Computer gaming hits the big time

Computer gaming has gone from a pastime for geeks to a genuine spectator sport. And its top-ranking 'athletes' can win £150,000 a year in prizes. Jimmy Lee Shreeve reports
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The Independent Online

Footballers might be today's celebrities, but not necessarily tomorrow's. A new style of sports star is emerging - one who doesn't break into a sweat, and barely twitches a muscle. Enter the "cyberathletes" or "e-sports" stars, an élite international band of online video gamers who compete against each other on popular games such as Counter Strike, Quake, World of Warcraft and Unreal Tournament. They play their games on supercharged PCs, rather than consoles like Xbox or PlayStation, and some make in excess of £150,000 a year in prize money.

Currently, the undisputed superstar of the professional gaming world is Johnathan Wendel - aka "Fatal1ty" (pronounced "fatality") - from Kansas City, Missouri. Such is his devastating hand-eye control that he is known and feared by multiplayer gamers around the globe. Since turning pro in 1999, Wendel has earned more than £200,000, and now commands a six-figure income annually from tournaments and from his own brand of gaming merchandise. Wendel has also licensed the "Fatal1ty" name to several computer hardware manufacturers and has plans to market hats, clothing and even static-resistant shoes.

"It's fun to play games for a living - getting up every day is easy," he says. "I'm doing something no one else has done before. I'm a pioneer."

But Wendel is doing more than just winning tournaments, he's one of the key figures in popularising video gaming around the world. With his clean-cut good looks - he's 6ft tall, slim and athletic - Wendel is transforming gaming from being a nerdish, niche phenomenon into a popular sport watched by millions of fans on TV and the internet. "I want to bring gaming into the mainstream," he says.

Wendel and his fellow cyberathletes are succeeding, too. Gaming is going from strength to strength and is found in many different mediums - from consoles and PCs to online communities and mobile phones. According to the market-research firm DFC Intelligence, more than 300 million people play worldwide, and the market in general is expected to grow from its 2005 level of around $28.5bn to around $42bn in 2010. In comparison, worldwide box-office receipts for movies amounted to $21.4bn, according to figures released last year.

Each year, tens of thousands of serious gamers and hardcore fans attend tournaments. The first and most famous tournament organiser is the Cyberathlete Professional League (CPL), which hosts competitions in countries all over the world - including Britain, the United States, Germany, Sweden, Singapore, Brazil and Australia. The CPL's first competition - held in 1997 when the organisation was founded - was a low-key event, staged in a Dallas office building. Now tournaments have become flashy, big-money affairs. In 2005, the CPL world tour handed out $1m in prize money, and looks set to do the same this year.

Another organiser of gaming tournaments is World Cyber Games, which is hosting its Euro Championship in March and is expecting 200 professional gamers from 20 European countries to battle it out against each other. Events are also scheduled in Singapore and Mexico - culminating in the World Cyber Games grand final, which will be held in Monza, Italy, from the 18-20 October.

While some question whether video-gaming tournaments qualify the competitors as "athletes", Angel Munoz, founder of the CPL, insists the description is appropriate. "Athlete," he says, "is a Greek word for competitor. We're not football players, but we're serious competitors." CPL commissioner Frank Nuccio adds that, like it or not, "technology is the dominant mode of social interaction for the next generation. The CPL games are part of that leading edge."

And professional tournaments are becoming popular events. TeamSportscast Network streams live action over the web, with fast and furious play-by-play commentary from "shoutcasters" (the internet equivalent of sports commentators). TSN covered 25 tournaments in 2005, up from two in 2000 and MTV televised segments of the CPL championship in November - a strong sign that video gaming is moving from niche to mainstream.

Not surprisingly, major computer and accessory makers such as Intel, Logitech and Netgear have not been slow in getting in on the act and have recognised the huge promotional potential of sponsoring tournaments, professional teams and even individual gamers.The lure of large cash rewards - and the almost rock-star status - has even attracted real-world sports pros to the virtual world of e-sports. Last year, Scotsman David Kinnaird, 21, left behind a promising career in tennis to play the popular video game Quake IV for a living.

After joining the UK's Four-Kings team he now travels the world competing in the Cyberathlete Professional League world tour. Playing as "Deus", Kinnaird took part in the CPL Winter Event, came in eighth place, and took home $600 (£350) for his efforts. Other events he is scheduled to attend include the CPL Summer Event and the E-Sports World Cup.

Despite having been tipped for tennis stardom, Kinnaird has no regrets: "It reached the point [in tennis] where I realised if I was going to reach the very top of the sport I would need to sacrifice absolutely everything, and even then it was far from guaranteed I would make it.

"I always loved playing computer games. When I realised how much money I could make as a professional, I thought I'd give it a go. Now I get a wage from the team sponsors and they pay for absolutely everything."

But it isn't all roses in the world of video gaming. Last summer, in South Korea, a 28-year-old man collapsed after playing the video game Starcraft for 50 hours, with only a few short breaks for sleep, food and the lavatory. He was taken to hospital, but died shortly afterwards. "We presume the cause of death was heart failure stemming from exhaustion," said a police official.

Stories like this raise concerns that the commercialisation of gaming will encourage young people to play video games longer and harder. "I guess I would have a couple of concerns," says Dr David Walsh, president of the US-based National Institute on Media and the Family. "[Young people] have so many things they should be developing - relationships, social skills, finishing up their education." But Mark Griffiths, a professor at Nottingham Trent University and author of several in-depth studies into online gaming and gambling addiction, doesn't believe excessive playing of video games is necessarily a bad thing. "Someone can have a couple of eight-hour stretches on the weekend without having a negative impact on their life - they just genuinely like the game," he says. "It all depends on other commitments in your life. If you are married with three children, it probably will not go down so well and could cause immense problems. But it is OK for someone who is not in a relationship and does not have other responsibilities."

Johnathan Wendel is living proof of this. For him gaming is almost therapeutic: "Gaming is so much fun and so relaxing," he says. "I don't see why anyone would want to stop playing. [It puts me] in the zone. The guy in the game is me." The bottom line is: like all the upcoming e-sports stars, Wendel has a life, and a damn good one too.

Johnathan "Fatal1ty" Wendel, www.fatal1ty.com; Cyberathlete Professional League, www.cyberathlete.com; World Cyber Games, www.worldcybergames.org; Team Sportscast Network, www.tsncentral.com

Top of the scoreboard

American e-sports star Johnathan Wendel (aka "Fatal1ty") picked up a cheque for £84,000 when he won the Cyberathlete Professional League grand final last year. He has become the face of professional gaming, which is now a multibillion-dollar industry. Despite earning a six-figure income from gaming and associated merchandise, Wendel lives a spartan life, investing all his earnings into his business endeavours and paying himself $15,000 (£8,500) each year to cover expenses, including monthly rent of less than $500. "I don't really have time to indulge in anything," he says. "I'm so dedicated and so determined to be the best I don't have time to indulge in other stuff."

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