Gamers Compete In World Cyber Games
Melanie Conner  /  Getty Images
Spectators and referees watch Filip Kubski of the Polish team play a five-on-five video-game match against Greece during the World Cyber Games at Qwest Field in Seattle, Wash.
By Games editor
msnbc.com
updated 10/5/2007 2:17:43 PM ET 2007-10-05T18:17:43

There was no torch-lighting at the opening ceremony for the World Cyber Games Grand Finale on Thursday. Instead, the audience of competitive video game players, sponsors and press were treated to an overlong human beat-box performance and an unfunny emcee.

But then, out came the players, one from each of the 74 countries represented at these so-called “Olympics of e-sports.” They came from Iran, Pakistan, the Phillipines and Peru — more than 700 players in total. And over the next three days, these players will duke it out on games such as “StarCraft,” “Project Gotham Racing 3” and “Gears of War.” At stake is over a half million in cash and prizes, gold medals — and bragging rights.

Didn’t hear about it? You’re not alone. Competitive video gaming, or e-sports, haven’t made much of a splash here in the United States. You might see the occasional segment on “60 Minutes” about Jonathan “Fatal1ty” Wendel, who’s made buckets of money playing video games competitively. But for the most part, we Americans like to kick back with a beer and some NFL. Video games are for playing, not watching.

But International Cyber Marketing, the outfit that puts on the World Cyber Games, wants to change that perception. The event, now in its seventh year, has plenty of big-name, high — visibility sponsors like Microsoft, Circuit City and Samsung. They’ve also secured some airtime on Spike TV: a half-hour Oct. 12 and then an hour-long special on the Grand Finale Nov. 9. And their focus for the spots, says Michael Arzt, head of the ICM in the United States., is to make people care about the players, much like NBC does with its Olympic coverage.

“The broadcasts are going to be happening on a very human level,” he says. “There will be gameplay involved, and you will know who won and lost ... but it’s really about learning who the players are — and who are the people that are going to make e-sports grow in this country.”

The World Cyber Games is a yearlong event, with each country staging its own online and offline tournaments on 12 different titles, including “Counterstrike,” “FIFA 07,” “Command and Conquer 3” and “Dead or Alive 4.”

World Cyber Games
Marcus R. Donner  /  AP
Fans of Andrey "Androide" Kukhianidze from Team Russia cheer as he wins his match of "StarCraft" on the main stage at the World Cyber Games 2007 Grand Final in Seattle.
Much like the athletes who eventually compete in the Olympics, the winners of these small, regional events advance up to the national finals. And the winners there go to the Grand Finale as part of their country’s team. Exposure here can lead to sponsorship, which can be pretty lucrative for a 17-year-old kid who's good at "Need for Speed: Carbon."

It’s not just about individual glory at the Games, though. Much like the Olympics, it’s also about national teams and overall medal count. The South Koreans won it all last year. But the year before, it was the Americans.

I spoke with Arzt a couple of days before the opening ceremony to get his take on the U.S. team’s chances — and how to make e-sports more visible in this country. Here are excerpts from our conversation.

Why bring the World Cyber Games to Seattle? Why bring it to the United States?

The last time we did a Grand Final here in 2004, that was a real tipping point event for the World Cyber Games in particular and for e-sports in general. Suddenly, this country — which may not be the leader in e-sports or in competitive gaming, but certainly is the leader in media and entertainment — took notice of this phenomenon of e-sports. That 2004 event really launched us to the success we had in Singapore in 2005 and in Monza, Italy in 2006.

It was time to come back to the United States, because now … e-sports is kind of bubbling up here in this country and it’s time to give it another adrenaline shot.

Coming to the number one market — and this is why Seattle — for video gaming and technology was a no-brainer. This is a market that will come out for gaming. We saw that in August when 30,000 people came out for PAX [the Penny Arcade expo]. We’re looking forward to big crowds and big excitement this weekend.

How many spectators do you expect?

We’re hoping for 20-30,000 over the three-and-a-half, four days.

How does that juxtapose with the spectators you saw over in Asia?

I think we had 60,000 some-odd people in Singapore in 2005, so that was a pretty big deal. But in Korea, where a lot of this got started, some of tournaments there can get 50,000 to 100,000 people coming to a stadium. We’re not there yet in this country, but we’re working on it.

I would imagine that the goal for many of these competitors is to go on and receive sponsorships.

For some of them, yeah. For some of them, the goal is to pay for college. What’s happening now with our Spike TV relationship is that there are exposure opportunities. I could tell you the story of Wes Cwiklo, the gold medalist for “Project Gotham Racing 3.” He was 17 years old last year, had never really entered tournaments, came out of nowhere, steamrolled the competition through the whole U.S. program, went to Italy, steamrolled everybody there, came back with a gold medal and a check for $15,000, on top of everything else he’d won through the year.

E-sports are extremely popular in South Korea. Why haven’t they caught on in the same way in the United States?

A lot of it is cultural. Here in the United States, we have more entertainment choices than any other country in the world … and that has a lot to do with it. There was a culture in Korea that was very ready to embrace the growth of PC games and technology. That’s a country that has had 100 percent — or close to it — broadband penetration for a long time.

We’re never going to dethrone the NFL or baseball. But…we can grow e-sports to an action-sports level or a poker level, I think. 

One criticism that competitive gaming gets is that it’s not that fun to watch as a spectator sport. 

That’s a valid point. What we’re trying to do is show them that it can be. And that’s a lot of what’s going to be going on here this weekend.

It’s not compelling television yet because of the way it’s being presented. [In our TV coverage], we’re introducing players, we’re introducing the big overarching story of this global tournament that happens in 74 different countries —  the travel and the excitement and the camaraderie. But the broadcasts are going to be happening on a very human level. It’s the story of guys like Wes, who came out of nowhere. He’s the equivalent of the guy you see in the Olympics who gets up at four in the morning to practice the luge because he has to get to the Home Depot for his job by 10:00.

Do you think there’s a reluctance to embrace e-sports as a “real sport” here in the United States because we like to watch very physical sports?

If you were to watch our programming, you’ll realize that these are all real kids … and the stereotypes of the pale overweight kid in the basement, that’s not who these kids are.  A lot of them are in school, playing sports. A lot of them, actually, are real athletes.

I wouldn’t for a second say that an e-sports player is an athlete, but it does require tremendous hand-eye coordination it does require training and skill. And the bottom line is, when it comes to competition aspect of it … it’s just like poker. If there’s something on the line, if there’s a gold medal or cash or bragging rights, and the viewer is emotionally invested in the player’s story, then that’s compelling entertainment.

What can game developers do to make games more fun to watch as a spectator?

More and more of the game [developers] are realizing that they need to have that third-person perspective. “Halo 3,” that everyone’s been hearing about, has a lot of that. They had televised broadcast e-sports in mind when they produced that game, there’s no doubt about it. A lot of other developers and publishers are looking at that as well.

What games are the Americans best at?

“Gears of War,” “Project Gotham Racing 3,” “Tony Hawk Project 8.” I think Command and Conquer” we have a pretty good shot, “Age of Empires, “we have a halfway decent shot. “StarCraft,” “WarCraft,” those are going to be tougher ones to crack against the Asians…not just the Koreans, but the Asians in general. “FIFA” soccer, we have a very good player, he’s world class, but the Europeans tend to dominate in that one.

I think we have a great team this year. We have a bunch of really talented players who are really really excited to be here representing their country as the home team. We’ve got 22 guys who are going to play their hearts out on the playing field, so to speak.

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