Are video games a sport?
They may not break a sweat, but these competitors say they are tomorrow's athletes.
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Shoutcasters (Internet radio announcers) call the game from a bank of tables and microphones on the side, sounding similar to their TV counterparts.Skip to next paragraph
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"They came ready to win!" screeches one, but then another rattles off a few colorful player names that cue the listener that this isn't your father's football game: "And Stick god has nailed Drinks with Evil. Oooh, that's it for Trash!"
During the actual competition, a crush of spectators crowds the edges of the computer pit, shushed by officials as if this were Wimbledon. But this dignified calm is punctuated by hysterical screams in various languages: Swedish, Portuguese, Spanish, and English, as the players howl instructions at their teammates.
Dave "Moto" Geffon, another member of the Team 3D, is a college psychology major from California. He says the league is structured like a basketball or ice hockey league.
"We have team contracts," he says, that spell out things, such as how to behave as an athlete ("Remember who you are at all times and who you represent to the young fans"), how to act when you compete ("No bad language or poor sportsmanship of any kind"). And of course, there are the team "jerseys," he says, adding "they kind of look like baseball jerseys."
CPL's formal league structure is largely due to Mr. Nuccio, a former ice hockey coach who wanted to help the games gain the respect he believes they deserve. In addition to the 3,000 people a day who showed up for the five days of competition, he points to the online audience of more than 150,000. "This," says Nuccio, "is the evidence that this is a real thing."
Sport or not a sport is a question that Sports Illustrated has been asking about new competitions for some time. Yi-Wyn Yen, who covers extreme sports as well as golf, points out that, once upon a time, golf wasn't taken seriously. "Today, we have Tiger Woods talking about his training regimen and workouts," she says. "Nobody questions whether he's an athlete, despite the fact that he spends most of his time just walking." (In fairness to Mr. Woods, that's still considerably more exercise than sitting in front of a computer.)
Ms. Yen says there are a few rough rules of thumb: Does it have a stick or ball, and do you break a sweat? Using those criteria, the CPL games are not a sport. But she gives competitors of all stripes a lot of credit. "I appreciate any kind of competition, whether it's someone training for a hot dog eating contest or the Olympics. If they take it seriously and they train their hearts out, where do you draw the line?"
She says it's the public that makes the final call. "If the media starts jumping all over it ... and there are big stars with lots of contracts, then it will start being taken seriously as a sport," says Yen. Just look at Tony Hawk, one of today's biggest sports stars - he started as a neighborhood nuisance on a noisy skateboard.
ESPN covered the games last year, and organizers were buzzing about the presence of ABC News this year. Scott Valencia, executive director of sponsor CompUSA, says his company has no question about whether the games are important. These players are driving technology forward. "These kids demand the best graphics, the fastest, most reliable machines on the planet," he says, adding, "and the industry leaps forward with new innovations just trying to answer those demands."
Word travels fast in the minor leagues. The latest buzz in the BYOC (bring your own computer) pit here at the Cyberathlete Professional League games in Dallas is especially dear to the hearts of these aspiring competitors.
"There's a rumor that there might be a cash prize for some of our games," says Michael Ziemba, team member of Omnipotence. He's one of the 800 T-shirt-clad amateurs watching and playing on the sidelines. He has paid a $75 fee just to be there (as have the pros, though their tab is paid by sponsors). Alas for Mr. Ziemba, the rumors prove false. But for this group, the chance to meet folks they've played online for years and get a glimpse of the pros is worth $75.
"Watching someone's face in person is a lot different than playing them online," says Ashley Bogavich, an Omnipotence teammate and one of the few women in sight (there are no women on the pro teams). "Other girls think I'm weird," says the 17-year-old from Canal Fulton, Ohio. "But I like the strategy and the action." Her parents made the event a family affair and drove out with her brother in their minivan.
Jason, a computer-science major, pooh-poohs the idea of going pro. "I just do this as a hobby," he says. Then he glances wistfully over his shoulder at the pros and adds, "On the other hand, I could go for a sponsor."