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Chris Lemley, a 21-year-old who says he looks “about 12” and who has the dream job of an 8-year-old, is perched in a puffy recliner at his west Conway home. On a TV as big as a picture window is playing a recording of the CBS broadcast of the World Series of Video Games.
Team Pandemic — the pro video game squad he assembled and manages — has just finished shredding a team called Insurrection in the finals of the World of Warcraft (WoW) three-on-three match. From his living room, Lemley concedes that the game is “extremely impossible” to watch, and to the untrained eye, it looks like a digital brawl between “Lord of the Rings” extras, all warriors and warlocks whomping on one another.
But the presentation carries the gravity of a traditional sportscast. Announcers analyze the spells that players cast on one another, as cameras cut from the game to young men yelling, the blue glow of computer screens on their faces. When Pandemic wins the match, an emcee asks Pandemic coach Jared Coulston what his team did better than the others. “We just outplayed every team,” he responds. Then another emcee interviewing the vanquished Insurrection manager says, “Everybody's wondering why you guys decided to use a druid,” and points the mike to the manager so he may explain himself.
Lemley laughs at the earnest question. “That's the one thing with WoW,” he says. “When I'm sitting around watching these guys, I'm dumbfounded. I can get behind my Counter-Strike guys and yell. I know the game — it's straightforward: Kill somebody. But this, you're casting spells and doing weird shit, and I'm like, ‘What is going on?' I didn't have a clue, and I was managing the team. I just knew they were good at what they were doing.”
It's that hands-off approach that separates Lemley from, say, the George Steinbrenners of team ownership, even if he has a similar penchant for winning. This year, Team Pandemic ravaged all comers. Pro Gam3r magazine's latest cover shot is of Pandemic's World of Warcraft team, and asks, “Will Pandemic ever be defeated?” Maybe, but by the magazine's count, they romped this year with a 112-6 round score in the best-of-five format in four tournament victories.
The World Series of Video Games folded after this year's tournament, which could have spelled disaster. But since then, Pandemic won its biggest tournament to date: a $45,000 first-place check at Dreamhack, in Sweden. In all, the World of Warcraft team was undefeated in seven 2007 tournaments in such locales as China, Toronto and Los Angeles.
Coupled with other team victories, it helps to position young Lemley, an Atkins native who last year dropped out of Hendrix to focus on Pandemic, as a niche mogul of sorts.
“It can seem that he's really hanging out with you, he's a really good friend,” says Coulston, the World of Warcraft team manager, who is from Maine. “But he's always on top of the business side of things. So even though we just won a big tournament and everyone's going out to celebrate, he'll already be off doing work, preparing for the next tournament.”
At present, Pandemic fields professional teams in five video games: Guitar Hero, Warcraft III, Call of Duty, World of Warcraft and Counter-Strike. The players are under contract, keep their winnings and can make money on the side giving lessons or appearing at events. Lemley helps arrange promotional deals for them and for the company, and he's quite good at it. He estimates Pandemic's gross income this year at about $250,000.
“We're all that's really left in the independent world,” Lemley says. “The guys that are making the good decisions, the ones that are really true to the competition of the game and trying to make gaming big, they all left and took safe jobs with exclusive leagues. I'm young; it's not a big risk if I fail with this. We've been able to pick up all their pieces and become the most powerful independent organization in America.”
The money involved sounds preposterous until you realize that the biggest source of sponsorship dollars is hardware manufacturers such as Intel, Dell and Microsoft, which have an interest in stoking recreational gamers' lust for snazzier systems. A deal with Dell, in fact, has paid for all of Pandemic's travel expenses (around $150,000), blessed them with new hardware and thrown cash on the pile, as well.
If you didn't even realize there were such things as professional video game players, you're probably just remembering how your eyes glazed over the last time you had to watch someone else play Grand Theft Auto III for more than 10 minutes. The rich tournaments were spawned from the makeshift pickup games that proliferated online in the late '90s, notably with Quake, the first-person-shooter scion of Doom. Players without fast connections — pretty much everyone at that time — could network their computers locally; Lemley remembers being 9 years old and inviting friends to his garage to connect their systems.
Today, the Internet forums for network games resemble vast sandlots, where players jonesing for a matchup simply ask who's ready to play. Those are the fields that Lemley now scouts, though he came up through more traditional networking methods. He was a computer science major and a golfer at Hendrix when he joined Pandemic as a player two years ago. Through local tournaments, he met Mark Dolven, the founder of Pandemic, which at the time was but a kernel of what it has become. Lemley bought 49 percent of the company for $2,500 — “the tiniest thing in the world,” he says — that went into revamping its web site. When Dolven left to join a new, DirecTV-backed pro league called Championship Gaming Series (which enjoyed its draft at the Playboy mansion this June) Lemley bought him out entirely.
“It's the best job in the world — I get to go out and buy games and play them for fun,” he says. That's despite the fact that he has yet to pay himself, instead living on savings and money borrowed from his folks. “I think it's safe to say that in 2008, I'll be able to pay myself a nice salary,” he says.
Even before he's depositing any cash, he's living an enviable dude life. He plays video games all day, corresponds with players and companies to stay ahead of whatever's coming in the industry, and jaunts around the world. His home is full of the spoils of his career — an oversized World Series of Video Games novelty check atop the entertainment system and a huge box of Alienware stress balls in the kitchen, for giveaways.
He's plugged in, many times over. He's asked whether he made any missteps along the way.
“I wish that I would have worked harder,” he replies. “Even now, I wish I worked harder at it. I think sometimes I almost take it for granted. It feels like everything's falling in our lap. Not the partnerships, but the wins and the publicity. It makes me wonder how much bigger this thing would be if instead of sitting around and enjoying it I busted my butt like I did in '05.
“That's so weird to say, and it's hard for me to honestly admit that. But I know for a fact that there are other sponsors out there we could have that we don't because I don't actively pursue like I did.”
A trip to his office reveals why. As soon as he sits at his desk, he finds an e-mail from a hardware company at the top of his Gmail inbox, ahead of more than a thousand other unread messages. He opens the note; it's correspondence toward a $40,000 deal.
“That's for doing nothing,” he says. “For putting their name on our jersey.”
Then, as a diligent boss should do, he logs in and checks the online forums. There he finds his undefeated team all in cyberspace, playing World of Warcraft. Noting this, he says, with pride, “I never have to beg them to practice.”
Building a lead so rapidly and holding it in games, even professional football, is difficult…