In gaming, he’s No. 1 with a bullet
Matt Haag, 22, is pulling in a six-figure salary as a professional gamer with his own YouTube channel and sponsorships.
The New York Times
About OpTic Gaming
CEO: Hector Rodriguez
• Matt Haag joins OpTic team in 2010.
• In 2011 Haag led team to a first-place finish and the $400,000 top prize at “Call of Duty” championship.
LOS ANGELES — Matt Haag, a professional video-game player, makes close to a million dollars a year sitting in a soft chair smashing buttons. It is a fantastically sweet gig, and he will do just about anything to keep it.
That is why, on a recent morning, he was in a bungalow in Venice Beach, Calif., making pancakes. 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 healthfully.
The pancakes were just the beginning of a monthlong training session that Red Bull, one of Haag’s sponsors, organized 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 hourlong yoga class where they learned, 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, he was flipping burgers at McDonald’s. Today Haag, 22, skinny and blindingly pale, makes his living playing “Call of Duty,” a popular series of war games where players run around trying to shoot one another.
Haag has 1.5 million YouTube subscribers along with a lucrative contract to live stream his daily game sessions online. Known as “Nadeshot” (shorthand for “grenade shot”), he travels the world playing tournaments as spectators pack arenas to see him. At home near Chicago, he has a problem with fans showing up at his house.
And while most pro gamers have to settle for modest sponsorships with companies that make things like game controllers and headphones, Haag last year also attracted Red Bull, the energy drink, which has traditionally built its marketing around skateboarders, motocross riders and other extreme-sports athletes.
Haag is one of six people on its 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.
For the trip to Los Angeles, Red Bull paid for Haag and his teammates to live in Venice Beach.
During the day, the company shuttled them to its headquarters in Santa Monica for workouts and other training. At night, they lingered in a high-tech studio and played video games into the wee hours.
Haag 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 $1 billion in August, video games have become something to watch, not just play.
But fans need someone to root for, and that is where Haag comes in. He has the requisite marks of a champion, like tournament victories and a compelling back story. And he certainly looks like a gamer: On the recent morning in Venice, his pancake-making attire consisted of a T-shirt, knee-length shorts and a backward baseball cap.
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.
Haag’s YouTube channel is in the top 1 percent of the 220,000 channels tracked by the research firm OpenSlate. Beyond YouTube, Haag has become the No. 1 player on MLG.TV, the site where people watch him play live.
Haag’s competitive career began seven years ago, when he was 15, with online tournaments organized 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, Calif.
The uncle, Greg Haag, remembered that the contest hall was hot and reeked of sweat and warm semiconductors, and that Matt Haag was disappointed with his fourth-place finish.
But the right people had already taken notice. Around the same time, Hector Rodriguez, a onetime insurance analyst who controlled a pickup team, OpTic Gaming, was trying to build it into a real business. He enticed Haag to join OpTic by offering to pay for travel and lodging at tournaments.
Two years later, Haag went back to California for the “Call of Duty” championships, only this time with Rodriguez instead of his uncle. The $1 million purse made it one of the world’s most prominent gaming events.
Haag led OpTic to a first-place finish and the $400,000 top prize. This brought him a wave of publicity and a $100,000 check.
The day after the pancake lessons, Haag was in Red Bull’s game studio wearing a contraption like a swimming cap that was full of wires and attached to a computer.
The idea was to see how his brain functioned under the stress of video-game combat. This would help Red Bull’s trainers and sports therapists design exercises to help him stay calm and shoot better.
To perform the test, a Red Bull “sports technologist” had Haag fire up “Call of Duty” and start shooting.
Whether or not this will help his performance, it paid instant dividends for his image. The first thing Haag did after the test was post a photo of himself in the cap of wires to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
Haag said, “Social media is the most important part of what I do.” Even though Haag calls himself a professional video-game player, he is really an online video star. The money he wins in contests is tiny compared to 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 around $700,000 from streaming and his YouTube channel this year. Throw in his other sponsorships and contest winnings, and he is well on his way to a million-dollar year.
But Haag is paid per viewer, so he has to keep producing.
The Internet, with its infinite space and insatiable demand, has turned Haag’s pastime into a drudging obligation.
But it is better than McDonald’s, which is why he spends so much time worrying that his game career will end and he will have to figure something else out.
“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.”