Suddenly his fingers darted across his keypad, rapidly pushing the colored buttons as he maneuvered his character in "Halo," thefirst-person shooter game from Microsoft.
Dodging heavy arms fire, the character picked up a protective shield and then a rocket launcher. Bobbing his head above the walls, he teased his enemy into the open, finishing him off with a burst of firepower.
Chalk up another victory for Zyos--or as he is known away from the video-game screen, Matt Leto.
Leto, 20, of Allen, Texas, is no ordinary gamer. He is one of a relative handful of young people who make a living playing video games. Recognized by many as the world's greatest "Halo" player, he was in Long Beach, Calif., last month at the American finals of the World Cyber Games. He was hoping to qualify for a trip to the world finals this week in San Francisco, aiming to repeat his feat of last year, when he won a top prize of $20,000 in Seoul,.
That a small number of this generation's pinball wizards can support themselves playing video games comes as a surprise even to some of those doing so. After his first tournament victory when he was 18 years old, Johnathan Wendel recalled: "I was like, 'Oh my gosh, I just won $4,000 playing video games.' My parents thought it was insane. What's this world coming to?"
Five years later, Wendel, who specializes in PC games and is known by his screen name, Fatal1ty, is one of the most successful professional gamers in the world. His face hasn't yet wound up on a Wheaties box, but he has earned more than $300,000 from tournaments, product endorsements and a line of accessories he markets.
As with other pro sports, the entrepreneurs behind tournaments like the World Cyber Games believe that in the multibillion-dollar video game industry there is enough interest to support an elite level of gamers who play for pay. Some of the biggest names in the electronics industry, including Intel, Nokia and Samsung, have latched on to the idea, sponsoring competitions in the hope of a big publicity payback and sales boost.
There are a number of organizations running leagues or tournaments, including the Association of Gaming Professionals, the Cyberathlete Professional League, the QuakeCon Organization and Major League Gaming. Most specialize in a particular type of game or platform.
The World Cyber Games, which are based in South Korea, are among the largest. Last year, the world finals in Seoul attracted 562 video game players from 55 countries who competed for $400,000 in prize money, said Andre Mooi, World Cyber Games USA vice president. This year, organizers of the contest, which is sponsored by Samsung, expect 700 gamers from 63 countries for the finals beginning today at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco. Based on attendance in previous years, 40,000 spectators are expected in the course of the four-day event, with as many expected to be watching on the Internet (worldcybergames.com).
As with tennis, gymnastics and other individual sports, some groups are taking young video players under their wings in hopes of developing a stable of standout players. One, the Global Gaming League, has signed six young players to management contracts. "We're developing a process to make them stars," said Ted Owen, the league's chairman.
For the latest breaking news, visit NYTimes.com
Sign up to receive top headlines
Get Dealbook, a daily corporate finance email briefing
Search the jobs listings at NYTimes.com
Compared with traditional sports, professional video gaming is still in its infancy.
"This sport is still under the radar," said Angel Munoz, 44, the creator of the Cyberathlete Professional League, based in Dallas. "When I tell people at cocktail parties my profession, they say, 'You're kidding.' "
Yet Munoz's league, which concentrates on PC rather than console games, will award $500,000 in prizes this year and expects to more than double that in 2005, because of associations with Intel, Nvidia, CompUSA, Hitachi and other companies. At its most recent event, held this summer in a 104,000-square-foot space in Dallas, 6,000 people went to play or watch. The organizers make money through ticket sales and corporate sponsorships.
Next year, Munoz's league plans to conduct a 10-event world tour, awarding $150,000 to the winner of the finals.
"The PC guy tends to work in tech support, while the console game player is the standard red-blooded all-American kid," said Mike Sepso, 32, co-founder of Major League Gaming, explaining why his organization has concentrated on console-based tournaments.
In addition to holding local meets around the country at which prizes range up to $20,000, Major League Gaming is also managing 18 players, of which three "are making a living" playing games, Sepso said.
The most successful is Leto, the "Halo" champion, who earned $30,000 from video game competitions last year. He just landed his first endorsement contract: ActiVision will place a quotation from him on the box of Greg Hastings' "Tournament Paintball," a new Xbox first-person shooter game to be released this fall.
In Long Beach, Leto was one of 200 gamers, all men, hoping to earn a place on Team U.S.A., a group of 24 who would represent the United States at the finals in San Francisco. Players choose one of eight games in which to compete; six are PC-based, and two are Xbox games. Most are head-to-head contests, but one is a multiplayer game in which players work in teams. To ensure that no game is too violent for younger players, the organization modifies the games' source code to eliminate objectionable material.
At the finals, the winners of individual games will each receive $25,000 in prize money and a possibility of commercial endorsements.
In South Korea, a country that has video game fever like no other, professional gaming is old news. "There are 1,000 kids in Korea that make a living playing video games," said Hank Jeong, president of World Cyber Games in Seoul. "And 10 make more than $100,000 per year."
Sums like that make an impression. "That blows my mind; don't tell that to my son," said Teri Eidson, who, along with her sister and daughter, traveled from Reston, Va., to Long Beach to watch her son Daniel, 18, try to make the American team.
Eidson, like all of the young people gathered at GameWorks, a video game entertainment center that also features a restaurant and a mechanical bull ride, had qualified for the playoffs in local matches. All finalists received $200 to help pay travel expenses.
Neither parent is thrilled with his penchant for play. "My dad hates video games," Eidson said. "He says I should go outside." Still, his mother went to Long Beach to offer support, and his father pledged to drive across the country if his son made the team.
Matt Schlenker, a 19-year-old student from Fargo, N.D., had no illusions about making money playing "WarCraftIII: Frozen Throne."
"Maybe I could make money in Europe or Korea," he said. "But in Fargo, no one cares about games."
As a result, Schlenker said, he was not too invested in the day's outcome. "I still play real sports," he said. "It's not my life. There are guys here who would die if they don't win, but not me."
At the Long Beach event, players advanced when they won a match, which consists of three games. Match winners, whether in individual or team competitions, played other winners, while losers did the same. In the finals, the best losers played the best winners.
Before play began, the atmosphere at GameWorks was as exciting as a bar that had not yet opened. As contestants waited to learn whom their opponents would be, most were silent, exuding the anxious air of students waiting for final exams to begin.
In their backpacks, contestants carried the tools of their trade: a favorite keyboard, mouse and mouse pad brought from home, ready to be plugged into one of the PCs lined up along a side of the room.
A few minutes later, the air crackled with the sound of pounded keys. Those involved in "Counter-Strike: Condition Zero," a multiplayer game, shouted commands through headsets to their comrades seated a few inches away.
"I'll drop him!" one yelled. "They're up, they're up!" another responded.
Spectators watched the action on large flat-panel TVs overhead. In one corner of the room, live commentary on the action was provided to those watching on the Internet by Team Sportscast Network, a group of volunteers working for the love of the game.
A few hours after play began, Schlenker lost his first game of "WarCraft" and was perhaps a bit more disappointed than he had expected. "I'm not too happy," he said. "I screwed up little things." By Sunday night, he was on his way back to Fargo, where he was considering a career in radiology.
Eidson finished out of the running for the second year in a row. Still, his mother felt the trip held value for him.
"He's very shy," Eidson said. "It's fun to see him excited."
Leto made the team, placing first in the "Halo" contest, relying on his tried and true strategy. "Whoever gets the weapons can win," he said. "You have to be extremely quick, and you have to be on the offensive."
Mooi, the World Cyber Games executive, said that regardless of whether they make the world finals, most of the gamers were happy just to have made it as far as Long Beach. "To a lot of kids," he said, "this is the Olympics."
Entire contents, Copyright © 2004 The New York Times. All rights reserved.