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.
“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.
There he was on his way back from picking up the chain-gun, waiting for me to come jumping up for the armor. I don’t think he missed with a single bullet as my health went from 200 to 100 to 0 in about two seconds. From then on, he would dominate the big weapons as well as the armor and health power-ups. Whenever I thought I could break his control, I was rejected by either a rocket to the face or a fierce chain-gun, draining my health. The map ended with a score of 17–3.
I hadn’t been beaten like that in a long time. Many memories rushed back to me after that first map, and I suddenly felt like a kid who was lucky just to be playing against someone as good as Rocketboy was.
“One greedy mistake cost me that loss,” I told myself. “I’ll play more conservatively. My aim is just as good as his.”
The second match began again with neither player getting a better start, and again we would each be sneaking around, waiting for the other to slip up. This time, however, I would capitalize. I was able to corner him in a small room with well-placed rockets and score the first frag. I went up by one, then two, then five. He did well to keep the gap close and not give away too many points. After a few more minutes, he was able to gain some ground back and get possession of a rocket launcher and some armor.
The clock showed two minutes remaining. I was winning 9–7.
“Run the clock out,” I thought. “He has to come to me.”
And he did so with remarkable aim, once again draining my health and taking back control. He was now trailing me by one point and had full control of the map.
“Shit, I’ll just have to run my ass off,” I thought.
I hid, I ran, and I hid some more. But he still beat me.
When I got home, I went right back to practicing. Playing that well against Rocketboy was a huge boost to my confidence, and I was now through to the top four in the GGL online tournament. Then I was through to the finals. Next thing I knew, I was $4000 richer, and I could now say I was the best Doom 3 player on this side of the planet. It was my biggest win to date. From that point forward, I was no longer a kid wanting to be like the pros. Now, I was one.
In 2005, on the international stage at CPL Winter, I experienced an awesome triumph. The game was the newly released Quake 4. Almost every big name from Quake 3 had made the switch to the new sequel. E-sports was on the rise, and the big money would now be offered to the winners of Quake 4 tournaments.
My first big match was against a Russian player who was well known from his dominant background in Quake 3. After all the practice, nothing could have really prepared me for my nerves beginning to get the best of me. To know you’ve invested so much but still doubt yourself — it is one of the most draining and saddest states of mind to be in. I was so upset about this match that I even called my mom and told her how I felt. She said that there was only one choice.
“You’ve prepared for this for the past four months, don’t let it all go to waste because you think he might be better. You owe it to yourself to play your best and come away from it knowing you put it all out there to win.”
She was right, and that was exactly what I was going to do.
Next thing I knew, we were in the tie-breaking round, and my preparation paid off as I would take a clean victory and move on to the Final 8. When I got up to shake my opponent’s hand, I was immediately approached by an organization offering to fly me to Europe, sponsoring me for the remainder of the event and the next year. I couldn’t wait to tell Elin the good news.
Stockholm is seven hours ahead of Dallas. It was about 4:00 a.m. in Sweden when the tournament ended. My girlfriend had stayed up all night in bed with her laptop and watched the win via the online video stream. She was waiting for me to call.
I’d never heard her so excited. “I can’t believe you won,” she said. “It was amazing to watch! But I have some good news of my own.”
Her research lab had a connection with UCSD. She could get a job in San Diego, working under a student visa.
“Are you serious?” I was so happy, I almost started crying. “I can’t believe it. We don’t have to do the long-distance thing anymore!”
We moved into a tiny one-bedroom apartment in Pacific Beach. It was perfect — together in paradise, no more than a mile from the beach. With the dust bowl now in my past, life was divine.
In August 2007, the World Series of Video Games would shut its doors due to a lack of sponsors. Suddenly, the professional gamer would have to enter the world of professional administrative-assisting. It was a harsh reality that I had ignored when I decided to skip college and pursue gaming. Elin was so far ahead of me. She had a good education and a career in pharmaceutical research. I had a high school diploma and thousands of hours staring at a monitor. I had to get educated and I knew it.
My nickname as a cyberathlete was Nomadic. My job was that of a hired gun — seeking out the opposition for the sole intention of destroying it. When I was done, I removed the noise-canceling aviator headphones used to silence all distractions, shook the hand of the poor fellow I’d just sent home, and thanked the sponsors for allowing me to do so. I went back to my hotel in Paris or London or Rome and ordered my favorite dinner, a New York strip steak. My team picked up the tab, including room service.
Now I’m trying to find a parking spot at Mesa College. When my classes are over, I head off to my full-time job. But at least I’ve still got connections. I’m in sales and marketing for Razer, the innovative gaming-hardware company.
“It could be worse,” I tell myself. “I could be stuck in Vegas.”
When I get home, Elin is waiting for me. We have dinner, watch a movie, or just hang out — which is perfectly fine by me, because I already know the ending.
The gamer wins.