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Johnathan Wendel and the Rise of eSports / 13th of March 2015

Johnathan Wendel is a former professional gamer who went by the pseudonym Fatal1ty, he is an entrepreneur (Wendel operates his own branded gaming accessory range) and is generally considered to be the world's first consummate professional gamer. During his career he was recognised as being not only one of the best players in the world, but held the coveted title of being the all-time most successful professional gamer until 2013 when his estimated $450,000 earnings were surpassed by Lee Jaedong, a prominent StarCraft 2 player and key member of US based Evil Geniuses. Wendel turned pro in 1999 when he competed in a Dallas based, Cyberathlete Professional League tournament, where he scooped a $4,000 prize for a third place finish, this he closely followed up with a win in Sweden, earning him an additional $40,000 in prize money and earning him the rank of the world’s best Quake III: Arena player. Wendel is undoubtedly the break-out gamer, the first to break the mould and establish video gaming competition as a serious business, this earned him the honour of being the first gamer to be inducted into the video game hall of fame. In the fifteen years since Wendel first went pro, however, the gaming landscape has been indelibly, and irreversibly altered by his successes, which is why now, we find that professional gamers are not so few and far between, and e-sports, might just be the biggest thing to happen to gaming for quite some time…

The professional gaming landscape has changed dramatically in such a short space of time, to the extent that many have been caught napping by the wayside due to its seemingly sudden, and rather extensive, growth spurt, that group, naturally, does not include Mr Wendel. We asked him if this change had astounded him as much as it had us:

“Not at all.  I've been saying it every day for last 15 years.  Every year I said this is getting bigger and bigger, and it’s just a matter of time.  We are there!!!  Now it's just matter of main stream media grabbing it and embracing it with all the possibilities to make great ROI on this young age demographic that wants to watch, play and interact with eSports!”

And that they most certainly do. Riot Games’ League of Legends is a prime example of how the industry has changed, its own evolution within the sphere of the public eye mirrors the growth that e-sports have experienced as a whole over the last few years, starting from the 2010 World Cyber Games Grand Finals wherein teams that emerged from across the globe competed for a $7,000 prize, whilst just the following year, the developer’s own Season One Championship saw teams battling over a prize fund of around $100,000, half of which went to the overall winners. The tournament attracted record numbers of viewers, with one of the two semi-finals attracting a live audience of over 200,000 people. The tournament’s growth over the following few years is nothing short of incredible, with the tournament now affording a prize of $1 million to the winning team, this year’s Summoner’s Cup winners were the stellar Samsung Galaxy White, the finale being viewed by an astonishing 8.5 million over Twitch (a video game streaming service acquired by Amazon for almost $1 billion earlier this year), with a total of 32 million unique users having watched the competition at some point across its duration. The growth of the professional gamer has not gone unnoticed by the United States government, who now recognise professional League of Legends players as athletes, and have simplified the immigration process substantially for them, furthermore, such recognition of e-sports, enables pro-players to remain within the country for a period of five years. Yet the story does not end here.

Higher education facilities across the United States also recognise professional gamers as a valuable commodity to lay claim to, and many now offer scholarships to prospective students who partake in professional gaming. According to a recent article in the New York Times, the biggest gaming league for students can now boast a competing membership totalling 10,000 players, this has shown growth of more than 4,000 since this time last year and perhaps most surprisingly, it can also claim to host over 4,500 more members than the Division 1 college basketball league. Professional gaming is being embraced by every institution from the Robert Morris University in Illinois, who now offer full scholarships to gamers as well as the more traditional sports, to the old heavyweight that is Harvard. It is now plain to see that e-sports are a wholly accepted thread within the rich tapestry of modern life, and a valuable tool for both developers and publishers alike to ensure maximum exposure for their products.

As part of Valve’s attempts to promote their game, Defence of the Ancients 2, they took advantage of the e-sports phenomenon by selected and invited the sixteen most prominent DotA playing teams in the world to take part in The International, a competition that would then go on to become a mainstay event on the annual gaming calendar. This was initially conceived purely as a way of showcasing the improvements within DotA 2, yet the success of the event, which offered a grand prize of $1 million, ensured its survival. This year, the event took place in July at the KeyArena in Seattle, backed up by a total prize fund of $10.9 million, the highest sum ever for an e-sports event. The International proved to be a huge accomplishment for another reason too, following on from it, DotA 2 quickly became the second most popular e-sports title after the enormously admired StarCraft II. Nexon, Valve’s South Korean partner for the title, announced last year that they would be investing around $1.7 million into both amateur and professional leagues alike as they began to distribute the game within their home country, and South Korea may very well be the one place already infatuated with gaming more than any other. Coincidentally, Valve have also since released an update to allow for LAN play, this, according to the company, is intended to promote local play as well as smaller, independent competitions which they hope will help to further the appeal of competitive play.

Perhaps the biggest indicator of the newfound social acceptance of electronic athletes has in fact come in the form of ESPN, which managed to enrage its own viewers by broadcasting a single half-hour long show this summer on a DotA 2 tournament, and ESPN, as we are well aware, essentially dictates what we can even consider to be a sport-insofar as America goes at least. In fact, just one month prior to this, they teamed up with Major League Gaming (MLG) to host a Call of Duty event at the X Games in Austin, the winner of which took home an X Games medal. Now whilst the world may have just been able to accept the emergence of Johnathan Wendel as a dedicated, professional gamer back in 1999, here, video games actually took centre stage at a major sporting event, essentially taking gaming competition out of the dark and dingy basements that it once called home, before thrusting it into the spotlight for all to see. The transformation of video games from geek-ish hobby to mainstream entertainment form now complete.

Under the stewardship of both Major League Gaming (MLG) and the Cyberathlete Professional League (CPL), along with viewing figures to rival most sporting events, eSports look to have a bright future ahead of them, and who knows, should this trend continue to swell as it has done in recent years, we might very well see the emergence of a new global competition to rival the Olympics and the World Cup, well, perhaps one day anyway. Mr Wendel believes that that day is coming, but we’re just not quite there yet, as he told us:

“I believe we will have a division in the world from typical sports and eSports.  I think the potential for eSports is limitless right now.  And the overhead of these gaming events is nowhere near what typical sports has.  So the potential to make serious revenue from gaming is coming very fast.  Viewers are picking up every day, and you’re having more people interested in eSports than your typical sports these days.  It's crazy to think, gamers from their home are getting 30,000 - 50,000 viewers.  Compare that to a stadium that has a sporting event, its unbelievable numbers.  Major events in eSports gets well over 100,000 viewers if not 1,000,000 plus viewers.  For example, the League of Legends (LOL) Finals at Staples Center raked in 32 Million Viewers!!!”

As he rightly points out, the potential of eSports right now is surely limitless, so perhaps the arrival of global gaming events to rival the very best that traditional sports have to offer is not actually as far away as most would believe. But what does the future hold for Johnathan Wendel himself

“I feel I'm in a great position with my gaming brand "Fatal1ty Gaming Gear" - Making hardware for these new comers to the gaming world is something that has always excited me about my business.  I work with great manufacturers that want to make products for gamers as well, so it’s a passion for us to make quality products.  Other than the brand side of things, I'm always supporting eSports and competitive gaming...  It's crazy to think I was the first guy doing this full-time, and I was really just taking a shot into the wind.  I didn't care if I made money or not, it was just my passion to compete and give it my all.  And now millions of kids out there are trying to do the exact same thing I did.  It's extremely humbling and so much fun.  I totally get why it’s such a rush for all these gamers out there.  When you win a world championship in video games, it’s one of the best feelings in life!”

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