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Global gamers battle for glory--and money

With $2.5 million in prize money on the line, games fanatics from Uzbekistan to Ecuador compete in the World Cyber Games. Photo gallery: Pictures from a competition

SAN FRANCISCO--Olympics, schmolympics.

Do the Olympics have plasma cannons and fragmentation grenades? Vicious armored trolls? Spectacular car crashes?

A new addition to the noble heritage of international athletic completion has all that and more. The World Cyber Games, the premiere event in the growing world of high-stakes video games, arrived in America this week with more than 700 players from 61 countries and $2.5 million in prize money.

Already a bona fide cultural phenomenon in its birthplace, South Korea--where WCG tourneys and similar events routinely fill soccer stadiums and top game players have their own fan clubs--organizers hope to quickly and profitably export competitive games to the rest of the world.

Judging from tepid response during preliminary competition Thursday, where the atmosphere more resembled a bridge tournament than a rock concert, the organizers may have some work to do to reach South Korean levels of frenzy. Overheated play-by-play commentary during early rounds of "FIFA Soccer" was pretty much the extent of any excitement. Uniformed referees prowled the sidelines, not interested in potential doping scandals so as much as enforcing arcane rules such "No eBay bug!" and "Do not look at big screen!"

If nobody seemed to be getting too worked up, that may be because the serious players are saving every ounce of energy and attention for the big time. Rasmus "4k.kaj" Simonsen, one of Denmark's top players in the strategy game "Warcraft," said playing video games at an international level requires all the dedication and concentration of more traditional athletic pursuits.

"You have to eat right; you have to get the right amount of rest; you have to have total concentration. It's not like you can just fool around, drink a couple of cans of Red Bull and then play at this level."
--Rasmus "4k.kaj" Simonsen,
a top video-gamer

"You have to eat right; you have to get the right amount of rest; you have to have total concentration," he said. "It's not like you can just fool around, drink a couple of cans of Red Bull and then play at this level."

Fellow "Warcraft" combatant Arvid "Myth" Fekken of the Netherlands said he practices for at least five hours a day when preparing for a tournament, where the slightest hitch in timing can spell disaster.

"You have to keep thinking ahead, planning everything out in your mind," Fekken said. "If you're 30 seconds late with an attack, you're finished."

Fekken was hoping for a Top 10 finish but didn't seriously entertain the possibility of winning the $25,000 top prize for "Warcraft," an area the Koreans have dominated for several years in the same way East Germany used to own Olympic swimming.

High-stakes games are a whole different world in South Korea, said Hank Jeong, CEO of World Cyber Games. Ubiquitous Internet connections helped introduce the country to multiplayer games, he explained, and from there it was a short step to staging national and then international competitions.

The road to glory
WCG competition begins early in the year with all-comers-welcome Internet tournaments to decide which players advance to in-person regional competitions and finally national contests to determine who goes to the finals. WCG picks up the travel tab for all competitors and sets up the elaborate computer networks needed to run the tournaments.

WCG competition started in 2000 with players representing 17 countries, and has quickly grown, thanks to blanket media coverage in Asia. South Korea has three cable TV channels dedicated solely to showing other people playing video games, with expert commentators acting as the Frank Giffords of strategy games. Top players have fan clubs with up to 400,000 members and are as recognizable as World Cup soccer players to most of the public.

South Korea has three cable TV channels dedicated solely to showing other people playing video games.

Jeong says such success can be replicated in the United States. "The USA is the biggest market for the game industry," he said, "You have a lot of skilled players. They just have to be introduced to the idea of treating this as a sport. It's just a matter of time."

The WCG finals will be held in Singapore next year, Jeong said, and a number of cities are engaging in Olympics-style lobbying to host the 2006 games. "A lot of cities love the idea," he said. "It's good publicity for them, and they don't have to go out and build stadiums or anything like that."

Following the money
High-stakes games work as a business thanks to sponsorship from PC hardware manufacturers, who scramble to have their products associated with the top players. Leading sponsors for this year's WCG include Samsung and graphics chip leader Nvidia, which counts on top-level gamers to influence the rest of the market and contribute to product development, said Sheryl Huang, manager of consumer marketing for Nvidia.

"We participate in a lot of these events, mainly to talk to these people and get feedback," she said. "These are our most loyal and influential customers, and they tell us a lot about what we need to focus on."

Nvidia also sponsors a U.S. team in "Counter-Strike" competition, including Dave "Moto'' Geffon, who says he makes a decent five-figure salary playing the game and doesn't miss his former retail career a bit. Playing tournaments in America is different than playing overseas, Geffon said, but he doesn't miss the screaming fans.

"We have a pretty big following in Asia--we're pretty much the New York Yankees of 'Counter-Strike,'" he said. "People follow us around there asking for autographs--it's pretty crazy."

"We're pretty much the New York Yankees of 'Counter-Strike.' People follow us around asking for autographs."
--Dave "Moto'' Geffon of the "Counter-Strike" U.S. team

Along with grizzled tournament games veterans such as Geffon, the WCG also attracts a fair share of newbies every year, thanks to the addition of new games meant to expand the audience. The newcomer this year is racing game "Need for Speed Underground," where 19-year-old Carlos "neMeSiS" Negron of Miami figured he had as good a shot as anyone.

"This is the first time for everyone, so nobody knows who's good, who to watch out for," he said. "It all comes down to practicing, knowing the (race) tracks. You make one mistake, and it's over."