Haag built his gaming chops playing various titles — his handle, "Nadeshot," comes from a lethal move in the science fiction game "Halo" in which a grenade is followed by a gunshot — but switched his allegiance to "Call of Duty" in 2007 when his parents gave him the game for Christmas.
He was an instant addict, playing up to eight hours a day until his mother seized his Xbox controller (it took her a while to figure out that he had spares stashed away). He developed reflexes fast and precise enough to dispatch foes a split second after they appeared on screen, and soon, he was winning a few hundred dollars at small competitions.
That changed after he joined OpTic. Live video game tournaments had become major attractions, complete with giant video screens, elaborate stages and play-by-play announcers, and in 2011, a year after Haag graduated from Stagg, he and three teammates took first place in a Los Angeles competition put on by Activision, the publisher of "Call of Duty." Their prize was $400,000.
It was a jaw-dropping amount of money for playing a video game, but Haag said he viewed the win as a freak occurrence, not something he could count on to make a living. So at Rodriguez's urging, he concentrated on building a fan base online.
"He explained how they were monetizing their content on YouTube, and they were making ad revenue every single month," Haag said. "It was a solid stream of income you could rely on every paycheck."
Haag pumped out videos, mixing game play lessons and tournament travelogues with reflections on heavy subjects such as death and religion. His audience was modest at first, but in mid-2013, after a year of good tournament results, the release of a new "Call of Duty" game and a move to the "OpTic House" — a home and practice space that team members share in the northwest suburbs — the numbers exploded. Today his channel has received more than 65 million views.
Haag found other income sources, too, from a sponsorship with energy drink-maker Red Bull to a channel on Twitch.tv, a website that lets fans watch their gaming idols practice and play for hours on end — gamers get a piece of the ad revenue and the $4.99 monthly subscription fee that allows fans to comment on the action.
Add it up, and Haag said he made more than $100,000 last year. While the earnings of competitive video gamers are notoriously opaque, lacking the publicly disclosed contracts of other pro sports, journalists Breslau and Howell O'Neill said Haag's claim was credible.
But with commercial success has come a legion of "Call of Duty" aficionados who regard Haag and his teammates as "money whores," more interested in Internet cash than victory. OpTic has performed poorly in recent months, and when the team seriously stumbled at a Philadelphia tournament this month, Twitter erupted with malicious glee.
"We can handle third or fourth place, as long as we're in contention, but you can't really cut it with 13th,14th place," said OpTic's coach, Will "BigTymer" Johnson, a 22-year-old from Marked Tree, Ark., who is listed in "Guinness World Records 2013" as the highest-earning "Call of Duty" player.
For now, though, the fan base appears secure, with young people around the world claiming loyalty to the "Green Wall." Brandon Farrel, a 15-year-old in Jakarta, Indonesia, said he bought an OpTic T-shirt and an OpTic-themed Xbox controller while subscribing to OpTic gamers' YouTube and Twitch channels.
"I like OpTic because of what they stand for as an organization: Go for your goals and do anything to achieve them," he said in an email.
Haag said he wants to prove the naysayers wrong by winning a championship this year, and after a dizzying round of OpTic roster changes, he will get his chance when Activision and Major League Gaming hold a $1 million event in March.
So just about every night you can go online and find him at his Xbox, blowing away avatars while discussing strategy with his teammates and occasionally addressing fans who dissect his every move and utterance on a scrolling comment box. Though their devotion mystifies Haag's father, it also makes him proud of the path his son is blazing.
"I watch almost every evening," said Jeff Haag, a carpenter whose Twitter handle, @dadshot, has made him a minor gaming celebrity in his own right. "Actually, I'm watching right now. It's just crazy how these kids love watching him."