Internet is playing field for fast-growing 'sport' Virtual-reality game draws 14 competitors, throng of spectators

September 28, 1998|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

A killer named "Obvious" was on the loose.

Peering down the barrel of his rocket launcher, the killer slid through a gloomy corridor, spraying death at his foes with a deadly arsenal of chain guns, rocket launchers and grenades. His enemies screamed in pain as his shots connected.

"Obvious" is the nom de guerre of 28-year-old Kevin Bane of Baltimore. His killing spree took place not in a real corridor but in cyberspace in a computer game called Quake II. Saturday, Bane was among 14 crack computer gamers to compete in the first national high-speed cable Internet gaming tournament held at CompUSA in Columbia.

The tournament wasn't quite the Super Bowl. But it drew a throng of curious spectators and offered a glimpse into what is fast becoming the premier athletic event of the digital age.

"Online games are the sport of the future," said Deb Gordon of Comcast Online, the high-speed cable Internet service that co-sponsored the event.

Once a pastime reserved for teens, computer games are being played by everyone from dentists to schoolteachers. Now that the Internet allows gamers around the globe to battle one another in cyberspace, some are striving to elevate computer gaming to the level of a professional sport.

Take the Cyberathletic Professional League and the Professional Gamers League. Modeled after established organizations such as the National Football League, they have referees, complicated rankings and corporate backers who put up thousands of dollars in cash and prizes.

The leagues are also nurturing a growing stable of superstar cyberathletes. The best snare lucrative five-figure endorsement deals, and have agents and trading cards. Some tool around in Ferraris and other flashy sports cars associated with sports stars such as Michael Jordan.

That's why many gamers are rushing to compete in local tournaments such as Saturday's. The game they competed in is called Quake II and the rules were simple: Whoever racks up the highest number of kills -- or "frags" as they're known in Quake-speak -- in 15 minutes wins.

The digital gladiators donned headphones to hear crucial audio clues such as "footsteps and bullets and cries of death," explained gladiator Bao Nguyen, a 25-year-old dental technician from Towson.

Many brought their computer mouses and mouse pads. "It's no different from a tennis player sticking with the same racket," said Bane, who is a quality-control expert at Sylvan Learning Systems Inc. in Baltimore.

Many players in Saturday's tournament trained.

"He plays all day and all night," said Angie Grant, 27, of Baltimore as she watched her husband, Mike, compete.

Onlookers riveted to the virtual fighting in the computer store ducked and flinched as though trying to avoid the virtual bullets themselves.

"Yes! Nice grab with the grenade!" one spectator shouted.

Beyond the din, a couple shopping for a computer for their college-bound son observed the match for a moment and frowned. "I hope that's not what he's going to use it for," said the woman.

By the end of the day, Bane had laid waste to his 13 local opponents, earning a digital camera worth several hundred dollars and a berth in the national championship, which took place over the Internet against gamers from around the country. He came in second, narrowly missing the grand-prize trip to San Francisco.

Afterward, the digital assassin slumped in front of the computer, dejected.

"I should have owned those guys," he sighed. But he perked up as he thought about the endorsement deals, five-figure purses and flashy sports cars that await a professional computer-game player.

"Maybe I need an agent," said Bane. "Yeah, an agent, that's what I need... ."

Pub Date: 9/28/98

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