UNL student balancing classes and pro gaming career

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By Chris Casper, NewsNetNebraska

Steven Watts raised a sniper rifle up, took aim, and with the pull of a trigger, took out his enemy with a shot to the head.

But, it wasn’t real. Watts had just won $10,000

“Being a pro gamer is so awesome,” Watts said.

“Icedoutpenguin” is Watts’ gamer tag. The 19-year-old graphic design student at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, like many college students, plays video games.

What makes Watts different from the average gamer is that he has turned a popular hobby into a part-time career. When he becomes “Icedoutpenguin” and picks up the game controller, he is going to work as a pro video game player on the MLG (Major League Gaming) circuit.

Watts started playing video games over ten years ago. His usual opponent was his two-years-older brother Brock Watts, who dominated his younger sibling—until the game Halo came out in 1999.

“My brother Brock dominated me in video games until Halo,” Watts admitted.

Watts became obsessed with mastering the game and beating his brother. He would play five hours a day, studying the game and strategy. Brock would come home from school to find his brother staring at the screen.

“He had finally done it—gone off the deep end to beat me in a video game,” Brock laughed.

No matter what he did Brock couldn’t beat his brother anymore, so he gave in:  “He was better than me,” he admitted, “But then I saw how this could be a good thing.”

One day Brock found a flyer lying on the street in the rain; it was an ad for a Halo tournament. Watts remembered his brother came smashing through the door, soaked from head to toe, yelling about the piece of paper in his hand.

“Bro, we need to enter this 2 vs. 2 Halo tournament! We can win $200,” Brock said.

It was almost too easy; they entered the tournament and won the whole thing. Watts couldn’t believe it: there were 50 teams and they beat every last one of them. The Watts brothers began to wonder if there was a competitive gaming league around.

They found Major League Gaming, MLG, which was in its infancy at the time. The only catch was that they needed to find two more good players, because all the MLG Halo tournaments were for four-person teams. The Watts boys kept it in the family and recruited their cousins, 10-year-old Jon Grove and 13-year-old Mike Grove.

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Their first MLG event was in Chicago. There were 50 teams and the tournament would be played over three days. The first match was nerve-wracking:

“I had knots in my stomach and my hands were dripping with sweat,” Watts remembered. “But my brother was there for me.”

Brock came up to him, put his hand on his shoulder and said,

“You got this, Bro,” Watts remembered his brother saying. “Just imagine you are at home playing in our basement kicking my butt!”

It worked.

The Watts family team made it all the way to Sunday, losing only in the final game.

Watts admitted it was disappointing to come in second, but it inspired him to practice even harder for the tournaments to come. Their next competition was in San Francisco and the Watts family team came in first. Then 13-year-old Steven Watts was named best player of the whole tournament.

What happened next in San Francisco was the real literal game-changer for Watts. He was approached by the president of the MLG pro circuit and asked to sign a professional contract, making him the youngest player on the circuit.

“It was at that moment I knew I had made my dream of professional gaming come true,” Watts said.

The next challenge for Watts was balancing school with what was essentially an adult career. Watts’ mother, Gabriella Watts, made sure he didn’t let his schoolwork suffer. He wasn’t allowed to play until all his homework was done and had to get at least A’s and B’s to be allowed to play in any video game tournaments. She also made it clear to him that video games wouldn’t get him into college.

“My son got straight A’s. He knew how important school was,” Gabriella said.

Steven Watts admitted his mom was a big help through high school.

“She was very happy to see that I got accepted into a good college,” he said. “It sure helped that I got straight A’s. Now in college I make sure I am going to class and keeping my grades up.

“My school work comes before any video games.”

Brian Walker, Watts’ roommate at UNL, remembers when he met Watts. He walked into their “super-double” the day they moved in and was blown away at the video gaming set up.

“My jaw literally dropped,” Walker said. “I was at a loss for words.”

There was a big 50-inch television and two smaller televisions. The smaller ones were set up identically with Astro headsets, Xboxes and clear video game controllers.

“Do you like video games, man, or do you love video games?” Walker asked his new roommate. Watts then explained that he had a contract as a professional gamer and has had one since he was 13.

Watts said he and Walker have a typical roommate/friend relationship, but that Walker warns all his friends that Watts will beat them in Halo. The roommates host tournaments in the lounges at the UNL Abel Hall dorm and in their room.

Walker said that he has never been to a video game tournament, but Watts plans on taking him to one in New Jersey over Christmas break.

Watts is not sure where gaming figures into his future. Video game design might be the logical professional path for this video game prodigy and graphic design student.

“I never thought I could be playing video games professionally for this long. For now I will continue to play and study hard,” he said. “I know one day I will have to put down the controller professionally.

“When that day comes it will be hard, but I will be ready for the next thing on the road.”

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