Gamer 'Fatal1ty' Makes a Living by Winning

Gamers of the world, take heart: at least one young man is taking his video game addiction to the bank. Technology contributor Xeni Jardin profiles champion gamer Jonathan "Fatal1ty" Wendel, who has turned his video game habit into a full-time profession.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, the culinary challenges of defending prisoners of the war on terror.

First, this. Pro basketball, baseball, football, even chess--all these games have superstar players who become the public face of their games. But what about electronic games? Until recently, the stars of video games have been the virtual characters inside; Super Mario, for instance, or Pac-Man. That's changing. And the name of the first superstar electronic player is--well, his game name is "FATAL1TY." Here with more is the co-editor of BoingBoing.net and DAY TO DAY tech contributor Xeni Jardin.

XENI JARDIN reporting:

Twenty-four-year-old pro gamer Johnathan Wendel is better known by his gaming alias, "FATAL1TY." That's spelled in all caps, with a number one replacing the letter I. The road to cyberstardom began in his room at his family's Kansas City home.

Mr. JOHNATHAN WENDEL (Pro Gamer): It was very hard, you know, growing up at the house and everything and constantly getting grounded all the time from the computer for just the littlest things in the world. To do what I do and to get where I've gotten, I had to make a stand and move out. I mean, this is a similar story of a lot of other athletes and a lot of other people that have taken their passion to the extreme.

JARDIN: You may have noticed he calls himself an athlete, not a gamer. And he's no amateur. He won four grand at his first pro tournament when he was 15, and has earned more than $85,000 in prizes this year. Not bad considering it all began as just a way to chill out.

Mr. WENDEL: I've been playing sports all my life, and I just wanted to play--do something else competitive. And I found gaming first-person shooters to be very--the same skills sets I used in real sports.

JARDIN: That skill set and an impressive winning streak has resulted in bigger pop culture appeal than any gamer before him. Fans mob him for autographs wherever he goes, and when he's behind the console at a tournament, the house is packed. Just before the match starts, "FATAL1TY" props a lucky stuffed tiger on his monitor and puts on headphones. He listens to techno, hip-hop and hard rock, anything with a throbbing beat that insulates him from distractions.

(Soundbite of video game; music)

Unidentified Computerized Voice #1: Prepare for battle.

(Soundbite of video game sound effects)

Mr. WENDEL: When I get in the game, I mean, I really, you know, sink into the monitor, sink into the game. I mean, I actually become the person in the game. It gets almost to it's where you don't even think about it because you just--it's so easy to get into this zone and it's so easy to get focused, because you know what you have to do to win and you have a goal and you need accomplishment. If you're not focused and you're not ready to go, you're definitely going to lose.

JARDIN: Gaming is big business, by some estimates in the billions worldwide. Tournaments are increasingly important promotional tools for the game industry, and they're drawing larger crowds than ever online and in person. One recent match in Singapore, which "FATAL1TY" won, drew an estimated 30,000 viewers on the Internet. He himself has blurred the line between athlete and entrepreneur by promoting his own line of hardware and gaming accessories. So were all those fans really just cheering for a superstar huckster?

Mr. JOHN BORLAND (CNETnews.com): I don't think they're any more pawns than, say, Tiger Wood is.

JARDIN: CNETnews.com writer John Borland, co-author of the gaming history book "Dungeons and Dreamers," believes money affects gamers only as much as it affects athletes in any other professional sport.

Mr. BORLAND: There's just no question that they are being used by the game companies and by the computer companies who sponsor this. But that said, what "FATAL1TY" and other gamers are doing is, you know, an active skill that is separate from marketing. I mean, they inspire people. It may seem weird to somebody who doesn't play video games, but watching them play is a very inspiring thing. They're very, very good at what they do.

JARDIN: But there is a difference: Nobody owns the sport of tennis or swimming, but a specific company does own Painkiller, one of the five games in which "FATAL1TY" is considered a world champ.

(Soundbite of Painkiller; sound effects)

Unidentified Computerized Voice #2: ...(Unintelligible)

Unidentified Computerized Voice #3: Be a Painkiller.

(Soundbite of shotgun cocking; gunshot)

JARDIN: Some say that if a company owns the game, they also own the gamer, and that makes it less of a true sport. Not so, says Borland.

Mr. BORLAND: The companies that own the games are a little like the--you know, the NBA or the NFL, or even the folks who own, you know, the sports stadiums. They provide an environment for people to play, but they don't actually control the people who are there.

JARDIN: It may be impossible to control gamers, but it's getting easier to watch them. There's already one 24-hour gaming TV network, G4 TV, and this month, the high-definition digital network HDNet will televise matches for the Cyberathlete Professional League, or CPL. "FATAL1TY" has won this tournament five times before and will compete for $150,000 prize there on November 22nd, the largest single prize in gaming history. For "FATAL1TY," winning is a matter of pride.

Mr. WENDEL: The money's great. I want to win the 150 grand, but at the same time, my destiny is to be first.

(Soundbite of video game sound effects)

JARDIN: And to gaming fans around the world, those don't sound like the words of a pitchman; they sound more like the words of an athlete.

(Soundbite of video game sound effects)

JARDIN: For NPR News in Los Angeles, I'm Xeni Jardin.

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. More in a moment on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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