Eight hundred of the world's most dedicated computer games players gathered yesterday to battle it out against the best Britain has to offer in a "sport" that is fast attracting big money and professional players.
Fittingly the venue chosen to hold the biggest competition of its kind in Britain reeked of a teenage boy's bedroom a decidedly unpleasant blend of BO, old trainers and stale pizza. Around each table was an ever-growing pile of empty beer cans, crisp packets and sausage-roll wrappings. There was even the odd body in a sleeping bag.
Sitting among the junk food flotsam were the computer game players, mainly dressed in jeans and baseball caps set off by a dash of pimples, staring transfixed at their screens and jabbing at their keyboards as if their life depended on it. And it did at least in their world.
The players, whose ages ranged from 16 to 50, had travelled to Newbury racecourse in Berkshire to take part in i7, the biggest computing game tournament held in Britain.
Competitors brought their own souped-up computers and connected them to the local area network which, at about 40 times faster than the internet, vastly improves the quality of the 3D graphics.
During the three-day event the amount of data transferred was equivalent to transferring the complete works of Shakespeare 20 million times. As well as enjoying faster games than they would at home, players were also able to meet their fellow team-mates in person, often for the first time. Many gamers play in teams called clans on the internet, sometimes for up to three hours at a time.
Ben Chamberlain, 25, a builder from Essex, has been playing with the Destroyers for a year. The 14-strong clan includes a Swede, a Frenchman and a Norwegian. Seven of them went to the event.
"It is strange seeing them,'' said Ben, casting a dubious but affectionate eye over his hitherto anonymous friends. "We keep arguing, usually about somebody's performance, and splitting up. Then we get back together again. We've kicked a couple of people out. In the evening we usually argue online for an hour about tactics, then practise for an hour, and then have a war with another clan."
At home, players communicate with each other via headsets. Yesterday, only several feet apart, the Destroyers went to war shouting at each other as they tried to bring back their team's flag in the game Team Fortress Classic.
Stewart Fletcher, a director of Multiplay UK, the company that organised the event, said: "Most people have a pre-conceived idea that the people who play these games are nerds. There may be a few people who fit that stereotype, but there's a good cross-section of people here students, IT consultants, doctors, a teacher and people from the forces."
Sujoy Roy, 25, one of a handful of professional British players, is anything but a geek. After gaining two Masters degrees from Cambridge, the Londoner worked as an investment banker in New York before turning professional last year.
He earns £60,000 a year in sponsorship and last year came home with £6,000 in tournament prizes. He practises for five hours a day. "This is like a sport," he said. "You're playing a person, not a computer, which you did years ago. You have to get into your opponent's head and think about what they are going to do next. There's a lot of psychology involved."
He attributes some of his success to having played lots of racket sports. "I was the captain of the badminton team at university and badminton is all about diverting attention and making your opponent think you are going to do something and then doing the complete opposite."
Not well enough, however, when pitted against Chris Hoare, alias Blokey, an A-level student from Brighton. Blokey won the game, which was so popular it was relayed on a giant overhead screen, by 16 to 10. "I play an hour a day to stay in shape," said the 18-year-old, who hopes to turn professional. "It's just a matter of practising and natural skill. You need good hand and eye co-ordination and a bit of maths to time things."
Last year, Blokey won £7,000 at tournaments in Korea, Dallas, France and England but yesterday the biggest prize up for grabs was glory.Reuse content