The Man Who Won John Carmack's Ferrari
Dennis "Thresh" Fong has been at the forefront of gaming for nearly 2 decades. Under the name "Thresh", Fong helped establish pro gaming as a viable career path during the late 1990s, and is still regarded as the greatest pro player of his generation. He's gone on to similar success in game industry, founding companies like Gamers.com, Xfire, and his current company, the gaming social network and achievement tracking service Raptr.
However, his most unique accomplishment is one that will never be duplicated: winning id Software legend John Carmack's Ferrari in a gaming tournament. We recently spoke to Fong to get the story straight from the source.
[Note: This article originally ran in Game Informer Issue 243]
How did you become a pro gamer? The circuit wasn't very established back then.
I'm in the Guinness Book of World's Records as the first pro gamer. I used to play Wolfenstein and Doom back in the day with my brothers Then, there was this online gaming service that launched called DWANGO. We all logged on to that and I started to realize that I never lost. The first tournament was a Microsoft tournament that they hosted through DWANGO. [They] flew the local winners to Redmond to compete in the first big tournament of its kind. They had $10,000 or $15,000 for first place, which I ended up winning.
Right around that time, I think it was '95 or '96, in the online circles I was very well known. Everyone knew Thresh, and they knew I was the best player. The Wall Street Journal heard about it somehow. A reporter asked if he could follow me around for a few days to see what my life was like. I had no idea what The Wall Street Journal was at the time, so I said, "Yeah, sure, whatever." He followed me around for a day and a half. I think it was originally supposed to be a story about online gaming, this whole new thing. But he ended up doing the whole story on me because he thought it was interesting. That is what really kicked it off. A bunch of CEOs of different companies called me up and asked if they could sponsor me or asked me to consult on stuff. That's how it started - it was by accident. From 1995 to 2001, when I retired, I never lost in a tournament. I was the world champion of Doom, Doom II, Quake, Quake II, and then I stopped at Quake III.
Were you able to live off the proceeds of the tournaments at that point or did you have to have a day job?
Back then, the gaming was much more consolidated. There wasn't Counter-Strike, Dota, League of Legends, and all that. Everyone played the same game, basically. It was Quake and Quake II, period. Until Counter-Strike came around. So, all the prize money and all the sponsorships were in one game. Even though it wasn't nearly as big, it was all concentrated. Also, it was a one-on-one game. That was where all the prize money was. Also, I was sponsored. So, on tournament money alone, I wouldn't have been able to do it, but I was making six figures just from sponsorships alone. That's how it all started; it was really by accident. Because I never lost a tournament in all that time, there was a very love/hate thing going on. I was the favorite in every tournament. Half of the people wanted me to lose and half wanted me to win. It was a simpler time.
How did you end up winning John Carmack's Ferrari?
This online gaming service called M-Player decided to host this tournament and John Carmack decided to put up his Ferrari as a prize for first place.
Did that cause a big stir in the community?
Yeah - it was huge! It would be huge even today. There were online qualifiers for everyone who played Quake, which was pretty much everyone who played games at the time. The online qualifiers whittled it down. Then, the top 32 players in the country, plus a couple spots from Europe, were flown out to E3 in 1997. E3 was in Atlanta that year. They did a round robin style tournament and eventually it came down to a guy named "Entropy" [Tom Kizmey - Ed.] and myself. Everyone knew I was the best player on the west coast, at least. Everyone said that [Entropy] was the Thresh of the east and he was going to spank me.
So this was a "Clash of the Titans" kind of thing?
Yes, everyone expected us both to make the finals. It just so happened that we didn't face each other in the round robin up until the final match. Basically, we couldn't really agree on a map to play. You have to pick a map that you are going to play on and agree. He didn't want to play me on the three most popular ones. So, we picked some random map and I ended up winning 13 to negative one, which was pretty shocking because it's hard to get negative in these games unless you blow yourself up. I remember that the Ferrari was parked in the booth. It just so happened that, in the match, it was parked behind me. So, when there was 10 seconds left in the match, there was a countdown in the game. I remember this particular moment. I was up 13 to -1, and there was no way in hell I could lose at that point. When I realized that I was going to win it, I could see the Ferrari in the reflection of the monitor. That was the first time I got nervous in the whole tournament, just because I realized I was going to win.
When you won, did you get the keys right then? Did you meet Carmack?
Yes, he was there. We'd met before, since I was the champion of all his games. We knew each other and were friends. He watched the final match and then he came up to me afterwards and handed me the keys and said, "How are you getting this thing back to California?" I said, "I have no clue." Actually, I didn't even know how to drive a stick. He said, "Okay, wait here." He came back 20 minutes later and gave me a bunch of a cash to ship it back to California. That wasn't even part of the prize, he was just like, "here." [Laughs]
Do you have the car to this day?
No, I kept the car for about 10 years.