Take me out to the ‘Counter-Strike’

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NEW YORK–There’s no doubt about it: This is a sport.

There are leagues, coaches, pep talks, uniforms, corporate sponsors, loyal fans and spectators perched in stadium-style seating. There’s coverage on the CBS-owned College Sports Television network (CSTV).

But there are no balls tossed or races run. The events in which the 95 international “athletes” participated in were not traditional sports, but rather Halo 2, Counter-Strike, Project Gotham, Ghost Recon, Quake 4 and Warcraft III. This was day one of a different kind of championship: The finals of the 2006 World Series of Video Games.

The event took place Saturday at Manhattan’s Chelsea Piers Sports and Entertainment Complex, a set of piers that were originally used as berths for luxury liners. After a total renovation in the 1990s, the former piers are now home to such sites as roller and ice rinks, indoor playing fields, bowling lanes, a rock-climbing wall, a health club and spa, a golf driving range and the Law and Order studio.

The WSVG was hosted in two of CSTV’s studios on Pier 60. And I was crammed into a row of steel understructure outdoor bleacher seating-like seating in one of those studios, a spectator to what would be a very exciting Counter-Strike match.

When I arrived, the two teams participating in the match were warming up on the “playing field,” which consisted of two rows of five Samsung monitors attached to sleek black Dell XPS gaming laptops. On one side was Pentagram G-Shock, a Polish team that derived its name from its top two sponsors, Polish electronics manufacturer Pentagram and sports watch maker G-Shock.

Custom keyboards and buzzcuts

The players, all men clad in blue-and-white T-shirts, ranged in age from 18 to 22 and looked pretty much what I’d expect from a team of Eastern Europeans: pale, studious-looking and mostly with buzzed haircuts. At the WSVG, players provide their own keyboards and mice as though they were lucky bats at a baseball game, and several of the Pentagram players had customized their mice with their “gamer nicknames.”

On the other side of the studio was Pentagram’s opponent, a Chinese team called Wisdom Nerve Victory, or WNV. The WNV players were only slightly older than their opponents, with the youngest player 20 and the oldest 23. All men, again. (Indeed, throughout the whole day, I didn’t see a single female competitor–though I’d heard there were a few–or any contender who looked clearly older than 30.)

The WNV players were wearing jackets that evoked Nascar: white windbreakers covered with colorful sponsor logos from Intel, graphics chip manufacturer ATI (a recent Advanced Micro Devices acquisition), sportswear company Kappa, and a whole host of Chinese brands. I was seated across the studio from WNV, so I couldn’t see if any of them had personalized mice, but one of them had placed a stuffed toy Dalmatian atop his monitor.

During the prematch warm-up, neither team seemed to be anything more than just boys playing video games: laughing, joking and punching one another in the shoulder. I couldn’t figure out much more about their practice tactics because none of them was speaking English. But whispers from audience members who followed competitive gaming painted a much more serious picture.

Money to be won

Teams like WNV and Pentagram had wound up at the WSVG Finals in New York City by proving themselves worthy in competitions all over the world, like RAGE (Really Awesome Gaming Expo) in Johannesburg, South Africa, or the World Cyber Games (WCG), held this year in Monza, Italy.

Pentagram had won the grand prize in the Counter-Strike division of the 2006 WCG, besting teams from Sweden and Finland to take home the equivalent of $60,000. They’d also won the $12,500 prize at the UK Gaming Championship, a direct qualifier for the WSVG finals. Through sponsorship and prize money, competitive video gaming can be a lucrative hobby. According to a few spectators sitting near me, a sizable portion of the players use the money as a means to pay for college.

I could tell that the match was about to begin when both teams stood up for a stretch. The Pentagram gamers passed around a bottle of caffeinated soda. Across the studio, what appeared to be the mother of one of the WMV team members turned on a handheld camcorder. The teams’ coaches, who stood behind the rows of monitors as though on the sidelines of a basketball game, passed on a few quick words. Then the clock started.

At first, the match didn’t look like it would be close at all. Counter-Strike, a first-person shooter PC game in which a team of “terrorists” faces off against a team of “counter-terrorists,” is played in timed rounds of a determined length. In the WSVG, the winner would be the first team to emerge victorious in 16 rounds. So, steel understructure outdoor bleacher seating when Pentagram proceeded to defeat WNV in the first eight rounds straight, it looked like the match might not exactly be a nail-biter. But then WNV won two rounds in a row, and the previously subdued Chinese squad began to look more enthusiastic.

Throughout it all, the audience was noticeably quiet, which made me wonder if they were remaining silent out of respect for the game play or because it just wasn’t all that easy to follow. Through the walls, however, we could hear that the Halo 2 tournament in the next studio was generating a fair amount of applause–was the Halo audience perhaps more game-savvy, or is Halo just a more spectator-friendly game?

This year, the WSVG organizers had hyped up the fact that the finals at Chelsea Piers would be both broadcast on CSTV’s Web site and televised in an edited form on CBS, CSTV, and the Gameplay HD channel. The competition had also received some coverage on MTV.

But the Counter-Strike match wasn’t easy viewing for a live audience. If competitive gaming is going to gain more footing as a sport, at the very least there’s going to have to be a scoreboard of sorts. That way, spectators won’t have to watch the players’ individual games–a few of which were displayed on TV screens suspended from the ceiling–to catch a glimpse of the overall tally.

The WNV players cheered again. They’d pulled the score even tighter and were now trailing by only five rounds. The normally boisterous Polish team member grew more quietly intense as they saw that their opponents eating into their early lead, and it became increasingly noticeable as WNV crept closer: 9-7, 9-8, and then finally a 9-9 tie. Then WNV pulled ahead, gaining an 11-9 lead.

Competitive gaming as sport

That’s when I realized I was actually getting wrapped up in the match as though it were a Duke-UNC basketball game.

I’ve never owned a game console in my life (though the Wii may change that), let alone played a single round of Counter-Strike. Yet I was not only willing accept that competitive gaming, as outlandish as it may seem, is a sport, but that it is pretty darned exciting.

Back to the playing field. Pentagram would have none of WMV’s lead. They re-tied the game at 11-11, and then pulled it all the way to 14-11, two rounds away from a win. WNV tried to make more headway, bringing the score to 14-12, but then Pentagram hammered out the last two rounds for a 16-12 victory. The players cheered quickly, congratulated each other in Polish, and immediately walked to the other side of the studio to shake their opponents’ hands.

They then retrieved their keyboards and mice and shuffled outside without much fanfare. After all, steel understructure outdoor bleacher seating it was only the second round of the competition. The next two teams, an American team called CompLexity and another Nascar-style jacket-clad Chinese team by the name of Hacker Gaming, took their seats at the monitors.

The games went on. Later that day, Pentagram would fall to a Swedish team called Fnatic, losing their chance at the $50,000 first prize. As I read in a forum on the Amped eSports Web site, the Swedes are known for fielding formidable Counter-Strike teams–although the country’s much-hyped “Ninjas in Pyjamas” team managed to lose in the first round at the WSVG. Then there’s Halo 2, which is completely U.S.-dominated. In Warcraft III, there are apparently a few Korean players to watch out for.

Yes, competitive video gaming is a full-out sport, as much as many of us don’t want to admit it. Once international rivalries and reputations start building up, that’s a telltale sign for sure.