There has been some debate as to what might justify earning a place in the Esports Hall of Fame this year, but the weekend just passed saw a unanimous entry accepted by the pantheon of gaming greatness, as Johnathan ‘Fatal1ty’ Wendel was inducted by that institution. For those who don’t know, Fatal1ty is a former Quake and Painkiller pro who probably invented esports, a decade or more before most people think it started.
That might seem like hyperbole, but it's really not. We spoke to Paul 'Redeye' Chaloner, currently on-site at the Kuala Lumpur Major, to get an idea of just what impact Fatal1ty had on the branding and business side of the scene, and he was as emphatic as can be about just what what Fatal1ty meant to esports now, and how ahead of his time he was.
"Without John doing what he did in the early days of esports, it’s unlikely we’d have gained the ground we did with the mainstream," Paul told us from Malaysia. "He should be thought of as the true first professional gamer, the man who did things outside of the game that no one else was doing and in fact very few have done until very recently."
It was Wendel's grasp of all aspects of the life, rather than just the gaming side of things, that really set him apart, according to Redeye. "He understood early that his name and face were a brand and they while he would live and die by his results in the game, his success outside of it mattered just as much. It’s fair to say Jon is one of the pioneers of professional gaming and thoroughly deserves a place in the hall of fame, my only surprise is, it took this long!"
Of course, he wasn’t truly the first professional gamer, but what set Wendel apart was his laser-like focus on making a career out of gaming, which informed his decision-making and prevented him damaging his value in the ways pros still do to this day. That marketability even led to Fatal1ty appearing on MTV’s True Life series, something previously unthinkable with the niche nature of gaming at the time.
It’s hard to quantify his impact on esports today, as the gap between Fatal1ty and the scene we now know and love is so huge as to almost be a separation but, fortunately, we are blessed by the presence of Sujoy Roy at Luckbox. One of the few who was a pro gamer even prior to Fatal1ty, Sujoy was already an established name in Quake when the new sensation came on the block, and remembers vividly the effect he had on esports.
"While esports was still unsure what it wanted to be, Johnathan Wendel arrived with more drive than any other player we’d seen, the original try-hard gamer," Sujoy told us of Fatal1ty. "While many players enjoyed the hospitality of a live event, he’d be in a hotel room just practising."
That level of dedication also applied to building a personal brand too, as the American was one of the first players to parlay a successful esports career into commercial gain.
It was his dedication to winning above all the most stood out though, as Sujoy recalls. “Fatal1ty could never be accused of not being prepared. And it paid off with results. He was the player people loved to hate, especially if you weren't from the US. But you had to always admire how he stayed at the top of his game, and created a brand from his name."
Even as an elite player himself, Sujoy was forced to admit Fatal1ty earned his success, rather than having it gifted to him. "I grudgingly admired how much work Fatal1ty put in. He was tough to beat because nobody wanted to win more than him." That level of professional focus and dedication was a hallmark of so much of Wendel's time as a pro gamer, and allowed him to gain endorsements and sponsorships others could only dream of.
As a player, he was absurdly good, too. It was only in 2013 that his position at the top of the esports winnings charts was finally taken by a StarCraft player, and that comparison is very different with Korean esports boosted way beyond most other cultures by a fairly unique obsession with certain types of game. Given that he had retired in 2006, the fact it took another seven years for someone to outearn him is utterly incredible, and comes close to completing the picture of a player that broke new ground with every step.
To finish properly, though, we’ll need to borrow some words from the man himself, and specifically an article written for The Players Tribune in 2016. "Esports today is pretty much unrecognisable … I stuck around with the hopes of there being a tournament with a life-changing pay-out, and now we have several in multiple games every single year.” Wendel may have been waiting for one life-changing payout, but through his hard work, he laid some of the groundwork for every single such prize awarded and life altered for the better today, and there can be no greater accomplishment, or feat deserving of a place in a Hall of Fame.
Main image: Fatal1ty / Twitter