THE ESPORTS ISSUE
The week of August 16, 2015

Nadeshot: Final thoughts from an esports legend

By Samuel Lingle

He peeks over the wall. Two foes are ascending the rooftop, angling to grab the drone. Darting back to hide his position, he zooms around the corner and fires at one before quickly shooting the other. He picks up the drone and dunks it as the clock ticks under 40 seconds.

No one cheers as two more points light up on the scoreboard.

His fingers push on the sticks, jerking them left, right, directing his avatar to the next drone. They move guided by tens of thousands of hours of repetition and practice, but his mind is in a difference place than usual.

The score reads 12-4. The match was over minutes ago. And the most popular video game competitor in the United States knows his esports career is over, too.

Matthew Haag, known as Nadeshot in gaming circles, may not be a household name, but he’s the closest thing to it in the world of esports. No other player comes close to his 1.24 million followers on Twitter. He’ll hit 2 million subscribers on YouTube before the year is out, ranking him among the top 1 percent of all YouTube pages. He’s leveraged that following into a major sponsorship with Red Bull and lucrative streaming deals, easily netting him six figures a year and pushing seven. He was featured in this year’s Forbes 30 under 30. He won a Gold Medal at the X Games in 2014 and co-owns one of the biggest franchises in esports, OpTic Gaming, which he’s captained to three championships this year.

But after the Call of Duty Championship, he’d had enough. He called up Hector Rodriguez, the other OpTic Gaming owner and his closest friend after six years together on the team, and told him he was done.

“And I’ve never been happier, honestly,” Haag told me, five months after the event. “I’ve never been happier. I haven’t thought about playing Call of Duty once since I’ve left.”

The 23-year-old from the suburbs of Chicago is back in California, the place where he decided to quit, but he’s not competing at a tournament. He’s just moved, bright-eyed, to begin the next chapter of his life, trading the dull glow of television sets and a frat-house environment for the sand and sunshine.

For years, Haag has lived a double life. On one side, he’s a successful professional gamer. On the other, he’s an entertainer, a reality show star on YouTube and streaming video. Now he’s finding out whether those two identities are inextricably linked.

‘Grinding the game’

In 2015, the world of esports is bigger than ever. Earlier this month, five players became instant millionaires when their team won an $18 million tournament, the biggest prize purse in esports history and one of the biggest at any sporting event, electronic or otherwise. Millions tune in to streaming video platforms like Twitch, which Amazon acquired last year for nearly $1 billion, watching big matches or their favorite players train, compete, or just live their lives.

A generation of young people are trading their TVs for YouTube and streaming platforms like Twitch. And Haag is one of their undeniable stars.

He’s a phenom at Call of Duty, one of the most popular multiplayer game series on console systems. Every year Activision releases a new edition in the franchise, but they all boil down to the same thing: a tactical shooter where players pit their wits and skills with the controller against each other, where the quicker trigger usually wins. Haag’s one of a handful of players capable of consistently placing in the money at tournaments. In the Call of Duty world, most are hosted by Major League Gaming (MLG), a leader in esports and especially console gaming since its first event in 2002. MLG now hosts a Call of Duty pro league with regular matches, and when Haag played, everybody watched. When MLG started up its own Internet video live streaming service in 2013, it wooed him away from the industry leader Twitch with a big-money contract. He was the crowning jewel in its growth plan.

“I’ve never been happier. I haven’t thought about playing Call of Duty once since I’ve left.”

That kind of popularity is something he struggles to understand to this day. “I’m just an average guy who plays Call of Duty pretty well,” he says.

He’s not bombastic, comedic, or eccentric like many of the personalities that often attract audiences on YouTube. But he has a down-to-earth sincerity that makes him relatable. He’s unafraid to share his feelings. When his mother passed away in 2012, he posted a video days later thanking his fans for their support. That candid nature makes him seem like a close friend, and it’s endeared him to an ever-growing audience.

Haag is a lens to another lifestyle for his fans, allowing them to experience what it’s like to be a pro gamer, what it’s like to live out their dream. Haag wasn’t much different when he picked up an Xbox controller as a 13-year-old kid. He couldn’t put it down.

“It’s all I did—literally,” he said.

Throughout grade school and high school, Haag would put in 10 hours a day on the sticks playing games like Halo 2 and Gears of War. He’d stay up until 4am, only stopping because his dad was waking up for work. Haag had to whisper to his teammates so he didn’t wake up his parents or two siblings.

“I always had to get into bed right as he woke up because he would always be mad if I was still awake while he was getting ready to go to work,” Haag said.

Haag was certainly putting in pro gamer hours, but he didn’t start competing right away. He didn’t realize there was a competitive community for games like Call of Duty or that esports even existed outside of MLG and its Halo leagues. But he kept playing and improving. In 2007, MLG came to Chicago featuring a Gears of War tournament. He brought a team, getting his first taste of real competition. Then, after the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare launch at the end of that year, he discovered a growing scene for the game on Gamebattles, MLG’s online tournament platform.

His dad was fine with his gaming so as long as he continued to get good grades. But his mom couldn’t warm up to the idea. She made him get a job. At 15, he started working at a local McDonald’s. On the weekends, he’d open the store at 4am before coming home at 1pm and playing in Call of Duty tournaments online until 9 or 10pm. “It was definitely a grind, trying to convince my parents to let me do it even though I was getting great grades, even though I was working,” Haag said.

That’s when a chance meeting on an Internet message board may have changed Haag’s life. “It’s a weird story,” he says. Two other regulars on the Gamebattles forums attended a rival high school in the same district. They were semi-pro players and Haag, curious, invited them to lunch at Buffalo Wild Wings. Ideally, a 15-year-old-kid wouldn’t invite two near-strangers from the Internet on a lunch date. And normally, they wouldn’t accept. But when Haag showed up, there they were. He grilled them about competitive Call of Duty as they scarfed boneless wings.

Haag is a lens to another lifestyle for his fans, allowing them to experience what it’s like to be a pro gamer, what it’s like to live out their dream.

“I was just taken aback,” he said. “I had no idea this existed. That was it for me right there, when I found out that pro Call of Duty actually existed. That’s when I started grinding the game.”

Haag ended up “going pro” at the end of 2008, though the term really refers to his status in the league, not his income (he wasn’t making much). He teamed up with Joey “MerK” Deluca, another pro player to this day, and eventually placed fourth at the 2009 MLG National Championship. That’s when he was approached by Hector Rodriguez, who wanted to make his franchise, OpTic Gaming, into a viable esports business with its own competitive team. OpTic Gaming was starting to establish itself as a leader in the growing YouTube gaming world—the first video posted to its channel, on Nov. 7, 2009, has since accumulated more than 6 million views—and Rodriguez offered Haag a chance to leverage that platform to build his own brand.

“As soon as he explained to me that there was a way for me to make a living while playing Call of Duty and competing and showcasing my gameplay, that was it,” Haag said. “I was obsessed with it. I was just trying to figure out ways to upload videos.”

He started off doing it with a Dazzle DVC 100, a recorder that saved the video from his Xbox sessions. But that didn’t cut it for long. At the time he was still working at McDonald’s, so Haag pooled his savings and sold his laptop to fund a PC capable of handling the load of recording and producing video.

That was 2010. Haag’s transformation into a video star had begun.

nadeshot_body_size

The path to stardom

In the meantime, Haag still had to keep flipping burgers. He kept working at McDonald’s, ramping up to 30 hours a week while attending school full-time, competing on OpTic, and making videos whenever he could. He started streaming on Justin.tv, the precursor to Twitch, in 2010, but things weren’t taking off the way he hoped they would.

He was making “poverty-level income” despite the countless hours he put in, he said. He’d lie awake at night worrying whether his efforts would ever pay off.

Even playing on OpTic Gaming was a struggle. During the Black Ops era in 2011, he moved to its second team, OpTic Nation, and then was released altogether, playing on another team at a few events. But Haag got a break before the year was out, at Call of Duty XP, only the second esports tournament at the time to ever offer a $1 million prize pool. OpTic Gaming called him up to play at the event. Each player on the winning team would earn $100,000.

Haag remembers getting excited about winning $100 in some small random tournament online. “To me, that was the coolest thing in the world,” he said. But his parents knew $100 wouldn’t pay the bills.

A $100,000 payday, though? It was a “turning point,” Haag said. “Because at that point, they couldn’t really tell me ‘no’ anymore. I had proof of concept.”

“Pro gaming is next-to-impossible to have a career with longevity.”

Winning a massive event like XP helped Haag and OpTic Gaming garner media attention and bolster their brands, but it wasn’t until midway through 2012 that things really started to pick up for him. The hype building around the pending November release of Call of Duty: Black Ops II, combined with Twitch’s exponential growth, created a perfect storm that propelled Haag to superstardom.

His stream started to consistently top 1,000 viewers. That’s enough to earn some cash, but not enough to make a career out of it. Then his viewer counts soared in 2013. He signed on as a Red Bull esports athlete in January. By the time OpTic Gaming moved into a team house in the summer of 2013, his stream saw 5,000, 10,000, and then 20,000 viewers regularly. He was quickly becoming one of the top personalities on Twitch.

And he was finally making a living as a professional gamer.

The Call of Duty Championships

In January of this year, Haag got to do something special: surprise his “biggest fan,” as he calls his dad, with a first-class ticket to Florida to watch him play at a tournament called UMG Orlando. It was the first time his dad had managed to get off work to see his son compete at a professional tournament, and he certainly wasn’t expecting first-class treatment when he arrived at the airport.

“It’s the little things in life that can really make people happy,” Haag said.

The big things can, too. OpTic Gaming won.

That was a big relief for the organization and its fans. Haag was a successful pro, but this was still only the fourth tournament he’d won since starting at OpTic Gaming in 2010. While the OpTic franchise may have the biggest fanbase in Call of Duty and one of the biggest in esports, since 2013 the team was more often a regular semifinalist than a champion.

“I had no idea this existed. That was it for me right there, when I found out that pro Call of Duty actually existed. That’s when I started grinding the game.”

But with the release of Advanced Warfare, the organization changed that. Leveraging its huge fanbase and the potential it had to grow the brand of individual players, OpTic had its pick from the free-agent litter. It eventually settled on Ian “Crimsix” Porter, the superstar player from the biggest dynasty in the game’s history, Complexity and Evil Geniuses. (“That guy’s a freak,” Haag said. “He’s good at every game.”) Porter wasn’t happy with his situation at Evil Geniuses and wanted out, hoping to team with Matt “FormaL” Piper, a rising star. OpTic brought the pair in and, along with Haag and OpTic’s own superstar slayer, Seth “Scump” Abner, created one of the greatest super teams in Call of Duty history.

While they fell in the finals of their first tournament together, the team won the next three events heading into the Call of Duty Championship. It’s the Super Bowl of Call of Duty, and in some ways the only event that matters all year. The yearly tournament features a $1 million prize that will account for just under half the total money awarded in prizes for the game in 2015 by year’s end. Cashing in at Champs, as it’s commonly referred to, makes your year a success even if you fail at every other event. And it’s not just the prize money; with all eyes on the event, winning attracts endorsement deals and new sponsors. With Haag at their helm, OpTic Gaming were prohibitive favorites.

They placed seventh.

The defeat was crushing for the players, especially Haag. Surrounded by superstar talents, his numbers had suffered through the year. He quickly became the scapegoat for the team, the supposed weak link, the factor that might hold them back from greatness. And after Champs, where Haag says he had a “disastrous event individually,” he started to feel like it.

“This one was especially tough,” he said. “When you’re on the best team in the world and you’re winning all these events and you have all this pressure and all these people watching and expecting you to win… you have hundreds of thousands of people supporting you, and you also have hundreds of thousands of people waiting for you to fail.”

The team just couldn’t find their regular “rhythm,” Haag said. Instead of playing with an almost Zen-like serenity in the booth as they thrashed opponents, like they had at the previous three events, they struggled. The atmosphere was heavy. No one knew what was wrong, and they couldn’t figure out how to fix it.

The final two minutes of their match with FaZe, the team that eliminated OpTic, is something that will haunt Haag for a long time. As Haag scored those two meaningless points, the team was listless in the booth, waiting for the clock to tick down to their inevitable decimation, grasping to understand how they could have so casually misplaced their usual dominance.

He knew he’d take the blame for the loss. That was nothing new, and dealing with haters is something every player in esports learns to handle. But this time, he had to admit to himself that the haters were right. “I can’t compete on this team, with how good these players are, the stats that I’m putting up,” he said.

It’s a tough topic for any competitor to discuss. The moment you realize that you might not be good enough, that you’re holding your teammates back, despite all the hours and days and months and years of effort you’ve put into honing your craft. And how do you walk away from that challenge, ignore that voice telling you to prove your doubters wrong?

“I didn’t want to continue playing with these guys knowing in their heads they’re probably thinking I don’t want to play with this guy,” Haag said. “I can visualize and interpret how that would feel as a player, and I did not want to be that person. I’m not a charity case.”

With Haag out, the team won four straight events and reached the finals of the next two.

Even now, talking about how much he enjoys his new life in California, focusing on content creation and avoiding the stress of competition, Haag still characterizes his absence from competition as a break, not a retirement, as many players like to put it.

He’s excited for the coming release of Call of Duty: Black Ops III, which harks back to the versions of the game he most enjoys. He’s thought about possibly forming his own OpTic team, similar to OpTic Nation, where he could compete without the same obligation to win as the franchise’s headline team. He still has a room at the OpTic house in absentia, complete with his desk and bed. But he’s also made it clear he’s content with his current lifestyle, and that maybe he doesn’t need the added stress in his life.

Californication

In many ways Los Angeles is a mecca of the video game streaming revolution, at least in the U.S. It’s home to dozens of game developers, like Riot Games, the company behind the most watched esport on the planet, League of Legends. Haag actually lives in Santa Monica, just a couple of blocks from the Riot Games studio where they host the popular League Championship Series. Los Angeles is also the home base for YouTube and the YouTube Spaces, where content creators like Haag have free access to the tools and resources to improve their craft.

He was making “poverty-level income” despite the countless hours he put in.

“I have a lot of friends out here in California, the weather is great year-round,” Haag said. He loved living at the OpTic Gaming house, which he describes as a frat house where you play video games as a job. But it was also a distraction from his growing media business.

As a guy who has spent his whole life living with others, first his family and then his OpTic teammates, going out on his own seemed appealing. “I need to take advantage of this, because you really only live once,” he said. “That might sound corny, but it’s really important to try new things.”

Often Haag finds himself interpreting his life through pithy cliches, but he does it with an earnestness that makes you understand he truly feels what he says. He has a surprisingly acute awareness, especially for a 23-year-old, that his position in life is far from secure, and that he needs to work hard to maintain it. He’s constantly worried about the future, an anxiety he feels might stem from the onset of his mother’s epilepsy when he was a child.

What if his viewership gets bored with him? What if some new kind of media comes along? And why would anyone waste time watching an average kid from the Chicago suburbs if he wasn’t a Call of Duty pro?

So far, though, everything’s gone smoothly.

He’s ramped his production up from two videos a day to three or four. He’s diversified his programming, changing the focus of his OpTic Nadeshot to center on “Matt and my journey through this world,” as he put it, not Nadeshot, the Call of Duty pro and streamer. So far, it’s working. The more varied content, like vlogs of Haag showing off his apartment, enjoying his new California life, and even cooking—a video of him making red velvet Oreo milkshakes, which he discovered at Burger King his first day in the state, is one of his favorites—has been a big hit with his audience. His audience has actually grown; he’s averaging more than 330,000 views on 30-plus videos on his main channel since the move.

He’s also added a second YouTube channel, Nadeshot Plays, currently focused on him having fun in Minecraft, the hugely popular brick-building game that’s just about the furthest thing from Call of Duty in gaming. But that’s also the point; he’s playing something for fun, not because it’s an obligation.

It’s a balancing act for every pro gamer. The biggest revenue stream comes from being an entertainer, yet every hour spent streaming or doing media is an hour less practicing, training, and watching film. It’s a give-and-take that many players opt out of, but that’s even more dangerous in an industry where players often retire after three or four short years, often with no skills to speak of besides clicking a mouse or mashing a controller.

“Pro gaming is next-to-impossible to have a career with longevity,” Haag said. “If you’re not doing YouTube and you’re not doing streaming, which obviously is counter-productive to practicing with your team and practicing the hours you need to be the best at your craft, then you’re not going to make a living.”

The YouTube economy

Earlier this year, the king of YouTube, Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg, or PewDiePie, came under fire for a surprising reason: He was making a lot of money—at least $7 million in 2014, according to Swedish news site Expressen. Famed for his irreverent attitude and wacky antics while recording sessions in a variety of video games, Kjellberg has endeared himself to millions as the face of gaming on YouTube.

But does that mean he should be a multimillionaire?

Haag believes Kjellberg deserves it. And in many ways, they’re similar (excepting the extra zero on Kjellberg’s paycheck). They both treat their YouTube business like what it is: a job. They both work hard and take pride in their craft.

“The way PewDiePie does his job is nothing short of amazing,” Haag said, noting that Kjellberg actually got started on YouTube with Call of Duty: Black Ops videos. There’s a stigma attached to the YouTube phenomenon, similar to the fame experienced by reality TV stars. But there’s a reason people like Kjellberg and Haag see success on YouTube. They might have some enigmatic quality that makes them into stars on camera, but a lot of it comes down to hard work. Haag and Kjellberg, for instance, both edit their own videos.

“It’s just fun to watch,” Haag said about Kjellberg’s style. “The amount of time it actually takes to make those videos, I think a lot of people don’t really realize how much work that actually takes.”

“I didn’t want to continue playing with these guys knowing in their heads they’re probably thinking I don’t want to play with this guy. I’m not a charity case.”

When he attended a recent YouTube content creators summit, he said it was “inspiring” to discover that so many other people in his industry relied on extensive staffs to accomplish what they were doing. Haag is, for all intents and purposes, a one-man show. He thinks up all his own content. He records the videos and edits them. He handles all his social media accounts—Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. The only thing he doesn’t do is make thumbnails for his videos. ”I don’t do Photoshop too well,” he conceded.

Haag wants to expand his staff and become a bit more like the “well-oiled machines” he saw at the summit. But he’s also wary of losing some of the charm of his product.

“I’m just afraid,” he said, “that it’ll lose how organically I make videos, where it just won’t feel the same.”

Looking forward

The name “Nadeshot” has appeared in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, and dozens of other publications. Who knows whether that will happen again, now that he’s just a talented YouTube personality and not a pro gamer. But it’s a name that’s not going away anytime soon.

The alias hails from his halcyon days with Halo 2 back in 2007. As he likes to tell newspapers and magazines, the name came from a Halo term: a “nadeshot” is a combo is where you throw a grenade and fire your gun, the detonation reducing the foe’s shields just before you snipe the kill. But the truth is, he didn’t actually come up with it. He stole the name from a teammate.

He “loved” the name, so when that guy quit Halo, he hijacked it. “It’s really kind of fucked up!” he laughed. He’s never talked to his namesake since.

For Haag, Nadeshot is probably more than just an alias. It’s the name he used to meet many of the most important people in his life. “I really did grow up on Xbox Live,” Haag said. “My best friends in life, growing up, were gamers that lived across the country.” He regrets not keeping in touch with so many of the people who touched his life, like the player who unwittingly named one of the biggest brands in esports.

At the same time, the name has connected him to thousands of strangers around the world, another “family,” as Haag calls them. They’ve shared the biggest moments of his: His move to OpTiC, his mother’s death, his victories and crushing defeats.

Now they’ve become a very part of his identity, as Nadeshot completes his transformation from competitor to cultural icon.

Illustration by Max Fleishman