LOS ANGELES — Lucas Tao Kilmer Larsen, 21, remembers fantasizing about how awesome his life would be if he could become a professional video game player.

“That’s going to be a dream job, and I’m going to enjoy my life so much more,” Larsen recalls thinking when he was a 15-year-old growing up in Denmark.

The reality, he has learned, is quite different.

As esports continues its march toward mainstream acceptance, video game publishers, teams and players find themselves learning on the fly and navigating new, often unexpected, challenges once reserved for top-tier traditional sports athletes and celebrities.

Larsen and other pro gamers recently shared what it’s like to be on the front lines of this mushrooming industry, revealing an evolving world of long hours, league-mandated obligations and few mechanisms for athletes to push back against expectations.

“It’s definitely my dream job. But over time, it’s become more and more of a job. … It isn’t as fun as anymore, I see it more of a job now,” said Larsen, better known on the League of Legends circuit as Santorin. He said he logs up to 14 hours of gameplay per day and only sees his friends “once a year, for five to eight hours.”

While they noted that their early visions of this new-age career path are very different from reality, they all said they embraced many elements of their current way of life.

“It’s not as awesome as people imagine,” Larsen said, before adding that he has had a chance to travel the globe and attain his goal of becoming one of the best players in the world — and he’s recognized by fans as such, which he described as “pretty awesome.”

These kinds of conflicts are emblematic of the current moment in esports. Adoring fans come with concerns about security. Lucrative contracts come with onerous hours and pressure to maximize personal branding. Leading roles in slick commercials and magazine features come with the risk of losing focus — and losing a job where the average playing career spans just a couple of years, less than an average NFL running back.

The grind of pro gaming

For pro players, almost all of whom grew up before a career path as a gamer seemed possible, striking the right balance between work and life can be tricky. Larsen’s 14-hour days are more or less standard among his peers, which adds up to one of the longest workweeks of any job in the United States, according to the American Community Survey PUMS data set.

League of Legends Championship Series (LCS) players such as Larsen routinely practice for more than 12 hours per day, usually with one day off per week. Players also have ancillary obligations, such as being available to sponsors and the media as well as a contractually stipulated number of hours they must stream their gameplay online. This figure varies, but a person with knowledge of player scheduling from Team Liquid, a top esports organization, said the team requires about 30 hours per month.

“I just thought I’d get to play video games for a living pretty much,” said Jason “WildTurtle” Tran, Larsen’s teammate on FlyQuest. “I didn’t really know how much effort and time you actually have to put in to compete at the highest level. A lot of the general public thinks that pro players are just having fun, making money and playing video games and it’s very easy, but I don’t think that’s the case at all."

The rewards for top players are substantial. Average salaries for LCS players are in the low- to mid-six figures, and Overwatch players earn a reported average bordering the six-figure mark. That is in addition to any earned prize money, with pools ranging into the tens of millions for some competitions.

“We are trying to compete at the highest level, so we are going to be putting in our time and research to get better at our craft,” Tran said.

Playing to the crowd, for better and worse

For pro gamers, there is an added obligation beyond competition, owing to the grass-roots nature of competitive gaming culture. After pro matches, fans expect to be able to directly interact with their favorite players, as they do online.

“A really big part of an LCS match is the interaction with the fans,” said Vincent “Biofrost” Wang, 22, a player on Counter Logic Gaming’s LCS squad.

While most of those interactions are positive for players and fans, sometimes it can get uncomfortable. In a bizarre incident this year, at least two LCS players claimed a fan twisted their nipples during a league-sanctioned post-match meetup.

Another player, on the Houston Outlaws of the Overwatch League, reported receiving death threats online, which a female esports commentator said she receives on a “daily basis.”

Players also mentioned unwanted attention online.

“Online it gets a little weird,” said Jake Lyon, another player in the Overwatch League (OWL). He said a minority of fans, who skew younger, can be overzealous in their interactions and feel as if they “are friends or something more.” Some female fans have asked him out on dates — an experience common to many players in LCS and OWL.

Attorney and player agent Ryan Morrison, founder of Evolved Talent Agency, said his clients have faced numerous “incredibly terrifying situations” including death threats and “over-the-top romantic things” from stalkers online.

Kyle Souder, an assistant coach for Overwatch’s Paris team, said players are incentivized to be as accessible as possible, be it online, at fan meets or in videos, since it helps build their brands — which can outlast their careers as players. But that sort of accessibility has raised questions about player safety, particularly after a shooting at a Madden NFL tournament in Jacksonville, Fla., this summer.

“Nothing has happened yet, but I feel like it could," said Souder, in reference to the Overwatch League’s live matches. “When players are walking onstage, nothing is stopping anyone from jumping on these players or touching them in any way. ... The clock is ticking down. It’s going to happen eventually.”

Chris Hopper, head of North American esports at Riot Games, which runs LCS, said the “first thing that we are always going to consider [for live events] is the physical safety of all involved.”

Hopper acknowledged that fans have a “perception of proximity” and “greater degree of kinship” to pro players that is not held in other major sports and presents a unique challenge of accommodating fans while keeping players safe.

“It’s definitely a tight line to walk,” said Hopper, who noted metal detectors, security cameras and a dedicated security team as some of the ways LCS controls its events. The Overwatch League declined to comment.

Despite potential fears and some uneasy interactions, players said the overall fan experience, especially in person, is positive. Many consider it a highlight of their pro status, especially since so few of them anticipated receiving the kind of attention typically reserved for traditional athletes and celebrities.

“Sometimes I get recognized, and it’s always really cool to me,” Wang said.

Little leverage for change

In regards to safety, mandated availability and other labor issues, esports players do not have the benefit of a union, as their peers in other American sports leagues do. Pro players of the game Counter-Strike: Global Offensive have a nonprofit players’ association, and League of Legends has an association for its players that was funded by the game’s developer, and league owner, Riot.

Those do not, however, qualify as unions, and the players' employers do not have to engage with those bodies, instead dealing directly with players. Despite the similar names, the players' associations in major sports are labor unions and participate in collective bargaining with their leagues.

According to Morrison, many esports players do not have representation.

“We do our best,” Morrison said of capping the number of days players have to be available and hours they have to practice and stream on Twitch, noting they have access to nutritionists and trainers and receive travel reimbursement. “The ‘happy pro lifestyle’ we know and love from traditional sports? Esports isn’t close to that yet as a general rule."

Players have little leverage to push back against any demands made by teams and software publishers, which run many of the esports leagues. Playing careers are often brief and start at a relatively young age. In a 2016 interview, George “HotshotGG” Georgallidis, owner of the Counter Logic Gaming team, said the average career length for a pro is “a year to two years.” The average player age for League of Legends LCS is just over 21, compared with 29.2 for Major League Baseball and 26.6 for the NFL, according to ESPN.

Further adding to player stress is the knowledge that many of them are highly replaceable. A poor tournament result can lead to a terminated contract, or even an entire roster being released, as two LCS teams did after 2017. Another team replaced all but one player.

Beyond their personal labor concerns, these factors also make it difficult for players to push for security enhancements. Still, players expressed general contentment with their work situations, with many acknowledging that being a pro esports player is the first job they have held.

Pointing out the “nice” accommodations when they travel as well as the food and facilities, Wang said he feels like his current team “really cares” about its players.

“It’s a nice job,” he said with a laugh, but he got serious when discussing his hopes regarding what teams will offer players in the future.

“Maybe just providing what traditional companies provide, like retirement plans. … A lot of pro players are worried about what they’re going to do after being a pro."

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