Basketball was always Jaime Bickford’s thing. An avid Celtics fan, she grew up in Hingham with her eye fixed on playing point guard for Hingham High, hoping one day to run the floor for a college team.
“That was my dream,” said Bickford, now 24 years old and these days a sharpshooter in a vastly different sport. “Since I was born, or as long as I can remember, I’d been playing basketball . . . it was pretty heartbreaking to have to let it go. I was devastated.”
Forced to the sidelines per doctors orders, for health reasons she identifies as “pretty personal,’’ Bickford turned her focus as a 14-year-old to video games. She quickly mastered “Call of Duty,” then moved on to “Hearthstone,” and today is one of North America’s top Rocket League players, leading her to sign in May with Splyce as a professional eSports competitor.
ESports, the fast-growing industry which recently led the Krafts to pony up $20 million to purchase a Boston-based Overwatch franchise, will take center stage at TD Garden on Labor Day weekend (Sept. 2-3) for the League of Legends North American championship. It’s the highest-profile eSports event to land in the Hub, with sellout crowds of 15,000-plus expected each day on Causeway Street.
Splyce is owned in part by Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs through his Delaware North Companies. Splyce does not sponsor one of the four teams participating in the LOL championship, nor is LOL Bickford’s game, but she said she’s planning to be at the Garden for what is considered the eSports coming-out party for all New England.
Bickford is one of the few women worldwide competing in eSports. By her count, males dominate 90-95 percent of the elite eSports playing field.
“I’m the only female playing Rocket League professionally,” noted Bickford. “This may sound lame, but I think it’s just that women, socially or biologically, want to be more social creatures and probably have different priorities. It’s also, in my opinion, probably less socially accepted for a girl to be playing video games. I mean, it’s become more socially accepted lately, but before it was not the social norm.”
A Hingham High graduate of 2011, Bickford enrolled in a Quincy College nursing program. As her game improved, and she began to make money from it, she cut back on her classes to concentrate on her game. Now with two academic years completed, she hopes to transfer to another local school — ideally Northeastern or the Mass. College of Pharmacy and Health — to pursue a degree in the medical field.
“When I first started school, I was full time,” said Bickford. “Then when I saw the progress I was making [in gaming], and where the industry was going, I really wanted to dedicate more time to try to establish myself for something that, when it takes off, I go with it.”
Meanwhile, it’s all Rocket League, all the time for Bickford, who goes by the handle “Karma.” Most players have handles. The world’s most famous eSports player, a 21-year-old South Korean named Lee Sang-hyeok, is known as “Faker.”
Many of the best players are signed by teams and often live in group homes for much of the year, endlessly competing against one another as they prepare for major tournaments. The Krafts’ Overwatch team, with players paid a minimum $50,000 per season, will have a team home in Boston or its suburbs.
Bickford, though a Splyce team member, lives at home in Hingham with her mother and grandmother. For income, she earns a monthly wage from Splyce and also “buffs” her earnings by streaming her Rocket League action on Twitch.tv, an online platform devoted to eSports and other forms of gaming. As visitors to her Splyce-sponsored online stream increase, so do her earnings.
“It can just grow and grow, in terms of making a living,” said Bickford, noting how some of the world’s best players can make well into six-figure salaries through outlets such as YouTube and Twitch.tv, as well as through PayPal. “And some are making even way more than that.”
It has been the growth of Twitch.tv, in particular, said Bickford, that has driven the eSports model for individual earnings.
“It’s been insane,” she said. “I sound old when I say this, but when I was young and streamed ‘Call of Duty,’ I used to get a few hundred viewers. I didn’t even know what that meant when I was that young. Now there are so many people trying to stream. If you scrolled down the list, when I was younger, there’d be maybe 40 or 50 people. Now on every game, there’s like hundreds and hundreds of people — crazy how many people stream. Their dream is to grow a stream and live off it.”
According to Bickford, her earnings picked up considerably when she streamed “Hearthstone,” a video game fashioned around card playing. Her play there, she said, drew upward of 20,000 viewers per stream.
“When you have that many viewers,” she noted, “that many people watching, that many people supporting you, then the revenue part becomes a lot easier. You don’t really have to think about it as much because there is so much support for you, [the income] just comes with that.”
For someone not accustomed to the eSports world, it all can be difficult to grasp. Case in point: Bickford’s mother, Maura Bickford, and her grandmother, Meredith Foley. Karma had some ’splainin’ do to at home when she first got in the game. They weren’t sure the money was real.
To assure her mother, said Karma, she transferred a chunk of earnings, parked in her PayPal account, over to a traditional savings account at a local bank.
“It’s hard, explaining to an older generation about a relatively ‘new age’ industry that is just beginning,” said Karma, the Rocket League impresario. “Especially when you throw in the words ‘video games,’ which are usually associated with a mindless distraction. In this case, it’s quite the opposite.”
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com.