I am not a gamer. I am what gamers call a button masher. One summer when I was home from college, my brother Blair convinced me to play against him in the first-person shooter game TimeSplitters 2. Blair is an avid gamer. But then there's me, a petite, outdoorsy ballerina who found the controls difficult, the explosions unappealing and the play disorienting.
So he offered a bold wager to make this an entertaining match: I was allowed to run around collecting any weapon I could find—from handguns to submachine guns to rocket launchers and flamethrowers—whereas he would arm himself with nothing more than his bare "slappers."
I had a blast. Suddenly, blowing my enemies to bits was thrilling, and I gave it my all. Manual dexterity, cunning, strategy. But guess who, approximately 65 percent of the time, still got karate-chopped to death?
You guessed it.
Nevertheless, as I arrived at Major League Gaming's 50th Pro Circuit Competition held at the Raleigh Marriott City Center last weekend, and as I descended into the dark blue glow of the hall, I began to realize why my Indy editor had deemed me an obvious choice to cover this event. I'd expected to find a mix of video game-loving people of all kinds, crowding around console stations, maybe a few courageously costumed as Zelda or Jigglypuff but more or less a diverse crowd of gamers who wouldn't otherwise convene in real life. Perhaps I'd meet a housewife or two who secretly spend their wee hours in front of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.
What I found was a giant convention center packed almost entirely with male teenagers. Indeed, it took me about 30 minutes to spot a woman who didn't appear to have been paid to be there. At one point I found myself staring at the restrooms, mildly confused: On my right was the men's room; on the left was a hand-taped sign marked "Men's." To visit a ladies room, I actually had to exit the convention.
So there were no costumes and no housewives. No balding nine-to-fivers from RTP. Just a swarm of lads clutching controllers and metallic bags of sponsor-supplied Doritos, sporting gaming headphones and tees proclaiming "Awesome Bots" or "Guns don't kill people, magic missiles do."
Oh boy. (So to speak.)
I plunged in and circulated throughout the tournament hall-turned-ultimate gaming cave to investigate the strange architecture of the place, all the while under continuous bombardment by the sounds of hair metal, bloopy bleeps and explosions. In addition to copious rows of Viewsonic flat-screens paired with gaming consoles and plastic chairs, there was a refrigerated Dr. Pepper skyscraper, a caged corner in which staff sold expensive gaming devices, a "PC Zone" featuring World of Warcraft placed as far as possible from the Super Mario and Tekken 6 zones, an angular Doritos tent offering free hand massages to anyone willing to release his controller for a few minutes and, finally, the main VIP tower overlooking the screens onto which the Halo 3 madness was projected.
With its own bouncer.
After getting sidetracked for a button-mashing session against an amateur Smash Bros. enthusiast, I proceeded up the tower to my interview with Halo 3 competitor Justin, aka FearItself, of a team called Final Boss. Final Boss, like many pro teams, was formed by members who met up online long before meeting in person. As it turned out, FearItself wasn't what I'd expected, either—a 21-year-old athlete used to dominating ballfields, he admits he "breaks the mold" a little when it comes to gaming stereotypes. He's thin and wiry, with long fingers and a blond Bieber cut that one would think would prevent him from keeping his eyes on the screen. His manner is confident, and he smiles often as he fields my inquiries regarding his much-envied lifestyle.
"I treat it like any other sport," he said. "You've got to spend lots of time practicing. Make it your profession."
The concept that gaming is just like any other sport seems to emanate from this environment. There are promotional screens depicting fist-pumping crowds, controllers in hand. A staff of announcers provides commentary on the top matches. In the bleachers below the main tower, small crowds chant for their favorite players. There are team huddles, frustrated outbursts and victory dances, and color-coordinated tracksuits sponsored by Adidas, Puma and Nike. During the Halo 3 finals, a misguided fan even hangs over the balcony blowing into a vuvuzela. And after team Final Boss smoked team Instinct in the Raleigh Halo 3 championship game for a $20,000 win and a chance at the $100,000 grand finals, an attractive woman convened with announcers on-screen for a post-game review.
Is gaming just like any other sport? Are these pros the sports stars of the future? I posed these questions today to one of my undergraduate friends, who I noticed managed to return from a summer of freedom on the California coast without a tan. He lit up at the mention of my interview with a pro player.
"Yeah, if you play online enough, sometimes you run into a pro," he said. "So I've played against a few. But they're so good it's just—." He makes gestures indicating explosive obliteration and defeat, then shakes his head.
Suddenly I remember how I'd felt many summers ago, getting ambushed and slapped to death despite my ready flamethrower, and I think I know what he's talking about.