Video gamers take a shot at `e-sports'

Top-level players turn competing in contests into lucrative careers


KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Johnathan Wendel is in training. Eight hours a day, seven days a week, he sits in his basement, gunning down opponents in the video game Painkiller. About the only time he leaves his house is for a daily three-mile run. Then it's back to the basement for round after bloody round of the first-person shooter game in which the player becomes the gunman.

Wendel, or Fatal1ty as he is known in the competitive gaming world, is a professional cybersportsman known for his skillful aim. At the Cyberathlete Professional League's World Tour Grand Finals, kicking off in New York today, he hopes to take the $150,000 first prize, adding to the $86,000 he has already earned competing in live tournaments this year.

That's in addition to the tens of thousands he has made licensing his name - to computer motherboards, cooling systems, and sound and graphics cards.

For an increasing number of top-level players, video games are no longer just for fun - they're an "e-sport" that can make a career. Over the last few years, video gaming has grown into a highly competitive phenomenon, with live tournaments, star players, devoted fans and, just as in the traditional sports world, big salaries and egos.

Many of today's top cyberathletes are sponsored by corporations and earn six-figure incomes competing before audiences in tournaments around the world. They are adored by fans who follow their every move on Web sites that detail gamer stats and stream games live, complete with commentary and analysis.

While the mainstream media may not be familiar with the term e-sports, it's poised to move from hard-core gamer niche to the pop culture arena.

Today, MTV kicks off a week of video-game programming, including live coverage of the CPL finals. Next month 60 Minutes is expected to run a segment on e-sports. Madison Avenue is also taking notice.

Wendel adopted the name Fatal1ty when he was 15, taking it from the word that flashes across the screen when a player wins the fighting game Mortal Kombat. The "1" isn't a vanity thing, he was quick to point out. It stands for the "1" in a "T1" high-speed connection. When he was competing via dial-up, he was ranked 13th in the world in Quake 3; after he switched to T1, he rocketed to first.

Quake 3 is one of five first-person shooters in which Wendel has competed for cash. In each game, he's been world champion at least once. He's hoping for his 12th world championship with Painkiller.

At CPL tournaments, gamers are allowed to bring their own keyboard, mouse and headphones, but the more crucial game-play variables are nullified. All the computers are identical, with the same video cards, processors and monitors.

Official tournaments date to 1997, when Dallas-based video game developer id Software ran a tournament for players of its popular game, Quake. The winner won a used Ferrari; everyone else got computer parts.

It was that tournament that gave Angel Munoz, a former investment banker, the idea for the CPL. Realizing video gaming could be presented as a sport, "the spark went off," he said.

Like other pro sports, he envisioned sponsorships, licensing deals, merchandise and ticket sales.

Eight years later, they are all a reality. And not just with the CPL. Today there are multiple leagues holding tournament series all over the world, the largest being the CPL, the E-Sports World Cup and the World Cyber Games, the latter of which took place last week, drawing 7,000 fans, players from 67 countries and 300 reporters.

Susan Carpenter writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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