First Person of Shooters: An Interview with Johnathan “Fatal1ty” Wendel

Less than a decade ago, Johnathan Wendel was just another suburban teen in the Midwest who had a penchant for violent video games. But after perfecting his skill at games like Quake and Doom, Wendel — better known by his handle of Fatal1ty — started winning tournaments and became one of the first of his kind: a full-time professional gamer.

Now, after holding world titles in five games, amassing over $1 million in winnings from video game tournaments, and appearing on the cover of Time and in a segment for 60 Minutes, the 25-year-old is perhaps the world’s most famous gamer. Recently, however, Wendel put his gaming career on hiatus to focus on his line of endorsed gaming hardware and on serving as the defacto spokesperson of competitive gaming. He is also working as a color commentator for competitive gaming broadcasts on Direct TV for the Championship Gaming League.

Wendel seems to be serious about being the self-proclaimed “John Madden of competitive gaming”. When PopMatters visited with him at the recent E For All expo in Los Angeles, he had his own Madden Cruiser-like bus with his face on it. He also destroyed me 13 to 2 in a three-minute game of Quake 4 shortly after our interview.

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First of all, could you tell us a little bit about the history of the nickname Fatal1ty?

The history of the nickname Fatal1ty comes from a game called Mortal Kombat. I was a big fan of it and I just played it a lot and got really passionate about it and my friends told me I needed to pick an alias or a nickname and I was like “Okay, Fatal1ty sounds like a cool name and in the game I kill people.” Naturally I evolved to first-person shooters, and there you kill them in a virtual world.

Fatal1ty interviews and whomps other players simultaneously
[Photo by Ryan Smith]

Talk a little bit about how you made the progression from another kid playing video games to a professional gamer.

I started when I was 13 playing casually. I played tournaments from age 15 through 18. I played the tournaments in Kansas City and I won them all. Then when I was 18 I knew about some tournaments coming up in a league called the Cyber Athlete Professional League. I played them for about five or six years. I went to a tournament when I was 18 and I won $4,000. After that I got to Sweden to represent the U.S.A. Then I won 18 games straight and became a world champion at the age of 18. After that I went on to more tournaments, found a sponsor and won $110,000 my first year as a professional gamer. I kept getting sponsored and eventually started my own company. I stopped doing sponsorships and started only doing partnerships and running my company. And here I am today with all of these different partners.

Now are you still playing a lot competitively?

Right now I’m not really playing any tournaments. I’m focusing mainly on trying to bring gaming to the mainstream market, which is kind of a new role for me this year.

So you are sort of competitive gaming’s spokesperson?

I still play all the time. I’m not competing in tournaments. I’m working mostly as a spokesperson now. Now I’m working as a global spokesperson for Championship Gaming Series on DirectTV and my job is to do the color commentary, kind of like John Madden. I also send out the message about how gaming is moving to the next level. All of these players are making between $30,000 and $100,000 a year playing video games, so it’s definitely the most legitimate league out there. Every gamer in the world is striving to be part of this league. From Asia to Europe to the UK to Latin America to the U.S.A., everyone wants to be a part of this league.

So you’re not technically retired?

No. I still play all the time. I just choose not to play in the competitions. I think I can do more in the business side and help gaming grow more if I don’t play. But when the time comes and the spotlight is right, I’ll jump back into it.

Did you ever see yourself when you were 14 or 15 playing these tournaments? Did you ever think you’d eventually be in this sort of situation?

No. I thought I was going to work at a 9-to-5 white collar job when I grew up. I had no idea about this. When you create something out of thin air and you’re the first full-time professional gamer, you’re doing something that’s never been done before.

Tell us a little bit about the day to day experience of competitive gaming. I know for many years you played these games full-time and I know some popular perception would be “Oh, it’s a dream job. It’s easy compared to other things.” How would you respond to that?

It’s definitely relaxing to be able to play games for a living. But I think anyone that gets to do what they love for a living has a dream job. For me, being a world champion like this, means I have to treat it like a real job. At the same time, it’s my passion and I love going out and doing it. For me, I trained eight hours a day or more every day, seven days a week, for a major tournament. For me it’s hard work. I have to play like 18 months or two years straight usually eight hours a day. The worst day would be four hours, but it was usually eight hours or more, for two years.

It gets a little old and tiring. But at the same time, people don’t become world champions because they’re slackers and think, “Oh, I’m just gonna relax today.” I don’t think Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan or any of those guys took it lightly when they became who they were. It was because they were obsessed about something, probably a little crazy and I think I do the same thing. It’s not just practicing. I get a little crazy and I just can’t stop. People who are really the champions and are a step above everyone else have something to prove, they’re usually a little crazy or they’re just very passionate. Or maybe all three. I think people like that usually have all three and I know I do. I know I have my moments where I’m crazy. And I have my moments where I’m obsessed and can’t stop. I have my competitive side that just can’t stand losing. When you mix all that stuff together, you have a beast.

Is a lot of it being super meticulous? Do you sit down and think, “Here’s what I have to improve on?” Do you watch a video of yourself playing and analyze the things you could do better?

I don’t really watch much video, I just play and make sure it feels right to me. I keep working my game until it comes naturally and I don’t have to think about it. If I’m thinking, I’m gonna die. It has to be all natural instincts. Sometimes you have to make choices in the games, but you really don’t want to go there. You want everything to happen for a reason. You want all of the odds and percentages to be on your side. And you just play the game to win the game how it’s meant to be played.

How much of it do you think is natural manipulation, like being able to have hand eye coordination and how much of it is planning and practice and just knowing where items are?

Definitely having a knowledge of the maps and all of that stuff, all of the timing and calculations and mathematical equations play a big part in it. But it all comes down to you making the shot, you making the move, you making the decisions to do certain things and be in the right place in the right moment and having the right thoughts, the right trick, playing the right mind trick with the guy. All of these different things add up. The hand eye coordination, the mind tricks, the reflexes, all of that stuff is a huge part of the game. If you’re not up to par and the other guy is sharper than you, you’re gonna die. You’re talking about milliseconds here. You’re making decisions and making shots within milliseconds. If you’re a split millisecond behind your opponent, you’re the dead one and he’s the one who’s still alive.

Fatal1ty is introduced at the E for All convention
[Photo by Ryan Smith]

I know you’ve played multiple games, but is it difficult to change games and to learn different maps and different weapons and…

Different games are definitely challenging. I’ve been fortunate enough to be world champion at five different games and honesty it took a lot of hard work. It took a lot of humility to realize that “Hey, now I suck” concept. I didn’t suck. I was still way above average. I was still near the top in the world. But not number one. I wasn’t in the top eight yet, or maybe even top 16. Some stuff carries over, but not everything. You just have to take the humility and most people can’t handle that. Most of the guys who’ve played a game for two years who try to switch to a new game just can’t do it. I know tons of players who just haven’t been able to do it. It’s just too hard. I think I only know one or two guys, maybe, who hold two world titles or two world championships in two different games. And I have five. You just have to be able to learn how to change and to adapt and I’ve been able to accomplish that and dominate that category. I really think I’m good at gaming. I’d change games, I didn’t change genres, but I did change games to show how good I am. I switched games because I had people tell me I couldn’t do it. That’s kind of how all of that started.

How do people usually react when they lose to you?

Most of them are laughing and full of happiness and say things like, “Well, of course it was going to happen like that.” Most people are just really happy to play against me and see what it’s like and when they die non-stop, non-stop, non-stop, they really see that a professional gamer is really like ridiculous. They realize that they aren’t a professional gamer, and that they need to keep their day job. I’ve had guys in the past who didn’t even know who I was and they thought they were number one and they came and played me and I just tore them apart. They jetted off, steaming away and pissed as hell. Mad, mad, mad. But now that most people know who I am and they talk me up a lot. You’ve seen me on TV and everything, now they know, “Oh shit, this guy actually is good. He is the number one guy.” Now they know who the guy is they have to challenge in order to be number one.

What do you think competitive gaming is today in the U.S. and where do you see the future of it going?

Not just in the U.S. but in the whole world, Championship Gaming is doing a great job of showing it on television. I bring it to your TV at home on channel 101 on DirectTV. You know, gamers have a goal now. Before they were always kind of lost and some may be still because they don’t know about Championship Gaming Series yet. But as soon as they start looking this up and learning when the qualifiers are coming up through the TV and other media outlets, everyone is going to get more involved. They’re going to be more competitors, more people involved and trying out, it gives gamers something to shoot for now. Now there’s really a league that everyone wants to be a part of. It offers the most money and the most media coverage so you can become a star. If you want to become a star of gaming, this is the way you want to go.

I’d say for the most part competitive gaming is still seen as a niche market in the US. Do you see competitive gaming ever breaking into the mainstream and being akin to some of the other pro sports leagues?

All in good time. It’s going to take just a little more time. When I played the world finals in New York City, I’m not sure what the exact number was but I’m sure there were more people who tuned into my match than the people who would show up to a sports stadium. Over 90 countries were tuned in to watch my finals match. I have a fan base, it’s just not all in one city. It’s global. It’s an underground scene. People from Asia and Kenya were tuned in to watch me play. It’s a serious thing. People were watching. They want to know. That was the biggest tournament in gaming history too. $150,000. It was a big tournament.

There’s several different pro gaming leagues right now and I know that you’re promoting Championship Gaming Series. Do you think it would be better for competitive gaming if there was just one league only?

That is the one league. That’s the league everyone wants to try to be a part of. There are other leagues of course. But all of those other leagues, every gamer at those leagues, are striving to be a part of this league. Because they’re not getting paid there. Maybe the top couple of guys are, but they’re not getting paid what these guys on Championship Gaming are getting paid. They’re not getting exposure, they’re not getting paid. The number 60 guy is getting nothing. In this league, there are about 50 guys and you get a base salary when you join this league. You get paid $30,000 salary for your services. No other league does what Championship Gaming Series does. If you ask any of the gamers to come play for this league they would. But right now they’re playing different games — when the time comes they’re gonna be first in line to try to get this.

What about mainstream press coverage? From what I’ve seen, it’s kind of been treated as a curiosity. Have you been disappointed by the mainstream press’s treatment of competitive gaming?

They’ve always covered me very well to an extent. We’re trying to get it so that there’s more coverage on a daily basis so that there’s some kind of recap or news about it. We already have commercials on ESPN and ESPN2. We have Championship Gaming Series spots on there all the time. It’s really cool. We’re drawing a pretty good number of viewers who watch it on TV but of course we want to be bigger. We want to be more like the NFL or the NBA. But for right now, for original programming, the numbers we’re getting are making everyone pretty happy. And it’s only gonna grow in due time. It’s only the first year. We have a lot of things to improve and look back on but for the most part, we’ve been doing pretty good I think.