New York Times

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company
The New York Times

December 6, 2005 Tuesday
The New York Times

SECTION: Section ; Column 0; The Arts/Cultural Desk; Pg. 0

LENGTH: 1048 words

HEADLINE: Virtual Stars Compete for Real Money



Fatal1ty and Vo0 stood on opposite sides of a darkened theater while an announcer boomed their introductions to an appreciative crowd. Their faces magnified on giant overhead monitors, the two stared straight ahead while artificial smoke swirled around them. They met at center stage and shook hands before starting what the announcer called their grudge match.

The victor of the match, which took place in mid-November at the Nokia Theater in Times Square, left with $150,000, while the loser earned $100,000.

Despite the size of the purse, the two rivals werent athletes, at least not in the traditional sense. They were cyber-contestants, and their match, which was broadcast on MTV and followed online by thousands of fans, took place in a violent videogame called Painkiller.

The event, dubbed the World Tour Grand Finals, was one of 10 contests in nine countries organized by the Cyberathlete Professional League, or CPL In the last year, the tour has given away $1 million in prize money. The CPL is one of several leagues worldwide attempting to turn a popular pastime into a spectator sport.

At the showdown between Johnathan Fatal1ty Wendel, 24, and Sander fnatic.Vo0 Kaasjager, 20, about 200 young men and women in their early-20s and late-teens, some wearing Fatal1ty T-shirts, gathered around the stage.

After a brief countdown, their match began. Sitting across from one another, separated by their computer monitors and wearing headphones, the two were motionless except for their left hands, which lightly tapped their keyboards, while their right hands executed a series of precise jerks on their mice as they guided their red and green characters through a virtual world.

The monitors above them showed the action on their screens: a race through a world of rocket launchers, machine guns and grenades as their characters made perfect 180 degree flips and hit targets with precision aim. The action was so fast it was hard to follow. Two play-by-play announcers, known as shoutcasters in the gaming world, tried to add tension and plot to the dizzying blur of explosions, blood and of course, explosions of blood.

The contests, each lasting 15 minutes, were scored with a tally of each players kills, or frags, against each other.

Mr. Wendel, the best known of the gamers, did what his fans have come to expect and dominated Vo0 in four straight matches.

Theres a reason why they call him Fatal1ty, one spectator explained as Mr. Wendel dispatched Mr. Kaasjager in a hail of rockets.

Mr. Wendel, like the 31 other competitors who qualified for the finals, lives the adolescent dream of making money by playing video games. But unlike the other competitors, many of whom still attend college or high school, Mr. Wendel plays full time and has acquired a superstar status in the computer gaming community that he has turned into a business.

His five championships in different video games recently prompted Fox Sports to label name him the second most-feared athlete behind boxer Mike Tyson. (Others on the list include the competitive eating champion Takeru Kobayashi and Ed Hochuli, an N.F.L. referee.)

This year Mr. Wendel has earned about $600,000 in licensing fees and another $231,000 in tournament winnings. In trying to turn video gaming into a sustainable, professional venture, he and his licensor, Auravision, Inc. of Woodland Hills, Calif., have also spent $50,000 helping other gamers attend gaming events around the globe.

Johnathan is the cyber-statesmen and ambassador of gaming, said Mark Walden, marketing and licensing director for Auravision. He represents the name and face of the emerging digital lifestyle.

Mr. Wendel, who will be featured on an episode of 60 Minutes on Jan. 8, currently has endorsement deals for a motherboard and a soundcard, is selling his own branded mouse pads, and is working on a book deal. Mr. Walden says that he hopes to have Mr. Wendel endorsing a complete line of computer parts in the future.

With video games surpassing the annual box office gross of the film industry by more than $1 billion, perhaps a multi-million dollar league with its own superstars shouldnt be surprising. Angel Munoz, who founded the CPL in 1997, said the leap was a natural one. Because computer gaming is more accessible than other sports, Mr. Munoz said, we think it will be larger than a lot of traditional sports. But it will take some time.

Mr. Munoz owned his own investment banking firm before starting the league. When I went to people and told them what I was doing they thought I was nuts. They said You left a career in investment banking to go and chase this dream of professional gaming, whats wrong with you? he said.

Since the league's first event, which gave away $3,000 in computer parts as prizes, the league has run tournaments around the world and attracted sponsors like Intel, the video card maker Nvidia, and the energy drink Red Bull.

Mr. Munoz points out that the demographic group gaming attracts 14 to 21 year-olds is consuming traditional media at lower rates every single year. He is hoping that his league can reach them. Nathan Gidding, 19, a sophomore at New York University, who was at the match, seems to be the type of fan Mr. Munoz is hoping to attract. An avid gamer, he learned about the tournament after reading an article about Fatal1ty. Im really interested in what their setup is and what type of equipment they are using, he said.

MTV, which broadcast the event as part of its Game0RZ week, also streamed video of the contests on its Web site. The channel said the CPL events accounted for 27 percent of its video streams during the week of the event. Salli Frattini, the executive producer for the CPL: The Tournament & Final on Overdrive, said the event was a success and that the station would consider airing similar tournaments in the future.

The gamers were the celebrities, Ms. Frattini said. The CPL partnership worked because their goal was to elevate the profile of players and that was our goal too.

The growth of the CPLs and professional computer gaming is surprising even to Fatal1ty. Im living a dream, Mr. Wendel said. I get to travel around the world to play video games. And to top it off, he made $50,000 in four months selling mouse pads.


GRAPHIC: PHOTOS: Jonathan Wendel, also known as Fatality, has won about $350,000 since turning pro six years ago. (Photo by Charlie Riedel/Associated Press)
Johnathan Wendel, right, of Kansas City, Mo., celebrated after defeating Sander Kaasjager of the Netherlands in the Cyberathlete Professional League Grand Finals. (Photo by Shiho Fukada/Associated Press)