Dennis "Thresh" FongWhen I told Jon Drukman that I was going to work for Gamers.com his eyes lit up "Oh, Thresh's company!"
I took a job at Gamers.com because it was a game-oriented startup in the East Bay. Turns out the best Quake player in the free world in 1997 was a founder there (along with Lyle, his brother, and Joel).
So for my first few months at Gamers.com I worked for a site with the proverbial pre-IPO Internet Startup 23 year old CEO. And he was worshiped as a Quake deity.
Quake is a "first person shooter" where you run through hallways killing people, typically played over the internet. People established rankings and competitions, leading to large tournaments. Dennis won a Ferrari at one of these tournaments, and made $100,000 in product endorsements and prize money from playing Quake professionally. The first Michael Jordan of professional video gaming.
Dennis and some fans at the Quake 3 Road Trip Truck
So I'm interested in how skills that make a great Quake player translate to business acumen. He's definitely good at transmitting hype and charisma, like Louis - getting people on board with a vision. And he does seem to believe passionately in the value of a comprehensive information resource for game-players. The company being over 100 people is a testament to his force of will, or his timing, or his friends, or some combination thereof.
So while I'm working here I notice that he is both attending the CMGi CEO summits and shmoozing with power internet VC players, while fending off dozens of email challenges a day from dudes who wanna be the guy who beat Thresh. He pals about with the board of directors, and occasionally someone from DeathRow his last clan, or some other Quake celebrity will show up and they'll reminisce.
When I started working there, and Dennis would take a moment to brief the group, or just myself about the happenings in the business, he was always describing his meetings with "Big names" and "top people." His confidence and admiration for people with big business reputations can be striking; one time I challenged that a little:
In mid-2000 I was meeting with Tricia, our PR director, and Dennis came in to tell her that he was courting some "top PR firm." His description of the firm was short on specifics, only that they represented the best, they were the best, everyone thinks they're great, etc, and he mentioned some other clients they'd worked with. Trish aknowledged that was probably a fine choice, but she had recently reconnected with a person she and Dennis knew, who was at another PR firm that was doing great work with exciting people, etc. Dennis took a moment to try to figure out who she was talking about and then he said that his people were the top people and that was enough for him.I guess being decisive is part of being a leader. I've been interested in getting to know him, because he's an interesting character. But I've found it difficult to establish much of a deep rapport with Dennis. We worked together informally on corporate communications in the early days, and we have occasional cause to chat and exchange around business issues. But he and I have never struck up the depth of dialog that I had going with Louis, Andrew or Jonathan at HotWired.
So I asked him, wait Dennis, if you don't know about Trish's people, how do you know they aren't the best?
A frown creased his enthusiasm and he turned to look at me, "Dude, don't waste my time."
In some ways I think he's found some success acting impenetrable, because being a Quake champion or a 23 year old CEO is being a target for every other young man that wants to prove themselves your better. So it's better to have your defenses up all the time, and scare away the first wave of challengers that way.
I came into this job because I wanted to learn about games. I was an acknowledged game-industry newbie, with some web/journalism experience, but after ZDTV, I worked to keep my personal web history in the background. Accordingly, Dennis never had much reason to think I was worth talking to, in terms of his business. In the old days when I saw groups of Gamers.com founders meeting about the fate of the company and the design of the site I itched badly to be there. Dennis's distance and disinterested "coolness" was part of that sensation of mandatory detachment.
Still for that alienating aloofness, he's an amazing kid. He's helped lead a group of game-playing young men to have millions of dollars to make their dream web site. He made the transition from the world of t-shirted pimply adolescent Quake stardom to the world of Armani-shirted Audi driving conference calling world of business. Maybe that's a natural progression? Either way, it's amazing to watch him in the flow. The one time I really got to watch him play Quake was when the "Quake 3 Road Tour" came to the CompUSA in Emeryville California. It was near the Gamers.com offices, and since we knew some people at id software (the Quake designers) we dropped by to say hi and get free Quake gear and check out the new game levels. After the bus was officially closed, our Gamers.com team took on some players from id software and Clan Talon. Dennis took over my machine after the "b teams" finished so I stood over his shoulder and watched him play (as "Fusty" since he didn't bother changing his screen name).
Whereas I would move curiously, deciding where to go at each juncture, Dennis moved decisvely. He assimilated knowledge of the map quickly, learned where the power spot was, and managed that spot with uncanny deftness. It was engaging to watch him play - he was dancing all over the board, spinning, jumping and careering about the level without thought. He didn't curse much (maybe because he was winning), he kept a smooth demeanor, only raising his voice to instruct his teammates where to find him or the weapons or when he needed some resources that someone else had taken. He dispatched the opposition handedly; killing, whirling about, killing again, running around a corner, killing and dashing back - it was nearly effortless. If gaming ever was to be a spectator sport, it would be this kind of performance that would keep people watching.
For many months I didn't see Dennis lift a rocket launcher. I wondered if he's given up Quake for business? A la Corinthians I 13:11: "when I became a man, I put away childish things." There are so many other young men training so hard to take his place, it would be disappointing for him to lose if he wasn't up to speed.
But once Geoff took over as the Gamers.com CEO, Dennis seemed to unwind a bit and he could be regularly seen playing Quake 3 Arena, or Counter-Strike. Always under a random nickname, and always owning. I was reporting directly to him on some projects; it's disconcerting to interrupt someone in the middle of a Quake match to ask them if they've reviewed your TPS report. sigh.
Links about Thresh :
"Top of the Frag Heap" from Salon
Loonygames' Community Profile of Dennis - talks about Thresh bashers
Google search on "Thresh Fong"
Penny Arcade cartoon about the King of Gamers
His FiringSquad home page with a Bio, a FAQ, and some details on his Quake styler.