Want to get good at videogames? Hire a kid

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When David Estalote wanted to learn to play the piano, the 27-year-old New Yorker sought out a teacher at a local music college. To learn to play golf, he took lessons from a pro at his grandfather's country club. When he recently decided he needed coaching to play a videogame better, he turned to a teenager who lives 1,200 miles away in Florida.

One afternoon recently, his 18-year-old tutor, Tom Taylor, slouched in front of a television set connected to a Microsoft Corp. Xbox machine running "Halo 2," a popular combat videogame. Mr. Taylor, through an Internet phone strapped over his head, snapped commands at Mr. Estalote back in New York. Mr. Estalote, a computer programmer, pays Mr. Taylor $45 an hour for help improving his "Halo 2" skills.

Messrs. Taylor and Estalote convened the class over the Internet within "Halo 2," each of them controlling gun-toting characters in space suits sprinting around a concrete fortress. For the next hour, Mr. Taylor showed his student how to improve his grenade-throwing, melee and strafing skills. "After all the lessons, he'll have insane improvement and he'll be unstoppable," said Mr. Taylor, a high-school dropout wearing baggy jeans, flip-flops and oversize sunglasses.

For almost a year, Mr. Taylor has operated a Web site called Gaming-lessons.com where players can book lessons in two games -- Microsoft's "Halo 2" and Nintendo Co.'s "Super Smash Brothers Melee" -- choosing from a dozen instructors (average age: 19). Clients pay between $20 and $65 an hour for individual lessons, depending on the instructor's skill level and the demand for his services.

Gaming-lessons.com says its youngest "Halo 2" instructor is 8-year-old New Yorker Victor De Leon III -- better known by his online gamer name, Lil Poison -- who has given several lessons a month since late last year, fitting the classes in after he has done his homework. His father, also named Victor, says his son has used some of the money he earns from lessons (hourly rate: $25) to buy a hamster, named Cortana after a character in the game.

Richard Jefferson, a forward with the New Jersey Nets basketball team, says several professional gamers, including Mr. Taylor, have helped him "raise his game" through "Halo 2" coaching sessions. Mr. Jefferson, 26, says he didn't pay anything for lessons, though he did give away some tickets to basketball games.

Mr. Jefferson holds out little hope of ever defeating his instructors. "No matter how much I practice I couldn't do it," he says. "It's like comparing me to a high-school basketball player."

Several years ago, 23-year-old Craig Levine started his own game-lessons Web site, E-Sports Entertainment Association, while he was still an undergraduate studying business at New York University. A roster of game experts on the site, located at Esportsea.com, offer tutoring in the World War II title "Call of Duty," a combat game called "Counter-Strike" and several others. Mr. Levine says his instructors, whose rates range from $15 to $50 an hour, have collectively given about 3,000 hours of lessons since the site opened for business. Mr. Levine says he takes 15 percent or less of his instructors' earnings.

Players like Mr. Taylor, a competitor at game tournaments produced by a league called Major League Gaming, are attempting to forge professional careers and to make money from coaching when they're not training for competitions. The elite players who participate in MLG events and those of rival leagues compete for prize money.

The tournaments spur demand for game coaching among younger players, typically teenagers, who aspire to go professional. At the same time, videogames are now readily embraced by many people in their 20s and 30s who have money to spend on lessons, but not necessarily the hours of playing time required to perfect their skills on their own. Mr. Taylor estimates that about half of his 30 or so students want to play professionally, while the other half are adults who simply want to become more proficient.

Suzanne Clanton, a psychologist and mother of two in Portland, Ore., has taken "Halo 2" lessons from Mr. Taylor, in part so she could compete more seriously with her younger brother through online multiplayer versions of the game. Mr. Taylor taught her how to quickly reload weapons with ammunition for swifter kills and to jump better so she can more efficiently navigate the virtual environments of the game. Ms. Clanton, who is 31, says taking game lessons felt as natural as the training she went through to become a psychologist. "If I wanted to get better at tennis, I would take tennis lessons," she says. "I didn't see this as any different."

A game student signs up for a lesson on the Gaming-lesson.com Web site, paying for a lesson or package of lessons with a specific instructor using PayPal. Instructors and students then arrange a date and time for a coaching session through email. For "Halo 2" lessons, the two meet up on Xbox Live, Microsoft's online game service, where Xbox users can play against each other. Teachers communicate orally with their students in real time through a headset, which functions as an Internet telephone, a common accessory for the Xbox.

Ronald Kim, a professional "Counter-Strike" player from Dallas, often starts his sessions with students with some advice on properly configuring the settings on their computer mice, through which "Counter-Strike" players aim their weapons in the PC game. "All these little things add up," says the 22-year-old Mr. Kim, known online as "Rambo."

Mr. Taylor applies some time-tested coaching methods from other sports. He encourages his students to record videos of their game-playing and then email the files to him. Before a lesson, he'll review the videos to determine how he can best help his pupils.

Like other professional gamers, Mr. Taylor began playing at an early age, devoting more and more of his time to them as he improved. Mr. Taylor, who lives in Jupiter, Fla., with his mother, quit high school in the fall of 2004 to pursue his professional game career, though he says he plans to take a high-school equivalency test. Game coaching has turned into a lucrative sideline for him: He has made up to $2,700 in one week and he was recently able to raise his hourly rate to $65.

Patience and positive reinforcement are key parts of his teaching methods, as Mr. Taylor showed in his "Halo 2" lesson with Mr. Estalote, the computer programmer from New York. "Let me show you some grenades you can use to control the tower," Mr. Taylor told his student through his headset.

"Are those plasmas or frags?" asked Mr. Estalote. "It doesn't matter," Mr. Taylor responded. "Throw that grenade again."

In a phone interview later, Mr. Estalote said his money is well spent with Mr. Taylor. "I think my time is valuable enough that paying Tom for lessons is worth it if it saves me however many hours it would have taken to figure it out on my own," he said.


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