Getting Ready To Grind

Matt Franks, of Mashpee, sits down at his computer and readies to play a session of “Fortnight.” The Cape Codder is ranked among the top competitive gamers in the world in “Fortnite.”

The bellow from below pierces the quiet home. Just as quickly as the yelp fills the kitchen, it fades away and silence returns, for a few minutes at least.

“He’s tilting,” Laura Franks says with a laugh. “You get used to it.”

Tilting is gamer parlance for getting angry. If a teenager lives in your home there’s a good chance that you’ve experienced the outbursts first-hand. Son or daughter is playing a game, they suffer an unexpected defeat, and the disappointment fills the air. Ironically, good fortune also results in loud noises, just of a different variety.

Welcome to the home of 17-year old professional esports gamer Matt Franks.

Esports, or competitive video gaming, is one of the fastest growing “sports” in the world, with a worldwide player pool that grows every day. While traditional sports enthusiasts may scoff at the idea of playing computer games being considered an athletic endeavor, they would hardly scoff at the prize pools that these e-athletes compete for.

Matt is considered one of the top “Fortnite” players in the United States. The Mashpee resident, who recently began homeschooling for the second half of his senior year to allow him to spend more time practicing and competing, plays with and against the top players across the world. In a recent primer for an upcoming championship series, he finished 36th in the United States.

For most people, “Fortnite” is something that their kids—usually boys—take far too seriously as they spend hours and hours attempting to eliminate their friends and other competitors in a 100-person battle royal. The goal of the game is simple: to be the last person or team standing. The players “spawn” on a map in a virtual world that has its own nooks and crannies to hide in and exploit. The best players understand how to use the maps to their advantage, and how to rack up “kills” to take home the win.

The high-end competitions and tournaments gather the most elite players from around the globe to play for lots and lots of money. The last world championship paid $3 million to the winner, a 16-year old.

Matt has not cashed any six-or seven-digit checks yet, but he is making more money playing online than many of his friends’ parents make week to week. The game has been a lucrative source of income for himself over the past few months

It was those purses and seeing just how good he was against the best in the world, in person, that opened the eyes of Matt’s parents, Laura and Todd.

Laura took Matt to a big-time tournament up in Boston in November of 2018 to allow him a chance to test himself against some of the best players in the United States. She was blown away by what her son did. It was akin to a basketball player stepping into an NBA pickup game and lighting it up.

“We were at (the National qualifier tournament in Boston) and Matt had like 100 people around him watching him play, screaming ‘who the eff is this kid?’ He had the most eliminations of anyone in that tournament. Then in the second tournament, he took out Domo, who is one of the best players in the world...which was unbelievable,” Laura said. “His cousins were saying, since he was seven, that ‘Matt sees the game differently than anyone else can see it.’ I think that that tournament was a big turning point.”

Back then, Matt was playing the games on an X-Box console and more than holding his own. Recognizing that all of the best players were playing instead on PCs, he soon made the switch. His folks bought him a personal computer for Christmas that year, one he’s been upgrading ever since in order to run at faster speeds. Consoles run video at about 60 frames per second, but the games are developed to run at speeds of 240-frames per second.

Extra computing power means faster game play, which leads to better reaction time and performance by the players. For a high-end gamer to try to compete at the highest levels on a console system against players on PCs is comparable to a basketball player jumping on the court wearing old-school canvas Chuck Taylor sneakers. They can work, but not nearly as well as the Jordans that other players have on.

Moving to a PC brought with it new challenges, the biggest of which was switching from a controller, that is held with both hands and needs button pushing and sequencing to activate actions, over to a mouse and keyboard. Matt said in a lot of ways it was like relearning to walk. It took some time, but the investment—he said his gaming rig is worth about $3,000 these days—proved worthwhile. With practice, and some paid coaching, he began to make money as a player, moving up the ranks to a point where he is recognized worldwide as being a player to reckon with.

He cashed a check for the first time a year ago, playing in the qualifying rounds for the Fortnite World Cup, which had a $30 million prize pool. Yes, $30 million.

In that series of tournaments, Matt never won a qualifying tournament, which would have paid him $50,000, but he kept getting small pieces of that pie. “I wasn’t as good as I am now, but I won $400 there, and then won $800 here, $600 there. That’s when I started making a little bit of money,” he said. “That was when I’d just made the switch over to PC. If I was as good as I am now, back then, I think I would have easily qualified.”

Making it even sweeter is that “Fortnite” players do not have to pay to enter the high-end tournaments. Unlike a big time poker tournament, where the players buy-in to battle for the large prizes, in the world of “Fortnite” the developing company, Epic Games, pays out of its own pocket to the winning players. The tournaments are a form of advertisement for Epic, as thousands of gamers watch the action online and dream of getting themselves to the top levels. To improve, their players spend money in virtual stores for add-ons to improve their online personas.

“Fortnite” itself costs nothing to download and play, but Epic has cashed in on the video game phenomenon. In 2018 the company was valued at $15 billion, that’s billion with a “B.” The large prize pools they dole out to the top players are hardly noticeable to the bottom line, and help fuel the desire for players to spend more for items that make themselves better and stronger.

His status and expertise is noticed at the highest of levels. Prior to this year’s Super Bowl, Epic ran a special tournament that teamed the top players in the world with NFL stars from each franchise to battle for prize money. Matt was not on the roster of players—he was chosen by Epic to test the map that was going to be used in the tournament to make sure it was glitch-free. He said he found five glitches that need patching by the developers, which they were able to do before the games were played.

Going forward, Matt said he is focusing on the next big tournament in the Fortnite Competitive Series, which is a two-man team tournament that will pay $44,000 for first place. With games on the side, and other tournaments, he will be busy ramping up for the bigger games to come down the road.

“Every night around (6 PM) I get online and grind competitive (scrimmages) against pro players, that’s my schedule right now, to get up and grind,” he said. “I just have to keep practicing.”

Laura Franks joked that “we’re going to sound like horrible parents,” she said with a laugh. The Franks understand that most families would not allow their teenager to leave high school as a senior to compete in computer games, but the family has spent hours discussing, and arguing, over the right way to handle it. They came to the agreement on having Matt home-schooled the rest of the year, which allows him to play long hours in his bedroom to the highest levels.

“This is Matt’s dream, and he’s very talented. I’ll admit it, at times it drives me nuts because he’s extremely intelligent and extremely smart, but when he wants something he will do what he has to to get it,” Todd Franks said. “Laura has been instrumental in gauging him.”

Laura wasn’t convinced until recently, but when she came to the realization that this was the right course of action she went all-in.

“There were lots of marital fights and arguments over it, but there were so many people around (Matt) that saw something, from the people working for Fortnite, his cousin’s been saying it since they were was good to see someone else telling us.”

Though he’s not at school, his folks are doing everything they can to keep a foot planted in the real world for Matt. They said he will work a part-time job over the summer, even if just for a day or two per week, to have contact with the real world and outside responsibilities. They plan on having him enroll at Cape Cod Community College for a class or two in the fall for the same reasons. Down the road, gaming could be his full-time job, and a lucrative one, but Todd said that he believes in having “a plan B,” and to have one, Matt will still live outside the Matrix.

“This is his dream, and every parent wants their child to be able to chase their dream,” Laura said.

“It’s definitely cool that they’re helping me make this happen,” Matt said. “If you want it, you’ve got to go after it.”

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