The World Cyber Games are a testament to how massive the ESports scene is worldwide. Taking place in Xi’an, China, the event described by its participants as the ESports Olympics will play host to hundreds of professional video game competitors all out to earn medals and thousands in cash prizes.
And one of the gamers representing the United States is 17-year-old Lincoln Lutheran senior Jackson Wahl, who will be competing in the "Clash Royale" tournament starting July 18.
With more than 100 million active players logging in daily and amassing more than $2.5 billion in revenue since its release just over three years ago, it’s one of the most popular and profitable mobile games on the market right now.
And among that massive player base, Wahl emerges as one of the best in the United States, having previously competed for Team USA at the "Clash Royale" Nations Cup last year, which selected the top 10 players in each country to play for their respective nation.
"Clash Royale" isn’t your father’s video game. Rather than evading ghosts, blowing up demons or saving the princess, the game demands its players perform feats of strategic thinking and adaptability.
“I think you do need to have something that's just a part of you to be good at it,” Wahl said. “I have a very competitive personality; I have a strategic mind. This game is definitely not for everyone.”
The basic idea is simple: Two players face off in a small arena where they’re tasked with sending troops out to destroy their opponent’s towers in three minutes or less. Troops are represented as cards and can take the form of fantasy creatures like giants, goblins and knights.
“'Clash Royale' is very comparable to chess,” Wahl said. “One player against another, whoever can use the resources they have better and basically outsmart their opponent will end up winning.”
The strategic-based gameplay formula has sparked an international wave of popularity that has led to it becoming one of the most popular esports game played on smartphones.
“'Clash Royale' is probably about 10 percent muscle memory and the other 90 percent is just all a mental game,” Wahl said. “If you really get into the professional scene, you can see how big it is for people who are just able to outsmart your opponent by doing prediction plays and stuff like that. It's very complex.”
At his age, some might think he should be spending this summer working to save up for college and getting ready for his senior year at Lincoln Lutheran.
But Wahl is earning money, about $1,500 a week, he says. All through playing "Clash Royale."
Not just content with being a professional gamer, Wahl has managed to build a small online business by live streaming videos of him playing the game on Twitch and coaching other players for a little more extra cash.
Just like up-and-coming athletes, some dedicated "Clash Royale" players seek out coaching services from the best in the world.
"I learned I was really good at coaching," Wahl said. "I'm good at talking while playing, walking through what I'm doing and explaining my mindset.”
With school out of the way until August, Wahl usually wakes up at noon and spends about two to three hours running coaching sessions before practicing for another four hours for cash in semipro tournaments or honing his skills against friends. Then from about 7 or 8 p.m. until midnight, he streams his matches online for his audience. After that, he relaxes until going to bed at about 4 a.m.
"My entire day is pretty much filled with 'Clash Royale,'" Wahl said. “This summer basically I've been fully focused on improving and also getting followers on Twitch and my content creation part of my life.”
In some ways, school acts as a handicap on Wahl's ESports career. While being one of the youngest professional players in the world comes with its own accolades, Wahl is competing against older players who are able to devote their days to hone their skills year-round without having to worry about homework and exams.
“Having to go to school is definitely kind of like a burden for me, I'd say. I don't enjoy it,” he said.
And last fall Wahl got a taste of the full-time ESports gamer lifestyle. After receiving an invitation to play for Team Liquid, one of the top American "Clash Royale" teams, in the game’s official professional league, Wahl spent three months living in Los Angeles training and competing with the team at their development center in Santa Monica.
Wahl’s mother, Lori Schumacher, said his high school was supportive of the opportunity and allowed him to make up the credits by taking online classes and independent studies.
“He's a good student, he's well-liked and they didn't think he'd have any problem taking three months off doing online courses and coming back,” Schumacher said. “I think it had much to do with him, their relationship and how they know their kids.”
She said seeing her son go away for a few months and be on his own was difficult for her, but she can’t see herself not supporting him in his career. A fellow "Clash Royale" player, she gave the stamp of approval for Wahl to play the game when he first downloaded it three and a half years ago.
“It's such a big part of his life, I can't imagine anything else but at least knowing what's going on. I support him and I'm proud of him,” she said. “I think it's pretty cool he can play at that level that I couldn't reach even if I practiced 24 hours a day. A lot of people want to and they try, but they just don't really have it.”
And she will continue to support Wahl as they head to China for the "Clash Royale" tournament leg of the World Cyber Games. He said he’s nervous to compete on the largest stage of his career so far, but also said he won’t dwell on it too much.
“Playing at home and playing on the stage are two different settings,” he said. “Yeah I can worry and be nervous about how I’m doing, but the best thing to do for me is to zone out and put all of my focus into the game and not think about what’s at stake.”
And while competing in China is only the start of what Wahl hopes is a successful career, the career of an ESports competitor is short. With the average career often lasting less than five years, Wahl is planning on seeing where gaming will take him before going to school for a future in finance.
"If I'm playing really well and I'm doing really well, then I'll take a couple of years and just continue to do this and see where it goes," he said.