The Halo Challenge

Master Chief, a weapons-toting super-enhanced human, is the only being who can save the earth. A video gamer from Texas is the world champion at helping him do just that thousands of times over.

Zyos plays the video game Halo, plays it better than anyone in the world. His mother, Rhonda, watched him dominate the military combat game in San Francisco last year at the World Cyber Games — the gaming Olympics — and because of her status, because she is the mother of Zyos, Rhonda became a de facto celebrity herself. She didn’t expect that. She doesn’t even understand the game, in which you kill enemy combatants on your own or on a team. Yet gamers from across the world approached her. Zyos is a great champion, they said. One of them, an earnest kid from New Zealand, sought her out to tell her he’d flown to San Francisco to study Zyos’s playing tendencies.

Zyos’s father, Steve, once got a call at work from a man in Oklahoma. The man in Oklahoma wanted Zyos to play his 14-year-old son. The man told Steve he would pay Zyos, pay him anything he wanted, if he would play one game of Halo — just one — against his son. Zyos, after all, was the kid’s hero.

Zyos, while vacationing in Italy over Thanksgiving, went a week without playing Halo 2 on Xbox Live. Microsoft makes Xbox, and Xbox Live is the company’s latest and best advance. It allows a gamer to plug his Xbox into an Internet cable and play, say, Halo 2 against anyone in the world. It also keeps track of how often a gamer plays, and makes that information available to all others.

When he was 17, Zyos told his parents he would one day make a living playing Halo.
When he was 17, Zyos told his parents he would one day make a living playing Halo.
Walter Day: "Leto may be the premier video game player in the world."
Walter Day: "Leto may be the premier video game player in the world."

Over Thanksgiving, on Day Five Without Zyos, the message boards of the online world were abuzz with rumors. Zyos has quit. Zyos is playing under a different name. Zyos is dead. Five pages of this, growing more fevered as it went, until one of Zyos’s handlers, one of the people in the business of “building Zyos’s brand,” logged on.

“Guys,” he said. “Zyos is fine. He’s just on vacation.”

It sounds like apocrypha, doesn’t it? But it’s not. Zyos is as talented, as sought after, as any myth you could make about him. And in the coming years, you will hear about Zyos. In short, Zyos is real. He lives in Allen, 25 miles north of Dallas. He’s practicing even tonight. Look at him. He’s hunched over in his chair again, shouting.

“Bombs down in front of our base! There’s a sniper on the ridge…Sniper’s dead…He’s coming after your flag! There’s a ghost who just went in…Ghost is dead.”

He’s got the headset on, the one with the microphone that wraps around the ear and drops down to his mouth, and on the television screen is Halo 2, the shoot-’em-up head-to-head sequel to Halo that racked up sales of $125 million in its first day on the market, and in the air there’s a slightly stale stench, the sort that comes from a 21-year-old who plays the game for hours behind a closed bedroom door.

But on the walls are his first-place plaques and oversize checks for $20,000. And in an hour he’ll leave his parents’ house, where he still lives, drive to Dallas and sign a contract with a company called Check Six, which will pay his airfare and hotel fees in 2005 whenever he plays Halo for money.

Zyos plays Halo for a living, but the checks he earns are signed under his given name, Matt Leto. Major League Gaming signed Leto to play Halo professionally in the fall of 2003, when Leto was 19. MLG is a professional gaming league that holds tournaments across the nation and last year handed out $175,000 in total purses in its inaugural season — a season that concluded with MTV broadcasting its championship, further convincing MLG personnel that theirs is the new X Games. Hell, the new NASCAR.

MLG loves Leto. In fact, the league was so confident he would succeed as a professional, it signed him before it held its first event. Now, one year later, a year in which Leto dominated all comers in single and team play, a year in which he won MLG’s single-player Halo championship and retained his title as best Halo player alive at the World Cyber Games, MLG has built a marketing campaign around Leto, staked its future on him. “He’s the face of our league,” says Mike Sepso, the CEO and co-founder of Major League Gaming.

It’s not a bad move, for a few reasons. For one, Leto’s competitive as hell. Even the best Halo players in the world say Leto’s drive far exceeds their own. He has no girlfriend. Halo is his focus. Even tonight, one hour before he meets Check Six executives, even as he practices Halo with his teammates spaced across the country — all of them connected to one another by plugging in their game systems, their Xboxes, to an Internet cable — even on this self-described “fun” night of game play, Leto’s elbows are on his knees; he’s shouting at his teammates; he has no time for idle chitchat with the visitor who’s stopped by. There are still competitors to best.

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