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Gamers get a league of their own

Mar 01, 20046 mins
Enterprise ApplicationsVideo Games

Even moms are asking for autographs from pros.

So your friends call you the Counter-Strike god – among them you’re the undisputed champion of the anti-terrorist computer game. Ever think of going pro?

No joke. As the popularity of computer games such as Counter-Strike, Battlefield 1942 and Xbox Live has soared, professional-grade competitions have sprouted worldwide. And they pay cash prizes that are getting bigger every year.

The Cyberathlete Professional League (CPL), a tournament organizer, will award a half million dollars in cash prizes this year in the U.S., plus another $100,000 internationally – and that doesn’t include $200,000 in merchandise prizes, says Angel Munoz, group president. He contrasts this booty with the CPL’s first year, 1997, when the grand total was “maybe $4,000 in merchandise.”

The CPL is only one of a growing number of organizers hosting cash-rich tournaments. Microsoft’s inaugural XSN Sports World Championship for Xbox players gave away $30,000. This included a lump-sum $25,000 won last month by David Muellerweiss, 19, of Chapel Hill, N.C.

With that kind of money circulating, a handful of folks have turned gaming from a pastime into a full-time living – and a darn good one, too.

Take Jonathan Wendel, for example. Better known by his screen moniker, “fatal1ty,” Wendel is widely regarded as the first pro-gamer superstar. As three-time CPL Champion of the Year, he’s won $200,000 in the past four years, plus prizes such as his current car, a custom-painted Ford Focus ZX3. He also gets paid for doing product endorsements and generates income from his newly founded company, Fatal1ty, which builds gaming gear.

Thanks to growing television coverage of tournaments – and the gamers themselves – fatal1ty’s face is widely recognized. He’s been featured on ESPN, USA Networks and The Discovery Channel, and starred in a four-month reality series on MTV. Add in the eight-hour-a-day training schedule and the public recognition, and by all accounts he’s got the sports star life.

“It used to be that I could go around to malls unnoticed, but when I went out to clubs people knew who I was. Now a lot of times it’s the moms at the store that stops me and ask for my autograph, not just the little 8 year olds,” he says.

Looks like sport

Tournament organizers such as the CPL have begun pushing for computer gaming to be recognized as a bona fide sport in the U.S. – on par with other sports such as car racing or bowling. Munoz created the CPL with that goal in mind. “When I launched the CPL, the kindest reaction that I got from people was a smirk – everyone thought it was the most ridiculous thing they had ever heard – gamers as professional athletes?”

Not so anymore. Gaming already has become sanctioned as a sport in China, Korea, Russia and Malaysia. And why not? Gaming organizations already have all the attributes of other sports leagues, Munoz argues. “We didn’t invent anything new as a sports league – we have the same structure,” he says of the CPL’s four methods to earn revenue: sponsorships, player fees, spectator admission tickets and television media contracts. “Are the [revenue] numbers comparable to existing sports in the world? No. But it’s just a matter of time.”

As for tournaments on television, organizers are serious about this, too. “They can be amazing competitions especially if it really goes down to the wire. If it’s packaged up properly and presented well, it has good entertainment value,” says Mike Lucero, Microsoft’s Xbox Live tournament organizer.

The CPL already streams video coverage of its games on the Internet, says its network designer, Monte Fontenot. Plus, the league has recently negotiated a contract for coverage from a U.K. television producer that sells its videos to various cable channels.

Players give credibility to the idea of gaming as a sport. For instance, Wendel and Muellerweiss are accomplished football and baseball players, and Wendel is a champion billiards player.

While Muellerweiss admits that sitting in a chair is contrary to the notion of sports, he says “there are a lot of similarities. If you play a sport, you learn a lot about it and you can use your knowledge and strategy on your game.” That plus practice and excellent hand-eye coordination are the critical pieces to win a professional computer tournament, he says.

Sponsors say the idea of computer gaming as a U.S. professional sport is gaining momentum. “There is more professionalism among the teams, including the addition of team managers, large team sponsorship contracts,and the teams getting somewhat of a celebrity status among non-professional gamers,” says Linda Kohout, a marketing manager for chip maker Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), a major pro-game sponsor. “The prize money has also increased.”

The payoff to sponsors is that gamers are demonstrators and buyers of state-of-the-art technology. “Cyberathletes are opinion leaders in gaming so it is important for AMD to develop relationships with the community,” Kohout says.

A network of controversy

But follow any money trail and you’ll soon run into controversy. Putting on a professional tournament isn’t just a matter of rounding up the prize money. So found Cyber X Games, best known for the tournament it organized at January’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Organizers promised to give away more than $150,000 in cash and prizes during the four-day event.

But Cyber X Games ran into network trouble with its Counter-Strike competition. While the details of the network’s glitch are in dispute, Cyber X reportedly blamed the trouble on the distribution of a software patch to thousands of Counter-Strike participants. Others close to the situation said that the network outage was caused by a connection to the Internet that was too small, among other network design issues – which in turn was caused by weak event planning.

In any case, the network could not accommodate the number of matches it needed to run for the double-elimination tournament. Organizers cancelled the Counter-Strike matches and other games. They attempted to organize exhibition matches as a way to distribute the promised prize money, but technical – and, some say, organizational – problems continued. Questions remain over what exactly happened to the money. Cyber X President Joe Hill isn’t talking, and several sources confirm that legal action against the company is underway.

All of which underscores just how serious computer games have become.