Keep your skateboarding, snowboarding, and motocross. The most exciting competition at this year’s X Games is going to be Call of Duty, at least if 18-year-old Josiah Berry has anything to say about it.
No, video games don’t require Tony Hawk and Torstein Horgmo’s physics-defying athletic skills, and Call of Duty players don’t exactly put their lives on the line. But that doesn’t mean that the competition isn’t fierce, or that eSports competitors don’t work just as hard as their more traditional counterparts. “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” Berry says. “It’s different than people think it is.”
Berry – who prefers to go by his online handle, Slacked – should know. As a member of Team eLevate, one of the nation’s top Call of Duty teams, Slacked has been part of the rapidly expanding eSports scene for over three years. This weekend, Slacked and eLevate join seven other Call of Duty teams at Major League Gaming’s Pro League Season 2 Championships 2015 in Austin, Texas, where they’ll duke it out for a piece of the $75,000 prize pool.
Getting to the X Games and the championship tournament wasn’t easy. Slacked and his three team members battled through 44 separate online matches this past spring, ultimately securing the number four seed. The championship event, which runs from June 5 through 7, is a double elimination tournament in which each match is a best-of-seven series that spans Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare’s most popular competitive modes: Hardpoint, Search & Destroy, Uplink, and Capture the Flag.
Thankfully, Slacked is ready; after all, the fierce competition is what drew him to professional gaming in the first place. “I used to never play video games at all. I loved watching, but I never played,” Slacked says. That changed when he was about 13. “I was at my friend’s house, and he was playing Call of Duty 4 at the time. It was him, his dad, me, and his little brother, and we all played against each other.”
“I was really good at it, and I really liked the competition,” Slacked says. He started competing professionally just over a year later. Inspired by live streams of professional Halo matches – not to mention the money involved, which gave virtual competitions real-life stakes – Slacked borrowed his mom’s credit card and registered for an online tournament. He got first place, and won $300.
Since then, Slacked hasn’t looked back. Yet even after all this time, he still hasn’t warmed toward recreational gaming. “I really don’t have too much interest in games besides Call of Duty,” he says. “I’m going to be playing in a tournament for money online, or I’m going to be playing to get better.” Slacked isn’t really a gamer, per se. He’s an athlete, and Call of Duty just happens to be his sport of choice.
According to Nathan Wilson, eLevate’s chief marketing officer, the whole team thrives on competition. When Wilson talks about eLevate’s roster, the word “hunger” comes up a lot. Which is not to say that the team doesn’t have fun, too, of course. “We wanted guys who enjoyed playing together, who had positive attitudes,” Wilson says. “This team was built with chemistry in mind.”
That sense of camaraderie is a big part of eLevate’s success, and the team has Slacked to thank. Unlike traditional sports teams, which are managed from the top down, eSports players generally recruit each other, while the administrative team does their best to stay out of the competitors’ way. As Slacked says, “We decide who we want to play with.” As team captain, Slacked personally selected each member of eLevate’s current lineup. “All the people on my team, I really enjoy playing with – they’re all cool kids,” he says. “I have fun doing it.”
Still, at the professional level, gaming isn’t a lark; there’s real money on the line, and getting to the top requires a lot of hard work. For Slacked – who also plays high school basketball – that means strict and unwavering discipline. According to Slacked, a good schedule is key. He says, “You gotta make gaming important…. During the basketball season, I have school from 8 to 3, I have basketball practice from 3 to 6, and then I have to come home and shower and eat dinner and play Call of Duty.”
Like their X Games brethren, Call of Duty players can get an edge by using the right gear. Team eLevate uses the Scuf Xbox One controller, which Slacked adores. The “trigger” buttons on top of the Scuf gamepad, which are used to shoot Call of Duty’s weapons, are tighter than normal, meaning that button presses are snappier, leading to shorter reaction times. The Scuf pad also has paddles on the back that serve as extra buttons, allowing players to perform actions without moving their thumbs.
According to Slacked, the right controller can be the difference between victory and defeat. “After someone’s been practicing with a Scuf game controller for so long, then handing them a normal Xbox One controller and saying, ‘Go out and do exactly what you do…'” He sighs. “We’re just so used to [the Scuf controller]as players, that we have to have that.”
As with other sports teams, video plays a huge part in Team eLevate’s training process, too. Every match that eLevate plays is streamed on the Major League Gaming website, which comes with a rebroadcast feature. That’s nice for fans, but it’s critical for players, who can use recordings to analyze what their teams did right – and what they didn’t. Slacked says, “If something went wrong that day, I can put up the rebroadcast on my stream, and we can sit down and watch that together.” As a team, eLevate will scour past videos for mistakes and adjust its strategies accordingly.
Otherwise? It’s just practice, practice, practice. Going into the X Games, Slacked and eLevate have been training for up to six hours a day, five or six days a week, scrimmaging against each other or other professional gamers. For Slacked, the lead-up to a Call of Duty match is a lot like the beginning of a basketball game: “Before the game, you’re in the locker room, you’re preparing yourself,” he says, “you warm up, you play the game, you gotta get prepared.” Often, Slacked uses music to pump himself up – to “get my head in the game,” as he says.
After all, Slacked seems to imply, there’s not really a difference between eSports and other ones. A game is a game. Physical or digital, it doesn’t matter; it’s a competition either way.
Update: Team eLevate took home the bronze medal during the competition in Austin.