I stay in open hallways where I can see Rocketboy coming. I hear a single footstep, so I dart off in the other direction. He lands a perfect grenade right at my feet and blasts me back — now I’m hurting bad; one more hit and I’m done for. There are a couple of health power-ups in the next hallway, so I head in that direction. Rocketboy takes a risk and comes charging at me as I throw my own grenades in the doorway to slow him down. It isn’t enough; he has too much armor now, and his rockets obliterate me. He ties the match with 30 seconds to go. He then scores two more conversion frags before time is up. Rocketboy wins the map 11–9 and ends my hopes of winning my first big tournament.
The loss hurt, but I played well. Rocketboy would go on to win the Cyberathlete Professional League (CPL) 2004 tournament. I arrived home to McCarran International in Las Vegas, the dustiest, most frigid airport on earth — the air-conditioning and the familiar racket of slot machines are always cranked way up.
“You had the best Doom 3 player in the world beat for the entire second map until the last minute,” my friend Nick said when he picked me up.
I am a cyberathlete. I compete in e-sports — or as the rest of the world says, video games.
In 2006, I found myself in Europe for the first time, training with players who considered me an equal. By then, I understood what it took to be professional at something — the time, the energy, the exhaustion. You had to present the face of a professional every minute you were at an event. I discovered how to analyze and chip away at mistakes that had previously pushed me to certain errors. I knew how to outsmart opponents and play with their heads. Most of all, I had the tangible feeling of control I had longed for all my life.
At a house party in Stockholm, I met a beautiful Swedish girl — blonde hair, long slender body, pretty eyes. Her name was Elin, and she was into the gaming scene. We talked about traveling. I told her about growing up in California. She said she had visited San Diego the year before and loved it there.
“Do you really live in Las Vegas now?” she asked as she sipped her rum and Coke.
I was sober, but it didn’t matter — having fallen under her spell, I was attempting to mask the signals of fascination my body language clearly betrayed.
“I really do,” I said. “Can you guess which hotel I live in?”
She laughed, which surprised me. Most people back home usually try to guess.
“Actually,” I said, “when you live there, you try to stay away from the hotels and casinos. To be honest, if it wasn’t for the scorching heat, I probably would have never gotten into gaming.”
“Just like the Swedish players,” she said, “except that being this far north, the winters last a lot longer than the summers.”
She spent my last day with me, touring Stockholm’s sites and relaying the history. We conversed as much as we could; luckily for me, she was bilingual and interested in improving her English.
After that, everything seemed to happen so fast. I hooked up with a well-funded team that would be sending me to the newly launched World Series of Video Games circuit events. I would be flying all over North America and Europe to practice and compete but spending as much time in Sweden as I was able.
Whenever I traveled, I loathed having to head back to Vegas. Now I only loathed having to leave Sweden. But when I finally departed Europe, it wasn’t so bad — my girlfriend was a Swedish goddess.
My older brother said, “She even has the same name as Tiger Woods’ wife.”
I had no idea what I had done to gain Elin’s interest, only that we enjoyed each other’s company and were waiting for the next time we would see each other. And when I arrived home, it was tolerable, because Elin was just one Skype call away.
My family moved from San Diego to Las Vegas when I was 11. I was athletic and in a good private school with fun, loyal friends. But I was too young to realize how good it was in comparison to what awaited me in Nevada. On the first day of school, I was dying of heat stroke around strange people. Mission Beach seemed so far away. The dry heat was cruel even in the evenings.
I’d been spoiled by San Diego’s perfect weather. But it was okay because I loved playing video games and Goldeneye for Nintendo 64 had just been released. It was my introduction to the First Person Shooter (FPS) genre, and I found myself logging ridiculous amounts of hours. I have always been competitive in sports but never imagined it would or could transfer over to video games.
From the second floor of my family’s air-conditioned home, I would practice, I would analyze, I would critique. I’ve heard it takes around 10,000 hours of practice at something before things start to change, and I always felt there was some aspect of my game that needed improvement. I worked tirelessly, often until 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning, when I had to be up for school at 6:00 a.m. I consumed gallons of caffeine to sustain this lifestyle, and I loved every minute of it.
My parents didn’t like it, though, especially when my grades began to plummet. I ended my senior year with a 2.1 GPA. To me, it was a small price to pay. I couldn’t have cared less about school. I had something few would ever experience in their lives — I was doing something I was good at and loved to do. Looking back, the goal of getting out of Vegas was always in the back of my mind. Somehow, I would make it back to San Diego; maybe gaming was the path back home.