There will never be another cyberathlete like Dennis "Thresh" Fong, because there simply aren't as many trails to blaze. He was the first person to play games professionally and was honored with induction into the esports Hall of Fame earlier this month at the annual QuakeCon in Dallas, Texas. "He was the Michael Jordan of gaming," gushed Tim Willits, creative director of Id Software (DOOM, Quake), who introduced Fong. "He created a legacy that has helped push the entire esports industry forward."
In his mid-teens, he had an agent, and he racked up a six-figure annual income from tournament prizes, sponsorship deals, and appearance fees. Fong also popularized numerous gameplay techniques. Not just high level shooter tricks like rocket-jumping – using the blast of your own weapon to propel yourself into the air – but fundamental things like the WASD key configuration that most keyboard-and-mouse games now employ as standard.
"Among the ranks of the oft-manic PC gaming set, Mr. Fong has become a legend," a breathless August 1996 front page story in the Wall Street Journal noted. "Over the last two years, he has never lost." That would hold true for the rest of his career – he would retire without anyone besting him, in practice matches as well as in tournament play.
After breathless testimonials from developers and game historians about his stunning prowess in the first-person shooters Quake and Doom, the affable 39 year-old took the stage to accept the honor. "What is this, the 20th Quakecon?" he asked the cheering crowd. "It kinda makes me feel old."
Fong's crowning achievement as a cyberathlete came nearly two decades before, at the May 1997 Red Annihilation Quake tournament in Atlanta. It was one of the first national gaming competitions, with finalists flown in from around the country. The winner would receive five grand, a decent prize at the time. But Id Software's John Carmack decided to up the ante – he announced that the winner would also received his custom Ferrari 328 GTS.
The unique prize alone would have made the Red Annihilation tournament singular. Fong's stunning and dramatic victory made it one of the most memorable moments in the history of esports.
"A lot of people say that me winning that Ferrari in 1997 put esports on the map," Fong tells the crowd at QuakeCon. He jokes that since Tim Willits is the one who designed the Quake map that the competitors at Red Annihilation faced off upon, he deserves some credit too. Willits' map is where Fong put esports on the map.
The map in question was called "Castle of the Damned," a system of interconnected rooms, corridors, and water-filled canals. Quake players memorized every square inch of it, and spent matches whizzing around it at breakneck speed, picking up the armor and health upgrades that were scattered about, and stalking each other with their ridiculously overpowered weaponry.
In the finals, Fong faced off against Tom "Entropy" Kimzey in the Castle of the Damned. To say that the contest was one-sided would be a pathetic understatement. "I don't like to leave my opponent with even a sliver of hope," Fong tells me.
Kimzey was so discombobulated by the thrashing he was receiving that he accidentally offed himself at one point.
He was not the most pinpoint accurate marksman, and he didn't have preternaturally fast reflexes. What he had was an uncanny ability to know where his opponent was at all times – a skill that has been dubbed "Thresh ESP." Fong knew exactly when Kimzey would be coming around corners, and he made sure that a rocket shell was there to reduce the foe's body to giblets.
The final score was fourteen to negative one. (Kimzey was so discombobulated by the thrashing he was receiving that he accidentally offed himself at one point.) Gamers would later coin terms like "pwnage" and "rekt" to describe victories like this. Fong won the tournament, the souped-up sports car, and undying fame.
"That Ferrari was so much trouble," Fong confesses to me with a chuckle. "Carmack literally designs rockets, and he tried to turn that car into a rocket." The Id cofounder had modded it out so much to boost its horsepower that no Ferrari dealership would touch it. It had to be shipped at great cost across the country from Fong's home in the Bay Area to a specialist in Texas whenever it needed maintenance. (He has since sold it to a collector.)
Fong retired from pro gaming soon after his Red Annihilation victory. By late 1997, the Internet company he'd started was taking too much of his time for him to make it to tournaments. (He concedes that the searing carpal tunnel pains that had begun to shoot up his arms after intensive practice sessions may have also been a factor in his retirement.) The only regret he voices about his pro career is that there aren't many records of his stunning achievements. You can find video of his Red Annihilation match online, but he says that only a handful of other matches were recorded for posterity, and game replay data becomes useless once a game has been upgraded.
In the new Redwood City headquarters of his latest company Raptr – home to the PC gaming video replay service Plays.tv – he says that he still finds time to play Clash Royale, Overwatch, and League of Legends, which named the character Thresh after him. "When I play online now, I use Thresh as my handle, and a lot of people assume that I just named myself after that character," he says ruefully. "They don't know it's actually the other way around."
I ask him if he believes that he could still become a top level player if he was a teenager today. He gives a quizzical look, then laughs as if the question is absurd. "There's no doubt in my mind, no question," he says. "The skill level of the players today far exceeds early days, no doubt. But I also have no doubt in my ability to learn and adapt and compete."