Gaming new pro outlet
Eric Wrona used to walk the halls of Zionsville (Ind.) just like any other high school student. As an alternate on the varsity tennis team, his athletic exploits were modest. And more than anything, he loved to play video games.
He was just a lot better at them than you. Turns out, that means a lot more than bragging rights in today's video game world. Wrona's life changed dramatically this past April when he competed in a Major League Gaming Pro Circuit tournament in New Jersey. Wrona and three other gamers placed seventh as a team in the Halo 3 4v4 tourney to earn pro status in Major League Gaming, a rapidly rising competitive league that gives high school students a chance to call themselves professional athletes (hey, if NASCAR and fishing are sports, video games can be too).
Less than a year after his successful debut, Wrona is considered the hottest star in the sport. He competes under the name "Snipedown" and plays for the league's best Halo 3 team, Str8 Rippin, which is sponsored by Dr. Pepper. Wrona has traveled to events in Orlando and Toronto and has already banked more than $30,000 this year. Needless to say, school is a little different these days.
"It's cool," says Wrona, now a senior at Zionsville. "People know who I am." Wrona might not have had the opportunity for stardom without MLG, a professional league founded in 2002 to provide a formal organization for gamers who were already playing competitively online.
Six years later, the league is a booming success. MLG Pro Circuit events average roughly 10,000-15,000 attendees, including 2,000 competitors. NBA All-Star Gilbert Arenas even sponsors a team. "It's amazing seeing fans out there who want to see you play," says Wrona.
But it gets better than legions of fans for the competitors. The top pros can make up to six figures per year in tournament earnings and endorsements. And just like other pro sports, there are trades and free agency.
Unlike pro leagues such as the NFL or NBA, however, high school kids can actually get in on the action. The majority of competitors are either in high school or are college-aged, and MLG co-founder Mike Sepso estimates 70 percent of MLG's audience is between ages 16-24. The league even plans events so as not to interfere with students' high school schedules.
"We're structured very much like a sport," says Sepso, MLG's chairman. "There's an understandable path for how you go from amateur to pro just like there is in basketball or football or anywhere else. Your initiation into the sport of Major League Gaming is instant competition. There is no practice. You can just jump in and you're playing against people.
"We've done a lot of behavioral research on our wider audience and people who are our best competitors," he adds. "They generally share the same kind of psychological and behavioral tendencies of any pro athlete. They're highly competitive and highly social. Their whole world is wrapped around beating everybody else in whatever it is that they're doing. So gaming just happens to be an outlet for our players."
Using social networking website gamebattles.com, MLG features a pyramid-style system in which players register as amateurs and can join teams of four with the hopes of one day competing in the pro circuit. Gamers could go pro this year in Halo 3, Gears of War, Rainbow Six Vegas 2 and Call of Duty 4 (the games on the pro circuit change from year to year).
To join the pros, teams must finish among the top 16 (the top eight place in the money) in one of the MLG-recognized games at the five pro circuit stops. This year, MLG held events in New Jersey, San Diego, Orlando, Toronto and Dallas. There's even an open amateur component to the live tournaments that allows amateurs to go up against established pro teams. Think of it like a high school hoops team having the chance to play the Boston Celtics.
FIVE HIGH SCHOOLERS TEARING UP MLG
BONNIE BURTON (AKA XENA)
A senior at Carlisle Area (Carlisle, Pa.), Burton was MLG's first female competitor. She took the second half of the season off this year to concentrate on school but plans on returning in 2009.
AARON ELAM (AKA ACE)
Though only a sophomore at Ryle (Union, Ky.), Elam has made quite a name for himself competing in Halo 3 this season.
ETHAN FRITSCHE (AKA KILLA)
Fritsche, a junior at Oak Grove (Oak Grove, Mo.), led his team to victory in Gears of War at MLG's Toronto event.
JACOB REISER (AKA HYSTERIA)
A junior at Mountlake Terrace (Mountlake Terrace, Wash.), Reiser led his team to the Halo 3 title at the Orlando event.
ERIC WRONA (AKA SNIPEDOWN)
In only his first year in MLG, the Zionsville (Zionsville, Ind.) senior has already established himself as one of the league's best in Halo 3.
After the five regular season stops, the top eight teams from each game are invited to the national championships. All told, the 2008 season ran from April to November.
In 2006, Chris "Shockwave" Smith and his Carbon team won the national title in Halo 2, earning the team $100,000 in the process. Smith was a senior at Conestoga (Berwyn, Pa.) at the time and actually had to rush to catch a plane after the championships so he could get back in time for school. Now a sophomore at Virginia Tech, Smith is one of the standout pros on the MLG circuit.
"It's pretty amazing, I'm not going to lie," says Smith, who estimates he won between $50,000-60,000 during his senior year of high school. "A lot of people may smirk thinking I'm a pro at video games until you tell them the prize you can win. You feel accomplished to put so much into something you care about and come out on top."
Carlisle Area (Carlisle, Pa.) senior Bonnie "Xena" Burton, MLG's first female competitor, recently surprised her English teacher when she wrote a paper talking about her experiences playing Halo and traveling for video game competitions. A player on the Carlisle Area varsity tennis team, Burton believes MLG's popularity and participation among high school students will continue to grow.
"It's a great option, really," says Burton, who's planning on returning to MLG competition in 2009 after taking the second half of this year off for school. "It's showing that it does take a lot of skill. It's very strategic and it's a mental game.
"I can't see a stop in this," she adds. "It's a great opportunity for kids. It's something you don't really need to be born to play."
Which is why Wrona is no longer just like any other high school student. He may not be the next LeBron James, but he's blazing his own preps-to-pros trail.
Jon Mahoney covers high school sports for ESPN RISE.
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