Are video games a sport?

They may not break a sweat, but these competitors say they are tomorrow's athletes.

By , Arts and culture correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

"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.

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).

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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.

Paid to play

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.

'Stick god has nailed Drinks with Evil'

Shoutcasters (Internet radio announcers) call the game from a bank of tables and microphones on the side, sounding similar to their TV counterparts.

"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."

Welcome to the minor leagues

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."

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