Masters of Disruption: How the Gamer Generation Built the Future 
Dennis "Thresh" Fong on the highs and lows of being the first pro gamer.
This post is part of a longform project I’m serializing exclusively in my newsletter, Disruptor. It’s a follow-up to my first book, Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Built an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture, and it’s called Masters of Disruption: How the Gamer Generation Built the Future. You can find the table of contents, as it unfolds, here. To follow along, please subscribe below. Thanks!
Last week, I shared my 1997 story about what’s widely considered the first pro gaming tournament. Today, I’m catching up with the Dennis “Thresh” Fong, the winner who drove away with John Carmack’s Ferrari, and ushered in the age of esports.
Fong has gone on to found several tech startups, and consults with the new generation of pro gamers. We discuss the roots of pro gaming and how his pursuit impacted his relationship with his father. “The whole internet thing was new,” he says, “The whole gaming thing was new. He was worried for me.”
David Kushner: How does it feel to be in the Guinness World Records as the first professional gamer?
Dennis Fong: Back in the day when people talked about e-sports and professional gaming, the definition was a lot more narrow. It was really like online competitive gaming, which started with the Dooms of the world. But there certainly are people that are saying, "Oh, well, the Donkey Kong guy, was that pro gaming, was that esports? Were they first?" So I think part of it is that it kind of depends on what your view of esports is.
David Kushner: You’re talking about Billy Mitchell.
Dennis Fong: That's right. Is a single player, high score type of thing considered esports now? Whereas certainly before, we didn't consider it esports. Most people view multiplayer around that time frame as the first true esports. It's obviously quite interesting because there was no such thing as pro gaming when I got started. You couldn't make a living doing it. A lot of people often ask me, "How does it feel to have been the first pro gamer?" I'm like, "I don't know, it was completely by happenstance."
David Kushner: What was the moment when you first thought you could be a pro gamer?
Dennis Fong: The first world-wide tournament was one that was called, "Deathmatch '95." They had tournaments locally in dozens of states, and then of course the U.K. and France, as well, and I think a couple of other countries. They found the champion of those local tournaments and flew all them, all of us, to the Microsoft Headquarters, in Redmond, and it coincided with the launch of Windows 95. I don't remember who the band was, but Bill Gates actually filmed a video inside of Doom to promote that event. It was a huge deal. There was about $10,000 for first place but it included a computer and a bunch of gear and all sorts of other stuff. I would say that's the first big one. I still have the plaque that I won for that tournament. And I think if you consider e-sports as part of the Doom/Quake generation as being e-sports, then that was the first real big event.
David Kushner: Did you have any sense then of what it might become?
Dennis Fong: Yeah, actually. There were hundreds of spectators, obviously not thousands, and this was the centerpiece of the whole Windows 95 event. It ran way over time. It was supposed to end at 9 p.m. but ended at 1 a.m. and yet for the finals, people stuck around. You would expect everyone to clear out, but everyone stuck around because it was such a compelling and interesting event. I remember I was on stage. This was actually in the semi-finals against an opponent who was I think thought was going to win the event. He was a very cocky individual. His name was Merlock. When I defeated him, I remember he slammed the keyboard, and kicked the chair off the stage basically. It had all the emotions that you would expect to see in a real sporting event, which is obviously what we see now with esports. It was the first time I really played in front of that many people. Spectators on a stage. People were cheering. The opponent was raging at losing. It kind of had all the feelings like there was definitely something there. I would say that definitely that was a very seminal moment for me that said, hey, I think this has all the emotions and intensity and stress and entertainment of a real sport. I thought it really had a chance.
David Kushner: How did your parents feel about your pursuit?
Dennis Fong: They obviously thought it was pretty crazy. My dad worked at Hewlett-Packard, HP. By the time we moved here to the United States from Bejing, my mom was a stay-at-home mom. My dad got a Masters from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He was deep in tech and so he was obviously concerned and unhappy with my choice of trying to become a pro gamer instead of pursuing school or something else. My dad is very conservative so from a career choice perspective, it was certainly not at the top of his list.
David Kushner: Were you trying to explain to him, no, this actually has potential?
Dennis Fong: Oh yeah, pretty much every day for most of my life. Even after I started my first company, Gamers.com, he was like, ‘what the hell are you doing, like what the fuck are you thinking?’
David Kushner: It wasn’t like today when people understand it’s a business.
Dennis Fong: Obviously, even today, there are some people, some parents, that I would imagine would be like, "What? You want to be a pro gamer? Are you crazy?" There's people that make millions of dollars now and streaming and stuff puts gaming more in the spotlight than ever before. Kids are watching YouTube videos of content creators and they're two years old. It’s much more widely accepted now, but when I was talking about it, my parents thought I was crazy. They were like, ‘what are you talking about? How can you make money doing this?’ To be honest, it wasn't a ton of money. I was making probably, at my peak, as a pro gamer, about $150k a year, which is pretty awesome when you think about it. In the 90s.
David Kushner: You were only 17 at the time, what as the lifestyle like for you?
Dennis Fong: The deal I made with my parents, instead of going to the university, I was taking classes to satisfy them. But that didn't even last very long because I had to travel a lot. I had several sponsorships that totaled maybe $90k a year. I know I had one with Earthlink, which is an ISP. I had one from Microsoft where I was using their mice and then the rest of it was either through tournament winnings. I was writing a monthly column for PC Gamer, I wrote the Official Quake 2 Strategy Guide, and a few others. I also would make appearance. That's where I had to travel a lot. I would go to E3, I would go to COMDEX.
David Kushner: And you got a representation, which was unusual at the time.
Dennis Fong: Yeah, I hired an agent. I had a manager. A friend of mine. My older brother was going to Cal at the time, and it was someone that went to Cal with him. He was my age, 18 or 19. It's awkward trying to sell yourself to somebody, like, ‘Oh, I'm the best in the best in the world, you should pay me more.’ I knew that was pretty awkward. I recognized that it's much easier to have someone negotiate on my behalf.
David Kushner: So how did you twp navigate this without a playbook?
Dennis Fong: By just looking at professional sports and kind of using some of that playbook. We were making it up as we went. How much was I supposed to charge for showing up at a trade show for a couple of hours, and what is that even like? What do I do there? The sponors would put up five or 10 grand as a ‘Thresh is at this event. You get to play against him. And if you beat him, you'll win 10 grand. Whoever gets the best score against him will win the money.’ And then there would be ones where I am just signing autographs for the whole time that I am there.
David Kushner: What did it mean to be famous at that time? What did it feel like?
Dennis Fong: There was a fair bit that happened online. Back then it was IRC, now it's Discord. I would hang out in a pretty famous IRC channel and people would come there. Some people would come and challenge me, some people would come and just want to talk to me. A pretty common thing would be that they were asking me what config I used. Those type of questions. That's kind of how my configuration became the common default key configuration that people use now. I think PC Gamer and a couple of other folks dug back into the history and they found that I was responsible for popularizing it because everyone wanted to use the config that I used. And it happened to be what I used.
David Kushner: And you won the Ferrari.
Dennis Fong: Yeah, that was in 1997.
David Kushner: You beat Entropy. Was he your rival at the time?
Dennis Fong: This was for Quake and you have to remember back in those days, pings were an issue, latency was an issue, So people that lived in the West Coast, you don't really get to play against people in the East Coast that often. The only time where you would play in a legitimate fair way was when you have these tournaments on a LAN. I grew up in California, and most of the people that knew me that I played against were in California. Entropy was kind of the Thresh of the East. He lived in the Midwest. No one could beat him out in the east coast, and he and I had never faced each other. For the Red Annihilation Tournament, which is the Ferrari tournament in 1997, everyone expected us to meet in the finals, and that's kind of what happened. We both went through the round robin, and as everyone predicted, ended up meeting in the finals.
David Kushner: How competitive did it feel between you?
Dennis Fong: We didn't really know each other. That was the first time we had met, the first time we had faced each other. A lot of our friends and teammates and stuff would talk a lot of trash, essentially on our behalf. So there was some animosity probably. There was a rivalry because one of my teammates was saying that I am going to crush him, and one of his teammates is saying that he's going to crush me, and they would play against each other. So my teammates would beat his teammates and then my teammate was like, ‘dude Thresh spanks me, so if I'm spanking you…’- that kind of stuff. So there was a rivalry leading into it.
It was pretty well known that he had a favorite map, which was DM2 in Quake. And it was pretty well known that I didn't have a favorite map. I'll play anything. I think his plan was to play me on DM2 but during the tournament and leading up to the finals, I actually ended up DM2 against a couple of different people and he saw that I was really good at it. The way that the tournament was structured, if we were playing each other in the finals, he and I have to agree on the map to play. So it wasn't random or anything. I said ‘okay, let's play DM2.’ I knew, everyone knew it was his favorite map. And he said ‘no.’ I offered up two other maps that were the most common maps in deathmatch during that time because he knew I was really good on those other maps. We ended up playing some random map that is not that typical for one-on-one competition, which was E1M2, which is the starting map of Quake. And I ended up beating him pretty handily in that match.
David Kushner: How did winning that tourney change your life?
Dennis Fong: I think a lot of people probably don't know this, but in 1996, I started my own company and it was called Gamers.com. Since then, I've started five companies that I've sold for almost a billion dollars. I've become much more of an entrepreneur. But I would say even now, the Thresh story opens a lot of doors. There's a lot of credibility and a lot of things have come from it. League of Legends, the biggest game in the world, created a champion and named it after me, so you can play as Thresh in League of Legends. That's the one that you see behind my wall, the green guy. I've mentored and coached some of the founding CEOs of some of the biggest pro teams and streamers and that kind of stuff. It still opens doors for me today because people view me as the godfather, the OG, of e-sports.
Back then, I could meet any game developer, they always appreciated it. I got to play all the games before they came out. I would give them feedback on the multiplayer aspect. You have to remember, multiplayer wasn't assumed in every single game that came out. That was part of how I made money too, I would do consulting for companies on things they could do better. I would say that it's mostly it's when I show up to E3, then people would recognize me. But if I was walking along the street, no one knew who the hell I was. Whereas now, the pros - a lot of people know them. People are rocking Cloud9 jerseys and hoodies in junior high and elementary school and stuff. That certainly didn't happen back then.
David Kushner: With Gamers.com, what was the idea behind that? How did it build on what you learned as a player?
Dennis Fong: Basically, what gaming did for me is it got me into tech, and it got me into the internet, and the web, at the earliest days. I'm forever thankful for it. You kind of had to be technical to figure out how to get my computer to call your computer just to play Doom. It wasn't that simple at the time. And so, Gamers.com was a web portal by gamers for gamers. It was kind of what it started as. Believe it or not, my brother and I went online and it was available, the URL, because it's that early.
David Kushner: What year was that?
Dennis Fong: 95, 96? That was basically my foray. If you remember how people would describe my style of play, it really matches Myers-Briggs, as well. I'm an ENFP. Basically, my skill, the way my brain works is that intuition is a very big part of it. I could take a lot of desperate pieces of data and instantly process it and see the bigger picture. When you think about it in a gaming context, that's what people used to call me the most intelligent player, they used to call it, "Thresh ESP" because I would be able to predict what my opponents are doing before they even realize it. That actual skill translates pretty well to entrepreneurship and business and trying to build a company. It translates when you're trying to do a beady deal or sales. You're trying to put yourself in the mind of the other person, whether they're users or partners or what have you. It just so happens that those skills translated. Gamers.com, at its peak, was about 130 employees and I was the CEO at 19, 20 years old. That was incredibly stressful. It was like my MBA into learning what not to do in starting a company and running a company.
David Kushner: That's interesting the way you described it, about the games kind of exercising your brain in such a way that prepared you for the life that you're living now.
Dennis Fong: I think a lot of people throw around the term of ‘metaverse,’ and stuff like that. But it really was that games were really the first metaverse. Whether there is one giant metaverse or there's a bunch of multiverses is probably more accurate. IRC was essentially a metaverse, via the way people hung out and they made friends, just like Discord is now, or Facebook. Doom itself was kind of a metaverse. It was a little bit more ephemeral in that when you play a match, like essentially a little miniverse spawns, between you and me and then it goes away. There's some persistence to it too because it's connected to IRC or your history or your legacy that kind of follows you. That concept has always been pretty interesting to me.
Obviously, a lot of people in gaming read Snow Crash and a bunch of other early books around this stuff. Gamers.com essentially was the concept of allowing you to create a community, any community you wanted, within Gamers.com. If you remember GeoCities, or kind of those early things? It was kind of the same idea. That's kind of what it did, and a lot of the companies I started were all centered around community platforms and bringing people together. I always was interested in the whole idea of a metaverse: how does your real-life identity connect to your virtual self? I lived and breathed it because most people knew me as Thresh. They didn't know me as Dennis. So I lived it very early, like ‘okay, who am I? I have my high school and friends and family that may not even know.’ Actually, a lot of my high school friends didn't even know I played games. It never came up because it wasn't that commonplace back then. Back then you don't talk about that in school. You're talking about the 90s. Not everyone had a computer that even could play Doom or whatever. There's a lot of people in school that had no idea about my other life as Thresh.
David Kushner: That’s interesting. That sort of double life online didn’t really exist for most people at the time.
Dennis Fong: Yeah, Thresh was this virtual manifestation of me. I remember when I won that first esports tournament that we were talking about, I was in newspapers, in the local ones, especially. And people were like, ‘what the fuck?’ My friends were like, ‘wait what? What in the world?’ The really big one for me was I on the front page, A1, in the Wall Street Journal. Obviously, that's a big deal. I didn't realize how big it was but it was obviously a huge deal. It was just me and I think it was Bill Clinton with a little stencil drawing above the fold and everything. My dad's boss at HP even noticed, because the article in said that Dennis Fong, lives in Los Altos.
David Kushner: How did your dad feel about that then when he saw you in the Wall Street Journal? Did that change his opinion?
Dennis Fong: Almost my entire adult life, especially during those days, we had a very strained relationship. Because, as I said, he said, ‘what the fuck are you doing?’
David Kushner: Did he try to get you to stop gaming?
Dennis Fong: It got bad. It was constant. And we'd always get into arguments. I never knew that he was proud of anything that I did, even after I sold my first company. I sold my first company, made a bunch of money. One of the first things he actually said to me was, "So you're going back to school now, right?" It's because he's conservative. He wanted all of his sons to go to school, graduate, get a good job at like Microsoft or Google, whatever. He's just very conservative. He got a Masters from a top engineering school.
We actually talked about this for the first time in 20 years. I was telling him, ‘you probably don't realize it, but it was pretty hard on me at the time. Because you weren't accepting of it. You never showed that you were proud of anything that I did.’ Then we were talking about the Wall Street Journal article specifically a few months ago. He’s like ‘yeah, did you know that it circulated through the entire HP newsletter, which is 130,000 employees?’ His boss actually printed the article, and was like, ‘hey this is your son right?’ Because it said, Dennis Fong, who works at HP, lives in Los Altos. And my dad said he was actually very proud of me. I was like, ‘holy shit, I never heard you say those words in my entire life.’
David Kushner: How do you see esports evolving from now?
Dennis Fong: Fifteen years ago or more, people would ask me how big do you think pro gaming will become?” And I always said the same answer: ‘I think at some point in time, it's going to be one of the biggest sports in the world. It crosses all boundaries, there's no geographical limitations, no language barriers, no physical limitations. You're never going to succeed in pro basketball if you're like, four-eleven Whereas in gaming, it doesn't really matter. The gender doesn't even matter. And so, I think that it's inevitable that it's going to be a top three sport in the world at some point. It's top 10 now. It just requires more time as people age up. You need to be able to have played these games to appreciate the skill. That’s the one thing it doesn't have compared to physical sport. You can't just appreciate the physicality of something. If someone does a 720 on a skateboard, you know that's hard. You don't even need to know skateboarding to know that. That's the one thing that gaming lacks. But all the early gamers from the 90s are in executive positions. It's inevitable.