Gaming hits the big time

Sponsors: As tech firms see big returns on money spent backing tournaments and teams, the world's top players are making major-league deals that let them play for a living.

October 14, 2004|By Tamara Chuang | Tamara Chuang,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

OH, WAIT — In a bizarre, parallel universe, computer gamers are treated like rock stars. They earn six-figure salaries. They buy insurance for their fingers.

Oh, wait - that's not a parallel universe. It's South Korea.

Gamers are also celebrities in China and Europe. But only about two dozen U.S. players survive solely on money made from corporate sponsorships and tournament winnings.

However, that's progress. Five years ago, there were none.

Local tournaments have morphed into regional and national events. And national competitions now attract thousands of gamers vying for larger cash prizes, such as the $400,000 reserved for winners of the World Cyber Games, the annual Olympics of video games. And high-tech companies are discovering that when they sponsor tournaments and gamers, gamers buy their products.

"These are the guys who are the most-active in the PC world. They are buying the latest and greatest technology. That's why we got involved," said Kevin Schuh, director of corporate marketing for graphics card-maker Nvidia Corp., which sponsors Team 3D, one of the top Counter Strike game teams in the world. "We wouldn't do this if we didn't believe [gaming] was going somewhere."

World Cyber Games organizers say the number of sponsors is growing. And they hope that last week's competition in San Francisco - the first world finals held outside South Korea - will further that trend.

"Companies are interested in supporting players for the sake of advertising their products," said Hank Jeong, WCG chief executive officer.

South Korea alone supports 1,000 professional gamers, who average six-figure salaries. Samsung Electronics, a founding sponsor that spent "millions of dollars" on the games this year, pushed for the venue change so the event would attract more sponsors and spectators, said Peter Weedfald, Samsung's senior vice president of strategic marketing and new media.

"The U.S. just hasn't been a strong contender in any shape or form as a China, Japan or even some European countries," Weedfald said. "We're propagating the desire to play games. ... We do believe [U.S.] consumers have great interest in gaming, and one way to wake everybody up and jump-start this is to hold the worldwide finals here."

Some 10,000 U.S. gamers entered contests nationwide, and 300 made it to the national finals held last month at GameWorks in Long Beach, Calif. Only 25 made Team USA and went on to compete against 700 players from 60 countries in San Francisco.

And Team USA didn't disappoint. Team 3D - Salvatore Garozzo, Johnny Quach, Dave Geffon, Ronald Kim and Kyle Miller - took gold and a $50,000 prize for first place in the Counter-Strike: Condition Zero tournament, and Halo competitors Matthew "Zyos" Leto and Dave "Walshy" Walsh took first ($20,000) and third ($5,000), respectively.

The "pro gamer" evolution is something the Cyberathlete Professional League in Dallas has supported since 1997, when the company first began organizing tournaments. In its first year, the league had only merchandise to offer winners. Sponsors were typically local computer stores. At its last event in July, the league awarded $250,000 in cash, funded by alliances with Intel Corp., Nvidia, CompUSA and Hitachi. Next year, the prize is expected to reach $1 million.

"Hitachi can spend money on a billboard that reaches only a small community or they can invest $100,000 in a tournament that attracts the people who want their stuff," said George Kaspiris, a league spokesman.

But making a living off gaming is difficult in the United States, said Tony Kuo, marketing manager of the National Gaming Association, a Garden Grove, Calif., company that supports tournament play. Many of its 20 employees and board members aspired to be pros but couldn't afford to dedicate 10 hours a day to practice.

"Technically speaking, most professional gamers play like pros but they're not making a living off it. There's probably two to three teams making $2,000 to $3,000 a month," Kuo said.

So far, the United States has at least one bona fide celebrity, Johnathan "Fatal1ty" Wendel, 23. The Missouri native, one of the top PC gamers in the world, starred in his own MTV special, has his own agent and launched a line of keyboards and computer mice with Auravision.

"He's the first gamer to win a $100,000 contract," said Michael Barnes, a sports marketing agent with Barnes Sports Group who became Wendel's agent in 2000.

"It reminds me a lot of when we started representing extreme-sports athletes. Clients who were earning $20,000 a year jumped to six figures when the X Games came around," Barnes said. "I feel that video games are going the same way."

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