By John Keilman
7:16 PM CST, January 26, 2014
Matt Haag used to be just another suburban kid going to high school, working at McDonald's and aggravating his parents by spending endless hours on his Xbox.
Today the lanky, dark-eyed 21-year-old is a global celebrity to an enormous number of young people, very few of whom know him as Matt. They call him Nadeshot, master of the virtual submachine gun, a guy who makes a six-figure living playing the video game "Call of Duty."
Haag is among a handful of Chicago-area men who have found a lucrative niche in the booming world of competitive video gaming. Under the name OpTic Gaming, they have snared corporate sponsors, built flourishing YouTube channels and earned a small fortune in tournament winnings.
When they play, even in minor online matches, tens of thousands of people watch. When they feud, their gamer handles incite some of the hottest trending on Twitter. Even Haag, a player so popular that fans pay $4.99 a month just to watch him practice, doesn't fully understand it.
"What is it about me that people gravitate toward? I wish I knew," he said between rounds of a recent online tournament. "I don't consider myself to be over-the-top entertaining or someone that would be a joy to be around 24-7, but it's working for me."
The money and attention are signs that after decades of hype, "eSports" are finally putting a digital foot in the mainstream. Fans are packing sports arenas to watch top gamers battle for prize money. Major League Gaming, an organization that broadcasts matches online, saw consumption of its video more than triple last year, reaching 54 million hours.
And in perhaps the clearest sign of a subculture that has broken through, gamers from other countries are getting U.S. visas designating them as "internationally recognized athletes."
"Ultimately, the trajectory is up — that's pretty clear, and not just in North America," said Patrick Howell O'Neill, who covers eSports for the online publication The Daily Dot. "Asia and South America have come into this thing more and more, and they're growing it in a way bigger way than North America. Will it be on par with soccer? It's possible. It's going to be enormous, that's obvious."
Competitive video gaming burst from the computer lab in 1972 with barroom games of Pong, and tournaments swiftly followed. Kotaku, a gaming news website, says Stanford students mounted the first one later that year, featuring a game called "Spacewar!"
A few people made money from arcade-based competitions, but journalist Rod Breslau of the website onGamers said the scene didn't really take off until the late 1990s, when a virtual shoot-em-up called "Quake" allowed players to battle over the Internet.
"The whole industry is based off of that," he said.
Computer video games such as "StarCraft" became wildly popular in Asia during the 2000s, Breslau said, especially in South Korea, where television stations broadcast matches, major tech corporations handed out sponsorships and top gamers became celebrities.
Competitive gaming was much more casual in the U.S., but communities formed around a few games, including "Call of Duty," a best-selling title that gives players the perspective of military operatives as they chase each other around bullet-pocked landscapes.
One of those caught up in the fledgling culture was Hector Rodriguez, a 20-something gamer from Wheeling. He joined a few friends in online matches and got hooked on the strategy and teamwork demanded by the game.
But in 2009, he moved away from competition to focus on the game in a different way. Under the name of his team, OpTic Gaming, he put videos onto YouTube showing everything from "Call of Duty" strategies to tournament highlights to equipment reviews.
He quickly became aware of a ravenous appetite for content related to the game: One early effort, an artfully edited montage of sniper kills accompanied by a rap and metal soundtrack, has attracted nearly 6 million views to date.
YouTube pays content creators a slice of the advertising revenue their videos bring in. Google did not respond to a query seeking comment, but various YouTubers peg the rate at roughly $2 per 1,000 views, with some getting significantly more — and Rodriguez saw enough potential in the venture to quit his insurance job and devote himself full time to OpTic.
"For nine months, I didn't get paid a single dime, and I sacrificed more then than ever," said Rodriguez, now 33. "My girlfriend was 8 months pregnant when I decided to drop the news on her: 'Hey, I want to pursue this as a career. I really want to dedicate 100 percent of my time and effort to growing this potentially big opportunity.'
"And she said, 'Do it.'"
Rodriguez decided to extend awareness of the OpTic Gaming brand — whose icon is an interlocking black "O" and a neon green "G" — by forming a new competitive team. After asking around, he offered a spot to Haag, then a student at Stagg High School in Palos Hills.
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."
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