How does one define "success" in the esports' industry as a player?
Winning millions of dollars? Playing at a high-level into your 30s? Being known as more than just a competitive video game player? The concept of making a career in the world of esports is so new that, perhaps, the definition of success is entirely subjective.
In steps James "Bakery" Baker, who is working to figure that out for himself despite his playing days ending two years ago.
Currently, the Business Development Manager of Dignitas, one of the largest esports organizations in the world, Bakery's day-to-day duties drastically differ from when he rose to the top of the Heroes of the Storm competitive scene during his playing days.
Instead of grinding matches, dissecting replays and mastering his mechanical craft on the keyboard, Bakery's life now consists of overseeing ways to monetize the company via their website, merchandise, and social media platforms.
Upon making an abrupt retirement announcement at the end of 2017, Bakery set his sights bigger than just being good at playing a specific game better than almost anyone else in the world.
"When I first stopped playing I had a lot of goals in mind. I could have been doing a lot of different things such as coaching a team, managing a team, I kind of still wanted to play as well or even be a streamer or influencer. There were a lot of options as to what I wanted to and Dignitas basically decided that they really wanted me to be involved with them whatever I wanted to do.
I initially took a role in December 2017 which was, I think, Manager of Development and I also took a role as a Brand Ambassador. I worked in that capacity for about four months and, during that time, I worked mainly on team performance along with some of the stuff that I do right now in terms of fan engagement, marketing, and business development. Dignitas was really impressed with the work I was able to do on the business side and the operations of the company. So in March of that year, I actually stopped my role as a Brand Ambassador and started working full-time and, later in September, I was actually promoted to Business Development Manager."
What makes Bakery's journey in the world of esports particularly special, aside from being deemed one of the best players in the world then moving on to a "real job" within the organization, is the fact that he achieved the latter despite dropping out of high school at the age of 16.
In order to pursue a life in esports, Bakery felt it was appropriate to dedicate all of his energy to mastering his craft in Heroes of the Storm. That meant putting his education on the back-burner and doing what he loved.
How then did a man with an incomplete formal education end up being good enough in the world of business, in the eye's of his employer, to receive the prominent position he has? Good old hard work.
"I think the secret is that I work really hard. When I have a goal I give it absolutely everything that I have to reach that goal. Sometimes that is a big positive and sometimes it has some downsides too. But, in this case, it has worked out really well for me. As soon as I stopped playing there was some indecision but, as soon as I decided that I want to work in the management side of a team and the operation side, I gave it absolutely everything. I worked full-time, I worked weekends, I worked evenings, mornings, the night, everything, until I was good at it."
From the main stage to a desk
Although Bakery has found success in the world of business, that doesn't necessarily mean the process was easy or didn't take time to adjust to a life without playing.
"Probably the hardest part [no longer competiting] is more of a personal reason. Because being a pro player is completely a full-time job, you pretty much spend all of your time around your peers and your teammates. When I retired from that life and I moved on I kind of discovered that every single one of my friends was a Heroes of the Storm pro player, caster, or worked at [Blizzard Entertainment].
First, that was pretty surprising as I didn't notice that when I was a player. Second, it really struck me as to how disconnected I was from that world when I wasn't following the competitive scene or playing the game as much. That was definitely the hardest transition was thinking 'What do I do with my free time now? And Who are my friends now?' It took actually a good month or two for me to work that out. But I'm happy to report that I'm actually in the best place in terms of my personal relationships that I've ever been."
Even the daily highs of working in the world of business took a bit of time for Bakery to adjust to. The rush of playing on a stage with your closest friends with thousands of eyeballs watching your every move doesn't quite translate over to sealing a deal within his current rule.
"I will say there has definitely been a lot of changes and the way that I perceive things since I've stopped being a player. I actually play very few games right now because, every time I do play a game, it feels empty compared to what I had when I was a professional player playing on the stage in front of thousands of people. It is just not the same when you get back to your room and you play with no audience. But the one thing that hasn't changed is my work. I still take a lot of pride in what I do and I have a great team member around me to recognize that and share with them. It is surprisingly just as fulfilling for me. The highs are not as high but the lows are definitely not as low," said Bakery.
Looking back and forward
Bakery was one of the lucky ones. At the tail end of 2018, Blizzard Entertainment, the creators of Heroes of the Storm, announced they would no longer be supporting the competitive circuit that they had built the previous few years.
With a single press release, hundreds of individuals working in the scene, from players to caster to observers, all lost their jobs. No prior warning, no ability for them to begin looking elsewhere for work, nothing.
Bakery describes that day as one of the darkest in recent memory. It didn't matter that he had retired a year earlier. His friends, colleagues and those he had formed bonds with over the years were all struggling and looking for answers. Many still are.
However, there is a light at the end of the tunnel for those who were thrown in the middle of the ocean without a life vest, according to Bakery.
"If you attack the business world the same way you attacked your playing career then it is going to work out very well for you. A lot of people really appreciate that hunger. I think the amount of stuff you can get done with that fire and skill and talent is going to be really big."
There's no linear path in the world of esports. Or, at least one that currently exists in terms of professional progression. Everyone's path is unique and Bakery is aiming to shoot for the stars when it's all said and done.
"I have very lofty aspirations. My eventual end goal is to either be a CEO or commissioner or something that I can own and say 'This is mine. I am in charge.' There are a lot of foot holes in the way and things I'd like to accomplish along the way but that is definitely the end goal."
Tim Rizzo is the editor and a reporter for Inven Global. He joined the company back in 2017.