Top gamers clash for cash

Tournaments are attracting hundreds of avid gamers competing for huge sums of money by mastering fast-twitch shooter games like "Quake III Arena."

David Becker Staff Writer, CNET News.com
David Becker
covers games and gadgets.
David Becker
6 min read
How do you get to the Cyberathlete Professional League Tournament in Dallas, one of the biggest events in the nascent but growing world of high-stakes computer gaming?

Practice, practice, practice.

For top gamers like Jonathan Wendel, better known by his nom de guerre "Fatality," that means long days blasting away at opponents in "Quake III Arena" before a big tournament like the Dallas event. The four-day tournament begins Thursday with hundreds of avid gamers competing for more than $100,000 in prize money by playing fast-twitch shooter games.

"I practice eight to 12 hours a day before a tournament," said Wendel, a 19-year-old player from Kansas City, Mo., who has earned more than $100,000 in prize money at computer game tournaments in the past year.

"The tips of your fingers get a little numb when you play that much, but you've got to do it. It's a job," he said. "It's like any other profession. You've got to put in your time to be good at it."

Wendel is one of just a handful of gamers earning enough prize money to make a career of it, but more are following in his footsteps as companies are upping the prize money and the rewards in an effort to reach out to the lucrative gaming audience.

Specialized mouse maker Razer, for example, provides prize money and equipment to players. The company also sponsors Wendel, whose photo adorns every Razer package.

Official microprocessor
Larger companies are involved as well. Intel recently signed on as a major sponsor of the 2.5-year-old Cyberathlete Professional League (CPL), which endorses the new Pentium 4 chip as its official microprocessor. Microsoft and 3dfx Interactive also participate.

Jonathan Wendel "I made $20,000 this year, plus I got a nice, shiny Pentium 4 processor from Intel because I did a video testimonial for them," said 21-year-old gaming star Victor "Makaveli" Cuadra of Livermore, Calif. "I get flown all over the world for these events. It's pretty sweet."

Sponsoring companies realize game players are one of the biggest and most reliable audiences for high-end products. Faster processors, memory-packed graphics cards, and other expensive parts mean that games will run faster on a given computer, offering the well-equipped gamer a critical edge over his or her opponents.

"If you go back just a few years, when a company introduced a high-end CPU or system, they really targeted professional CAD (computer-aided design) users," said Peter Glaskowsky, a MicroDesign Resources analyst. "They don't do that anymore; they really focus on the home market now. The needs of the gamers have really become important now for selling these high-end machines.

"It's pretty clear there's a community of several hundred thousand in the avid gamer category who will buy whatever the new CPU is. They feel they have to be part of the community. You can't win without having equipment as fast as your opponent."

No spreadsheets, please
Angel Munoz, founder of the CPL, said computing companies are waking up to the clout of the gaming community.

"Most of the companies we partner with are hardware companies," he said. "They're always trying to meet the needs of the cutting edge because they know what's cutting edge today will be mass market tomorrow. And the hard-core gamer is the definition of the early adopter."

Cuadra certainly fits the bill.

Victor Cuadra "I wouldn't have a $3,000 machine if it wasn't for me wanting to play 'Quake,'" he said. "You don't need that kind of power to run spreadsheets."

High-stakes computer gaming started in 1997 with the formation of the Professional Gamers League (PGL), sponsored by Intel rival Advanced Micro Devices. The league handed out more than $350,000 in prize money before disbanding last year.

Dennis "Thresh" Fong became the first star of big-league gaming, winning a Ferrari in a 1997 contest sponsored by "Quake" developer John Carmack. Fong went on to dominate initial PGL tournaments and attract sponsors such as Microsoft.

He retired from competition last year to focus on Firing Squad and Gamers.com, Web sites he launched that target serious gamers. Gamers.com acquired the PGL this year and is working to revive the league.

"I'm a very competitive person, so I kind of miss that rush from playing in tournaments," Fong said. "It's fun, no matter how you slice it. You're playing games for a living. It's kind of every kid's dream.

"But the professional gamers today literally spend 10 to 12 hours a day playing games and getting ready for tournaments. There's no way to do that and have enough time to run a business," he added.

Like pro wrestling
Munoz launched the CPL a few months after the PGL started and has kept it growing by attracting new sponsors and focusing on aspects such as appealing to spectators. He said half of the 1,000 people expected to attend the Dallas event will be there to watch rather than play.

"We have these very large screens that give a first-person view; there's an electronic scoreboard," he said. "You'll have 500, 600 people in the spectator area, and they really get into it. People are reacting to every frag, every strategy that's displayed. It has a lot of elements of professional wrestling because of the way we do it: Players build these personalities that are really out there."

For now, big-time gaming is dominated by splatter-heavy shooters such as "Quake III" and "Half Life." Expanding the tournament format to more mainstream titles should help broaden the audience, Munoz said. He notes that Gateway chose Microsoft's family-friendly "Midtown Madness" racing game as the basis of its first big-stakes tournament.

"We want categories that have a very strong, enthusiastic base and also a game that people want to watch," Munoz said. "We think the racing category is one good area for expansion. There are other very popular formats, like strategy games, that just wouldn't work for a tournament. We're focused on things that are easy to watch and create emotion."

Fong added that using different types of games in tournament competition will also help expand sponsorship beyond the computing industry to mainstream consumer companies such as Nike and Pepsi.

Angel Munoz "There are a lot of companies starting to recognize gaming is a huge audience, but there's no doubt the content is a factor for them," he said. "I think Coca-Cola would have a problem associating their brand with 'Quake.'"

Fong sees particular promise for sports simulations, such as "Madden Football," once set-top game consoles develop full networking capabilities. Most sports games are played on game consoles, such as PlayStation, rather than on PCs.

"I think that's a doorway for the mass market to get into it because they already understand the sport, and it's fun to watch," he said.

To geek or not to geek
High-stakes gaming also faces some image challenges. More than 97 percent of the CPL's players are male, mostly under 30 and unmarried.

But these aren't your stereotypical pale-skinned, socially challenged mouse potatoes, gamers insist.

"I do get kind of pasty when I practice a lot, but I play a lot of sports during the summer," said Wendel, who keeps his golf score in the low 80s and plays tennis on a regular basis.

"You need to get away from the computer," he added. "Plus, my hand-eye coordination is really good from playing tennis, and that's a big advantage in playing games."

Wendel also keeps an eye on the future. Like other top-level gamers, he works with a gaming Web site--in his case, Stomped--to share his expertise and offer a bit of a fallback position in case a meaner, faster "Quake" player emerges.

For now, though, life revolves around blasting away opponents in front of hundreds of cheering fans.

"It's an awesome feeling," Wendel said. "When there's that much money on the line, and all these people are watching, it really pumps me up."

Cuadra agreed. "It's a big rush, especially because you can hear the crowd. It's amazing to be playing with that kind of attention focused on you. It makes you feel like a big sports star or something."

And unlike a sports star, gamers don't have to worry about rotator cuff injuries and the like.

"I really think I can make a career out of it," Cuadra said. "As long as you keep your reflexes sharp, who's to say how long you can keep winning?"