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Professional gamers draw big-name sponsors

Is "frags per round" going to be the batting average of the 21st century?
Kyle Miller, a 21-year-old from Washington, D.C., competes in the U.S. finals of the World Cyber Games in New York on Friday.Bernadette Tuazon / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Is "frags per round" going to be the batting average of the 21st century?

Professional computer gamers certainly hope so.

Players of Counter Strike, a popular title in competition at the U.S. finals of the World Cyber Games last week, count their prowess in how many enemies they can shoot to pieces, or "fragment," in a frantic two-minute round of virtual gunplay.

Time and demographics, boosters say, argue for videogame tourneys becoming the next big spectator sport in the United States, where more than 108 million Americans now play computer games, according to the Yankee Group.

They're already garnering big-name sponsors.

"Kids in the early 1900s were playing baseball in dirt fields. Kids today are playing computer games" says Jason Lake, an Atlanta real-estate lawyer who owns two teams of pro gamers, totaling fourteen players, some of whom did battle last week.

For a non-gamer, the competition at New York's Hammerstein Ballroom can't have looked too exciting.

Pale young men crowded around computers on the floor as the cyberspace-based action unfolded on big-screen displays overhead, accompanied by a play-by-play announcer rattling off things like "Schwan's gonna be hiding behind a big box there, waiting for them to come up, and it's 7-0 for the counterterrorists on this map."

Only about 4,000 spectators showed up at the Hammerstein, organizers said, but more than 63,000 followed the games live on the Web.

Even more significantly, more than a million people around the world have tried to qualify for the final, to be held in Singapore in November. That's mostly a sign of the acceptance that computer gaming (or e-sports, as promoters like to call it) has gained in the rest of the world.

Just 40,000 of that million were Americans.

In South Korea, where the World Cyber Games is based, three cable channels broadcast competitive gaming around the clock and some of the country's approximately 200 professional gamers bask in rock star-like fame.

In the United States, "there are rock stars already, but the mass market doesn't know about them," says Robert Krakoff, president Razer Group, which makes computer mice and is a major sponsor of the games, along with Intel Corp. and Samsung Electronics Co.

Krakoff, along with many in the industry, believes the United States will soon catch up to Korea because traditional advertising is losing much of its effectiveness at reaching young men.

"Corporations are dropping hundreds of millions of dollars on a TV ad, and kids don't even watch TV," says Lake, the team owner. "They're missing this demographic."

There are signs that the corporate world is waking up: last week, McNeil Consumer & Specialty Pharmaceuticals, the Johnson & Johnson subsidiary that makes Tylenol, announced it was sponsoring Ouch!, a six-man Counter Strike team.

It is believed to be the first time a non-computer company has sponsored a U.S. videogame team.

Trevor Schmidt, who runs, notes that Burger King sponsors games in Germany. He thinks the United States is six to eight months away from seeing major videogame sponsorship deals by consumer-goods companies.

For all the optimism, several hurdles must be overcome if e-sports are to become a mass phenomenon. For one, the violent game content can be off-putting both to spectators and advertisers.

To the gamers themselves, the mayhem on the computer screen doesn't count as real violence. Apart from the occasional case of wrist-wracking carpal tunnel syndrome, no one gets hurt.

"It's not really even looked at as violent or shooting, it's more about teamwork, like soccer or football," says Lake.

Another hurdle is the very technology that enables these games. Manufacturers keep putting out new games and game consoles, obsoleting the old.

"You have to relearn every year," says Matija Biljeskovic, who competes in pixelated FIFA Soccer. "The way the players recover the ball, the timings, it all changes."

Lastly, watching the games isn't necessarily very enjoyable for someone who hasn't played that particular game.

"In older generations ... I don't think this is ever going to have mainstream appeal," says Lake.

For now, video gaming is not a road to riches for the players.

McNeil would not say how much it is paying Ouch!, but Schmidt estimates the average player on a successful team makes $30,000 to $40,000 a year, mostly from sponsorships and excluding prize money.

Perhaps 50 gamers in the United States are at that level.

Biljeskovic, a 21-year-old electrical engineering student at Northern Illinois University, doesn't make that much. While he went on last week to win the U.S. final in FIFA Soccer, assuring him a spot on Team USA in Singapore in November, his game doesn't appeal to U.S. sponsors.

Nor does his life appear to be that glamourous. A single father, he practices after he puts his three-year-old daughter to bed at 9 p.m.