“You like how I disrespect your corpse, newb?” Those words, spoken so casually by one of my new friends, brought things out of me — rage, anger, jealousy, and envy. But after learning to play the game properly, I felt pleasure, satisfaction, pride, and confidence, especially after laying a solid beat-down on a trash-talker.
I became immersed in the online community and joined online gaming teams with players at my level. From home, I watched the finals of the Cyberathlete Professional League (CPL), where Johnathan “Fatal1ty” Wendel took down the reigning king Victor “Makaveli” Cuadra. I dreamed of being able to play the game like these guys. I didn’t know how, though; all I knew was that somehow I would figure out how to get there. “It’s impossible to be that good,” my friend Eric would say. “He’s gifted. Nobody knows how he does it.” But I had to know.
In 2005, at Quakecon, where money is only paid out to the top three finishers, I lost in the final seconds by one point, landing me a fourth-place finish. My opponent would take third place, winning $10,000. But I was okay. Winning the cash would have been nice, but I knew that money didn’t make me a better player, and that was all I really wanted.
It wasn’t just about being good at something for the sake of being good. I had been an avid soccer player most of my life. I made my high school’s varsity soccer team my sophomore year. But this was something different. I had to taste success. I had to know what it was like to figure something out this way, to pioneer a new frontier in the industry now referred to as e-sports. All I wanted was to know for myself what it takes, and if I had it.
The first tournament I ever attended where I thought I had a shot at winning was CPL Winter 2004. The game was Doom 3 (the second sequel to the ever-popular Doom), and the multiplayer mode was new and different enough from the previous Quake games that it wasn’t something you could just pick up and start owning it. Although it was different, I was open to trying something new, especially because I had been playing Quake 3 for the past five years straight.
“Why are you bothering with this game?” my buddy Nick asked.
“Because it’s a fresh start, and I think it could really catch on.”
Nick was one of my best friends from high school. He was a stocky 5’8’’, with dark hair, and he wore glasses, same as I did. We were both into the same games, but I think it was our ability to appreciate the skill of the professionals that allowed us to be such good friends.
“The GGL [Global Gaming League] just started an online tournament,” I said. “If I qualify, I go into a playoff bracket and the winner gets $4000.”
Admittedly, I was sort of in it for the money — four grand to the winner of a newly released game. I liked my odds.
CPL Winter 2004 came around. The powerhouse at this event would be a Chinese player known as Rocketboy. He had just won $150,000 from a Doom 3 tournament in China. It was all over the internet, this sensational talent out of nowhere who won over a million yuan in a video game tournament.
“You really think you stand a chance against him?” Nick asked.
“I don’t know, but we’re going to find out.”
“What if you go there and you just get dominated?”
“That would suck. I wouldn’t win any money, and I’d probably never want to play games again.”
I had been practicing hard with the best players in North America and was now in the top eight for the online GGL tournament. I knew that if I played well, I had a shot at winning CPL and going home with the first-place prize of $9000.
CPL was always held in Dallas, and the first day of the tournament is usually pretty easy to get through. Matches consist of players who are either local or who have driven in for the weekend to play against the top players. If you’re from Europe or China — or Las Vegas — you probably wouldn’t be fronting the cash for the trip if you didn’t think you could win.
After the first day, the tournament was down to 32 players. I got a phone call from Nick that morning before I finished breakfast; he had been following the tournament from home.
“Dude, have you seen the bracket?”
“You’re playing Rocketboy in the second round.”
“You had better be joking.”
“I wish I was. Guess we’re going to find out pretty quick if you went all that way for nothing.” He ended sarcastically. “Good luck.”
As I headed down to the tournament area, I got a couple of strange looks from the German players. It was the kind of look your coworkers give you when your boss says, “Can I see you in my office, please?”
My first match was against a relatively unknown player. He had good skills, but I could tell he hadn’t practiced much. I used that match as warm-up for my second match — trying tactics I had been toying with, timing armor and weapon routes differently.
Then came the moment of truth. I was anxious to start the match but remained confident in my own ability.
We chose maps, and the tournament admin asked if I was ready. I heard Rocketboy mutter something in Chinese from the other side of the table, but I thought nothing of it.
“He says good luck,” the translator told me.
“Oh, th-thanks,” I stuttered back, caught off guard by this sudden friendly gesture from a complete stranger whom I would now try to destroy.
The match began, both of us starting at fair points in the map. I had control of the rocket launcher and picked up the first big health boost; he had the chain-gun and armor boost. Barely any fire was exchanged for the first couple of minutes. We were both creeping around, playing keep-away with the items we controlled and not giving the other any space into our own side of the map. I became impatient and decided I was high enough on ammunition and health that I could try to sneak in and catch him waiting on his armor. That would be the mistake that would cost me the map and some pride.