In 1999, Johnathan "FATAL1TY" Wendel became the world's first full-time professional gamer. He's won countless tournaments, became the original poster boy for competitive gaming and grew a successful Fatal1ty gaming products. He's seen it all.
Because of this, he's one of the best-placed people to describe how esports has changed since his time in the spotlight. What does he think of the landscape nowadays and would he swap places with the pros of today? We ask him in part two of our interview.
How do you feel esports has changed since you were a pro player winning the first big tournaments? Have things changed as you expected them to?
I went pro in 1999 - I was the first full time professional gamer in the world. At that tournament I think I was running around in my socks at some points, it was like a LAN party! But I was ready to perform. During the downtime I was just having a good time with my friends, I was 18 years old.
Over the course of my career it changed a ton. I think 2005 was the best year the duel scene ever saw for 1v1s. We travelled to 10 different countries for the world tour, I think I won $231,000 that year playing a game called Painkiller on the CPL World Tour held by Intel. During my career I was able to get on MTV, 60 Minutes, had various features and the front page of Business Week... that was really cool and as mainstream as it got.
Now today, you have Twitch which is able to get massive numbers of eyeballs [on esports]. Back then we were building up our audience still. Now they've grown older, they're in their 30s or 40s or 50s and have had kids and they've raised their kids, who see esports as cool.
We've been secretly building an esports audience for a long time. Millennials know it now and are taking hold of it.
Also, there are other ways to make money today. You dont need to be a professional anymore, when I was playing you HAD to win. All the time. Today now you can just livestream on Twitch and people come and watch, and you make money from donations and subscribing and virtual bits.
"For me, to be the first full-time professional gamer in the world and being a pioneer in the space, I think that's a lifetime achievement. I would not trade my shoes with anyone today."
So there are loads of streams. But from a pro gamer perspective, the prize money has got bigger and the sponsors better understand the value of gamers. Back in my day they didn't understand the value of it.
For me I turned out a ton of sponsorships and didn't take the small deals. The exposure you get - and I had exposure in Asia, Europe, all over the globe - the sponsors now realise the value of that. The players who have influence and traction can capitalise on that.
The thing about esports today... look at League of Legends, they've taken it by the horns in a way. They've found a way to make the game cater to their cash flow through esports, even Dota did the same thing with the International. They captured the heart of the game, a percentage of the cost virtual goods goes towards the tournament prize pool. That's a genius idea.
People are willing to buy virtual goods. We didn't have that back then. If you wanted a skin, you just did it yourself. I remember in the Quake days in 1996 and 1997, people would edit their characters to look like Superman, or Batman, or even Beavis and Butthead! It was so cool but it was always free. No one was going to pay for a little graphical change. Now it's a massive market and you can do all of these little things.
People are okay with spending money on virtual goods now. It's way easier to spend $5 or $9 or whatever on a skin, whereas before an expansion cost like $40. Now with skins and new heroes, there's always excitement around the next thing.
I've noticed you stream on Twitch nowadays. Do you miss playing competitively at the top level?
During my career I won 12 world championships, one was a team play and 11 were 1v1 duels. I left on the top of my game and was content with my professional career. I didn't feel I had to prove myself anymore.
I compete on the online leaderboards right now for the sake of entertaining on Twitch. For me, to be the first full-time professional gamer in the world and being a pioneer in the space, I think that's a lifetime achievement. I would not trade my shoes with anyone today.
To be a pioneer in the esports space, and make your mark, and be down to Earth throughout the process, that's been one of my biggest achievements. I'm very happy with my history.
When did you retire?
2005 was my last year of seasonal play in the CPL World Tour. I won $150,000 that year, that's when I got 60 Minutes and the front page of Business Week.
However, in 2006 I made a small comeback and played for about six months, I made a run in Quake 4 and Fatality gear sponsored a tournament. Then in 2007 I did an exhibition match where I was putting my name on the line. I won that and did a Guiness World Record in 08/09, then in 2012 I had this guy challenge me and we did a show match in Taiwan.
It was an exciting time coming into a game seven months late when I came back!
"I left on the top of my game and was content with my professional career. I didn't feel I had to prove myself anymore."
Outside of esports, you also build a successful product line too. How is that going today?
It wasn't just about esports for me. It was the business too. I'm still doing the Fatal1ty gaming motherboards with my manufacturing partner Asrock today. We sell a ton of Fatal1ty motherboards, and we've also been making new Fatal1ty headphones as well. I'm looking to dive into making my own mice and mats again, so the Fatal1ty brand is still really active in esports and gaming.
It's been my full-time gig. My second thing was ReadyUp, it was a matter of finding a team who could pull it off. I was able to find that this year.
According to an article from a few years ago you live on the Las Vegas strip, is that correct? Have you been to the esports arenas there, and what do you think of casinos getting involved with esports now?
Yeah, I'm from Kansas, Missouri but I've lived in Las Vegas for the last nine years now.
Las Vegas has been working very hard on trying to make esports more of a mecca here in Las Vegas. A governor spoke to a Nevada gaming committee - casinos want to creata sportsbook wagering on esports.
There's a quarterly meeting with people interested in growing esports in Las Vegas, such as the Esports Integrity Coalition (ESIC).
I went to check out a venue and it works out. They're holding events there, I know LAX is doing something.
It's still very new to the city, I know MGM were going more aggressive with their hotel chains to dive into League of Legends. They hosted the LoL NA finals there one year, they also did the DreamHack masters at MGM Grand earlier this year.
Everyone's trying to figure out how to accommodate the millennials that enjoy esports, they're working pretty hard on trying to crack that code.
"I started livestreaming full-time only recently - I'm still building up a channel. I've been streaming 13+ hours a day."
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
People can find me on Twitter playing Quake Champions and Player Unknown's Battlegrounds on Twitch.
I play all day throughout the day, from 12pm PST. I've been trying to hop on a bit earlier than that. I've been streaming 13+ hours a day. I'm still building up a channel and started livestreaming full-time only recently. I've been doing it off and on for a long time.
Watch Fatal1ty on Twitch: https://www.twitch.tv/fatal1ty