Between worlds: How Trevor May is unifying traditional sports and esports

Minnesota Twins pitcher Trevor May is helping unify traditional sports and esports. Jay Biggerstaff/USA TODAY Sports

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- From a hotel hallway, incoherent yells could be heard.

"No, no, no, no, no, no!"

"Why are there hot dogs falling from the sky?"

"Headbutt! Headbutt! Headbutt!"

This was followed by furious button-mashing and more yelling.

The game was "Gang Beasts," a multiplayer melee game in which players attempt to throw each other's rag-doll characters to their deaths in a variety of hazardous environments. The players were streamer and gaming content creator Kristen Valnicek, better known as Kristen "KittyPlays" Michaela, and three pitchers from the Minnesota Twins -- Blake Parker, Tyler Duffey and Trevor May, who were in Anaheim for a three-game series against the Los Angeles Angels and taking part in a taping of Allied Esports' PlayTime with KittyPlays series.

Later that day, May stepped on the mound at Angel Stadium in the eighth inning, faced the heart of the Angels' lineup in Mike Trout, Shohei Ohtani, and Albert Pujols, and emerged the victor.

An interesting conundrum arises with May, who brands himself with his gaming handle "IAmTrevorMay" across multiple social media platforms. Typically, gamers and professional esports players identify themselves this way: first name "gaming handle" surname, and then the nickname going forward, in contrast to most other traditional athletes who simply go by their given names.

Should May first be referred to as a professional baseball player with the Minnesota Twins or a Fortnite streamer with over 130,000 Twitch followers under esports organization Luminosity? Does it even matter?

According to May, there should be no gap between gaming/esports and traditional sports when it comes to public perception. The Twins' pitcher is one of many traditional professional athletes who are erasing the barriers between esports and traditional sports.

Time for baseball, time for video games

Part of residing in both worlds means no consoles in the baseball locker room; no chance for his gaming interests to draw unwanted attention or be linked to a potential drop in performance, like the tension last year in the Boston Red Sox clubhouse involving David Price playing Fortnite.

"They had their own consoles in their locker rooms. [The Twins] don't have that problem," May said.

It seems that whenever video games enter the public spotlight alongside traditional sports, it naturally draws criticism as a detractor to focus. This isn't exclusive to traditional sports teams. At the 2018 League of Legends World Championship, North American team Cloud9 was accused of playing too much Fortnite during the group stage of the main event. C9 silenced team critics by becoming the first NA team to make the worlds semifinals. In the Red Sox's case, the team was struggling at the time.

"Players [on Boston] decided not to do it anymore because they weren't winning, and it makes sense," May said. "That's one less question now that they have to answer all the time. That's policing yourselves. I try to separate the things; that's a promise I made to myself."

His path to becoming a streamer will resonate with an entire generation born anytime in the mid-1980s to the early '90s. His gaming journey began with his grandfather's Nintendo console and Konami's "Contra." From there, it was on to his neighbors' Sega Genesis and "Sonic the Hedgehog." May split a Super Nintendo and a Nintendo 64 with his older brother and continued to play games, even as a career in baseball developed. This evolved into more time-consuming and competitive games like World of Warcraft, Dota 2, Overwatch and, most recently, Fortnite.

"I was never ashamed of gaming really," May said. "My rookie year I played WoW late at night while my roommate was still sleeping, and I had to give up after a few weeks, but I tried. And he'd be like, 'Dude, Trevor May was up playing WoW all night.' I'd be like, 'Yeah man, I like it. Sorry.' ... It's come a long way."

May, 29, has now found himself at the intersection of MLB and esports. MLB wants to court a younger audience, which competitive gaming has in spades. Esports encompasses a variety of games that are still in their relative infancy, while MLB is celebrating 150 years of pro baseball this season. It is at these crossroads where May has thrived, bringing any knowledge he has from his major league experiences to esports pros.

One of his initial forays was speaking at the inaugural Overwatch League players' summit on Nov. 29, 2017, and May credited Overwatch for his interest in the business side of esports. He also is a co-owner of Winston's Lab, a statistics site dedicated to professional Overwatch.

"The [Overwatch] competitive scene grew extremely fast. I became a fan back when [Brandon "Seagull" Larned] was on," May said. "That was when I really started paying attention. ... I got really into how it was being put together. I'm really interested in how [League of Legends'] LCS is put together, really interested in talking to a lot of people. I got really interested in how they were forming their leagues."

Casual play versus competitive play

According to May, esports circuits and leagues could learn a lot from traditional sports leagues and vice versa. Yet a major sticking point he acknowledged, and something that is unique to esports, is the existence of the game developer as another party in bargaining alongside both players and ownership. It's never as simple as using existing infrastructure created by a traditional sports league like MLB and applying it to a competitive video game.

"At the end of the day, the governing body that runs the league isn't an ownership group as it is in the MLB," May said. "The MLB is the ownership group so we make decisions between the MLB ownership group and the players' association. ... It's hard to find symbiotic relationships there, especially when the game developer can change or retain all the rights to do whatever they want to their game at any point."

Such is the case with Fortnite. As a casual Fortnite player, May is well aware of the complex task of balancing the appeal of casual play with the need for consistency for competitive players like Tyler "Ninja" Blevins. Recently, two University of Georgia Fortnite players called out game developer Epic Games before effectively announcing they were quitting the Fortnite competitive scene. Many Fortnite professional players, like Timothy "Bizzle" Miller, have been critical of Epic's game-balance decisions.

"At the end of the day the developer of the game wants to make a lot of money, which is logic, but they tend to shoot themselves in the foot when it comes to esports because your games are played differently at the professional level than at the casual level, and you can't smash them together and make them the same," May said. "So you kind of have to accept that there are different ways to play and you have to make concessions for both if you want to have a healthy esport."

Players' rights

The rights of players is another area in which May felt esports professionals could learn from the way contracts work in traditional sports, as young esports players frequently gloss over their contracts and aren't fully aware of how much of their brand and likeness they sign away to their teams.

"Here's something that I would tell to an Overwatch player. One way that they make money is by selling skins for the characters for the teams. If you are the all-star Tracer for your team -- [Park "Saebyeolbe" Jong-ryeol], for example, in the inaugural season -- if that Tracer sells more than any other on your team, you create value for that skin. People aren't buying Tracer just because they play Tracer, they're buying Tracer because you play Tracer."

May cited the lack of organizations to make the case for players, and players' own hesitation to speak up as reasons why this has not happened yet. It has been an ongoing issue in esports. Many eyes are currently on Turner "Tfue" Tenney's recent litigation against FaZe Clan, which depending on the decision could be a major turning point for professional esports players' and streamers' contracts.

"The overarching idea that a lot of players have is, 'happy to be here,'" May said. "They have the attitude that they're just happy to be playing at that level. ... I try to make them understand that they are creating content for an overarching body that has rights to that content, 'You have certain rights too, and you need to understand that.'"

Player-fan relationships

If professional esports players and organizations can learn a lot from MLB regarding infrastructure and players' associations, MLB in turn can learn a lot from the intimacy that streaming creates between players and fans. May frequently mentions the Twins during his streams to the point where "Go Twins!" has become a bit of a meme in his chat. May also said that it helps to bring gamers to events, allowing them to meet one another offline and continue to foster friendships.

"Going out and being physically somewhere isn't the most natural thing that the gaming community did," May said. "For people I grew up with who were big gamers going to cons and having groups of friends to stay with, modding channels and stuff, I think that's awesome and it gets me fired up just thinking about it."

While waiting for the hotel elevator, Parker and Duffey talked excitedly with May and Twins beat writer Do-hyoung Park about their future "Gang Beasts" strategy. Parker's idea of trying to get as far away from the action as possible and wait for everyone else to bump each other off the stage seemed the most successful.

If they decide to bring the game into the Twins' gaming rotation, it won't be a surprise.