As the Bellagio fountain dances and the violinist bows pop songs along Las Vegas Boulevard, the pioneer of professional e-sports cuts into his steak dinner. “Best seat in town,” Johnathan Wendel says. Thirty-five years old with blonde hair, blue eyes and sunburn from the golf course, he moved to the Strip in Aug. 2008, freshly retired from competition. At first, living here helped Wendel loosen up after a decade of young adulthood spent traveling and training around the clock. As always, Vegas obliged. Today, however, he merely fits among the other desert to-doers, an owner of commercial real estate and operator of a company that sells gaming gear, like headphones and motherboards.
“Business life is a lot easier,” Wendel says, motioning off the patio, where the nearby casinos offer proof. “A lot of people win in business. How many people have won world championships in video games?”
Few like him. In the early 2000s, Wendel grew famous under the gaming handle Fatal1ty, pronounced like the synonym for death. Given his specialty—first-person, one-on-one shooters played on the PC—the nickname was fitting. “I became this virtual gunslinger, the deadliest guy on the Internet,” Wendel says. Twelve world championships in five different video games, versatility and dominance unmatched since, makes this statement less boastful than realistic. Of course, living in Vegas is also a reminder of the success Fatal1ty enjoyed. With almost $500,000 in career earnings, he wasn’t supplanted atop e-sports’ alltime list until 2013, five years after retirement. How Eric (Batch) Paik, an old training buddy, describes Wendel’s arc isn’t that hyperbolic, either: “He wanted to be the Tiger Woods of gaming and he did a pretty darn good job.”
Which is to say that Fatal1ty’s fame transcended sniping cyber-foes on the maps of Painkiller and Quake III, titles that together netted around two-thirds of his winnings. A former high school tennis player in Missouri whose daily gaming practice schedule included three-mile runs to stay fit, Wendel bucked stereotypes of lazy, basement-dwelling mouse jockeys. Other trailblazers preceded him, particularly in the Asian market, but Wendel brought new attention to a niche that needed it, on a continent with no established pro scene. An argument can be made for Fatal1ty as e-sports’ first superstar. “He essentially carried the mantle for many years,” says Dennis (Thresh) Fong, a predecessor of Wendel’s whom Guinness credits as history’s first professional video gamer. “He was basically the face of e-sports at that time.”
60 Minutes filmed a segment at his St. Louis home. MTV featured him in the network’s hour-long True Life episode about pro gaming. In 2007, DirecTV hired him as an ambassador and color commentator for its Championship Gaming Series league, which lasted two seasons. And in 2008, he received the first-ever e-sports lifetime achievement award—at age 28. “Gaming is everything to me,” Wendel told the crowd at the ceremony in Germany. “It is my passion, it is my life, it is my extended family. And in family, one looks after the other members.”
Now it’s his turn. Tradeshows have replaced tournaments, and Wendel’s priorities have shifted. Once blindingly focused on beating opponents, he finds victories in launching new products, or seeing teenagers at the airport wearing his headphones, the lightning-esque Fatal1ty logo emblazoned on the side. He also wonders how the upcoming generation of gamers, competing in a world far different than his was, sees the Fatal1ty name—as the so-called deadliest guy on the internet, or the name on the box at Best Buy?
“How do I want to be remembered?” he’s asking now, sun setting over the fountain. “How do I want to set my legacy? This is a massive movement. It’s the sport of the 21st century. So where will I fall when e-sports goes huge?”
Start with the stuffed tiger.
It was a gift from an ex-girlfriend, before he flew to Sweden for his first international tournament in 2000 and went 18–0 playing Quake III Arena. The furry beast was named smU, and smU became his lucky sentry, perched atop the desktop computer monitor for every event. At the 2004 E-Sports World Cup, when two other gamers swiped the tiger before the semifinals in the game Painkiller, Wendel spent 45 minutes worrying about getting it back. He believes the distraction left him inadequately prepared for the match, which he lost along with roughly $1,000.
Wendel had many superstitions like smU. Before competitions, he drank pomegranate juice in the morning and water the rest of the day, believing food weighed down his fast-twitch muscles. After losses, he might throw away the shoes and shirt he had worn, thinking that might improve his mojo. “When I washed my hands I always grabbed four towels, then the fifth I put to clean in between my fingers, so I can grip the mouse,” he says. “The mouse is my tool. Typical stuff like an athlete would do for a baseball bat or a golf club.”
Intensity was always Wendel’s hallmark. At 19, after leaving college, quitting his job as a golf course clubhouse waiter and moving away from home, he started treating video gaming as a full-time pursuit. Each day was split into two four-hour blocks, separated by lunch and the three-mile run, though sessions often stretched into the predawn morning. “I was the first guy to put time in,” he says. “People gave me crap for training. Well, maybe I wanted it more.”
In public, Wendel tried cultivating a mysterious, intimidating image. He held weeklong boot camps before big tournaments, inviting gamers with different strengths so he could prepare against every potential type of opponent and swearing everyone to secrecy about his strategies.
He scoured message boards for comments that slighted his skill, memorizing them for motivation. On the road, he always arrived early to adjust to the time zone and almost never schmoozed at receptions. Instead, he booked rooms in another hotel, set up computers in between the beds, and practiced until match time. “I saw hanging out as putting your guard down,” he says. Others thought differently. “It was like, ‘Why are these American a--holes the only ones who can’t hang out with everybody?’” says Brian (Zen) Grapatin, a former gamer who traveled with Wendel. “There was always this built-in angst. And Johnathan didn’t give a s---. That meant nothing to him.”
Only winning counted, and fortunately there was plenty of that. Wendel’s first tournament came in October 1999, when he scrounged up $500, drove to Dallas, earned $4,000 in prize money, returned to Missouri, showed the check to his father and declared that this would be his new job. In 2000, after Sweden, Wendel took first in 12 more one-on-one tournaments, including the 2000 World Cyber Games in Seoul. Three years later, MTV documented his transition from Quake III into Unreal Tournament 2003 and his subsequent $10,000 victory at a tournament in Dallas.
Then came 2005. Playing Painkiller, another first-person shooter, Wendel joined the Cyberathlete Professional League world tour, a year-long, four-continent schedule dovetailing toward the December grand finals at Times Square’s Nokia Theater. There, Wendel faced the world’s No. 1 Painkiller player, a Dutch 20-year-old named Sander (Vo0) Kaasjager. First prize was $150,000, almost double Wendel’s career earnings by that point. He remembers it well.
“It was my Mayweather-Pacquiao,” he says. “The biggest match of my life.”
Inside his Vegas apartment, Wendel queues up the replay on YouTube. MTV Overdrive carried the feed live, marking the first worldwide broadcast of an e-sports event. As Wendel recalls, he had struggled with Kaasjager’s elite movement earlier in the tour, finishing in fourth place or worse at three stops, but devised a counterattacking strategy for the finals. “Kill once,” is how he describes it, “and then go on a reign of terror.”
It worked. With smU on his screen, Wendel swept both best-of-three sets—most kills in 15 minutes for each individual match. In the clinching round, Kaasjager took a fast 5–0 advantage by blindsiding Wendel with a rocket. But Wendel stormed back, taking his first lead halfway through. “The tiger has come to play,” MTV’s announcer roared. From there, it was a laugher. “You’ll see it in my facial expression,” Wendel says, watching as a smile forms with about one minute left. Pretty soon, Fatal1ty is ripping off his headphones, standing up and yelling. Balloons fall. Here comes the oversized, six-figure check. With the money, Wendel treated his friends to spring break in Cancun. He won just one more tournament—the Championship Gaming Invitational, a precursor to the DirecTV series—before retiring.
“I thought, How much more do I have to prove?” Wendel says.
These days, Wendel has settled into more conventional rhythms. He takes tennis lessons in the mornings, lunches with his girlfriend away from downtown and occasionally games at his desktop for a few hours before bed. Most afternoons are spent monitoring Fatal1ty Inc., approving product changes or pitching new ideas on conference calls. He started the company in 2003 while still gaming, slapping his logo onto printer pads—which he had been using as a larger-surface mouse pad—and selling them from his Kansas City basement. Last month, his new headphone line launched at E3, an annual video game conference in Los Angeles, and went into 600 Best Buy stores. The accompanying commercial ended with Wendel in a cloud of red smoke, holding a rocket launcher.
“In my mind,” says Michael Barnes, Wendel’s business manager, “he’s the only gamer who’s made that switch, that’s jumped over from just playing and endorsing a product here or there to the line of businesses that he’s had today.”
Fatal1ty Inc. also helps Wendel stay connected with the current scene—“If people forget me, don’t know who Fatal1ty is, they’ll know the brand,” he says—though it’s changed drastically since his time. Early on, Wendel fought companies to pay him more than free gear for making appearances at conventions. Today, the best players can sign contracts and make regular salaries on sponsored teams. Streaming services like Twitch offer supplementary income avenues by attracting advertisers and allowing viewers to donate to gamers. Last August, the prize pool at the Dota 2 world championships reached $18.4 million, most of it crowd-sourced from fans. Later that month, League of Legends drew 12,000 fans to its North American final at Madison Square Garden.
The mano a mano style that Wendel played has faded from popularity, replaced by five-on-five affairs like Dota 2 and LoL. Still, competitive interest has never been higher. ESPN recently launched an e-sports vertical. This fall, UC Irvine will open a 3,500-square-foot on-campus “arena”. In April, simultaneous viewership for a Counter-Strike: Global Offensive tournament reached 1.6 million, the biggest e-sports audience ever.
Another sign of progress? Wendel, once the richest gamer in the world, has since fallen to 59th in career prize money, according to e-Sports Earnings; the $150,000 check in Times Square was massive for 2005, but 24 gamers have made more in 2016 alone. “It’s not one of these old retired NBA players criticizing what LeBron James is getting in his next new deal,” Barnes says. “For him it’s, Look how far we’ve come.”
He hasn’t been forgotten, either. For every person in Vegas who recognizes the Fatal1ty vanity plate on his Mercedes, like the valet at the casino before dinner, another few are sending Facebook messages, looking for advice. (“You have to sacrifice everything,” is a common reply.) In mid-May, the Nevada Gaming Policy Committee meeting asked him to address Gov. Brian Sandoval and others about “a day in the life of an e-sports athlete.” And later tonight, when Wendel logs into a match for the new PC game Overwatch, a teammate will write, “is you da real fatal1ty? does he still got it?”
Wendel types back.
“lets play some painkiller ;)”