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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, November 18, 2006

Young video-game pros getting rich

By Kelli Kennedy
Associated Press

Tom Taylor practices at home in Jupiter, Fla. He's made more than $450,000 since becoming a professional video gamer in 2004. He debuted in an 11-week reality series on USA Network, and he's also competing for $100,000 at the world championships in Las Vegas.

RICK SILVA | Associated Press

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JUPITER, Fla. Tom Taylor is anything but a computer geek.

Yeah, he spends hours a day behind a screen obliterating little green men or "master chiefs," but this self-professed ladies man has made more than $450,000 blasting sinister agents since becoming a professional video gamer in 2004.

In August, Stuff magazine featured him on "The Power List: the Top 20 under 30" alongside LeBron James, Ashton Kutcher and other celebs. He just debuted in an 11-week reality series on USA Network, and this weekend he's slated to compete for a $100,000 purse at the world championships in Las Vegas.

Taylor, aka Tsquared, is very different from the stereotyped computer nerd trapped in his parent's basement. He's one of a handful of teens who have made their own fortunes in the $7 billion-a-year industry in the U.S. a sales figure that's almost doubled since 1996, according to the Entertainment Software Association.

Thanks to the Internet, a couple odozen magazines, a cable network devoted to gaming and corporate-sponsored tournaments attended by tens of thousands, the video-game industry has cemented its place in pop culture. And by promoting the best gamers as professionals, the industry helps push its product much the same way the visibility of pro golfers sells clubs and balls.

The financial rewards of video games are immense. For example, Halo 2 grossed $125 million during the first 24 hours of its release, according to Microsoft sales statistics. Another example: yesterday's launch of the PlayStation 3 one version with a retail price of $500, another for $600 drew throngs to electronic stores across the country.

"The folks that grew up with games are now getting older, and having kids who are growing up in an environment where it's a preferred entertainment choice," said John Davison senior vice president of 1UP Network, a multimedia network for gamers. "Culturally it will have an impact across the board."

In South Korea, where the industry has boomed for years, pro video gamers are mobbed by screaming fans at contests.

A similar movement is sweeping the U.S., and a handful of emerging pros enjoy rock-star treatment, with world tours and six-figure paychecks.

Like poker and skateboarding, some say gaming is the next big sport or cybersport.

Major League Gaming, or MLG, recently signed five players to some of the biggest professional contracts ever awarded gamers, including one four-person team to a $1 million, three-year contract. Taylor signed a $250,000, three-year deal in 2004.

Taylor practices three hours a night. He also runs and lifts weights, which he said clears his head and boosts his focus.

Once you get past his typical teen bedroom with a belly-baring Britney Spears poster and rap music pumping in the background it's easy to see he's serious about his craft. Three flat-screen TVs with Xboxes line the walls. On the floor is a stack of "playback footage," more than 40 hours of game tape he watches at night.

"I record what I do so I can watch it later, just like football tapes," said Taylor, who launched a video-game tutoring business last year and counts NBA stars like Richard Jefferson among the clients. He charges $65 an hour.

Like every professional sport, there's always a prodigy. In video games, it's a child prodigy, 8-year-old Victor DeLeon III.

He doesn't travel with an entourage and prefers playing with his dwarf hamster Cortana and watching Star Wars.

But put him in a Halo 2 tournament and "Lil Poison," as he's known, is venomous. His father, also named Victor DeLeon, said the gaming whiz has already earned enough money to buy a luxury car and pay for college.

Throngs of fans surround the young Long Island, N.Y., resident at tournaments. He's signed a sponsorship with 1UP Network, has a product line coming out in December and a clothing line debuting next year.

Though men dominate the pro ranks, the industry attracts plenty of women. Pro gamer Bonnie Burton said she plays for the social scene.

"Its not only about competing, it's also about all the friends you have," said the 15-year old from Carlisle, Pa.

Considered one of the fiercest players in the league, 17-year-old Chris Smith, known as "Shockwave," said shows like the one debuting on USA prove the industry has gone mainstream.

"I feel real proud of myself that I can be a part of something growing as fast as pro gaming," said Smith, of Philadelphia.