Q&A: Jonathan 'Fatal1ty' Wendel
The West's most famous gamer talks to GameSpot about being a workaholic, how games are just like a mathematical equation to him, and what he wants to do next.
Saying that Jonathan Wendel is competitive is a very large understatement. He admits that he got into pro gaming through sports largely as another way to satisfy his love of competition. He is currently the title holder of 10 major pro-gaming championships, and has won titles in five different games: Doom 3, Painkiller, Aliens versus Predator 2, Quake III Arena, and Quake 4.
His first monetary win in professional gaming came in 1999 when he entered the Cyberathlete Professional League tournament and won $4,000 for third place. From then on, he realised that he could make money out of playing games and set about becoming a full-time gamer.
He also started his own business, Fatal1ty, Inc, through which he sells a range of gaming products including mice, video cards, headphones, and clothes. The latest addition to the range is the Sound Blaster X-Fi Titanium sound card, developed by Creative.
GameSpot UK caught up with Wendel on a visit to the Omega Sektor gaming venue in Birmingham.
GameSpot UK: Is there any game that you get owned at?
Jonathan Wendel: No, I can't think of any. I get asked that question a lot. But to me, games are like maths, like a mathematical equation, so pretty much any game I pick up I can play well.
GS UK: A mathematical equation? How so?
JW: Every game has been programmed. And there's a code to beat the game in some sort of fashion. There's always a kind of mathematical way to beat every game. Of course there's still the hand-eye coordination, the timing, the smarts, and the strategy and all that kind of stuff, but a lot of it comes down to mathematics. If you approach it in a mathematical way, you improve your odds for what's going to happen next.
Like, in a basketball game, I know the game doesn't just want me to go on the court and shoot the ball. I know it wants me to pass it around at least once or twice, and get it to the open guy, and by doing all these sorts of things I can make the odds better, I can get a better percentage chance that I will make the shot. In the games I play [professionally], I know there are three or four different items I have to time, and by timing these items, the odds of me winning the fight now instead of being 50/50 are 60/40. There are a lot of different things that go into the game where people don't really realise how important mathematics really is.
GS UK: What game are you going to play next?
JW: At the moment I'm still picking my next game, so I don't know yet!
GS UK: The president of the Olympics recently came out and said that people can never achieve anything playing video games. As a pro gamer, what's your opinion on this?
JW: For me, when I talk to kids who want to be professional gamers, I talk to them about playing sports too. I think it helps a person become very well rounded--to be a gaming champion you really need background in being competitive, in other sports or in some other competitive area. Most of the pro gamers who make a living playing video games come from a very competitive background.
GS UK: So you're saying they're not mutually exclusive?
JW: Exactly. A lot of the top competitive gamers in the world do both. The thing is when we go to LA and we're getting ready for the Championship Gaming Series,9 a lot of the guys will go and work out in the morning--we'll play basketball, and we'll play other sports to keep our fitness levels up. Because the thing is, if you're going to be a top gamer, you have to be naturally healthy because it takes so much hand-eye coordination, reflexes, and so forth, and playing sports is a good way to get good reflexes and other skills.
GS UK: In a previous interview, you said that you had a deal with your dad where you'd go to one tournament, and if you won you'd go into pro gaming, and if you didn't, you wouldn't. What was your plan if you didn't win the tournament?
JW: I was going to go to college full-time--at the time I was part-time. I was studying IT so my plan B was to become a desktop-support guy, and then work my way up the chain as quickly as possible.
GS UK: Why did you decide to go down the business route and sell your own product range as well?
JW: A lot of people asked for my advice on what products to use and what to buy. I used to do sponsors when I first started, but eventually I felt like I was being taken advantage of and I wasn't really getting paid what I was worth.
So I decided I would just create my own company--all these people seemed to care about what I had to say, and all these companies aren't really gaming companies, they're all just people in suits. So I figured I would start a company that was really for the gamers, and for the community, and to give back funds that came in. And I do that by sponsoring players and sponsoring teams, I've spent over $100,000 already sponsoring other gamers and travelling around the world and giving them products and so forth. I work with engineers and designers to develop my products so my products really are made to increase your skill level.
GS UK: Has it been successful?
JW: Very. It's been going really well. I think we hit close to $20 million last year in sales.
GS UK: Did you ever have any instances where you'd go to tournaments and not get paid?
JW: Most of the time there's no problems, but I'd say there's about $15,000 that I was owed that I never got.
GS UK: Would you ever consider making an XFX EU team like you did with XFX in the US?
JW: I do sponsor players in the EU; most of the gamers that I have sponsored were European players. I was asking about this the other day, and it sounds like we were maybe going to do something like that in Europe. I can't remember the exact details, but I seem to remember we were talking about doing something very similar. We are doing a tour of Europe I believe at the end of this year, so maybe we'll have something like that.
GS UK: Do you think what makes a pro gamer is more innate skill or practice?
JW: I think it's definitely a natural talent to be good at games. First of all there's so much hand-eye coordination, reflexes, timing, and strategies involved in the games I play. But of course practice definitely does help.
I think from the first day I sat down in front of a computer screen I had a natural talent for shooting people in a virtual world. [Laughs.] I think some people just naturally have really good hand-eye coordination and reflexes, and they're able to respond in milliseconds. People say if I wasn't a pro gamer I'd be an amazingly good jet-fighter pilot because of my hand-eye coordination and so forth.
I think for gamers that play these kind of games, strategy and tactics will only get you so far, and that will get you pretty far, but then it comes down to who has the raw talent of fighting in the virtual space.
GS UK: Don't you ever get bored of the games you play professionally?
JW: I'd say eventually it becomes that half of it is fun and half of it is work, because you're putting in long hours every day. But the thing is for me, I love the competition, so I've found a way to love to train. I've figured out my own personal code of not being bored so that I can have fun every day playing my games.
But it's definitely exhausting; between the ages at 18 and 25 it was just seven years of constantly training and working hard at my games. The biggest break I'd ever take out would be two weeks, and I took maybe three of those in the whole time.
GS UK: That doesn't sound like fun! That sounds like being a workaholic!
JW: [Laughs.] I think to be a world champion at anything, you have to be something of a maniac. The thing is, there's always someone out there trying harder, that what's my dad always said to me. So I said, I'll show you dad, I'll definitely train more. [Laughs.]
So when he put that in my mind, that someone was out there training more than me, I was like "Bullcrap, I will make sure no one can train more than me. I will train every day all day, and never stop!" [Laughs.] I think that might be a lot of the reason behind my dedication to be the best and never give up. That's really one of my, I think, best traits--I never give up.
GS UK: Do you think in the future people will accept pro gaming as a legitimate career choice?
JW: Most definitely. Even today there are about two or three people making a living out of playing video games around the world--which is not a whole lot, but I think gaming's really stepping up to the next level. I think it's really going to get big, and I think in about 20 years, when the audience gets older, people like me, I'm the spectator of the future.
People who are growing up today, who are in their late 20s and early 30s, know about these games and have played them. So they're going to be fans later on too, because they understand the games. But people in their 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, usually they don't understand, and they're antigames anyways. But that's changing. I think in 10 or 20 years, gaming is going to get to the level where it's considered a real profession to the mainstream audience.
GS UK: What advice do you have for wannabe pro gamers?
JW: You have to be involved in the online community. You have to watch what the best players do and what they're playing. Watch their demos, watch their recordings. Basically see how they do it. Try to go to LAN parties, and go to the big tournaments in your area or country. You're going to learn way more in person at an event because you're living and breathing it instead of just watching it on the Internet.
The thing is also, when you're at home, if you're not involved in the online community, you're only getting feedback from yourself. So if you go watch the best players play, and see how they do it, talk to friends, you talk to 10 friends, you get feedback from 10 different people about how to play the game better. Having some people talk about your game, you're obviously going to get a lot more input into how to beat the game, and how to play the game better.
When you go to a LAN event, it's more fun anyway. I've said this before and I'll say it again, when you're playing over the Internet, that's not really a tournament, not really real like it is in a LAN. Play as many tournaments as you can--if you're going to get better, you're going to learn from being in tournaments.
GS UK: Have you ever thought about getting into game development?
JW: I've had a lot of different companies very interested in me getting involved with them and helping them design games or get involved in some other form or fashion. It's definitely something I've been intrigued about. I would definitely like to make my own game eventually. Right now, though, I'm really happy with making a product line for the pro gamers. I'd like to do game development sometime down the road in the future.
GS UK: What kind of game do you want to make?
JW: A first-person shooter, for sure. But I would like to use different technologies and stuff--there are lots of ideas I have. I've got some killer ideas, although I know everyone says that.
GS UK: So how long do you plan to carry on pro gaming, and what other plans do you have for after?
JW: After, I think I will continue to run my company, to run the Fatal1ty brand. Continue to be a spokesperson for all the gamers across the globe, and keep doing my part to grow gaming. I eventually want to have a house on a beach somewhere and play sports and all that stuff that everyone does when they get older. But I really love to play games, so I don't think that love is ever going to go away. It's a love for life--I'm married!
GS UK: What are your hobbies and interests outside of gaming?
JW: As I said, I love sports. I'm a huge competitive nut. I've been playing sports my whole life. I played baseball for six years, I played tennis in high school, I used to play pool/billiards. Right now I'm really good at golf, I've gotten down to about a five handicap.
GS UK: How do you find the time for hobbies like sports in your grueling schedule?
JW: Well, I didn't! [Laughs.]Between the ages of 18 and 25, I'd maybe play one game of tennis every two weeks. I'd find that it took away from my gaming. I basically resorted to just running, going outside and go run two or three miles, because that was the fastest way to get my exercise. To play tennis, I'd have to go and get tennis balls, drive to the court, play tennis, drive back from the court...so I decided, you know what? The fastest way I can get a workout is to just go run.
GS UK: You've recently announced the X-Fi soundcard as part of the Fatal1ty range. Can a sound card really make a difference to a pro gamer?
JW: Definitely, a sound card makes a huge difference. That's why I worked with Creative to design our cards--our newest card is the X-Fi. The reason that sound is so important is because when you're playing a game you have to know where your opponent is.
Of course you can use the normal sound, and you can get by with 2D and hi-def sound and so forth, but you're not getting true 3D sound like you would with the X-Fi. X-Fi allows you to hear if a person is five feet around the corner, or 20 feet around the corner. So when you get into a fight, you know exactly where your opponent is. You know if he's above you, below you, behind you, on the second level... You can hear their reverbs off the walls, so you know he's in that room because the sound of his shooting or jumping is making this echo sound, so he's in the hallway...
The sound card just gives you so much information, and that's what it comes down to, basically. Whoever has the most information is going to win. If you have that information, then that's one more advantage you have over your opponent.
And you know, a good sound card's not just for gaming--it's great for listening to entertainment, your MP3s, and everything else. I got one for my brother for his birthday and all he does is listen to his music now. [Laughs.]
GS UK: Do you think to be a pro gamer you really need to have the best, top-of-the-range, most expensive kit?
JW: I think yes, to an extent, you do. You can't be playing with old mice and crappy, small mouse pads. And if you don't have a great graphics card, then you're not going to be seeing stuff at the same frame rate as the best gamer, and see all the stuff he sees. Having the best equipment definitely pays.
GS UK: Thanks for your time.
JW: Hey! I just thought of a game that I'm no good at! I'm useless at singing and I'm not musical at all, so games like Rock Band I get owned at!
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