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Q&A: The Ultimate Gamer--keeping a cool head

As the winner of the $100,000 World Cyber Games Ultimate Gamer championship, Mark Smith knows there's a lot more to earning a crown than just skill.

This post was updated at 11:30 p.m. PDT with a corrected photo credit. The photo of Alyson, aka Nin9ty Nin9, was taken by Stephen Couratier.

Mark Smith, the winner of the World Cyber Games Ultimate Gamer competition, which was aired as part of a reality TV show on Sci-Fi Channel, concentrates during the tournament. Smith outlasted 11 other contestants to win the $100,000 grand prize. Sci-Fi Channel

On Tuesday, after eight weekly episodes, video game enthusiasts--and others--saw a winner crowned in the Sci-Fi Channel's reality TV show, "World Cyber Games Ultimate Gamer."

Pitting 12 hard-core gamers--whom the public knew only by their first names and their "gamertags"--against each other in what could be called the video game version of "Big Brother," the show highlighted the difficulties of top-level gaming, as well as the social challenges of coming out on top in a hypercompetitive group.

So for Mark Smith, who came back from an epic deficit in the finals to win the show's $100,000 first prize, victory was both sweet and a confirmation of his ability to overcome even the longest odds. In his mind, at least, he was always a huge underdog to contestant Robert, the eventual runner-up, and the month the group spent filming--and living--together in Los Angeles last fall forced him to summon all his skills.

Ultimate Gamer winner Mark Smith. Sci-Fi Channel

While also a reality show in the traditional vein, "Ultimate Gamer" pitted the 12 contestants against each other in a wide range of games, including Halo 3, Rock Band 2, Virtua Fighter 5, and Dance, Dance Revolution: Universe 3. And winning meant being the best of the group, in the end, across the board.

Now, as the show's champion, Smith will take on the added role of representative of the World Cyber Games. That will see him traveling the world on behalf of the gaming league, including to the 2009 World Cyber Games championship in China.

Smith, 23, lives in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, and, like any professional, devotes a great deal of time to his sport. Some may scoff at the notion that video gaming is a sport, but there are more and more leagues around the world these days offering players the spotlight--and big money.

On Wednesday, Smith sat down for an interview with CNET News to talk about what it took to win Ultimate Gamer, the fact that it should shock no one that some of the best gamers in the world are women, and how to prevail even when faced with the toughest odds.

Q: Why is "Applesauce" your gamertag?
Mark Smith: When I was around 13 or 14 I was really into punk rock and gamed as "SexPistol." But the older I got and the more gamers I met I decided to settle on a more family-friendly name. I don't know how Applesauce came up, but I knew it was right when I first picked it.

How many contestants were there in this competition?
Smith: To start off there were 12 of us in the house, with five girls in the mix of it. I was actually really surprised there were so many females, but then that quickly went away as soon as I saw Alyson and Ciji pick up Rock Band 2 for the first time. All of the girls there were really fantastically talented gamers and that really caught me off guard.

That's not so surprising anymore, though, is it? What with teams like the FragDolls and such?
Smith: Oh yeah. I already knew who Amy was, what with the PMS Clan being as huge as it is. But I always wrote those girl clans off as hokey and just as a good place for girls to play. But after living with some of these girls and seeing how well they can play, not anymore.

Alyson, aka Nin9ty Nin9, was one of five women to compete for the Ultimate Gamer title. She had previously won a competition to join the all-women video game team, the Frag Dolls. Stephen Couratier

How did you win? what pushed you over the top?
Smith: I think it was just all my past experience that helped me keep a cool head even in the very end when I was down 0-4 against Robert in the finale. I know these guys have a lot of game time under their belts too, but I didn't have broadband until my senior year in high school. So, I lived for the next LAN party that was coming up or whatever tournament was in the area. It would be nearly impossible to put a number on all the events I paid to attend out of my own pocket just because I love it, but it would have to be well over 200 LAN parties since I was 14 years old. I'm 23 now.

What does it take to be a championship-level gamer?
Smith: The first thing it takes to be on the top is dedication. Your favorite players didn't get to where they are by not working hard. Plenty of practice and experience will help you get ready for when the "big show" comes around. Also, you have to show up to events and tournaments. You can be good online all day but when it comes to a face-to-face battle with everybody watching, most people don't have the nerves to perform. It's a totally different environment from playing in the comfort of your home. But it also makes your winning a thousand times more satisfying. And I'm really jealous of how many more opportunities young kids have today to compete. Local events were few and far between where I lived as a kid so I did a lot of traveling to find people to play with. Now I can just log onto and see four different events in Oklahoma on any given weekend.

You have to admit that for a lot of people, it would be funny that you would be jealous of "kids" when you're 23.
Smith: Yeah, that's true. But I grew up playing games like UT99', Tribes and Quake II and most people I meet through Halo 3 have never heard of such things. I think I'm just getting old in "gamer years."

Of the games that you had to play in this competition, what are you best at, and worst at?
Smith: I'd definitely have to say my worst game was Project Gotham Racing 4. I don't know what it is, but racing games just don't click for me. Also, the real-life challenge for Dance Dance Revolution was pretty devastating for me. There's a YouTube video to prove it. But my best game for the show was Halo 3. If you can't already tell, I am a PC gamer at the heart, and consoles aren't really where I do my best gaming.

What makes a good tournament game?
Smith: I really wish game developers would put more focus into adding "tournament modes" into their games and work a lot harder to make them spectator-friendly. Look at Halo 3. After two sequels, it still doesn't have a proper live-spectator mode and you can't even go into first-person view yet. On the tournament modes, if developers want their game to be the next nationally played competitive game, then they shouldn't leave it up to the communities to write mods or scripts to do it.

Smith squares off against a competitor during the Ultimate Gamer tournament. Sci-Fi Channel

What it was like for you during the finals? What was on your mind?
Smith: Well, Robert was the favorite from the start, and even more so when it was just us two left. But I've never been one to count myself out of anything, especially one-on-one in almost any game. So in my head, I tried to treat it as just any other tournament because the more I built it up and the more I thought about how much was at stake, the less confident I felt. From the beginning, I knew anything could happen but my chances of getting slaughtered were pretty good because everyone idolized Rob. All that changed after I took down Shawn White's Snowboard for the first game. It was like, "Wait a minute, Rob is human. I might just win this." After that it was game on. Also, in the finale, the last game was Soul Calibur 4. The first to five points wins the whole show. Rob went up 4-0 on me. I had to give myself a little pep talk in my head, something along the lines of "Mark, did you seriously come this far to get shut out in one of your favorite games? Man up and start playing like you know what the heck you're doing."

It must have been hard to concentrate with $100,000 on the line.
Smith: That wasn't the hard part! The hard part was concentrating with my girlfriend two feet away making faces like someone was pulling off her toenails. I looked over once for some support and saw that it looked like she needed a lot more than I did.

Since this was a reality show and was going to be seen by lots of people on TV, how was it different than other tournaments you'd been in?
Smith: This was definitely a way more competitive tournament. There is the whole "meta-game" going on 24/7, as Geoff called it. The game within the game. Chelsea is a perfect example. She did a great job staying in everyone's favor and never having to see an elimination until the gauntlet. There were people throwing matches, and people scheming to take others out of the game, There was a lot more in motion all around you than just the Xbox. Lots of us have been to multiple-day tournaments, but our actions outside of the screen never helped govern what position we finished in.

What was the hardest part of this whole process for you?
Smith: The most difficult thing has been keeping my mouth shut this entire time. We finished filming a few days before Christmas, So I've been sitting on this win for a long time. Especially when even my friends on my own CSS team said, "You probably didn't win."

Now that you've won (and everyone knows) what's next for you? How do you follow up something like this?
Smith: It will be tough to beat winning $100,000 and becoming a World Cyber Gaming rep. But I think all of us are going to attend as many events as we can over the next few years. The goal is always to win, but getting out there and helping e-sports grow is a huge priority. A few of us will be at the LINK Iron Man of Gaming tournament this July in Dallas. And the WCG is sending Rob and I to Mexico this summer for the Pan American championship. Then I'll be going to China this November. It's going to be a crazy couple years, but I'm just going to take it one first-place finish at a time.

What do you think is compelling about competitive gaming?
Smith: The best thing about competitive gaming is that it welcomes anybody regardless of how you're built, or any limitations you might have. I can't tell you how many three- or four-fingered gamers I know that still rip it up with the best of them, But can they throw a perfect spiral? Probably not. Also, most of us come from playing high school sports and believe it or not, gaming offers a lot of the same thrills.