Many teenagers can only dream of getting paid to play video games, but for Oceanside High School senior Chris Lehr, it’s a reality.
Lehr, 18, signed a contract with eUnited, one of the most recognizable Call of Duty brands in eSports, which is competitive video gaming, to become a professional. There are many different video games and professional players for each game, and Call of Duty has sprung the creation of many brands, which have formed teams to compete in tournaments.
“It is sort of relieving because for a while, I was working toward this and to finally be able to turn video games into a job is a dream come true,” Lehr said. “In order to make this a job and be able to get paid to play video games, you need to practice as much as you can to get better and basically dedicate yourself to the game.”
Lehr said he has been playing video games since he was 4, but has only been trying to turn it into a career since he was about 14, once he realized he had a talent for competitive gaming while playing with his friends.
When he finishes high school, Lehr said, he plans to continue to see how far he can take his eSports career for a year and if he is successful, he will continue. If not, he added, he will go to college.
Lehr said his interest in competitive gaming grew when he was in middle school and played with his friends. As he got better, his friends told him he should try and become a professional, and he was eventually able to realize his dream.
Matt Potthoff, the general manager of eUnited, said Lehr caught his attention when they played against each other online five years ago.
“He had to be super, super young, but I just had a really unique gut feeling that this kid was going to be something special down the road,” Potthoff said.
When Potthoff became general manager, he kept Lehr in mind and signed him to the cadet roster, an academy team of young up and coming gamers. Potthoff explained that when gamers play Call of Duty against one another online, there is something called host advantage, and Potthoff had one of the most lopsided advantages in the Call of Duty world, meaning he would rarely lose gunfights. Despite this edge, he recalled that he had difficulty putting away Lehr when they played against one another.
“Every single gunfight, he gave me a hard time,” Potthoff said. “I was like, I don’t know if I just stink or if this kid is that good.”
Lehr worked his way up to the main roster at eUnited and became part of the starting lineup. The opportunity has given him a chance to travel around the world, which included a Call of Duty major tournament in London. The prize pool at the tournament was more than $3,000, and Lehr helped eUnited place second.
“In London, he proved that he could play at a top level,” Potthoff said. “Any doubt or negativity is washed away and he’s going to continue to thrive.”
Because he is under contract with eUnited, Lehr is paid a monthly salary and earns money from individual and team sponsorship deals, and also garners a percentage of any prize money won at tournaments. The brand has six teams under contract and Chris is a submachine gun player on one of the squads, and one of five players that travels the world to compete at the highest level, Potthoff said.
Potthoff said he believed that Lehr could make a career out of gaming because he is young, talented, and doesn’t have any issues handling the challenges many teenagers face while still being able to thrive in the industry.
Lehr’s father, Larry, said he was a bit hesitant to allow his son to compete in the gaming world, but permitted him to do so as long as he kept up with his schoolwork and graduated high school.
“He wasn’t supposed to go pro until after high school, but the opportunity was there,” Larry Lehr said. “ … When he was a little kid, he could dress himself when he was 3. He was always independent. I’m not worried about him.” Larry also recalled Chris growing up playing Ninetendo Gamecube with is brother, Larry Jr.
Being a professional requires Chris to spend a lot of time honing his craft. The eUnited team practices six days per week for about six hours per day, but takes about a week off after every major event. Administrators at Oceanside High School have worked with Chris’s schedule and permitted him to catch up on work in his down time so that he can graduate. Though he’ll have excessive absences that would otherwise prohibit him from graduating because of his travel schedule, school officials will appeal the decision as long as Chris completes his work.
Though many people have attached a stigma to playing too many video games and the violent nature of games such as Call of Duty, Larry said a lot of it is overstated and there is a bright future for the gaming industry.
“It’s not one of those games where you see blood and gore and all that,” he said. “It’s a quick takedown, you score points. It’s more strategy. There’s a lot more to it than just shooting. I want other parents to understand there is a future out there and it’s growing.”
Chris and eUnited will travel to Columbus, Ohio for the second part of their professional league from May 28 to June 7. The team enters the event with an 8-3 record, which places it second in Division B in the Call of Duty World League, which includes 16 of the best teams in the world. If eUnited performs well, it will qualify for a 10-team playoff tournament in Miami in July, which has a prize of $1.5 million.
Chris said he was happy to have the support of his friends and family along his journey. “My family was really proud of me to be able to make this a job and become a professional,” he said. “They’ve always supported me and it means a lot to me and them. My friends think it’s really cool that I’m able to make money playing video games.”