I'm a natural talent, says cyber-athlete
American Johnathan “Fatal1ty” Wendel (24) is an international electronic-sports champion—in other words, a cyber-athlete. He has travelled all over the world, and arrived in South Africa this week to attend the yearly rAge expo in Johannesburg, where visitors will have the opportunity to beat him in a shoot-out in the sinister game Painkiller.
He spoke to the Mail & Guardian Online about his greatest achievements and gaming as a sport. He even gave advice on how to beat him.
1. Tell me how your career started. Did you work to this or do you have the natural talent to become a cyber-athlete?
I have been pretty famous for the last six years, and it kind of started with Quake 3 in 2000. A lot of South African gamers know me because of that. I have been paid to play five different games and been world champion in all five of them: in Quake 3 Arena, Alien vs Predator 2, Unreal Tournament 2003, Doom 3 and, after that, Painkiller.
It is a lot of hand-eye coordination and reflexes. Obviously that is a big part, after the timing and dedication—being quick, being a quick thinker, making the right decisions in tough situations and [being] determined to be the best. You have to be able to get practice and go for what you believe in. So, I set goals for myself and I try to go for them. But I am a natural talent, yes.
Why do you call yourself Fatal1ty?
Fatal1ty actually comes from the game Mortal Kombat. I was a huge Mortal Kombat player, I played Mortal Kombat 1 and 2 and 3 pretty seriously. When you kill someone, it says “Fatal1ty”.
2. Are you happy with what you have accomplished, or do you have an end goal of what you still want to win as a cyber-athlete?
My goal is obviously to keep on winning more championships with different games. I have won 10 major championships in my career so far—I mean a world championship on five different games, you know. I just want to keep improving that and keep trying my hardest.
I think after that it is mainly the brand I created, the Fatal1ty brand; I just want to make that a long-lasting brand, and keep giving back to gamers, sponsor other gamers and make quality products with my partners. That is my long-term goal, so when I am 40 or 50 or 60 years old, I will still have my Fatal1ty brand.
I am only 24 now, so I don’t see why I could not keep on playing. I really don’t know when my hand-eye coordination really starts weakening and the natural talent starts fading away or whatever, it all depends. But I have a lot of experience and knowledge, so I can play at the highest level always. I am probably the biggest threat for the main gamer, taking home the titles. I want to keep going forward. When I lose that burning sensation to win, that would be the day to quit.
3. How can you expand opportunities for cyber-athletes in South Africa?
Obviously, the idea is to take hold of the number-one South African gamer and actually start sponsoring him with hardware. If he is really good, then we’re paying for his travel, paying him money so he can compete at some major tournaments and represent the Fatal1ty brand. So, we have a lot of goals planned for the Fatal1ty brand to help top gamers or gamers who are trying to get into the scene, or trying to find their way to become a professional gamer. We try to help sponsor every level of professional gamer.
Gaming is kind of like golf in some sense. As a golf player, probably your parents were rich, but professional gaming has the aspect where even someone who is not that rich can also make a living as a professional gamer. I am a good example; I had $500 dollars to my name and I went to one tournament and I took third place and won myself $4 000. I was like, “Wow, $4 000 for playing a video game.”
I paid for my own school and my parents don’t help me with any of my stuff. It takes a lot of winning and a lot of dedication to win a lot. People that don’t have any money [can become winners] as long as they have some kind of opportunity to get on a PC and the internet and practice. Fortunately I had a computer, I had internet. Those are two small things you kind of need to get involved in the thing.
At the Fatal1ty shoot-out [at the rAge expo 2005], we are giving away products. Gamers have the chance to win prizes. And if you can beat me—it’s kind of hard, you know—you can win R20 000. You still get the opportunity to win some cool prizes, even if you just show up [at the shoot-out].
I have been setting the benchmark for all the gamers out there, on how to pursue becoming a professional gamer, how to approach sponsors and living that whole lifestyle. A lot of people look at what I do and kind of copy what I do, or try to at least ... I am definitely setting a good model for the gamers ... on the business side as well as in professional gaming.
4. What is your secret in gaming and how can other people make money out of this?
Winning tournaments is a good thing. Obviously these guys are trying to make money playing video games and doing very well at tournaments and playing very well in their country. You must keep getting sponsors so you get paid to play.
The first step is winning a tournament or doing very well is to get a sponsor who will actually pay you to travel all over the world. You start winning more and start getting more sponsors or bigger sponsorships and you just take it from there.
For me, when I won $4 000 I went to [a tournament in] Sweden, [and] I ended up winning the tournament. I did not get any money for that, but I got recognition as the best Quake 3 player in the world. And then right after that, I got a sponsorship of $30 000 for a whole year. That also paid for my travel expenses and my food and everything.
I made a couple of hundred thousand dollars in my first year as a professional gamer, so that’s how I got my start. I was just going to tournaments [and] while I wasn’t going to win any cash, I got the name of “best in the world”, and that gave me sponsors.
I am not so much [in here for the money] any more. Obviously the money is nice, but I just want to win world championship titles, I just want to win major championship titles. I mean, I have been doing very well for myself for the last couple of years, over the last six years in general, for a pretty young guy. So, I would say I would definitely take victory over winning $15 000, just because it means more to me.
5. Is there a gamer who makes you nervous, when you think you could possibly lose playing against him or her?
I don’t have those fears. I just go to every tournament knowing that I have to play my best game to win. And with every different game that I have played over my career, I always had a rival in different games. I always knew I have to beat this guy or this guy, and this guy can be the best guy now. So, every time I go to a tournament I have this one guy that I have to look out for. But as soon as I don’t have to look out for anyone, I look at myself. I think if I play my game, I win. So, I just go to tournaments to play my game and fortunately it works out: I win a lot of the tournaments I play in.
Bunny-hop [is the advice I can give to people who want to try to beat me during the Painkiller game at the Fatal1ty shoot-out during the rAge expo]. Just jump around a lot. It’s just ... no, the advice is: try to kill me, then run away and hide.
6. Did you finish high school? What do you really know about running your own business in the future?
Yes, definitely, [I finished high school]. I went to college for a year and studied at an IT school for computers and so forth. My dad owned his own business, so I helped him on that business when he had that. And my grandparents were farmers and kind of business people. They were farmers but since you’re getting hay and getting cattle and cows and stuff, it is like a stock market, but then in livestock [he laughs].
The Fatal1ty brand I run [myself] right now, but obviously I have a team that I work with and major business partners. That allows me to keep gaming and winning like I have. I obviously have the [business] skills—I created my own company and in the first five months I sold $3 000 of my own mouse pads.
I have the right mindset for what I want to do. I knew it would take a long time to get where I want to get. I was ready to go to school and study more to learn how to run my own company, which I actually have been doing.
I was on the good path anyways and I have a team, and they were pretty amazed by the decisions I already made at such a young age. I mean, I made a lot of these decisions when I was like 20, 21 years old. I created my own brand, created my own company, making profit out of my own name and logo and everything. They were pretty impressed by how I already started my own company.
No, [I am not studying right now]. While on the road, I’m learning every day because I am around business people constantly. I mean, imagine having business people around constantly every day. They tell me strategies or teach me how a business works, I mean, I can see it. If you are around for six years, you have on-the-job experience.
7. How much do you practise? Is it more physical practice or do you have to train yourself mentally as well?
Yeah, I work out. I just like being healthy. Obviously I am practising gaming several hours a day. Every time I train I try to train my brain to work in some kind of pattern, to accomplish perfection. So, when I am playing a game, I am just constantly trying to play perfect.
If I can play perfect when I practice, when I come to a tournament I play perfect in the tournament as well. And that leaves me a small opportunity to lose because when I play perfect or a game with one or two mistakes, you know it’s a very good chance to win. Some games you can play flawlessly, so it just depends. I have been known for playing games in which I never die once in the whole game. I’m pretty determined to play perfect.
Sometimes even dying is part of the strategy, to get a better position on the map and on the other player, so there is all kind of different strategies.
8. What has been your greatest achievement?
I am still working on so many different achievements. I had so many, I don’t know.
It is kind of hard to say “this one is better then this one” because everything I have done is the best thing that ever happened to me, because it allowed me to do this other thing that gave way to more exposure and more popularity.
Probably one of my biggest achievements was the MTV thing. [It was] my first time transferring into a whole new game [Unreal Tournament 3] where there already was a very competitive scene in it, and I kind of walked in and said, “I am a Quake 3 player and I have won like five or six tournaments world championships with Quake 3.” But I have never won a world championship at another game that has been very competitive for a very long time.
I won a world championship for Alien vs Predator 2, but it was a new game, so I practised more. So, then MTV chose to do a documentary on me called True Life: I Am a Gamer and followed me around for four months [as I was] training and preparing for the tournament and transferring into this whole new game.
Other ones [were saying,] “How is Fatal1ty going to do this, he can’t come in our game and beat us in our own game”, and so on. So, I was like, “Okay, I am going to go for this.” I trained my butt off and I was on MTV and everything and actually won the world championship for Unreal Tournament 3.
9. What’s the difference between Fatal1ty and Johnathan?
Johnathan is obviously a pretty fun guy to hang out with. I joke around a lot with my friends; I’m pretty laid back and cool. I love playing sports; I’m very competitive as a sports player.
As Fatal1ty, when I go to tournaments, I am very serious about winning and dominating my opponent. When I go to a tournament, I put my game face on and people know that I am there to kill and win. If you are playing a sport, you need to have a game face; if you don’t have a game face, you already lost. I mean, you can’t just go to a tournament [and say,] “I’m going to play; I lost, oh, its okay, no big deal.” You got to stand up for yourself.
But obviously as a gamer, as Fatal1ty, I am dead serious to win and dead serious about everything I do.
10. How do you react when people don’t take you and gaming seriously?
It is the same thing as, “What do you think of the top chess player in the world?” Everything is a game, like playing soccer.
Obviously they [people who don’t take gaming seriously] are behind the times. It takes a lot, in my profession; it takes a lot of skill, a lot of hand-eye coordination and determination to become the best.
I train as hard as every athlete that trains for a real sport like soccer, football, baseball or basketball, or whatever sport you play in South Africa: like rugby and cricket. But besides that, it is the same thing. We are trying to be the best at what we do, just like any other person does for any other sport. PC gaming is a sport.
The rAge expo runs at the Coca-Cola Dome in Johannesburg from September 30 to October 2