Professional Gamers

A New Era Of Entertainment
October 2000 • Vol.8 Issue 10
Page(s) 26-27 in print issue

Professional Gamers
A League Of Their Own
The image of the modern professional athlete is easy to conjure. Think of men the size of apartment buildings, armored in helmets and shoulder pads; think of finely tuned specimens of either gender charging a tennis net to trade forehand smashes. Think of any random Nike commercial.

Think of teenagers with poor muscle tone, armed with computer mice and six-packs of their preferred high-caffeine soft drink.

Now wait a minute, you might be saying. That last image describes the stereotypical "computer geek." Professional athletes are our culture's gladiators! Maybe that's true. On the other hand, there are those who believe the oft-invoked athlete/gladiator comparison always was a strained analogy, especially when applied to, say, a spare tire-toting golfer with an overburdened caddy in tow.

And let's face it: Nobody really battles to the death anymore. Unless, of course, you happen to be facing your sworn enemy in a high-stakes Quake deathmatch, down twelve frags to six, with your reputation, and a $40,000 payday, hanging in the balance.

If nothing in the above paragraph makes sense, you've probably never heard of the CPL (Cyberathlete Professional League). Don't worry, sports fans; you can't get this league on ESPN, at least not yet. But if league organizers and sponsors have their way, one day the CPL will be as familiar to mainstream America as the NBA.

Behold The Cyberathlete. In April 2000, 19-year-old Jonathan "Fatality" Wendel of Kansas City, Mo., won $40,000 at a tournament devoted to the phenomenally-popular iD Software computer game Quake III.

"Wombat," also known as Mark Larsen, is a 15-year-old, Roselle, Ill. high school sophomore. The last player standing at the 1999 Quake tournament Ground Zero in New York City, N.Y., Wombat took home $10,000, a corporate endorsement from Babbage's Etc., and a roomful of prize computer hardware.

And in 1997, 22-year-old Stevie Case (a.k.a. KillCreek) made Rolling Stone magazine for beating a guy named John Romero in a one-on-one Quake match. Quake, a FPS, wherein the player blasts all comers from a behind-the-trigger viewpoint, involves blood, guts, big guns, a killer instinct, and an overall take-no-prisoners demeanor. The fact that Case happens to be a woman was a media-friendly morsel all of its own, given her mastery of gaming skills generally deemed the province of testosterone. But the fact that Romero was a founding member of iD software, co-developer of the game itself, and a general computer game icon terrible made KillCreek's victory an instant legend in and around the gaming scene.

Texas entrepreneur Angel Munoz, approached Case to be the first official CPL professional gamer. Now, players like Wombat and Fatality reap the benefits of the CPL's existence, converting obsessions once considered the stuff slackers are made of into lucrative career skills.

Are video games really a sport? "It's hard to convince a person [who] remains skeptical," says Munoz, founder and president of the CPL. "That's an uphill battle and has been for the last three years. But if you think about it, all modern sports probably seemed silly in their infancy. Who ever thought tossing apples in a bucket or whatever would turn into the modern game of basketball?"

By way of comparison, Munoz litanizes the skills required of athletes in virtually all professional sports: concentration, mental stamina, strategic instincts, hand-eye coordination. And practice, lots and lots of practice.

"There is still an incredible [number] of people who think that anyone who uses a computer is a geek," Munoz laments. "Especially if you spend a lot of time on it. A lot of parents would rather see [their kids] outdoors playing basketball, let's say, than inside practicing on a game. But I think that the chances today for a good gamer to make some sort of an income are much higher than somebody making an income out of playing basketball."

Presumably, the parents to which Munoz refers consider "outdoors" something of a key word. But what about chess? Does direct sunlight have anything to do with the creation of the world's celebrated grand masters?

"That's the sport people normally think of when they think of gaming, because it's very cerebral," Munoz says. "But really, in all honesty, [competitive Quake] is a lot more like auto racing" Munoz insists. "Auto racing without the physical danger."

Simulated Violence. By its very nature, the CPL invites a certain degree of scrutiny from some of those disapproving parents of which Munoz speaks. The subject of graphic, interactive violence in video games has been a media hot-button in recent years; in the wake of ammo-fueled tragedies, such as the Columbine High School slayings, for example, games such as Quake specifically have been labeled by concern groups as little more than training simulators that can teach troubled teens an unhealthy set of coping skills. Where Munoz sees
a hotel suite filled with budding cyberathletes, some people see a fixated bunch of cybermercenaries-in-training.

Mindful of such concerns, the CPL restricts all competitions to players aged 15 and older. In accordance with Quake's mature game rating, teens under the age of 17 cannot register without parental permission.

"Parents believe they should be the ones who determine what is appropriate for their children," Munoz says. "I'm a parent, and that's the way I feel."

There's a difference, says Munoz, between a socially struggling youngster sitting alone in a room, learning how to blow adversaries limb from limb, and professional cyberathletes.

"We are a positive factor because we bring socialization [to gaming]," Munoz says. "It's interesting, because at the events we see a lot of people [who] have been playing against each other for years online, and they finally get to encounter each other. And all of a sudden that person is not your enemy, he's a competitor just like you. They may be the biggest enemies online. And they become the best of friends when they meet each other."

This Ain't Your Daddy's Atari. Skills and danger aside, Munoz's cyberathletes are beginning to resemble the traditional pro athlete in other ways. Take corporate endorsements, for example. The winner of the CPL's first official paying tournament stood to win an official endorsement and an extra $10,000 for using a joystick designed by sponsor Mad Catz.

"A lot of people show up [for tournaments] with coaches," says Munoz. "People have agents."

Munoz, a 40-something, computer game enthusiast and former Dallas investment banker, launched the CPL in 1997. "I had grown tired of financing other people's ideas," Munoz says.

Since the league's first official competition in 1997, the CPL has grown by leaps and bounds. Or strafes and salvos, as the case may be.

"The first year, in 1997, we didn't even give a cash prize," says Munoz. "This year alone, our cash prizes are going to reach somewhere in the neighborhood of $300,000."

CPL's tournaments have attracted corporate sponsorships from computer giants Gateway and Logitech and the makers of Bawls, a turbo-charged, carbonated beverage distilled from the Amazonian guarana berry that delivers roughly the same caffeine jolt to bleary-eyed gamers as the average cup of black coffee.

At press time, the CPL is the only major prize-paying computer game league in the United States. Meanwhile, it's endeavoring to establish leagues in Europe, Asia, Australia/New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, and South America. In June 2000, the CPL held its first international Quake III tournament in Singapore. Dubbed "Atomic Arena," more than 1,600 players from all over the world competed for $20,000 in cash prizes. Andit attracted sponsorships from Microsoft and Taco Bell.

But Munoz has even broader expansion in his crosshairs. "We just need to make sure that the sport is simple enough for the average person to understand—and interesting enough that they want to watch it," says Munoz. "[Quake's] the simplest of games. It's basically just two people against each other. The dynamics are very simple; they're sort of primeval."

Besides, if ESPN can televise bowling,
why should televised Quake-offs be such a crazy idea?

by Sean Doolittle



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