As devoted fans of the Halo series we see why it’s worthy of obsession. Its depth of story, rich characters and epic missions give it a goosebump raising quality few games can boast. And then there’s the multiplayer with its limitless potential for chaos and genius. It’s a field of battle where the best can be laid to waste by a lucky grenade throw and the most inexperienced can feel like champions. But being the best at Halo takes something more than just a few weekend online sessions. The very best Halo players are forged in the furnace of competition. They are made, not born, from the blood, sweat, tears, energy drinks, and passion of professional gaming.
The road to greatness can be travelled in many ways though as we discovered speaking to a couple of the best in the business. “We started a local team, just for fun because we had been playing Halo since the start,” said Ryan Geddes, AKA RyaNoob, estimated by E-Sport Earnings to have made over $20,000 from pro gaming. “We just had fun with it, but then we ended up finding out about these tournaments, went to our first tournament together and we ended up doing quite well for a first-tournament thing. We got to about round six or seven. And the event was absolutely incredible. I’ve never been to something of that calibre.” Geddes has won two MLG events at MLG Raleigh 2011 and MLG Dallas 2012 for Halo Reach and Halo 4 respectively as well as regularly ranking in the top 12.
However speaking to Trey Christensen, AKA TreyTri, it’s clear not everyone has the same path. “One of my buddies started showing me a little bit about Halo. He mentioned something about these Ogre Twins – this was like 2007 or 08 – and I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ He told me that there are people that are making money playing this videogame. I had never owned an Xbox or anything, but I just picked up Halo and started playing and I loved it.” The Ogre Twins were Dan and Tom Ryan, AKA Ogre 1 and Ogre 2 respectively who broke into the pro gaming scene in 2005 winning a gold medal playing Halo 2 at the World Cyber Games.
As both Trey and Ryan discovered though there’s a very big difference between attending a tournament playing Halo and really competing at a professional level. “I would say that the team aspect is a lot more prominent at a tournament than it is online,” Christensen explained to us. “Online in pretty much every Halo that I’ve ever played you’ve got people who can absolutely just murder you, single-handedly, but when you get to a tournament setting you really can’t have those individual players that are just wrecking you non-stop.”
And then there’s the setting itself. Playing Halo via Xbox Live can be stressful enough. However that next level of competition is about playing to a crowd having the world watch you as you showcase your abilities. For Geddes there was one particular event that has stuck with him. “The main stage has to be the one thing I want to take from my first event. I remember playing Str8 Rip and they were my idols back then. We played Str8 Rip in one of our first rounds and ended up taking the first game off them, and I’ve never felt so alive.” What’s more it can actually be a life-altering event in terms of self-perception as Geddes went on to explain. “I didn’t feel like I was me: the person who goes to school, makes the grades and does whatever normal life is. I felt like a Halo professional. I felt like I was playing this game to compete with the best in the world.” The main stage can be a powerful place to play, but it can also prove to be the breaking of even the sturdiest teammates.
“At my first main stage experience they were just calling out random teams out of the top 48 or something like that and I actually lost the first time I main-staged,” Christensen told us. “We won game one, then got slaughtered in game two and three. My team name then was Upset City and we just had fun. It was nerve-wracking and a bunch of my teammates freaked out. They were shaking and they couldn’t handle it. It was funny.” But that level of scrutiny and pressure is what helps to harden players into excellent ones and it’s the defining trait you start to look for in a teammate too, according to Christensen. “As I got better and had to look for different teammates who were also better, we would narrow it down to, have they ever been on the main stage? ‘Have they ever experienced that? Have they ever had all the pressure on them? How did they perform under that pressure?’”
The only way to even stand a chance of playing the best is to practice. For pro teams, Scrims are all important. These practice matches via Xbox Live involve pro teams playing against each other in a semi-friendly fashion. There are no prizes to be won, but the best in the world can be found taking each other on. Some of these games can even be watched live. Even practice can be pretty intense though, as both RyaNoob and TreyTri revealed to us. “What I would do is I would go to school from I believe around 7:30 in the morning to around 1:30 and then I would get out and I would play Halo from around 2pm until 11pm or 12am,” Geddes told us. “So about ten hours of Halo a day. And this was every day. I rarely took breaks or deviated from the routine. I just loved playing Halo back then.”
For Christensen practice was the difference between just being there and breaking into the top ranks. “There was a tournament in Columbus, which was the first where I had made the team name Pure, in 2011, and we got 21st for the second tournament in a row and I didn’t feel like I had performed very well. I hadn’t slept the entire weekend and when I went home I went straight to my room, turned on my Xbox and gamed for the next 48 hours straight. The only reason why I stopped was because my nose started to bleed. I felt like maybe I had pushed myself a little too far at that point.”
We would highly recommend taking breaks if you wanted to follow these guys, but it became clear speaking with Trey and Ryan that they were fully aware of how far they could push themselves and sometimes going over the line was exactly what they had to do to really prepare for the tough main stage conditions. “When you’re tired you have to be able to play through that fatigue,” Christensen insisted to us. “That’s one of the biggest reasons why when I would make my team practice, when they started saying ‘we’re tired’, that was the beginning of practice. The beginning was when you just got tired, because if you can learn to play well when you’re tired you can play at a tournament perfectly fine.”
Putting in that kind of time and energy into any kind of game is going to cause some raised eyebrows. While professional gaming is bigger and more recognised than ever, it’s still the kind of path that can see friction from friends and family. Sometimes dedication can start to look like something else to those that don’t understand. “At first they were really sceptical, because I was putting in so much time into this game that it looked like an addiction,” Geddes told us. “I mean, I guess you could define it as an addiction, but to me it was just a hobby of mine. Going pro and making money, at first it was only a couple of hundred dollars, which given how much time I spent playing this game, making a couple of hundred isn’t really a big deal. But then once I started placing consistently they started respecting the idea that it was a job.”
For Christensen, simply introducing people to the pro world seemed to change their feelings about his lifestyle. “Girlfriends didn’t know how it was until you brought them to an event and once you did their eyes would open. ‘Holy shit, this is awesome’. I feel like exposing them to that environment is what lead to having real support.”
And there’s really nothing like the biggest stage that Halo can be played at. Major League Gaming’s Anaheim gathering in July 2013 broke the record for its most attended event with 21,000 fans congregating in southern California. In September 2013 two players faced each other down in one-on-one combat for the chance to win $200,000. It was a massive moment in the rise of competitive Halo playing and it comes as no surprise that Geddes and Christensen believe that the two players involved are two of the best they have ever played against. “The most consistently hard person to beat was Pistola (Justin Deese, AKA IGotUrPistola). He always had this thing for beating me. It was always a tough game going in against him.”
Christensen has no doubts that Aaron “ACE” Elam was the best he ever faced. It just so happens he was also the winner in last year’s final. “When I played against ACE it was on Sanctuary [originally a Halo 2 map, remade as Asylum] in Halo: Reach. I got off ring three and from his rocks when he spawned he chucked a ‘nade off his spawn that bounced off of ring three into my face… The angle that you needed to do that, there’s no way you could do that so perfectly. You would have to literally have played so much Halo to do that. He did it without thinking.”
There is ultimately a small amount of natural ability needed to pull off the championship winning plays and face down the DMR of your adversary without fear. Combined with hours of experience in front of crowds of thousands, you need something special to land in the final eight of a tournament. There are also the financial rewards that come from making it to this elite level. “Being top eight was really important to us because it meant we made money playing Halo, playing videogames, which was definitely an achievement,” Geddes explained to us. Not that the only way to make a living from playing Halo professionally is to take the prize. Christensen found that his earnings came from lots of other revenue streams outside of the main events. “[I made] probably about $3,000 if I was just to look at it based on profit made. If you include sponsorships, etc, it’s a whole other number. And that’s not from any winnings. I haven’t won any big money. That’s just from people paying for lessons, people paying for friend requests and stuff like that.”
Whether surrounding yourself with top players or honing your ability in private, there are many paths to success. We asked our pro Halo gamers what advice they would give to anyone looking to push their Halo skills to a professional level. For Ryan Geddes, it’s simple. “You need to be putting the game time in. This is preached by everybody, but it’s so important – to put the time into the game. Back when I started playing Halo I put in ten hours a day just to be as good as everybody else. Now I’m doing the same thing for this game I’m trying to go pro in, DOTA. I’m putting a lot of time into it. I think I put in 4,000 hours in a year, somewhere around that. If that’s what you want to do, you’ve got to actually want to do it.”
Christensen meanwhile had two important lessons to pass on. “I would say don’t be a frickin’ quitter. If you really want it then you’ll stick it through. And find a pro that you can talk to whether it be me or other pros that you’ve encountered. Somebody that you can talk to that can give you advice on your specific gameplay, because when I was climbing if I had had someone who could have shown me the ropes a little bit I feel like I would have been a lot more interested. I’ve had a lot of people message me just that they wanted help and I’ve said I can look over your gameplay or we can play and I’ll tell you a little bit about what to do or whatever. There’s a lot of people out there that don’t know how to start or where to begin.”
From the moment that Halo 2 arrived on the scene and began to open up the competitive side of its magical FPS formula, this series has been at the heart of the professional gaming scene. On Xbox 360 with Halo 3, ODST, Reach and Halo 4 that has only grown as the scene itself has expanded into multiple leagues and disciplines. Thanks to Twitch and YouTube, you can even watch the best players at work. But above all else, being the very best at Halo is about taking the knocks and putting in the hours. Then you can have that extra yard of pace, that extra half-second of reaction time and that miraculous grenade throw that no one can explain. Halo is a game that can be learned as well as loved and if your passion is genuine, that could well be enough to push you all the way.