As nearly 200 video game players gathered in New York City last week for the U.S. finals of the World Cyber Games, a bold--and highly dubious--prediction was ventured by Robert Krakoff, the president of Razer, a gaming peripherals company: "You'll see these kids on a box of Wheaties one day." Krakoff believes that top gamers have as much of a right to be called athletes as the poker players or bass fishermen on ESPN.
You may think he's wrong--that the definition of sport will never be so expansive as to include an activity in which players sit trancelike and press buttons--but the process has already begun. In South Korea, the most wired nation in the world, the top video game players have six-figure salaries and their clashes are broadcast on two cable channels devoted entirely to gaming. The U.S., however, is catching up. The 183 competitors at the Hammerstein Ballroom had earned their spots in local, regional and online qualifiers that drew a total of 40,000 participants; winners will move on to compete in Singapore against players from more than 70 countries in the fifth annual Grand Final in November.
At Hammerstein, finals were broadcast on enormous projection screens, with live play-by-play "shoutcasters" doing their best John Madden impersonations. (Sample commentary: "Zerg's doing everything right, except for the part where it comes to killing the other guy!")
And there was living proof that money can be made. Matthew Leto, a 21-year-old from Dallas who won the gold medal in Halo at the last two World Cyber Games, made $80,000 last year, $20,000 of it from sponsorship and endorsement deals with Nokia and Trademark Gamers. Leto, a former high school swimmer, left Collin County Community College to concentrate on Halo 2, a first-person shooting game. He practices 10 hours a day in the week before a tournament. "People just have to be more open to the fact that there can be sports that don't require physical activity," says Leto, whose two-man team was eliminated in the semifinals.
Before any teenagers chuck their schoolbooks and turn to their Xboxes full time, keep in mind that Leto is a rare case. The top individual prizes at the U.S. finals were $2,000; most sponsorships pay no more than a minimum-wage job. But that was fine with many players, for whom a paid trip to New York and time with friends--some of whom they had previously only known online--were reward enough.
Carol Tang, a 15-year-old from Sunnyvale, Calif., and the lone female in the field ("Awkward" was how she described that experience) has no professional aspirations. Her Counter-Strike team, Method5 (Counter-Strike is a shoot-'em-up game in which two five-person teams try to eliminate each other), was a group of friends just out to have fun. Tang's team was obliterated in the first round by Ouch, one of the elite and more professional Counter-Strike teams. On Friday, Ouch announced what may have been the biggest win of the tournament: It had secured sponsorship from Tylenol. Ouch manager Mike Devine said this marked the first time U.S. gamers had landed such a mainstream, nontech company as their lead sponsor.
That Tylenol deal is noteworthy because it fits into the vision gaming advocates have for the future of their sport: as a vehicle for delivering increasingly difficult-to-reach young males to advertisers. " Coke, Pepsi, they'll be here," Krakoff says. "They won't have a choice." And when big corporate sponsors are interested, the theory goes, television coverage will follow. Yes, video games on TV will be a hard sell, to put it mildly, but based on the crowd at the Hammerstein Ballroom, it is impossible to deny that this is where the boys are.
Meet Team U.S.A.
Here are the 16 players who will make up the U.S. contingent to the World Cyber Games Grand Final in Singapore Nov. 16-20.
Player, Age, Hometown, Game