Article taken from The Face Volume 4 Issue 002. Order your copy here.
When Jaden Ashman won almost £1 million after coming second at the first-ever Fortnite World Cup in July, the 15-year-old British gamer celebrated the way most teenagers would: he went out for pizza with friends.
If you’d been in that New York pizzeria, you might have pegged the group of teens and twentysomethings as students out celebrating a birthday, but between them this ragtag team of gamers had just cleared a total of £1.9 million in prize money. Welcome to the brave new world of professional gaming.
Arriving for our interview wearing Balenciaga trainers (the only sign of his recent windfall), Ashman is rail-thin in the way that teenage boys are when their bodies are growing in uncontrollable fits and spurts, too fast to contain. We’re at the offices of his management company, Stellar, in a swanky Mayfair location. The London agency’s clients are predominantly Premier League footballers, and you can tell: the office is luxe in a way calculated to make men who inhabit a landscape of first-class lounges and stuccoed mansions feel reassured. Everything is polished metal and gleaming glass and the walls are painted a shade of grey you can’t buy in B&Q.
It’s an odd place for a 15-year-old gamer to be. Then again, it’s not: gamers are the footballers of today – young men with phenomenal earning potential should you catch them at the right age and set them to work. Ashman is a superstar signing, a once-in-a-generation-talent, a Messi or a Rooney.
He’s also just a bleary-eyed teenager from Hornchurch, east London. His mum, Lisa Dallman, says it was a struggle getting him up this morning, and you sense he’d rather be at home. Almost immediately after arriving at Stellar’s offices Ashman hops on to a desktop computer and starts playing Fortnite. The adults stand around awkwardly while Ashman games. I’m watching a prodigy at work but he looks like any kid gaming. It’s weird.
Here’s the thing about gaming: you can’t tell if someone is a master just from watching them play. It’s not like seeing James Harden slam-dunking or Jacqueline du Pré playing an Elgar concerto. It doesn’t look beautiful, or difficult, or move you to tears. It doesn’t look like much of anything, really.
Since being released by Epic Games in 2017, Fortnite has become a cultural phenomenon, played by an estimated 250 million players across the globe – that’s one in 30 people on planet Earth. There are different versions of the game. In Fortnite: Battle Royale, 100 players are dropped on an island and compete to be the last person standing. Fortnite: Creative gives players total freedom to create worlds in which to battle, while Fortnite: Save the World is a shooter-survival game where teams fight off zombie-like creatures collaboratively. At the World Cup, Ashman was playing Battle Royale using his gaming moniker, Wolfiez.
The finals took place over three days in July at the Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York, where you’d usually find Serena Williams battling out a US Open final. But instead of a tennis grand slam, here were 200 of the finest Fortnite players in the world. Those who made it had already survived 10 weeks of qualifying matches (in which over 40 million people took part). Ashman’s mum was there too, watching her son play with bemused pride, not really sure exactly what she was witnessing.
After the triumph, came the inevitable media blitz. Ashman appeared alongside his mum on Good Morning Britain and presenter Ben Shephard gave him a voucher for an outdoor activity centre “so you can go outside”. Ashman blinked, before smiling politely.
When I drag Ashman away from the screen for our interview, he’s prepossessed in a way that belies his age. I get the impression he’s used to being the smartest person – adult or kid – in the room. I also sense that he’s tired of having to justify gaming to grown-ups who pester him to get outdoors more. Jaden Ashman doesn’t want to go outdoors. Jaden Ashman is doing just fine.
Have the family used Shephard’s voucher yet? Ashman and Dallman erupt into laughter. “He’ll give it a go,” says Dallman, a no-nonsense maternal presence who raised Ashman and his two siblings on her own. “Um, yeah, we’re going to go,” says Ashman unconvincingly.
In truth, he is frustrated by the snobbery around gaming. “There was this one woman on CNN, and Burgha [the 16-year-old American player who came first in the World Cup Solos, with a prize pot of £2.3 million] had just won. She’s telling him: ‘You think you can make money off gaming?’ She started laughing at him. But she’s the one who has to wake up at 9am every morning to go to work and put on a suit and hate her life. He’s the one doing what he loves and getting paid for it, and she’s just hating on it.” I see a flash of teenage pride.
I’d prepared for our interview by calling my 15-year-old cousin Atila, who’s a huge gamer. When I tell him who I’m interviewing, he makes a whistling noise. Impressed, he tells me that Ashman will have spent thousands of hours playing the game. “You need godlike reflexes, and game sense [strategic skill]. I couldn’t get on that level even if I wanted to.”
Atila also says something more interesting: at Ashman’s level, Fortnite stops being a game. “The big gamers aren’t really in it for the fun like they used to be in the days when they played it with their friends. They’re treating it like something proper that you dedicate your time to. It’s a job.”
Sneering CNN hosts be damned: gaming is a lucrative career. The combined prize pot for the Fortnite World Cup was £24 million. And that’s not counting the money pro-gamers such as Ninja (a 28-year-old American, real name Tyler Blevins) or Suezhoo (Stephan Van Hemelrijck, the Belgian Fortnite: Creative world champion) can make from streaming platforms such as Twitch or YouTube, where audiences of millions watch them play.
Ninja is reported to earn more than $500,000 a month from live streams of his gameplay, and Ashman himself recently signed a reported £50,000 contract to play for the Canadian-headquartered Lazarus team, which consists of more than 50 pro-gamers from around the world. Is it all about the money for him? He’s adamant that it’s not. “I’ve always wanted to be the best at what I do. I wasn’t gaming to make money. It’s that passion I had for constantly playing over and over again that made me better than everyone else.”
Ashman grew up playing shooter games such as Gears of War with his uncle, who introduced him to gaming from a young age. “I’d always be watching him and saying: ‘Can I have a go?’” he remembers. “I wanted to show him I was better than him. It was always a race to be better.” When Fortnite came out he was a natural talent. “From the beginning, I would play with my friends and win game after game after game.” The better he got, the more Ashman started to realise that maybe he could make something of himself. “I saw the professional gaming side of it and I thought, ‘I can do this.’”
But his mum hated him gaming. At first she’d go into Ashman’s room and wordlessly switch his console off, once even snapping his headset in half in frustration (Ashman just taped it back together and ended up using it in the New York championships).
“Even after he got into the World Cup, I still didn’t take it seriously,” Dallman admits. “I thought it was a bit of a scam. He said: ‘I’ve qualified for New York,’ and I said: ‘All right Jaden.’ I didn’t believe him. But then some man at Epic Games started emailing me and I thought: ‘This is a bit serious, here.’”
Only there was a problem: although Ashman had qualified for the World Cup, he’d filled out his ESTA waiver incorrectly and the US authorities had denied it. He scrambled to get the paperwork together for an emergency visa application at the US Embassy. And then something happened that you couldn’t make up: the dog ate Ashman’s birth certificate.
When the visa eventually came through and Dallman saw it, she had a shock. “It said that Jaden was a professional athlete. I thought: ‘Wow.’” She’s done a 180-degree turn since then, quitting her job (temporarily) to help her son achieve his dream of being a professional gamer once he finishes school.
“A lot of my strife in gaming was to prove to my mum that I’m not just sitting there,” says Ashman. Dallman agrees. “He said: ‘I’m going to take you to New York and show you what I can do.’” Watching her son claim second place (Ashman and his Dutch gaming partner, 21-year-old Dave “Rojo” Jong, were beaten by Norway’s Emil “Nyhrox” Bergquist Pedersen, and David “Aqua” Wang, from Austria) was the most emotional experience of Dallman’s life. “He said: ‘Mum, I’ve done it.’ I said: ‘I can’t believe it. It’s crazy!’”
The debate around whether professional gamers should be seen as athletes is ongoing, but what is certain is that playing at Ashman’s level requires a cocktail of talent, courage and skill. “The thing about Fortnite is that you have to be an all-round player. But one thing I am really good at is that I can pretty much kill anybody,” he says.
Ashman is a fearless, aggressive player – during the World Cup, Ashman and Jong took out Kyle “Mongraal” Jackon by dropping onto a landing spot he’d contested, whereas other players had been avoiding Mongraal because they were scared of him. Plus, Ashman never loses his nerve, which is vital because you don’t get second chances in Fortnite. When you’re dead, you’re dead. “I don’t choke,” Ashman confirms.
The best Fortnite players have big egos. “You have to think you’re the best and everyone else is bad, because it raises you up,” Ashman explains. Playing at this level is a cut-throat business. “It’s really bad [at the top]. “Everyone wants to be the best, so if you’re falling off a little bit, people will let you know it, and you’ll get so much hate for it. It’s horrible.” You have to be a fearless player to show up and perform – particularly in front of the estimated 2.2 million live viewers who watched the World Cup.
Ashman is scathing about the newcomers who want to get in on the action now that gaming has become such a lucrative business. “If you come into gaming for the money it’s not going to work … I’ve seen people who are like: ‘This kid’s won a million, let me just hop on Fortnite and do the same.’”
But it’s not that easy: it’s near-impossible to develop the technical skill and speed needed to play Fortnite at an elite level once you’re out of your teens because your reaction times are already starting to slow. Ashman agrees that it’s strictly a young person’s game: “Young players like me, we’re fast and good at killing people,” he affirms.
After winning nearly a million he bought himself a Gucci wallet (because it had a Wolf on it), his brother an Xbox and his mum a house, which they’re moving into later this year. And that’s about it – for now. Jaden Ashman has his GCSEs to focus on, then next year’s World Cup, which he fully expects to win. Of course he does. He’s a killer.
Styling Borys Korban, Grooming Marina Belfon-Rose, Photography assistance Alexa Horgan, Production Rosanna Gouldman, Production Manager Katherine Bampton