The Virtual Jock
AN ELECTRONIC ALL-STAR
When your parents told you that playing video games would never lead to anything, they should have hedged their warning: video games won't lead to anything unless you're really, really good at them. Johnathan Wendel, better known on the Internet by his gaming handle, Fatal1ty (note the 1 for extra cybercred), is that good. He's so good that at 22 he is among the first people in the history of civilization to make a living as a professional video-game player.
Wendel grew up in Kansas City, Mo., where he was nothing like the quintessentially nerdy mouse jockey you're probably picturing. He was actually kind of a jock: he played baseball, football, golf, hockey, tennis, whatever. But it was in video games that he stood out. "When I was 12 to 15 years old, I went to arcades a lot and played Mortal Kombat 2 religiously," he says. "I used to bet against other guys who thought they were the big dogs, and I usually took home about $50 a night. For a 13-year-old, that's a lot of money."
When Fatal1ty got involved with Quake, an ultraviolent action game you can play online, his price tag got bigger. Quake had an active, organized Internet community that held real-world tournaments. By 1999, when Wendel was 18, he was splitting his time among gaming, attending school and waiting tables. Wendel's parents weren't quite as excited about his career as he was--"I think I spent most of my teenage life grounded from the computer," he says--but he convinced them the old-fashioned way: with cold cash. When he placed third at a major tournament in Dallas, he went home, slapped a check on the table and said, "I won $4,000 playing a video game!" Since then, Wendel has been world champion of the Cyberathlete Professional League (CPL)--the gamer's equivalent of the NBA--three times. Over the next three months, he'll play in tournaments in Brazil, Britain, Sweden, Germany, France and Finland, and all over the U.S. and Asia. Outfits like the CPL are bent on becoming big-time spectator-sports leagues like the NFL or the NBA. After all, Wendel says, football and basketball "used to be just games too. But now they're a way of life." --By Lev Grossman