person could make a living off the scene back then," he said.

In his second year at UBC, Ling began playing Dota 2 -- this was when he first started getting a taste of his current success.

"When Dota 2 first was introduced the company that made it hosted a tournament called the International, and it was a $1.6 million prize pool. And it spurred a lot of interest in the game."

Ling’s total career earnings so far stand at nearly half a million dollars. He has only played two tournaments in 2015, but the prize money he has earned from these couple of tournaments constitutes more than half of his career earning total. His $498,000 career total also does not include any money he earns from streaming his games online, sponsorship deals or the salary he receives as part of his Dota 2 team, Evil Geniuses.

Though he's risen very high, Aui_2000 had humble beginnings.

“My first year of playing competitive Dota 2, I was taking four courses and working two jobs while playing. But that was sort of insane. I was working as a janitor at a preschool and I was working at a supermarket as a stocker. That was not sustainable because I think I was going crazy."

Ling’s parents were also a bit skeptical at first. It wasn’t until he started winning more games that they came around to accept Ling’s new day job.

“It eventually come to a point where I was making more from playing these games than I probably would ever make from anything else in my life. So that’s when it turned into more of a full-time job."

By playing video games competitively he has had the opportunity to travel around the world: Korea, Sweden, France and Germany are just some of the countries he’s been to.

Despite all this success, Ling does not see online gaming as a career.

"I don’t know about it as a career, since that sort of implies that it’s long-term -- 20 to 30 years,” Ling said. He acknowledges that pro-gamers usually only last until their mid-20s, and quickly burn out or lose motivation. Ling says that if that were to happen to him, he would be interested in pursuing other careers in the eSports industry, such as in managing teams.

Although he no longer attends UBC, the former sociology major does value his university experience.

“[In] My years at UBC I’ve definitely learned a lot, and I’ve met some really cool people,” he said.

On the subject of finishing his degree, Ling remains uncertain.

“It’s an option. I don’t think it makes sense economically right now. Just because, if I finish the sociology degree, it’s not like I’m going to get some sick job out of it,” he said with a laugh. “I think I would want to explore most avenues of eSports first. Going back to school is a backup for me at this point.

"Compared to learning through education, I think that this eSports experience has taught me a lot as well. Just by being able to travel, I get to meet people from all over the world, talk to them … it’s been a real cool learning experience outside of just playing games,” Ling said.

In the end, Canada's top Dota 2 player has no regrets about leaving university to become a professional gamer.

“It’s my passion. It’s my dream job. It’s really what I’ve always dreamed about doing.”