He drives a Bimmer. He attracts the ladies. He's got sponsors. He trains hard. He plays harder. He's 21.
No, he's not in the NBA.
"Ksharp" -- aka Kyle Miller -- is a full-time professional computer game player.
For four years now, often sprawled in the comfy basement of his parents' Reston home, Miller has consistently dominated Counter-Strike, an online shooter game whose 2.8 million active players generate more monthly Internet traffic than all of Italy. His wins in international tournaments have brought him fan mail from teenagers in China and instant recognition whenever he plays in South Korea. Ksharp is a virtual celebrity in the burgeoning world of "e-sports," where the pool of tournament cash prizes can reach $500,000. Sponsors include Intel, Samsung and, most recently, the makers of Tylenol. "There can be a lot of physical pain involved in a tech activity like gaming: muscle strains, backaches," says Kathy Fallon, a spokeswoman for Tylenol's maker.
So far Miller, who's competing in the World Cyber Games in Singapore next month, isn't hurting. He is one of about two dozen elite professional gamers in the United States -- mostly young men in their early twenties -- who make their living playing video games.
"Whenever someone asks me, 'Oh, what do you do for work?' I just kinda shy away. Then the person asks again, and I'm, like, 'I play video games.' Then the person goes, 'No, I mean what do you for an actual job?' And I say, again, 'I play video games. It is a job,' " says Miller. He is taking a dinner break and chowing down on Buffalo wings at a Chili's near his home. CS, shorthand for Counter-Strike, earns him $40,000 to $60,000 a year -- mostly from sponsorships, some of it prize money, exactly how much in total he won't say. Given that he still lives with his parents, it's certainly enough to cover the $500 monthly payment for his white BMW 325i.
"When I first told my parents that playing CS is like going to work, they kinda laughed at me," he says. "But you know, that is what it is. If I don't play CS, I don't get paid."
It's a Tuesday, about 6:30 p.m.
"We should probably go," he says. "I gotta be at work by 7."
This is the working life of a pro gamer: From Sundays to Thursdays, between 7 and 11 p.m., the man they call Ksharp slouches in front of his 19-inch computer monitor, feet up in the chair. He is almost six feet tall and thin, with blue eyes and carefully gelled blond hair. To him, "online practices" are akin to "football scrimmages," except his uniform is usually T-shirts and cargo shorts. "I can do whatever I want during the day," he says. That means going to the gym, offering computer help to his older sisters, who run their own businesses, and, "as a time-killer outside of work," playing games such as World of Warcraft or the new X-Men.
Aiming to be a hotshot professional gamer is like a schoolyard basketball player wishing to be the next NBA superstar LeBron James. It's no simple walk around the Xbox. "You have your average player who's into the game, you have your hard-core player who's really into the game, then you have your pro gamer. It's a whole different level -- the practices, the competitions, the stress," he says matter-of-factly.
"Being in a relationship with him is kind of hectic," says Miller's girlfriend, Kate Harter, who goes to the University of Wisconsin in Platteville. Their long-distance relationship of 10 months started at a game tournament in New York City. "He travels. A lot. And he can't really visit me too often," she complains, "because the Internet in my house isn't all that good."
CS is a strategy shooting spectacle, a warfare game that pits terrorists (T) against counter-terrorists (CT) in rounds of intense gunplay. Your mission is to "frag," meaning to kill off, as many enemies as you can. When it comes to fragging, Ksharp is precise, aggressive, cunning. He's a clutch player; playing against him, his competitors will tell you, is like playing a pickup game with Michael Jordan -- you'll hardly score a basket, they say. Miller, however, tends to shrug off his prowess and resist analyzing his talent and skills.
But there is this: As a boy, he moved around a lot. His father, Russ, worked for the Central Intelligence Agency; over eight years, the family lived in Greece, Bahrain and Costa Rica. Miller, a black belt in karate by 11, played basketball and football, but once he'd make the school team, the family would pack up.
"Video games, from Final Fantasy to Mario Kart, were my extracurricular activity," says Miller, who has owned about every game console, from Sega to the original PlayStation, and is never seen without his SX66 PDA Phone.
School never absorbed him. "I was one of those B students," Miller says, "who could have gotten A's if I tried harder." He downloaded CS the day it was released in 1999. His parents didn't know what to make of his passion for it, but his mother drove her son to his first big tournament away from home.
When the family was living in Memphis, Ksharp turned pro while still in high school. He got accepted to the University of Tennessee, but when the family moved again, to Reston, he decided to go Northern Virginia Community College. After a year, the tournament schedule conflicted with his classes, and he dropped out. This all took quite a bit of understanding from his parents, but his father now says, "If I were his age doing what he's doing now, I'd been bragging about myself."
Over the years, the tournament schedule has grown along with Ksharp. Next month, MTV will broadcast live highlights of Cyberathlete Professional League finals at the Nokia Theatre in Times Square.
Russ Miller, now a government contractor, doesn't much understand the game -- "I get sick watching it, the fast motion of it," he says -- but when he heard his younger co-workers, engineers at Science Applications International Corp., talking about CS, he asked if they knew who Ksharp was. Sure, they said, and Russ said, "That's my son."
It's a few minutes after 7 p.m., and Mikey "Method" So, who lives in Orange County, Calif., is running late, which isn't all that unusual.
"Does anybody know where Mikey is?" Ksharp says into his headset.
Ksharp is ready to scrimmage. The fingers of his left hand are landing fast and furious on the keyboard's W, A, S and D keys, which guide the character's movement. His right hand grips the mouse, used to aim the weapon. CS is a first-person shooter game, meaning the screen shows only what your character sees, unlike third-person shooter games, which give you an omniscient view. The game requires exacting hand-eye coordination and mental dexterity: Stay ahead of your opponent. Think on the fly. Strategize.
Created by Jess Cliffe and Minh Le when they were students at Virginia Tech, CS now has at least 70,000 people playing it at any given moment, clocking in more than 4.5 billion player minutes per month, says Cliffe.
A team game, five-on-five, CS is a tournament regular, along with Halo and Painkiller. In pro gaming circles, Johnathan "Fatal1ty" Wendel, 24, is dubbed "the Painkiller guy"; Matt "Zyos" Leto, 21, is "the Halo guy"; and Miller is "the CS guy." CS, in sheer numbers, attracts the most fans.
"To many players, especially CS players, Ksharp is a legend," adds Trevor Schmidt. "He's the epitome of what people think of as a professional gamer." Schmidt, 24, founded Gotfrag.com, the ESPN.com of e-sports, three years ago. It's a must-click site for all hard-core players, pro or not, getting about 14 million page views per month, with "premium members" paying $5 a month to read articles. Miller checks out the site several times a day, and he's often written about on it. "If you consider the whole history of CS, Ksharp has the most impressive resume," says Schmidt. "He's got the most number of wins, for one, and to stay in such a high level all these years -- well, you've got to give him credit for that."
In spring 2002, Miller became the first member of Team 3D (short for desire, discipline, dedication). It's a six-member CS team, one more than needed to play, in case a member gets sick or can't miss class.
The team is an eclectic mix.
There's Josh "Dominator" Sievers, a 21-year-old junior at Iowa State University who is the team's morale booster; he gets so heated at tournaments that he's been known to break a mouse or two. Sal "Volcano" Garozzo, the baby of the bunch, is a 19-year-old sophomore at Manhattan College. Ronald "Rambo" Kim, 21, is from Dallas; he's the quiet, reserved guy. Griffin "Shaguar" Benger, a 20-year-old from Toronto, and 21-year-old Method are the newest members of the team.
Method is the clown of the team, though he doesn't mean to be. He's a fantastic CS player, especially expert with the virtual AK47. But outside of playing CS, the other team members joke, he's lost, confused, just out of it.
"I'm here, I'm here," Method finally says into his little microphone. It's about 7:15. "Someone stole my mouse pad."
The team members laugh out loud, each into his own little microphone.
Craig Levine formed Team 3D when he was a 19-year-old freshman at New York University. He is Team 3D's manager-secretary-agent-babysitter, a beefier version of Jerry Maguire. "Yeah, show me the money," Levine says with a slight Long Island accent. He knew the moment he saw Miller play CS that he had to get him on his team.
Year after year, Team 3D has won more tournaments than any other U.S. team. It's also landed more sponsors, which now include Intel, the computer-chip maker; Nvidia, a leader in graphics processors; and Sennheiser, the headphone and microphone company. Their ads appear on the official Web site, Team3d.net, which gets about 3.6 million page views a month and has about 150,000 registered users, according to Levine. On it, fans can download past competitions and watch Ksharp and the gang compete. Though Intel won't comment on how much it's paying Team 3D, company spokesman Tim Takeuchi says Intel pays the bulk of the expenses to fly team members business class to Rio de Janeiro, Seoul and Istanbul, put them up in hotels and feed them.
Thirty minutes into the scrimmage, Team 3D is playing against Team TEC, another U.S. outfit, and the lighthearted mood turns quiet, at times intense. Right now, Team 3D has the role of the terrorists and Team TEC is the counter-terrorists.
"Get him! Get him! Get him!" Ksharp tells Method.
"It's smoke," says Rambo. "It's smoke."
"He went up the ramp!" Volcano tells Rambo.
"Where did he go?" Ksharp asks Method.
Bombs are exploding. The AK47s and the Desert Eagle pistols, two of the guns in CS, are firing. Team 3D, at least in this particular round, is losing.
These days, Team 3D is busy preparing for the World Cyber Games, the Olympics of pro gaming, where 800 gamers from 70 countries will vie for $430,000 in prize money. It will be held in Singapore Nov. 16-20. Team 3D, which is representing the United States, is the defending CS champion, but it's got stiff competition from the Swedish, Danish, German and Brazilian CS teams.
"A lot of people don't really understand how online games work," says Miller, taking a short break from CS. (In this round, Team 3D is pummeling Team TEC.)
"This is what people think: I sit in front of my computer and I'm playing all by myself and oh, yeah, how antisocial is that. A lot of people don't understand that I'm sitting in front my computer with friends from all over the world, and they're sitting down in front of their computers and hundreds of thousands of people are playing at the same time. In the course of my day, I might talk to, like, 300 different people, easily. We play the game. We talk about what movie we saw yesterday. We send each other links on the Internet."
He sits up, stretches, sits back down. He gets in his position: slouching, feet up in the chair, a huge smile on his face.
What are his plans after this? When will he retire? What about life outside of gaming?
"You know, I never thought this would last, this being a job, I mean," Miller says. "Every time I thought it was gonna be over, then I'd be in Paris, playing at some CS competition in the Louvre -- you know, the famous museum -- then we'd get more sponsors, then we'd win more tournaments." He walked around the museum for a bit, he says, though he couldn't really remember the art he saw. But he liked wandering around Paris and seeing the Eiffel Tower.
"I've always played because I have fun, and I'm doing this now because, well, it's a lot of fun. But maybe after this career, I can do something completely different -- something that has nothing to do with computers or gaming. But I don't know what that something is -- not yet," Miller says. "But I understand that for a lot of people, what I do for a living is heaven."
And here comes a new cyber fan, an 18-year-old high school student e-mailing Miller: "When you are walking on a street, is there anybody shouting: 'Look, that's Ksharp?' "
The fan says he lives in the Chinese city of Chengde, and he offers himself as a guide if Miller ever finds himself northeast of Beijing. He writes, "We are friends through 'CS,' aren't we?"
To watch a video of Ksharp, go to www.washingtonpost.com/technology. He will be online at noon today to answer your questions.