Game On: Andy Dudynsky

For professional video game coach Andy Dudynsky, mastering the science of Halo is only part of the battle. Fighting the good fight means keeping the team marketable.

Most players settle in to their favorite games to escape the world of work. Andy Dudynsky presses play to get into it. A professional video game coach, Dudynsky’s job is to study Halo and its top players the way pro sports teams scout for the next LeBron James, Tom Brady, or Mia Hamm. And, like all legendary coaches, Dudynsky—better known by his gamer tag, Bravo—has his game down to a science. Breaking into competitive gaming by first becoming a player, Dudynsky spent two years playing on the professional level and studying Halo by watching online videos uploaded by the game’s crime de la crème. In 2007, the then high school junior found it too hard to balance schoolwork and nightly Halo practice, so he quit playing and made the jump to helping teams get better and work together.

Now, five years later, the 22-year-old recent college grad has several coaching gigs under his belt, including stints for Final Boss and Triggers Down, a top-ranked Halo team that’s raked in more than $180,000 in winnings and scored endorsement deals with major brands. Major League Gaming’s 2009 Coach of the Year, Dudynsky is the first video game coach in history to be sponsored independently and currently boasts endorsement deals with Sony and Gamma Labs. He splits his time between broadcasting for Major League Gaming live events, maintaining a Halo YouTube channel that brings in over 1 million views per month (as of October 2012), and bringing in endorsement dollars to keep the whole operation financially afloat. He says that his current job is a mix of strategy, human resource work, and marketing savvy, and it’s anything but fun and games.

Get In Media: What exactly does a professional video game coach do?
Andy Dudynsky:  … it’s my responsibility to, first of all, make sure that everyone’s on the same page, because you have four players playing on four different screens at four separate consoles, so they’re kind of zoning in on their own thing. You have to make sure that they’re working towards the same goal. Of course, the player on the left can’t see the player three seats down from him’s screen, so you have to make sure everyone is working toward whatever that objective may be … within the game, there are also things like power-ups and special items and weapons that come about the game. Throughout the Halo series, they’re on different time intervals, so I’m also using iPhone apps and different things to help me keep stopwatches going, so my team can know exactly at what time to set up for those power weapons, where they need to be, and then figure out where the other team is to get those power weapons and increase the lead … It really revolves around those power weapons and power items. It’s my responsibility to not only time them and know exactly when they’re coming back and where my team is, but to make sure that we also get them … .

GIM: Walk me through your schedule.
AD: … we’re all located in different parts of the country, and generally on a team, one player might be in high school, one player might be in college, one player might have just finished college. Everyone’s on these very different schedules and geographically very far apart. What I would do in between my studying and everything was watch tons and tons of professional gameplay from other teams because there’s no other way to understand how the game flows and what you should be expecting in certain situations unless you digest all that gameplay. I was taking notes on it, and I was really going above and beyond what other people were doing … of course, [I] still play with my team and be active in the game because you have to to understand how the whole mechanics and physics of the game work to understand the exact timing and bring it down to a science … .

Major League Gaming would have anywhere between five to eight tournaments a year, all for $20,000 [for] first place, and the last tournament of the year would be the national finals for $100,000. Before those big events, we would have what we call LANs, Local Area Network. Playing over a LAN connection simulates an actual tournament atmosphere, because playing online, you’re dealing with lag and latency and certain factors that are difficult to account for, but when you’re playing on the same router against a team that’s right in front of you, it simulates an actual tournament atmosphere. You can communicate. You can look at each other’s screens … that was probably the biggest part of my schedule, making time two weekends before a tournament … flying to someone’s house, oftentimes, it was Ohio, sometimes Seattle, and eventually it became Chicago, that all these teams would fly to. Sometimes, it would just be us and another team, so eight or 10 guys total, and sometimes, it would just be four or five teams flying into one house and competing and sleeping on the floor in the basement, and then the next weekend, everyone gets back together and flies into another city and competes … .

GIM: What games are on the table in terms of professional coaching?
AD: … Any team-based, first-person shooter generally has coaches, so anything from Counter-Strike, which was kind of the first start of coaches, because you had managers that were on stage with their teams, coaching before it was actually called coaching. That was as early as 2001. Call of Duty, of course, also has coaches on the [Major League Gaming] circuit … now, we’re also seeing League of Legends … .

GIM: You mentioned that one of your main responsibilities during the tournament is making sure everyone’s on the same page. Do you have any tips that you use for keeping up with that?
AD: … the ability to talk extremely fast but still allow people to understand what you’re saying … Another thing, a big thing … is staying positive, staying motivated, and really trying to relay that onto your teammates, because when they’re playing in these high-stress situations, and you’re playing one match, the next two minutes can mean the difference between $10,000 or way more than that. You have these four different personalities who are very stressed out, and you have to keep them really focused because all it takes is one person who gets upset with another decision that another player made, and then they get into a verbal argument literally in the middle of a game about what had been done. You have to really react quick and make sure you get them back on the same page.

… it takes us a while to build up respect because you’re coaching professional players who are generally sometimes better than you at the game. I had to build trust amongst my players because I have to let them know that I know exactly what’s going on in the same way that they do … Based off of the things you tell them to do, over time, you build trust with them just like a sports coach or a trainer would build trust with his athletes … .

GIM: How are you paid? I assume that you take a portion of the winnings from tournaments?
AD: At tournaments, the majority of my personal income comes from sponsorships, but at tournaments, coaches always have a pre-determined agreement with the team as to how much percentage of the winnings they should get, and that’s all coordinated after the winnings are distributed to the players. Just to give you an idea of how that works, coaches aren’t even sent a direct check of the winnings. It’s all coordinated with the team, so it’s really up to the team [to decide] how much they appreciate the coach, respect the coach, what kind of relationship they have. Coaching is not deemed a 100 percent necessity. One way that I’m paid is through tournaments, but most of it comes through sponsorships and consulting with these consumer electronic brands … .

GIM: How does the sponsorship aspect work?
AD: … it varies, of course, depending on the partner, but generally, a sponsor has a product and a gamer will do appearances with the product at tournaments. They’ll do signings, giveaways, and all sorts of promotions that are common in sports marketing. They’ll also do their own blogs, and they’ll promote the product in their social media efforts … Overall, it’s a tough sell, just because it’s still considered niche. It is blowing up. You have millions of players now looking at this competitive scene and competing in these tournaments … I think the model is very similar to sports marketing, but it’s a little bit harder to sell, of course.

GIM: What goes into branding a player?
AD: … give people a reason to want to learn more about you. For example, there’s a player, his name is Tyler Blevins, and his gamer tag is Ninja … what he started to do was stream his live gameplay, so people could watch him practice at any time on a live streaming platform called Twitch TV. Very quickly rose up to the top of the charts as far as Halo viewership goes, because he has ridiculous antics, he yells and screams, he gets amazing kills, he talks in different accents, he wears funny hats, and I think that’s his schtick. People want to tune into Ninja because he’s funny, and he’s skilled, and they can tune into him whenever he wants … Pro gamers are really realizing that if they don’t get into creating their own content that they can brand with their own name, that someone else is going to do it … something that someone told me a while ago is someone’s going to post up your gameplay and show it to the world, and it might as well be you. You might as well present it then. You might as well brand it as your own … I think it comes down to players just really harnessing whatever they’re good at and then presenting it to the world … .

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GIM: Is it important for a professional gamer or coach to brand themselves? Is it important to have that branding aspect if you’re seeking sponsorship, in addition to having gaming skills?
AD: Yeah, I think it’s extremely important. You can’t say enough about it. Just to give you an example … the last game in the Halo series, Halo: Reach, was viewed, competitively amongst the hardcore players and also casually amongst the entire player base, as inferior to every other Halo game, due to the mechanics and physics of the game. So, that really put a dent in professional Halo, and as a result, there’s not going to be a tournament until Halo 4 comes out in November.

What I’ve tried to do through my own branding is to create this image around Bravo who is an expert in the Halo series, and I’ve transitioned that, successfully, into a YouTube channel, which is now the fastest-growing Halo channel on YouTube. But there are several players who are on top of the world [and] even some of the players that I coach who didn’t make an effort to brand themselves, who didn’t care about their social media, who didn’t take advantage of every opportunity they had, and as a result, they’re essentially unemployed now, because they don’t have any income until the possible income in November … .

… I think in terms of the long-term of professional gaming, [branding is] equally important to how good you are. There are players on YouTube who are not that skilled, but they have 600,000 subscribers, and they’re making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year [in YouTube ad revenue] because they’re making quality videos. I think really in the long run, the players that brand themselves appropriately are going to be able to really grab onto this industry, if not run with it.

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