Michael Udall grew up a practicing Mormon, but the religion wasn’t for him. When it came time to fulfil his church-sanctioned mission, the teenager opted to attend college instead.
“Freshman year, I definitely didn’t take my studies serious at all,” says Udall, running his fingers through his hair. “I was there to party and have a good time. Then the eSports thing came around, and it gave me a focus and a new vision.”
Today, Udall is one of the top ranked collegiate “Heroes of the Storm” players in the world. In April, he led his team from Arizona State University on an undefeated streak to the “Heroes of the Dorm” tournament held in Seattle, Washington, and took home the grand prize of paid college tuition and serious bragging rights.
He also landed a sponsorship earlier this year, which means he got paid real US dollars to play video games.
Turning an extracurricular activity into a career is no easy feat. The life of a professional eSports player requires immense dedication and skill, and leaves little time for a social life and academia. At the ripe age of 20, Udall is betting it all on eSports.
“I see it as a profession,” he says, “seeing it as something that I could make money in and enjoy as a career.”
Growing up in a religious household, Udall found enlightenment in video games.
He latched onto the real-time strategy game “StarCraft,” made by Blizzard Entertainment, the same developer behind “Heroes of the Storm.” It wasn’t until he was a student at ASU and stumbled upon a Craigslist listing for a new eSports team that he got hooked on competitive gaming.
Another student aimed to form a team in time for Blizzard’s “Heroes of the Dorm,” dubbed the “March Madness of eSports.” The ASU team managed to squeeze in one practice session before the tournament. Though their teamwork left something to be desired, the raw talent of each individual player carried them to the finals in Los Angeles.
Heidi Udall, a teacher and Michael’s mum, remembers her son saying he joined a club that could help pay for his tuition, but she didn’t think much of it. “We drove over to the Schine Auditorium in LA, and we’re looking around saying, ‘This is legitimate,'” she says.
That year, ASU narrowly lost out to University of California Berkeley in the fifth game of a best-of-five match. Still, the exposure launched Udall into the limelight. A fan-made Twitter account dedicated to his hair was born.
Udall took a semester off of school to pursue eSports full-time, eventually landing on a professional team signed by Panda Global. Sponsorship came with perks, including a salary and bonuses for tournament victories. But he grew to miss school.
“He’s such a social person,” Heidi says. “Even while you’re playing with people, it still can be fairly isolating because you’re sitting in a room with your computer.”
Udall returned to ASU for the spring semester and quickly rejoined the “Heroes of the Storm” team made up of his peers.
As the Heroes of the Dorm tournament neared, Udall dropped his professional gig and instead spent up to 10 hours a day with his “Heroes” friends — playing scrimmages with other teams, watching replays of the professionals, and spending what he calls “cognitive time,” essentially, daydreaming about game strategy in class.
When I ask how he manages to juggle a social life, Udall says, “What’s that?”
He’s known among the team as the strict one.
“Everyone calls me ‘Team Dad,’ because I’ll be like, ‘Everyone go to bed at 12 o’clock. No Red Bulls until 2 o’clock to get hyped,” Udall laughs. “I want to win.”
ASU didn’t lose a single game leading up to the tournament’s finals and arrived in Seattle considered the favourite to win. During the televised event, the broadcasters played up Udall’s leadership skills and good looks. The camera often panned to his parents, cheering in the front row and wearing homemade “Michael Udall Fan Club” t-shirts.
He did not disappoint. Udall led the team in a blowout against University of Texas at Arlington, winning $25,000 for each remaining year of school.
“We all put in a lot of work and it just feels so good,” Udall said into the microphone.
Udall doesn’t know what the future holds. But it involves eSports.
“Right now I’m not like, self-sufficient financially,” he says, “but I could see eSports within the next two or three years as something that I could turn into having my own place and things like that.”
For now, his biggest challenge is final exams.