Gamers cash in on talent

A few video-game standouts are pushing all the right buttons and turning a pastime into a profession

August 24, 2006|By SHARON NOGUCHI | SHARON NOGUCHI,MCCLATCHY-TRIBUNE

SAN JOSE, Calif. — SAN JOSE, Calif.

Like many teenage boys, Sam Suyeyasu spends three to five hours a day blasting virtual enemies into oblivion with his Xbox. But at least one thing makes Suyeyasu very different: He's getting paid.

Under the moniker of "Samurai," Suyeyasu and his gaming team, XiT Woundz, travel around the country and compete for cash prizes. Throw in the $50 an hour fans pay him for private lessons, and he expects he'll clear $25,000 this year from gaming.

Not bad for a 19-year-old Californian who just earned his high-school equivalency diploma last year.

As video game promoters push for gaming to become the next big TV spectator sport - and perhaps even an Olympic event - more teens are hoping their video game skills will carry them to stardom and riches. Some at the top, like Suyeyasu, forgo school to establish themselves in gaming.

"We're building the next youth sport in the U.S.," said Michael Sepso, chief executive of Major League Gaming, a New York-based professional league whose national competitions attract some 1,200 pro and amateur gamers and 5,000 spectators at a time. "We see ourselves as the next NASCAR."

Pro gamers earn from a few hundred dollars to six-figure incomes, depending on their skills. Winners' pots and sponsorship offers are proliferating, fed by advertisers anxious to reach the lucrative and largely male teen-to-35-year-old market.

Gamers' parents, meanwhile, are trying to shake off doubts about their kids making a profession out of what was once a pastime.

Kay Suyeyasu has mixed feelings about how her son - whose team is ranked No. 5 in the nation in the multiplayer combat game Halo 2 - spends his time. While she's proud of his success, "I don't like the idea of going around shooting people."

A pro gamer's day may begin in midafternoon and run until nearly dawn, which might put a squeeze on those with classes and jobs.

As in anything demanding quick reactions and hand-eye coordination, young people hold the advantage. At 21, Peter "Foulacy" Dietrich of Palo Alto, Calif., is one of the older players among Major League Gaming's 150 pros.

"Basically, I saw an opportunity to make a lot of money in the next few years," said Dietrich, who had a 3.7 grade-point average in college but quit last winter to game full time. "I thought I'd ride this video game thing until I can no longer be one of the top players."

Talmadge Wright, an associate professor of sociology at Loyola University in Chicago, notes that while Major League Gaming is set to begin airing its tournaments on cable TV in November, it isn't likely to push the pastime into mainstream consciousness.

But he gives credit to fledgling leagues like MLG and the rival Cyberathlete Professional League. "They're trying to convert what people thought of as an idle activity into a professional sport," said Wright, who has studied gamers who play the police-terrorist shooting game Counter-Strike.

At the marathon three-day tournaments, which are usually held at hotels, caffeine is the beverage of choice. Energy drink brands such as Red Bull advertise heavily there, along with automotive, cell phone and video game retailers.

"Compared with the average 21-year-old who's holding down a job at Kmart or in construction, they're not going out at night carousing in bars or drinking beer. They're living a pretty clean life," said Paul Dietrich, Peter's father.

That's one upside the elder Dietrich, a molecular biologist, sees in gaming. Dietrich had thought his son might attend University of California, Santa Cruz after graduating high school three years ago. Like some players' parents, he ticked off other benefits - traveling, making money, meeting nice people - that gaming has offered his son.

Still, "professional gamer" isn't an answer that comes easily to parents who explain what their college-age children are doing.

Some big names in gaming caution against quitting school or work. "It's certainly not big enough where it could support more than a handful of players as a full-time job," said Dennis Fong, who in 1996 quit University of California, Berkeley to play professionally and founded a gaming company with his brother.

Yet Fong's success lures young gamers. He reaped hundreds of thousands of dollars in winnings and endorsements. He sold one company, an instant messenger and social networking Web site for gamers, in April to MTV Networks for $102 million.

When he quit school, his parents were unenthusiastic. "After I brought home a Ferrari they were like, well, OK, maybe there's something in this gaming," said Fong, 29.

Winning does have a way of changing parents' minds. The first $4,000 check helped Johnathan "Fatal1ty" Wendel, a multiple champion in Quake, Doom and Alien vs. Predator, convince his dad in 2000 that it was OK to quit college.

Today, Fatal1ty's six-figure income is more than his father, a retired attendance coordinator at General Motors in Kansas City, Mo., ever made. The gamer is putting his name on peripherals, sound cards and clothing.

"I'm trying to make Fatal1ty become the lifestyle brand of gaming," said Wendel, 25, who pays just $250 a month to live in the basement of a friend's home.

"He's got plenty of time to go to college," said his father, James Wendel.

Gamers' parents recognize that fame and success may be fleeting. "It's not going to last forever," said Kevin Suyeyasu, the father of "Samurai."

But the players tend not to look too far into the future, beyond winning the next tournament. About his son, Paul Dietrich said, "I want something for him to be always passionate about and he enjoys doing. If this leads to a career in business, that's great. It may lead to someplace different.

"In the meantime, he's getting a lot of great experiences."

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