The focus of our next Syndicate Interview Series installment is none other than the famous American gamer Johnathan “Fatal1ty” Wendel. Fatal1ty has won over $500,000 in prize money during his eSports career and has been one of the pioneers of branded gaming products and licensing deals. Most recently Wendel tested the broadcasting waters with the Championship Gaming Series.
Thanks for sitting down with us. Let’s start at the beginning. When did you first start playing video games? What drew you to FPS games versus other genres?
I started when I was about 4 years old, playing Nintendo and some Atari/PC/Apple games. The fascinating thing about playing FPS games was mainly being able to compete in a high caliber game against other people on the internet. I really looked at it as a sport in another world, playing a game where you had to have some of the same skill sets you needed to compete at a high level playing sports.
You have been quoted as saying that your third place finish in the 1999 CPL Quake event prompted you to pursue a fulltime career as a professional gamer. In the beginning, did you expect your career to last as long as it did? How did your family and friends react to you being one of the first professional gamers in the world?
Yah, that event was really great for me. It was truly when I was just a college kid trying to play games for fun, but also win some money while doing a hobby. I expected after that tournament to just keep playing in the games I love and keep up my hobby as long as I could win some small money on the side. I was expecting to make $10k/year after that as a hobby. It just so happened that it turned into $110k my first year in 2000. My friends thought it was cool for sure! It’s a kids dream to turn their hobby into a living, as it was for me. My parents weren’t too fond of it until I started bringing checks home. My dad was supportive, though, with my competitive nature as he also is extremely competitive.
Looking back, what were some of the factors that resulted in your early success? If you could go back to 1999, what, if anything, would you change about your approach?
I wouldn’t change a thing! I loved every minute of my beginning career. I approached it very relaxed and just running around in my socks at the very first tournament. Even in Sweden I was just so happy to be there and just wanted to play my best game. Hanging with the guys was definitely the most fun part! We were all very young, roaming around Stockholm and enjoying everything Sweden had to offer. I think being relaxed and having fun was definitely a huge part of my success, and even today, I always try to make things fun and have good times with friends.
Over the years you specialized in several games including Quake, Counter-Strike, Call of Duty, Unreal Tournament and Painkiller. What is your favorite all-time game and why?
Quake III Arena and PainkilleR!
Quake III started my career and offered great gameplay, and tons of talent to really shine in it, but I later fell in love with PainkilleR. It was sooo fast and sooo skilled in every category. If you sucked at just one category there was no way you could be in the top 3. If you were bad at two categories, back up to top 16… It was truly an amazing game that always had action. You never really ever saw a low scoring game. It was always exciting and great fights! I think the reason for great fighting in that game was because of the fast movement, but also no rail gun. It intrigued people to fight close fights which is what spectators want to see.
In 2005 you defeated Sander “Voo” Kaasjager to win the CPL World Tour Painkiller Championship. Some observers and FPS purists criticized your game play as evasive but at the end your tactics won the title. Talk about the event and how you were able to defeat the seemingly unstoppable Voo.
Some observers don’t know what they’re talking about. vo0 is extremely evasive, and I decided to use the same tactics I saw him use countless times, but I turned it up a notch. I told myself, after every kill I got, I would go agro aggressive. Watch game 1 and you’ll see what I’m talking about. As for my map choice, Meatless, there was no evasiveness. I won by 20 frags or more in game 2. As for game 3, we both played super evasive, but if you see, when it went to overtime, I thought I would throw a wrench into the game flow. I was thinking I would catch him by surprise, and I did. I landed 7 shots in a row at gold armor while he hit me 0 times. That eventually played to me winning game 3 and then taking it back to game 4 on Meatless, which I clinched somewhere around the 7 to 9 min mark when I hit a clutch stakegun shot mid-air at gold armor. Meatless is one of my favorite maps, and I feel when I get control on that map and certain items timed up, I’m impossible to kill.
Speaking of the CPL, around this time period allegations arose from around the world that the organization was not honoring its prize payments. Rumors arose that you had not been paid the massive $150,000 prize from the New York finals. Have you ever received full payment for the event? What are your thoughts on the controversy? How do you think gamers should react to groups that don’t honor their financial obligations to gamers?
I got paid. But other companies that are still around today that associated with CPL and supposedly loyal to gamers never honored money owed to me and others. I’m sure you’ve heard of a company called Razer? When I won RazerCPL, I won $40,000, but actually only got $30,000 and was told from Razer that they would pay me the other $10K soon… Never happened. Other issues came up with that association with other contracts that also fell through for me and many other pros that were playing Counter Strike at the time. This is why I quit being sponsored and started Fatal1ty Gaming Gear. I wanted to make sure when you sign a deal with me you get paid no matter what.
Over the years you have managed to license the Fatal1ty brand on several different kinds of products including mouse pads, headsets, sound cards, RAM chips and video cards. What lessons have you learned that you can share with other gamers and organizations looking to monetize the brands they have built? What worked well and what mistakes, if any, did you make?
I’ve always been very passionate about what products I make and take a lot of pride with it. If it’s true in my heart then I can speak with a lot of emotion and feelings. When I got the chance to work with CREATIVE, and actually go to their Advance Technology Center and test out the new X-Fi, I was blown away! It was real, I felt like I was really immersed into a different world more than ever before. Even when the test started out, in the headphones while using the CMSS 3D, it said “hey”… I swore to God it was someone standing over the cubicle behind me to my right saying “hey” to me from about 5 feet away. And they told me, “No, we didn’t say anything, that’s part of the test.” Instantly I was super hooked and realized where they were going to go with this… They just needed to get the gamers to understand it, and that’s where I came in. I’ve been using Sound Blaster cards since I was 17; I even have a picture of me with it on X-mas. So when I work with a product like the X-Fi card, I get more attached than just hey I’m sponsoring this. I actually live and breathe it and actually need it in my game.
Similar to individuals of stature in other industries, you have had your critics. Some observers have accused you of exaggerating your success while others have suggested that you have dodged certain game titles and/or events. From a controversial interview where you were called a “douchebag” to the flap with the Penny Arcade Expo in 2008, you’ve arguably endured more scrutiny than any gamer in history. What are your thoughts on this? Is it part of the territory? How do you respond to your critics?
They have never met me. I’m actually a very modest guy, but don’t mind joking around with friends of course. If you see me on 60 minutes, MTV or something, you see me as a real person. Even when Steve Kroft asked me if I was the best, I said, “you tell me”. I didn’t go ramping on that I’m the best, but inside I definitely believe I’m the best. I need that for confidence when I go to battle. If I don’t think I’m the best, what am I doing playing in the tournament? As for Penny Arcade, I was involved with EforAll at the time, which was competing with their show. I thought it was a tongue-in-cheek, humorous promotion on their part. But I think there’s a big disconnect on the internet and not knowing someone for who they really are. PR, publicists, ads, etc. write some crazy stuff about me. It’s not me saying it, it’s Business Week, Time Magazine, etc etc etc saying it. I’m just playing my game and winning. As for not playing the right events, are you kidding me? I played all the biggest prize tournaments and won.
On a final note though, I really do try to be a nice guy, and like I said, you have to meet me to really know who I am and what I’m about… I throw parties for gamers as much as possible. I’ve been throwing parties at QuakeCon every year for the gamers that come there, and even at CeBIT this year, I hosted a good 15-20 gamers/workers out in Hannover. I’ve sponsored over 20 gamers personally, so I’m really trying to help this thing grow. It’s what I love to do, and giving back is just one of the things I enjoy doing in gaming.
Many of your fans are wondering if we’re going to see you competing professionally again. Do you have any plans to return to gaming or have you officially retired from the highest levels of competition?
I’ve never retired. I went to Championship Gaming Series to help grow the sport, and was advised this was a good move to help grow the sport, which I was mostly interested in… So I did it for the two years. After that, I’ve been looking for competitions I want to play in. I don’t want to invest 12-18 months, 8 hours a day to train to win small tournaments right now. As the economy gets better, I imagine the prize money will get better and will spark my attention to play for big tournaments with a lot on the line. So definitely look for me to play again, it’s just a matter of what new game will come out and what’s on the line.
What are your thoughts on the state of professional gaming today? Is the industry growing or has it already seen its peak?
It’ll continue to grow. The economy is hurting some of the teams, etc. because they aren’t getting sponsorships, but the player base is still growing, which is great. We will continue to get back the sponsors as the economy rebounds and, more than likely, be in a much more powerful position in the future for gaming and sponsors.
Currently you’re associated with Full Tilt Poker and word has it that you’re devoting a great deal of time to your game. What initially drew you to competitive poker? What similarities do you see to competitive gaming? What are your long term goals in poker? Are you planning to make a career of it?
I’ve been playing a good amount. I really like the competition and the mind games of poker at the higher level. There is definitely a pattern to different players like gaming, where some players are defensive, some are aggressive and some have no clue what they’re doing sometimes but make it work, or not. J My long term goal with poker is to have fun with it, travel the world playing it and win. As for making a career out of it, I’m not thinking so much. I still prefer gaming over poker as it’s always evolving and always new and interesting! I love technology and everything about it. So, for now, I’ll just keep doing poker as a competitive hobby I enjoy playing.
If you had a relative or good friend just starting out in eSports, what advice would you give him? What are the championship qualities you would share with him and what are the pitfalls you would warn him about?
Go to LAN parties and play in online tournaments and join the scene. As for championship qualities, I think being sports oriented before gaming is a huge plus. Also, I believe being good at math is important and if you’re really good at trial and error, you can go really far. As for pitfalls, you can’t do it half-way. You can’t expect to be top pro gamer in the world unless it’s your life. Make sure you play against other players who are better than you and try to scale yourself. You need to find out if you’re getting better or not. Other than that, watch demos and videos of pros playing the game you want to be the best at, and try to take some tricks from them. Try them out for yourself and adapt to your own style.
In closing, what was your single favorite event or memory from professional gaming? What event or memory would you like to forget?
Definitely the 2005 World Tour Finals was my most exciting moment so far. Best memories from the guys like LeXeR, booms, ZeN, stermy and friends. LeXeR was telling everyone in Singapore about 2 months before the final tournament that I would show up to the finals and use no hands and win… He was hilarious to have on tour and everyone loved hanging with him. As a joke, he looked over to me before I went up on stage, and I did a little pose for him pretending I was playing with no hands. We both laughed and then it was time to be serious… Was great to laugh with friends and always know when to joke around a little bit, but also know when to turn it on and be focused.
As for a bad event or memory, I think Cyber X Games was a big downfall for all of us. Tons of gamers traveled the world to Las Vegas to play Counter-Strike in 2003, I believe. This is when I just formed my CS team “inevitable Fate”. The tournament turned up to be a complete flop, and just didn’t work out. So basically all us gamers ended up stranded in Las Vegas with no gaming tournament. So it actually turned out to be a killer time! We all went out and partied it up in Las Vegas. It was my first time being of age in Vegas as well, so it really was an epic few nights with all my euro friends like Potti, Aurora, and my team(destrukt, icesalmon, amic, & pointblank). I Can’t wait for QuakeCon this year and other major tournaments!
Thanks again for your time. Any final comments or shoutouts?
I can’t wait to see what iD software does with RAGE and future games that might push the envelope for more competition and bigger tournaments for all of us. Even DooM IV would be sick I’m sure. So just have to wait and see what is next! For now, it’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 for me till the next big game releases.