If this were a “Rocky” movie, this would be the montage where Rocky Balboa is eating raw eggs, slamming the side of beef with his fists and running up the 72 steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Instead, in this montage, there might be some slight chair adjustments and some incredibly focused staring at a computer monitor. An energy drink might be nearby. Instead of thrown punches, it’s incredibly precise, well-timed thumb movements and trigger-finger presses on a Dual Shock PlayStation 4 controller.
This is training.
Inside a six-bedroom, nearly 4,000-square-foot home in Southwest Austin, four competitive video-game players, a coach and the girlfriend of the team captain have been living together, preparing for events such as the “Call of Duty” World League tournament in Columbus, Ohio.
The purse for the tournament is $700,000 and the team members of FaZe Clan, who began renting the house in September specifically to train for pro gaming events, are not playing around even when they’re playing around.
Check out a photo gallery from FaZe House.
The teammates are captain James “Clayster” Eubanks, Dillon “Attach” Price, Ian “Enable” Wyatt” and Tommy “ZooMaa” Paparratto -- four men in their early 20s who make a living as competitive video game players with huge online followings. Along with their coach James “Reep” Crowder (who retired from competing last year after winning a “Call of Duty” world championship), they’ve been practicing, practicing, practicing the maps, refining their team chemistry and yes, engaging in the physical training it takes to be an esports champion.
“In this house, I’ll cook food for them before they practice -- healthy food, chicken, rice, broccoli,” Crowder said. “We go to the gym, do physical conditioning, some cardio. The gym makes some people happy. If you’re happier and healthier, you’ll play better, you’ll be more into it.”
When Eubanks and his girlfriend were hunting for a rental house for FaZe Clan to rent in Austin last year, it wasn’t necessary for the place to look like a futuristic gaming arena, but it did need to meet certain requirements. “It needed to fit all of us, be in our price range and have good enough Internet speeds,” he said.
It also needed to be large enough to house all the team members comfortably and centrally located to allow for easy travel days anywhere in the U.S. they might be competing.
What they settled on was not quite a mansion, but a well-appointed home near Circle C with a nice back yard for Eubanks’ dog, Olive, and access to the high-speed internet service Google Fiber, which was installed in the home a few weeks ago to the guys’ approval. The house was mostly unfurnished, but the owners left behind some couches and a pool table that has remained completely unused.
What the home didn’t have was Internet cables delivering high-speeds to every room, so FaZe Clan improvised: Sets of cables connected to rapidly blinking switches run along the floors through a big chunk of the house. It’s not pretty, but it delivers the data.
Every teammate, the coach and Eubanks’ girlfriend Tiffany Punzel (not a competitive gamer, but an online streamer in her own right) all have their own powerful computer stations and multiple game consoles, controllers, knickknacks and high-end webcams to not only play games, but to engage with fans through social media, video feeds of their gameplay and YouTube videos detailing life in FaZe House.
FaZe Clan is part of a quickly-growing market. It’s expected that the global audience for esports will reach 385 million audience members this year, creating a competitive gaming market of about $696 million, according to research firm Newzoo.
There are lots of players trying to make a living at streaming their lives on websites like Twitch or getting involved in that professional gaming industry.
The thing you have to understand about FaZe Clan is that this is not a group of players hoping to make something of themselves; as a collection of trophies, an X-Games gold medal and championship rings in Eubanks’ room suggest, these are top-tier players already at the top of their game, so to speak.
They have fans. And Wikipedia pages. And they can earn hundreds of thousands of dollars in a single tournament. In addition to the money they earn from winning, they collect money from their video streams and each of them has a line of personalized merchandise available for sale online. They get free products from sponsors, such as headphone maker Turtle Beach, energy drink G Fuel or SkufGaming, which sends them free game controllers.
What’s so special about a game controller geared to esports athletes like these?
Price explains as he holds one of the boxes in his room up. “When you jump in the game, you have to hit this button with your thumb, but your thumb is controlling the analog stick. You can click this back paddle and it hits the button instead of having to move your thumb,” he said.
“It saves a few milliseconds, but that’s a lot of time in professional gaming,” said Price.
That esports lifestyle
Exercise, eating right and getting some time outside is part of the daily schedule at FaZe House. But actual daily training in “Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare,” the game the team will play in Ohio this weekend as part of the Group B round, begins about 5 p.m. and goes on until 1 or 2 in the morning.
Matches at the competitive level last anywhere from an hour to two hours, including bathroom breaks, but tournament competition can mean multiple matches a day. A team facing double elimination could end up playing eight matches a day, resulting in hours and hours of sitting at a computer screen, barely moving.
“It can be pretty stressful sometimes,” Crowder said. “Obviously, video games are a dream, but no matter what it is, if you play something over and over, sometimes you’re going to get frustrated with it.”
Crowder, who played baseball in high school until an arm injury sidelined him toward video games, has a strong competitive streak. But after striving to be a pro gamer since the age of 13, he finally realized he was more interested in enjoying video games with his friends than making competition a lifestyle. “As I came up more, it wasn’t the same feeling. That’s why I retired. Some people can treat this as a business. I like having fun.”
When casual video game players get fed up with a game or the people they play with online, they can shut the game off, buy a different game and move on.
Pro gamers such as the FaZe team have salaries, endorsement deals and, most importantly, a contract. For these players, it’s with FaZe Clan, a Los Angeles-based gaming group that also has teams for “Overwatch” and “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive,” two wildly popular shooters.
Price, who hails from Moorpark, Calif., says younger gamers who want to compete don’t understand the responsibility that’s involved. “It gets kind of crazy when a person tries to leave a team they’re on. You signed a contract and you have to abide by that. It’s getting very serious and official,” he said.
What’s it like to be in FaZe House? Remember having a common interest with a group of friends in high school or college that bonded you together tightly? Or one of your first jobs where you got along great with your co-workers and everything just clicked?
The FaZe teammates at the Austin house tease each other relentlessly and are as apt to sit on the living-room sectional and watch live matches to support other FaZe teams as they are to hole up in their rooms and do their own thing.
Paparratto, who came to Austin from New Jersey to train at the house, got the smallest room in the house, but he has a deck right outside and he’s put up an Italian flag and a large piece of art featuring Marvel’s Silver Surfer character playing soccer.
“Nobody wanted this room because it’s small, but I set it up pretty nice, right?” he asked.
On this day, he’s just gotten back from a doctor’s visit for a possible case of tendinitis that could have derailed the team’s fortunes in Ohio. But, Paparratto reports, he’s fine and won’t have trouble competing.
Typically, pro gamers scattered across the country rely on Skype or some other form of communication to train before they come together in person at these tournaments. But large pro gaming groups are starting to figure out that making sure players are bonding together is as important as memorizing first-person shooter maps and having the right gear. So they’re buying or renting houses as training bases. FaZe Clan in California not only pays for travel to gaming tournaments, but is also footing the bill on the Austin rental house.
“It’s not the standard yet, but it’s getting more common,” Crowder said.
The house is not quite a mansion, but its main living area is airy and bright, with lots of sunlight and windows. Though there’s a living area crammed with stacks of boxes from computers, monitors and other tech gear, the home’s occupants have kept FaZe House mostly neat even as they’re packing up for the Ohio trip.
Eubanks said living together has improved the team members’ relationships both in and out of the game even after years of playing together online.
“You definitely need to have a bond with your teammates to know what they’re going to do before they do it,” Eubanks said. “The chemistry and respect has to be there.”
Given that they’ve collectively earned hundreds of thousands of dollars and that each of them has droves of fans following them online as any pro athlete would, it seems that the time they spent getting into games as teenagers has paid off the and that a world audience has come to appreciate their skills.
“I used to be embarrassed by it,” Eubanks said. “But nobody thinks it’s nerdy anymore. People think it’s cool.”
You can watch the CWL competition this weekend at tv.majorleaguegaming.com/channel/cwl. FaZe Clan is scheduled to compete starting at 3 p.m. on Friday, April 28.
Cover photo: from L-R: FaZe Clan team members James “Clayster” Eubanks, Dillon “Attach” Price, Ian “Enable” Wyatt, Tommy “ZooMaa” Paparatto and James “Reep” Crowder, who is their coach. Ralph Barrera / AMERICAN-STATESMAN