The pandemic caused by the Coronavirus continues to destabilize society. As governments desperately advise citizens to stay inside, thoroughly wash their hands, and avoid physical contact with others, the amount of severe COVID-19 cases continues to climb every hour, putting health care systems under critical pressure. Jobs are put on hold, stores are closed, events are being canceled. The world is on pause.
The consequences of the virus outbreak haven’t left the esports industry untouched. All across the spectrum, from the smallest LAN events to the major leagues like the League of Legends Championship Series (LCS) and the ESL Pro League, events have had to adapt. This meant changing to an online format, postponing the tournament, or even canceling it altogether. Though the long-term effects the situation will have on esports are hard to predict, one group in the industry is feeling the water rise already, and perhaps more so than others: freelancers.
When gigs disappear
From writers to casters, from photographers to stylists—the esports scene is filled with freelancers. Often not by choice; a fulltime job is simply hard to find. But with when events are canceled and contractors don’t outsource work anymore, understandably conservative with their expenses in fear of an economic recession, those freelancers are the first to fall.
“I had signed with a new esports site, but my contract was put on hold indefinitely. I was supposed to do a podcast and write four articles per month, but I was told on Thursday that my contract was on hold,” says Amanda Stevens, a freelance writer and podcast host predominantly active in the fighting game community. Whereas other esports titles could relatively easily pivot to online competitions, the FGC will likely hurt a lot this year, Stevens predicts: “A lot of these games have terrible net code. I really think the FGC's going to have a terrible year.”
Open positions are scarce. Stevens: "There are almost no sites taking freelancers right now. And when there is a position available, there are so many other writers who apply for it. It's almost impossible to get through." Even for her, despite being a freelancer for nine years, there are no guarantees anymore.
The situation isn’t any kinder for newcomers. Alexandre “DrPuppet” Weber has been a freelance photographer and filmmaker since October last year. Though a veteran in the esports scene—Weber was a League of Legends coach earlier in his career—his new job is on an unexpectedly bumpy road: “Four events I was supposed to go to got canceled, and two are pending the development of the situation,” he says. “Roughly 70% of my yearly income comes from esports-related work or events.” The future of a podcast tour he was documenting is unknown.
For Trevor “ConfusedCaribou” McNeal, a caster and host active in many esports titles, about 80% of esports work is directly reliant on events: “I have weekly shows in town that are available online now, but at a much lesser rate compared to the events I do which pay the bills.” Though until April McNeal still has a nine to five job in the military, he was in a transitioning process to become a full-time freelancer in esports. And despite everything, he’s not giving up on that dream easily: “The results of this pandemic have basically just made me go into ultra crunch mode of financial responsibility and making sure to trim the fat, if you will.”
Banking on reserves
For these three freelancers at least, esports’ confrontation with a pandemic isn’t cause for immediate panic. Stevens paid rent upfront last year, after receiving payment for a sizeable contract: “I thought: "You know what, freelancing can be pretty sketchy in esports, so why don't I just be smart and pay ten months rent?" and now I'm really happy I did that.” She adds that she counts herself lucky to live in upstate New York, meaning her cost of living is relatively low. Additionally, Stevens’ Patreon, where she offers access to podcasts, articles, and journalism courses, is helping her out to survive an additional couple of months: “I'm very blessed that I currently have a community that can help me sustain myself.”
McNeal, knowing that he was separating from active duty in the military since half a year ago, had been keeping track of his expenses and income already. For the next few months, he’s sorted. “It's all just tracking expenses and leisurely spending and being smarter about spending money,” he says, adding “Tax write-offs seriously changed so much for how much I'm about to get back from the State Refund. It went up with $1000 after putting in all my expenses related to freelancing.”
“I haven’t build up a safety net due to literally being at the beginning of my freelance career,” Weber says, who was in the process of moving to Berlin when the country was put on lockdown and esports events were halted. Thankfully for him, his parents offer financial support in these trying times. Additionally, he mentions, there are some other jobs that help keep him afloat for the time being.
Heading into uncertainty
Though the effects of the Coronavirus outbreak aren’t immediate for the freelancers, there is not a whole lot of time for them to find a reliable backup plan either. Current projections estimate that the disease will be around in problematic proportions for months to come, if not for more than a year. It’s time the freelancers simply do not have.
McNeal has his fingers crossed that, if everyone follows their government's advice and self-quarantines as much as possible, life will resume in the next six to eight weeks: “I'm just sitting in a fantasy world hoping this whole thing passes by sooner rather than later and the world can get back to normal,” he states, “I ought to be covered for about 3 months when all is said and done before it's crisis mode and I have to start looking into other options.”
Though for now she has her rent paid for and her Patreon is paying off, Stevens fully understands that relying on other people’s charity isn’t a stable source of income either if the pandemic continues: “I was really mindful of what the average content creator can make. You don't want to make a Patreon tier for something that people can't afford. But if people are going to lose their job, I'm going to lose patrons.”
The Evolution Championship Series (EVO), the world’s largest fighting game esports event, is a huge financial point for Stevens. It’s planned to be held in August but is unlikely to take place at this rate. Even looking for non-esports side jobs is a pain. “I've been scouring for a lot of online jobs, but so is everyone else. It's a very cutthroat market right now. Unfortunately, I'm diabetic, which means I'm at risk when it comes to COVID-19. The only way I could be more f*cked is if I had COVID,” Stevens says.
For Weber, a long term plan includes shifting back to former jobs and brainstorming new ideas: “I might go back to writing articles and do remote video editing and photo editing as soon as I have sorted out my living situation. I’m definitely considering pitching podcasts to firms, or going back to streaming and creating YouTube content for a while.”
As long as governments are trying to figure out how to support citizens financially, if they will do so at all, freelancers rely on the community’s support to help stay afloat. And there are many ways to do so, Stevens emphasizes: “If you can support freelancers you like, please do so. Writers without an outlet switch to writing on Medium—share their articles if you like them. If they stream, you don't have to subscribe, but a follow would already help. Be creative. There are a lot of ways you can support us.”