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Paid to play video games around the world

Life of a Gisborne-born, professional video game player

Sean Kaiwai was born and raised in Gisborne. He is now paid to play video games around the world. Sean is known in the esports world as ‘Gratisfaction’ and plays for the organisation 100 Thieves. Esports is a new world to many people. Matai O’Connor spoke with Gratisfaction while he was in Serbia to find out what it is like being a professional video game player . . .

“Just boot-camping” is what Sean Kaiwai was doing in Serbia last week. Boot camping is where esport players practise their skills and test new theories.

“We spend about 40 hours a week training. It's like a normal job,” Sean said.

He gets paid to play Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) for the organisation 100 Thieves. CS:GO won the Game of the Year Award in 2015.

“I travel around the world with four other dudes and a coach. Three are from Australia, one is Norwegian and our coach is from Serbia.”

100 Thieves was founded in 2017 by Matthew “Nadeshot” Haag, the 2014 Esports Athlete of the Year; Cleveland Cavaliers' owner Dan Gilbert; rapper Drake; and Scott Samuel “Scooter” Braun, an American record executive who works with Justin Bieber.

Sean has not met Drake yet.

“It's a good organisation to be a part of,” Sean said.

“We come to Europe to boot camp because all the European teams are the best in the world.

“We practise games. We play four or five games a day. We do theory crafting — that's where we work out strategies. What is the current ‘meta' and how can we counter it.”

Meta, in the world of gaming, is used in two ways. Meta can be used as an acronym for “most effective tactics available”. Calling something “meta” means that it's an effective way to achieve the goal of the game, whether it's to beat other players or beat the game itself.

Meta can also be short for “meta game” which is using information about the game derived from the world beyond the game or its rules, to influence the outcome of the game or gain a competitive edge.

“When we are boot-camping, our organisation pays for accommodation and the boot camp facility,” Sean said.

“The boot camp facility has computers and chairs, everything you need. You just carry around your peripherals, your mouse, keyboard, mouse pad, headset — they are all player-preference so every player takes that stuff with them. Sometimes the boot camp facility has accommodation in it.”

All the peripherals Sean uses are consumer ready.

“Anything we pro-users use can be bought online or at a local gaming store.”

Sean didn't think this would ever happen.

He said playing video games professionally came about naturally.

“I was just playing video games and doing pretty well with it.

Highlight 'is seeing every corner of the world'

In 2015, I was working part-time and got into a team with my brother.”

Sean was picked up and poached by other teams and ended up getting paid for it. He decided to stick with it as a career choice.

He went to Campion College where 2013 was his last year.

“When I was at Campion I was aiming to play League of Legends — that was my jam. I saw the esports side of it but didn't know how to get into it.

“Then I got a PC (personal computer) and transferred over to CS:GO because I enjoyed the game more. Everything naturally progressed from there.”

He was never sure about what he wanted to do as a career.

“When I was younger, I wanted to be a chef and at some point I wanted to be a doctor.

“I'm not exactly sure when video games came in to it, but I've been playing them since I was four.”

In 100 Thieves, Sean is a sniper or AWPer. AWPer is somebody whose weapon of choice in CS:GO is the Arctic Warfare Police rifle.

“There used to be a lot more set roles but it has evolved to a point where everyone does everything. Except sniper — a sniper is guaranteed to only be a sniper.”

100 Thieves is ranked 10th in the world in CS:GO.

“We were in the top five before the player break.”

After five months of working, players get a month off to relax and recuperate.

“After this boot camp we have two tournaments in a row. After that we will go back to Los Angeles and settle down. We might practise a bit more casually, maybe another boot camp after that — then whatever.”

To many people video games are an unknown territory, especially professional esports players.

“It's like traditional sports — you have different organisations that can pick up any players they want and the players are paid a salary. The players try to win the game. There's prize money as well. It's like traditional sports but with video games,” said Sean.

One of his highlights from his professional career was at the legends stage at the Katowice 2019 ESL Major.

“There were a lot of teams doubting us and thought we wouldn't do well because it was just after I joined the team.

“We started in the qualifiers and we ended up being in the top eight of the major which is past 100s of teams. It was a pretty big moment.

“We proved ourselves as a team.”

He said 100 Thieves work really well as a team.

“There's a mixture of personalities but no one really butts heads. I think that is a part of why we are such a good team.

“We are all there for the same reason. Trying to win and make money.”

He can't disclose the exact amount of money he makes as it is a NDA (non-disclosure agreement) in his contract but said “it's in the six-figure range”.

Sean turns 24 in March.

“There's people younger than me in the same boat.”

People should have an open mind about video games, he said.

“People should give it a try and if they like it, get in to it. There's no reason to hate on it at all. Some people frown upon it or say it's a bad thing for society. Everyone I've spoken to who play games a lot have only ever said good things — like how it has helped them make friends.”

Video games have drawn criticism from people around the world because they see it as a cause of violence.

“I just think it's an easy scapegoat for America mostly. America has gun problems and they don't want to address those problems. It's easier for them to blame it on video games.

“There are troubled shooters who played video games so that's an easy correlation for them to make,” Sean said.

He said the response from family and friends has been good.

“Mum has been supportive ever since the start, even when I wasn't getting paid to do it and I was working part-time.

“It's one of those situations where she says ‘as long as you're happy with what you're doing, then I'm happy for you',

“A lot of people follow my journey on Instagram.”

He has a large following on Twitter with about 20,500 followers and about 3400 followers on Instagram.

When he isn't busy focussing on gaming, he chills out by playing CS:GO.

“We go out to clubs and explore the night life, eat well and do whatever we want to do. Just enjoy life.

“Sometimes we get a table at a club and drink by ourselves. Most of the time we are in a country where everyone speaks different languages so we just hang out together.

“If you're in the city for an event and going out, a lot of the time you see people there for the event and they ask for photos and stuff — it makes me feel pretty weird but you do it. It's alright.”

Sean said a big highlight of this career is having the chance to meet a lot of cool people and travel around the world.

“Travelling is probably the biggest highlight for me — seeing every corner of the world because of my job.”

Sean had some advice for people wanting to get into gaming.

“It depends on the game you want to get into. CS:GO doesn't require the most tech- heavy computer but if you're playing PUBG (player unknown battleground) you need a really good computer.

“Another thing is don't go into it fully thinking you can make a career out of it straight away. Most pros haven't just picked up a controller and became pro. They have been playing for years.

“Having gaming as a hobby to start with helps too.

“You also need to maintain a healthy lifestyle balance. You need to make an income.

“I think you can tell which kids will be professional gamers — it's more often the ones who do well in any game. 
“You have to balance it out. You have to have some sort of back-up plan or job that is supporting you. You can't do it solely on your own but if you have a rich family then go hard.”

Sean hasn't been back to Gisborne for a couple years. Whenever he has time off he goes to Melbourne where he's based. He has a sister living there and a bunch of mates.

Asked what he wanted to say to anyone in Gisborne he said “East Coast represent . . . Kaiti for life.”

100 THIEVES: Sean 'Gratisfaction' Kaiwai (middle) with his team playing CS:GO on Day Four at the IEM Beijing 2019 tournament. Picture by HLTV
GRATISFACTION: The satisfaction on Sean 'Gratisfaction' Kaiwai's face says it all about how he feels playing video games.
INTEL EXTREME MASTERS 2019: 100 Thieves in Beijing at the Intel Extreme Masters Justin 'jks' Savage , Jay 'Liazz' Tregillgas, Aaron 'AZR' Ward, Joakim 'jkaem' Myrbostad, and coach Aleksandar 'kassad' Trifunovic.