This small south Arkansas city was once one of the top oil producers in the nation.
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.