With Dad’s support, one teen is playing ‘Fortnite’ instead of going to high school
SUDBURY — Inside the quiet, sprawling house, near the end of an empty hallway, behind a closed door, a teenager named Jordan Herzog sat alone at a computer.
It was early afternoon on a beautiful weekday this spring, though drawn shades blocked out the shining sun. Light from the monitor cast his face in a pale glow. The lone sound came from the solitary clack-clack-clack of fingers across a keyboard.
Across town, his peers sat in high school classrooms, counting down the minutes until the day’s final bell.
But Jordan doesn’t go to school. Most days, like today, he spends his time here, guiding a virtual character through the virtual world of “Fortnite,” the explosively popular video game.
For much of the past few months, his life has been contained in this extra bedroom. It’s where he eats all of his meals, where he works through the few hours of daily online lessons that serve as his schooling. And where he spends eight to 10 hours a day — though sometimes as many as 14 — training to become one of the best competitive video game players in the world.
All of it under the watchful eye of his father.
As parents across the country worry over the amount of time their kids spend playing video games — limiting screen-time and sometimes banning gaming altogether — Jordan’s father, Dave Herzog, has gone the other way.
The 49-year-old has spent more than $30,000 on state-of-the-art gaming equipment — the best computers, monitors, and keyboards money can buy. He has suspended family vacations for the foreseeable future, so as not to interfere with his son’s training.
Last year, he took the extraordinary step of withdrawing his son from Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School — over the initial protests of Jordan’s mother — so that his son would have more time to devote to video games.
It has the feel of a kind of teenage heaven, but Jordan, a soft-spoken 16-year-old who rises around noon and spends most days in T-shirts and sweats, talks of it more often in terms of a career.
“I kind of just want to make enough money to not have to work for most of my life,” he says.
In his father’s mind, it’s much more than that. To hear Dave tell it, he is paving the way for something more for Jordan: fame, prestige, earnings that, he believes, could one day reach into the millions.
It’s Dave’s belief that it’s only a matter of time before these things come to fruition. And that when they do, it will not be the result of simple luck or coincidence — but rather, the realization of a vision that began to take shape more than a decade ago.
As Dave puts it, “I’ve been breeding him for this.”
* * *
Short and stocky, with a fondness for Nike sneakers and flashy cars and the restless disposition of someone uncomfortable with downtime, Dave Herzog has long fancied himself a visionary.
Years ago, he says, he became one of the world’s most prolific eBay sellers by scouring mom-and-pop shops for cheap video games and other items and selling them online for 10 times as much as he paid (“I was a top-15 eBay seller in the world,” he says). He was one of the first people in the country, he adds, to drive an electric car (“I’ve had, like, 10 Teslas since 2010”). And his current business, a company that manufactures and sells video game-themed merchandise and apparel, took off, he says, after he correctly predicted Americans’ desire to wear socks and sweat shirts adorned with images from games like “Pokemon” and “Fallout.”
But in his view, perhaps his greatest bit of prescience was foreseeing the meteoric rise of eSports, or competitive video gaming.
“I saw this coming before anybody,” he said on a recent afternoon, as he wheeled his Tesla SUV past the well-manicured lawns and quaint retail shops of this well-to-do suburb.
Growing up on Long Island in the 1970s, Dave had come of age during gaming’s earliest days. His own father had stocked the house with the best and newest gaming systems — along with the freedom to play as much as he wanted — and when his own son was born, in 2003, Dave wasted little time getting him started.
“I put a video game controller in his hands when he was 3 years old,” Dave says.
Jordan seemed, from the start, to have a gift. By age 7, he was proficient in “Halo,” a complicated first-person shooting game meant for much older players.
By 10, he was dominating the gaming playdates his father arranged with local kids he knew to be avid players.
And at 12, when Jordan won his first gaming tournament — outperforming a slew of older competitors to win $2,000 worth of gaming accessories at a live event in Boston — Dave began to get ideas.
“The light bulb went off,” he says.
His son’s rise coincided with an explosion in popularity of competitive gaming. The days of “Super Mario Bros.” in a friend’s basement had blossomed into a near-billion-dollar industry, complete with complex games, numerous leagues, and live events that sold out venues from Brooklyn’s Barclays Center to the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Even colleges were getting involved, with some offering eSports scholarships as a way to attract prospective students.
As venture capitalists began pouring money into gaming — seeing big potential in leagues and massive online audiences — the influx of cash created ample opportunity for talented gamers.
Today, weekly online tournaments yield thousands of dollars in payouts. Professional eSports organizations, backed by billionaire owners from Mark Cuban to Robert Kraft, dole out hefty contracts to the country’s top players. And this is to say nothing of streaming revenue, in which the world’s best — or most charismatic — gamers can make large sums simply by playing online and allowing others to watch live via sites like YouTube and Twitch.
Last year, the world’s most famous gamer, a pink-haired 28-year-old from Illinois who goes by the tag “Ninja,” told ESPN that he earns close to seven figures a month from gaming.
So by the time Jordan qualified this spring for the Fortnite World Cup — a three-day live competition in New York City in which 200 of the world’s top players will compete for a prize pool of more than $30 million, reportedly the largest in gaming history — Dave had seen enough.
“Once he started winning,” he says now, “it was easy to go all-in.”
* * *
Jordan sometimes stays at his mother’s condo across town, but when he’s at his father’s house, his schedule is fairly rigid. After getting out of bed around noon, he trudges across the hall to the gaming room and begins working through three or four hours of online school work — science lessons on the respiratory system, statistics quizzes. Around 4 o’clock, he fires up “Fortnite,” spending an hour warming up alone before devoting the next eight or so hours to competition. Over and again, he guides an avatar dropped into one of the game’s cartoonish worlds along with up to 100 other players, each gathering weapons and building forts to protect themselves while also hunting and killing off the other players. Games end when only one survives.
The game demands a mix of strategy, deftness with the controls, and knowledge of the game’s extensive world, gained only after brute hours of playing, which can take a toll.
“I’m definitely feeling motivated to keep going, despite feeling a little bit burned out,” Jordan said recently. “If you’re just doing one thing for a long period of time for days in a row, months in a row, you’re probably going to get burned out if you’re not doing other things.”
Even so, Jordan’s training schedule allows little time for anything but gaming, which is how his father likes it. In the months leading up to this month’s Fortnite World Cup, Dave has worked diligently to strip away every potential distraction. His son is exempt from household chores. While Jordan’s younger sister, Rachel, eats with Dave and his new wife, Jordan eats alone in front of the computer screen, from a plate Dave places beside him twice a day.
Earlier this year, when Jordan’s mother attempted to schedule a tennis outing with her son, Dave quickly nixed the idea.
“I won’t allow it,” he says. “Maybe after the World Cup. But he could get hurt, fall, injure his wrist . . .”
Dave says that all of this is Jordan’s choice, that he’s merely doing what he can to facilitate his son’s dream. And Jordan, in his own quiet away, agrees, if not with quite the same verve.
“I just want to try to do my best,” he says. “I’m not necessarily trying to be the best in the world.”
But there’s no denying the father’s involvement.
He keeps tabs on the hours Jordan spends playing. He knows the names of his son’s top challengers, and can vividly recall his most memorable moments of play. During an online tournament this spring, Dave says proudly, his son played through illness and nerves — throwing up twice, once all over his keyboard — and still qualified for the Fortnite World Cup.
“Remember the Jordan flu game?” Dave asks by way of comparison, referring to the 1997 NBA Finals game in which Michael Jordan overcame illness to lead the Bulls to victory.
While Jordan remains even-keeled during online competitions, Dave is a wreck, pacing and fretting.
“When he’s in competition, stay away from me,” Dave says. “I’m probably being an ass to somebody or just really stressed out. It just totally turns me into somebody else — because it means so much.”
Recently, in recounting the excitement of watching Jordan place first in a high-profile tournament this spring, Dave compared it to the birth of a child.
This preoccupation has sometimes led to problems. As news of Jordan’s gaming schedule has spread, the family’s choices have been derided online. And last year, both Dave and Jordan’s mother say, their decision to remove Jordan from school in favor of online classes was met with significant pushback. (Citing privacy concerns, the district declined to comment.)
The backlash, however, has done little to dissuade the father.
If Jordan’s all-consuming focus was on almost anything else, he says — piano, tennis, acting — he’d be applauded for pushing his son to mastery.
“Because it’s video games,” he says, “it’s child abuse.”
His son’s recent success, then, has served as a kind of validation, a development he has been happy to toss into the faces of anyone who doubts him.
To the parents who think it’s terrible to let his child play 10 hours of video games a day: “I think it’s terrible to let your kid play football.”
To the teachers who pushed his son to give up game controllers in favor of reading: “My son learns more from video games than people learn from books.”
And to a school that, he says, felt better equipped than him to decide his son’s future, he also has something to say.
Shortly after Jordan qualified for the Fortnite World Cup earlier this spring, Dave says, he fired off an e-mail to a counselor at his son’s former school, informing her of the accomplishment while providing an accounting of the money his son stood to make in the coming months.
Really appreciate your concern for my son’s well-being, he recalls writing. but Jordan’s doing just fine.
* * *
To date, Jordan has won some $60,000, money that Dave says he will invest on his son’s behalf. In the family’s garage is a Maserati, a gift from his father, who added a vanity plate with his son’s gaming tag, CRIMZ.
But Jordan has never been to a school dance or worked a summer job, and despite the enviable car, he has never actually been behind the wheel. He speaks fondly about his gaming friends, a group of kids around his age who spend their nights playing “Fortnite” together from their respective homes, chatting through headsets. But when asked how often they get together in person, he seems momentarily thrown by the question.
“I’ve never met any of them,” he says, “in real life.”
Jordan’s mother — who spoke with the Globe on condition her name not be published due to privacy concerns — has watched it all play out with conflicting emotions.
On one hand, she has slowly come to accept her son’s gaming arrangement. Jordan’s success, she says, has brought him happiness, and provided a sense of purpose. The recent arrival of a gaming friend — a 17-year-old from Texas named Zach Gifford who is temporarily staying with Jordan and his father ahead of this month’s Fortnite World Cup — has been a welcome development, she says.
But she worries, too, about the long-term costs of so much time spent in front of a computer, shut off from the rest of the world.
Even Dave admits, during a moment of reflection, that there are some life experiences his son will simply never have.
“I’m not an idiot,” he says. “I know there’s social interactions that you, me, most people had that he’s going to miss out on.”
But “he’s got a major moment right now, and we’ve got to take advantage of it.”
Still, it’s a risk. Despite the recent popularity of eSports, the industry’s long-term stability remains a question. Games come and go. Professional teams fold. And while it’s true that the industry has seen an influx of investment, the ability to carve out a living, experts say, remains exceedingly rare.
“In the same way as traditional sports, there’s a thin layer at the top who makes a living at it,” says T.L. Taylor, a professor at MIT who has written extensively about eSports. “But there’s a mass of folks who are aspirational and want to make it and never will.”
In spite of the demands on him, Jordan doesn’t seem burdened or overwhelmed. He’s lucky to have a father, he says, who has invested in him so fully. And while he admits that there are aspects of his old life that he misses — sitting around a school lunch table with friends, for instance — he has come to view such things as a necessary sacrifice.
“Friends come and go and stuff,” he explains one evening, his father seated next to him. “But this could be my career and my entire future.”
In 10 years, if things go as planned, he sees himself living in a so-called team house, in which a group of affiliated gamers eat, sleep, and train together, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
One afternoon, Jordan was asked whether he thought other kids were jealous of his life — staying home from school, sleeping late, spending all night playing video games.
“Not really—” he started to say.
Suddenly, Dave appeared in the doorway.
“I can answer that,” he said. “They’re definitely jealous.
“How could you not be?”
* * *
It was nearing 10 o’clock back in the gaming room. Jordan’s dinner — sushi and miso soup from a local Japanese restaurant — had long ago been delivered and inhaled.
Out in the living room, his family was finishing a movie. But in here, Jordan was lost in the world of a game. Through a microphone, he strategized intermittently with a gaming friend, and in the empty room, it sounded a little like he was talking to himself.
“Careful, people northwest.”
“These guys won’t even push.”
“Do you want to shadow?”
On the screen, his character roamed the animated landscape — building structures, collecting bounty, swinging an ax — before suddenly finding himself under siege. A barrage of unexpected gunfire left his onscreen self injured, then dead, and his game drew to an unceremonious end.
In his chair, Jordan leaned back, yawning.
Already today, he’d been in the room for nearly 10 hours straight, his lone break coming a few hours earlier, when he’d taken the family dog, Jax, on a short walk down the driveway.
But there was more work to be done.
And so, in the soft glow of the computer screen, Jordan adjusted his headset, queued up a new game, and disappeared once more into another world.