There are many activities that, in a different world, would be considered sports. Channel flipping, for one, has quite a bit of potential: it takes a strong thumb and a keen eye to flick past “Ricki Lake” and “Days of Our Lives,” to navigate your little ship to the isle of “Queer Eye.”
In such a world, any deft-fingered technophile could potentially outstrip LeBron James in endorsements. Thankfully, with the advent of professional cyber gaming, that world is edging closer to reality.
Like snowboarding or skateboarding before it, cyber gaming seems poised to take on the professional mainstream, complete with sponsorships, widely attended tournaments, and Wheaties-caliber superstars.
“The skill of the players is really quite amazing,” said David Meiklejohn ’05, who worked this summer at Got Frag?, one of the largest Web sites specializing in “e-Sports.” “When you play the game recreationally, and you realize how much skill it takes to place the mouse on someone’s head in a high pressure situation, then it’s fun to watch skilled people play.”
As a recreational activity, cyber gaming — in which participants play video games over the Internet or an internal network — has proven wildly successful. Every night, hundreds of thousands of people log in hours playing games such as “Counter-Strike” and “Halo,” adapted from an Xbox game. Especially in college, where Internet connections are fast and free and internal networks are already available, cyber gaming has become as popular as the traditional video game console that plugs into the television.
But cyber gaming has begun to move outside the realm of recreation into the professional arena. Already in South Korea, the home country of professional gaming, a few professional gamers earn in excess of $100,000 a year. There, gamers are sedentary action heroes. In the United States and Europe, professional gaming leagues have also begun to draw crowds to their tournaments. The Cyberathlete Professional League (CPL) hosts two or three major tournaments in the United States every year, with companies such as Intel and Microsoft sponsoring the players and prizes.
The idea of professional gaming is slowly beginning to infiltrate college campuses, including Yale. Meiklejohn said even though he had rarely used the internet before he arrived at Yale, he quickly came to enjoy playing Counter-Strike, the most popular of games adapted for the internet. A modified PC game, Counter-Strike is a team game in which play focuses heavily around studying “maps” of the field and designing strategic plans. Its appeal, Meiklejohn said, lies in the fact that groups of friends can play together, and intelligent planning — not just mouse skill — is needed to win.
Counter-Strike, like most video games, can be highly addictive. Dan Lee, a sophomore at the University of Illinois, said he plays Counter-Strike two to three hours every day.
“There are different levels of achievement [and] skill just like basketball and baseball,” Lee said. “I would definitely consider it a sport.”
Lee, who has been playing Counter-Strike since he was a junior in high school, said he has won around $1,000 playing Counter-Strike in tournaments. But, despite the possible perks — cash winnings, endorsements and free equipment — Lee said he does not plan on entering professional gaming as a career. In order to have a viable career, he said, he would have to win every tournament he entered.
Nevertheless, Lee said he thinks professional gaming is bound to gain popularity.
“With the possibility of playing for money, it’s going to start making people realize there’s more to it than sitting at your computer and clicking on a mouse,” he said.
Even at Yale, students have begun to feel the lure of gaming glory.
Marin Halper ’05 and a few of his friends entered a Halo tournament in New York hosted by Major League Gaming. The entrance fee of $30 was nothing compared to the possible $10,000 in prize winnings. The team finished in the top 16, but did not win any money.
Halper said his friend, Jamie Capo ’04, has decided to host a Yale Halo tournament sometime this year.
Some Yale students, like Bryan Hartenberg ’06, have already organized impromptu gaming tournaments. Hartenberg said he and 25 of his friends took advantage of Yale’s local area network in one of the classroom buildings in order to play two large games of Halo.
“It was the most incredible experience ever,” Hartenberg said. “We were playing on video projectors — there’s nowhere else you can do that.”
“Sports in some way uplift the human body — that’s obviously not true in Counter-Strike,” Meiklejohn said. “But the vast majority of people who play would call it a sport.”