“Honestly, I don’t think people can look down on esports anymore,” says Jake Howlett, a professional gamer better known by his handle Boaster. “Gaming has grown so much over the past three years, it’s not something that can be clowned upon anymore,” he continues before pointing out that “in some countries, gamers are top tier celebrities.”
The past few years have been a perfect storm for competitive, multiplayer gaming. The pandemic forced the world inside, with games of all shapes and sizes offering connection, community and escapism at a time where it was in short supply. Along the way, that changed the perception of video games from mindless distraction to valid artform for many.
It’s no longer dismissed as a nerdy pastime either, with the likes of Lil Nas X, Against The Current and Ashnikko providing theme songs to various gaming championships while virtual concerts from Twenty One Pilots, Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber and BLACKPINK have seen people flock to online games like Fortnite and Roblox. In 2022, gaming is as cool as rock & roll. The professionals who play it competitively, the breakout stars.
Professional competitive gaming tournaments may have been around since 1972, when two-dozen people gathered to compete at Spacewar!, but with platforms like YouTube and Twitch, a generation of gamers are now used to watching virtual clashes with the same fervent enthusiasm that fills out pubs every weekend for Premier League football. It’s little wonder that esports tournaments have spent the last decade taking over stadiums around the world, with gamers going head to head in front of an real-world audience to compete for eye-wateringly attractive cash prizes.
“Like most professional gamers, I really don’t care if people think esports is a sport or not,” says Howlett with a grin. “You can go debate it as much as you want, I’m too busy playing video games.”
Today, Boaster is talking to NME from Fnatic’s swanky London headquarters. He was signed to the esports organisation in early 2021 and has been leading their five-person Valorant team in competitions ever since.
“There’s a rockstar element to esports – but I’m not sure I’m at the level of Harry Styles”
He’s a few weeks out from the last major tournament of the competitive season for the first-person shooter and is feeling the effects of letting his discipline slip. He might not care if you think playing games professionally is a sport, but he still sticks to an athlete-like training regime, with Fnatic employing a team of coaches, nutritional professionals and personal trainers. It’s a similar story at esports orgs around the world.
“What and when we eat has a direct impact on energy and focus levels,” says Jens Hofer, Fnatic’s performance director before telling NME about the “physical health benefits that come with regular training” as well as the “mental alertness and energy related improvements that help the esports player get more out of the actual in-game training sessions.”
Competition days are “long”, says Howlett who, at 27, is one of the older players on the professional circuit. “When the tournaments are finished, I’m exhausted so I appreciate the rest but I’m also eager to get back into the flow of things,” he says. To relax, the former aspiring actor watches musicals or, perhaps unsurprisingly, plays games. His games of choice are story-driven RPGs or playing with his partner, journalist and Valorant caster Yinsu Collins. “No Valorant though,” he promises. Tomorrow he’s flying out to Egypt for the first of three off-season tournaments, with the next two taking place in Japan and Milan. Once he’s washed his clothes, he can start thinking about gym and diet once more.
According to Howlett, esports players get into gaming one of two ways. Either they break a leg, thus ending a promising career in other sports, or they have an older sibling. True to form, Howlett was introduced to video games via his older brother and their visits to their aunt’s house where they and their cousins would compete at party games on the Nintendo 64. Then he got a hand-me-down PC from his older brother who was trying to become a professional gamer himself, with Howlett honing his skills on tactical first-person shooter Counter-Strike: Source. When he wasn’t battling terrorists, Howlett was “following my brothers and his friends around. I was that annoying, squeaky teenager hanging out in various lobbies,” he admits.
By the time he was 17, Howlett knew he was good at Counter Strike and had the stats to prove it, so was invited to take part in a competitive five vs five game with nine other UK players, all of whom were part of professional teams or organised groups known as clans. “It just felt so exciting,” he says. He got scouted shortly after that by British competitive gaming brand Excel and things “just snowballed up from there”.
However, being a professional gamer wasn’t the career path Howlett saw himself taking. Instead, he was “very much into musical theatre” with the teenager taking dance classes twice a week as well as drama and singing lessons on the weekend. By the time he got invited to take part in his first professional Counter-Strike: Global Offensive [CS:GO] tournament aged 18, it felt like “a big deal” amid multiple rejections on the musical theatre side. “Everything felt like such a struggle,” he admits.
Things came to a head in classic, Hollywood fashion. Howlett had a technical rehearsal for a show the same day as the finals for a CS:GO tournament, and told the directors he’d have to leave early for the game as it “took priority”. They refused. So, when they weren’t looking, Howlett slipped out the fire escape, cycled home and jumped on his PC with moments to spare. “My phone kept ringing and I remember throwing it across the room,” he says with a grin. It wasn’t a complete triumph though. “I was a prefect at school so rebelling wasn’t really my vibe. Because of that, I was so bloomin’ anxious and stressed, I didn’t play my best and we lost.”
For the next few years, Howlett would balance sporadic gaming tournaments and the occasional stream with a variety of part-time jobs (his CV features stints at local restaurants and Sainsburys). Howlett felt like he was always on the cusp of going pro but by the time he turned 23, he was running out of money, drive and belief. “I didn’t want to stop playing Counter Strike but it felt like I wasn’t going to make it. Life catches up with you,” he explains. Another loss in a tournament and his team disbanding certainly didn’t help matters either.
Around the same time, he was invited to become a content creator and vlogger around Riot’s League Of Legends tournaments. It was a “big decision” to walk away from professional gaming and he spent the next 18 months watching other pros at the height of their power. He made sure he picked up the dos and don’ts. “I actually tried to go pro in that game as well,” he admits. “I realised that it doesn’t matter what the game is, I just wanted to be a pro because I really wanted to compete on that stage. Well, I had always promised my mum I’ll be onstage…. it just might not be the stage she expected,” he adds with a smirk.
Howlett struggled to break into the already competitive League Of Legends scene but in 2020, Valorant was released. A hero shooter created by Riot, one of the biggest names in competitive games, the game features a variety of characters with unique abilities but still requires players to blast their way to victory. “It blended what I’d learnt from League Of Legends with a first person shooter like CS:GO,” explains Howlett. “I figured I still knew how to shoot heads,” so he quit his job and gave himself twelve months to make it as a pro. “It was a brand new game, so there were no set teams. I knew if I hit it with a rocket start, and could keep that consistency going forward, I could really set the pace and stay at the top,” he says of his decision to risk a well paying, dream-adjacent job for another shot at the spotlight.
The gamble paid off. His SUMN FC Valorant team was acquired by Fnatic in 2021, with the Boaster-led team qualifying for all three major 2022 tournaments.
As well as being a beast in-game, Boaster has quickly become something of a rockstar in the Valorant scene, thanks to his larger-than-life personality, entertaining play style and out-of-game showmanship. YouTube is full of videos compiling his best moments, describing him as the “smartest and funniest Valorant pro ever” and seeing him play up to the camera.
“When you think of esports players, you think of someone who lives in a dungeon.”
“Rockstar?” questions Howlett before breaking out in a grin. “Well, to be fair, when you go out on stage and people are cheering, there is definitely a rockstar element to it. I’m not sure I’m at the level of Harry Styles or BTS, though.”
Talking about why he’s become so popular in the blossoming Valorant professional space, Howlett says it’s “because I’m not your typical kind of player. When you think of esports players, you think of someone who lives in a dungeon,” he laughs, tongue-firmly-in-cheek “No, but usually you think of someone introverted, shy and quiet. People who only care about playing the game and winning the tournament. If I’m going out on that stage, you best believe I’m going to perform, whether that’s in game or putting on a bit of show around that.”
Howlett has become famed for his entrances, adding a bit of flamboyance to the hyper-competitive tournaments, as well as his giddy post-match celebrations with his Fnatic teammates. Whether he’s performing magic tricks, copying TikTok dances or pretending to warm up for a swimming contest, he makes sure all eyes are on him. “It just adds a bit more fun to the game and shows off some personality,” Howlett continues, saying that he’s hoping to help “get away from the stereotype of what a gamer should be.”
“What I do is becoming more normal anyway, with more players coming out of their shell,” he adds, with the rest of his team now getting involved in the showmanship shenanigans. “You just need one person to lead the way and then others will follow,” he promises.
Howlett doesn’t consider himself a celebrity but does believe he “suits the stardom that Valorant offers,” with a generation of passionate gamers and aspiring pros looking up to him. “There are lots of negative role models around, and I’d like to be a positive one.”
It’s why, when he’s not competing in tournaments or sharing K-Pop dance routines on Twitter, Boaster uses his YouTube channel to share guides designed to help players improve their own game. “It felt like not many pros were willing to share their insight when I was trying to make it,” says Howlett, who now wants to make the competitive scene a little less elitist to the 80,000 people who subscribe to his channel.
“I knew if I was going to make content, I wanted to make something meaningful,” he adds. “I don’t want to make stupid reaction content or highlight reels of me killing people, because that’s what every other pro does.”
Still, esports is an intense, competitive world, with a constant stream of newer, younger players out to be the best and fighting for the limited number of slots on professional teams. Add on the expectations from the fans and the discipline needed to stay at the top of your game, it’s little surprise that Howlett occasionally questions “how long I can keep this up for? Am I still enjoying it?”
“The conclusion I always come to is that I want to win,” he continues. “And the reason I put so much time and effort into practising is so I can get out there on those main tournament stages. That’s where it’s fun.”
Earlier this year, Boaster extended his contract with Fnatic until 2025 and tells NME he “wants to be in this scene for two years plus. It’s just a matter of when I’m ready to step down though,” he continues, saying he’s currently living his 18-year-old dreams in his 27-year-old body. “Beyond that, honestly, I’ve got no clue what comes next.”
There are obvious options for life beyond competitive gaming, like staying within esports and working as a coaching analyst. Then there’s slightly more obscure paths, with Howlett wanting to live out his pop-star dreams on Chinese TV show Youth With You, which sees 100 people compete for a spot in a boy or girl band. “I’d love to do that, because it’s competitive and I’d get to perform live,” explains Howlett before saying he wouldn’t want to do it full-time. “There are people who are actually really good singers, and I don’t want to take opportunities away from them just because I have a fan base through gaming.”
Grinding to make your hobby into a professional career is one thing, but it doesn’t get any easier once you’ve gone pro, explains Howlett. “Once you’re in the limelight, people’s eyes are on you. Enemy teams are looking at you, to see what you’re doing so they know how to play against you while fans expect you to be good. If you’re funny at one event, they expect that for every performance. It’s a lot to get used to,” he says.
Howlett goes on to say how finding the balance between enjoying the game and it feeling like a chore is “difficult”, with it taking him several months to “really get the hang of it”.
“Conversations about mental health are becoming more widespread,” he continues but admits the esports scene has a long way to go before it’s at the same level of the sports psychology you find in professional football. “Some teams have adopted a performance coach to handle the mental side of things and then they’ve gone on to win three tournaments, back-to-back, so there’s something to it. All that stuff is still very young though,” Howlett says. “I know mindfulness and breathing exercises really help me before a game.”
The recent Valorant Champions Tour took place between August 31 and September 18 and saw over 1.5million people tuning in at one point, with an average viewership of over 500,000, making it the most viewed Valorant esports event ever. The Boaster-led Fnatic team came fifth.
For anybody familiar with being forced to take a back-seat, watching patiently while your older sibling or best mate hogged the Nintendo controller, the concept of esports in general might seem baffling. According to Howlett, though, so many people watch it because it’s “exciting.”
He compares it to professional football, which can sometimes feel like a slow-paced story, with the 90+ minutes punctuated by the occasional goal. “‘Valorant’ is 100 seconds a round and you know you’re going to get action,” says Howlett. “It’s high pace, high energy.“
“Gaming’s become cool now, so Stormzy getting involved isn’t that outlandish a suggestion…”
Earlier this year, esports got a mainstream athletics co-sign when the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham invited a hundred players from 20 nations to compete in Rocket League, Dota 2 and eFootball tournaments, as part of a trial to see if such face-offs could work as a permanent Commonwealth event. Esports won’t be a medalled event at the 2026 Games, but still the trial was widely regarded as a success. Dame Louise Martin, president of the Commonwealth Games Federation, told the BBC that “going forward this will be a sport within the Games – that’s my personal opinion.”
“Esports is not as big in the UK as it is in America or China,” Howlett explains. “But the fact that it is even in talks with getting involved in the Commonwealth Games shows that it’s growing.”
He also points to things like the first Fortnite World Cup in 2019 where the 15-year-old Brit, Jaden Ashman (aka Wolfiez) won £1.8million alongside his Dutch gaming partner Dave “Rojo” Jong as helping make esports a mainstream concern. “I had my hairdresser asking me about it,” he says, with a roll of his eyes.
Gaming tournaments have existed for as long as there have been arcades but it wasn’t until the late 2000s that being a professional gamer was a possibility, thanks in part to the availability of the internet and the ability to stream contests. “My generation has really grown out esports,” says Howlett, with many game developers now actively designing and funding tournaments.
“The new generation that’s coming up now though, they’re really embracing gaming and treating esports seriously,” he says. “There’s a lot of kids who now want to be professional gamers,” says Howlett who got into it by chance. He does warn things are going to get “a lot more competitive over the coming years.”
However, unlike music or acting which often requires industry contacts and a lot of money to fund success, esports is full of self-made stars who made it with nothing more than passion and a good PC. “Everyone has the opportunity to become a pro,” says Howlett. “However, it’s going to be harder for people without financial resources. I was very fortunate that my family supported me and allowed me to pursue this, despite not making much money for years at a time,” he continues saying people need passion, practice, timing and luck.
“Like most professional gamers, I really don’t care if people think esports is a sport or not, you can go debate it as much as you want, I’m too busy playing video games.”
It might not seem like esports needs any more exposure, with its millions of viewers and sky high cash prizes but Howlett is hopeful that as it branches out into the mainstream, “it might inspire more people to get involved. Maybe it’ll ignite some passion, nostalgia or joy in someone new,” which can only be a positive.
Boaster has spoken numerous times about Valorant having its own anthem, like League Of Legends does with its Worlds Tournaments and earlier this year, pop maverick Ashnikko sung ‘Fire Again’ for the 2022 Champions Tour. “I keep hinting that I’d be good for that,” says Howlett but so far his many winks have yet to pay off. “If I did it, it would be a bop,” he promises.
“I want Stormzy to come into Valorant, or JME,” he continues. “I want a UK Grime artist to come into the game and perform a song. It would be really sick. I feel like that urgency and determination really suits the vibe of the game.” Howlett believes a collaboration like that might increase esports popularity in the UK, in the same way Ariana Grande’s involvement with Fortnite gave that game a newfound level of respect and attention. “Riot already got Lil Nas X for League Of Legends, so they’re on the right path. Gaming’s become cool now, so Stormzy getting involved isn’t that outlandish a suggestion,” Howlett continues, taking a mental note to tweet organisers about his latest idea. And if gaming’s cool, does that make Boaster cool?
“If I am cool, then so be it,” he smirks. “If I’m not, that’s fine too. I still get to play video games every day.”
For more information about Fnatic and Jake ‘Boaster’ Howlett, click here