By P.J. Huffstutter :: reporting from Granada Hills, Calif.
March 7, 2009
How did the renowned "clowN" -- dreaded, revered and awesomely lethal with a SG552 commando high-powered assault rifle -- end up back home with Mom and Dad?
ClowN, not so long ago, was a hero to every kid whose parents ever nagged that computer games were a waste of time.
He earned nearly a quarter of a million dollars over three years as a professional player of "Counter-Strike: Source" -- your ultimate run-around-and-shoot-everything-in-sight-before-someone-blows-you-up kind of game. It's played by about 10 million people.
But these are tough times -- canceled tournaments, dwindling prizes, sponsorless players adrift like wandering samurai.
"Suddenly, I'm Yaz," said the 23-year-old college senior as commandos scrambled across his computer monitor. "Just Yaz."
Yazan Ammari -- tan and lanky, with a huge, cheeky grin -- is back in his old room with a neon-green gaming trophy doubling as a lamp and foam-board prize checks leaning against the wall.
The Marina del Rey apartment that he lived in rent-free while playing in a now-defunct DirecTV series on gaming is gone. His family had to help him pay off $6,000 in credit card debt. He is about to graduate from Cal State Northridge in business marketing and has no idea what he's going to do.
"There's nothing to do but move on," Yaz said.
The atmosphere at home these days is laden with a certain I-told-you-so kind of feeling. While his mom and dad -- Roxy and Monty, both Jordanian immigrants -- are proud of their only son, they're also worried.
In the living room, they watched CNN as headlines scrolled across the bottom of the screen -- mass layoffs, squatters taking over foreclosed homes, people committing suicide over financial troubles.
Yaz was practicing in his bedroom. Got to stay sharp.
"He has to finish school and start working," Monty said to Roxy, ignoring the occasional sound of explosions from their son's room. "There is a time to move on."
Father and son have talked. Yaz admitted that he's terrified to graduate. His father said he could always work at the family's tow-truck business.
Yaz stood up to stretch his legs and grab a snack. He grimaced as he walked past his closet. Inside, shelves were crammed with software, hard drives and video graphics cards he had won over the years. Somewhere, he thought, was a pair of diamond earrings.
His BMW M3 with loads of extras is long gone. He's embarrassed to say what he spent on the 19-inch deep-dish customized black rims. "Stupidity," Yaz said. "Sheer, utter stupidity."
Now, he's grateful to be driving the used Toyota Highlander that his father bought him. His father had warned him to be frugal. " 'Buy what you need, not what you want,' " Yaz recalled. "Parents know everything."
So, he is spending less time playing and more studying and helping his father. He's launched a website, Gamerworld.net, devoted to professional computer game players and fans. Maybe he can make some money off it.
The last four years haven't been a waste, Yaz reasoned. He's traveled. He's negotiated contracts. He's figured out how to do his own laundry.
Sitting back down at his computer, his fingers blurred across the keyboard as he led a team through a sprawling, abandoned train depot somewhere in the Middle East. He threw a flash-bang grenade. The sound of the explosion rattled the room's windows.
His mother peeked into the bedroom and closed the door.
Try as he might, the dream of making a comeback still haunts his thoughts. He's tempted by a fundraiser offering a $50 prize and all the soda he can drink. There's a tournament in Montreal where the cash prize would pay for his airfare and hotel . . . if he wins.
The sums are paltry, but the thought of being forgotten is worse. "It's kind of like those one-hit wonders in a song," he said. "Now people just look at them, laugh at them, they don't even think about them. Nobody even knows their names anymore."
He glanced at his watch and sighed. 7:30 p.m. He had classes the next day, starting at 8 a.m.
"I should call it an early night," clowN told his teammates via headset.
Groans and profanity filled his ears.
"Really?" asked Solange "fireb0mb" LeBreton, 18, from her home in Quebec.
"Loser," said Tarik "rockyte" Elkhatib, 22, in Ohio.
Outside, the moon was rising, bright and fat. ClowN was restless, drumming the desk with his fingertips, eyes roaming the screen. A crackly voice called through the computer speakers.
Lock and load . . . lock and load . . . lock and load . . .
On the Edge: Staff writer P.J. Huffstutter and photographer Genaro Molina are traveling the country, chronicling the hopes and struggles of Americans in this time of economic hardship.
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