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Fear This Geek

Kansas City's Johnathan Wendel is a walking Fatal1ty.


Johnathan Wendel is a cold-blooded killer.

He plays violent, first-person-shooter video games better than anyone in the world.

The genre may have apocalyptic undertones — such as Painkiller’s story of a man killed in a car crash, trapped in purgatory and charged with stopping an unholy war — but the objective is simple: Kill the other guy more often than he kills you.

“I’m very dominant at what I do,” Wendel tells the Pitch one early December afternoon at his home near Interstate 435 in south Kansas City.

Backing that boast is a trail of virtual corpses leading from the United States to South Korea to China to Russia. Wendel is the only player to win multiple world championships in different games — Doom 3, Quake 3, Alien vs. Predator 2 and Unreal Tournament 2003.

In six years of competitive gaming, Wendel has claimed more titles than any other professional gamer. With $500,000 in tournament winnings, he’s also the sport’s No. 1 money earner. In 2005, he took home $231,000. That figure doesn’t include the royalty checks he collects from licensing agreements with a handful of computer hardware makers, which he expects will soon surpass his tournament winnings.

Wendel finds himself in Kansas City maybe 90 days out of the year; otherwise, he lives out of hotel rooms and suitcases, flying to faraway lands to compete in professional tour stops and make celebrity appearances such as a 2004 shootout at the Great Wall of China.

Wendel looks nothing like the stereotypical gamer; he resembles a Midwestern surfer, with shaggy blond hair and a couple days’ worth of stubble. He wears baseball jerseys and hooded sweatshirts with khakis or blue jeans. He has a trim, athletic body, molded by running, tennis and golf.

Around the world, he’s known by the menacing name Fatal1ty.

If you haven't heard of him, you will soon. On January 22, 60 Minutes is scheduled to extend his fame by 15 minutes, exposing him to 14 million viewers. The New York Times, Time magazine, Business Week and The Los Angeles Times have taken note of his accomplishments. Last October, Fox Sports declared him the second-most-feared athlete in the world, behind ear-biting boxer Mike Tyson.

Oversized checks lean against a wall in his basement room. More trophies sit in the garage: a Suzuki Hayabusa crotch rocket — the fastest street-legal motorcycle in the world — that he won in Los Angeles in 2000, a custom-painted Ford Focus he won playing Alien vs. Predator 2 in Dallas in 2001. The car's vanity plates read "F8TL1TY." He carries two Sharpies in the car for signing autographs.

When Fatal1ty entered the Cyberathlete Professional League at 18, he was an unknown. Now he is the league's biggest star.

"He's the most visible and the most respected professional gamer today," says Angel Munoz, founder of the eight-year-old CPL. Last year, the league gave away $1 million in cash prizes. "He's certainly getting the most endorsements and winning the bigger prizes," Munoz says.

But the past year has been rough on Fatal1ty.

Each new sponsorship deal came with new demands on his time. His touring schedule was whipping him, and so was a 20-year-old Dutchman named Sander Kaasjager, known on the gaming circuit as Vo0. In 2005, Vo0 won five of the CPL's nine tour stops, and Fatal1ty won just two. In Barcelona in April, Fatal1ty placed sixth, his worst finish ever. Figuring he'd partied too much in Ireland, Fatal1ty quit the bottle. He met with his handlers and told them he wasn't getting enough practice. They worked out a deal: Before each CPL tour stop, Fatal1ty would get two weeks to practice. In Rio de Janeiro in May, he finished second to Vo0.

"Brazil taught me that I can definitely beat this guy," Fatal1ty says. "And then Sweden came, and I lost by one frag [kill] the whole time. I'm like, dude, I can beat this guy."

Back on American soil in July, Fatal1ty beat Vo0 in Grapevine, Texas, to win his first tour stop of the year. They would take turns winning over the next couple of months, but going into the Cyberathlete Professional League World Tour Grand Finals in November, Vo0 was still the man.

By then, Fatal1ty was his own brand — a brand of merchandise worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and built upon his stardom as the top gamer in the world. Winning the CPL World Tour Grand Finals couldn't have meant more.

More than a million viewers watched From Game to Fame: The CPL World Tour Final, MTV's condensed, half-hour version of the league championships this past November. And 110,000 people streamed the entire match on Overdrive, MTV's broadband Internet channel, during the week of the finals.

"As Fatal1ty would tell himself, it's not enough to participate or compete," Munoz tells the Pitch. "He has to win. That's why he turned the i in his name into a 1."

Weeks before November's CPL World Tour Grand Finals, Fatal1ty starts practicing in his ranch-style home. Inspired by Batman Begins, he trains his body and mind. Like Bruce Wayne, he removes himself from the outside world. He gives up grooming. He lets his hair go wild. His whiskers grow to woodsman length. He runs in the street to strengthen his body. He plays Painkiller for a minimum of eight hours a day.

Unable to train in the Himalayas with Ra's al Ghul's League of Shadows, he settles for his Kansas City bedroom with assassins of a different kind. Gamers named Wombat, Zen, Beam and Aim crash at his place and practice with him. Zen makes food runs to Wal-Mart and Wendy's every three or four days, but other than that, they remain quarantined. Through isolation comes focus.

Obsessed with winning the tournament, Fatal1ty keeps to himself. He wakes up, runs, plays Painkiller and sleeps, then the cycle repeats. Some of the guys watch movies. Fatal1ty only plays.

"When he trains, he's just like a machine," says Fatal1ty's roommate, Jarod Reisin. "He's hard to practice with because he's so intense."

In Fatal1ty's presence, alpha males must check their egos.

"Guys that train here, they have a problem — they don't win at all," Reisin says. "A lot of guys won't play because they're getting beat left and right."

Weeks pass until it's time to go to New York City for the grand finals. There, in Gotham City, the 32 best Painkiller players will duel in death matches to determine the world's best gamer. The three-day tournament will culminate in a one-on-one showdown at the Nokia Theatre in Times Square.

In New York, Fatal1ty finally takes out his razor. Like the Dark Knight, he cleans up, shaving off his scraggly beard when it's time for battle. Fatal1ty enters the tournament second seed, behind Vo0.

Vo0 annihilates everyone on the way to the finals of the upper bracket. Fatal1ty, meanwhile, carves up his competition on his way to a showdown with Vo0. But Vo0 vanquishes Fatal1ty, sending him the consolation finals, basically a wild-card match. If Fatal1ty wins, he'll have another shot at Vo0 in the finals.

Fatal1ty and his sparring partner, Zen (Brian Grapatin), go back to their suite and practice. Fatal1ty won't let himself believe that the Dutchman might beat him again. He tells himself he's going to win. Not just kill Vo0 but break him.

To claim his fifth world title, he must first beat his recently signed protégé, Alessandro "Stermy" Avallone.

Fatal1ty does what he has to do. He torches Stermy.

Before he took the name Fatal1ty from his favorite game, Mortal Kombat II, Johnathan Easley Wendel grew up in a neighborhood at East 37th Street and Denton, near the Truman Sports Complex. He was the oldest of three children. His sister, Jenny, now 23, is a certified nurses aide. His brother, Jeffrey, plays varsity football at Blue Springs South High School.

Johnathan's parents, James and Judy Wendel, split up when Johnathan was 13. In addition to his job at General Motors, Johnathan's father ran the Raytown Rec pool hall, where Johnathan was a teenage pool prodigy.

"He'd beat all the older guys," James Wendel remembers. "We're talking guys in their thirties and forties. He was just that darn good."

Johnathan was set to go to a junior nationals tournament with a shot at qualifying for a trip to Las Vegas. He says the trip was his to lose, but he'll never know. His mother wouldn't let him go to the qualifier. She told him that it was her weekend to have the kids, and he had to stay home.

"I was always pissed off at my mom for not letting me go to that one thing," he says.

As with billiards, every game Johnathan played growing up came easily to him. Kids at Blue Springs South High School called him the Renaissance Man. But his mother wouldn't let him play more than one sport during the school year, so he chose tennis because he'd never played it. By his junior year, he was the team captain.

"As a freshman, he was just your average freshman kid playing tennis, and by his senior year, he was one of the top players in the Kansas City area," says his coach, Tim Jones. "He always played well under pressure, also. When he would get into tight matches, I was never worried about his mental game. As I remember it, he actually thrived off the pressure."

Pressure in sports was never a problem for Johnathan; family pressure was. His mother and new stepfather disapproved of his playing video games and would ground him from his computer. They wanted him to get a 9-to-5 job and go to college.

"They thought he was just wasting away his life," recalls Jeffrey Wendel, Johnathan's younger brother. "I think they'd still rather him do something else."

But Johnathan wasn't about to let his mom stop him again from testing his skills against the best gamers in the world. Two weeks before graduating in 1999, he left her house and moved in with his father. After graduation, he enrolled at DeVry, but his dream was to compete in one tournament to see how good he was.

"John, it's your choice," his father told him. "If you think you can do it, you can do it."

They struck a deal: If he played well and won some cash, he could chase a pro gaming career. If he came home empty-handed, he would enroll in school full time.

Johnathan spent all of his money on his one shot at the CPL's Frag3 tournament in Dallas.

When he came home, he slapped a check on his father's dining-room table. He'd won first place in the qualifying round and taken third in the finals. "I won $4,000 playing video games — what's this world coming to?" he asked. He dropped out of DeVry and started touring full time.

A few weeks after his Frag3 finish, Johnathan was invited to Sweden to represent the United States against the top 12 gamers in the world in a Quake 3 tournament. He swept the competition, winning 18 straight games. At 18 years old, he was the Quake 3 world champion.

"These are the kinds of things that build a star," says Heather Chaplin, co-author of the book Smartbomb: The Quest for Art, Entertainment and Big Bucks in the Videogame Revolution.

Johnathan cut a sponsorship deal with Razer, a hardware company that makes computer mice. The company paid him $30,000 to play full time and picked up the tab for all of his expenses — food, travel and hotels. All he had to do was wear a Razer T-shirt and keep winning. And he won nearly every tournament in 2000, playing in Dallas; Des Moines, Iowa; Sweden; St. Louis; Seoul, South Korea; and Cologne, Germany. In his first year as a pro gamer, he earned $110,000, he says.

In the process, he became the face of the Cyberathlete Professional League, Chaplin tells the Pitch.

"It's completely new that they [gamers] can go around making money playing video games," Chaplin says. "They want this to move to the next level, and they're very savvy, and they understand that they have to have faces representing them.... Right now, Fatal1ty is pretty much what they have."

While he was earning the respect of a growing number of gamers worldwide, though, Johnathan's relationship with his mother was deteriorating. They stopped speaking.

"I tried to be a son still, but she was being so weird, and she didn't want to be a part of it," he says. "She was so upset with me for leaving her."

Johnathan's relationship with his father was a different story. When Johnathan turned 19, he rewarded his father's loyalty by buying him a brand-new Cadillac, writing a check for $29,000 on the spot.

"Johnathan wasn't a millionaire," James Wendel says. "He did that out of his own heart."

Wendel says he'll never forget a trip he made with his son in 2000 to a Quake 3 tournament in Los Angeles. After they arrived at the airport, they shared a taxi with a local couple returning from vacation. Making small talk, the couple asked why they were in town. James said they were out West because his son played games professionally. The couple talked about the game their son was playing and how he idolized this gamer named Fatal1ty. James couldn't believe what he was hearing. "This is Fatal1ty," he told the couple. Right there, in a California cab, his son was signing autographs. Tears welled up in his eyes, he says today.

Fatal1ty's mother, Judy Latondress, tells the Pitch that she doesn't grant interviews. "Basically all I say is, I love my son, and whatever he does that makes him happy is his choice, and that's about it."

"She's kind of the negative part of all of this," Fatal1ty says. "She doesn't want to be involved."

But by the time Johnathan and his sister were in their early twenties, James Wendel thought they should be out on their own and asked them to move out of his house. Johnathan decided it was time to reconcile with his mother. He missed her. Ironically, he says, it was his gaming success that allowed him to reach out to her. "By proving her wrong, I was able to approach her," he says. "If I couldn't have proved her wrong, I probably wouldn't have approached her."

Rather than getting his own place, Johnathan moved back in with his mother. That didn't last, though.

Johnathan told Business Week he would finally consider his issues with his mom resolved on the day he could drive up to her house in a new Ferrari. He tells the Pitch that's still his goal.

"Who wouldn't?" he asks. "In the back of her mind, she has to always think that she said no and I said yes, and I went out and did it.

"She has to live with the fact that she was wrong," he adds. "My mom is very stubborn. So when you get a chance, you better rub it in as much as you can, because it's worth every second of it."

Rain is falling on the New York City streets. Inside the Nokia Theatre, it's all bright lights and big screens. This is the big time: worldwide MTV coverage and a check from Intel for $150,000 — the richest prize in pro gaming.

The Pitch watches on MTV's Overdrive as Fatal1ty emerges from a cloud of fake fog. MTV2 VJ Jim Shearer bellows, "Our first competitor hails from Kansas City, Missouri. On this world tour, he's racked up a phenomenal 3,191 frags and has earned $80,000 in prize money. Here is Johnathan 'Fatal1ty' Wendel."

On TV, Fatal1ty looks laid-back in his fleece pullover and blue jeans. SmU, his stuffed tiger and good-luck charm, is perched atop his monitor.

"On the other side, the Netherlands' best-known professional gamer," Shearer yells. "With 3,306 frags and $112,000 in earnings, here is Sander 'Vo0' Kaasjager."

Team Sportscast Network commentator Joe Miller calls the clash "the biggest rivalry in computer-gaming history."

The future looks bleak for Fatal1ty. He has no room for error; he has to defeat Vo0 in four out of six games. And they're playing the first on Vo0's virtual turf, a "map" called Psycho that is essentially an abandoned ballroom with connecting stairwells. Vo0 hasn't lost a match on Psycho since 2004, according to Miller and veteran video-game caller Gabriel David, TSN's other talking head today. But Fatal1ty makes progress with an early victory; he kills Vo0 15 times and dies 11 times in the first game.

The next game takes place in a battlefield called Meatless, the bombed-out concrete shell of a warehouse. It is Fatal1ty's signature map. Here, he kills Vo0 26 times and only dies six.

Vo0 looks rattled. He cups his hands to his mouth and blows on them. At one point between games, he drops his head to his desk and rests it there for nearly a minute.

"Four, three, two, one, let's go," an official shouts. The third game begins.

Fatal1ty and Vo0 wind through a maze of blood-splattered corridors and rocket-scorched hallways in the abandoned ballroom. Fatal1ty bites his lower lip and stares intently at his monitor as his gunman runs up the stairs and pumps out grenades that bounce down a hallway like tennis balls. Neither player scores a kill.

Out of his element, Fatal1ty slows the game — there isn't a kill for nearly five minutes.

"Lowest-scoring game of all time," Miller whines.

"We're seeing the most defensive Painkiller game I've pretty much ever seen," David says.

The crowd craves blood. Vo0 charges, firing a flurry of rockets. Fatal1ty falls in a bloody heap. But then Vo0 slips down the stairs, accidentally killing himself and taking away his kill. The game remains knotted at zero.

As the clock ticks and the rockets fly, the crowd oohs and ahs as the players inch closer to their next kills. Another battle royal ensues on a balcony as Fatal1ty's chain gun clicks off rounds. Vo0 fires a rocket, and Fatal1ty's body explodes, showering blood. A Fatal1ty rocket tears apart Vo0's body; dismembered limbs scatter on the ground like bloody rolling pins.

They murder each other with stakes and rockets, but the match stays tied.

With 30 seconds left, Vo0 hunts a wounded Fatal1ty, who knows that if Vo0 catches him, he's dead for good. Ten seconds tick away as Vo0 closes in on him. Rockets fly. Five seconds. Fatal1ty slips away.

Overtime. The clock resets to two minutes — and Fatal1ty goes on a killing spree, reeling off five straight kills.

"Yes!" he screams, showing the first sign of emotion after smoking Vo0 with a rocket shot from the balcony.

Another rocket ends Vo0, who shuts his eyes and shakes his head in disgust. With 20 seconds left, Fatal1ty has taken the game. One more victory and he's the champ.

Fatal1ty knows he's playing better than he's ever played before.

Vo0 won't go quietly, though. He corners Fatal1ty and strings together five unanswered kills. Fatal1ty is in a hole, but he harpoons Vo0 with a stake. Then he runs down Vo0 and shocks him with 90,000 volts of electricity for kill No. 2.

But Vo0 continues his own onslaught, taking a 7-to-4 lead. Eventually Fatal1ty climbs even with him and takes the lead, then reels off 12 unanswered kills, hitting amazing midair stake shots. "Yes!" he screams again, knowing he's in control. Another two kills and Vo0 throws up his hands, a sneer of disbelief creasing his face.

Time is draining away. Fatal1ty plays defense and runs. With a minute left, Vo0 reels off successive kills, but it's not enough. With 15 seconds left, Fatal1ty's crew cheers. As time expires, he screams "Yes!" and rips off his headphones.

He rushes to the side of the stage to high-five his business partners. "This is not Batman Begins," he tells them. "This is Fatal1ty begins."

Weeks later, the CPL's Munoz admits he wasn't confident that Fatal1ty could pull out the win.

"You couldn't hope for anything better than having someone work themselves through the lower bracket and end up taking the top prize, especially when it's your most famous gamer," he tells the Pitch. "When it came to the finals — which is all that is ever going to be remembered — although Fatal1ty was knocked into the lower bracket, he was able to come back, which is unheard of, by winning four matches in a row. That has never been done."

As the legend of Fatal1ty grows, some people think he's playing on borrowed time.

By gaming standards, Fatal1ty is an old man. Most pro gamers are between 18 and 24, and in his sixth season, Fatal1ty's already on the back end of 24. And no one is certain how long a gamer's career can last before hand-eye coordination starts to decline.

In October, Sheryl Huang, a marketing manager for the California maker of computer processors NVIDIA Corp., told Business Week, "The young guys are coming up, and they're going to be challenging some of these old dinosaurs like Johnathan."

The comment struck a nerve.

"She had no right to say that crap. That just made me more pissed and angry that I wanted to win," Fatal1ty tells the Pitch. "If I'm a dinosaur, I'm going to be here for a really freaking long time, like dinosaurs were."

"I think we have a few years left in Johnathan," says Steve Gould, CEO of Fatal1ty's licensing partner, the keyboard maker Auravision.

But there's pressure on Fatal1ty to keep winning, especially with his brand taking off.

Three years ago, Fatal1ty approached Auravision about sponsoring him. Seeing a rising star in a growing sport, Auravision offered him a partnership. "Rather than just slap his name on a keyboard, we proposed to John, let's build products from the ground up with your name on it and use your expertise, have you work with engineers with top companies and have you create the best of the best in products," Gould tells the Pitch.

The Auravision partnership hooked him up with million-dollar computer-hardware corporations to distribute gaming products with the Fatal1ty name on them in 120 countries. He already has his own motherboard and a sound card. This year, he'll add to the market a keyboard, headphones and special mouse with an adjustable weight system made specifically for first-person-shooter games.

"He has an exit strategy, which is his branding and his company, that is doing really well for him," Munoz says. "If over the next few years he starts noticing that his game isn't quite there, he certainly has an opportunity to continue his mission with the other things that he's doing in the sport, which is a very smart move."

Fatal1ty has already carved out his legacy. "He'll be remembered as CPL's first true champion," Munoz says, "the one who paved the way for other people to aspire to excel and take this seriously."

Fatal1ty is up for the challenge.

"No one's ever taken it as far as I've taken it," he says. "I'm the one who created the possibility that you could make a living gaming. I was the first full-time pro gamer. I was the first one, and now I'm still on top." And he'll be the first to see how long it lasts.

In his basement bedroom, November's oversized $150,000 check from Intel sits atop his headboard. "A lot of zeroes," he says of his latest prize. "Just the way I like it."

Weeks later, he says he's getting closer to buying the Ferrari.

"I think I'll have it by the time I'm 26," he says.

To get the car, he'll have to keep winning. His next chance will be with Quake 4, after the CPL announces its 2006 tour schedule in the next couple of months. He'll also be chasing his sixth world championship.

The world will be gunning for him, but that's the way he likes it, too. Another shot at proving his mother wrong.

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