Nineteen-year-old Austin Etue silently stared at his computer in disbelief. He'd just won $250,000 playing a video game.
Before Sept. 3, almost no one in the gaming world had even heard of Etue — he had less than 10 followers on Amazon-owned gamer streaming platform Twitch and was playing against big names like FaZe Clan's "Tfue," who has over 3.5 million Twitch followers.
But there he was: He had just defeated 99 of the world's top gamers in the final round of the Summer Skirmish, a tournament for Fortnite, the massively popular multi-player online survival game. Fortnite developer Epic Games put up a total of $1.5 million for the final stage of the competition, and Etue had finished first and was taking home the biggest chunk of that tantalizing prize pool.
"I don't think that I've processed how much $250,000 is yet. I don't even know," a shrugging and nearly speechless Etue said in a post-match interview on Epic Games' livestream on Twitch, after seeing the dollar amount of his prize flash on a computer screen at PAX West, the gaming conference that hosted the final stage of the tournament in Seattle.
Etue, who plays Fortnite under his gamer alias "Morgausse," was understandably shocked that he'd won. The teenager, who lives with his parents and two younger brothers in Tennessee, was an underdog entering the tournament. He was a relative unknown in the burgeoning world of competitive gaming, unsigned by any professional esports team.
Etue wasn't even expecting to make it to the final stages of the tournament, he tells CNBC Make It; he thought he would be eliminated in one of the qualifying rounds that determined which players would make the finals. Instead, he defeated more high-profile players — gamers with professional contracts, like Team Liquid's "Poach" and Ghost Gaming's "Bizzle."
"Really earning the respect of all those other players and actually beating them is definitely a crazy feeling," Etue tells CNBC Make It.
Players in the Summer Skirmish earn points by winning battle royale rounds as well as for eliminating other players, and Etue finished first in the finale with 20 eliminations and 11 overall points.
In his post-match interview, Etue, a skinny kid wearing a hooded sweatshirt and a backwards baseball cap, thanked his parents for supporting his gaming and offered some words of advice for any aspiring Fortnite champions watching at home.
"Keep your grind up no matter how hard it gets, no matter how tough the times are, it'll be worth it if you keep it up," he said.
The scene was "surreal," Etue tells CNBC Make It, as he nearly instantly went from an unknown to a Fortnite celebrity. After the top finishers were announced and Etue had been interviewed on camera, he says "people were saying they wanted to take pictures with me, and congratulating me. It was hectic, but it was definitely really cool."
You see, it wasn't long ago that Etue wasn't sure if he'd ever have a career as a professional gamer.
He graduated from high school in Louisiana (where his family lived before moving to Tennessee) in May 2017, less than a year-and-a-half before winning Summer Skirmish. Over that time, he'd focused almost exclusively on training to be a professional gamer, foregoing college or any other career (Etue's last part-time jobs came during high school, when he worked at a grocery store and a restaurant).
"I've mainly just been focusing everything on gaming, just to see if I had the potential in this," he says.
His parents supported that plan — up to a point. Etue's father, Keith, who is 45 and works for an energy company, had financed his trip to Seattle to compete in the Summer Skirmish, Etue says, but his parents had also been growing wary that he was putting off the next steps toward adulthood by skipping college to focus on a difficult career path as a professional gamer that might not materialize.
"It was getting to the point where it was like, 'Ok, you need to start college classes. You don't have to stop competing, but we need you to look into backup plans,'" Etue says of what he was hearing from his parents before his success at the Fortnite Summer Skirmish.
"So, it was really at the end of the line for me, I feel like, to really be at the top of the game," he adds.
While Etue would like to one day get his college degree, he also worried that a college course-load would eat into his practice time for Fortnite, effectively making it impossible for him to reach and maintain the level necessary to beat the world's top players.
After all, this has been Etue's goal for longer than just the past year. He's been playing video games for nearly his entire life. "I've actually been playing video games since I was, like, 3 years old, to be honest," he says.
Etue's favorite game growing up was the Blizzard Entertainment's World of Warcraft, an online fantasy adventure game that Etue's father, Keith, introduced to him at an early age.
"I spent countless hours [playing it], I've played every expansion, I have definitely a lot of memories of that game," Etue says.
He's always been a good player, too. At age 6, Etue says he'd reached an elite level of play in World of Warcraft that earned him a call-out in Computer Gaming Magazine.
Etue calls his father a mentor when it comes to playing video games. It was Keith (an avid gamer himself who "still plays a lot of World of Warcraft," Austin says) who first saw Austin's potential as a gamer due to his success at a young age at games like Warcraft and Call of Duty: Black Ops.
"He's been, like, my biggest supporter," Etue says of his father. [He's] always been there to help me out anytime I need it, especially financially. He's definitely, if not the entire reason, a really big part of my gaming career." (The costs of a gaming career can add up, between travel to tournaments and a professional-level computer gaming setup that can cost thousands of dollars. Bloomberg has estimated that becoming a professional gamer could cost you over $17,000, including all of the necessary equipment, just to get started.)
Etue started playing Fortnite shortly after Epic Games launched the game's free-to-play battle royale iteration in September 2017. He'd previously competed in a few tournaments playing another online battle royale game, Daybreak's H1Z1, but he never won any money.
After the popularity of Fortnite exploded at the start of 2018 (at one point in February, Fortnite had 3.4 million people playing at once), Etue says he saw "the potential it had as an esport" and he shifted his focus to the hot new game. It was a smart gamble, as Epic Games is expected to generate over $2 billion in revenue from Fortnite this year and the company gave notice in May that it would put some of that money to use by launching a series of esports tournaments with $100 million in total prizes (the Summer Skirmish was the first such event).
Etue's skills from other battle royale games like H1Z1 and Player Unknown's Battlegrounds transferred over to Fortnite and he spent hours on end practicing to reach the upper echelon of players. Starting around February, Etue says he was playing Fortnite for roughly eight hours a day, practicing his shooting while learning to become better at building the virtual structures that Fortnite players create for shelter and to gain a vantage point from which they can get the drop on competitors.
"I've been grinding it for the past seven months," he says.
Now that he's won Summer Skirmish, though, Etue has stepped up his practice routine, playing anywhere from 10 to 14 hours each day. That includes playing in competitions and the Fortnite Playground practice mode (where players practice and improve their skills), or even just playing for fun.
"I definitely think that there's better builders than me. I definitely think there are better shooters than me," Etue says. But, what set him apart at PAX West was his ability to strategize the best times to attack opponents or to hang back and wait for the fight to come to him. "Knowing when to take fights and when not to take fights," he says. "Obviously, I have some talent and some skill when it comes to building and shooting, but that isn't what got me the $250,000."
Etue wasn't even close to the best Fortnite player as recently as a few months before the Summer Skirmish. "I didn't immediately become the best — I actually got clapped, to say the least" by some of the best players online, he says. "But, I learned; I studied everybody else [and] I saw what I was doing wrong. I practiced and refined my strategies," he says, adding that he started to become a top player in mid-summer.
He calls the victory in Seattle "definitely a major break" that will allow him to hold off on starting college or another career while he focuses on kicking off his professional gaming career. "This definitely changed my life and changed the plans I have right now," he says.
When he was 6 years old, Etue told his parents he wanted to play video games for a living when he grew up. At the time, they told him that wouldn't work, and to pick a real career, but that was before esports became a nearly $1 billion industry.
His family was going "absolutely crazy" after he won and made a "super emotional" phone call to his parents from Seattle, Etue says. ("They're probably screaming in the living room right now with my brothers, just absolutely going wild. I can only imagine," he said in his post-match interview.)
Now, Etue and his parents are meeting with financial advisors to plan out the best way to save and invest his quarter-million dollar prize.
"Oh, I'm definitely investing almost all of it," he tells CNBC Make It.
"I don't think I'm really going to make any fun purchases; maybe some shoes, maybe something like that," he says. He also bought a projector screen where he and his little brothers can play Fortnite on a larger backdrop.
Mostly, Etue is focusing on leveraging the momentum of winning the Summer Skirmish into a legitimate gaming career. He's streaming several hours a day on Twitch in order to keep building his following, which will bring in money through a partnership with the streaming company.
Etue is also in talks with various professional esports teams about signing a contract. His Twitter bio directs anyone with "business inquiries" to an email for the esports talent agency Evolved Talent. "I'm in talks and definitely interested in joining a team," he says, though he hasn't made a decision yet.
And though he fell short in the follow-up Fortnite Fall Skirmish in October (which gave away $10 million in prize money), Etue is keenly focused on all future competition events in Epic Games' ongoing $100 million Fortnite tournament series.
"Oh, 100 percent. You know, just because I won one tournament, doesn't mean I'm going to be complacent about it," he says. "I'm going to keep the grind up ... If I want to stay being the best, you know, I can't sleep or I can't let up."
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