By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Zyos plays the video game Halo, plays it better than anyone in the world. His mother, Rhonda, watched him dominate the military combat game in San Francisco last year at the World Cyber Games--the gaming Olympics--and because of her status, because she is the mother of Zyos, Rhonda became a de facto celebrity herself. She didn't expect that. She doesn't understand the game, in which you kill enemy combatants on your own or on a team. Yet gamers from across the world approached her. Zyos is a great champion, they said. One of them, an earnest kid from New Zealand, sought her out to tell her he'd flown to San Francisco to study Zyos' playing tendencies.
Zyos' father, Steve, once got a call at work from a man in Oklahoma. The man in Oklahoma wanted Zyos to play his 14-year-old son. The man told Steve he would pay Zyos, pay him anything he wanted, if he would play one game of Halo--just one--against his son. Zyos, after all, was the kid's hero.
Zyos, while vacationing in Italy over Thanksgiving, went a week without playing Halo 2 on Xbox Live. Microsoft makes Xbox, and Xbox Live is the company's latest and best advance. It allows a gamer to plug his Xbox into an Internet cable and play, say, Halo 2 against anyone in the world. It also keeps track of how often a gamer plays, and makes that information available to all others.
Over Thanksgiving, on Day Five Without Zyos, the message boards of the online world were abuzz with rumors. Zyos has quit. Zyos is playing under a different name. Zyos is dead. Five pages of this, growing more fevered as it went, until one of Zyos' handlers, one of the people in the business of "building Zyos' brand," logged on.
"Guys," he said. "Zyos is fine. He's just on vacation."
It sounds like apocrypha, doesn't it? But it's not. Zyos is as talented, as sought after, as any myth you could make about him. And in the coming years, you will hear about Zyos. For one, he lives in Allen, Texas, and he's practicing even tonight. Look at him. He's hunched over in his chair again, shouting.
"Bombs down in front of our base! There's a sniper on the ridge...Sniper's dead...He's coming after your flag! There's a ghost who just went in...Ghost is dead."
He has the headset on, the one with the microphone that wraps around the ear and drops down to his mouth, and on the television screen is Halo 2, the shoot-'em-up head-to-head sequel to Halo that racked up sales of $125 million in its first day on the market, and in the air there's a slightly stale stench, the sort that comes from a 21-year-old who plays the game for hours behind a closed bedroom door.
But on the walls are his first-place plaques and oversize checks for $20,000. And in an hour he'll leave his parents' house, where he still lives, drive to Dallas and sign a contract with a company called Check Six, which will pay his airfare and hotel fees in 2005 whenever he plays Halo for money.
Zyos plays Halo for a living, but the checks he earns are signed under his given name, Matt Leto. Major League Gaming signed Leto to play Halo professionally in the fall of 2003, when Leto was 19. MLG is a professional gaming league that holds tournaments across the nation and last year handed out $175,000 in total purses in its inaugural season--a season that concluded with MTV broadcasting its championship, further convincing MLG personnel that theirs is the new X Games. Hell, the new NASCAR.
MLG loves Leto. In fact, the league was so confident he would succeed as a professional, it signed him before it held its first event. Now, one year later, a year in which Leto dominated all comers in single and team play, a year in which he won MLG's single-player Halo championship and retained his title as best Halo player alive at the World Cyber Games, MLG has built a marketing campaign around Leto, staked its future on him. "He's the face of our league," says Mike Sepso, the CEO and co-founder of Major League Gaming.
It's not a bad move, for a few reasons. For one, Leto's competitive as hell. Even the best Halo players in the world say Leto's drive far exceeds their own. He has no girlfriend. Halo is his focus. Even tonight, one hour before he meets Check Six executives, even as he practices Halo with his teammates spaced across the country--all of them connected to one another by plugging in their game systems, their Xboxes, to an Internet cable--even on this self-described "fun" night of game play, Leto's elbows are on his knees; he's shouting at his teammates; he has no time for idle chitchat with the visitor who's stopped by. There are still competitors to best.
Second, and perhaps surprising, Leto's not a nerd. He's an athlete. He lettered in swimming at Allen High and still holds the build: His shoulders stretch wide the white T-shirt he wears tonight, and his quads and calves fill out his sweat pants. He's handsome enough, about 5-foot-8, with the olive complexion of an Italian heritage. He sweeps his dark hair straight back, and a day's growth of stubble is forever on his chin. He's personable, too--once you yank the controller away. "He's very laid-back," says Kim Murphy, an associate producer at Worldsport HD, a satellite channel that followed Leto around for a documentary it will air next month.
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.
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.
--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.
But in individual sports, he controlled everything. Individual sports, he loved. That's why he swam at Allen High, even though Allen didn't have a pool and practice was held in McKinney at 5:15 every morning, which meant Leto had to be out the door at 4:45, a gruesome hour by any account but made worse by his closing Chuck E. Cheese's every night at 10:30.
"He never missed a practice," Rhonda Leto says. Her son was a three-year letter winner in three events.
School bored him. Yet Karen Bradley, house principal at Allen High, says he was "one of the smartest kids I've ever come across." And Brent Mitchell, Leto's swim coach, remembers Matt more as an intellectual than a swimmer. He memorized the book on school policy, Mitchell says, not because he had to but because he wanted to. "He made a game of it," Mitchell says, every morning explaining to the swim coach what he could and couldn't get away with, testing Mitchell to see if he knew the rules as well as he should. If Mitchell doubted him, Leto'd say, "Look in the book."
"Verbatim," Mitchell says. "To the tooth and nail of it exactly. It always drove me crazy."
It would be pretty amazing, too, if the next story could contrast Leto's love for knowing the rules in the real world with his love of breaking them in gaming. Leto knew his games so well, he knew where to find glitches in the programmer's code. That's when he got really good at gaming, because every game has glitches. When he properly exploited them, Leto's finishing scores were among the best in the world.
At 17, Leto broke the world record for points in a game called Crazy Taxi. Elated, he snapped a photo of his score and mailed it to Twin Galaxies, the official scorekeeper of all video games and publisher, every few years, of a book on gaming world records. But Twin Galaxies said Leto's photo wasn't good enough. It needed video proof. So Leto plugged the VCR into his Sega Dreamcast and broke the record he'd taken a picture of. Then, because he "always wanted to be the best at something," Leto says, he spent a year breaking as many scores as he could.
"He probably holds over 800 world records," says Walter Day, the chief scorekeeper and founder of Twin Galaxies. Day doesn't have a definitive count because, three years later, Twin Galaxies is still combing through Leto's tapes, more than 30 of them. "Matt Leto may be the premier video-game player in the world," he says.
Most guys hold world records in racing games or shooting games; never, Day says, in both racing and shooting games. Leto holds records across the video-game spectrum. Any sort of game--ones based on the most kills, the best time, the highest points--on any sort of console: GameCube, Xbox, PlayStation, the old Nintendo Entertainment System. Leto has world records for them all, some for an entire game, some for an individual level. "No matter the game, he will be among the top 2 percent at it in a matter of days," says Robert Mruczek, the chief referee of Twin Galaxies.
And the glitches he knows. Maybe the second story will mention them; hell, it could be about nothing else. Here, one example will suffice: In Crazy Taxi 2, Leto found a glitch, or, as he says, an "exploit" that's invisible--traditionally, these are very difficult to find, Mruczek says--and it's in the sky above the road.
"Less than five people in the world know where this is," Mruczek says.
Yet he's humble about this and all those records, and maybe the next story on Matt Leto, if it needs a telling anecdote, will highlight how he never told his parents of the many exploits he knew or the records he held.
"Really?" Rhonda Leto says. "Oh, my gosh. I had no clue. I had no clue."
Never told Major League Gaming, either.
"No," says Erik Semmelhack, MLG's senior vice president, after a pause. "I didn't know that."
When will we watch the best in the world on a projection screen?
Sepso had been the co-CEO of Gotham Broadband, a nationwide broadband service, and DiGiovanni was the company's creative director. But they left Gotham to answer that question. Over the next year, they flew across the country, hitting up every local video-game tournament they could find. They took notes, talked about the passion the gamers had, how they played for the competition of it, because the cash prizes handed out--when they were handed out--were often less than advertised. They talked about a professional gaming league, a league that would organize tournaments across the nation, where each tournament was open to any competitor, provided the competitor paid an entrance fee. They talked about a league that would draw sponsors to hand out cash prizes unseen in any local tournament, a league that would take the best players from each game and help the players find endorsements in exchange for wearing league memorabilia. They talked about a league, like NASCAR, that would highlight the personalities of its players over the intricacies of its game.
On August 3, 2003, Sepso and DiGiovanni took a limo to a Halo tournament in Saddle Brook, New Jersey. Zyos was there. He'd finished seventh in the individual tournament, and his team, The Dream Team, the team no one could beat, the team that made a video of itself playing and watched as the tape was downloaded more than 80,000 times on the Web--this team was once more in the championship game.
But it lost that day to Shoot to Kill, a team formed for the express purpose of defeating The Dream Team. Undeterred, Sepso and DiGiovanni ushered the four teenagers--two from Texas, two from Kansas--into the limo and took them to a steak house in Times Square, where the pitch was made: We've formed a professional gaming league, and we want you four as our first signed players.
And so a new industry began.
Which is not to say professional gaming leagues didn't already exist. South Korea has three. It has a governing body for the leagues, the Korean e-Sports Association, which ranks the standings for the 218 professional gamers in the country. Here in the States, there's the Cyberathlete Professional League, a league started in 1997 by a 37-year-old Dallasite named Angel Munoz. But there's a major difference between Munoz's league and MLG: the system through which games are played.
CPL is a personal computer-based league, meaning its athletes--and Munoz argues they are athletes--play their games on computers. MLG is a console-based league, meaning its athletes--MLG makes the same argument--play their games on a console system, such as a PlayStation or Xbox. Both are successful: MLG will hold tournaments for three game titles this year, for a total purse of $250,000; CPL has a $1.2 million 10-city worldwide tour in 2005 for its seven-game roster. But the leagues attract different sorts of gamers. Simply put, PC players tend on average to be more--how to put this?--computer-literate than their console counterparts.
Yet both leagues are not without their critics. Doug Gentile is the director of research at the National Institute on Media and the Family. "We have an obesity epidemic in this country. That's not my word. That's the National Institutes of Health's," he says. "And one of the reasons is likely to be screen time...And now we're giving kids more incentive to play more."
Mary Story, one of the nation's foremost obesity researchers at the University of Minnesota, agrees that the leagues could lead to more kids sitting around but argues ours is a sedentary culture regardless of age or interest. To single out MLG over, say, corporate America, which asks its employees to sit in a cubicle for eight hours a day, is hypocritical, she says.
Gentile won't let MLG or any other league off that easily. He points to the work of Dr. Paul Lynch at the University of Oklahoma. Lynch has studied the physiological effects of video games on teenagers for 15 years. In 1999, he published a study suggesting violent video games might cause heart problems later in life.
Violent games, like Halo, raise one's adrenaline level. And adrenaline, the study says, is nothing more than fatty acids that are used as an energy source. Yet these fatty acids released into the bloodstream are not acted upon by the gamer's muscles, because the gamer is sitting and playing, not running or jumping or fighting. Since no muscle will use them, the fatty acids in the end make their way through the liver, where they are converted to cholesterol. "This could be a precursor for heart disease," Gentile writes via e-mail.
Could be, but the scientific community needs to further parse the data. In the interim, MLG is willing to respond to a more general question: Is paying people to play video games bad for the health of the nation?
"My initial knee-jerk reaction is 'Give me a break,'" says DiGiovanni, two years after his epiphany the executive vice president of MLG. "We're encouraging kids to do what they already love. And a small amount of those kids can make a living at it." MLG has signed 17 people to be pro gamers. Yet DiGiovanni says none of the 17 signed, nor the thousands more who attend MLG events, is a pasty-white, obese basement dweller.
"These guys are competitive. These are guys who compete in other sports," he says. And then, almost with an air of resignation, "Just come to one of our events."
Tournament Halo is played in one of two ways. What Zyos is playing now is single-player Halo. Before him is a television screen of his position in the warehouse, and in the screen's bottom right corner, Mathieu Hebbada's position. In single-player, the first gamer to score 15 kills wins. Then there's multiplayer Halo. The difference between multiplayer and single-player is you're on a team in multiplayer. A two-man team or a four-man team. Together, you seek and kill the other team. The first one to score 50 kills wins. Zyos, in a couple of weeks, will play for The Dream Team in a tournament in New York, but it's this sort of tournament in Seoul, the single-player one, where he excels.
The weapons one uses--pistol, shotgun, rocket launcher, what have you--are the same for both single- and multiplayer tournaments and are found throughout a level's landscape. Zyos discovered that certain weapons are made available at certain parts of levels at certain times. But the times when they're available never change. In other words, it's clockwork. Zyos put a clock above his television one day, ran to the right spots, waited for the weapons to materialize and collected them all before his opponent could get any. Easy game. Today, in 2003, it's the most common exploit known to Halo players.
Still, despite his genius, Zyos' parents remain skeptical. They doubt their son will ever make a living playing video games. They doubt the promises of MLG. Yet here he is in a packed auditorium in Seoul, South Korea, with thousands more watching him over the Internet, with a chance at $20,000. For Zyos, it's a start.
He focuses the rocket launcher's scope onto the right half of the window. Seconds pass. Hebbada hasn't studied the different levels as thoroughly as Zyos, doesn't know that by walking in front of this window, he's inadvertently walking into the line of...
A blast from Zyos' gun. And the game is over. The thousands in attendance, watching the action on a projection screen, cheer.
One year and two months later, sitting in his parents' living room in Allen, Matt Leto says, "That [win] changed everything." Changed his parents' perception of his dream, changed the way in which he practiced--if anything else, he became more obsessive, more thorough after World Cyber Games 2003. He gave himself to Halo.
The year that followed Seoul was a blur of frequent-flyer miles and first-place checks. By the time San Francisco hosted World Cyber Games 2004 in October, Leto had won roughly $10,000 in MLG tournaments, in both single and team play. He'd also formed and disbanded seven teams, because, despite their success, they still didn't live up to Leto's expectations. And he'd dropped out of Collin County Community College, because he could stand to win $40,000 more at WCG San Francisco and the MLG Championship in New York if he practiced nonstop.
It started in 2000, and 2004 marked the first year any city outside Korea hosted the World Cyber Games. Roughly 700 gamers from 60 countries qualified for the five-day, eight-game event. San Francisco held it in the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, next to City Hall. There was $412,600 in total purses.
Leto's family came. Steve and Rhonda, younger sister Megan and brother Taylor. It was the first time any Leto would watch Matt in person. He'd breezed through the qualifying rounds in Miami and Long Beach, California. He was the favorite to win WCG again. Wherever he went in San Fran, a camera crew from Worldsport HD followed, shooting footage for a documentary on the Games.
Zyos beat his first opponent, Nelson Triana of Canada, 15-1. Then Yoonho Choi of South Korea, 15-3. Even if he lost his next match, against fellow American Stephen Booth, Zyos would advance. The first day of Halo at WCG is a round-robin of four players per bracket, and no one else was 2-0 with one match left.
Zyos lost his match to Booth 15-6. The loss had its upside, though. It meant both Americans would advance to the championship bracket. But the gamers watching, especially the Canadian Nelson Triana, now eliminated from the next round, thought something wasn't right. Why had Zyos, normally a conservative player, one who waited for his opponents to expose themselves, become the aggressor against Booth, accidentally running into his fire? And weren't the two, away from the controllers, friends? And to prepare for WCG, hadn't Leto flown to Seattle and spent a week practicing at Booth's house? Maybe they'd formed some sort of pact up there, to make sure they both advanced.
Andrew Mayeda covered WCG 2004 for the Ottawa Citizen. He quoted three gamers who thought Leto threw the game. He talked to one of the match's referees, "and I have to be careful how I phrase this," Mayeda says, "but I suspect he thought that Matt threw the game, too."
The referee in question is Cody Walker, also a Canadian. Leto says, "Look, both of the referees were Canadian. Nelson was Canadian. The map"--the individual level on which his match against Booth was played--"is almost like a coin toss as to who wins it. Winning on that map is based more on luck than skill. It's completely false that I threw the match...I lose games. Just to say I'm unbeatable is wrong." No, there was no pact between him and Booth, he says. And Booth's practicing against him for a week--could it not mean that Booth had learned in that time how to beat Zyos?
In any case, in a decision they refused to explain, WCG officials ordered another round-robin among Zyos, Booth and Triana.
Zyos and Triana advanced.
That night Triana drove to Best Buy and bought a television so he could practice on his own. He went to bed around 4 a.m. Zyos was up that late, too. But he wasn't practicing; he'd prepared enough for WCG. He was playing poker.
Didn't affect his gaming, though. He dominated his quarterfinal and semifinal opponents the next day; in the semifinal match, Sebastian Droschak, from Germany, failed to score a point.
Zyos faced Triana for the championship. Triana had beaten out Dave Walsh to get there, the American some viewed as better than Zyos. But Zyos had already beaten Triana, and he'd learned something while watching the Canadian's other games: Whenever his match was the match displayed on the movie-style projection screen, the one hanging down from the roof so the thousands in attendance could watch from a distance rather than huddle around the television on which their favorite gamer played, whenever his match was the featured one, Triana would get nervous, play tentatively, be afraid to make a mistake with God and all of the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium watching.
And if any match were to be on the projection screen, Zyos thought, it would be the championship one.
"Dad," he said before the match started, when Steve Leto worried his presence might screw up his son's concentration, "I've got this one."
Zyos was right. Triana was too nervous to eat before the match, and during it, as Andrew Mayeda of the Citizen wrote, "in a number of key confrontations, he couldn't finish Leto off despite having the advantage."
Zyos won 15-9 and 15-11, the fist pump he gave at the end the only real show of emotion from the whole tournament. Another $20,000 check was his. From October to October, factoring in the money he'd won from MLG, Matt Leto now made more playing video games than most people did in their first year out of college.
And he still had the MLG Championship in New York to consider.
The MTV and MLG people had wanted him to come earlier than the night before. MTV needed preliminary footage of Leto for the documentary on Halo 2 it would later air, and it would really be great, really help the piece along, if Leto agreed to come a couple of days in advance. But Leto didn't agree. Said he needed to practice with his team, the Filthy Jackalopes, in Detroit. Said he wanted to be on top of his game. This from the guy who'd won WCG 2004 two weeks earlier.
So he stayed in Detroit. Stayed until he had to go, drove from Detroit to Manhattan--13 hours across the country, carrying with him what would later be diagnosed as food poisoning.
The sickness "was coming out of everywhere," MLG's Erik Semmelhack says. In the morning, he took Leto to get a cup of coffee, then sat him down in the VIP section near the sound stage on West 12th Street where the tournament was about to begin.
He wore his winter jacket while he played. In the Free For All, the event where it's every man for himself, every man trying to score as many kills as possible while getting killed the fewest times possible, where two, four or 10 gamers can gang up on one to take him out, where it makes sense to do that--especially to Zyos, ranked first for the year in the Free For All--Zyos nonetheless took the early lead. And never looked back.
To win the Free For All as Zyos won it, finishing some 20 kills better than the next gamer, "that's just, like, unheard of in any tournament setting," Adam Apicella, the vice president of operations for MLG, told MTV. "Let alone against seven of the best tournament players in the world. He just dominated the game, and I've never seen really a performance like that."
The win meant a bye into the Final Four of the single-player tournament. Dreary-eyed--even when the MTV cameras were on him--he advanced to the championship match. And then won that 15-8.
"Yes!" he yelled, and pumped his fist a couple of times.
The weekend went well. An $8,000 check for his first-place finish in the single-player tournament. A $15,000 endorsement from Nokia for taking first. A $2,000 check for finishing the season ranked first overall. A $5,000 check to the Filthy Jackalopes for finishing second in the four-on-four tournament. (Fittingly, Zyos had a new team by December.)
And the money keeps coming. Semmelhack says Zyos is looking at "mid-five figures" in endorsements alone this year. And with MLG's tournament purse of $250,000 in 2005, Matt Leto, college dropout, professional Halo player, should be a six-figure 22-year-old by year's end.
"I am lucky," he says. "But it takes a lot of skill, too."