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COLUMN ONE

The New Player in Pro Sports

Video gaming has become a big-money career for some. Never heard of Johnathan Wendel, a.k.a. Fatal1ty? Thousands adore him.

November 19, 2005|Susan Carpenter | Times Staff Writer

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Johnathan Wendel is in training. Eight hours a day, seven days a week, he sits in his basement, gunning down opponents in the video game Painkiller. About the only time he leaves his house is for a daily three-mile run. Then it's back to the basement for round after bloody round of the first-person shooter, a game in which the player becomes the gunman.

Wendel, or Fatal1ty as he is known in the competitive gaming world, is a professional cybersportsman known for his skillful aim. At the Cyberathlete Professional League's World Tour Grand Finals, kicking off in New York on Sunday, he hopes to take the $150,000 first prize, adding to the $86,000 he's already earned competing in live tournaments this year.

That's in addition to the tens of thousands he's made licensing his name -- to computer motherboards, cooling systems, and sound and graphics cards.

For an increasing number of top-level players, video games are no longer just for fun -- they're an "e-sport" that can make a career. Over the last few years, video gaming has grown into a highly competitive athletic phenomenon, with live tournaments, star players, devoted fans and, just as in the traditional sports world, big salaries and egos.

Many of today's top cyberathletes are sponsored by corporations and earn six-figure incomes competing before live audiences in tournaments around the world. They are adored by fans who follow their every move on websites that detail gamer stats and stream games live, complete with commentary and analysis.

Although the mainstream media may not be familiar with the term "e-sports," it's poised to move from the hard-core gamer niche to the pop culture arena. On Sunday, MTV kicks off a week of video-game programming, which will include live coverage of the CPL finals. In early December, "60 Minutes" is expected to run a segment on e-sports. Madison Avenue is also taking notice.

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Wendel stands in his kitchen, making turkey sandwiches on a small butcher block. A crusty, near-empty jar of Prego spaghetti sauce sits on a nearby table next to a wilting plant.

It's 7 p.m., lunchtime for Wendel, who wakes up at noon, games for four hours, runs, eats, then games till 4 a.m. against half a dozen international players also training for the CPL finals.

"I'm so focused on this tournament, I don't want to go outside much. I don't want to party. I want to stay focused and be in my world," said the 24-year-old Missourian, who speaks so quickly he frequently trips over his words.

It isn't caffeine that makes him talk so fast. Wendel gave that up, along with alcohol, to make sure he's "totally 100% ready to go and ready to win."

Fit and blond, in a black T-shirt and basketball shorts, about the only thing that says "gamer" about Wendel is his intensity. His fresh-faced, apple-pie appearance is a far cry from the stereotype of a glassy-eyed, slack-jawed sloth who takes his fingers off the controls only to grab some chips.

Wendel is first and foremost an athlete. Before he became a professional gamer at 18, he competed in baseball, hockey, tennis, football, golf, billiards, even pingpong. The skill set for traditional and e-sports, he said, is the same: "Hand-eye coordination, reflexes, timing, strategy, dedication, being quick on your feet in the game, making very smart decisions in a split second."

Video gamers get that. It's nongamers who have a hard time envisioning what's largely perceived to be passive entertainment as sport. But that's beginning to shift now that video gaming, in all its permutations, has become such a cultural force.

MTV, the No. 1 cable network among 12- to 24-year-olds for the last eight months, will capitalize on its demographic overlap with the prime video-gaming crowd by launching its first "Game0RZ Week" on Sunday -- on air, online and with its on-demand broadband video service, Overdrive. Among the highlights of the week: All three days of the CPL tournament will run exclusively on Overdrive; on Wednesday, the winner will be a guest on "Total Request Live."

"Video games really are a permanent part of their pop culture landscape of life, just like music, fashion and movies," said Salli Frattini, MTV's executive in charge of production.

With video game sales outpacing movie theater tickets and young male audiences turning off their TVs, many in the pro gaming world say it's just a matter of time before mass-consumer products jump in.

"In 2006, what you're going to see is the category going into mainstream lifestyle companies in a big way," said David Grant, chief executive of the Global Gaming League, a company that's been running online gaming tournaments since 2002 and sponsored its second live tournament this year. "We're making a number of those deals right now."

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