The man known to legions of adoring fans as “Flamesword” rises at around 8 a.m. from his “prized possession,” a Tempur-Pedic mattress with built-in massage, and heads downstairs several hours before his five roommates, who maintain the schedule of vampires, would even dream of getting out of bed.
Wearing shorts, moccasin-style slippers, and a royal blue T-shirt, Flamesword—real name Mike Chaves—steps around the jugs of spring water in the front hall, avoids the thicket of electrical cords snaking off the dining room table, and takes care not to overturn any of the teetering stacks of Red Bull cases scattered about the four-bedroom colonial in a generic swath of exurbia hacked from the flat woods west of Chicago.
There’s no noise, save the soft hum of the idling computers that sit unattended on nearly every flat surface, making it seem as if a gang of hackers had fled the scene in a hurry. “Our neighbors probably think we’re drug dealers,” Chaves jokes. “We’re a bunch of young guys who are up late and never go outside.” It didn’t help their image when, in 2013, the local police department descended on the house wearing Kevlar vests and carrying machine guns after anonymous online pranksters reported a fake hostage situation at their address—a practical joke known in online circles as “swatting.”
Of course, Chaves and his roommates aren’t criminals. They’re professional athletes. To be more specific, they’re professional “e-athletes,” leaders of a new and rapidly growing vanguard of young men who’ve gotten famous—and in some cases, rich—for being as extraordinary at playing video games as Stephen Curry is at draining three-pointers.
And, like pros in other sports, they compete for a team. In this case, it’s OpTic Gaming, an e–Sports “franchise” founded by Hector Rodriguez, a young entrepreneur who left a finance job to become one of the first team owners in the sport. Rodriguez provides housing, travel expenses, and exposure for everyone in the so-called “OpTic House,” home to some of the most successful gamers on the planet. Two of Chaves’ roommates drive expensive, late-model German luxury cars, including the guy whose bedroom is across the hall from his. That would be Matt “NaDeSHoT” Haag, the 22-year-old Call of Duty star who’s almost certainly one of the most famous gamers alive. Haag earns upward of a million dollars a year and, like the rest of OpTic Gaming, is sponsored by Red Bull.
Chaves was recruited to OpTic House in 2013, when Rodriguez was looking for someone to coach his crack Call of Duty team, even though Call of Duty isn’t Chaves’ specialty—he excels at Halo, another first-person, military-style shooter, which had fallen out of favor in recent years and is experiencing something of a resurgence of late. (Chaves will lead the new OpTic Halo team, too.)
Rodriguez admired Chaves’ expertise in strategy, communication, and team play, which he felt would be an asset to his group. More important, though, Rodriguez wanted Chaves because of what he represented: a new breed of gamer who understands that his health and fitness directly affect his playing strategy and kill rate.
“I knew Mike could help us reshape our lives into something a little bit healthier and better for the overall gaming lifestyle,” Rodriguez told me.
Chaves is 5’7″ and has the athletic build of a slot receiver or second baseman. While his roommates are sleeping, he rummages through cabinets and the freezer, pulling out various bottles and bags until he’s assembled the ingredients for a smoothie: a banana-blueberry-peanut butter blend with oatmeal, flaxseed, multivitamin powder, and chocolate whey protein. As he dumps in two scoops, I scan the room. All around him are signs of dietary wandering: sugared cereals, bags of Oreos, a bottle of Grey Goose. “At the end of the day I can’t stop them from eating what they want,” he says, shaking his head.
Still, he’s had a profound effect on his roomies. They’ve all changed their diets, and most have joined him for workouts—at least here and there. His biggest success is Marcus “MBoZe” Blanks, a 19-year-old gaming prodigy who moved in weighing 360 pounds. Seven months later, thanks to Chaves’ regimen of full-body workouts and rigid dieting, he’s down to 280.
“The process was dreadful for someone who barely worked out, ever, in his life,” says Blanks. “But once I got the hang of it, the days flew by.” And becoming fitter has paid off in myriad ways. “For gaming, it’s made me a lot more alert and a lot more focused,” he says. “And now I actually don’t mind taking pictures with fans and seeing them tweeting it out anymore.”
Chaves prefers to stay around 150 pounds, but he’s considering putting on a little bulk as he gears up for competition. “It’s all about finding the right balance and feeling relaxed and better,” he says. While traveling, which he does often, he keeps mentally and physically fit with his “four-minute hotel workouts,” high-intensity bursts designed to offset the languor of sitting for eight hours straight during a competition. The workout has become very popular on his YouTube channel, where 160,000 video game enthusiasts routinely tune in for his exercise tips and diet advice.
“Sitting down all day is terrible for the body, yet that’s what I do for a living,” he says. “So exercise is crucial for the mind, for the body, and for feeling relaxed. I’ve seen my greatest success since I started really working out and keeping fit a few years ago—and that includes four world championships versus the zero I’d won before.”
The American video game industry generates more than $71 billion in annual revenue—more than the music industry and not far behind Hollywood films. Every year, it expands by leaps and bounds. And e–Sports, as the top level of competitive game play, is on an equally precipitous growth track.
For example, three years ago there were 8,800 e–Sports tournaments held around the world, according to Battlefy, an industry analyst group. In 2014, that number was 47,500. The most famous game, by far, is League of Legends, which 27 million people play on any given day. Unlike Call of Duty, it’s played on computers, not consoles, and is global in scope. Its most fervent fans are in South Korea, where two different TV channels are devoted to video games and professional League of Legends matches regularly sell out arenas; but that fervor is reaching these shores, too. In 2013, the League of Legends world championship sold out L.A.’s Staples Center and was watched live online by 32 million people—significantly more than watch the Masters golf tournament or any single World Series game.
Last year, Chicago’s Robert Morris University became the first college to create a varsity e–Sports athletic team, complete with scholarships (they focus on League of Legends, for now), and ESPN added e–Sports to the roster of both the summer and winter X Games. Even the U.S. government recognizes the revolution that’s afoot. As of 2014, the State Department now considers giving gamers the same 0-1 “exceptional ability” visas it awards elite athletes in soccer, football, baseball, tennis, and other traditional sports.
What makes the rise of e–Sports seem so sudden is the fact that it’s happened almost entirely outside of traditional media. ESPN has dabbled in broadcasts, but for the most part, professional gamers live and play online, via streaming networks. “This is the first sport that’s grown up and matured completely outside of linear TV,” says Mike Sepso, co-founder of Major League Gaming, the largest online network for gaming content and the organizer of most major professional competitions.
Gaming’s growth numbers are staggering. When MLG.tv launched in December 2013, it logged a modest 323,000 hours viewed. Six months later, viewers consumed 5.96 million hours of content—up 1,745%. “It’s still the early days,” says Sepso, “but the reality is that the audience for gaming is so big. The most exciting thing is that it’s truly global. When we broadcast, there are people in 130 countries watching.”
“There’s an entire generation of kids growing up and their television is live streams,” says Chris Kluwe, a gaming fan who punted for the Minnesota Vikings for eight years before retiring from the NFL in 2012. “They can watch other people play games. That’s where they get their entertainment.”
Kluwe is an avid player who’s been bullish about e–Sports for some time. But the true and near-term potential of gaming wasn’t clear to him until he went to those sold-out League of Legends finals at the Staples Center. “It was a stadium filled with people watching something they really enjoyed, who knew when it was appropriate to react and how to react,” he says. “It was awesome.”
Kluwe believes that ultrafit video gamers represent the future of the sport. “The more in shape you are, the more fit you are, the longer you can concentrate in peak performance without any degradation of your ability,” he says.
When I voice skepticism on the subject (“Video gamers as athletes, really? C’mon!”) he dismisses my dismissal. “It may not have the same physical impact as something like football or soccer, but you still have to have reflexes that are on par with any of the major sports,” he says. “If you look at the number of operations per second that StarCraft players do or how quickly League of Legends players react, that’s the same level of perception and skill required to hit a 90 mph fastball or read an incoming blitz. It’s not something just anyone can do.”
The folks at Red Bull emphatically agree. Last summer, the company invited Chaves and the other members of OpTic Gaming to Santa Monica to take part in a weeklong boot camp the company offers regularly to its elite athletes in sports like surfing, snowboarding, BMX, and motocross. This was the first time the company had invited professional video gamers to take part.
There, Andy Walshe, a stout, jovial Aussie biomechanist who serves as director of high performance at Red Bull, oversees an in-house research division set up to “hack the talent” from the “extraordinary cross-section of special individuals” in the Red Bull family of athletes, as he puts it. Specifically, Walshe sets out to identify how the best performers in the world do what they do, then how to isolate and teach those skills to others.
Elite gamers, he says, are just as special as elite golfers or big-wave surfers. The only difference is where that special ability resides. “They have a very high-level cognitive-executive function,” he says. “When we first started the program, even the gaming community was like, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ ”
To Walshe, the question of whether gamers are actually athletes isn’t really a question at all. “For me, it’s very simple: It’s about the high level of skill required, a combination of physical and cognitive ability, as well as high stakes and big stages—and they’re performing on cue. They have to go out and deliver as required. That’s the classic definition of any of our sporting programs.”
What’s more, he says, “They’re doing things—decision making, information collecting, internal communication—at a level and a pace we’ve never seen before in any other sport.”
In addition to mood, says Walshe, exercise is crucial for focus, which must be maintained for hours at a time. “The fact that they’re stationary for long periods makes the fitness and health improvements even more critical.”
“These types of competitions are not about just making good decisions but making them when you’re exhausted,” says Timothy Church, M.D., Ph.D., professor of preventive medicine at LSU’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center and a leading expert on the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle. “Physically working out builds the endurance of your muscles, lungs, and heart—and, surprisingly, your brain as well. This is one of the main reasons the military keeps the Special Forces in such great shape. Many world-class poker players figured this out years ago as well.”
Mike Sepso of Major League Gaming is seeing more and more players thinking like Chaves. In fact, Doug “Censor” Martin, a top player on team FaZe Clan, one of OpTic’s main rivals, now broadcasts his own fitness and health videos and plays in a tight, sleeveless jersey that shows off his ripped arms. “It’s not ‘athletic’ per se, but it requires insanely quick reflexes, visual acuity, and mental alertness for long periods of time,” Sepso says. “And without good fitness and nutrition, those things will suffer, as will the length of your career. The fitter you are, the longer you can play at a high level.”
Depending on the day’s schedule, Chaves works out at 8:30 a.m., after his breakfast, or in the middle of the afternoon, around three, when he’s finished his first chunk of daily practice. There’s a standing invitation for anyone in the house to come along, and often at least one roommate, if not several, take him up on it.
For a while Haag, aka NaDeSHoT, was a regular at the workouts, but by winter he was too deep into competition and team management to do much more than hole up in his room playing Call of Duty while shouting live commentary for fans into his headset. “I worked out with him all last year,” Chaves says as he prepares to head to the gym for an afternoon session. “He now knows all the stuff he needs to do.”
You can see NaDeSHoT, who has a slender, string bean build, in several of Chaves’ YouTube videos, including his series of four-minute hotel-room workouts that “saved” him during periods of extreme travel, he says. “I get sad if I can’t work out.”
Chaves is quick to point out that he’s not a professional trainer. “I try to avoid teaching people how to squat,” he explains. “I don’t have a certificate.” He will, however, gladly lead workouts, and if he sees someone with egregiously poor form, he’ll certainly point that out. Mostly, though, he’s content to act as a motivator.
Currently, apart from Marcus Blanks, his most diligent disciple is Will “BigTymeR” Johnson, a 23-year-old from Arkansas who once had a Guinness World Record as the highest-earning Call of Duty player ever. Johnson retired from gaming last year to pursue stock trading—from his bedroom, on the first floor—but remains part of the OpTic family as a coach and popular personality (as his 450,000 Twitter followers and the thousands of fans of his daily streams would no doubt attest). “He’s got us on some pretty animalistic workouts,” Johnson says of Chaves.
The two hop in Johnson’s Mercedes C63AMG to head to the gym, a sprawling suburban complex with a large pool, a massive climbing wall, and multiple full-size basketball courts. Here, last summer, Chaves accepted the challenge of one of his Halo teammates and completed “Murph,” a notoriously brutal CrossFit workout that requires a one-mile run, 100 pullups, 200 pushups, 300 squats, and another mile run, all as quickly as possible. Elite CrossFitters can get close to a preposterous 25 minutes. Chaves finished in 55 minutes. As we walk in, he says he plans to try and improve that time next summer, after he bulks up. But today, he says, will be a leg day. So he loads several 45-pound plates onto a bar and commences squatting while looking entirely too comfortable.
“Watching Mike is really what gets me going,” says Johnson. “He’s my motivation— always pushing the limits. There’s a lot of strength in that little man.”