Matt Ringel knows there's a certain image that comes to mind when you start talking about hardcore video gamers: think teenage boys with messy hair and dark circles under their eyes from staying up all night, their eyes glued to a screen and their fingers frantically flitting about a keyboard or a controller.
It's an image Ringel knows well. A passionate gamer even as he closes in on 40, Ringel has spent his fair share of long nights playing with his friends.
But now as the commissioner of the World Series of Video Games, Ringel is eager to dispel the notion of gamers as soda-swilling, junk food-eating slackers with an aversion to showers and social activity.
The majority of the players who will compete in one of the handful of World Series events this year have a life, Ringel said. Even better, they have personality.
"These guys, it's totally antithetical to 'the lazy gamer,'" Ringel said. "They're highly regimented, highly disciplined. They're into physical conditioning. They're normal people."
Now in its second year, the World Series offers gamers the chance to compete in a handful of popular titles — including "Guitar Hero II," "World of Warcraft" and "Quake 3" — with the winners taking home thousands of dollars in prize money. The series latest event starts July 5 in Dallas.
Yet Ringel's ultimate goal isn't just to bring the best gamers in the world together. He's trying to make the World Series into a TV-ready venture in an effort to give the gaming world some crossover appeal.
To that end, he's created a system in which the top players in a given game are seeded and accumulate points based on their performance. Part of the prize money for the winners goes toward a travel voucher designed to help them attend the next event. The top point winners at the end of the year will travel to Dreamhack, Sweden, for the finals.
Ringel thinks by having the same faces pop up in different places he can present story lines as part of the TV package the World Series has with CBS. The World Series will make four appearances on the network this summer.
"You want to get the viewer involved," he said. "It helps if they can identify the top players."
Ringel said similar strategy in Asia has made the top players there "rock stars."
In the end, it's about entertainment, which explains why the World Series event in Louisville two weeks ago looked more like a carnival midway than a darkened basement full of zombielike gamers.
There were ring announcers calling live play-by-play during "Fight Night" bouts and judges unleashing their inner Simon Cowell to "Guitar Hero II" contestants. There were two life-size Formula 1 cars serving as racing simulators and actual brackets — just like for college basketball's March Madness — on a wall, monitoring the progress of each game.
Ringel understood early on that the World Series could not be about two people mashing controllers while people stand around and watch.
By adding a human element to games like "Guitar Hero II," Ringel knew he was giving viewers something to relate to.
"You see people competing, and that's not such a foreign behavior," he said. "People know how to watch that. They watch 'American Idol' all the time."
The only thing the "Guitar Hero II" finals seemed to lack was Ryan Seacrest. Contestants stood on stage, with a three-judge panel to their left, while dozens of people watched, some of them even approaching the stage and rocking out during the better performances.
Of course, some tended to rock more than others. The judges had less than kind words for a contestant named "Kamikaze" after he struggled to keep up with Rick Derringer's "Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo."
One judge called Kamikaze's performance "boring" and wondered why he even bothered giving the would-be guitarist a score at all.
Ringel said he's been blown away by the response to the format of "Guitar Hero II" and expects to incorporate more active "lifestyle" games like it in the future.
The majority of the serious gamers at the World Series, though, are in tactical games like "Strike Force 1.6" and "Call of Duty." "Warcraft," the most popular PC game on the market, has over 8.5 million players.
Getting casual viewers to care about intricate strategy games can be difficult. That's why he wants you to meet Erik Christensen.
Tall with blond spiked hair, the 23-year-old Christensen from Stockholm, Sweden, hardly looks like one of the best video game players in the world. His muscled build gives a hint of his former life as a junior hockey player. His English is flawless. His clothes are clean and even more, they're stylish.
As a child, Christensen dreamed of becoming famous by leading Sweden to an Olympic hockey gold medal. An injury forced him to give up the game, but he found fame anyway by trading in his goalie stick for a keyboard.
Now the captain of Ninjas With Pajamas, arguably the best "Counter Strike 1.6" team on the planet, Christensen spends six hours a day with a headset on and his eyes glued to a computer screen talking to his teammates over a server as they refine techniques and tactics.
The first-person shooter game pits two teams against each other. One team tries to carry out a mission, the other team tries to stop them. Whoever succeeds, wins.
Though he gets paid to play games while his friends have "real" jobs, Christensen hardly considers himself a slacker. As he points out, he takes care of himself, lives on his own and has achieved cult hero status in his home country.
Oh, and he even has a girlfriend.
"And she plays, too," he said with a laugh as his team prepared for another opponent.
In Sweden, there are professional gaming leagues filled with as much intrigue and behind-the-scenes decision-making as your average NFL season. Top players hop from team to team. New rivalries are born and championships won.
"At home, I walk down the street and people know who I am," he said. "It's kind of cool."
Ringel knows there's plenty of work to do before video gamers receive the kind of fame as professional athletes.
"We think we're on the right track," he said. "To be one of the best, it's a hard thing to do. The guy that used to be ostracized can now be a hero."