John Salter graduated from college intending to be a cardiac rehab therapist. Instead, the 24-year-old from Cartersville is making about as much money playing videogames as he would have in the healthcare job.
And he could make far more this year. If he and his four teammates win an international tournament in Cobb County this weekend they'll divvy up half of the event's more than US$2.4mil (RM8.66mil) prize pool.
Gaming is embraced by most American kids and perhaps half of the nation's adults for fun, not money. Few have managed to profit from people watching their play as Salter and some other local gamers have, industry observers say.
Still, they highlight the growing ways that digital freelancers are turning the Internet's funky and ever-spreading bazaar of alleys into at least temporary career paths.
Bloggers and YouTube personalities who specialise in everything from comedy skits to makeup tips, product reviews and pet tricks are pulling in money. The hunger to make a living online has given rise to calculators like one offered on SocialBlade.com that allows people to estimate their payday from YouTube traffic. For example: 1,000 daily views could bring in annually US$180 (RM650) to US$1,440 (RM5,198), depending on ad rates.
Gaming is one of the hottest ways to grab viewers. Each of the top two dozen YouTube gaming channels has snagged more than a billion views, according to Social Blade.
"We are already in a very fractured media landscape with a lot of entertainment options. It's only going to get more so," said Dmitri Williams, a University of Southern California communications professor who also heads Ninja Metrics, which does analytics for the gaming industry.
"As long as there are people who want to watch entertainment, there is going to be a price to watch talent playing out that entertainment."
It's a long shot to make a living at playing videogames, Williams said. "That said, it is real and it does happen."
It stuns Salter that he can pull it off.
"It's kind of weird," he said. "But it is pretty awesome."
He grew up playing videogames, then struggled to get a job as a therapist after graduating in 2013 from Kennesaw State University with a degree in exercise and health science. That's when his gaming skills picked up. He played on a series of increasingly good teams and started competing in tournaments.
Now, Salter specialises in one game, SMITE, that's the top performer for Alpharetta-based Hi-Rez Studios.
Salter said he earned about US$40,000 (RM143,940) from gaming in 2014. Most of it stemmed from his own channel on Twitch (Twitch.tv), a free website where people can play games and watch others do the same. Amazon bought Twitch last year for about US$1bil (RM3.6bil), getting access to more than 60 million viewers.
Salter signed up with Twitch to have ads placed on his channel. He picks when the ads air between his running commentary on games he's playing. Spectators watch to pick up pointers and also because they feel a connection to the players, many of whom respond to fan messages even during a game.
Of the 1.5 million people broadcasting on Twitch, just 9,000 have signed up to make money through ads, subscriptions and merchandise sales, the company says. Twitch doesn't disclose how much individuals make, other than to say that some top US$100,000 (RM360,950).
On YouTube and other sites, the payoff can be even bigger. A couple players have reportedly nabbed more than US$1mil (RM3.61mil) a year.
Salter estimates he pulled in US$17,000 (RM61,174) last year from his activities on Twitch, where he has about 18,000 followers. He got another US$6,000 (RM21,681) from team owner David Fry II of the Fry's Electronics retail chain — yes, some pro gaming teams have owners.
He also pocketed US$7,000 (RM25,294) in fan donations (which he solicits online), more than US$1,000 (RM3,609) from his YouTube channel and about US$10,000 (RM36,084) in tournament winnings.
On a typical day he'll play SMITE on his Twitch channel for three or four hours in the morning, stop for lunch, stream another hour, then scrimmage remotely with his tournament team for about three hours.
"I'm just kind of living the dream," Salter said.
A job playing videogames? Here are the cold career realities, according to some in the industry:
* Don't count on it. The odds aren't good for making enough at gaming to cover typical living expenses.
* You don't have to be the best player in the world to be successful. Some with their own YouTube or Twitch channel are good but not great players. Personality sells.
* It can take an enormous amount of playing time to become a superior player.
* Have anger issues? That doesn't usually work if you play on a pro team.
* Great hand-eye coordination is key.
* It can take years to build a big enough online following to attract strong interest from advertisers. — The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Tribune News Service