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Living the LAN life

Game enthusiasts convene in San Francisco to battle each other for prizes and bragging rights. Photos: LAN mania hits S.F.

SAN FRANCISCO--By day, they're professionals, students and housewives who might not seem to have much in common. But they share a passion for networked computer games, and they're not shy about putting every last dime into their custom-made, fuel-injected, liquid-cooled PCs.

Take Kyle Trambley, an 18-year-old from Martinez, Calif., who would rather put his money into tricking out his videogame system than beefing up his car. He already has two custom-built tower PCs he estimates cost him $5,500 and $3,000, respectively, and he's gearing up for the next generation of processors and graphics-rendering equipment.

LAN event

"I'm saving up for a motherboard that will cost me about $400," Trambley said. "I'm running (an Nvidia) GeForce 5950 Ultra graphics board, but I'd like to upgrade it to a 6800 or better with DirectX 9 capabilities."

Translation: Trambley now runs a PC with one of Nvidia's more popular graphics boards, but he'd like to improve it with one of the company's newer products, which could be up to twice as fast as older designs. That's thanks in some measure to DirectX, technology developed by Microsoft to improve games for the Windows operating system and Xbox consoles.

Trambley was one of more than 300 PC game enthusiasts who descended on San Francisco's historic Fort Mason on Tuesday for Nvidia's GeForce LAN 2.0 fan appreciation day. The daylong event pitted individuals and groups in networked videogame battle simulations in fast-paced, first-person games such as "Doom 3," "Splinter Cell" and the recently-released "Battlefield 2."

Players sat at long tables in a darkened conference hall, downing doughnuts and soda as they duked it out over loud rock music. The winners of the gaming competition were scheduled to be announced on Tuesday night.

Of course, Nvidia and its chief rival ATI are in a fierce competition of their own as they fight for the loyalty of game enthusiasts. Both companies are expected to release faster graphics processors in the next month or so that greatly reduce the number of "jaggies," or stair-stepping diagonal lines that prevent videogames from having the same realism as a movie.

That would be great news to someone like John Nelson, a chef from Sacramento who spends his spare time and money on a $8,000 system that includes multiple computer processors, video graphics cards and tons of computer memory.

"These days, it's more about the graphics cards than the CPU (central processing unit)," Nelson said. "You can really tell the difference between a newer graphics chip and an older one."

Nelson's box also has a water cooling system to help the PC keep quiet and go faster. Pro-style players commonly modify the stock computer or build their own using unconventional methods to take heat off of the motherboard or graphics cards caused by "over-clocking" the machines so they run faster than manufacturers intend.

In addition to honing their own skills, players like Trambley and Nelson team up with other gamers on the networked computer games. Teams of eight or so often shuttle from event to event in cities up and down the West Coast in hopes of winning prizes such as games, processors, motherboards, computer memory, hard drives, cases and professional cooling components. Sponsored events like Nvidia's often include prizes for the best concept design and best modification of a PC.

"I got this video card from the last tournament," Trambley said, pointing to his tricked-out computer. "Now I can use that money I saved toward building my next system."

The lure of new and better equipment means many of these gamers are playing for keeps. "There are those who like to come to these events and leech files off another guy's computers," says Nelson. "That is all part of the game."