It's a mark of Dennis Fong's superhero status that he gets daily e-mails from strangers telling him he's total garbage. The trash talk comes with the virtual turf he rules as the world's only "professional" player of computer games.
Fong, 22, is yet another of this era's unlikely Nerds Transcendent sprung from basement obscurity by the global reach of the Internet. He has earned $250,000 in prize money, endorsement fees and book royalties from a realm where the object is often as simple as killing as many cartoon gladiators as possible in an online "theater." He has won a red Ferrari and has been immortalized in his own trading card.
So he's a natural target for desktop punks who want to make a quick reputation. "People try to bait me into playing," said the soft-spoken cyberkiller. "There's a Wild West mentality on the Internet that you just deal with."
At first glance, Dennis Fong rules a quaint adolescent subculture, albeit a very violent one that some have blamed for desensitizing users to bloodshed. But "subculture" sells the ambitions of this cybersport way short--as do the electronic game sector's estimated annual sales of $6 billion in software, piles of which are now dressed in holiday wrapping paper. Yearly sales of computer games now rival Hollywood's box-office take.
As the Internet spreads, computer-game evangelists say the toys they love will soon become as common a form of leisure--or procrastination--as television is today. This vision is an intergalactic leap from what's traditionally been associated with electronic games: the fridge-sized arcade machines or childhood Atari boxes.
But as with so much else, the Internet has spurred expansive notions, and the "gamer community," once banished to rec-room fringes, is enjoying a flush sense of manifest destiny. Unlike their video-game predecessors, online games allow participants to play not just against the machine but also against like-minded people across the street or across the globe. Why rest with a small victory in the den when you can obliterate someone across the ocean?
"Gaming might get even bigger around the world than soccer," said Fong, known to gamers by the Pele-like single name Thresh, short for "Threshold of Pain." As business and shopping functions have moved online, he said, competitive recreation--in the form, say, of midday office combat between Bill Gates in Seattle and Steve Jobs in Silicon Valley--will become an ingrained part of the digital age from day to day.
Shoot'em-up online games such as Doom and Quake have helped make this possible. Since 1997, the online gamer population has leapt from 5.5 million to 14 million, according to Forrester Research Inc., a Cambridge, Mass., technology consultancy. The number is projected to reach 33 million by 2002. That mainstream potential has given a big boost to gamers' self-image.
"We are not recluses, we are not socially inept, and the world is starting to learn about us," said Trish Gray, a skateboarding punk rocker who has been playing games for most of her 22 years. As she sleeps at night, Gray often dreams of being trapped inside a game theater. "I'm always running around, and all of the best players in the world are trying to get me," she said. "I've never gotten badly injured or killed. But I always wake up exhausted."
Gray works at Gamers.com, an online network for game players based in a Berkeley office suite littered with empty Mountain Dew cans. She describes a tough adolescence, getting "emancipated" from her parents in South Carolina at 16, then living homeless at various points. In time, she fell in with the surrogate extended family of gamers. She considers herself one of Fong's most devout groupies. The best thing about him, she says, is that he cares deeply about "the greater good of the gamer community."
Gamers worldwide have made a celebrity of Thresh, an owlish-looking community-college dropout who has won thousands of matches over a six-year career and whose electronic body count is fast approaching 1 million. He gets autograph requests in the Comp USA parking lot, and his beauty-queen girlfriend ("Miss Chinatown San Francisco 1994") gets jealous of his mass appeal. Gamer "kids," some in their thirties and forties, marvel at what is known as "Thresh ESP," Fong's knack for knowing exactly where his enemies are in a game, even if they are off-screen.
"Obviously I don't really have ESP," Fong said by way of reassurance. "My secret is that I tend to soak up everyone else's tricks. I remember tendencies and angles and I integrate all of them. That's my edge."
His preferred domain is the smash hit game Quake 3. It costs about $50 for the game's software, which allows players to log onto an online venue. Players choose a particular "server" on the Internet depending on their skill level; there is one for beginning players, one for experts and so on. Once inside, the player inhabits a dreamy, gothic-like mansion, or "environment," surrounded by explosions and enemies. The player who stays alive and kills the most 3-D armored figures wins.
That winner is inevitably Thresh. "Think Michael Jordan playing against a high school team," said Garth Chouteau, spokesman for the Professional Gamers' League, a San Francisco-based organization that puts out gamer trading cards and, according to its promotional literature, will "do for computer games what the NBA has done for two peach baskets and a medicine ball." PGL officials prefer the term "athletes" to "gamers."
Fong has lost just two games in tournament play, most recently to Kurt "Immortal" Shimada, a Pleasanton, Calif., high school student, in a PGL-sponsored tournament last year. Fong then came back, beat everyone in the losers bracket and spanked Immortal in the finals. When he's ensconced in a game, Fong's eyes assume a signature trance-like deadness. He's an adept "two-hander," which means he can control the screen with both mouse and keyboard.
"He's like an automaton," said Chouteau. "I don't want to say 'killing machine,' because that doesn't sound great."
This sensitivity to language stems from a recurring obstacle to mainstream acceptance of computer gaming: the perception that online killing can numb players to real mayhem. Chouteau, like most hard-core game proponents, sees no link between computerized and carnal violence, a charge cast often after this spring's Columbine High School shootings.
"The bodies don't actually pile up in cyberspace," he said. He allows that a person who plays video games for several hours a day from the age of 6 might become inured to real violence. "But there are a lot worse things for people 14 to 24 to be doing," said Chouteau, a gaming graybeard at 35. "I've been around thousands of gamers, and these are some of the most incredibly mellow people I've ever met."
This profile suits Fong, who is tirelessly polite, if slightly distracted these days by the demands of running Gamers.com, which he founded in 1996. For a few years, Fong earned about $100,000 annually in endorsements, prizes and fees for writing game reviews. But he's given most of that up to devote all his time to Gamers.com, which pays him an undisclosed salary of considerably less than $100,000 a year, he said. His goal is to build Gamers.com into "the definitive place to find information about all games."
He is undergoing a kind of life transition, from Master of the Virtual Universe to Master of a Corporation. Gamers.com gained momentum in October, when Fong gave a speech on computer gaming to 700 technology executives at a convention in Monte Carlo. The speech, which preceded one by Gates, received a standing ovation, and afterward Fong was approached by David Wetherell, head of the powerful high-tech financing group CMGI. That led to an $11 million investment in Gamers.com.
Gamers.com employs 40 full-time and 120 part-time workers, most of them avid gamers since before puberty. Earlier this month in his office, Fong clicked onto a Quake 3 server for some midafternoon warfare.
But then a guy telephoned him about office furniture, killing whatever Thresh ESP Fong had working. A reporter was asking stupid questions. His girlfriend of two years, Alice Tam, walked in to say hi. She told the reporter that Fong is a great boyfriend, and that he brushes his teeth and takes out the garbage just like any mortal guy. The reporter asked if she calls him "Dennis" or "Thresh."
"Dennis," she said. "Actually, I call him 'Honey' sometimes, but please don't put that in the newspaper." (She later consented.)
By now, Fong's concentration was toast, and while he reached to pick up another call, he was vaporized ("fragged") by a player named "Visor." His screen filled with a fallen robot lying on his back--the digital likeness of Thresh.
This has been Fong's fate only in the rarest of encounters since he discovered computer games as a bookish athlete growing up in Silicon Valley. The son of a Hewlett-Packard information systems manager, Fong was turned on to the multi-player online game Doom by his two brothers when he was 16. A mild obsession took hold. He played steadily from then on, winning his first tournament two years later, a Doom competition in Redmond, Wash.
After one year at De Anza College in Cupertino, Calif., Fong left to devote his life to computer games. His parents did not approve. But then, in 1997, he won the Ferrari 328 GTS, valued at $70,000, at a Quake tournament in Atlanta. These days, his mother bugs him to practice more.
He plays, on average, about an hour a day, tame compared with some hard-cores, who immerse themselves in marathon rage sessions that sometimes last in the double-digit hours. But what Fong lacks in addiction, he makes up for in quickness and savvy. "His twitch reflexes are incredible to watch," said Justin Hall, a 25-year-old player who's been hooked since age 7.
Yet the amazing spectacle, Hall said, is seeing Fong seek and destroy via Thresh ESP. If an enemy player is sneaking up behind him, Fong can instantly recognize, pivot and fire in a single motion, blowing the opponent into pixelized dots.
In a broader, cultural sense, Fong's magic is that he is a role model to young gamers. His success "means computer gaming is on the way to becoming a full 'sport' like chess," e-mailed Simon de Montigny, a 17-year-old fan from Montreal.
"Thresh is proof that you can achieve social standing," adds Chouteau. "Outside of gaming, a lot of these players are geeks. But then, you show up in a magazine, or on a trading card, and all of a sudden, you're king for a week."
While Fong's reign as playing champ might seem unchallenged at the moment, associates say he's acting more like an entrepreneur than a basement idol these days. He can no longer answer all of the 1,000 e-mails he receives daily, as he once did. Playing games could become more a hobby than a vocation to Fong, "maybe like a businessman's golf," said Hall.
Either way, games have prepared him well for business, Fong said. They've taught him to absorb lessons from other players, to be mindful of what competitors are doing. "In games and in business," he said, "it's important to work angles."
It's also important to choose your battles carefully, a lesson Fong heeds upon receiving an unprovoked "You suck, play me" e-mail, which he ignores. Fong lifts his office phone to cancel a Gamers.com board meeting for that day in San Jose. As he waits on hold, he kills three more times.
CAPTION: Dennis "Thresh" Fong, 22, is a giant in the subculture of computer games.
CAPTION: Quake and other computer games have caught on with an estimated 14 million players, up from 5.5 million in 1997.
CAPTION: Shoot'em-up software games such as Quake have grown in popularity.