Are video games a sport?
They may not break a sweat, but these competitors say they are tomorrow's athletes.
"We're following White Fox as he makes his way around the corner," comes the play-by-play commentary in the hushed-but-tense voice of sportscaster Tim 'Gunslinger' Lakin. "They really haven't had the need to go into the water-access area yet, the front door entrance is working fine." The play is quick, the players' reflexes even quicker as they adjust strategies in millisecond calculations.Skip to next paragraph
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They may not break a sweat, but the competitors here at the Cyberathlete Professional League (CPL) Tournament say they are the athletes of the new millennium.
And like 18-year-old Kyle "Ksharp" Miller, they may not eat anything special for breakfast, but they train all year with the intensity of a Tiger Woods. His Team 3D is just one of the 100 five-man teams from more than 30 countries who gathered - in person - to play multiplayer online games. An audience of some 3,000 fellow players and fans watched on big screens, as on-air shoutcasts (Internet radio) provided play-by-play and color commentary. The purse? $200,000 cash (and all the Papa John's pizza you can eat on-site).
Unless you're a member of the joystick generation, you've probably never heard of the CPL games. But event organizers and sponsors are convinced that, like the X-Games before them, these are the games of the new generation. And as this group grows up, the games will grow with them. Next summer's games are already scheduled for a venue twice as large to hold an audience that more than doubles with each event.
"We're riding the crest of our culture," says CPL founder, Angel Munoz. "Right now, we're under most people's radar," says the former investment banker who organized the first games in 1997. But, says the New York transplant, league-style interactive games are like smoke on the horizon, "a sign of a huge change that's already under way."
Online games may not bring smiles to the faces of many American parents, already concerned about overweight kids who consume too much media violence. But Mr. Munoz says the games encourage social interaction with far-flung team members. "Our gamers are in touch with people all over the globe," he says, pointing out that most teams are comprised of individuals from every part of the country.
"The CPL games," he adds, "are not limited by borders." While some may question whether online, global game play makes these competitors athletes, Munoz is unapologetic about the moniker. "Athlete," he says, "is a Greek word for competitor. We're not football players, but we're serious competitors."
CPL commissioner Frank Nuccio says, "This is a viable, play-by-play sport that is in its infancy." Like it or not, he adds, technology is the dominant mode of social interaction for the next generation. The CPL games are part of that leading edge.
It turned out mothers everywhere were wrong: You can make a living playing video games. Mr. Miller, a college sophomore from Washington, says he trains online with his team (dubbed 3D for desire, discipline, dedication), going over the maps and strategies used in the game. During the school year, the 3D's compete in two leagues, one amateur, one pro. Thanks to the team's cosponsors, CompUSA and NVIDIA, players receive a regular salary - enough to support an 18-year-old while he's in school studying business (Miller declines to give a figure).
Other Team 3D members hail from California, Texas, and Montreal. Team manager Craig Levine, a New York University junior, no longer plays because he devotes all his time to managing the competition schedule. He's studying information systems and operations management. But once he graduates, he plans to stay in the gaming world, if for no other reason than to justify to his parents, "that all this time I spent playing video games actually turned out to be worth it."
Getting his elders to take him seriously has been his biggest challenge. "We're not a joke," he says. "We're all making a living and we're very serious about what we do."
This year's competition is being held in a 42,000 square-foot Hyatt Regency ballroom, which holds two kinds of games. In the official playing area, 11 banks of tables hold 10 computers each facing each other. In the BYOC area (bring your own computer), there's a sort of minor leagues in which a pool of some 870 aspiring cyber-athletes can face off in pickup games while the official games proceed. (See sidebar.)
The game of choice for this year's competition is "Half-Life: Counter-Strike," a commando-style military-strategy game. Since the game carries an "M" rating, nobody under 17 is allowed to compete.