Down a steep wooden staircase, in a small basement room to the right, an RCA TV sits atop a folding table. An Energy Guide sticker cuts off a portion of the TV’s bottom right corner. A cable on the left side dangles down to the floor, where it connects to an XBox One.
Jeffrey Avilas Ramos leans forward in a folding chair, his eyes fixated on the screen. The sounds of gunfire blast from the speakers. Ramos never flinches.
It’s here, in his Laurel home, that Ramos, 16, spends hours at a time. This is his field, his court, his diamond.
This is his war room.
A junior at Mattituck High School, Ramos is part of a growing phenomenon of professional gamers. As a 14-year-old, he formed his own team called Fatal Ambition. It currently competes in Major League Gaming, the self-described “global leader” of eSports. Earlier this month, Ramos’ team competed in Columbus, Ohio, at the North American Regional Finals, playing the game Call of Duty in a 32-team double elimination bracket where the top 14 teams advanced to the World Championship. This weekend, at the L.A. Live entertainment complex — located next-door to the home of the Los Angeles Lakers — 32 teams from across the globe will compete for $1 million in prizes. Last year’s winner walked home with $400,000.
For gamers, it’s their Super Bowl.
“That’s the biggest tournament of the year,” Ramos said. “All the teams from around the world compete and MLG pays for all their stuff.”
Ramos will have to wait his turn before vying for the big money. His team, a collection of mostly random players from Canada, was soundly beaten by more veteran teams in Ohio, sending Fatal Ambition to a quick exit.
Ramos’ introduction to video games came like most kids. He played games like Super Mario Brothers and Need for Speed on Playstation and had a Game Boy Advance SP. A few times a year with his cousins, he played the first-person shooter game Halo. After one particular game that ended in a one-sided whooping, his disgruntled cousin asked Ramos if he was an MLG pro.
“I said, ‘What is that?’ ” Ramos recalled. “After they left I started looking up MLG and read into it and got interested.”
He signed up for some tournaments and joined a team started by a guy in Tennessee. He was 13, playing with 17-year-old professionals and holding his own.
“I showed I could compete even though I was real young,” he said.
Ramos developed a group of online friends who played Halo, eventually switching to Call of Duty. Ramos decided to form his own squad, calling the group Fatal Ambition (its original name was Soulless Spartans).
Owning a team, rather than simply playing, brought a unique set of challenges. For starters, Ramos needed to recruit players. The more his team gained recognition, the more talented players might be willing to join. And he needed sponsorships to help fund sending players to tournaments. A lot of the work came via social media.
Ramos’ Twitter account (@Fatal_Ambition) currently has more than 26,000 followers, nearly all of whom have come in the last year. His personal Instagram account has 19,000 followers.
“You have to keep competing in order for the fans to really become loyal,” Ramos said.
He locked down sponsorships from companies like Tomahawk Shades and West Coast Chill, which makes energy drinks. He started by randomly messaging companies, asking for sponsorships. Now, he’s developed a more sophisticated pitch, creating a Power Point presentation that details his team’s achievements, history, goals and social media growth.
Julian Nasti, a 24-year-old gamer who lives in New Jersey, connected with Ramos and became the team’s coach for some tournaments. In that role, Nasti helps develop a strategy during matches and coordinates the players’ attack as they’re playing.
Nasti said he was impressed with Ramos’ ability to manage the team — coordinating travel, dealing with sponsors and prioritizing the team over money.
“He’s really good with getting things done on time,” said Nasti, who goes by the name Coach Exor.
It’s those skills Ramos is developing along the way that he hopes have a lasting impact.
“It’s teaching myself how to run a business, entrepreneurship,” he said. “That’s definitely going to help.”
Around school, Ramos has developed a reputation as the “video game player.” Sometimes people ask to join, but he has to let them down gently.
They’re simply not good enough.
Like a basketball player practicing a jump or a musician fine-tuning a song, Ramos spends substantial time honing his craft. During the summer, he estimates he games for eight hours a day. On a weekday, it’s more like four hours, he said. Some nights, he dreams of video games.
His biggest sell might be his parents. After all, how does a teenager convince his parents that playing video games all day is OK?
“I’m still not convinced,” said Ramos’ father, Carlos. “I said, from school, if your tests are no good, I’m going to take everything out.”
So far, the war room remains intact.