The man known to legions of adoring fans as “Flamesword” rises at around 8 a.m. from his “prized possession,” a Tempur-Pedic mattress with built-in massage, and heads downstairs several hours before his five roommates, who maintain the schedule of vampires, would even dream of getting out of bed.
Wearing shorts, moccasin-style slippers, and a royal blue T-shirt, Flamesword—real name Mike Chaves—steps around the jugs of spring water in the front hall, avoids the thicket of electrical cords snaking off the dining room table, and takes care not to overturn any of the teetering stacks of Red Bull cases scattered about the four-bedroom colonial in a generic swath of exurbia hacked from the flat woods west of Chicago.
There’s no noise, save the soft hum of the idling computers that sit unattended on nearly every flat surface, making it seem as if a gang of hackers had fled the scene in a hurry. “Our neighbors probably think we’re drug dealers,” Chaves jokes. “We’re a bunch of young guys who are up late and never go outside.” It didn’t help their image when, in 2013, the local police department descended on the house wearing Kevlar vests and carrying machine guns after anonymous online pranksters reported a fake hostage situation at their address—a practical joke known in online circles as “swatting.”
Of course, Chaves and his roommates aren’t criminals. They’re professional athletes. To be more specific, they’re professional “e-athletes,” leaders of a new and rapidly growing vanguard of young men who’ve gotten famous—and in some cases, rich—for being as extraordinary at playing video games as Stephen Curry is at draining three-pointers.
And, like pros in other sports, they compete for a team. In this case, it’s OpTic Gaming, an e–Sports “franchise” founded by Hector Rodriguez, a young entrepreneur who left a finance job to become one of the first team owners in the sport. Rodriguez provides housing, travel expenses, and exposure for everyone in the so-called “OpTic House,” home to some of the most successful gamers on the planet. Two of Chaves’ roommates drive expensive, late-model German luxury cars, including the guy whose bedroom is across the hall from his. That would be Matt “NaDeSHoT” Haag, the 22-year-old Call of Duty star who’s almost certainly one of the most famous gamers alive. Haag earns upward of a million dollars a year and, like the rest of OpTic Gaming, is sponsored by Red Bull.
Chaves was recruited to OpTic House in 2013, when Rodriguez was looking for someone to coach his crack Call of Duty team, even though Call of Duty isn’t Chaves’ specialty—he excels at Halo, another first-person, military-style shooter, which had fallen out of favor in recent years and is experiencing something of a resurgence of late. (Chaves will lead the new OpTic Halo team, too.)
Rodriguez admired Chaves’ expertise in strategy, communication, and team play, which he felt would be an asset to his group. More important, though, Rodriguez wanted Chaves because of what he represented: a new breed of gamer who understands that his health and fitness directly affect his playing strategy and kill rate.
“I knew Mike could help us reshape our lives into something a little bit healthier and better for the overall gaming lifestyle,” Rodriguez told me.
Chaves is 5'7" and has the athletic build of a slot receiver or second baseman. While his roommates are sleeping, he rummages through cabinets and the freezer, pulling out various bottles and bags until he’s assembled the ingredients for a smoothie: a banana-blueberry-peanut butter blend with oatmeal, flaxseed, multivitamin powder, and chocolate whey protein. As he dumps in two scoops, I scan the room. All around him are signs of dietary wandering: sugared cereals, bags of Oreos, a bottle of Grey Goose. “At the end of the day I can’t stop them from eating what they want,” he says, shaking his head.
Still, he’s had a profound effect on his roomies. They’ve all changed their diets, and most have joined him for workouts—at least here and there. His biggest success is Marcus “MBoZe” Blanks, a 19-year-old gaming prodigy who moved in weighing 360 pounds. Seven months later, thanks to Chaves’ regimen of full-body workouts and rigid dieting, he’s down to 280.
“The process was dreadful for someone who barely worked out, ever, in his life,” says Blanks. “But once I got the hang of it, the days flew by.” And becoming fitter has paid off in myriad ways. “For gaming, it’s made me a lot more alert and a lot more focused,” he says. “And now I actually don’t mind taking pictures with fans and seeing them tweeting it out anymore.”
Chaves prefers to stay around 150 pounds, but he’s considering putting on a little bulk as he gears up for competition. “It’s all about finding the right balance and feeling relaxed and better,” he says. While traveling, which he does often, he keeps mentally and physically fit with his “four-minute hotel workouts,” high-intensity bursts designed to offset the languor of sitting for eight hours straight during a competition. The workout has become very popular on his YouTube channel, where 160,000 video game enthusiasts routinely tune in for his exercise tips and diet advice.
“Sitting down all day is terrible for the body, yet that’s what I do for a living,” he says. “So exercise is crucial for the mind, for the body, and for feeling relaxed. I’ve seen my greatest success since I started really working out and keeping fit a few years ago—and that includes four world championships versus the zero I’d won before.”
The American video game industry generates more than $71 billion in annual revenue—more than the music industry and not far behind Hollywood films. Every year, it expands by leaps and bounds. And e–Sports, as the top level of competitive game play, is on an equally precipitous growth track.