Header illustration by Gareth Damian Martin
It’s still light out when I pull into the driveway of the Evil Geniuses house, a lovely yet nondescript two-story home on the corner of a quiet subdivision street in Bloomington, Illinois. At 7:27 p.m. there’s only one car parked in the drive; it belongs to the team’s coach, Ryan Towey. But it isn’t Towey who answers the door; it’s Eric “Snipedown” Wrona, a fresh-faced twenty-five-year-old who happens to be one of the most decorated players in the history of competitive Halo. I keep the obvious joke—Say, aren’t you that guy from Twitch?—to myself. “I’m Eric,” Wrona tells me, shaking my hand. “I guess Ryan said you were gonna be coming tonight.” He leads me through the house and into the living room, a near-pristine shrine to the wall-sized television on my left. “Make yourself comfortable. The guys should be here any time.” Then, “You want a Monster?”
I decline, setting my laptop and camera bag on the sectional and offering up an icebreaker about “some Halo happening tonight.” Despite the couch, I remain standing. Wrona asks if I play. I explain that I’m simply a “scrub” who plays too often, a mere mortal among giants on this particular evening.
“What game did you start with?” he wants to know, meaning which Halo. “The first one,” I say.
The stakes are unclear and morale, to be frank, is at an all-time low
He invites me into the game room, telling me about tonight’s HCS Pro League matchup against OpTic Gaming and how little difference it makes in the grand scheme of things. The truth is, Evil Geniuses’ season record isn’t spectacular, and the world of Halo esports knows it. Evil Geniuses has spent most of the past two years annihilating the competition in the Microsoft-sponsored Halo Championship Series, sweeping tournament after tournament following the release of 2014’s oft-derided Halo: The Master Chief Collection. Sadly, that streak seems to have ended after ESPN’s X Games Aspen Invitational in January. It was there that the one-time Evil Geniuses lineup of Justin “Roy” Brown, his brother Jason “Lunchbox” Brown, Snipedown, and Hamza “Commonly” Abbaali became the first-ever pro Halo team to receive X Games gold medals. According to Jason, a.k.a. Lunchbox, “it’s been a struggle ever since.”
Tonight, the stakes are unclear and morale, to be frank, is at an all-time low. Evil Geniuses sits in fifth place in the Pro League’s summer 2016 standings, with two matches to go before their shot at getting into this season’s finals slips through their fingers.
“There’s like a three percent chance,” says Snipedown. This is before coach Ryan Towey or the Brown brothers, known collectively as “RoyBox,” arrive at the house. The unspoken wish—the thing they dare not hope for aloud—is that some of the other top-eight North American teams will do poorly enough for Evil Geniuses to have even the most remote possibility of wriggling into the fourth-place slot. They also know, all too well, that tomorrow night they’ll be going up against Counter Logic Gaming, this season’s nearly undefeated juggernaut.
The twins, age twenty-six, walk in wearing more or less matching after-work clothes: red short-sleeved T-shirts, gym shorts, black-rimmed eyeglasses, penny loafers. I shake Justin’s—Roy’s—hand as he enters, introducing myself, and step aside as Lunchbox carries in a heavy load of equipment behind him.
Already the floor and tables around us are littered with high-end gaming gear. There are stacks of old keyboards, Astro mixamps, monitors, PCs, stray Xbox One consoles, a blinking Xfinity router. Between all of this, the padded ergonomic chairs, and the Monster Energy fridge in the next room over, the place is perfectly suited for a long night of Halo and conversation.
Before we can sit down, however, there’s the matter of the game-room ceiling light. Towey asks Lunchbox if the Halo-brand LED bulb he bought will work. Lunchbox, an apprentice electrician of almost four years, sets about removing it from its box, carefully examining the hole in the ceiling and the loose wiring inside. “I could wire it up and make it work,” he says, explaining to Towey in technical detail the reasons why the bulb isn’t the right fit for the room, “but it’d just be hangin’ there.” The fixture is too big for the opening, by the look of things.
So now there’s no light whatsoever in the game room. Without one, there will be no Skype interview with HCS commentators Kyle “Elamite” Elam and Michael “Strongside” Cavanaugh after tonight’s match. “I can’t stand playing in the dark,” says Lunchbox, “but I’ll do it if I have to.”
Lunchbox sinks into the couch beside me like any blue-collar Midwesterner following a full day’s work: in the manner of a man who intends never to stand up again, so long as he can help it. The Brown brothers have just finished working an eight-hour shift together, doing electrical work an hour’s drive south of Bloomington in their hometown of Urbana, and this is their only chance to relax for an hour. Never mind that their match isn’t scheduled to start until ten p.m. at the very earliest. Roy does a far better job of hiding the cocktail of equal parts disappointment and exhaustion the brothers are grappling with this week. His posture indicates he’s talking to a member of the press and not just another Halo wannabe, and he speaks with what at first sounds like a measure of shyness, though it could be that he’s simply choosing his words carefully.
They are identical twins, but each half of the RoyBox duo has individualizing traits that belie their genetic makeup. Their voices are distinct, which is noticeable online but even more so when meeting them in person; Roy is a master of the quiet understatement, while Lunchbox is a virtuoso of Twitch chat–esque hyperbole. Their play styles within the game world are also wildly different. Whereas Roy is known for his aggressive long-distance slaying, Lunchbox tends to play a more supporting role, focusing on a mix of close-quarters combat and objectives.
Towey, a legend in his own right, has been coaching the brothers since 2010. He comes into the living room near the start of our talk and switches on the TV so they can all watch the Twitch coverage of tonight’s first matchup. During games, Towey’s job is threefold: to coordinate communication and plays, offer insight about the timing of weapon and power-up spawns, and track enemy players’ positions across the map. As the longest-tenured coach in Halo history, he’s also earned a reputation for going the extra mile to study untold hours of replay footage, pointing out his team’s mistakes while simultaneously boosting their confidence.
The living room and kitchen have an air of utter disuse about them, but that begins to dissipate somewhat now that the full team’s assembled—minus newcomer Ayden “Suspector” Hill, who is at home in Colorado. “He’s been flying in for four or five days, and then he goes back home,” says Roy. “He’s still pretty young, so he has a lot of friends and family that he likes to be around.” Suspector joined the Evil Geniuses’ roster as a replacement for Commonly shortly after the World Championship in March. Snipedown, on the other hand, first played with the Brown brothers during Halo 3 at MLG San Diego back in 2008.
That same year, RoyBox founded their own team, Instinct, with Joseph “Mackeo” Reinhart and Cameron “Victory X” Thorlakson. Mackeo has since retired, but Victory X currently plays for the Renegades. The twins remained a part of Instinct throughout its renowned history.
A chance to silence all their doubters, with a singular historic win
For a time, though, the brothers played almost no Halo together at all. Competing in only two Halo 4 events during 2012 and ’13, Lunchbox at first considered that game to be the death of the franchise. But Halo 2: Anniversary seemed to signal its rebirth, and he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to play alongside Roy as part of EG. “Every team now plays under an org,” says Lunchbox. “That’s the only way to make it, since MLG’s not around anymore. MLG was the reason that everybody could go under their own team names.” Evil Geniuses sponsored their first Halo team back in 2005, during the original Halo 2 competitive era, but dropped the game altogether six months later. With the launch of Halo: The Master Chief Collection, the organization made a triumphant return to the scene.
RoyBox and Snipedown formed the core of that season-one roster, and they’ve stuck together ever since, despite a number of changes to the team’s player-four slot. Towey, too, has been with EG since the formation of the Halo Championship Series. That inaugural season saw the Evil Geniuses take home first-place wins at six consecutive tournaments, including the first series championship. “We were pretty dominant in Halo 2: Anniversary,” says Lunchbox, matter-of-fact. He and Roy won those six events in a row with Lethul and Snipedown on their team, and then Lethul left at the start of Halo 5 to join Counter Logic Gaming. Commonly filled the resultant vacancy, and their new lineup went on to win X Games.
Evil Geniuses’ victory in Aspen is a bittersweet topic. After doing so well in Halo 2: Anniversary, it’s clear the team had high hopes for Halo 5. But things haven’t exactly gone their way in the last six months. The Browns both credit Lethul’s departure from EG, as opposed to strong teamwork or an affinity for Halo 5’s metagame, for giving them the drive to win the invitational. “I definitely think that was the most focused we’ve ever been, just because Lethul left. We’d won the last six tournaments, and he left our team to join the second-best team,” Lunchbox recalls. They went up against CLG in the finals and won the series 4–3. It was a defining moment for the twins—a point in their careers where it wasn’t about the prize money but rather a chance to silence all their doubters, including Lethul, with a singular historic win.
For Roy, the gold medal was beside the point. “We just wanted to beat Lethul. Just to prove him wrong,” he says. In hindsight, it seems to have been a curse.
Where did they go wrong this season? Neither of the brothers can say for sure, but they don’t sound enthusiastic about the prospects of the Pro League’s all-online match play and the technical issues they’ve been seeing with what is, essentially, a cost-cutting measure. “I’m a guy that loves live tournaments,” Roy admits. With online play, however, there are certain variables that can get in the way of the game itself, from network latency to players getting disconnected completely. At an in-person LAN competition, those concerns don’t exist.
The twins offer the example of a recent match against Renegades where, seconds before their game would’ve ended, the Evil Geniuses house lost power momentarily, forcing the teams to start the game over. This took place during a game-two Slayer, with EG leading by two kills and Renegades having both map and power-weapon control. “We were up in the game, so we still had to make bad plays for them to win, in my opinion,” says Lunchbox. “I mean, Ninja’s brother tweeted at me about us fuckin’ pulling the plug and shit like that, which is ridiculous. We’ve been playing for ten years. Like, to call us cheaters? That really pissed me off. But this house has had that problem.”
Roy clarifies that it was definitely an electrical issue unrelated to the house’s Internet connection. “This house just trips fuses, and it kills the power for that entire room. And when you have four Xboxes, a computer, and all this stuff running on one circuit, it just blows a fuse at this house for some reason.” Hence the burnt-out lightbulb that needs replacing.
“There’s issues. Always has been, always will be”
That wasn’t the only time Evil Geniuses have lagged out in a Pro League match; they estimate that it happens to roughly one team per week. Fortunately, the rules allow for a replay. “It looks worse because we’re all four here, so we all lag out at the same time, but that’s what happens when you have a fuckin’ online tournament. There’s issues. Always has been, always will be,” says Lunchbox. Outside of remote surveillance, he doesn’t see a solution to this sort of problem so long as League play relies on the fallible infrastructure of Xbox Live. “You don’t have the tournament setting to where you can see everybody. If they want, we could put a webcam up in the house, and everybody has a webcam, so they can see what we’re doing. But if you want to cheat, anybody can cheat.”
Aside from common networking issues and the occasional unforeseeable circumstance, RoyBox concede that 343 Industries is doing a far better job of fostering community around Halo esports than they’ve ever seen in the past. “Bungie never did shit,” says Lunchbox. If anything, he tells me, the developer hindered the growth of competitive Halo. Still, even with Microsoft putting their full support behind the HCS Pro League, he thinks it’s unlikely it will ever achieve the popularity of first-person shooter series Call of Duty.
Roy’s also pretty doubtful on this point. “[343 Pro Team coach Andy “Bravo” Dudynsky] came out and said that the number of people playing per month has been going up, but the viewership has not done anything. It’s gone down,” he says. “Call of Duty Pro League gets—I wanna say fifty-K or something like that, maybe more, when OpTic and those teams play. We don’t really have like an ‘OpTic’ in Halo. We have an OpTic in Halo, but it’s not like the OpTic Call of Duty team, where they can influence a stream by fifty thousand viewers, or whatever it may be.”
Lunchbox thinks they’re ultimately moving in the right direction with the Pro League. “But is it too little too late?” he asks. “I don’t know.”
It might simply be that the player base has been burned one too many times. In spite of Halo 5’s critical and financial success, “Halo has gone downhill,” Roy confesses. To hear him tell it, the games haven’t been up to snuff since well before Bungie’s split with Microsoft, when they released 2010’s Reach and left the franchise in the hands of the newly christened 343 Industries. Neither of the brothers has any love for Halo 4, either, given how much of a departure it was from the series’s traditional multiplayer experience. But it’s The Master Chief Collection, where Evil Geniuses found some of their greatest success, ironically, that Roy blames most for Halo’s relative stagnation.
His brother’s more blunt about it: “MCC destroyed Halo.” Few would argue otherwise. The 2014 Xbox One exclusive, which collected Halo: Combat Evolved, Halo 2: Anniversary, Halo 3, and Halo 4, is widely acknowledged to be one of the most disappointing software releases in recent memory. The game was announced at E3 2014, with 343i studio head Bonnie Ross calling it “a celebration of our past” aimed at “laying the foundation for our future.” That foundation, along with the hopes of many longtime fans, began to crumble when players discovered that the title was unplayable on release. “After Reach and Halo 4, where the audience was already significantly lower because the games just weren’t really that good, MCC just absolutely was the last straw for a lot of Halo fans,” says Roy.
Lunchbox relates the story of being at a competitive event for Halo 2: Anniversary and having the developers on-site, scrambling to find a solution, as players’ games crashed mid-tournament. Not only was it unacceptable, he says, but also a harmful moment for Microsoft’s brand. The anthology represented an enormously ambitious collaboration, combining several game engines and made ever more implausible by holding fast to the November 11 deadline of Halo 2’s ten-year anniversary. Simply put, The Master Chief Collection was too good to be true—and rather than delay the game long enough to ship a functioning product, they over-promised and under-delivered, causing irreparable damage to the 343i name.
“If you have to delay it a month or two, that’s literally tragic, but what’s more tragic is releasing the most broken game of all time,” says Lunchbox. “There’s no way there’s any game that’s ever been released in that state.” Instead of enjoying the classic Halo multiplayer they craved, players found themselves wrestling with corrupted installations, matchmaking lobbies without end, and an unstable user interface. “You couldn’t even play it!” he groans. “You would just crash, it wouldn’t load. It was horrible.” As far as Roy is concerned, Microsoft “just cheated people out of money, essentially.”
Tournaments became their only real incentive to play Halo following the disastrous launch. If not for the HCS, Lunchbox says he would never have supported such a title. “They did everything they could, though,” he adds. “That’s the thing. They tried their ass off to fix it. It was unfortunate.”
The rest of us give a solemn nod.
A sudden giddiness comes over Roy when he talks about the early days of multiplayer—a time before Bungie and Halo were semi–household names. He still remembers the first game of Halo he ever played. He and his brother were at a friend’s house, where they loaded into a split-screen Slayer match on the fan-favorite map Blood Gulch. He cradled the large controller in his hands like an alien artifact, trying to get his wits with the dual thumbsticks, guiding the reticle along an infinite skybox as the ring-shaped megastructure encircled him. “And I’ll never forget it,” he says.
“We used to play three-vee-two, me, him, and our other buddy against our buddy’s older brother and his friend,” says Lunchbox. “They were both older than us, but we played it three-on-two, and they would destroy us. And then it got to the point where we were destroying them, so that was where we started playing. It was a lot of fun.”
I ask if this was with the big, bulky original Xbox controller.
“It was the S-type,” Roy recalls. “It wasn’t the Duke. The Duke is like the really big one that you’re talking about, I think. But the S-type was a little bit smaller.”
Lunchbox says, “The Duke was huge. I’m not sure why they even released that. Anybody with normal hands could not use that.”
“The Ogres used ’em,” says Roy, “but that’s the only people I knew who used ’em.”
“That was probably why half the people used them: just ’cause the Ogres used ’em,” Lunchbox suggests. “They wanted to be like the Ogres. But they’re big.”
“I broke my disc in his face and said, ‘I’m done,’”
Roy himself was one of the players who most idolized the Ogres. “The only person I admire in Halo is Ogre Two,” he tells me. Ogre 1 and Ogre 2—Dan and Tom Ryan—are perhaps the most famous duo of twins in the game’s competitive history, dating all the way back to January 2005, two months after the launch of Halo 2 on Xbox Live. Doug Cortez, writing for Red Bull Esports, once called Tom Ryan “the greatest of all time.” In fact, the now-legendary Ogre brothers were the ones who inspired RoyBox to begin competing.
As it happened, Roy and Lunchbox got off to a late start. The Brown brothers were practicing online in anticipation for a 2006 MLG event in Chicago when a fight over the game ended with Roy threatening to quit Halo altogether. “Lunchbox and me kind of got into an argument a couple days before the event, and I broke my disc in his face and said, ‘I’m done,’ ” Roy remembers.
So they ended up not going to that tournament. For MLG Charlotte 2007, they put a different team and drove fourteen hours to North Carolina. It was meant to be a “one-and-done” affair. The Browns’ parents didn’t pay their travel expenses or entry fee; they’d gotten jobs and saved up the money themselves. Their expectations were low: even if they managed to squeeze somewhere into the top sixteen, they would be considered pro. That was enough for them. But fate had its own ideas, and the brothers soon found themselves winning a string of consecutive matches that landed them in the event’s top four.
“And kind of the rest is history,” says Roy. “We made a couple thousand bucks, my parents started supporting it a lot more after that, and it kind of validated what we were doing.” A decade later, they’re still doing it.
The flipside of nostalgia is that it can be hard to see the beauty of the present. Although Halo 5: Guardians may well be the best installment in the fifteen-year franchise, RoyBox nevertheless pine for the halcyon days of Halo: Combat Evolved and its first two sequels. It’s easy to understand why; when I ask whether the twins have any pregame rituals, Lunchbox says, “I may drink a Monster, but that’s just because I’ve worked eight hours a day, so I’m tired.” And Halo, for good or ill, is little more than a second job to them. “We have the last match tonight, so that’s pretty brutal. It’s not that bad, but Justin and I both have to get up at six.”
Back in 2014, Roy was attending nursing school as a way of preparing for the financial realities of life after Halo when The Master Chief Collection dropped. “It wasn’t necessarily for me,” he reflects, but it came down to the choice between finishing weekend clinicals or playing Halo, and he decided to stick it out with his brother for the time being. Now, as of last month, they’re both serving electrical apprenticeships and working together during the daytime.
One thing the Brown brothers share in equal measure is a practical outlook on the role Halo has played in their lives. Lunchbox calls their day job “a long-term thing,” whereas “Halo’s obviously short-term. Every gamer has a shelf-life if you’re playing competitive.”
“More of a job than anything.”
Roy credits their parents for his and his brother’s strong work ethic. “We had a job the day we turned fifteen,” he says. He bought his first car with his paychecks from that job, not Halo money. In truth, they’ve worked second jobs throughout most of their careers. There was only a brief time, where they were sponsored and placing in the top three consistently at large tournaments, where they were making enough money playing Halo to be able to quit their jobs and play full-time. Other than that, they’ve always been realistic about the scope of it all. They see the value in having a vocational education and the promise of a future beyond the game.
Anymore, Lunchbox admits, Halo itself is “more of a job than anything. It’s not as fun because you get on and scrim every single night, or five nights a week.” He points out that “the amount of time we’ve put in playing Halo to get where we’ve gotten is—a lot. I know we’ve made a lot of money playing it, but if you brought it down to how many hours we’ve put into the game, we’re probably makin’ pennies. Just ’cause we’ve played fuckin’ hundreds of thousands of hours, or tens of thousands of hours.” Neither of the brothers has any interest in a long-term Halo– or esports-related career. Lunchbox says he has “no desire” to do the necessary traveling, while Roy foresees getting burnt out on the entire scene.
“I have a lot of passion and stuff for Halo,” says Roy, “but I’m also to the point where, when I’m done, I’m gonna be Haloed out. Spent a lot of time playing, watching, talking about, thinking about Halo. It’ll be nice to not have to worry about Halo for a while.” It dawns on him: “Forever.”
From our conversation, there seems a certain contradiction in this line of thinking. RoyBox love what they’re doing, and it represents a grand shared experience they’ve forged together over the past ten years. It’s a place where they can be at ease with one another, two brothers in a world of their own making—a world where Towey’s words, as well as Snipedown’s and Suspector’s, sometimes pass them by like a book of lyrics to songs they already know better than anyone else. But they also look forward to one day being able to close that book, trading their storied careers in gaming for the next great stage of their lives. When that happens, Halo will never be the same; I think they both know this.
It’s said that Spartans never die. But professional gamers—god-tier or not—are, after all, only human.
Tomorrow, the Evil Geniuses will face off against Counter Logic Gaming, the number-one team in Halo 5 competitive play. Tomorrow, they’ll stare defeat straight in the eye and say, This isn’t over yet. Tomorrow, the Brown brothers will wake up at six a.m. and go to work keeping the lights on.