Worldwide sales of video game consoles and software are expected to reach $30 billion this year – that's more than twice the revenue of the NFL, the NBA, and Major League Baseball combined. With hundreds of millions of people playing worldwide, it was perhaps inevitable that sporting competition would develop and give rise to the professional video game player.
As 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft reported earlier this year, the very best bill themselves as cyber-athletes, and crisscross the globe competing in tournaments that offer hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money. The number one player is someone called "Fatal1ty." That's his screen name, anyway. His real name is Johnathan Wendel. Every new sport needs stars, and Fatal1ty is the first superstar of video games. If he didn't already exist, someone would have to invent him.
The best video game player in America lives in Kansas City, Missouri. When 60 Minutes showed up for the interview, Johnathan Wendel was in the family rec room, riveted to his computer screen. He was using a mouse and a keyboard to propel himself through a computer-generated landscape in search of ominous red demons to kill before they kill him. It's how he makes his living, and why he calls himself Fatal1ty. He was locked in a virtual death match with his opponents, oblivious to everything around him, including our arrival.
Wendel had been practicing a game called "Painkiller" day and night with his friends and sparring partners, one of whom was crashed out on the bed. They were trying to get ready for the next big tournament in Dallas.
Wendel has been a pro for six years. When we first interviewed him last summer, he said he had won over $300,000 in tournament prize money.
There are parents all over the country that are telling their kids, "Shut off the video game. You're wasting your time." Wendel says he got that, too.
At age 25, he has won 41 tournaments, playing the same shoot'em-up video games that you can buy in most stores and living a life most young men his age can only dream of. He has traveled, all-expenses paid, to every continent except Antarctica. He has played in Moscow's Red Square, and on the Great Wall of China. And everywhere he goes, he is besieged by fans.
When 60 Minutes first caught up with him, he had won world championships in four different video games, and was training to add a championship win in a fifth game.
He says nobody else has done that, "not even close."
Asked if he is the best in the world, he replies, "If you say so. I'm trying to be modest here but, yes. I'm pretty good."
If he hadn't discovered professional gaming he would probably be doing tech support for some computer company in Kansas City. He was only 18 at the time and still living at home.
What was his mother's reaction when he told her that he wanted to become a professional video game player?
"Oh that probably didn't go so well," Wendel says with a chuckle.
His parents were divorced, so having failed to persuade his mother, he moved in with his dad and went to work on him, offering him a deal: "I was like, 'Dad, just let me go to this one tournament. If I don't win any money, like any significant money, I'm going to quit. I'll just quit, I'll go full time school, no problem,'" Wendel remembers.
He went to the tournament and won $4,000.
"And came home and slapped that check on the table. And I go, 'Dad, I won $4,000 playing a video game. What's this world coming to?' " says Wendel, adding, "it was so insane."
At the 2004 World Cyber Games championships in San Francisco, the purse totaled more than $400,000.
The tournaments are often broadcast live over the Internet, complete with play-by-play commentary.
There are both individual and team competitions, and coaches with furrowed brows pacing the sidelines.
It has the look and feel of a sporting event and to Johnathan Wendel, that's exactly what it is.
"It's all about hand-eye coordination, reflexes, timing, strategy, being quick on your feet, being able to think fast," Wendel says. "You got to be doing everything."
He may spend eight to 12 hours a day in front of a video screen, but don't mistake him for a geek.
Like most of the top video game professionals, he is an excellent athlete, and was a star on his high school tennis team.
"I work out a lot -- you know being physically fit and making sure your neurotransmitters are working properly and making sure that you're on beat and you're ready to go," says Wendel.
He calls that "neuro-fitness" and he believes it makes him think faster.
He also talks really fast. Are those his neurotransmitters?
"That's actually my brain talk thinking way too fast," he says.