It’s now been a decade since I’ve hung up my mouse and keyboard.
Sometimes I’ll still fantasize about making an epic comeback. Of course, I understand as well as anybody everything that would entail. Professional gaming is so intense. You have to commit countless hours to practicing every day in order to have the skills and confidence to edge out the competition —- which is only getting better and better with each passing year. E-sports as a profession is geared towards younger people. The time and dedication needed is only really feasible if you don’t have a family and other responsibilities to consider. But even now, at 35, I still feel the same fire that I did when I was a teenager, back in the early ’90s — a time when e-sports were unknown to just about everybody.
My name is Johnathan Wendel, but you probably know me as Fatal1ty. I was the best professional gamer of my generation.
Ed Zurga/AP images
Quake was the first game that I was truly great at.
It pretty much took over my life when I was in high school. At night, when I was finished playing regular sports, I’d get on the internet and play hours and hours of Quake. Although it wasn’t the first first-person shooter I’d ever played (in the early ’90s I’d go across the street to play Doom with my neighbor, who had two PCs networked together), it was the one that changed the way I looked at video games. The movement was so fast, and the weapons were exotic and precise. You could actually aim up, which was a novelty at that time — certainly something Doom couldn’t quite handle back in 1993. There was just so much you could do, and so much room for creativity.
At first, I played Quake online, at LAN parties and at a bunch of local tournaments in the midwest. I won every tournament I entered. Around that time I met Eric (Batch) Paik, another guy from the midwest who was also going to tournaments. We hit it off, and not long after that, we started meeting every weekend, either at his parents’ house in Omaha or at my parents’ house in Kansas City, and we’d play Quake together for hours on end.
One fateful night in Omaha, I beat Eric nine or 10 times in a row. This was after he’d just returned from winning a Quake tournament in London. When we were finished playing, he turned to me and said, “Johnathan, I just won in London and you went 10–0 against me. It’s pretty obvious you need to start playing in bigger tournaments.”
That conversation changed the course of my life. I’d never really considered the possibility of making meaningful money playing video games. Remember, this was back in the early days of e-sports, long before League of Legends was selling out Madison Square Garden. Today, you can just jump on Twitch and watch the best players in the world streaming their talents for massive audiences. But back in the early days of the Internet, it wasn’t nearly as easy. Nobody playing competitively had any idea if there was a sustainable market for this kind of gaming.
Back then, instead of Twitch streams, you used “demos.” Basically I’d record files of my games and make them available online. Other gamers could then download the demo files, open them from within Quake’s user interface and watch me play. It was a really arcane process, and there were no commentary tracks or any way to monetize it. But hey, it got your name out there, and we made due with what we had. When Quake III came out, I tried to make the most entertaining demos I could. Whenever I had an amazing game or some great shots, I posted those videos. That was how I first got a ton of views and began developing a reputation in what was still a niche community.
In 1999 when I went to my first professional tournament with a crowd and everything, people had already heard of me.
Well, they’d heard of Fatal1ty. They had no idea what I actually looked like or anything like that.
It felt like this huge mythology had been built up about me. It was kind of crazy. The people there were all excited about one of the world’s best Quake players finally stepping out from behind the curtain. Several times, when my opponents found out they were facing me, they would turn to me and be like, “Wait, you’re Fatality!” We’d never met each other before, but I could see that they were intimidated. The thing about Quake is, when your hands start shaking, you’re going to perform terribly. They had been watching my demos for months, and suddenly they were on the receiving end of it playing against me. I ended up winning that tournament convincingly.
The following week I competed at Frag3 in Dallas, Texas, where I was a step above the competition once again. After that, I was convinced that I could turn my hobby into a profession. Of course, how I would go about doing that seemed murky at the time. Everyone who competed had to hold down some sort of outside job at the same time.
I wanted to change that. So I made a vow to myself that I was going to be the first full-time professional gamer.
Lots of people thought I was crazy. To play games full- time meant that you would have to win a ton of tournaments in order to earn enough money to make a living. You couldn’t rest on your laurels and enjoy a guaranteed contract. You had to win.
So I did. A lot.
Shiho Fukada/Ap images
I was always ahead of the curve. There were only maybe one or two other pros I ever worried about. I knew my skills were sharp, and that I had the potential and foresight to take this as far as I wanted.
As my notoriety grew, so did my responsibilities. What I was doing was unprecedented, and as the first full- time professional in e-sports, I felt a duty to be an ambassador to the scene as a whole. I did so many interviews all over the world, and I found that the tone was always cached in the same type of skepticism.
“Is this just a fad?”
“Aren’t you wasting your life?”
“But these games are so violent!”
In those interviews, I tried to address all the misconceptions as much as I could because they served as a big barrier between e-sports being taken as seriously as traditional sports. Beyond that, I wanted to make it clear to any kids watching that if they had the hustle, drive and passion, they could be a professional gamer too. There was nobody else in the e-sports community in the public eye at the time, so I tried to serve as a model for the future.
In 2002, I started an e-sports lifestyle brand after my moniker — Fatal1ty. I design hardware and peripherals for gamers and partner with leading manufacturers in their respective categories to make high-quality gaming products and peripherals. I love the business, but beyond that my involvement with the company allowed me to begin sponsoring players, teams, organizations, tournaments and events in order to give back to a community that had helped me pursue this dream of becoming the first full-time professional gamer.
The biggest opportunity of my career probably came in 2005, a year before I retired from seasonal professional play. I had always pursued gaming even when the prizes weren’t great because I knew that someday someone was going to give away a ridiculous amount of money for winning a tournament. I fantasized about it for years. My goal was to be there whenever they finally did so that I could collect that check.
In 2005, Intel put up a $1 million purse for a season-long tournament in a shooter game called Painkiller. The winner got $150,000 at the finals in NYC and $15,000 for every world-tour stop during the year-long season. A six-figure payday for winning an FPS tournament seemed unreal. I was the underdog going in as I was a late adopter of playing Painkiller. I trained rigorously over the season and was able to position myself as the No. 2 seed in the whole league against my archrival Sander (Vo0) Kaasjager (the No. 1 seed).
We ended up in the finals together dueling for the $150,000 grand prize at the Nokia Theater in Times Square. They billed the matchup as Sander (Vo0) Kaasjager, the most dominant Painkiller player in the world, versus the world’s best FPS gamer, Johnathan (Fatal1ty) Wendel.
The day before the finals, I remember going for a run around the streets of New York to meditate and visualize winning the championship. In a lot of ways, it felt like this was the biggest moment of my life, and that if I could win it would cement my legacy as the first American e-sports professional to truly make it.
I knew what I had to do. I felt ready.
And I was.
I won four straight matches against Vo0. 2–0, 2–0. It was the most exciting moment of my life. I felt like I was on top of the world!
In 2007 DirecTV approached me to be their e-sports color commentator and ambassador. This sounded great, as I was looking for the next step in my career and felt I have proven myself on the battlefield with my 12 world championships. I was also looking for new ways to engage with the mainstream media to bring more awareness to e-sports.
In 2009, FPS games were taking a backseat in competitive gaming in a lot of ways, and games like League of Legends were taking the world by storm. I could tell the gaming world was craving a new genre of game to play. Even I started to play League for a year or two because it was a very easy game to play with friends. I started to like it so much in fact that I held a Fatal1ty invitational with NewEgg.com for $15,000 during Cyber Monday. That created a lot of buzz.
In 2012 I made a comeback to the FPS scene for a competitive exhibition match at the Taipei 101 building in Taiwan. It was fun to get the competitive juices flying again, and I ended up winning that series 3–1. Since then I haven’t competed again, but have continued to focus on the bigger picture for e-sports.
This year I had the honor to be invited to speak at the Nevada Gaming Control Board by Governor Brian Sandoval. I spoke on what a day in life of an e-sports professional looks like and what the future of e-sports could become. One of the subjects was whether people would be able to wager on these types of events just like they do traditional sports. Just recently the Downtown Grand Hotel & Casino took wagers on the Intel Extreme Masters in Oakland for the first time! Something I’ve said since my early days in competitive gaming is becoming more true every day, “E-sports are the sports of the 21st century”.
When I first started, e-sports was just a crazy dream, so it’s been really gratifying to watch it become a living, breathing, growing industry. Earlier this year I held a Fatal1ty MVP open Rocket League tournament at E3 in Los Angeles, and we gave the winner a BMW. Two decades since I started playing professionally, I’m getting to make some other kids’ dreams come true. How cool is that? When I vowed to be the first full-time pro gamer, I didn’t just mean that I wanted to be involved in e-sports for as long as I was winning tournaments. I want to be in this industry forever. It’s a life-long commitment.
E-sports today is pretty much unrecognizable from the time I was uploading Quake demos to the Internet. I stuck around with the hopes of there being a tournament with a life-changing payout, and now we have several in multiple games every single year. We have fans streaming their favorite players all the time, and venture capitalists making huge investments in the sphere. I mean, the Philadelphia 76ers just bought an e-sports team! Are you kidding me? You know things have changed when NBA and Overwatch are mentioned in the same breath.
Many of the things I accomplished during my career were the first of their kind. I’m a 12-time FPS champion. I was featured on 60 Minutes. Being the guy who opened the door for others means a lot to me. I’ve always tried to set the bar as high as possible so that I could lead a path for the future, and I feel that is happening every day. I’m ecstatic to see the growth of e-sports and am very proud to see how far it’s come from the time I was playing in tiny local tournaments in the midwest.
Looking back on my time as a professional gamer, I think if there’s one piece of advice I’d give to anyone on the cusp of an e-sports career, it would be to surround yourself with inspiring, positive people. I was lucky to meet Eric early on, and more people like him as my career progressed. I think that’s what made my time in the spotlight magical. Whenever I went to a tournament, whenever I was practicing, I was always surrounded by great people. It was my perfect world.
In 2007 the eSports Awards presented me a lifetime achievement award. I was 27. It’s kind of weird going onstage to accept an award like that when you’re so young. I was honored, but at the same time, I knew there were plenty of things left to accomplish. I remember thinking, You know, I’m going to win another lifetime achievement award when all is said and done. I meant it, too. I will keep growing the Fatal1ty e-sports lifestyle brand, and I will continue to be a global ambassador for e-sports until the day I die. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from this journey, it’s that there’s no such thing as setting your expectations too high when it comes to gaming. You can go as far as your passion will take you.