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Culture

Gamers fight for right to LAN party

Kegs and co-eds are so uncool. Hip parties revolve around a couple of mid-range servers, caffeine-loaded drinks and a half a mile or so of Category 5 cable.

SAN JOSE, Calif.--It was Friday night, and like any self-respecting college student, Michael Duarte had his mind on partying.

Instead of kegs and coeds, however, the 19-year-old San Jose, Calif., sophomore's plans revolved around a couple of midrange servers, a bounty of caffeine-loaded drinks and a half a mile or so of Category 5 cable.

Duarte was hosting a LAN party, a growing phenomenon among devoted PC game players who take over private garages or rented hotel ballrooms for no-sleep weekend marathons playing games such as "Return to Castle Wolfenstein" and "Warcraft III."

Although they're still largely grassroots affairs, LAN parties are attracting larger numbers of attendees and even large corporate sponsors, who've learned that success in the $6.35 billion gaming business often revolves around word-of-mouth recommendations from intense hobbyists and select Web sites.

One of the biggest LAN parties in the world happens this weekend with QuakeCon in Mesquite, Texas, home of Id Software, which created the popular "Quake" series of shooter games. Chip companies Advanced Micro Devices, Via Technologies and ATI Technologies are co-sponsoring the event with Id.

"LAN gamers always want the fastest system they can get," said Fred Kohan, chief executive of high-end PC seller Hypersonic PCs, adding that LAN parties have been great for his business. "It's become sort of a show-off party. Each player wants something that says they have the coolest system."

Duarte's recent party, the Silicon Valley Frag Fest, attracted about 50 players to a small office building donated for the weekend. After 20 hours of mostly nonstop gaming, players were noticeably groggy but still loudly cheered spectacular kills.

Andy del Hierro Everyone brought a PC, which was connected to a hastily assembled local area network (LAN). Attendees were then free to blast away at each other in multiplayer games for the next 24 hours, fueled by a carefully regulated intake of caffeine and sugar, and occasional naps.

The main attraction for Duarte and other players was that multiplayer games, typically played over an Internet connection, are simply better when played over a LAN. Technically, games are faster and more responsive without the "latency"--or fraction-of-a-second delay in response--of Internet connections, and the potential for cheating is pretty much eliminated. But the main improvement is social.

"Being able to play as a team, talk with the people next to you--it's just a whole different aspect than playing online," Duarte said. "For me, it's just more fun to put a face with the name of the person you're playing with."

Wild men and blown circuits
Andy del Hierro, a San Jose computer technician, said LAN action can reveal the true personality of the player much more than online gaming.

"Some people are really timid online, but you get them in this kind of environment, and they're wild men," he said. "It?s a lot like a good, old-fashioned sporting event, where the adrenaline just builds up. I've seen people who get really worked up, to the point where they jump up and throw the keyboard out the window when they get killed."

Duarte had organized a handful of small LAN parties before, but this was his first attempt at a gathering of more than a few dozen players. From borrowing servers to running the temporary network to designating nap spots for those who wanted to roll out their sleeping bags, there were myriad details to attend to, including the ever-present challenge of coming up with enough electricity. A maze of extension cords tangled the floor at Frag Fest. "A LAN party isn't official until a circuit breaker blows," he said.

Sites such as LANParty.com include listings for dozens of parties across the country each weekend, mostly player-organized events with minimal or no admission charges.

A LAN party isn't official until a circuit breaker blows.
--Michael Duarte, student
But a growing number of specialty businesses--from high-caffeine beverage makers to specialty PC shops--are finding marketing potential in LAN parties.

Hypersonic's Kohan, for instance, said that peer pressure among LAN gamers helps push them to invest in the latest technology and spring for aesthetic extras such as PC cases with custom paint jobs and lighting elements.

One player with a tricked-out Hypersonic PC can influence many others when they decide it's time to upgrade.

"Aesthetics are huge for that audience," he said. "People aren't just interested in functionality. It's sort of like a fashion show--they want a system that's going to attract a lot of attention when they walk in the door."

While Duarte's Frag Fest had its share of plain beige boxes, gamers spent much of their downtime admiring the most tricked-out PC rigs. Del Hierro's homemade system included half a dozen fans and homebrew water-cooling system for overclocking. None of this, he acknowledged, was strictly necessary for game performance.

"Mainly it's just to prove a point, to get bragging rights," he said. "It's like pulling up to a car swap in a perfectly restored Camaro."

A LAN party is a social event--it's Main Street for geeks. Instead of cruising your hot rod down the main drag, you're taking your GeForce 4 out for a spin.
--Alan Payne, founder, Case Ace
Alan Payne started his Case Ace business, which sells custom carrying harnesses for PCs and other components, two years ago after seeing one too many PCs dropped on the sidewalk en route to a LAN party. He says the business has experienced triple-digit annual growth, due both to the practical and aesthetic appeal of the products.

"We try to make them trendy and stylish as well as useful," he said. "A LAN party is a social event--it's Main Street for geeks. Instead of cruising your hot rod down the main drag, you're taking your GeForce 4 out for a spin."

Most of Case Ace's marketing consists of providing a free GearGrip harness or two for LAN parties to use as prizes.

"We sponsor hundreds of LAN parties every year," he said. "That?s been a great way for us to get word out... Once people see how it works, it's a pretty easy sell."

Entrepreneur Hoby Buppert started selling his energy drink Bawls in 1998, around the same time LAN parties began multiplying, and found a ready market in sleep-averse gamers. The company has two full-time workers who do nothing but arrange sponsorships of LAN parties, and Bawls is the official soft drink of professional gaming group the Cyberathlete Professional League.

"It?s the caffeine," Buppert explained. "Most of the LAN parties generally run from Friday afternoon to Sunday night, and a lot of time the gamers don?t want to sleep. We keep 'em going."