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Gamers gather for 7th World Cyber Games

More than 700 players from 74 countries head to Seattle to compete in 12 different games. Photos: Gearing up for the games

The Olympics are coming to Seattle on Thursday, and hundreds of competitors from dozens of countries will be going head to head for national honor.

OK, this isn't the Olympics. But it's the finals of the seventh-annual World Cyber Games, one of the largest video game tournaments in the world--and one that many of the players say is among the most important of all.

"I feel really honored" to be playing in the finals, said Geoff Robinson, who will be representing the United States in his hometown. "My big goal was to go to the U.S. nationals...I was able to win (there), and I am completely satisfied with that. The opportunity to represent the U.S. is really just cream on top of the pie."

Each country taking part in the tournament held a national championship earlier this year, with the U.S. team being chosen in Orlando, Fla., during a three-day event last month.

More than 700 players from 74 countries--including South Korea, Jamaica, Poland, France, Germany, Japan and even Kazahkstan--will be competing in a record 12 different game titles, up from eight last year. Four of the games will be for the Xbox 360, while eight will be for PCs, according to the tournament's organizers.

The games include StarCraft: Brood War, Half-Life: Counter-Strike, FIFA Soccer '07, Need for Speed Carbon, Gears of War and others. The games were chosen through a combination of a survey of the half-million visitors to the World Cyber Games' Web site and through the desires of various sponsors and game publishers.

Those sponsors are also paying the tournament's cost--which it will not reveal--as well as $500,000 in cash prizes.

The World Cyber Games began in 2001, and this is the second time the grand finals have been held in the U.S., after an appearance in San Francisco in 2004. And although there are plenty of other video game tournaments, the players treat this competition as if it were the final world in such events.

"It's like the Olympics of video games," said Robert Irey, a 20-year-old from Birdsboro, Pa., who is playing for Team USA in Counter-Strike. "We're all stoked...We can't wait to get on a plane" to Seattle.

30 million viewers expected
Last year, when the grand finals were held in Italy, more than 24 million people watched the games live via satellite, said Hyoung-Seok Kim, CEO of International Cyber Marketing, the company that is putting on the World Cyber Games. This year, he expects that number to rise to 30 million, with the bulk of viewers in China and Korea.

That's despite no live coverage in the United States. Here, video game fans will be able to watch segments of the tournament online, and in November, Spike TV will air a one-hour special on the competition.

Fans in the Seattle area who want to attend the tournament--which is being held at the Qwest Field Event Center--can do so by buying a $10 ticket.

Despite the fact that video games are popular in the United States, it's not surprising that interest in the tournament--at least as signified by live television coverage--is higher in countries such as China and Korea.

One example of the passion such countries express for video games is how Robinson sums up his chances for victory in the Starcraft segment of the tournament.

He's been playing the game since it first came out in 1998, Robinson said, and is proud of having been placed in "the (tournament's) second-hardest" bracket.

But, he added, a "non-Korean has never won the (Starcraft segment of) the World Cyber Games."

In fact, he explained, the game's players in Korea are treated like professional athletes are in the United States. Stadiums sell out for live Starcraft tournaments, he said, and the top players can earn the equivalent of $250,000.

Better odds?
Irey, by contrast, said that he and his Team USA Conter-Strike players have a good shot at winning and echoed a familiar competitor's maxim.

"We want (to be) No. 1," said Irey. "We don't want to come home and be No. 2, 3 or 4...You can never feel like you've arrived. It's about always striving to be better."

Part of that sentiment comes from national pride, Irey said, particularly in light of the fact that in a lot of people's eyes, Americans simply can't keep up with Europeans in Counter-Strike.

"They don't respect the as much as the European team," he said. "So we're out to prove that the Americans are the best of the best."

That could be difficult to prove, however, as the World Cyber Games Web site lists the Koreans as the top-ranked team in the world at the game, with the Germans at No. 2 and U.S. at No. 3.

The Koreans, in fact, seem to be the all-around team to beat, at least based on the results of the 2006 grand finals where its players racked up two gold medals, one silver and one bronze in the eight categories. The U.S., by comparison, won just a gold and no other medals.

Still, Kim and his fellow organizers think enough of the U.S. market to have brought the World Cyber Games back here for a second time. And to Robinson, that's an exciting opportunity.

"I am proud of the United States," Robinson said, "and I look forward to showing off (the U.S. and Seattle) to the international gamers."