Damon Barlow is 22, he lives with his wife Holly and they have a daughter called Isabella Rose.
Talk to Damon for any length of time and it’s clear that he is just a normal 22-year-old. He’s bright, quick-witted and speaks with a conversational maturity that you would only expect from someone twice his age.
Barlow isn’t a normal 22-year-old however. A quick Google of his name will reveal two things to you, a) He has nearly half a million followers on Twitter and b) He’s really, really good at playing video games.
Damon is a competitive eSports player, his game is Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 and as part of team OpTic Gaming they’re largely considered to be the most successful eSports team in the world.
Yet for many of us outside of gaming Damon, his team and indeed eSports are still nothing more than strange new world of sport that we’ve seen but never really understood.
That strange new world isn’t so strange anymore. It’s an industry worth over half a billion dollars and it’s starting to appear in everyone’s daily lives, from live games being broadcast on Facebook to huge stadium events where thousands of people turn up to watch the very best gamers take each other on.
Players can earn up $100k+ per year thanks to the enormous prize funds that are now on offer at these tournaments.
To understand more about eSports, and the life of an eSports player there’s probably no-one better equipped than Barlow, his team, and Optic Gaming’s CEO Hector Rodriguez.
With that in mind we sat down with both Hector and Damon to give us a small insight into the life of an athlete who plays video games for a living.
The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity:
So tell me a bit about how you got into eSports?
Damon: I got into eSports when I was 13 years old. I used to play a lot of sports, I played everything you can name and eventually I hurt my knee so I needed something else I could play competitively. I played a lot of video games growing up from Mario, to Call of Duty to Starcraft you name it, any game.
I started playing competitive games on this site called Game Battles and it was really just for fun. Then I realised I wanted more out of it. It was fun, it was competitive but I wanted to take it a little more seriously.
So I started going to events and 2011 was my first one and that’s where I really began competing, trying to be the best. You know it’s just like any other sport you had to work hard for it, play a lot, practise a lot. If you play football, or hockey or anything it’s pretty much the same setup except you’re sitting in a room in front of a computer talking to people over the internet.
When you first started out, how did it feel entering this strange new world of competitive gaming?
Damon: You know, entering it at first I thought it was going to be a little weird because I was talking to people I’d only met online I’d never seen them before and I just didn’t know what to expect.
It was really welcoming though, everyone was really friendly, helpful and in that aspect it was great. If you’ve never been to a gaming event or at least only thought about going I would definitely check it out. It’s entertaining and of course everyone’s really nice.
How much has your life been altered by becoming a professional gamer? Seeing the number of tournaments you attend the whole ‘9 to 5’ thing must go out of the window right?
Damon: Oh definitely, on the 9 to 5 thing you’re absolutely right, it’s totally out of the window. Sometimes we’re up until 2am or it could be a 12 hour day, 14 hour day it all depends on what’s going on. You’re playing tournaments, practising and then if an event is coming up you’re going to be practising even more, I would assume an athlete would do that as well though.
So in terms of all that, yeah it’s pretty demanding but you also have a lot of free time because you’re on your own schedule. I live near the Team House and we have things that we do weekly which are sponsored and I go over there all the time for that so it’s demanding.
I think one of the craziest things is just going from the normal person who just played video games to going pro. It’s crazy, you’re almost like a celebrity. You’re signing autographs, people are recognising you, you’re taking pictures with the fans and it’s almost everywhere.
Of course competitive gaming is global as well so you can go to Europe, South America, Asia and you’re going to be seeing fans. It’s an awesome feeling.
Obviously you have sponsored gear now like the Turtle Beach headphones, or the controllers, how important are they to you being the best you can be?
Damon: The gear is definitely a big part of our play style. Where the headsets come into play is through sound, communication and those are the two biggest things – being able to hear footsteps, gun reloads, basically everything you can hear in game and that’s where the headsets have to perform.
Being able to communicate with your team as well, that’s in fact one of the key things, you’re always talking to each other, telling each other what you’re going to do, what you need them to do so communication is a huge part.
Then of course the other huge part is the controller. Everyone is setup differently but with the Scuf controller you really can do everything, you can have four paddles so you never have to move your thumbs.
Ok so can you explain how that works?
Hector: So the reason that Scuf was invented was because when you try to jump in a video game, or try to do any other command on that set of buttons, you have to take your right thumb and move it. What that creates is a millisecond or two of margin for error because you’re no longer aiming.
In PC of course you have the ability to move all of your digits, but with a controller it was just your thumbs, which meant that a lot of your other fingers weren’t really doing anything but now what they’ve done is allow you to use all of them.
OK, but surely that must be like me going from left hand driving to right hand driving because you’re so used to using your thumb? Did you have an adjustment period?
Damon: For me it was about a week or two, it was a little different but overall it definitely helps. I used to play without the paddles before but then I switched to the Xbox One from the Xbox 360 and it became clear I really needed to, I started noticing my hands hurting a lot and it was actually a big deal so I’m glad that Scuf came out with that.
So do you have a line of communication with these companies?
Damon: Yeah, whenever we want we know we can email them. Duncan’s (Duncan is the CEO of Scuf) really close with everyone. They’re great, whenever we need something they’ll get it to us straight away.
So we talked about shaving milliseconds off reaction times, how do you keep yourself at that level?
Damon: To keep yourself at a peak level at this point, it’s basically just muscle memory so you just have to keep repeating everything you’re doing. It’s why we’re playing 8-10 hours a day and sometimes it does become a little repetitive but that’s really all you need at this stage.
We’ve played for 5-6 years competitively so I feel mentally I’ve gained as much knowledge as I possibly can and I don’t know if my reactions will get any better over the years, it probably won’t. It almost becomes fluent, like walking.
So how important is it to look after yourself physically, your hands for example? They’re essentially your tools for competing.
Damon: Oh definitely, I don’t think it would be good if we went and did MMA or something.
So something I’ve found really interesting is watching you guys play there is a very cool and collected level of professionalism going on. How do you stay composed in such a high-pressure situation?
Damon: There are definitely times when we aren’t calm, I mean there are of course times when we become frustrated. For example we just played the MLG Anaheim tournament and we were down in 0-2 in the Grand Finals and I don’t think anybody expected that.
The games were close, we weren’t complaining we weren’t moaning we just sat down and said ‘hey guys, there are a couple of things that didn’t go our way but as long as we play the next map and get some momentum going everything’s going to be fine’ and we did that.
I think that’s what makes our team better than other teams, I think everyone’s equally skilled, their mental game is there but I think we’re just really good at staying composed, staying calm.
I don’t really know how to say why we’re so good, it’s just over the years we have accumulated 100s of championships between the four of us so I’d say that helps. When we’re going in playing younger talent we’re all feeling if we win a map or get them tilted a little bit we’re going to get the advantage.
How would you describe the culture of the team, are you all a family?
Hector: As the big brother of the unit I would have to say it’s exactly that it’s as close to a family as you can get. We all live in the same house, well, I don’t but I’m there every single day and Damon’s just 10 minutes away as well.
Every waking moment these guys are in each other’s faces, they eat together, they workout together.
You mentioned working out, do you have a regime to stay fit and healthy?
Hector: I think you have to right? If you look at traditional life you work in a 9-5 just sitting at a computer the same way you would as if you’re a gamer, but you’re sitting there.
These guys know their mental fortitude and physical condition will help them in high pressure situations. It’s as the saying goes you can’t have a healthy mind without a healthy body.
Ok I have one last question, what do you love doing outside of gaming? Or do you game even when you’re not gaming professionally?
Damon: Oh look I love video games, I’ll play all of them, I think the only games I won’t play are sports games. Growing up I would just rather actually play the game than play the video game so other than that I watch everything.
Do you have time to play anything else?
Damon: Yeah, but we kinda get a lot of flak if we play other games, especially if we’re losing. I mean we’ll play things that are completely different. So lately I’ve been playing a lot of League of Legends, I’m not very good at it, but it’s fun to me.
I think it’s a little different if I’m playing a shooter game, so for example when I started playing Counter Strike for a bit I found that my mindset became more focused on Counter Strike. Now I can’t really explain why but it kinda affected my Call of Duty gameplay, maybe because it’s PC so with the mouse and keyboard but it definitely affected how I was playing so I cut down on that. Now it’s just from time to time.