Dave Walsh is a world-class killer. He has ended more lives than just about anyone on the planet, and this weekend in Vegas he's going to kill again. Here he comes now, entering a dark room filled with plasma screens and oily teens. Dressed in a black T-shirt and jeans, he sizes up the crowd, walking past models shilling for Dr Pepper and Stride gum, slowing when the glare of the camera lights hits him. That's when the screaming starts. No, "Walshy" isn't some adolescent psychopath. He's a 24-year-old hit man who banks more than $100,000 a year playing video games. Teens and parents alike ask him to sign their controllers, their shirts, even their body parts. "He's always been my role model," said a 15-year-old Wisconsin kid named Jared at a tournament last October in Dallas. "He started everything." Because Jared had nothing for Walshy to sign, he pressed him to autograph his forehead. When asked when he planned to wash the Sharpie stain from his brow, he said, "Hopefully never."
Yes, video games are blamed for everything from obesity to illiteracy, and yes, gamers spend absurd amounts of time in front of their monitors, but Walshy's no deadbeat. He was a two-sport athlete in high school (tennis and wrestling). He has a girlfriend and his choice of groupies, his own clothing line, his own charity, and a sponsorship deal with Red Bull. Until six years ago, he made his money by sorting mail 65 hours a week with his dad at a Grand Rapids, Michigan, post office. Growing up, he heard the usual "You're going to hurt your eyes staring at that screen!" from his mom, Mary, who is a nurse and a triathlete, but that didn't stop him from jumping into a buddy's car the moment he learned about a Halo tournament in Nashville. Halo, for the uninitiated, tests a gamer's ability to navigate a science-fiction world, gunning down enemy fighters to capture objects like flags and skulls. Walshy—known as a brilliant and fearless strategist—returned from that first tournament with $50. He kept driving, and winning, and soon he had a team and a sponsor. He won a Dodge Charger SRT8 and sold it to fund a clothing company. By 2004, he was the world's foremost Halo player and the star of Major League Gaming's fledgling pro circuit.
For Walshy, the road to perdition starts with the Claw. Instead of relying on his index finger to shoot, like everyone else, he uses his middle finger, which frees up his index finger to move his character more quickly. The index finger, poised on top of the controller, looks like a talon. Walshy's also an instinctive leader, which is pivotal in Halo matches, for which teams line up four-on-four on either side of a wall of monitors. Most pros rely on a coach who stands behind them barking instructions, but Walshy operates like a point guard, directing his teammates with his skipper, slowly maneuvering his opponents into position for a kill.
Lots of gamers have, well, game. Johnathan Wendel—a.k.a. Fatal1ty—perhaps the most famous ever, won half a million dollars in prize money competing in now-defunct leagues in the early part of this decade. He too was a high-school athlete, in tennis, golf, and football. But unlike Walshy, Fatal1ty invited animosity from the gaming faithful, mainly because he worked as a lone gunman. Walshy's appeal comes as much from his Everyman charisma as from his dominance. He has a long face, moppy hair, and an easy grin that falls somewhere between giddy and goofy. He drives a 2002 Ford Taurus, has raised $15,000 for autism research, and hopes one day to make video-game consoles as prevalent in hospital rooms as televisions. Mike Sepso, who cofounded MLG in 2002, calls him "a historic figure." Of five MLG national Halo titles, Walshy's teams have won three. And in those years, the league has seen unprecedented growth: six destination tournaments that now lure competitors from more than 25 countries, over 5,000 new online players a day, and sponsors like Ball Park and Old Spice lining up to peddle their wares to a 12-to-34-year-old demographic that doesn't seem to watch TV or read newspapers. More than 503,000 people viewed the Dallas tournament on MLG's website, thanks to broadcast partner ESPN, which has a gaming talk show.
All of which makes it more than a little odd that the league and Walshy's teammates both recently betrayed him.
Last summer, after a rough outing in San Diego, the MLG star stopped hearing from Michael "Strongside" Cavanaugh and the aptly named Ogre twins—Dan and Tom Ryan—from the Final Boss crew, with whom he'd won his three titles. This wasn't entirely unusual, as players live in different parts of the country and convene online to practice. But when Walshy mentioned the silence to a friend, he got this reply: "You haven't heard? You were replaced!"
Walshy's phone calls and text messages went unanswered. "We weren't having fun anymore," explains Ogre 2 (Tom). "We weren't practicing as much. There was some personal conflict." In the absence of an official explanation, the gaming community started buzzing: The Ogres were jealous of Walshy's fame. . . . Walshy discovered a life beyond Halo. . . . An unnamed girl busted up the band. It turned out the league had instructed the Ogres not to tell Walshy about the move until Final Boss's sponsors—Red Bull and NBA star Gilbert Arenas—had been briefed. "We would have called him right away," Ogre 2 says. "We would have made sure he heard from us." An MLG spokesman defends the decision, saying, "Sponsors need to be aware."
Walshy was furious. "That is not how you handle a four-year relationship," he says. Suddenly the league had a Brett Favre-like drama on its hands. Were the Ogres evil? Were Walshy's technical skills less effective in Halo 3? Or, gasp, had he lost a step? He is, after all, a fossil in the final stretch of a three-year, $250,000 contract with the league. "Walshy was our first breakout star," says Matthew Bromberg, MLG's CEO. "He's the granddaddy. But staying on top is hard."
Yes, it is. But Walshy, in true gamer fashion, plans to respawn.
Professional gamers are, in some ways, like athletes in most any other sport. They practice three to six hours a day, study videotape, and even endure whispers about performance-enhancing drugs (ones often prescribed for people with ADD). But there are distinct differences. Their matches are monitored by a referee for profanity. The league forbids them from talking to reporters after games. Odder still, it insists on funneling all sponsorship money through the home office in New York. So if, say, Google wants to sign Walshy to a deal, it has to write a check to MLG, which takes a cut before forwarding the balance. "It's a huge conflict of interest," says Evan Reiser, who runs the social-networking site GamerNook.com.
MLG also forbids gamers from promoting their own sponsors on its main stage. When Walshy is playing for an online audience, he has to tape over the Red Bull stickers on his headset. "That's a huge restriction," his mom says. "That's asking a lot, for MLG to have such a hold of these kids."
Walshy doesn't complain—not openly. He wants to make a good league better. So he's creating a union. "I plan on starting it in the next year or two," he says. "Kids who are 16, 17 years old need a third party they can trust. I feel it would legitimize the sport more."
CEO Matthew Bromberg's take: "Interesting," he says. "We'll see."
As fate would have it, Walshy and Instinct, his new team, faced Final Boss in a showdown for second place at the August stop in Toronto. Instinct won, three games to one. A league interviewer asked Walshy how it felt to get even with the Ogres. "Like taking candy from a baby!" he blared. "But a baby would have put up a better fight!"
The team faltered in Dallas, finishing fifth, and entered the November championship in Vegas as a lowly fourth seed. For the first time, Walshy is a long shot to win the $100,000 prize. He has started talking in his sleep, blurting out things like "Rockets coming up in five seconds!" And not only is Final Boss rated one spot higher than Instinct, but Dr Pepper has just announced that veteran gamer T-Squared of Str8 Rippin, the top seed, will be featured on its labels. "I'm not gonna lie," Walshy says. "I'm jealous."
He's sitting in Room 248 of the Hard Rock Hotel, his wide smile fading as he speaks. Like the Larry Csonkas and Gale Sayerses of the NFL, he knows he's led the way for future pros to make lots more money than he does. "I'd be traveling, barely making enough to get by," he says. "But as long as the respect is there." Is it? Does he feel the league and kids these days know what he's done for them? "I'm content with where I'm at," he says, ducking the question.
Instinct splits its opening-day matches in Vegas. Final Boss does too. So, naturally, the two teams meet in the quarterfinals. Walshy's old teammates wear Agent Zero jackets supplied by Gilbert Arenas. Every match is best-of-five, with two "slayer" games (kill, kill, kill) and three "objective" games (capture the flag). The objective games require teamwork, an Instinct strongpoint. Walshy leads the team to a 3-1 rout, with fans shouting "Walshy! Walshy!" Neighbor, the gamer who replaced him on Final Boss, stands up and chucks his controller into the bleachers. Walshy tells the league's interviewer, "I'm not surprised. I've been beating the Ogres for years now." The crowd goes ballistic.
Instinct makes the finals, but Str8 Rippin halts Walshy's run to a fourth national title, winning a hard-fought match 6-3. Walshy looks down at the floor, too disappointed to talk.
The nice thing about video games, though, is a player's ability to come back from the beyond and kill once more. Walshy plans to come back again and again, just like his avatars. "I want to be remembered for what I did for the league," he says. "I want to be the Tony Hawk of gaming." Maybe he'll keep playing for years. Or maybe he'll retire and go after the demons in the sport itself. That's the thing about the gamer word frag: In Walshy's world, it refers to slaughtering the enemy. But in the real world of Vietnam, it meant wiping out an incompetent officer with a well-placed grenade. In other words: mutiny.