Sam Dawahare never takes a day off.
“You have to show up every day,” said the 21-year-old Lexington native. Though Dawahare works from home, he often puts in 12-hour days, knowing that his industry will leave the slow behind.
Dawahare is a full-time video game player and a self-described content creator. He makes his income streaming himself playing the popular multi-player game Overwatch, which boasts 40 million global players after two years, then editing highlight videos of it and other online games for his YouTube channel.
For most, gaming is a hobby. But as a career player, Dawahare needs to be elite. And for a week, he claimed the top spot of the North American leaderboards, an achievement that can mean everything when your business depends on being the best.
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“I never expected to do it,” he said. “You have to consistently beat the best.”
Overwatch, produced by the same studio as World of Warcraft and Starcraft, has two main modes of play: quick play, which is less intensive and does not affect a player’s skill ranking, and competitive play, which requires more serious teamwork and which determines a player’s rank in comparison to all others above a certain level.
Players form teams of six and choose from a gallery of 27 characters, or heroes, and must fight an opposing team in order to get a payload to their base, take over control points, or both.
The higher a player is ranked, the fewer points they gain from a win, and the more they lose from a game loss. Dawahare’s favorite heroes to play are Hanzo, a Japanese archer, and Genji, his sword-wielding cyborg brother, because of the in-world story behind the characters, although players often change characters within a match to best benefit their teammates and counter the opposing team's heroes.
He will stream between four and eight hours a day on Twitch, a game-focused streaming site owned by Amazon. Dawahare has more than 16,000 followers, though he might only get a fraction watching at any time. Sometimes friends will drop in, like Dawahare's childhood friend Spencer Sabharwal, who said he tries to visit almost daily.
"I know he can be much, much bigger than he is right now," Sabharwal said.
Although following a streamer is free, viewers can subscribe to their favorite channels for $5 per month for bonuses like no ads and extra emoticons to use in-chat. Streamers get half the subscription fee and also make money off ad revenue, making follower growth one of the most important goals for anyone who hopes to live off professional gameplay.
Add that to direct donations, YouTube ad revenue, and a possible sponsorship - Dawahare is currently sponsored by TunnelBear, a VPN service - and top streamers can make hundreds of thousands of dollars a month.
Forbes estimated earlier this year that a player known as Ninja, the top streamer on Twitch who plays the explosively popular Fortnite, makes $560,000 a month just through the service, not counting ad money from 4 million YouTube followers.
Dawahare estimates that he can make $50-100,000 per year from content creation.
“It’s the new basketball, the new football,” he said of competitive gaming. “It’s here, it’s happening, it’s not some kid sitting in his basement with Cheetos anymore.”
Top players can also go pro. Blizzard, the developers behind Overwatch, established the Overwatch League last year, with 12 teams around the world divided into the Atlantic and Pacific League, competing for the first time this year in New York City’s Barclays Center for a $1 million grand prize. Professional players also receive a $50,000 annual salary, healthcare and retirement savings, and housing during the season.
But Dawahare isn’t interested in becoming the best of the best. Being one of the most elite players in the world takes training that would take time away from video editing, and his clips make up a significant portion of his income.
In addition, competitive gaming is riskier than regular sports because, unlike basketball or football, specific games go in and out of fashion. It would be a waste of time to become incredibly skilled at Overwatch if another game may replace it in two or five or even ten years.
If he did play professionally, Dawahare said, he would like to be part of the Contenders, which is seen as the minor leagues to the Overwatch League.
He could also join a collegiate team, but Dawahare doesn’t see many benefits. He was enrolled at Centre College for a year, but dropped out to pursue gaming full-time, something which he said made people around him intensely skeptical, though he doesn’t regret the decision.
“Everyone was telling me what not to do and what I couldn’t do, but I learned to trust my instincts,” he said.
And his parents came around, Dawahare said. Now, “they’re my biggest fans.”
"The plan always changes, but this is what he set out to do," said Michael Dawahare, Sam's father. "It’s not a willy-nilly thing, this is a business plan being executed."
After reaching the top, he has set his sights on growing his streaming audience, hoping to eventually grow his 10,000 YouTube followers to one million. But Dawahare welcomes the challenge.
“I love waking up every day streaming to the same people who love my content,” he said. “The feeling I get when I play games, I want to give that to other people.”