Some Call It a Game

These players are out from the shadows and into the blazing light of a sporting event like no other. Welcome to the World Cyber Games.

By Josh Korr
St. Petersburg Times
October 12, 2007
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Behold the gaming champion at the height of his reign. He guy-slouches in his chair, lightly grasping a controller in his lap. Emotion-free save for a placid trace of smile, he could be watching a Yule log TV special.

And here, another pro. His long fingers dance around the QWERTY end of the keyboard. He cycles through screens like a hiccuping security camera. He lifts both hands, cracks his knuckles: another victory.

There are many physiological and neurological freaks in this world, who because of culture and era may become rich and famous or remain curioisities. One woman can hit a fuzzy yellow ball with extraordinary power and precision; she gets put in commercials and becomes a role model. A man can analyze numbers more thoroughly than a computer; he gets a penthouse view and becomes a master of the universe.

And so it is that these two find themselves at the World Cyber Games national finals in Orlando, a veritable showcase of such anomalies. Its purpose: to convince the outside world that they, too, are deserving of wealth, acclaim, and respect.

***

Wesley Cwiklo is as unassuming as a world-class competitor could be. Like your best friend’s little brother who turned out to be a guitar savant, the 18-year-old from Camarillo, Calif., gamely accepts his success.

“It just sort of happened,” the University of California-Santa Barbara freshman said. “I wasn’t looking to go make money or anything.”

A little over a year ago, Wes heard about an online tournament for the Xbox 360 driving game Project Gotham Racing 3. He entered; he won. That got him into another competition. One tournament victory led to another, and soon he was playing in the 2006 World Cyber Games championships in front of thousands of people in Monza, Italy. He won that, too.

His first-year earnings: $80,000.

***

The 188 players at the World Cyber Games national finals in September didn’t just come for the free flight, hotel rooms, and Universal Studios tickets and the $100,000 prize pool. The WCG is the closest thing there is to a gaming Olympics: The top 22 players in Orlando became Team USA and faced 700 gamers from 74 countries in the international finals in Seattle last weekend. That’s where the serious money was: nearly $500,000 in cash and prizes.

The players also came for a chance at exposure in the culture at large: The Spike TV show Game Head will air a special on the Orlando tournament after midnight tonight. A special on the Seattle tournament airs in November.

The World Cyber Games has a tricky balancing act. It attempts to normalize a group typically viewed as bums at best, psychopaths at worst. It tries to help launch a new spectator sport, the next X Games or poker craze. And it tries to give the best video game players in the United States a rigorous competition while appealing to the mainstream.

“We’re trying to transcend that impression of a video game player being some kid in his bedroom in the dark,” said Michael Arzt, general manager of World Cyber Games USA. “That’s not what this is. … These kids — they all train, they take this seriously.”

A Project Gotham Racing expert has to learn the optimum path on five race tracks — and then run the courses countless times to follow that path without thinking. Like a point guard shooting 500 free throws a day, it’s a matter of extreme patience and muscle memory. “So many hours,” Cwiklo said. “I don’t even want to think about how many hours I’ve put into the game.”

Elite players of Command and Conquer 3, a futuristic military strategy game,  continuously build and control dozens of buildings, vehicles and troops — even as the opponent is doing the same and attacking with just as many pieces. Watching them click furiously, like a spider crab on Red Bull tapping Morse code, it’s clear the game takes serious skill.

Yet ask the WCG players what they like to do, and you’ll hear the same answers as from a wind-up talking U.S. Teenager doll: go to the movies, hang out with friends, play sports — you know, just hang out. They wear cargo shorts (plaid and otherwise); polo shirts (collars down and up); tight hipster Ts; Pumas and skater shoes. They have club-styled hair, classic-nerd poofs, slicked-back Jersey ‘dos; teenstaches, sculpted goatees and chin scruff. They have assorted accents, all manner of skin tones.

And sometimes they play video games for six or 12 hours at a time.

***

Caesar Noriega paced behind Prophecy, his four-person team in the shooting game Gears of War. He pointed to one screen, darted to another, yelled a tip, leaped three times. He wiped his face with a bandanna, pointed, yelled some more.

“I’m just trying to get everybody pumped up and excited,” said the 24-year-old from Sayerville, N.J.

His enthusiasm provided one answer to the most basic challenge facing pro gaming events: How to lure a skeptical or oblivious public into watching people sitting around staring at monitors.

Some games, like Project Gotham Racing 3, are clear and tense enough to follow. But strategy games Starcraft and Command and Conquer require grasping a bewildering amount of arcane details. Even the shooting games are hard to follow, as the audience contends with the vertigo of 10 players’ alternating viewpoints.

It turns out that the most interesting thing to watch isn’t always the screen. It’s the players — or their coaches.

“When they see this on TV, I really feel like they’re going to understand the competitive aspect to it,” said Noriega of his Ditka-esque antics.

As in on-field sports, there’s a fine line between pumping up your team and being a jerk: Prophecy, which finished second in Gears of War, was the only team booed during the medal ceremonies.

***

For pro gaming to take off here the way it has in Asia, where millions of people watch live coverage and top South Korean players make $400,000 a year, a central tension must be resolved.

For all of the WCG’s paeans to courting the mainstream — general manager Michael Artz calls the tournament’s players “elite emissaries for a growing phenomenon,” and the games selected are “points of access to a mainstream community” — the event itself is focused solidly on serious gamers.

Sponsors like Intel and Samsung appealed to the people who shell out thousands for the top-of-the-line computers and monitors that filled Universal’s Soundstage 33. The play-by-play announcers expected the audience to understand things like “Of course we’ve already got the orb sphere as well.”

Yet even if the spectators couldn’t follow every twist, most seemed familiar enough with games that they stuck around to watch or to play at the kiosks on the side.

That familiarity is the key. The WCG probably isn’t going to win over some elusive mainstream. But as gaming becomes more popular, the mainstream blurs into the hard core. Like football fans who get satellite TV so they can watch every game, the people who play video games for five hours a day will simply be a more devoted subset of a bigger audience.

“We live in broad niches now,” said John Papola, a Spike TV executive producer who filmed the event for Game Head. “And video gaming is a gigantic niche — so it’s not niche. It’s already mainstream.”

***

Susan Teeter just might have been the happiest person at the finals.

As her son Shawn played Command and Conquer 3 on the main stage, the San Diego mom jumped up and down, pumped her hands and let out a “Yeah!”

What would she do if the 18-year-old made it to the finals in Seattle?

“I don’t know! It would be really cool!”

As if that wasn’t enough to secure her awesome-mom cred, she said: “They keep saying on one of those recordings (played in the opening ceremonies), ‘Your mom and dad told you it was a waste of time.’ Well, I don’t think so! I never said that!”

And why should she?

Why should someone who applies himself, works hard, learns to deal with pressure, and finds success and fulfillment through gaming be respected any less than one who spends months preparing for a lousy rendition of Gee, Officer Krupke in the school musical?

What debate team champ’s parents have ever been as excited as Susan Teeter was later, when her son won?

As Shawn stood tall atop the winners podium, wearing a medal and holding an oversized, cartoonish novelty check, Susan snapped pictures from the front row. She raised a fist high in the air and cheered.

And with a mom’s “Woowoo,” a fledgling sport took its next big step forward.

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