In the spring of 2014, after a decade of visa problems, the Hassan family moved out of its spacious house in Karachi, Pakistan, to an apartment in Rosemont, a suburb of Chicago near O’Hare International Airport. They were a family of eight, two parents, and six kids, jammed into a three-bedroom space. Money was tight and work unsteady; for most of them, the move was a struggle. But their 15-year-old son, Sumail, was thrilled—being in the U.S. meant less lag time when he played Dota 2.
Like League of Legends and other free multiplayer online games, Dota 2 (short for Defense of the Ancients 2) rewards obsessives such as Sumail. Set in a mythical world of ogres, magicians, and “faerie” dragons, two teams of five Heroes start on opposite corners of a square map scattered with forests and lava trenches and battle to take over the opposing team’s base. The one and only goal is to secure the opposing team’s Ancient—a fountain with rejuvenating power—before it gets yours. The gameplay moves as fast as basketball, but the complexity of characters, weapons, and spells rivals Dungeons & Dragons. Secure the Eye of Skadi and you can slow a charging attacker to a crawl. The Shadow Amulet will make you invisible long enough to slip behind an enemy line. And for a few select players, there’s more real-world money to be made at Dota 2 than any other game of its kind. The best of the best play at professional tournaments where teams compete for millions of dollars in prize money, and the most popular players can make around $1,000 just by streaming a game directly to their fans.
Sumail started playing Dota 2 as a 7-year-old. Now 16, he’s still small and spindly, with wide, soft eyes and skinny toothpick arms. In Chicago, he put in minimum effort at a local public high school, making no friends and doing no homework; instead he spent all his spare time racking up impressive amateur credentials in Dota 2. While some players are all strategy, analyzing the strengths of different characters and hanging back for the right time to strike, Sumail is pure reflex and aggression—the Dota 2 equivalent of a power forward. His favorite character is Storm Spirit, a quick, evasive avatar that fires lightning balls and drops decoys that injure enemies. Simply put, Sumail kills everything in sight.
After a few months in the U.S., he qualified to play in a North American “in-house league,” a sort of off-season competition for professional players. This was his shot, and it didn’t take long for him to get noticed. After Sumail slayed wave after wave of Enchantresses, Centaurs, and Zombies, Charlie Yang, a 26-year-old Dota 2 player-turned-manager, flew to Chicago from San Francisco to visit Sumail’s family.
Sumail’s mother, Huma, was there, but not his father, Tatheer, a construction manager who had returned to Pakistan on business. The mother’s English wasn’t good enough to understand Yang, so Sumail’s aunt and uncle helped translate. Yang said he managed Evil Geniuses, the highest-earning Dota 2 team in North America. The team would pay for Sumail to fly around the world for training and tournaments. He would earn a small stipend—less than $4,000 a month—but the real money would come from tournaments. After a 10 percent cut for the owners, prize money would be split among the team’s five players. The previous year’s prize pool at the International, the game’s biggest tournament, held annually in August, was more than $10 million.
Sumail’s mother said yes, as long as Sumail could still go to school. “She was a little anxious,” Yang says. “But I think it’s hard to deny your child an opportunity like this.” Yang visited Sumail’s teachers next, planning out his long absences. Yang set up a bank account for Sumail and had his tax forms done. A few weeks later, in February, Sumail and his teammates—each older than he by at least five years, and each a legend in the game—flew to Shanghai for the Dota 2 Asian Championships, with a prize for the winning team of $1.2 million.
Evil Geniuses was the third seed but, with Sumail’s help, it made it to the finals. Its opponent was a Chinese team called Vici Gaming, and the packed arena’s crowd was against them. In the first five minutes of Game Three—the last of the final—Sumail got killed four times without scoring a single kill. It was a devastating start, and the announcers said the game was basically over. But when the other team started scattering players, Sumail struck.
His avatar weakened, he shot across the field in a lightning ball and somehow scored four kills in two minutes, to the disbelief of the opposing team and the announcers commenting for the live crowd. Minutes later, he darted out of the woods to help his teammates in a skirmish and, in an explosion of fire and lightning, blasted three more enemy players to death.
Before Vici could respond, Sumail rushed up the center of the map and secured the Ancient, winning the game and the tournament for Evil Geniuses. By the end, the crowd was chanting his name.
With every ounce of my blood, with every breath in my lungs, wont stop until I am phenomenal
— Sumail Hassan (@SumaaaaiL) July 11, 2015
His payday after one month as a professional gamer, and just before his 16th birthday, was $200,000. By mid-August, he could be a millionaire.