- Associated Press - Saturday, April 29, 2017

JASPER, Ind. (AP) - Braden Schenetzki jammed down the throttle and burst forward. He flipped his muscle car into the air and activated its turbo, sailing like a jet in the night above the sold-out stadium before nosediving to his goal.

The 20-year-old wasn’t burning toward a finish line. He wasn’t attempting a daredevil stunt, though Evil Knievel would have balked at the notion of performing such ambitious aerial contortions.

Heck, Schenetzki wasn’t even seated in the cockpit of a real-life racecar.

Instead, he huddled his lanky, nearly six-and-a-half-foot frame behind his dual computer monitors at his Jasper home. He was carving out a calculated attack in Rocket League, a popular video game that blends the sport of soccer with insanely high-powered cars.

While esports competitions are virtual, the players who qualify and compete in tournaments can rake in hundreds of thousands of real dollars, meaning a career as a consistently great professional gamer is becoming a lucrative choice.

It’s a life Schenetzki is speeding after.

He is among the top .0003% of Rocket League’s 30 million registered players, and is a substitute player on Selfless Gaming, a top-ranked team of North American gamers who compete in contests across the globe. Schenetzki - known online by his username, Pluto - has played car ball at contests in packed arenas in Amsterdam; Los Angeles; San Antonio; Madison, Wisconsin and Chicago, all while bringing home a total career earnings of about $10,000 in less than two years.

His team is currently in third place out of eight teams competing each weekend in Rocket League’s official North American Championship Series. With a record of 4-3 in 2017 league play, if Selfless can hold a spot in the top six after tomorrow’s competition, the team will take the field in a North American tournament in early May, with the top four finishers shipping out to LA in June for a world championship featuring the best European and Oceanic squads. The season’s total prize pool is $300,000.

Standard Rocket League matches pit two teams of three drivers each against each other in a five-minute blitz that continues into an untimed overtime if the sides are locked in a tie at the end of regulation. The game is played in a virtual arena that looks like a soccer stadium surrounded by walls that the game’s massive ball can bounce on, creating a tactically chaotic swarm of nonstop passes and shots.

The game’s premise is familiar: The team that scores the most goals is the winner. Unlike soccer, however, fouls aren’t called, and players can temporarily destroy each other’s cars by blasting through them.

A lifelong gamer, Schenetzki didn’t seriously consider esports as a viable career until after Rocket League was released in July 2015. He grew up churning through console video games - setups made by companies like Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft that plug directly into TVs. Now, Pluto spends almost all of his time dribbling and dismantling opponents on Rocket League through his souped-up personal gaming computer.

Sometimes, Schenetzki hosts a live, online video stream of himself while he plays where viewers can donate money and voice support while watching him. He’s garnered over 70,000 views on his videos since he started the broadcasts in the fall of 2015, making him an in-game celebrity who is recognized almost immediately when hopping in for-fun games with random players hosted on the game’s internet servers.

He’s clocked about 4,000 hours into perfecting his car ball technique - roughly 167 days worth of total practice - and logged even more time into the game’s predecessor, Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars. While he doesn’t have a strict practice schedule, he logs between 25 and 30 hours a week honing his skills.

Instead of meeting up in-person to play, Schenetzki and his four teammates unite for most matches via the game’s online servers. His teammates live in California, Arizona, New York and Alberta, Canada.

Whether you think it’s a sport or not, the popularity of professional gaming is exploding. Market experts forecast esports will generate $1.48 billion in 2020 while gripping an audience of 589 million fans. Last year, 43 million unique online viewers worldwide watched players click mice and mash on keyboards in a video game during the League of Legends World Championship. Earlier this week, the Olympic Council of Asia announced that esports will be an official medal event at the Asian Games in Hangzhou, China in 2022.

“It’s a big deal,” Schenetzki said. “There’s plenty of esports players making five, six figures off of games.”

Some make even more. American professional gamer Saahil “Universe” Arora, for example, has pocketed $2.7 million playing Dota 2, another popular computer game. South Korean gamer Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok has bagged nearly $900,000 from over 30 League of Legends tournaments, which is similar to Dota. Sponsorships bolster player earnings even more.

Rocket League doesn’t have near the same prize pool as these games, but the money amount has significantly grown from the game’s first season in 2015, which featured a pool of $75,000.

Schenetzki’s parents Michelle and Dave were initially skeptical of the doors gaming would open for their son. They didn’t think making money playing games was even a possibility. After Schenetzki ventured to Hollywood to compete in a contest in August of last year, however, Michelle began to understand just how good her son is at the game. She still kept some reservations until seeing the video feed of him playing in front of about a thousand venue attendees and hundreds of thousands of online viewers.

“We’d never heard of any of this,” Michelle said. “We didn’t know anybody that was doing this because they’re all kind of cooped up in their room somewhere.”

Now, they are completely supportive of their son’s gaming goals, and incredibly appreciative of the professional manner that Rocket League organizes its tournaments and treats its players. Travel expenses - including flights and four-star hotels - as well as meal costs for players are completely covered at the game’s world championships.

Dave, Michelle, and Schenetzki’s two brothers, Caleb and Jason, flew to the Netherlands to watch Schenetzki compete in the game’s second global finale event last December.

“Why not let him have this opportunity?” Michelle said of Schnetzki after reflecting on a moment in Amsterdam when a hospitality event staffer sat with her and explained how talented her son is.

Schenetzki is a proud Christian and currently works part-time in the produce department at the Jasper IGA. One day, he hopes to be a full-time Rocket League player.

Next weekend, Schenetzki will play at a digital festival called DreamHack that will fill the convention center in Austin, Texas. Even if Selfless fails to advance to the world championship series in June, Schenetzki plans on being there in LA, spending time with friends on teams that are at the top of their esport.

Before Rocket League was released, he never would have guessed he’d be at the pinnacle of a game’s players. Now, he’s in the driver’s seat.


Source: Dubois County Herald, https://bit.ly/2pdy689


Information from: The Herald, https://www.dcherald.com

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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