Hidden on one of the top floors of a half-abandoned shopping mall in Altamira, an upper-class enclave of Caracas, lies the Spartacus Arena Esports building. Behind a gate, flashing neon lights, and faint music, a cold white-washed room with pods of desktop computers plays host, for one night only, to Venezuela’s Gorgeous Gamers — a team of five professional online video game players and their coach Soraya Borelly. Their stony demeanor betrays the deadly seriousness of their game.
They are led by 28-year-old player Rayko Missael, known as “Arrakiz” in the world of the online multiplayer game Dota 2. The game features matches between two opposing teams of five players, each occupying and defending their own separate space on the map. When Rest of World met Arrakiz, he was engrossed in one of the many intense on-screen battles of the arena’s all-night tournament. It was a friendly game against the Colombian national team that the Gamers would be facing in an upcoming league competition.
Venezuelans were once among “the world’s top gamers,” according to Borelly, but in 2014, they faced a sudden decline in the rankings, as an internet and electricity crisis rocked their country. By 2018, Venezuelan gamers had disappeared from the international scoreboards.
“All of my friends were convinced I needed to leave the country and play professionally,” Arrakiz told Rest of World, “I never actually thought that I could do this full-time [in Venezuela], until Gorgeous Gaming came into the picture.”
Borelly referred to the team as “cyber-athletes.” And they trained, just like athletes did: the morning began with hand stretches and mobility exercises, followed by practice for up to 12 hours a day, including studying their opponents’ style of gaming. Players that showed a lack of commitment were dismissed. The gamers who made the final team signed contracts which specified prize percentages from their tournament winnings — though Borelly would not comment on the specific split, the industry average has 60% of earnings go to the managers and 40% to the players.
The situation presented a unique opportunity for foreign investors: Venezuela was a land of skilled gamers desperate for money, but with few resources to compete on the global stage. Gorgeous Gaming formed in January 2022, when Russian coaches and former gamers Dmitrii Gerasimov and Ivan Zhdanov arrived in Playa El Yaque, a beach on Margarita Island. They were planning to bring Venezuelan Dota 2 players together on the cheap, paradisiac island to train them for a world esports championship tournament called The International, which was produced by game developer Valve and featured a $40 million prize, the largest single-tournament prize of any esport event. Gorgeous Gamers told Rest of World their recruitment for this new investor-driven gaming boot camp was grueling, but promised a chance out of poverty.
“Dota 2, just like all esports in Venezuela this year, is growing at pace,” Javier Colmenares, a Venezuelan independent esports coach and consultant, told Rest of World. “But to make our competitive scene grow in the country, we need to multiply the Gorgeous Gaming model — we need investment; we need esports organizations and brand sponsorship.”
The coaches were later joined by the team’s current coach, Borelly, who started as a Russian-Spanish translator. After bringing her personal coaching skills to the team, she earned a spot on the management side of Gorgeous Gaming, which sought to replicate the intense boot camp training of the globe’s tech industries.
“Russia and Venezuela have very good diplomatic relationships and direct flights from Moscow to Margarita,” Borelly told Rest of World, “so Dmitrii and Ivan had everything in their favor to start this company. When they researched the region, they realized all the [professional] teams were concentrated in just two or three [Latin American] countries, so they wanted to give Venezuela a chance.”
The Russian investors’ entry on the scene coincided with improved economic conditions in Venezuela, setting up the country’s gaming industry for a comeback. In recent months, private internet companies have flourished. Data by Ookla, a web service that provides internet access performance metrics, showed that fixed internet connection speeds in Venezuela increased by 3.46 Mbps in 2021, representing a 113% increase from the previous year, according to DataReportal.
Nonetheless, the country’s gamers had a lot of catching up to do. When they set up shop, the Gorgeous Gamers management team found that the experience of the top 140 players they recruited lagged far behind that of their counterparts in Peru and Brazil, the regional leaders.
“While Venezuelans were migrating and selling their computers, the international Dota 2 community left us behind,” said Borelly. “But we resuscitated Dota 2 in Venezuela, and the last seven months have been a boom.”
From that initial recruitment pool, 20 gamers were invited to play at an in-person arena. There, they were judged not only for their gaming skills, but for leadership, teamwork, and concentration. Ultimately, five players were selected and brought to an upscale hotel, where they received healthcare, a personal stipend, and had all of their expenses covered. They were not allowed to drink alcohol or to leave the hotel. All the recruits could do was play, as many hours a day as possible, while their Russian coaches surfed.
Despite this rigorous regime, Arrakiz claims that the system completely changed him as a gamer. “I had all the resources I needed to just focus on my game, the hotel covered the rest,” he said, “and I had the chance to compete against the bigger European players.” He no longer had to worry about taking on informal jobs to pay the bills.
Both Borelly and Arrakiz believe that they are four or five years away from qualifying for the world’s biggest competitions, like The Major or The International, which only accept 18 to 30 teams from thousands of applicants all over the world. When the team didn’t make it to The International, the Russian investors packed up their bags to Moscow and sent the players home.
As a Venezuelan, Borelly still believed in the gamers’ potential, so she decided to keep the team together, moving Arrakiz from San Félix, a poor town in the east of the country, to her home in Maracay, an hour away from the capital. There, he’d be able to train in arenas like Spartacus, where power and internet are guaranteed.
But there is a hard expiration date on this gateway out of economic hardship for Venezuela’s professional gamers. Players must constantly be checked for damage to their vision, hand or back muscles. According to the Washington Post, esports gamers have shorter careers than NFL players, due to extreme stress and overwork.
That’s one of the reasons they’re so willing to commit to Borelly’s exhausting regime: every competition could be their last. Outside of Gorgeous Gaming, most would not be able to afford their own computers.
“When you have a strong, close-knit team that plays together, that get to know each other and trust each other, their team play stands out, and that’s the biggest reason they’re currently topping the regional scores,” said Colmenares. “I believe they can totally play at the level of more consolidated regional teams, as long as they keep receiving the support they’re getting from their management.”
Borelly claims her “100% Venezuelan team” is now co-owned by her and the players. It’s currently looking for sponsors and plans to create an affordable academy to train kids at an early age.
“We don’t have 11-year-old players like other countries do, because Venezuela has a younger generation that has been growing up without internet or electricity,” said Borelly.
Arrakiz doesn’t have the luxury of worrying about the opportunities that may be afforded to Venezuela’s next generation of gamers, though. “I’m never going to get this opportunity again,” he said. “This is my only chance to do something big. Venezuela changes very fast and all you can do is roll with the punches.”