David Walsh On What It Takes

We sit down with one of the greatest Halo players in history to talk about rising to the top, moving on, and what's next.

By: Yannick LeJacq

Filed Under: Feature Interview

In 2001, when Halo: Combat Evolved first arrived on Microsoft’s brand-new Xbox console, Dave Walsh was like any other guy. He was making his way through high school, playing this new game with his friends in massive LAN-parties whenever they could all get together. That’s until he decided to visit a Halo tournament over Spring Break in 2003, and realized he had a promising young talent. Over the next 11 years, Walsh quickly ascended the ranks of competitive Halo matches, joining elite teams such as “Final Boss,” where he competed along side other famous Halo players like The Ogre Twins under his gamer tag Walshy.

He was the incarnation of every kid’s dream. He was living in that place they daydreamed as they thought to themselves, “well, video games are a lot more fun than anything else in the world, so why can’t that just be your job?”

Then, earlier this year, Walshy formally announced his retirement on the Major League Gaming website. Just four months out of the professional competitive circuit, I caught up with Walsh to hear about how he rose to the level he achieved as Walshy, his decision to leave professional gaming, his plans for the future, and his thoughts on the semi-hidden world of professional gamers.

What games did you play as a kid, before you took it to this level?

For regular Nintendo, I played a lot of Contra and Bubble Bobble, just random fun games. For PC, I played some Warcraft 2. I don’t think I ever got into a game like Quake until late, I played a little bit of Doom. I really didn’t get into the competitive side until high school.

How did you get started in competitive gaming? What drew you to this in the first place?

Well I’ve played games my whole life obviously. In my high school years, I got really into Halo with a bunch of friends. They didn’t have anything online, it was just LAN-only for that. So a friend of mine found out about a tournament going down in Nashville. It was over Spring Break and I didn’t have a lot going on, so me and a few other guys from my high school went down there. I did fairly well—I took fifth out of about 300 people. Back then prize money was not that high—I took fifty dollars for fifth place. My second tournament I won, I think I won three or five hundred bucks. Once Major League Gaming came around and they got picked up on TV, that’s when prize money picked up and I was able to get sponsorships. I was able to make a living at it starting around 2004, but at the same time I was still going to school and stuff. It wasn’t until 2006 or so that I decided to drop out of school and focus on it fully.

How much did you have to play? Were you training at that point when you went into competitions?

Yeah obviously putting a lot of hours in is extremely important, I would maybe compare it to full-time work. It can go from twenty hours some weeks to sixty-plus other weeks.

What drew you to Halo in particular? Are you mostly a shooter guy, or what other games do you play?

I play a lot of other games. I was ranked masters at Starcraft—I really liked RTSs, but Halo just seemed like a really strategic shooter to me. It had a perfect combination of teamwork along with controlling weapons and power-ups. It was a really balanced and perfect game.

How has the competitive gaming space evolved since you started out? Were there any professional players you admired or aspired to be like when you first began competing?

Yeah, Fatality was one of the first I saw on MTV who was making a living at it—that was inspirational, just seeing, “Wow, someone’s actually making money doing what I love.” The Starcraft scene in Korea is really inspirational—the kind of money those guys bring in, the rockstar lifestyle they can live out there. It’s literally on TV, everybody knows what Starcraft is, what the units do, know how the game works. That’s one of the good things that’s going on with gaming here—it’s getting more mainstream. If you asked somebody fifteen years ago if they watched poker on TV, they would just say, “What the fuck? Are you crazy?” But now they found a good way to brand it, make it entertaining, make it a good spectator event.

What team did you start out with?

The most famous team I was this one called Final Boss.

Who else was in that?

It mainly consisted of me and two guys called The Ogre Twins. We switched around the other members, but we won countless tournaments throughout the three years we were together. We probably won twenty or twenty-two national events together.

And you all trained together? Did you have team practice every day?

We’d practice online every night, I would go down to Ohio, train at their house a couple months of each year. A lot of us did plenty of other things on the side as well. When I dropped out of school I opened up a clothing company, so I did that for six years. A lot of those other guys were in school too, it’s still something you can do on the side depending on how much work you have or if you’re going to the best university. You could probably even have a job, but you don’t want to get overloaded.

It wasn’t too extreme for me, just sort of, “Ok, I’m making more money on this.” [Laughs] I was just going to a small community college in Grand Rapids, I was going to transfer for business. I got two years in—I think I’m like four credits shy of an associate’s of arts from there, six credits shy of a transfer. Personally I don’t plan on going back, but we’ll see.

I remember reading about how much Starcraft 2 players had to train if they were going to make the leap into professional-level gaming. It doesn’t sound like it’s quite that intense for Halo.

A lot of the Starcraft guys do practice a ton, but it’s a lot more popular and has higher prize money. It’s just one of those things where you have to put hours in, and that’s what’s good and bad about video games. The good part is that each time a new game comes out, you take some steps back. Obviously you can retain skill that transfers from game to game, but you essentially have to put the hours into the craft again. It’s not like a natural sport—guys that play baseball or basketball, they don’t need to be putting in insane hours every day because they’ve been doing it they’re whole life. But when a new game comes out, yeah you have to put in 10, 18 hours in a day—I don’t condone putting 18 hours a day [laughs]. It obviously has it’s drawbacks, but the person that puts more in is gonna have a better chance. Natural skill can take you so far, but…

How dramatically has Halo evolved since you started playing?

In Halo, the pistol was by far the strongest gun. You could be a smart player, you could make the right decisions, but if you can’t get a pistol in that game you’re not gonna be good. This goes with every shooter—shooting skills are important, but some guns are insanely powerful. Each game has had some great changes; in Halo 2 they added more interesting weapons like the sword. Dual-wielding helped make it more mainstream. They started to take the Call of Duty route in the last one. I don’t think they did it as well in Reach. They had these load-outs, armor, sprinting…it didn’t feel like Halo! Some were overpowered, they were very hard to counter. Halo 4 looks very promising because you customize your load-out.

So did you ever play shooters on a PC?

I played some Counter-Strike. They both have their ups and downs obviously. Keyboard and mouse has unparalleled accuracy—you can’t really compare the two. I mean, you could pull off these moves that you can never do in a console game like Halo. But one of the things that got me into Halo was that it was a slower-paced game. Consoles provide that fun atmosphere with friends.

And that’s the thing—the two are so divided, so if you’re playing on the computer, you’re gonna use a mouse and keyboard. But if you’re going against someone on an Xbox, they’re using the same exact equipment as you.

Do you think that makes it a more level playing field?

There’s different ways to look at it. From one competitive standpoint, it levels the playing field. But I also like that there’s variety with a mouse/keyboard. One thing that’s great about that is different sponsorship opportunities, different tastes. It’s good having those choices.

When did you start getting approached for sponsorships?

Around 2004 or 2005? I was with this gaming clan called “Team 3D” that bought our Halo squad. They had a Counter-Strike team and a bunch of other sponsors, so indirectly we were sponsored directly by Intel, Subway, four other companies. We had a manager to take care of everything, so we just had to wear the jersey.

How did you feel when you stepped up to that level? Were you relatively young in the field?

Probably more the opposite, I’m regarded as one of the oldest ones. Even back then, I was playing…one of my last teammates was ten years younger than me! I’m 28, and he’s 18 [laughs]. It’s pretty loose with age restrictions, as long as you have your parents’ permission. One of the kids that won last year was sixteen, that Starcraft kid Lenag won the nationals when he was 15.

So what made you throw in the controller? Did you feel you were getting too old for it?

Um, a few different things. I always sort of told myself that if I wasn’t going to do it a hundred percent, I shouldn’t do it—it’s not fair to me, my teammates, my fans, the sponsors I’m representing. I just wasn’t that into the game. I wasn’t putting the time into it, not getting the results. At some point I realized, “You know what, this isn’t a lifetime thing.” It’s not like the NFL or the NBA where I’m making enough money from competing alone to live off forever. It’s not million dollar contracts—millions and millions of dollars at least, I signed that three-year quarter million dollar thing.

I had to make a move at some point in my life, and it just felt like the right time. I want to get into the business side of the game with development. My ideal situation would be to work for 343 Industries, the producers of Halo. I’d love to be there lead multiplayer balance person—help them figure out what’s overpowered, underpowered, game-breaking. I made a living for eight years figuring out what I could exploit, take advantage of, or abuse.

You didn’t want to stick it out and wait for Halo 4 to come out?

I just feel like I’ve done it for eight years—I had fun competing, and it doesn’t stop me from being able to play the game. I can take someone like Day[9]’s approach where I can be a commentator at events and have “get better faster” videos on Youtube. That’s one of the nice things about Youtube and Twitch—you can make a living just off the ad revenue itself doing commentary on gameplay, and the Halo community is missing great commentators like the Starcraft scene.

I commentated at two events, but I wouldn’t be interested in putting as much time into it to actually play it. I mean, it’s a very time consuming craft—so many hours being in the room every night by yourself. Or else travelling—I would travel close to a third of the year. So it was either: I’m gone, or when I am home, I’m sitting at home practicing. Sorta ready to move on from that.

How long do you see gamers stay in that world—is it usually eight to ten years?

Oh no, that’s very rare. You’ll see some exceptions—someone like Fatality or Boxer that stay on top for a long time. But I think a lot of us, at least right now for something like Halo especially, people do it on the side for as long as they can. Maybe a few years, and just end up moving on a lot of the time.

One of my old teammates, Ogre 2, is very successful. He’s 25 now maybe? I have a lot of respect for them—they won nationals last year, so he shows that even at 25 you’re still able to compete and win.

Is that really considered old?

I mean in the Halo scene, you just really don’t see anyone older than that. You look at the line-up of the kids that won the most recent Halo event, and you’re talking sixteen, eighteen, eighteen and twenty-one.

Is this more because of attrition that you’ve been talking about—eventually the game starts to wear on you—or when you’re sixteen years old do you just have better reflexes and reaction time?

A lot of it just have to do with drive and time. When you’re that age, you have so much more free time—schoolwork, summers off. Whereas if you’re even twenty, you’re already focused on different things in life. I think I went to my first tournament when I was 17. It’s not like I’ve been making a living at it for eleven years, but I’ve been going to tournaments for that long. So some people can stay in the scene and compete for a while like Ogre 2 has shown. But it’s very rare you see someone bust into the scene at 25, you usually pick them out much earlier.

Well how much of this competitive gaming scene can afford to do it full time?

It’s hard to figure out. If you look at a site that lists how much the top Starcraft players earn—and this is solely prize money—it’s really top heavy. MC and MVP both make over $300,000, but the 50th guy is only at $20,000. Things like Twitch and own3d have been so instrumental for the blow-up of gaming, the fact that you can just sit at home streaming your practice and make a living at that. It’s hard to gauge because people aren’t as public, but I would assume every single guy on the first page is making six figures a year.

Did you notice that as you got older it became harder to compete—the people around you became better or you just felt outpaced by them suddenly?

The competition pool got bigger, so that certainly has something to do with it. But it’s also myself not being able to put the time in either. I was very confident that if I put in the time or worked harder, I could have done better. But that’s just something you can’t force.

Well the thing with playing one game for so long is the repetition must start to wear on you. Is there any room to play multiple games to compete?

I don’t think there’s any room with the level that people are at for you to win at multiple games. You couldn’t compete in Halo and in Starcraft—it just wouldn’t be able to happen. You wouldn’t have a fighting chance at either of those, because you have so many great players that are just focused on that one game—live, breathe that game. I did a couple other tournaments. During Halo 2, which we were really dominant at, I went to a Battlefield tournament and won a $43,000 car. I played it for three weeks and won it through Gamestop.

Oh, shit.

[laughs] Yeah. Another time there was an Xbox game called Shadowrun—at Nationals I took first for Halo and second for Shadowrun. I feel like that was when the competition pool was even smaller back then, I really don’t think nowadays it would be possible to compete in multiple games and be very successful. Or you’d have to put an ungodly amount of time in.

Have there been any controversies about how these gamers perform, the way that other athletes are so rigorously drug-tested and examined now?

There’s been some controversy around Adderall, things like that. I don’t know how big a controversy it is. It is a performance enhancer for sure, but I don’t think it’s under as much fire because we’re a small community. It’s definitely out there.

Do a lot of players use Adderall or other substances?

I wouldn’t be able to give you numbers on it, but I’m sure.

And they don’t have any kind of testing?

Realistically, there’s no way to take care of it. At least at the size and level that these games are at. What are you gonna do, drug test a thousand kids at a Halo tournament when they’re competing for twenty thousand dollars? [laughs] It’s also a drug that’s prescribed, so are you going to be able to deny people a prescription drug that they have? Are you only going to test people that don’t have it prescribed? It’s a weird situation.

I mean, it makes so much sense given the kind of activity you’re devoting yourself to. I remember even when I played Diablo III to review it; I thought I was going to start losing my mind after sitting at the desk for a few hours. 

Yeah, I feel you. That game got real repetitive real fast, I got to level 50…I’m in hell or whatever. And it’s just like, “Dude I don’t want to keep doing the exact same missions over and over again!” I’m not a big fan of those farming games—that’s why I like games like Halo or Starcraft. It’s not about who plays the most. Playing more obviously is going to give you better practice, but you’re on the same playing field as everyone else. You just have a straight-up match. Each one’s a little different. You can’t put in the long, long binges to a degree. People say, “Oh yeah eighteen hours a day in Starcraft.” I think that’s a bit of an overstatement. They might’ve had days when they do that, but there’s no way in hell they do that every single day. [laughs]

Filed Under: Feature Interview

About the Author:
Yannick LeJacq is a reporter for the International Business Times. His work has also appeared in Kill Screen, Salon, the Atlantic, and the Wall Street Journal.

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