A few years ago, Johnathan Wendel was just another kid in high school with a yen for playing fast-paced computer games such as Quake III.
Nowadays, the 22-year-old is drawing the attention of MTV documentarians, courting endorsements from major chipmakers and launching his own PC line, all based on those same Quake skills.
By most standards, Wendel, better-known as Fatal1ty, is the top star on the burgeoning tournament gaming scene, in which computer gaming buffs compete head-to-head in shooting games such as Quake and Unreal Tournament, gunning for fame and five-digit prize packages.
Wendel was one of the first tournament gamers to go pro. Gaming has been his life the past few years, and he estimates he earns an average of $50,000 a year from tournaments, not counting perks such as free travel to the top tournaments and increasingly lucrative endorsement contracts from tech companies looking to boost credibility with the lucrative hardcore gamer market. Now he's working on plans to sell his own high-end line of Fatal1ty-branded PCs.
But don't get too jealous. He travels too much to settle down and still lives in the basement of his father's house.
Wendel talked with CNET News.com about the life of a professional gamer shortly before he wiped out the competition at the recent Cyber X Gaming tournament in Las Vegas.
News.com: How did this get started for you?
Johnathan Wendel: Basically, I started professional gaming back in 1999. I went to the CPL (Cyberathlete Professional League) tournament in Dallas and won like $4,000 for coming in fourth place. After that, I had a company that was interested and said they'd fly me out to Sweden to play the top Counter-Strike players in the world. I went to that tournament, won 18 games straight, lost none, beat three of the top players in the world at Quake III Arena. After that, I got sponsors and people wanting me to endorse their products. And now I'm going more away for the endorsement side. I'm building my own products, saying this is exactly what I'd want to use.
News.com: So you're kind of becoming the Don "Big Daddy" Garlits of the PC world?
JW: It's kind of like what Michael Jordan is to basketball. My name's become kind of valuable, and I want to make sure that if it's on a product, it's really done to my specifications. This is all new. We're going to create our own stuff--our own motherboards, our own video cards. Just have everything maxed out for the best performance. We're not just going to tweak the stuff that's out there; we're going to do better than that.
News.com: How hardcore were you about games before you went pro?
JW: It was basically a hobby for me growing up. The next thing you know, there's this tournament in Dallas...and it was like, what's the world coming to? I just made $4,000 playing a game. It was nuts. After that, it just exploded. I started making really serious cash. I won 40 grand in one tournament, 15 grand in another. So I just kept going and traveling the world. I've been all over the world and never paid for a single trip, because the sponsors all pick up the tab.
News.com: You probably save a lot on computer hardware, too.
JW: Yeah, I usually don't have to buy my own stuff, because companies give it to me for free.
News.com: How much of a difference does the hardware make?
JW: It's huge. A couple more frames per second and everything gets really nice. It's all about getting more frames, the computer filling in stuff more quickly and allowing you move around the maps more fluidly.
News.com: What's life like for you before a tournament? Do you train pretty hard?
JW: I get to the city a couple of weeks before the tournament...and basically all that time before the event I'm training, practicing. I prepare myself just like a regular athlete would in a real sport--eight or 12 hours a day, every day.
News.com: When you're not getting ready for a tournament, do you play much just for fun?
JW: Of course. That's why I got into gaming in the first place, because it's fun. It's fun to do other kinds of games, like Madden NFL. I'm totally into arcade games and all that stuff. I was a huge Mortal Kombat fan back in the day. I got so good, I could put one quarter in and play for two or three hours
News.com: Is it hard for you to strike up a friendly game online? I'd imagine everyone just leaves the room when you show up.
JW: I usually don't use my name online too much. People don't believe it's me...so it's not even worth the hassle. I'll be hammering them, get 70 kills, and they still say I'm not me.
News.com: What do your parents think of all this?
JW: At first they were totally skeptical. I made a deal with my dad and told him, 'Let me go to one tournament and see how I do. If I win some money, I'll keep going from there. If not, I'll go to school full time.' Next thing I know, I'm making 30 grand a year, and now I'm moving into having my own brand. It's been pretty insane.
News.com: Your reflexes can't last forever. Have you thought much about retirement?
JW: Creating my own company is a pretty good way to secure my future. If I can't game, then I'll just concentrate on that. Look at Michael Jordan--he's made more money from running his businesses than from playing basketball. For any athlete, they want to make as much money as they can from their sport--but you need to be ready for when you can't play. My goal is to build this company and give back to the community. I'm going to sponsor events and teams. We're sponsoring 30 computers here.
News.com: How do you keep your reflexes sharp?
JW: I run four miles a day; I do real aerobic training. That keeps me fit and really keeps my reflexes up. It helps you move faster and think faster. I was a serious tennis player in high school. I was team captain in football. Most top gamers were pretty good athletes in high school. It's a lot of the same skills. It's about being competitive and thinking fast and knowing how to win--it's not about sitting at a computer all day. I use the same tactics in Quake that I used in tennis. It's all about mind games, knowing what your opponent's thinking, knowing where a shots going to go. Anything in a computer game, I can relate it to something in sports I've played. The rail gun (the heaviest weapon in Quake)--that's like going for the overhead slam in tennis. You set 'em up and then you drive it home with your hardest shot. It's like all the shots in tennis are, back and forth, trying to get them off balance. And when you do, you slam it down their throat. Same as gaming.
News.com: The gaming tournaments attract pretty good crowds now. What's it like playing in front of an audience?
JW: It's exciting. When I had MTV watching me, I was psyched every second, thinking millions of people are watching me. Lot's of people might crack under the pressure, but I'm just the opposite. When people are watching me, that's when I play my best. I love it.
News.com: Do you sometimes look around and have a "How did I get here?" feeling?
JW: Yeah, that happens. Why am I a professional gamer? It all happened so fast. It was being in the right place at the right time, and I didn't slack off once the opportunity was there. I went all out. Everything I got, I've earned. People think I get all this stuff just because of who I am, but all of it was earned. I sacrificed a lot to do this.
News.com: Are there any players on the tournament circuit who make you nervous?
JW: I never get nervous; I just play. I know what my game is. I played Quake III Arena in a tournament last year, and it was the first time I had played that game in eight months. I was focusing on other games, showing that I'm really a professional gamer, not just a guy who's good at one game. So everybody's talking all this smack about how I couldn't play anymore. I went back, practiced two months and basically went in there and won the biggest game of my career. When there's a tournament, I'm going to show up and get my game on. A lot of other people like to talk big, put other people down. I don't like that. I try to be as sportsman-like as possible--I shake hands before the match, stuff like that. But when the game's going on, I'm all about winning. I'll do whatever it takes.