In 1972, a game took the country by storm. It featured three simple elements: two lines on opposite sides, a dot ricocheting from wall to lines, and a scoreboard. It now stands in the Smithsonian as a relic to the past and a connector to the future. The game is Atari’s Pong, and not only is it the first-ever commercial success in video game history, it sent waves that eventually led to competitive gaming as we know it today.
While competitive gaming of new seems light-years away from what Pong started, it’s really not far off. Pong is a multiplayer game where only one winner can be crowned a champion. It sucked away people’s lives, too; when, in 1975, consoles were released for at-home gaming by Sears, Atari sold 150,000. It was one of the best-selling products of its time in Sears’ history.
Throughout the following decades, the trend continued. From the 1980s into the early 90s, Nintendo and Atari were hosting nationwide gaming tournaments, where players were tasked with setting high scores in games like Mario or Pac Man, competing for prizes such as new cars.
In other words, the craze to game has always been there. Today, competitive prize pools reach upwards of $25 million. The hype might be at its all-time high.
The current landscape of gaming is—for lack of better words—absolutely bonkers. Modern competitive games, or esports, include big-name titles like Call Of Duty, Overwatch, and League of Legends. Top players can earn cold hard cash. These players, better known as e-athletes, have broken the mold of what it means to be a professional gamer.
Game streaming services like Twitch and Mixer have seemingly made folks overnight gaming celebrities, meaning the only gatekeeper of growing an audience is your skills and personality. And while games like League of Legends have followings large enough to fill sporting arenas, it seems no game has gained as much attention as Fortnite.
Does Fortnite even need an introduction? It’s past the point of mainstream—it has become an incubator for pop culture. Amid all the pre-teens flossing on Tik Tok and online memes, there is a growing culture in the esports community that perhaps should be taken more seriously. While on the surface, it may look like young folks spending too much time in front of a television screen, that image is a disservice to the work professional e-athletes are putting in. Just ask Columbus’ Jonathan “Yung Calculator” Weber—a member of the newly-formed gaming team Vanguard—who has already racked up $200,000 by playing Fortnite for more than 4,000 hours over the last two years.
Owned by Justin Kogge, an avid gamer and also the owner of the Game Arena in Hilliard, Vanguard is a Hilliard- based esports team that formed in 2019. In addition to Yung Calculator, its e-athletes are Kalvin “KEZKD” Dam, 19; Vinh “Phung” Phung, 24; Kerry “iKerry” Callander, 24; Brendan “Jaomock” O’Brien, 21; and Colin “Colinies” Landals, 20.
BROUGHT TO YOU BY
Phung, who is also balancing a full-time gig outside of gaming, sees an advantage to being on a team. He explained that Vanguard commits to supporting players during and after their competitive careers. “Whether that be a management position within the organization, referrals to other organizations, or assistance with resume building and acquiring a full-time job in the workforce, […] Vanguard will be there to help where they can.”
For Weber, and the other members of Vanguard, gaming is their full- time job. Their days are spent just like most employees; they have a schedule, expectations, meetings, and a boss. The biggest difference between the nine-to-fivers of the world and Weber? He’s only 14-years-old.
Weber attends school three times a week, but takes most of his classes towards earning his GED online. Don’t worry: his mom approves. He’s not the only one focusing his efforts on Fortnite— Dam dropped out of college to pursue this career path.
The young ages of these athletes presents both benefits and challenges. On one hand, they are still developing their hand-eye coordination, reaction times, and critical problem-solving skills. Kogge said if a gamer possesses high levels of these skills at a young age, their chances of being successful are higher, as their trajectory is still rising.
“We’re looking at a period where his reflexes and brain are still developing, so he’s not even on the downhill of gaming yet. He’s only going to get better,” Kogge said, referring to Weber.
But in that same breath, young folks are, well, young. Many of these e-athletes are streaming their games to audiences of 300,000 viewers. One unsightly comment from a gamer could cause long- lasting impacts that could cost them an audience and a platform. Gamers of all ages need guidance, but especially young ones. And that’s where Vanguard comes in.
For example, Yung Calculator has a somewhat shocking-but-humorous personality online. He’s also becoming one of the premiere gamers in the Fortnite scene, with 35,000 Twitter followers and counting. His high visibility rate, combined with his talents, caught the eye of a potential advertiser, but his social media posts ultimately cost him the deal. Since then, he’s worked with Kogge on ways to keep Yung Calculator’s personality preserved, while also maintaining a relatively professional presence online. For his part, Kogge uses players’ mistakes as chances for learning opportunities.
“He wants to be an entertainer; he’s actually, specifically, trying to entertain people,” Kogge explained. “When you get to meet him in person, he’s very well-spoken and intelligent. That’s the first thing you realize about him; he’s not this toxic kid that doesn’t know anything.”
The role Vanguard plays in these e-athletes’ lives goes beyond gaming. Just like football and basketball, the athletes are expected to maintain healthy lifestyles. Vanguard’s staff includes a physical trainer and a nutritionist to ensure diets aren’t the typical gaming cuisine of Doritos and soda. Kogge said he doesn’t want his athletes spending all day in front of a screen in the same room to avoid isolation and burnout. Kogge has also hired financial advisors and legal teams to Vanguard to ensure that e-athletes are protected in sponsorship deals.
Helping athletes take care of themselves isn’t just an image move, it’s for their general well-being. “We want them healthy and working out more than we want them streaming,” Kogge said.
But don’t get that last line twisted—it’s also an image move. Past gaming tournaments across the world have both exceeded expectations and also confirmed stereotypes. From the chest up, players look formal and professional with matching uniforms and even team logos. However, once some of them stood up to take home the highly-coveted trophy, their Crocs and sweatpants came out from under the table and onto the mainstage. If gaming is to be taken seriously as a sport, it needs to consider its image, just as other sporting leagues have done.
As for the future of Fortnite and Vanguard, things are promising. Kogge predicts Fortnite will eventually become the largest competitive game, citing that it has more users and viewers in its second year than League of Legends, which boasted more than 80 million users in 2019. As of now, there is no official league or tournament for Fortnite, and that’s something he sees changing soon. Until then, the e-athletes at Vanguard will be doing what they love most: gaming down, snagging victories, and stacking cash. If you want a modern day version of The American Dream, look no further.
To keep up with the team, follow them on Twitter at @vanguardwins.