Matt Leto, Halo Champion

Telegraph Magazine, Oct 2005

In the nascent world of professional video game athletes, one boy from Dallas has risen to the top. We join Matt Leto at a critical heat competition in Las Vegas.

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In the Grand Ballroom of the Green Valley Casino in Las Vegas, 1600 or so teenage boys have gathered to watch other teenage boys kill each other with grenades, rifles, plasma guns and swords. The sound of their carnage fills the hall – a cacophony of explosions, cheers and gunfire – accompanied by the occasional Tannoy announcing the winners. And yet for all the frenetic murder, everyone seems curiously still, all intently studying the scores of television screens and projectors set up throughout the hall.

The killers are video game players, among the best in the world. Most are American, in their mid to late teens, and have traveled here with their parents, but there is a large Asian contingent – South Korea and Japan are particularly well represented – many of whom are here specifically for the fighting categories (one-on-one martial arts games like Tekken). Almost everyone is male and they all share the same goal – to win a place at the World Cyber Games in Singapore this November.

Established in 2000, the World Cyber Games is the crowning event in the competitive gaming calendar. It began with 174 players entering the grand finals; last year 642 entered and this year 800 gamers are expected from 70 countries to duke it out over five days in the hope of winning a total of $420,000 in prize money. It’s a marquee event, a ticket-seller, which is unusual for the gaming world. Though the video game industry has been booming for years now – there are 12 dedicated magazines and hundreds of websites in the USA alone – the tournament aspect has typically been a subculture. It began in the early 90s as a small and shambolic scene among PC gamers (console gamers took a little longer to develop their own leagues). But since the advent of broadband about 5 years ago, it has matured rapidly. Today, most of the people in this ballroom are here to watch, not play. The top players have fans so dedicated they have travelled from as far as Japan, France and England simply to throng around a television screen, craning for a view of the action, many of them videoing the screens on handicams.

The biggest throng surrounds ‘Zyos’, the greatest player that the video game world has ever seen.

“He’s just amazing,” moons Daniel, an 18 year old who works at the Home Office in Liverpool. “He won the WCG [World Cyber Games] championships twice. He’s got like 740 world records. He makes like $80,000 a year or something. He’s got it all – he’s a fast and accurate shooter, he’s really intelligent, really good at strategy and team play. And he’s soooo cool under pressure…” Without taking his eye off the screen, Daniel shows me an autograph Zyos gave him earlier that day. He’d love to be a competition player like Leto himself one day, “but they’re another level, I’ve got no chance.” Instead, he hopes to have his photograph taken with him later.

Meanwhile, Zyos himself sits feet away, glued to a television screen, his thumbs and fingers a blur. A slight, bespectacled 21 year old in black T-shirt, jeans and trainers, Zyos is in fact a college dropout from Dallas. His real name is Matt Leto – ‘Zyos’ was inspired by “this cool hacker guy I saw on the news called Zyclone” – and he is the world’s foremost professional ‘cyberathlete’. That is, he plays games competitively for a living, and not a bad living either. “Last year,” he says, “I made about $100,000 from winnings and endorsements.”

The days are gone when video games were a solitary addiction, confined to individuals in bedrooms. Today, video gaming is a social scene involving teams of up to 4 players who either play side by side, or online with players from across the globe. It’s a spectator sport with several thriving tournament circuits, and the best players are signed up to management contracts. Leto’s sponsors, Major League Gaming (MLG) run the largest competitive gaming league in America and have 28 players under contract. Their youngest player, ‘Lil Poison’ from New Jersey, is only 7 years old.

By signing up the cream of gaming talent, MLG hopes to attract more fans to its tournaments – fans who will buy admission tickets or the streaming video online, or a course of lessons with the top players. The more fans at the more tournaments, the more money MLG can make from selling advertising at its events. This Las Vegas event is one of 13 tournaments on MLG’s calendar this year.

“We think his income could explode,” says Sundance DiGiovanni, an MLG executive, well within earshot of Leto, who is shooting furiously only a few feet away. “He’s the biggest celebrity in the sport.” The effects of stardom are evident here. Between games, fans frequently ask Zyos to autograph their controllers. Parents ask him to pose for pictures with their children, some have even paid him to play them. “This last 2 months he’s been on tour going from town to town in a tour bus, taking on his fans. He’s a rock star basically. So we’re turning him into a brand. You know, a ‘Zyos’ line of accessories – T-shirts, consoles, controllers…”

Leto’s game of choice is Halo 2 for the Xbox console, the most popular game on the tournament circuit. Following on from the success of the original Halo, Halo 2 has become a phenomenon in the “first person shooter” category selling 6.5 million copies since its launch in November 2004. Its sales in the first 24 hrs were worth $125 million in the USA and Canada alone. Quite why the Halo franchise is so popular, however, is a mystery – even to its creators at the game design company, Bungie Studios. Brian Garrard, the community manager, says “I think it comes down to the feel, the touch, the nuances of the game…? I really don’t know. It caught us by surprise, to be honest.”

On the face of it, Halo 2 is scarcely revolutionary. Like many first person shooters, it involves running around various futuristic scenarios – spaceships and military bases and the like – killing aliens and collecting weapons: a kind of virtual sci-fi paintball. Nevertheless, typical of many modern games, it requires more than mere hand-eye dexterity to succeed. Halo 2 forces players to explore a new virtual world, decide upon a goal and create a winning strategy. It is sufficiently involved that some argue that playing may even be nourishing for our brains, not deadening. Steven Johnson, in his book Everything Bad Is Good For You, claims that modern video games present such a range of cognitive challenges that playing them actually makes us smarter. “Novels may activate our imagination, and music may conjure up powerful emotions,” Johnson writes, “but games force you to decide, to choose, to prioritize.”

Leto himself isn’t convinced. “It’s questionable how much you can benefit from playing games,” he tells me. He attributes his success not to his superior brainpower necessarily, as his  ferocious competitive streak and hours and hours of practice – often 6 hours a day in addition to match play. But there is no doubting his acute and peculiar instinct for video games and their internal logic. One thing that separates him from most players is his nose for finding glitches in games – slight malfunctions that he can exploit. For example, he discovered that if you press XYY quick enough, your rifle is automatically reloaded. Or that pressing BSB is a double strike.

A cheer goes up. As expected, Leto has won the individual Halo 2 contest. But he doesn’t celebrate. While the MLG executives high-five around him he just unplugs his controller and marches out, stony-faced. A trail of camcorder-wielding fans and gaming magazine writers pursue him asking ‘how does it feel?’ “Good,” answers Leto, emotionless as a cyborg. Where are you going now? “Practice.”

This kind of clipped seriousness isn’t actually rude, he just seems somewhat disengaged compared to some of his peers in the sport, many of whom are younger than him. When he poses later for publicity shots in a poolside cabana with his team, the best team in the league, Trademark Gamers – 4 boys in their late teens and early 20s, wearing in black T-shirts and holding their games controllers – his team-mates giggle among themselves in typically coarse gamer lingo: “dude, we raped that team so hard”, “dude, that was so gay”. Leto, however, sits stoic and silent throughout. It’s not often that he’s together with his team like this – often they only play together online – so as captain, he wants to get this photo session out of the way to get some practice in.

“Stop smiling, guys,” directs Joel Roodman, MLG’s marketing chief. “Try to look intimidating like Matt.”

The MLG executives are mostly a young, enthusiastic bunch, themselves, full of the sense of anticipation that they are on the verge of something huge here. They like to spin Leto’s flat stoicism as evidence of his laser focus. “He practices religiously, every day,” says CEO and founder, Mike Sepso. “He studies, he watches the videos. He’s always refining his game. He’s like our Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods. You’ve heard how Michael Jordan plays chess, right? Well Matt’s like that. Doesn’t matter what it is, he won’t give an inch. He’s the ultimate competitor.”

At breakfast the following morning, Leto musters a smile at the comparisons to Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan. “I’m lucky, man. It’s like a dream come true to play games for a living,” he says. But his eyes look bloodshot, he looks tired. “I was up till 5.30 in the morning playing blackjack. Now I’m 21, I’m legal to gamble, so I’m not going to miss out.” As for Vegas’s other pleasures, Leto is circumspect – he doesn’t drink or smoke or hang out in nightclubs or strip clubs or anything like that. But still, his lifestyle could hardly be described as healthy. “I hardly eat anything on tournament days,” he says, discarding the menu in front of him. “I just drink Red Bull to keep me going. I’m basically wired all day.”

Blackjack aside, he has every reason to feel exhausted. The life of a celebrity gamer can be demanding. So much so, that he has no girlfriend. “It would just be too difficult,” he explains. “I’m always playing and when I’m not, I’m practicing. And I travel so much. I can’t wait to go home. Can’t wait.” In the last 2 months he has only been home – he still lives with his parents in Dallas – for 3 days. “I’ve been to Chicago, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, San Diego, Boston, Philly… I can’t even remember half of them. The money’s like, awesome, but it’s hard work.” At each city, he makes an appearance at a club or shop in which he signs autographs and plays for up to eight hours straight, taking on all comers: Beat Zyos and Win a Prize! Needless to say, it doesn’t happen often. In the entire 2 months he lost only 3 games out of 600. He shrugs, impassively. “That’s still 3 too many,” he says.

Leto was always the competitive type. He grew up in a close family in a tiny town/name on the outskirts of Dallas, the son of an estate agent mother and a father who runs a Chevrolet dealership. “Matt’s grandparents are staying over at the moment, they were made homeless by the hurricane,” says his mother, Ronda. “Still Matt doesn’t give them a chance at cards or dominoes. He plays to win every time.”

At school he excelled at swimming, but he only went so far because practice clashed with his after-school job at a supermarket. And though clearly intelligent – Ronda describes him as “a thinker, very analytical” – Matt never excelled academically. His interest in computers found him wading through a programming degree at college and struggling with the mathematics.

But his excellence at video games was evident from the age of five. “We’d buy him a game for Christmas and he’d finished it by the next morning,” Ronda says. Like all parents she tried at first to veer her son away from games but Matt was adamant. “When he was 16 he said ‘don’t’ tell me I can’t make money playing games’. Then he went and won the World Cyber Games title in Seoul, 2003 – first prize was $20,000. That’s when he made a believer out of me.”

Leto recalls that flight home, cheque in hand, with a smile. He was 19 at the time and had beaten 17 other finalists to take the title, his first major win – there had been smaller local wins along the way, but this launched him onto the world stage. “I was pinching myself, I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “That was the turning point. When my parents realized I was serious about being a pro-gamer.” The following week he signed the deal with MLG and dropped out of his programming degree. “That was a relief. I was doing 14 hour days, six days a week at college!” he says. But he seems to be doing similar hours now as a gamer. “Yes but it’s different. My life goal is to beat the system. I don’t want to be 45 and realize that the only thing I did in my life is work 80 hours a week in a job. There’s got to be a better way.”

That way, according to MLG, lies in the Zyos brand – in fact, the marketing of Matt Leto is core to the vision MLG has for the gaming world as a whole. “This sport needs personalities people the fans can identify with,” says Sepso. Clearly the often monosyllabic Leto isn’t quite the personality that Sepso has in mind, so he has already put his champion through a course of media training in Los Angeles, to teach him how to project a brandable image. His goal is Leto the merchandising juggernaut, the figurehead. “This is how skateboarding started. And that’s the model we’re looking at, with Matt in the Tony Hawk role.”

The analogy is attractive. Tony Hawk was a US skateboarding star when the sport was still a subculture, and now he heads up a multi-million dollar global brand. But pro-gaming is still in its infancy. In this tournament, for example, the winning Halo 2 team receives only $2500 – that’s $625 each for 4 players – well below the price of the flights and hotel. “But it’s growing,” insists Sepso. “There are about 50,000 kids who play Halo as a sport. Matt’s already got a deal with Nokia. He’s on MTV every other month. This year he’s going to make more from endorsements than winnings. I think this could be as big as Nascar. Imagine a stadium filled with 50,000 people all watching a huge screen with Matt playing Halo 2!”

It’s not an image that comes readily to mind. Not yet. True, skateboarding appeals largely to the same teenage nerd as video gaming, and they are both subcultures. But the key to the success of skateboarding and Nascar is that they are readily accessible to the rest of us – you don’t have to be a racing aficionado to appreciate that driving at 200mph is thrilling stuff and that turning somersaults and still landing smoothly on the board requires immense skill. To look around at the Halo 2 contests, on the other hand, is a baffling experience. It’s impossible to tell what the game is about, let alone how well it is being played. Two teams of four sit at 4 individual screens each, running around the same virtual reality environment trying to kill each other with a broad variety of weapons. Only the game’s most devoted players can make head or tail of the action.

Leto seems aware of his sport’s limitations. As we return to the main hall for the final day of the team competition – which he will win, true to form – his talk of his future career in gaming is filled with uncertain hope and question marks. “I want to be a brand,” he says, hesitantly, “but I’m not sure what my product would be. Maybe I could have my own controller? Or maybe I could be a consultant to gaming companies? That would be awesome.” He recognizes the fragility of his position – no one has ever built a career as a pro-gamer before, and it’s hardly a sport to grow old in. He’s one of the oldest already, at 21 years old.

So Leto’s latest enthusiasm is gambling. Besides blackjack, he’s an avid poker player, and makes up to $1000 per week playing online. As we reenter the dimmed hall, and the fans start to gather asking for photographs and autographs, Leto has the game of Texas Hold ‘Em on his mind. “It would be great to win one of those big pots. That’s my goal, to get to a million dollars somehow and live off the interest for the rest of my life. Never have to work another day!”