Perhaps parents should fight the urge to chastise their children for spending so much time playing video games instead of getting outside and playing sports. Simply by virtue of genetics, most kids will never grow up to finish an NBA fastbreak with a furious dunk or catch a touchdown pass in the NFL, but there are no such barriers when it comes to Major League Gaming.
Yup, there is a now a professional video gaming circuit. Founded in 2002, M.L.G has grown from small one-off gatherings where contestants mostly played first-person shooter games into a full-fledged professional league, garnering lucrative corporate sponsors. Despite the big money on the line and the growing number of fans, MLG remains a stridently niche circuit. To find out more, I attended the 2011 MLG National Championships in Providence.
"Guys we found more nerds!" rings out aboard the bus to Providence. Among the crowd heading north from New York is Ronnie, who goes by the gamer tag "Kibibit." He explains that a Kibibit is a unit of digital information storage. Sporting a big smile and bigger afro, Ronnie got into online gaming while growing up in the projects in Staten Island -- not far from where the rap group Wu-Tang Clan got its start. Ronnie "didn't like the neighbors" and sought escape from his surroundings in video games.
The convention center hosting the MLG event is also the site of the Irish Dance Teachers Association of New England. While I'm not quite sure how the dance hall looks, the MLG set-up is staggering, with thousands of square feet are completely packed with gaming consoles, stages and expansive seating areas. At one gaming station, New England Patriots running back Stevan Ridley plays with Austin, a 9-year-old boy battling cancer. He is here via the Make-A-Wish foundation
By far the largest seating area is reserved for Starcraft 2, the most popular game in MLG. Played like a jet-fueled chess match, Starcraft is Risk meets World War 4. Set in a dystopian future, the game's action occurs amidst a war between three races: the Zerg (mean bugs), the Protoss (mix of robot and humans), and the Terran, (humans). The game's complexity combined with the variations in play caused by the participants means there are seemingly endless variations to the action. Other games being played at the event include Halo: Reach and Call Of Duty: Black Ops and League of Legends.
MLG CEO Sundance DiGiovanni kicks off the championship weekend with speech and accompany video montage, running down the champions from previous 2011 MLG events. The loudest cheers during the video are for a gamer dubbed HuK., who defeated many top Korean players to win the last tournament. DiGiovanni the opening ceremony by imploring gamers to "Win with class, lose with dignity."
First nominee for best gamertag: Lunchbox
Second nominee for best gamertag: SuperStr8Sick
IdrA wins the first game in the best of three match, but NesTea takes a close game 2. One of the announcers who goes by "Artosis" claims the match is giving him "The nerd chills."
Carlos, the web developer for one of the top Halo teams, takes videos and photos for the 60,000 followers on the team's Youtube channel. He also helps produce adult films. "I'm really careful not to mix up the footage."
NesTea wins the third game to the disappointment of the fans in attendance. IdrA apparently had the game won but made uncharacteristic mental errors to blow it. One guy near me posits that IdrA "Bucknered" it.
A Halo: Reach team called Goodfellas sports fancy matching uniforms with their gamertags on the back. They're playing against a team wearing the more traditional gamer uniform of sweatshirts and visibly unwashed t-shirts.
The SC stage is so crowded I sit in the Call Of Duty area and try to watch from there. A guy and a girl sit near me to watch SC as well. We start talking and they ask me for my gamertag. I pause and then tell them, "CrappyDan." They have a good laugh then walk closer to the stage. I wasn't joking.
Huge cheers erupt as NaNiWa, a Swedish gamer, upsets MVP, a Korean gamer who many consider to be the best in the world. He will now play NesTea for a $5000 prize and the title of MLG Global Invitational champion.
Ask people why Koreans are so dominant at Starcraft and the answers vary. Some claim it's a matter of work ethic, others say it's just simply a more revered pastime there. One explanation that intrigues me has a sort of Freakonomics spin to it. In late 1990's the South Korean government put forth an initiative to get every house access to a computer and the internet. Upon its release in 1998, Starcraft quickly rose in popularity and professional leagues were created. As of 2008, 9.5 million copies of the first Starcraft game had been sold and Korea, a country with a population of roughly fifty million, has accounted for about 4.5 million of those sales. If you consider those numbers, combined with a recent power ranking of SC2 gamers by MLG that listed South Koreans in the top 12 slots, it becomes a little easier to understand why every non-Korean SC2 gamer is referred to as a "foreigner."
While watching the Starcraft 2 match on the big screen, I observe two gamers, Russell and Austin, introduce themselves to each other. The first question they ask is "What race are you?" This must be the only venue imaginable where that's a perfectly appropriate icebreaker.
Listen to the any of the gamers and it's clear that not all games are created equal. Despite its mainstream popularity with armchair militarists and mercenaries, Call of Duty does not rate highly with this crowd.
Chris Loranger and Greg Fields, who go by HuK and IdrA respectively, both play for Team Evil Geniuses, the top team in North America. They are considered two of the best, if not the two best foreigners in the world. The teams in gaming are similar to NASCAR teams in that they sign individual players and put them on salary while accumulating income via sponsorships.
Thundersticks appear in the crowd of people watching Starcraft. It's official: this is a(n annoying) sport.
'KellyMilkies' is surrounded by a crowd seeking autographs. She's a caster who works for a website called Own3d.tv that specializes in streaming games for people online to watch. This is a surprisingly lucrative industry and she tells me the top players on her website can fetch up to $5000 a month...for playing Starcraft...and letting people watch. Sean Plott, arguably the most popular caster, who goes by Day9, has almost 80,000 followers on Twitter -- is more than twice as many as any gamer.
I talk to Greg Lair, who works for one of the most well-known Starcraft teams called "Team Liquid," and he describes the meteoric rise of Starcraft at MLG events the past year. "The first Starcraft event in 2010 wasn't overly competitive and didn't really have many spectators. And now, well you can see the difference." The proof is in the numbers, the first MLG Starcraft event held in 2010 had 64 participants for a $2500 cash prize, and this event has 265 gamers competing for a $50,000 cash prize.
Cloud, a member of the Halo team Believe The Hype, who is 20, emphasizes the importance of teamwork in the four person games. "Every game we all go into strategic positions on the map and need to call out enemies to one another," he tells me. "Experience playing together is one of the most important aspects of winning." Another interesting aspect of Halo is that every four person team has a "coach" who communicate what is happening throughout the map to the team.
NaNiWa faces HuK in the semis. Subverting gamer stereotypes, HuK played football from the age of six all the way through high school. He began playing the original Starcraft on his N64. He continued to play recreationally after his family got a computer. While preparing to join the military after high school, he realized that Starcraft could be more than a hobby. "I won a lot of online tournaments without putting that much time into it," he told me. "Once I was a GSL Cup (which is the Korean Starcraft League) I felt like I could go pro with it."
For the past year he has lived in a house in Korea with other pro gamers. "You wake up and eat breakfast cooked by the maid or chef, then some teams usually have a schedule exercise session. Then you play from about noon to six o'clock," he described. "Then you might take another one to three hour break for dinner and relaxation then at around 7 o'clock you'll continue to practice until 11 PM, or 12 AM or even 1 AM."
Both HuK and NaNiWa have won a game and are about set to play the decisive game when NaNiWa requests a timeout to calm down his hands. Both gamers share a typed exchange that the crowd can read.
NaNiWa: Damn, I wish I could go to the bathroom.
HuK: Go in booth, ur fine.
After a mental error during the game, HuK loses the match 2-1 and is sent to the loser bracket (the tournament is double elimination).
Alex Garfield took over Team Evil Geniuses when he was 19 with no prior business experience. At 26, he has built EG into the Yankees of gaming. He hints that the team rakes in between $750,000 and $2 million annually. "When we sign a free agent they need two of three qualities: They need to win, they need to work on the sponsor side of things and be marketable, and they need to have a big following," he said. "NaNiWa only has one of those things. He wins and that's it. We thought about signing him and didn't want him."
HuK loses to a unknown 16-year-old Korean gamer named Leenock, who is playing in his first MLG event. He began playing in the open bracket (which anybody can register to play in) and has reached the semi-finals, defeating 12 gamers thus far in the process including HuK's teammate IdrA earlier in the day.
There is a measurement used in the gaming community known as actions per minute (APM) which keeps tracks of clicks or keyboard strokes. Many of the top gamers have an APM of about 300 meaning on average they make roughly five actions per second each game.
Naniwa is playing against a Korean gamer named DRG for a spot in the finals. Both live in the same house in Korea where they train together. Before the contest begins DRG tells NaNiWa through a translator that he is no match for him. NaNiWa responds by skipping the customary pre-game handshake.
NaNiWa wins the match, and the crowd is back on his side. It's like Al Davis said, "Just win baby."
The large crowd is dead quiet as everyone is concentrating on the strategies Leenock and NaNiWa are implementing. I think that even I'm getting the nerd chills now.
I don't believe what I just saw! Down goes NaNiWa! Down goes NaNiWa! Do you believe in miracles? Yes! Leenock wins!
"I can't believe I just won the tournament, I thought it was a dream, but now I'm awake," Leenock says through a Korean translator. The America interviewer responds "Well, I'll pinch you" and then pinches the Korean gamer, who doesn't speak english and probably has no idea why this guy just pinched him.