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America Stinks at Video Games?

This article is part of the On Tech newsletter. You can sign up here to receive it weekdays. It was a coming-of-age moment for American soccer …

This article is part of the On Tech newsletter. You can sign up here to receive it weekdays.

It was a coming-of-age moment for American soccer when David Beckham, the British superstar player, signed with a team in Los Angeles nearly 15 years ago.

Hu Shuo-Chieh might become the Beckham of American e-sports, the term for competitive video games as a spectator sport. My colleague Kellen Browning wrote about stars like Hu from Taiwan and other countries where e-sports are bigger than big.

Kellen spoke with me about what it’s like for these button-mashing pros who are coming to America, and why the United States is a second-rate country in the world’s biggest competitive video game.

Shira: I know some readers will wonder: People pay to watch strangers play video games against one another? This is a job? Explain how big this is.

Kellen: Competitive video games started decades ago with games like StarCraft, particularly in Asia. Now it’s global and huge, especially for a game played on personal computers called League of Legends. Nearly 46 million people watched online for at least part of the world championship in Shanghai, China, last October. Three million people tried to buy tickets to watch in person.

E-sports aren’t as big in the United States, but they’re still popular. The company that owns the League of Legends competition has said that it’s among the most popular professional sports leagues for people between 18 and 34 years old. And the fervor of fans is like that of a conventional sport. People buy jerseys, pro video game players do commercials and the competition is fierce.

And Americans are not great at competitive League of Legends?

No. The best teams and players are in South Korea, Taiwan and China, and some in Denmark, Spain and France. U.S. teams get trounced when they go to international competitions. One reason that North American e-sports teams are recruiting foreign players is to improve on the world stage.

How much can these foreign stars make?

Hu — who goes by the name SwordArt — signed a record-setting contract, at least for Western e-sports leagues, at $6 million over two years. Over all, the average salary for a starting lineup player in North American leagues is $460,000. The big names can make much more.

These guys — and they’re almost all men — tend to burn out fairly young, especially in countries where they practice up to 18 hours a day. They might retire at age 25 because they have repetitive stress injuries or can’t click buttons as fast as they used to.

What is it like for these young video game pros to move to American teams?

It can definitely be a culture shock. It helps that players on the same team will often train together, commonly in Los Angeles. Many teams provide translators and help with housing and visas. But it can definitely be challenging for those who struggle with English or learning to drive. Some players have left after a season or two because they’re homesick or have made enough money to quit.

Confess, Kellen: What are your favorite games and who are your favorite e-sports pros?

I like to play Age of Empires, a PC game in which people compete to build a historical civilization. I play a little NBA 2K. But the only e-sports I watch are the ones I write articles about.


Better video calls for cheap

Brian X. Chen, the personal technology columnist for The New York Times, has inexpensive hacks to try if you’re sick of looking at your blurry face on web video calls or sounding like you’re underwater:

Many of us have been riding the Zoom struggle bus. Our video quality looks grainy, and our audio sounds crummy. What to do?

One option is ordering a high-quality webcam and microphone, but a lot of gear for work or school from home has been sold out during the pandemic, and the demand has pushed prices higher. Mics are also expensive splurges for one task.

So here’s a cheap remedy: Make use of what you have.

The front-facing cameras on modern smartphones and tablets tend to be far better quality than the web cameras built into most laptops. So for video calls, try propping up your phone or tablet against something in your home, like a lamp or a stack of books. You can shove a book under your phone’s case to get a better viewing angle. You could also buy a low-cost stand.

For sound, just use a decent headset. The earbuds that came with your phone usually have a good-enough microphone. If you really want a new pair, I recommend investing in good wireless earbuds because they’re versatile. When you’re not using them for video calls, they could come in handy on a jog or for regular phone calls.

Before we go …

  • An internet horror story: My colleague Kashmir Hill has a chilling tale about people whose online reputations were ruined by one woman and why it’s been so hard to stop such “super-spreaders” of slander. The online smear campaigns also show the consequences of a contentious internet law that protects websites from lies posted by their users.

  • The cesspool in Facebook groups: The Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook’s researchers last year found that about 70 of the 100 most active U.S. forums for politics and related issues were overrun by misinformation, harassment or calls for violence. The company recently said (again) that it would overhaul Facebook groups.

  • “We have to cherish our own lives”: The deaths of two young workers at a Chinese e-commerce company, and the self-immolation of a delivery driver for another, have reopened debate over the power of China’s tech giants and the demands they impose on employees, my colleague Vivian Wang reports.

Hugs to this

Here are pandas from the National Zoo sledding and rolling their big bodies down snowy hills. (I spotted this thanks to my colleague Cecilia Kang.)

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