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Rock music blares. Spotlights slice through the air. Young men in black T-shirts chatter excitedly. It's Sept. 3, Sheffield, Britain. The Cyberathlete Professional League tournament has taken over a sprawling former steel mill in this city north of London. One competitor stands out: Johnathan "Fatal1ty" Wendel. He clamps a headset into his ears, using the techno music to isolate himself from the crowd. The tall, blond 24-year-old is America's most successful gamer, and here he's all business. He's determined to take down archrival Sander "Vo0" Kaasjager, a 20-year-old Dutchman who has dominated the CPL all year. Wendel trounced Kaasjager in the previous tournament, in Dallas, in July, and he means to do it again.
Before he gets to Kaasjager, though, Wendel will face off against Alexander "Ztrider" Ingarv. The 18-year-old Swede finished third in Dallas and is always a threat. Wendel takes his position at a PC on one of a string of tables lined up along a wall -- with Ingarv sitting a few chairs away. On their screens: the interior of a gloomy castle where their two characters will pursue each other at dizzying speeds through a labyrinth of rooms and blast away when they make contact. The game is Painkiller, and in this tournament version, the characters are "brightskins" -- red silhouettes of men that stand out as targets. The player who kills his opponent the most times in 15 minutes is the winner. It's a best-of-three match.
Ingarv gets off to a fast start. He fires away and gets a couple of quick kills. A few minutes into the match, Wendel starts clawing back. He has a knack for counting the seconds until a weapon, ammo, or armor will materialize at a particular spot in the maze and being there to claim it. Cheers and jeers erupt as Wendel takes the lead. When time runs out, he wins in a squeaker, 16 to 15. The second game is no contest: After five minutes, Ingarv is shaking his head dejectedly. As the thrashing grows more one-sided, a small crowd that had gathered around Wendel grows quiet. The final game's score: 31 to 7.
What's all the hubbub about? Unbeknownst to almost everyone over 30, professional game playing is becoming a very big deal. There are worldwide tours with stops from Rio de Janeiro to Istanbul. Celebrity players are hounded for autographs and compete for high-stakes prizes. At the CPL World Tour Grand Finals in New York in November, players will compete for a total of $500,000 in cash.
In this new world, Johnathan Wendel is the undisputed star. Over a period of five years, he has won more tournaments and pulled in more prize money than any other player, a total that has now topped $350,000. Girl gamers buzz about him at matches, like a group of Swedish players in Barcelona this summer. And boys idolize him. "He's so good," says Iisakki "Beam" Ahonen, an up-and-coming 17-year-old Finn player. "I want to be like him -- to travel and compete in tournaments and make a living at it."
Yet Wendel is doing far more than just winning tournaments. He has become one of the key figures in popularizing computer games throughout the world. With his success and clean-cut good looks, he plays the role of statesman for his sport, the Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan of cyberspace. He aspires to help turn a niche phenomenon into a popular sport watched by millions of fans on TV and the Internet. "I want to bring gaming mainstream," Wendel says.
If Wendel's hand-eye coordination is admirable, his market timing may be even better. Electronic gaming is exploding and spreading everywhere -- from consoles and PCs to online communities and cell phones. More than 300 million people play worldwide, fueling an industry that is expected to rake in $34 billion in revenues this year, according to market researcher DFC Intelligence. Worldwide box-office receipts for movies, in comparison, were $21.4 billion last year.
That has pro gaming at the tipping point. Webcasts of the tournaments have grown increasingly popular, with 25 being shown this year, up from two in 2000. Traditional TV producers are getting on board. ESPN () in November plans on broadcasting an eight-part documentary about a team that plays the game John Madden NFL Football. MTV Networks () will cover action from the CPL finals in New York. And HDNet, the high-definition TV network, is scoping out tournament coverage. "Watching the teams go at it, the battles are incredibly competitive," says Mark Cuban, co-founder of HDNet and owner of the NBA's Dallas Mavericks.
Wendel may be just the sort of bona fide superstar to push gaming over the top. He's 6 feet tall, slim, and athletic. "The gamer image is out-of-shape, pasty, nerdy, smelly," says Roger L. Kay, president of tech market research outfit Endpoint Technologies Associates. "This guy can promote the industry as a cool place to be."
But Johnathan Wendel's a different sort of star than Tiger or Michael. His game takes place in another dimension: the emerging realm of cyberspace. In a sense, he's a guide to the future. For his generation, the Internet is the sandlot baseball diamond, Main Street, and the neighborhood cinema all rolled into one. Online, they play games, instant message, and share their lives with people halfway around the world.
To win them over, media and entertainment businesses have to learn to play by new rules. And to market to this key demographic, companies from Ford Motor Co. () to Procter & Gamble Co. () have to get with it, too. They all need to recognize that the Web is evolving into a global forum for sport, communications, and entertainment. In cyberspace, Wendel is as much Tom Cruise as Tiger Woods. "Traditional businesses need to plug in," says Saul J. Berman, a consultant in IBM's () entertainment industry practice. "This is the consumer base of the future. Somebody who doesn't understand this stuff won't be able to spot the opportunities and the threats."
Certainly, many companies are beginning to see opportunity in gaming. News Corp., for instance, just paid $650 million for game-site operator IGN Entertainment Inc. Big-name tech companies Intel Corp. () and Samsung Group are putting up the prize money for many of the tournaments worldwide. They hope to benefit from the halo effect of being associated with the coolest, fastest gamers and sell more high-end gear. The average desktop PC price is about $800 compared to $3,000 for a jazzed-up gamer PC. But interest in gaming goes well beyond techies. Consumer-products companies are sponsoring gamers, too. Tylenol backs Team Ouch!
The biggest prize may go to Wendel himself. He's working to establish a worldwide brand, something no gamer has ever done. He's licensing the Fatal1ty name (pronounced simply "fatality") to several hardware makers and expects to come out with a Fatal1ty PC soon. Down the line, he'll introduce hats, clothing, and even static-resistant shoes. "He's beyond games. He's the spokesperson for the digital revolution," says Mark Walden, director of licensing at Auravision Inc. in Woodland Hills, Calif., Wendel's master licenser.
Yet for Wendel, this quest is about much more than building his own business. Strip away all the trappings, and what he's doing is shooting for respect. As a hard-core gamer, he's a member of a clan of outcasts -- the people who didn't quite fit in. Now the crazy tech stuff they're good at is cool. So Wendel is out to prove that PC gaming is legit -- not only to the world but also to his own mother. After his parents divorced when he was 13, his mother cracked down on his game playing. They fought so bitterly that he left home for good on the eve of his high school graduation. "This is about proving her wrong," Wendel says. "She never believed in me. The day I drive up in front of her door in a Ferrari is the day I close the door on that subject."
But if Wendel is to achieve his goals, he has to keep winning, and this has been a tough year. Wendel placed fourth and sixth in early tilts before rising to second and, finally, taking first place in July. The pressure is on for him to win the CPL championship in New York. "You've got to win. You can't just be around, not winning. Young kids want to emulate the best of the best of the best," says Mike Antinoro, executive producer of ESPN Original Entertainment, creator of the Madden series.
Back in Sheffield, it's the last day of the three-day tourney. Fatal1ty and VoO breezed through the preliminaries. Now, they're playing each other. The one who wins this best-of-three match will go straight to the finals, while the other one will have to fight through other contenders to earn a spot.
The two don't make eye contact before the bout. Wendel settles down at a PC at one end of the string of tables. Kaasjager is sitting a few seats away but out of sight. In the first game of the match, Fatal1ty easily beats VoO, 32 to 12. He studies his opponents to anticipate their moves, and he mixes up his own style so he's unpredictable.
The second game is a nail-biter. They trade kill for kill. Kaasjager yells at the screen in Dutch. Wendel is mum until the end. When he wins by a point, 16 to 15, he yells "Yeah!" and pumps his fist before threading through the crowd and perfunctorily shaking Kaasjagers's hand. "That was awesome," he says. "That was the biggest match, right there."
Victories like that don't come easy. When Wendel first turned pro, back in 1999, there were only a handful of worthy opponents. Now there are two dozen elite players. To stay on top of his game, he practices tirelessly. Between tournament appearances and promotional "Fatal1ty Shootouts" at trade shows, he'll duck out for a few hours and practice in his hotel room. He even has a sparring partner whom he takes on the road -- Brian "Zen" Grapatin, a 23-year-old former club tennis pro.
But Wendel truly gets into the practice groove only when he's at home in Kansas City, Mo. He rents a basement room in a modest ranch house off I-435. Roommate and longtime friend Jarod Reisin makes his living as a valet parking attendant at a local nightspot. Some of the decor is from the 1960s, with knotty pine paneling in the living room, and, in the kitchen, turquoise kitchen countertops and mint-condition plastic-covered chairs. But most of the furnishings are pure '90s -- big cushy couches clustered around a 5-foot TV, surround-sound speakers, and posters of Bruce Lee and Star Wars' Yoda on the walls. When a reporter visited, Wendel whipped up his favorite snack, a dip of ground beef and melted Velveeta.
The basement is Fatal1ty's virtual workout gym. It's a large dark room crowded with a huge waterbed, the headboard lined with gleaming trophies and gamer memorabilia. In one corner there's a boxy Mortal Kombat arcade game. This was Wendel's first love. He took his gamer handle from the word that flashes on the screen at the end of a Mortal Kombat contest: Fatality! Four PCs are set up on tables and connected via a network. When Wendel is home, the day goes like this: Up at noon, game, eat, run three miles, game, game some more, watch a movie, snack, game even more, and turn in at about 4 a.m. Altogether, he practices eight hours a day.
It's not easy being Fatal1ty's sparring partner. "When we started last year, I'd win 40% of the time. Now it's 10%," says Grapatin. "It's gotten to the point where I have trouble playing with him. He's on a whole other level." Fatal1ty brings in new players to compete with -- and to give Zen a break. In August, he sent bus tickets to Kansas City to two gamers in Texas and Minnesota.
Late one night at Wendel's, Fatal1ty knocks the stuffing out of Zen in Painkiller. He stares intently at the computer screen as his character moves rapidly through the game set. His right hand, holding the mouse, sways gracefully from side to side. Suddenly, a red silhouette of a man hops out of nowhere and Fatal1ty blasts away, the fingers of his left hand tap dancing across the keyboard. Fatal1ty and Zen barely speak during the intense 15-minute session. The only sounds are the roar of guns and the grunts of monsters. Final score: 51-8. Just then, Reisin sidles down the stairs. "Who's winning?" he asks. Everybody laughs.
A Taste of Success
What makes Fatal1ty stand out from other top gamers? In addition to natural athletic ability and clever strategies, he works harder than many others. While they think of gaming as play, he considers it a full-time job -- and puts in the commensurate hours. He also has some qualities that are hard to describe. After playing all of those hours and memorizing the look and feel of imaginary worlds, he gets into a zone, Zenlike, where much of what he does is instinctual. Then there's the X-factor: an unquenchable thirst for winning.
None of this is accidental. Wendel grew up in a striving blue-collar household in the shadow of Kansas City's Royals' Stadium. His parents worked in auto factories, and his father ran a pool hall on the side. A formative experience came when, at about age 7, young Johnathan fell while playing in a stream behind the pool hall and cut his wrist badly on some broken glass. A doctor recommended that he play sports to help complete his recovery. The kid obliged by mastering baseball, football, tennis, hockey, ping-pong, bowling, golf, and billiards. He takes play to an extreme. "Johnathan doesn't like to lose. He thinks he should win all the time," says his father, James. Wendel appreciates his dad: After he won $40,000 in a tournament in 2000, he plunked down $29,000 in cash and bought James a Cadillac.
With Mom, it was different. The parents broke up as Wendel was entering adolescence. His father had bought Wendel and his younger sister and brother a Nintendo console and let them play games on his PC, but Judy Wendel thought electronic games were a waste of time. She and her new husband were disciplinarians, and according to Wendel and his sister, Jenny, they punished the kids frequently for breaking rules. "Over and over, he was grounded from playing on the computer -- what he loved to do," says Jenny, 23, a college student. Wendel's mother wouldn't comment on past conflicts. "I love my son. Gaming is his life. I don't interfere," she says.
After graduating from high school, Wendel dreamed of going pro. He was living with his dad, taking computer classes and working part-time. The night before his first big tournament, in Dallas in late '99, his father came into his bedroom to talk to him about his future. "I told him I needed to go. I wanted my chance," recalls Wendel. "I told him if I didn't win money, I'd go to school full-time."
He never got back to the books. Wendel won a $550 prize, and a week later, he won again -- this time $4,000. In no time, he was on the just-jelling pro circuit playing tournaments in far-flung locales from Seoul and Melbourne to Cologne and Rio de Janeiro. "Right then, I set my goal. I wanted to be the No. 1 player in the world," says Wendel. "I wanted to show my dominance, my skill. Being No. 1 shows your character and your will. You get so much respect."
Making his Marque
All the travel is a blast for Wendel and his pals. They often jet around together, and they make videos of their exploits. Once they flew into Turkey in shorts and T-shirts only to find a blizzard raging at the airport. At a Korean hotel, 30 people got into a cake fight in a hallway. They're supposed to go on a safari next week in South Africa. "We're walking around some weird country doing whatever we want," says Grapatin. "It's starting to get normal -- which is weird in itself."
Over time, Fatal1ty, the ace gamer and good-timer, morphed into Fatal1ty the businessman. At first it was simple stuff. He designed a bigger-than-usual mouse pad featuring the Fatal1ty logo and started selling the pads online. But last year things got a lot more serious. He knew he could remain a top player only for so long, so he needed to build something more enduring than a win streak. He became the first -- and so far, the only -- gamer to get hardware makers to design products with his logo on them. His first partner was ABIT Computer Corp., a Taiwanese maker of PC motherboards and graphics cards. Next came Zalman, a maker of PC cooling fans -- a must for gamers who tweak their processors to run fast and hot -- and Creative Labs (), a leading maker of PC sound cards and MP3 players.
Balancing business with gaming has proven tricky, however. It's VoO, not Fatal1ty, who's tearing up the pro circuit this year. There's no love lost between these two. Kaasjager admits he doesn't have much use for Wendel. "What can be quite annoying is he gets all the attention -- much more than me," he says.
Over the summer, Wendel put more time into practice, and, by the time of the Dallas tilt in July, he was in top form. And the rivalry was fiercer than ever. Just before the finals, he returned to his computer to find Kaasjager sitting at his keyboard, fondling his lucky stuffed tiger, smU. Wendel shouted for Kaasjager to keep his hands off his stuff. "It was like somebody playing with Tiger Woods' putter. I went ballistic," Wendel recalls. He calmed down, though, and beat VoO resoundingly.
In Sheffield, after his defeat to Fatal1ty, VoO wins match after match. Ultimately, he fights his way into the finals, and the two arch-rivals face off on a brightly lit stage. The action is projected on giant screens above their heads. A crowd of about 70 gathers around the stage and cheers them on, while thousands more tune in via a live Webcast from Team Sportscast Network LLC. TSN "shoutcasters" call the play-by-play. Fatal1ty has an edge; he won their previous match. Now, he only has to win one best-of-three match, while VoO needs two matches in a row.
Yet Fatal1ty falters. The first game is close, but VoO triumphs, 22 to 20. In the second game, VoO wins 29 to 16. Fatal1ty is visibly frustrated, shaking his head as he plays. The first match is VoO's. After losing a third game, 33 to 16, he asks to have his PC changed, and officials spend 20 minutes replacing it, which doesn't help. VoO wins the final game in a rout, 17 to 9. When time runs out, VoO yells "Yes!" and Fatal1ty stands up, takes a deep breath, and shakes his head. "I played bad," he says. He thinks he may have overpracticed during long delays before the finals and tired himself out: "I'll be better prepared next time."
He'd better. The next big tournament comes at the CPL championship in New York City. His backers make light of the situation. "Even Michael Jordan misses a shot sometimes," says Lester Lau, gamer branding manager at ABIT. But, truth is, the pressure is on. "The young guys are coming up, and they're going to be challenging some of these old dinosaurs like Johnathan," says Sheryl Huang, a marketing manager for NVIDIA Corp ()., a maker of chips for gaming peripherals.
Could Wendel be over the hill at 24? In this game, it's possible. He's keenly aware of the risks. "I'll have to peak again for this event," he says. Later, in an e-mail, he adds: "Now my goal is to move onto the next big game (next year) and become world champion at another game. But, before I give Painkiller a rest, I would definitely like to go out on top in November."
Going out on top has a nice ring to it. And, for Wendel, it would be especially gratifying. He has worked hard for five years to build his skills, his brand, and his sport. Now comes his big chance to show the world -- and his mom -- that he and his game deserve their respect.
By Steve Hamm, with Beth Carney in Sheffield, England