"Nadeshot" Haag, 21, shouts directions
to his off-site team as he plays "Call of
Duty," during a tournament over the weekend
at his Chicago northwest suburban home, Jan. 12,
— Matt Haag used to be just another suburban kid going
to high school, working at McDonald’s and aggravating
his parents by spending endless hours on his Xbox.
the lanky, dark-eyed 21-year-old is a global celebrity
to an enormous number of young people, very few of whom
know him as Matt. They call him Nadeshot, master of the
virtual submachine gun, a guy who makes a six-figure
living playing the video game "Call of Duty."
is among a handful of Chicago-area men who have found a
lucrative niche in the booming world of competitive
video gaming. Under the name OpTic Gaming, they have
snared corporate sponsors, built flourishing YouTube
channels and earned a small fortune in tournament
they play, even in minor online matches, tens of
thousands of people watch. When they feud, their gamer
handles incite some of the hottest trending on Twitter.
Even Haag, a player so popular that fans pay $4.99 a
month just to watch him practice, doesn’t fully
is it about me that people gravitate toward? I wish I
knew," he said between rounds of a recent online
tournament. "I don’t consider myself to be
over-the-top entertaining or someone that would be a joy
to be around 24-7, but it’s working for me."
money and attention are signs that after decades of
hype, "eSports" are finally putting a digital
foot in the mainstream. Fans are packing sports arenas
to watch top gamers battle for prize money. Major League
Gaming, an organization that broadcasts matches online,
saw consumption of its video more than triple last year,
reaching 54 million hours.
in perhaps the clearest sign of a subculture that has
broken through, gamers from other countries are getting
U.S. visas designating them as "internationally
the trajectory is up — that’s pretty clear, and not
just in North America," said Patrick Howell O’Neill,
who covers eSports for the online publication The Daily
Dot. "Asia and South America have come into this
thing more and more, and they’re growing it in a way
bigger way than North America. Will it be on par with
soccer? It’s possible. It’s going to be enormous,
video gaming burst from the computer lab in 1972 with
barroom games of Pong, and tournaments swiftly followed.
Kotaku, a gaming news website, says Stanford students
mounted the first one later that year, featuring a game
few people made money from arcade-based competitions,
but journalist Rod Breslau of the website onGamers said
the scene didn’t really take off until the late 1990s,
when a virtual shoot-em-up called "Quake"
allowed players to battle over the Internet.
whole industry is based off of that," he said.
video games such as "StarCraft" became wildly
popular in Asia during the 2000s, Breslau said,
especially in South Korea, where television stations
broadcast matches, major tech corporations handed out
sponsorships and top gamers became celebrities.
gaming was much more casual in the U.S., but communities
formed around a few games, including "Call of
Duty," a best-selling title that gives players the
perspective of military operatives as they chase each
other around bullet-pocked landscapes.
of those caught up in the fledgling culture was Hector
Rodriguez, a 20-something gamer from Wheeling, Ill. He
joined a few friends in online matches and got hooked on
the strategy and teamwork demanded by the game.
in 2009, he moved away from competition to focus on the
game in a different way. Under the name of his team,
OpTic Gaming, he put videos onto YouTube showing
everything from "Call of Duty" strategies to
tournament highlights to equipment reviews.
quickly became aware of a ravenous appetite for content
related to the game: One early effort, an artfully
edited montage of sniper kills accompanied by a rap and
metal soundtrack, has attracted nearly 6 million views
pays content creators a slice of the advertising revenue
their videos bring in. Google did not respond to a query
seeking comment, but various YouTubers peg the rate at
roughly $2 per 1,000 views, with some getting
significantly more — and Rodriguez saw enough
potential in the venture to quit his insurance job and
devote himself full time to OpTic.
nine months, I didn’t get paid a single dime, and I
sacrificed more then than ever," said Rodriguez,
now 33. "My girlfriend was 8 months pregnant when I
decided to drop the news on her: ‘Hey, I want to
pursue this as a career. I really want to dedicate 100
percent of my time and effort to growing this
potentially big opportunity.’
she said, ‘Do it.’"
decided to extend awareness of the OpTic Gaming brand
— whose icon is an interlocking black "O"
and a neon green "G" — by forming a new
competitive team. After asking around, he offered a spot
to Haag, then a student at Stagg High School in Palos
built his gaming chops playing various titles — his
handle, "Nadeshot," comes from a lethal move
in the science fiction game "Halo" in which a
grenade is followed by a gunshot — but switched his
allegiance to "Call of Duty" in 2007 when his
parents gave him the game for Christmas.
was an instant addict, playing up to eight hours a day
until his mother seized his Xbox controller (it took her
a while to figure out that he had spares stashed away).
He developed reflexes fast and precise enough to
dispatch foes a split second after they appeared on
screen, and soon, he was winning a few hundred dollars
at small competitions.
changed after he joined OpTic. Live video game
tournaments had become major attractions, complete with
giant video screens, elaborate stages and play-by-play
announcers, and in 2011, a year after Haag graduated
from Stagg, he and three teammates took first place in a
Los Angeles competition put on by Activision, the
publisher of "Call of Duty." Their prize was
was a jaw-dropping amount of money for playing a video
game, but Haag said he viewed the win as a freak
occurrence, not something he could count on to make a
living. So at Rodriguez’s urging, he concentrated on
building a fan base online.
explained how they were monetizing their content on
YouTube, and they were making ad revenue every single
month," Haag said. "It was a solid stream of
income you could rely on every paycheck."
pumped out videos, mixing game play lessons and
tournament travelogues with reflections on heavy
subjects such as death and religion. His audience was
modest at first, but in mid-2013, after a year of good
tournament results, the release of a new "Call of
Duty" game and a move to the "OpTic
House" — a home and practice space that team
members share in the Chicago suburbs — the numbers
exploded. Today his channel has received more than 65
found other income sources, too, from a sponsorship with
energy drink-maker Red Bull to a channel on Twitch.tv, a
website that lets fans watch their gaming idols practice
and play for hours on end — gamers get a piece of the
ad revenue and the $4.99 monthly subscription fee that
allows fans to comment on the action.
it up, and Haag said he made more than $100,000 last
year. While the earnings of competitive video gamers are
notoriously opaque, lacking the publicly disclosed
contracts of other pro sports, journalists Breslau and
Howell O’Neill said Haag’s claim was credible.
with commercial success has come a legion of "Call
of Duty" aficionados who regard Haag and his
teammates as "money whores," more interested
in Internet cash than victory. OpTic has performed
poorly in recent months, and when the team seriously
stumbled at a Philadelphia tournament this month,
Twitter erupted with malicious glee.
can handle third or fourth place, as long as we’re in
contention, but you can’t really cut it with 13th,14th
place," said OpTic’s coach, Will "BigTymer"
Johnson, a 22-year-old from Marked Tree, Ark., who is
listed in "Guinness World Records 2013" as the
highest-earning "Call of Duty" player.
now, though, the fan base appears secure, with young
people around the world claiming loyalty to the
Farrel, a 15-year-old in Jakarta, Indonesia, said he
bought an OpTic T-shirt and an OpTic-themed Xbox
controller while subscribing to OpTic gamers’ YouTube
and Twitch channels.
like OpTic because of what they stand for as an
organization: Go for your goals and do anything to
achieve them," he said in an email.
said he wants to prove the naysayers wrong by winning a
championship this year, and after a dizzying round of
OpTic roster changes, he will get his chance when
Activision and Major League Gaming hold a $1 million
event in March.
just about every night you can go online and find him at
his Xbox, blowing away avatars while discussing strategy
with his teammates and occasionally addressing fans who
dissect his every move and utterance on a scrolling
comment box. Though their devotion mystifies Haag’s
father, it also makes him proud of the path his son is
watch almost every evening," said Jeff Haag, a
carpenter whose Twitter handle, @dadshot, has made him a
minor gaming celebrity in his own right. "Actually,
I’m watching right now. It’s just crazy how these
kids love watching him."