The rising cost of video game fame
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Sometime around 4 p.m., Matthew "Nadeshot" Haag was ready to escape.
For the better part of two hours, Haag was caught in the center of a teenage tornado on the floor of the Anaheim Convention Center, signing everything put in front of him, from T-shirts to Xbox controllers. It was selfie city, as kids and even a few parents clamored to get a quick photo with Nadeshot. He was happy to oblige, but two hours is a long time to smile for even the most seasoned celebrity.
Despite occasional looks of desperation as the pack circled in on him, Haag kept his smile on, sincerely apologizing for not being able to stick around and sign more.
"The hardest part is saying no to people," said the 21-year-old, fit and clean-cut Haag.
Nadeshot is one of the most popular professional video game players in the country, and nowhere was his profile more evident than on opening day of the Major League Gaming Championship last month in Anaheim, California. Every one of the 18,000-plus in attendance knew his name, but few knew him as Matt. Haag is the only "Call of Duty" gamer in North America sponsored by Red Bull eSports, and last year he signed an exclusive streaming deal with MLG itself. At no point in his career has Nadeshot's profile been higher, and Haag is dealing with the costs of Nadeshot's soaring popularity in real-time and on YouTube.
In most ways, Haag is your typical, college-aged guy. He struggles with anxiety and social pressures. He listens to a lot of music (mostly hip-hop). He hangs out with his buddies. He talks a little smack, but all in good fun. Nadeshot is anything but. Nadeshot is a lethal "Call of Duty" killing machine. He's a brand. He's in demand. He drives a BMW M3, makes six figures. Nadeshot is a moneymaker.
Five years ago, Nadeshot had a combined Twitter and YouTube audience of fewer than 100,000. Today, he tries to produce a new video every day to the more than 1.2 million subscribers on his YouTube channel, and he regularly tweets to his more than 600,000 followers. MLG, which has grown 300 percent in the last three years, wants to grow right alongside the rising stardom of its gamers, which is why MLG signed Haag and more than 80 other gamers to streaming partnerships.
"[Haag] is one of those rare guys you see, even in other sports, that has a magnetic connection to his fan base," said Mike Sepso, co-founder and president of MLG. "So Matt was able to grow his audience faster on one hand, but on the other hand [the audience] demands a level of transparency that I think would scare the hell out of athletes in other sports."
But competitions and conventions can leave Haag feeling exposed, especially this day in Anaheim, where Major League Gaming was holding its premiere annual event on the tails of E3 in Los Angeles. There didn't appear to be a separate competitor entrance, so the gamers were left to navigate through the throngs of fans. Getting in and out of the venue was not hard for most of the gamers, but not everyone is Nadeshot.
Nadeshot is the captain of OpTic Gaming, the vision of co-founder and owner Hector "H3CZ" Rodriguez, who created the team in 2007. Under Rodriguez's guidance, OpTic has grown to be one of the most identifiable teams in all of gaming and became the first video game team to win X Games gold medals in Austin last month. When OpTic, which consists of Haag, Seth "Scumpii" Abner, James "Clayster" Eubanks and Jordan "Proofy" Cannon, walked into the venue, Rodriguez led the group slowly through the crowd. Fans, who know OpTic and other pro gamers by their gamer tags, yelled for Scumpii, Clayster and Proofy, but Nadeshot commanded the most attention by far.
The team had become separated, and Haag was left alone for those two increasingly daunting hours. When he finally escaped the swirling Sharpies and found his team near the Optic Gaming section, he was exhausted and needed to eat.
"I could go to McDonald's right now," Haag said. "I never eat there anymore, but where's the nearest McDonald's?"
It has only been five years since Haag worked at a McDonald's in the southwestern Chicago suburbs while he was in high school. He spent most of his nights playing video games back then and fell in love with "Call of Duty" in 2007. Soon he was winning small competitions.
By 2011, he was earning enough prize money that he decided to quit community college, leave his fast-food job and do video gaming full-time. He won a share of a $400,000 prize as part of Team OpTic in the Call of Duty XP tournament in Los Angeles that September.
" was a really big year for me, and I had to make a tough choice [between school and pro gaming]. A lot of people don't understand how hard of a choice that was," Haag said. "I lived off my winnings, but it wasn't as much as people thought, and I almost went bankrupt."
Meeting Rodriguez changed everything. In 2007, Rodriguez was trying to build a business-savvy competitive gaming team when he spotted Haag, a budding star who was not only an excellent "Call of Duty" player, but a natural leader with a growing online popularity. Haag followed Rodriguez's example to build up his online profile using YouTube videos and Twitter. But it was the 2011 Call of Duty XP championship that put OpTic Gaming on the map.
"Everything changed for us after that," Haag said. The popularity of Nadeshot and OpTic began to soar.
The nearest McDonald's was a daunting block away, so the small entourage, which included Haag, Eubanks, Cannon and a couple of friends, settled for the back room of a lonely Tony Roma's just down the street from the convention center and near the Disneyland gates. This dark room was the first place all day Haag didn't hear someone clamoring for Nadeshot's attention.
Over a plate of chicken fingers (Haag isn't one to experiment with food), he talked about Rodriguez and the team they have assembled like it's family. The two of them share a strong business sense and a brotherly bond.
"We were able to build up Nadeshot off the popularity I had established through Team OpTic by doing YouTube videos for a year and a half," Rodriguez said in the hotel earlier. "And I figured why don't we replicate the success we had with Nadeshot with the rest of the guys? Getting the house was for the benefit of everyone's profile."
"The house" is a five-bedroom abode in suburban Chicago where most of the team, except Abner and Eubanks, eats, sleeps and films countless hours of YouTube videos. Eubanks hopes to move in as soon as a room opens up
The address to the house is readily available on the Internet, and that caused a brief swatting problem in 2013. Swatting is the modern-day version of ordering a pizza to your neighbor's house, except in this case, it's the SWAT team arriving with their guns drawn, reacting to reports of an active shooter on the premises. It's happened so many times, Haag says, that the police will now call the house before they send the SWAT team to make sure it's not a prank.
With evening matches about to begin, it was time to leave the quiet of the Tony Roma's dining room and re-enter the chaos of MLG.
Nadeshot returned to the convention center with his game face on, an hour before OpTic Gaming was due to kick off their tournament. He didn't waste any time signing autographs. Instead, he found practice space in a blocked-off area to the side of the main stage. Nadeshot suddenly looked serious, listening to music on his black Beats headphones as he played practice sessions and adjusted to a new controller provided by one of his sponsors.
Haag says he struggles with anxiety -- something that really surfaced after his mother died from an illness in 2012. That anxiousness nearly boils over before matches, and a new controller and the barrage of fans have thrown him off a little. The engaging, nice guy he was just moments earlier had turned into a fierce, zoned-in competitor. For the first time all day, Nadeshot barely acknowledged fans waiting for autographs when he moved from the practice zone to the stage.
"I'm sorry, guys. We can do this after. I have to go play my match now," said an apologetic but stressed Nadeshot as he went to kick off his tournament.
The match went as predicted. The heavily favored OpTic Gaming started slowly by their standards but ended up sweeping Denial eSports 3-0. Haag said it was a good start, and, in his hotel lobby after the match, he said he liked their chances moving forward.
Over the following two days, OpTic coasted through the next two rounds, reaching Sunday's double-elimination final against their rivals, the Evil Geniuses. Eubanks used to be on the Evil Geniuses, then known as Team Complexity, and switched to OpTic last year. It's common for players to switch teams after major tournaments, and rivalries and bad blood inevitably boil over.
"I'm only still friends with one guy on [Evil Geniuses]," Eubanks said.
Unfortunately for Nadeshot and OpTic Gaming, their streak ended here. With their best game, "Search and Destroy," on deck, OpTic needed to win Domination on the Octane map to stay alive in the double-elimination tournament. OpTic carried a comfortable 21-point lead into halftime, but EG did a triple capture (a difficult, but common, maneuver that requires all four players to hold down three separate targets) and came back to win, eliminating the defending X Games gold medalists 3-1.
After a tough defeat in the finals in Anaheim, Haag returned home to Chicago and posted a revealing YouTube video, in which he said he's considering retiring from competitive gaming in part due to his issues with anxiety.
"Going into events is probably the most stressful thing I have to deal with since my mom got sick ... it just triggers my anxiety," he said in the video. "I'm getting pulled in so many different directions, and for me it's so hard to balance."
Whether his YouTube contemplations of retirement become reality, it's clear Nadeshot has been dealing with the cost of fame faced by many rising stars. His time and attention are increasingly stretched thin, and the more followers, sponsors and corporate deals he cuts, the less time he has to do what got him here to begin with -- play video games.
In the game of life, Matt Haag and Nadeshot might be in conflict. On one side is guy who wants control of his own destiny, on the other is a gamer whose exploding fan base may not afford him that luxury. But rest assured, both characters will reach the next stage together.
No matter which side wins out, you can guarantee millions will be watching.