Have Gun, Will Travel

How far can a video-game champ go? Ask Matt Leto.

Last, Leto has a wisdom beyond his years. At 17 he told his parents he would one day make a living playing Halo, though MLG did not exist at the time and there was no reason to believe it ever would. But Leto's wisdom most often presents itself in his speech. For someone who's played video games since he was 4, sometimes for 12 hours a day, Leto is surprisingly articulate. "Oh, he's very well-spoken," Murphy says. It's incisive, his speech, in no way cluttered with the stammerings and non sequiturs of his peers, gaming or otherwise. He has a deep and confident voice, too. But it always sounds flat, as if he's heard before how lucky he is and is tired of hearing it again. It's for these reasons--the directness of speech, the tone of voice--that people often find Matt Leto cold upon meeting him.

"Yeah, we're working on that," Sepso says.

He's not kidding. MLG has hired a public relations firm from L.A. to train Leto in speaking to the media. Sepso and his staff talk openly about creating a marketable image for their star--an image similar to that of skateboarder Tony Hawk: pioneer, best ever, industry spokesman.

Above: a plaque from one of the many tournaments Leto has won. Below: $40,000 from World Cyber Games, just for playing Halo.
Mark Graham
Above: a plaque from one of the many tournaments Leto has won. Below: $40,000 from World Cyber Games, just for playing Halo.

It sounds crazy to talk this way about a kid playing a video game. But it was crazy 20 years ago to talk about a skateboarder like this. Besides, have you seen the stats? They're crazy, too. According to the National Institute on Media and the Family, 92 percent of boys play video games. There are 108 million people over the age of 13 in the United States playing today, and 13 million of those are "hard-core," people who spend upward of 15 hours a week under the glow of a television or computer screen.

And the craziest thing of all? The money that's out there. Last year, Matt Leto, college dropout, cleared more than $80,000 playing Halo, the earnings a combination of tournament winnings and endorsement deals. That spoke to him. Talk all you want about his competitive drive, the notoriety; it's the promise of money, and more money, that finds him in that stale bedroom night after night. If all goes as planned, he figures, he should make well more than $100,000 this year. Just for playing a video game.

"After all, the hackneyed first story inevitably is about the novelty of video gamers playing for cash, but what is the second story about this phenomenon going to be about?"

--Electronic Gaming Business, October 22, 2003

Well, more stories, certainly, will be written about Matt Leto, so maybe the next one, for a change of pace, could focus on his driving to Houston, or Detroit, or flying to Seattle, on his dime, just to practice Halo against opponents living in those cities. Leto, of course, doesn't have to fly anywhere. With an Xbox plugged into the Internet, he can play anyone, in any city, at any time. But the truth is, when he does that, within seconds there are 20 people who see he's online. And all 20 will want to play against him. And none will be any good. It's a big waste of his time when he's preparing for a tournament. No, far better for Zyos to seek out the best players in the States and go to them.

Still, that's not telling the whole story, if we're worried about moving beyond the hackneyed first attempt of profiling Matt Leto. Because Zyos does plug his Xbox into the Internet to practice. He plugs it in and "closes the room," meaning only the select few he deems worthy can practice against him. So why fly to Seattle? To videotape the practice matches, of course.

Yeah, maybe the second story will be about Matt Leto flying to Seattle before the World Cyber Games 2004, practicing for a week against Stephen Booth, a world-renowned player (and a freshman at the University of Washington), and videotaping every match. The two played for 12 hours a day during Zyos' visit. But what Booth remembers about Leto's stay is his analyzing the matches, reviewing the tape that had recorded every move, every shot, and looking for weaknesses in his game and Booth's.

"He puts in more time than anyone," Booth says. Before Leto's visit, he had never thought to record his preparatory games. Yet in Zyos' closet there are more than 20 tapes of practice matches.

"He does all the things that all the other kids won't do. And that's why he wins," Steve Leto says.

The second story will probably mention Leto's youth, how, at 4, Matt got a Nintendo with the famous Super Mario Brothers included. He'd play and play and play the game. Then conquer it and ask for another. Then conquer the second game and ask for a third. Then conquer that and ask for a fourth. Soon, games like Zelda, games that take months to beat, Leto would be done with overnight. Yet he'd need more challenges, more games. "What's the point," his parents asked, "if you're going to conquer it tomorrow?" But in the end, they always gave in.

In an effort to show a balanced childhood, perhaps the second story will talk about the real-life games he played. Every team sport you can name. But, truth be told, "He's never been much of a team player," his mother says. Too many kids goofing around. Too many kids screwing up in key situations, times when Leto would have done better if only he had the ball.

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