Pro gamer makes a real killing

Johnathan Wendel practices for an upcoming video game tournament on Nov. 9 in Kansas City, Mo. Wendel, known in the gaming world as Fatal1ty, trains eight hours a day and earns about $200,000 a year through tournaments and endorsement deals.Ed Zurga / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Johnathan Wendel’s blue eyes stare raptly at the computer screen, his long, thin fingers gliding the mouse side to side as he moves through dark corridors of a video game where a lethal opponent lurks. Before long, seemingly without effort, he has annihilated his foe.

Time to punch out. Another hard day at work.

Welcome to the basement lair of the 24-year-old Wendel, the man known and feared by aficionados of multiplayer games across the globe as “Fatal1ty.”

If you deign to think of video games as simply a childish pastime, consider this professional game player. He collects a six-figure salary, has his own brand of gaming merchandise and travels the world to compete — regarded by those in the know as one of the most gifted players of his kind.

“It’s fun to play games for a living,” says Wendel. “Getting up every day is very easy.”

If professional video gamers have a knight-errant, Fatal1ty is he.

Pro gaming leagues gain traction
As gaming leagues have developed and small fortunes are made in what has become a multibillion-dollar business, this lanky blond has become the face of what fans refuse to classify as anything other than a sport.

“I’m doing something no one else has ever done before,” Wendel said during a break from practice for the Cyberathlete Professional League World Tour Grand Finals that begin Sunday in New York, where first place would win him a $150,000 check. “I’m kind of a pioneer.”

In social status terms, some may consider video gaming to be in a class with professional poker or competitive eating.

But Wendel is among those who hope to see it become as American as, well, baseball.

That idea horrifies some, as Angel Munoz found when he launched the Cyberathlete Professional League — the first organization of its kind — eight years ago.

Munoz quit investment banking to follow his dream. He thought the league a great idea but couldn’t seem to even persuade his wife.

“She said, ‘This is why you quit investment banking? To do this crazy thing?”’ he recalled. “I couldn’t convince even the gamers.”

That’s beginning to change.

Tens of thousands turn out each year at tournaments around the world (South Korea is a particular mecca with its own stable of pros) as both serious gamers and doting fans. Major corporations including Intel Corp., Samsung Electronics Co. and the maker of Tylenol are becoming sponsors. And video game enthusiasts are no longer seen as socially inept geeks.

From hobby to full-time job
Wendel’s journey to the Nokia Theatre in Times Square — where he’ll face off against other individual players in a “first-person shooter” game called Painkiller and hope to win his 12th major championship — began around the age of five, when his father gave him a Nintendo system and he first played Ikari Warriors.

He was hooked.

For a decade, when Wendel wasn’t playing one of the many sports he pursued, he was gaming. He wondered if he could make a life out of it.

“I know I’m pretty good,” he told himself. “But can I hang with the pros?”

Around the age of 15, he started taking home prizes from local competitions. At 18, he entered his first professional tournament in Dallas.

He came in third, earned a $4,000 check and decided to make gaming a full-time endeavor, going on to garner titles in competitions in the shooting games Alien vs. Predator 2, Quake 3, Unreal Tournament 2004 and Doom 3.

Wendel, who is for now at least forgoing college, has become the leader in titles and prize money.

And he has licensed his Fatal1ty name — inspired by the word that flashes on the screen with a kill in the game Mortal Kombat, one of his early favorites — to companies for which he helps develop products geared at gamers, from mouse pads to motherboards.

He says he made about $110,000 in 2000, his first pro year, and has been consistently earning a respectable salary built on play he considers work. This year, Wendel expects to make about $200,000 between winnings and products.

The unremarkable suburban ranch Wendel calls home offers no glimpse of his executive-level salary.

Consumed by gaming
He lives a bare-bones life, investing all his earnings into his business endeavors and paying himself around $15,000 each year to cover expenses, including a monthly rent bill that’s less than $500.

“I don’t really have time to indulge in anything,” said Wendel. “I’m so dedicated and so determined to be the best I don’t have time to indulge in other stuff.”

That may be true. Wendel estimates he’ll have spent about three-quarters of 2005 on the road, including his latest tour, which took him to Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden, South Africa, Singapore, Chile and Italy over six weeks.

When preparing for a tournament, Wendel typically rises at noon and heads to bed at 4 a.m., spending two 4-hour sessions at the computer in between.

This fall day, Wendel’s house is full of gamers — from Finland and Sweden, Florida and Ohio. They man networked computers that line the walls of their idol’s basement room, which has a big waterbed with two gold trophies and a massive $15,000 prize check on its headboard.

Wendel gets beat from time to time — including some disappointing losses on his recent tour — but outgunning him isn’t an easy feat.

“It’s frustrating,” said 23-year-old Brian Grapatin of Painsville, Ohio, who has unsuccessfully challenged Wendel at five tournaments this year. “You’re used to winning but you gotta swallow your ego a little bit.”

Life as one big competition
Wendel — whose mother and stepfather work on the Ford assembly line and whose retired father has done factory work and ran a pool hall — says he’s fueled by competitiveness.

He offers a litany of sports he played up through high school — baseball, football, soccer, golf, hockey, tennis and billiards, which he says is his true love.

“I’m very competitive — everything’s about sports and competitions,” he said. “I don’t care if it’s racing for a controller on the bed, I’ll beat you.”

Still, in the world of video games, Fatal1ty is practically ancient in his years, so his success at the Grand Finals could tell much about his future. He says he has no plans to quit gaming yet and has trouble seeing himself in another career.

“Gaming is so much fun and so relaxing,” he said. “I don’t see why anyone would want to stop playing.”

So he does. Next to him, a pilsner glass full of orange juice. Atop his monitor, a stuffed tiger named smU.

He begins to play, in single-player mode, and is transported to another place.

“I’m very in the zone,” he said. “The guy in the game is me.”