The New Player in Pro Sports

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Johnathan Wendel is in training. Eight hours
a day, seven days a week, he sits in his basement, gunning down
opponents in the video game Painkiller. About the only time he
leaves his house is for a daily three-mile run. Then it’s back to
the basement for round after bloody round of the first-person
shooter, a game in which the player becomes the gunman.

Wendel, or Fatal1ty as he is known in the competitive gaming
world, is a professional cybersportsman known for his skillful
aim. At the Cyberathlete Professional League’s World Tour Grand
Finals, kicking off in New York on Sunday, he hopes to take the
$150,000 first prize, adding to the $86,000 he’s already earned
competing in live tournaments this year.

That’s in addition to the tens of thousands he’s made licensing
his name — to computer motherboards, cooling systems, and sound
and graphics cards.

For an increasing number of top-level players, video games are no
longer just for fun — they’re an “e-sport” that can make a career.
Over the last few years, video gaming has grown into a highly
competitive athletic phenomenon, with live tournaments, star
players, devoted fans and, just as in the traditional sports
world, big salaries and egos.

Many of today’s top cyberathletes are sponsored by corporations
and earn six-figure incomes competing before live audiences in
tournaments around the world. They are adored by fans who follow
their every move on websites that detail gamer stats and stream
games live, complete with commentary and analysis.

Although the mainstream media may not be familiar with the term
“e-sports,” it’s poised to move from the hard-core gamer niche to
the pop culture arena. On Sunday, MTV kicks off a week of
video-game programming, which will include live coverage of the
CPL finals. In early December, “60 Minutes” is expected to run a
segment on e-sports. Madison Avenue is also taking notice.

Wendel stands in his kitchen, making turkey sandwiches on a small
butcher block. A crusty, near-empty jar of Prego spaghetti sauce
sits on a nearby table next to a wilting plant.

It’s 7 p.m., lunchtime for Wendel, who wakes up at noon, games for
four hours, runs, eats, then games till 4 a.m. against half a
dozen international players also training for the CPL finals.

“I’m so focused on this tournament, I don’t want to go outside
much. I don’t want to party. I want to stay focused and be in my
world,” said the 24-year-old Missourian, who speaks so quickly he
frequently trips over his words.

It isn’t caffeine that makes him talk so fast. Wendel gave that
up, along with alcohol, to make sure he’s “totally 100% ready to
go and ready to win.”

Fit and blond, in a black T-shirt and basketball shorts, about the
only thing that says “gamer” about Wendel is his intensity. His
fresh-faced, apple-pie appearance is a far cry from the stereotype
of a glassy-eyed, slack-jawed sloth who takes his fingers off the
controls only to grab some chips.

Wendel is first and foremost an athlete. Before he became a
professional gamer at 18, he competed in baseball, hockey, tennis,
football, golf, billiards, even pingpong. The skill set for
traditional and e-sports, he said, is the same: “Hand-eye
coordination, reflexes, timing, strategy, dedication, being quick
on your feet in the game, making very smart decisions in a split
second.”

Video gamers get that. It’s nongamers who have a hard time
envisioning what’s largely perceived to be passive entertainment
as sport. But that’s beginning to shift now that video gaming, in
all its permutations, has become such a cultural force.

MTV, the No. 1 cable network among 12- to 24-year-olds for the
last eight months, will capitalize on its demographic overlap with
the prime video-gaming crowd by launching its first “Game0RZ Week”
on Sunday — on air, online and with its on-demand broadband video
service, Overdrive. Among the highlights of the week: All three
days of the CPL tournament will run exclusively on Overdrive; on
Wednesday, the winner will be a guest on “Total Request Live.”

“Video games really are a permanent part of their pop culture
landscape of life, just like music, fashion and movies,” said
Salli Frattini, MTV’s executive in charge of production.

With video game sales outpacing movie theater tickets and young
male audiences turning off their TVs, many in the pro gaming world
say it’s just a matter of time before mass-consumer products jump
in.

“In 2006, what you’re going to see is the category going into
mainstream lifestyle companies in a big way,” said David Grant,
chief executive of the Global Gaming League, a company that’s been
running online gaming tournaments since 2002 and sponsored its
second live tournament this year. “We’re making a number of those
deals right now.”

Once that happens, “the sky is the limit,” said Jason Bass, editor
in chief of GotFrag. A competitive gaming website that emulates
ESPN, GotFrag profiles top gamers, tracks gamer stats, and streams
live, commentated games, among other things. “With blue-chip
companies, the purse sizes will go up exponentially. In two years,
I can easily see a million-dollar prize…. The World Series of
Poker champion wins $7.5 million. That could easily be matched at
some point.”

Wendel is chasing a bright red man through the halls and walkways
of a sprawling, abandoned warehouse. His rifle sight is trained on
his target; its chamber is loaded and ready to go.

“That’s right, run! Run like you always do!” said Wendel, who
already had an 11-kill lead on the opponent visiting his basement
— “Beam,” a 17-year-old Finn ranked 22nd among Painkiller’s top
pro players.

Wendel ranks significantly higher. Anyone in doubt can take a look
at the oversized check running the width of his waterbed’s
headboard. Anchored with two large trophies for other tournament
wins, the $15,000 check is dated Oct. 16 of this year and made out
to Fatal1ty, representing payment for his first-place finish at
the CPL semifinals in Singapore.

Wendel adopted the name Fatal1ty when he was 15, taking it from
the word that flashes across the screen when a player wins the
fighting game Mortal Kombat. The “1” isn’t a vanity thing, he was
quick to point out. It stands for the 1 in a T1 high-speed
connection. When he was competing via dial-up, he was ranked 13th
in the world in Quake 3; after he switched to T1, he rocketed to
first.

Quake 3 is one of five first-person shooters in which Wendel has
competed for cash. In each game, he’s been world champion at least
once. He’s hoping for his 12th world championship with Painkiller.

Playing against Beam, Wendel either curses or clears his throat
when he takes a hit. The dimly lighted basement bedroom where he
plays is quiet except for the click of computer keys, as both
players scoot their right hands around oversized Fatal1ty-brand
mouse pads, using their left to work the keyboards. It’s only the
game’s sound effects that are loud, and they’re trapped in
headphones, which are clamped over the players’ ears so they can
better hear what’s going on in the game and guide their actions.

If they were playing at a live tournament, they’d be doing the
exact same thing, only they’d be wearing shoes.

They’d be competing before thousands of live, cheering fans who
watch the matches on large video screens showing each player’s
computer monitor and the expressions on their faces while
listening to commentators giving the play-by-play.

“It’s a lot more pressure than sitting in your house in your
underwear,” said Angel Munoz, who founded the Dallas-based
Cyberathlete Professional League in 1997. “That was the first
thing I changed when I started the sport. Everybody was playing on
their own computers at home. I said, ‘That ends.’ We’re going to
make all the computers the same. People must travel … because you
want the difference between two gamers to be limited to skill.”

At CPL tournaments, gamers are allowed to bring their own
keyboard, mouse and headphones, but the more crucial game-play
variables are nullified. All the computers are identical, with the
same video cards, processors and monitors.

Competitive video gaming has its roots in the LAN parties that
began in the mid-’90s. That’s when gamers started bringing their
own computers to centralized locations, linking them to a common
network so they could play each other live, without the lag of
multiple servers and varying Internet connection speeds.

Official tournaments date to 1997, when Dallas-based video game
developer Id Software ran a tournament for players of its popular
game, Quake. The winner won a used Ferrari; everyone else got
computer parts.

It was that tournament that gave Munoz, a former investment
banker, the idea for the CPL. Realizing video gaming could be
presented as a sport, “the spark went off,” he said. “The
intensity is there. The desire for competition. People are
practicing. The skill required is not something the average person
can easily attain.”

The revenue model was also mapped out. Like other pro sports, he
envisioned sponsorships, licensing deals, merchandise and ticket
sales.

Eight years later, they are all a reality. And not just with the
CPL. Today there are multiple leagues holding tournament series
all over the world, the largest being the CPL, the E-Sports World
Cup and the World Cyber Games, the latter of which took place last
week, drawing 7,000 fans, players from 67 countries and 300
reporters.

New tournaments are springing up all the time. They are now a
standard component of nearly every gaming convention, from
long-standing gatherings like QuakeCon in Dallas to recent ones
such as BlizzCon and IGNLive, both of which were launched in
Anaheim this year.

Although some tournament series are for console games, like the
recently launched Major League Gaming, most are for PC games due
to the higher level of skill involved in playing with a keyboard
and mouse. And although some tournaments are invitationals, most
cull their top players through qualifiers and elimination rounds,
both online and live.

By some industry estimates, there are 30,000 competitive gaming
teams worldwide, and that’s in addition to players who compete
one-on-one. Those numbers can only increase as more homes adopt
broadband Internet service, growing the online gaming scene and
upping the competition for its live tournament counterpart.

Wendel plans to take some of those gamers under his wing through a
“giving back to gaming” program he started through his Fatal1ty
brand company.

After his daily run, but before lunch, Wendel had an hourlong
business call with Creative, one of three computer electronics
manufacturers he’s working with to develop Fatal1ty products.
Already, his name is stamped on three motherboards, two cooling
systems, a graphics card and a sound card. Soon, he will add a
mouse. Eventually, there will be a clothing line.

His first product, a Fatal1ty mouse pad, made him $50,000 almost
overnight. He invested the money back into his company, using some
of it to sponsor five other competitive gamers on the Fatal1ty
brand team, Inevitable Fate.

Now there are 13 “Fatal1ty players.” Wendel hopes to sponsor
hundreds more.

“The Fatal1ty brand, I want it to be a major part of the whole
gaming scene and a big part of it becoming mainstream,” said
Wendel. “I think we’ve been a big part of it so far, helping it
grow. I think people know I mean it when I say I’m going to do
this for the gamers, but we’re going to do it. The young kids love
me, so it’s cool.”