Loner shoots to fame and fortune online
MATT Haag, a professional video game player, makes close to a million dollars a year sitting in a soft chair and smashing buttons. It is a fantastically sweet gig and he will do just about anything to keep it.
That is why he was in a bungalow in Venice Beach, California, making pancakes in the morning. Not just regular pancakes, but high-protein pancakes with ingredients like flax oil and chia seeds, whose balance of carbohydrates, fat and protein was created by a dietitian hired to teach him how to eat more healthily.
The pancakes were just the beginning of a month-long training session that Red Bull, one of Mr Haag's sponsors, organised for him and his team, OpTic Gaming.
Over the next several days, he and his fellow players gave blood while riding stationary bicycles, had their brains mapped by a computer and attended an hour-long yoga class where they learnt, among other things, how to stretch their throbbing wrists. The purpose of all this: To help them get better at blowing their opponents away in video games.
Three years ago, Mr Haag was flipping burgers at McDonald's. Today, the 22-year-old makes his living playing Call Of Duty, a popular series of war games where players run around trying to shoot one another.
He has 1.5 million YouTube subscribers along with a lucrative contract to stream his daily game sessions live online. Known as Nadeshot (shorthand for grenade shot), he travels the world playing tournaments as spectators pack arenas to see him.
While most professional gamers have to settle for modest sponsorships with companies that make things like game controllers and headphones, Mr Haag is one of six people on Red Bull's roster of e-sports players, and it is showering them with the same attention and training it has lavished on athletes who compete in the real world.
He is the face of the growing business of video games as a spectator sport. Thanks to live tournaments and online video-streaming sites like Twitch, which Amazon bought for US$1 billion (S$1.3 billion) in August, video games have become something to watch, not just play.
But fans need someone to root for, and that is where Mr Haag comes in. He has the requisite marks of a champion, like tournament victories and a compelling back story.
Most important, though, is his compulsion to share his life - on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube. He is, more or less, the producer, director and star of his own reality show.
His YouTube channel is in the top 1 per cent of the 220,000 channels tracked by research firm OpenSlate. Beyond YouTube, he has become the No. 1 player on MLG.TV, the site where people watch him play live.
What makes him so watchable? A recent survey by Jeetendr Sehdev, a marketer who focuses on celebrity branding, said that teenagers found YouTube stars easier to relate to and more candid than famous people from places like Hollywood.
Mr Haag's videos, raw and unproduced, add to this feeling of intimacy. In addition to game videos, his YouTube channel has regular updates in which he appears revealing and honest, posting, for example, travel diaries in which he sits on a hotel bed and tells fans about his day.
Fans get to see interpersonal drama, like an episode last year when one of his OpTic comrades quit the team and accused Mr Haag of blaming him for a tough tournament loss. And, although he has a mostly male audience and has made his reputation as a video game killer, he is not afraid to be vulnerable.
When his mother died two years ago, he sat on a couch at home and recorded a YouTube video in which he thanked followers for their heartfelt messages. He appeared distraught and shaken, but also genuinely thankful.
Both his fans and detractors agree that this connection with his public is what sets Mr Haag apart and makes him "a people's champion", as Sundance DiGiovanni, chief executive of Major League Gaming, a gaming league, put it.
"If you're talking about YouTube and fan outreach, he's the No. 1 player by far," said Mike Rufail, owner of Team EnVyUs, OpTic's chief rival. "But in terms of raw talent, he's a top 15 player - I wouldn't put him in that top three or four guys."
Mr Haag doesn't care what his opponents think. He makes several times his father's salary playing video games, and he bought a US$3,000 watch this year. The only thing he wants is to hold on to his job.
"I think about my future probably at least 10 times a day," he said. "I think about what if this all goes away one day? What if, for some reason, people just aren't in your live stream tomorrow? What if people aren't clicking on your YouTube videos tomorrow? What if your team doesn't work out and you're not performing that well and you have to quit competitively? What happens when you can't compete any more and you want to retire because you're going insane?"
When Mr Haag was growing up in the Chicago area, his parents did not need to worry about where he was on weekends - he was usually upstairs playing video games. Parties made him anxious. And instead of marijuana or alcohol, the sugary rush of an energy drink was his drug of choice and still is.
"He was more of a loner," said his father, Jeff Haag, 50, a carpenter. "He gamed a lot."
Mr Haag's competitive career began seven years ago, when he was 15, with online tournaments organised through his Xbox, as well as small local contests held in banquet halls. Five years ago, his uncle took him to a tournament in Anaheim, California.
He finished fourth but the right people had already taken notice. Around the same time, Hector Rodriguez, a one-time insurance analyst who controlled a pick-up team, OpTic Gaming enticed Mr Haag to join OpTic by offering to pay for travel and lodging at tournaments.
Two years later, Mr Haag went back to California for the Call Of Duty championships and led OpTic to a first-place finish and the US$400,000 top prize. This brought him a wave of publicity and a US$100,000 cheque.
The day after the pancake lessons, Mr Haag was in Red Bull's game studio performing a test to see how his brain functioned under the stress of video game combat.
The first thing he did after the test was post a photo of himself on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. He said: "Social media is the most important part of what I do."
Even though he calls himself a professional video game player, he is really an online video star. The money he wins in contests is tiny, compared with the money he makes from his live stream and YouTube videos.
His command over his audience is great enough that Major League Gaming recently enticed him to leave Twitch and stream exclusively with its site. He is on track to make US$700,000 from streaming and his YouTube channel this year. Throw in his other sponsorships and contest winnings, and he is on his way to a million-dollar year.
But he is paid per viewer, so he has to keep producing.
One evening, Mr Haag, bags under his eyes, wanted to take a night off. But his teammates declined and he changed his plans, staying for yet another marathon session of streaming.
"I would love to go home and hang out, but you gotta do what you gotta do," he said. "Can't complain too much, playing video games for a living."