Playing it Like a Pro

Is video gaming a hobby, or can it be considered a sport? Steven Balbirnie delves into the sphere of professional gaming and talks to pro-gamer Johnathan ‘Fatal1ty’ Wendel to find out.

Competitive gaming is growing all the time, and so too are the demands by its proponents for it to be taken more seriously. Given how huge the phenomenon has become, it’s not difficult to see why. Only last year, the record for largest prize fund at a games tournament was shattered during Gamescom in Cologne. Valve hosted ‘The International’, a Dota 2 tournament where 16 teams from across the world competed for a grand prize of $1million, which was ultimately won by team ‘Na’Vi’ from Ukraine.

‘The International’ is not entirely unprecedented either, as it’s only the most recent addition to an already significant body of highly competitive and lucrative international tournaments and championships. Some of the most notable of these are the Electronic Sports World Cup, Major League Gaming, the Evolution Championship Series and the World Cyber Games.

The Electronic Sports World Cup was founded in France in 2003 and now has a presence in over 50 countries worldwide. It stages a tournament every year and even has separate competitive categories for men and women in the game Counter-Strike (with a prize in 2011 of $33,000 for the top team).

Major League Gaming is an even larger organisation. Founded in 2002, Major League Gaming now hosts 750,000 online matches each month and live pro circuit tournaments throughout the United States. These tournaments are streamed online to roughly 8 million viewers in 170 countries. As an example of prizes awarded, the top StarCraft 2 player at their Winter Arena event this year will receive $10,000.

Tournaments such as the Evolution Championship Series also cater to fans of specific genres. In the case of the Evolution Championship Series, this is fighting games, where hundreds of competitors from across the world converge annually to compete in Tekken, Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat and Marvel vs Capcom. Such is Evo’s popularity that its top tier contestants such as Justin Wong and Daigo ‘The Beast’ Umehara have attained a celebrity status within the competitive gaming world. One of the best aspects of Evo however, is that it’s designed as a social as well as a competitive event; regional seeding means that contestants are encouraged to play against people they wouldn’t normally come into contact with.

One of the goals of the World Cyber Games is also to foster international harmony and overcome language and cultural barriers through the medium of video games. The World Cyber Games are also one of the few international tournaments at which Ireland has been represented. Ireland is currently ranked 62 out of the 83 World Cyber Games nations.

So many different competing organisations has led to the foundation of the International E-Sports Federation in an effort to unite and standardise the various gaming governing bodies throughout the world. Based in Seoul, South Korea, it has gained 33 member nations in the last 4 years. The IESF has enjoyed some success in garnering wider recognition for competitive gaming; China has a department of E-Sports and E-Sports organisations in Azerbaijan, Greece and Israel enjoy government support. In the UK, the government and police back the Project Gamerz organisation as a way to engage with disenfranchised youths through video games.

It’s also not only the governing bodies that take professional gaming seriously, the self-styled cyber athletes of E-Sports treat their profession with the utmost gravitas and can stand to profit immensely from their successes. The most accomplished and famous professional gamers include Dennis ‘Thresh’ Fong, Johnathan ‘Fatal1ty’ Wendel and Victor ‘Lil Poison’ De Leon III. Dubbed the ‘Michael Jordan of video games’ by the Wall Street Journal, Dennis Fong first gained fame at the 1997 ‘Red Annihilation’ tournament, where he emerged as Quake champion with a prize of $5,000 and a Ferrari. Fong went on to use the money he received from prizes and endorsements over the course of his gaming career to become an electronic entrepreneur. Fong founded the Raptr social network and the X-Fire instant messaging service alongside other successful business ventures. Victor de Leon III is remarkable as he holds the Guinness World Record for youngest professional gamer. De Leon was born in 1998 and has been a professional gamer since he was 6 years old. A documentary film based on his life was premiered at the HBO Latino Film Festival.

Wendel has also established an impressive career for himself; becoming the first full time e-sportsman, acting as a global spokesperson and gaming ambassador for the Championship Gaming Series as well as amassing over $500,000 in career prize money and launching his own line of branded gamer products. Otwo had the opportunity to speak to Wendel about his life as a professional gamer. Wendel embarked on his professional gaming career while still in high school. When asked about how he got into the competitive gaming scene, Wendel replies “I started traveling to tournaments locally and playing against the best players online and quickly realised I should go compete and try to win some money at the professional events.  I instantly was taking home some big cheques and decided to drop everything I was doing and focus one hundred per cent on competitive gaming in 1999.” Wendel undermines the stereotypical view of gamers by following a physically engaging training regime that involves thirty minutes of running every day; and Wendel believes that his physical fitness gave him a competitive edge over his opponents and contributed to his success, “I felt my reflexes and sharp thinking were definitely enhanced by being physically fit.” Wendel’s competitive drive is astonishing; he tells Otwo that “I’m in kill mode when I’m at a tournament.  It’s not a game, it’s my life.” Having won twelve world titles across five different games, Wendel attributes his success to “Never giving up … I always have that burning desire to win, and will sacrifice everything to get there.”

His impressive achievements were recognized in 2007 when he received the first ever Lifetime Achievement Award from the eSports awards; when asked how he feels about this, Wendel’s reply is modest “Honoured.  I put in a lot of effort shaking hands with my opponents before and after games and wanted people to view gaming as a real competition.  We are not just playing games, but playing an entirely different sport that represents our young generation.  Gaming will continue to be an amazing part of this century and we still have so much farther to go.”

Wendel’s professionalism also extends to his Fatal1ty brand products; “Building Fatal1ty Gaming Gear is working with manufacturers to use my knowledge in the battlefield for over twenty years and use my ideas and concepts to make products where gamers can improve their gameplay and experience.  We make everything from motherboards to power supply units to sound cards and headphones. The message is, ‘Fatal1ty means gaming’ just like Nike means sports.  I want you to know when you buy a Fatal1ty product, you’re buying a stamp of approval that you can game with this product.” Wendel also believes that professional gaming is something that will only continue to grow, with “more live coverage online and eventually more mainstream coverage.  Also, game developers are seeing a huge advantage in spending their marketing money holding professional events, so this is opening a ton of possibilities for the gamer today and eSports.”

So can gaming be considered a sport? Perhaps it hasn’t developed that far yet; but with such committed athletes, enthusiastic spectators, increasing sponsorship and organised governing bodies it may only be a matter of time before they receive the recognition they seek.

Johnathan Wendel’s range of Fatal1ty brand products are available to buy at