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Virtual combat goes from pastime to lucrative career for lucky few



Published: Sat, January 15, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Corporations are putting up cash for big-money tournaments and sponsoring professional gamers.

KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS

FORT WORTH, Texas -- The video game playing was getting out of hand. When Johnathan Wendel, then 19, was not in class or at work, he was in front of the computer. His mom didn't like it. Cut back or move out, she told him.

Goodbye, mom.

That was before the four world championship titles, the endorsement deals, the 35-city world tour, the house he bought for himself and the $28,000 Cadillac he bought for his dad.

Wendel, aka "Fatal1ty" and now 23, is considered one of the world's best video gamers. For almost five years, he's made a living playing video games. He estimates he's earned $300,000 in that time, eradicating other virtual fighters in spaceships and demon-infested monasteries.

Video gaming is no mere pastime for Wendel and many others who aspire to his lifestyle of limos and luxury hotels.

Wendel, who lives in Overland Park, Kan., is one of many gamers, predominantly young men, hooked on the adrenaline rush of competition. A small number are like Wendel and have chosen to play video games as a career. They carry handles such as Bullseye and Rix.

Good luck recognizing them at the mall. But that's not the case at tournaments, where a guy like Wendel is an underground celebrity and where competitors seek autographs. They're also recognized by computer companies, whose product improvements aimed at gamers -- better graphics, sound cards, processors -- are also enjoyed by other consumers.

"It's really weird, because you visit all of these places, and people know who you are," Wendel said last month. "China, Sweden, Korea, Norway -- and they've heard about me, never met me though."

Stephen Tadlock, 25, a legal assistant at an Arlington, Texas, law firm, and Nick Vosburgh, 20, a student at Tarrant County College, knew what they were facing at a recent Texas tournament.

The two cousins have competed in tournaments, and they train fiercely, for about four hours during the week and eight on the weekends in a cramped bedroom at Tadlock's house.

Neither has come close to Wendel's acclaim or winnings.

Full-time gaming

Wendel had a choice to make when his mom laid down the ultimatum. He hadn't made significant headway on the circuit.

He was a student at DeVry University in Kansas City, Mo., and working part time at a private golf course. He noticed the pots of cash offered in tournaments for games he played recreationally -- Doom, Alien vs. Predator, Quake -- and decided it was time to try his hand. But he knew he had to throw himself into it full-time.

Hello, dad.

With a new place to live, Wendel -- whose moniker goes back to his days of playing Mortal Kombat, which scrolls "FATALITY" across the screen at the end of matches -- placed third in his first pro tournament, winning $4,000 and landing an all-expenses-paid trip to a competition in Sweden. He beat 12 of the world's best Quake III players, getting a $30,000 sponsorship from a now-defunct maker of computer mice.

"So I'm sitting in my kitchen at home," Wendel said, "and I'm still going to school and everything, and I'm thinking, 'Man, like, if I really want to take advantage of this, I should probably quit school.'"

Uh, goodbye, school.

Bankrolling competition

Major corporations -- mostly tech outfits -- put up most of the money in competitive gaming. Companies like Hitachi, Intel and processor manufacturer Nvidia coordinate their efforts with the Cyberathlete Professional League. Over seven years, the Dallas-based league has awarded about $2.5 million in cash prizes at tournaments. It puts on about four major competitions a year.

The league, created by Angel Munoz, a former investment banker, has been the chief architect of competitive gaming.

Munoz, 44, said he knew the circuit would grow, given how fanatic gamers are. But early on, it was tough to find corporate support. ESPN did not carry highlights of the Fatal1ty vs. ZeRo4 death match in 2000. Recently, though, the league has started to catch on with sponsors, and ESPN featured Wendel in May.

"Some of these companies are looking for new ways to reach this community," Munoz said.

Art of the deal

Wendel partners with computer hardware manufacturers. Through those deals, he's able to travel worldwide without worrying about expenses.

He inked a deal with ABIT, a motherboard manufacturer, to endorse the world's fastest pro gaming motherboard -- the main circuit board in a computer.

ABIT put Wendel on a 35-city world tour; Wendel said he will be home only 60 days in 2005.

At the Extreme Winter tournament, Fatal1ty and ABIT's names are tattooed everywhere: on T-shirts, posters and computers.

"It's totally cool," Wendel said.

Gamer influence

Other corporate brands loom large, too. Amid shrieks of victory from gamers seated at banks of computers and shotgun blasts boomed over computer speakers, polo-shirted marketing reps move swiftly around the exhibit hall.

The reps embrace the gamers -- Mohawks, blue hair, acne, sophomoric humor and all.

"Many of the enhancements to the home desktop -- adding a sound card, better graphics, a more powerful processor -- were forced by the gaming community," said Ralph Bond, consumer education manager for Intel.

"All of the improvements were made generally to play bigger and better games."

Prove yourself

Craig Levine, 21, a double major in information systems and management at New York University, found sponsorship just by asking.

Levine runs Team 3D, an accomplished 13-man group of gamers from across the country that includes one member from Dallas. Hewlett Packard and Nvidia are its core sponsors. Others include Sennheiser Communications, PNY Technologies, Xfire, Steelpad and Subway.

The team members, ages 19-22, pull in about $40,000 a year between salary and tournament prize money, Levine said.

"We've proven we are the top team, and businesses recognized the market," he said.

Untapped potential

Wendel is long past having to fight for recognition.

When he bought his home, he installed a network of computers in the basement, where he often hosts gaming practices with friends.

He puts up gamers who venture to Overland Park from around the world to practice with him.

On the road, Wendel is accompanied by his entourage, mainly friends who practice with him in the hotel suite. He prefers to avoid the crowds that like to gather around him. He has public relations representatives who manage his appearances.

Talking to him, he comes across as a typical 23-year-old. But when he's practicing or playing, he disappears into "game mode."

"I'm dead serious," he said. "If you've got to win, you've got to have your game face."

Wendel sees significantly more potential in the industry for gamers. He'd like to see more exposure, including televised tournaments, which would bring in greater sponsorship money and better purses.

"There's a lot of responsibility being in my shoes," said Wendel, who got his start in games by playing Atari at age 5. But "it's what I wanted."

Wendel's mother doesn't give interviews these days. But his dad, a school bus driver and retired GM worker, said he's OK with his son's living.

"I think it's fine," said James Wendel, 56, of Edwards, Mo. "He's not in trouble."




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