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Video-gaming strives for respect. Is it a sport?

A virtual ‘torch relay’ heralding the World Cyber Games ends next week in Germany. It’s part of an effort to bring video-game competition into the mainstream.

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He began his career in 1999, at 18, when he placed third in a tournament and took home $4,000. His parents had hoped the high school tennis player (a state-ranked player) would go on to college, but once he began to earn real money, Mr. Wendel says, “it was all about the freedom of leaving home and doing what I really wanted to do – and being able to make a living doing it.”

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First-person, shooter-style games are his forte, he says, adding that “Painkiller” is his favorite. His career has taken him to every continent but Antarctica and enabled him to move into the heady ranks of athletes who make more money from endorsements and sponsorships than they do from salaries or winnings. For Fatal1ty, income from endorsements, licensing fees, and winnings have surpassed half a million dollars this year alone. “Not bad for a sport most of the world doesn’t even know exists,” he laughs.

Last August, Wendel became the first recipient of a lifetime achievement award from the nascent eSports, a group devoted to promoting cybercompetition. While he still competes, he sees his most important job as promoting the sport itself. “I want to get the word out to people who don’t understand what professional gaming is all about,” says Wendel.

Aware that most people over age 30 would roll their eyes at the idea of calling video-gaming a professional sport, Wendel takes his physical training seriously. He runs four to six miles a day, goes to the gym three or four days a week, and plays games two to four hours a day to stay in shape.
“It requires the same sort of stamina, reflexes, mental strategies, and decisionmaking that any sport would,” he says.

The rise of professional players is proof that the $32 billion a year video-game industry has come of age as a sport as well as a business, says Amy Lee, director of Career Services at Art Institute of Las Vegas Game Art and Design. “Fatal1ty is just leading the way,” she says, adding that she now routinely counsels college grads for lucrative careers in the industry, where skilled players can find work as testers and designers as well as competitors.

“Fatal1ty certainly has had the media attention that was required to galvanize the market and start to focus on pro gaming,” says Ted Owen, chairman and founder of the Global Gaming League.

Unmarried and peripatetic – “I’m sleeping in my business partner’s guesthouse right now,” he says – Wendel says the life of a professional video-game player is as much work as it is play.

“It’s the same way with the big rock-’n’-roll stars,” he says. “You think it’s all glitz and glamour, but it’s a lot of time on the road, away from your family, sleeping in strange places. It’s fun for now, but it’s also a lot of work.” But, he adds with a sly smile, “nobody can say video games are a waste of time anymore. I’m living proof of that.”