To Be Young, Rich and Wired
The San Antonio Current
April 12, 2006
The names Fatal1ty, Team 3D, and Zid may not mean much to the casual videogame player, but for those who consider themselves true gamers, these are superstars. Professional gaming, or esports, has grown massively since the Cyberathlete Professional League (CPL) held its first tournament in 1997. Professional gaming has developed into full-time employment, not only for a handful of players in the United States but for champions around the world. At major tournaments, gamers who finish in top spots can take home anywhere from $10,000 to $150,000. And while it may be nearly impossible to make it to the upper echelons, David “Zid” Chin, a high school senior from San Antonio, recently broke through.
“It’s definitely hard,” said Chin, who is preparing for the Electronic Sports World Cup Qualifier. “You got to keep playing.”
According to George Kaspiris of the CPL, anyone who takes part in the major tournaments can call him or herself a professional. But only perhaps 25 gamers in North America make enough money through tournament earnings, endorsements and sponsorships to live of off videogames alone. Some players—like Jonathan “Fatal1ty” Wendel, who is one of the top-ranked players of the first-person shooter Painkiller—have been able to start product lines of clothing, computer hardware and software. Sponsors are investing heavily in the market: Intel and the computer graphics company NVidia, for example, support Team 3D, one of the top teams playing the most popular competitive videogame in the world, called Counter-Strike.
The professional computer gaming world awarded $3 million in tournament money last year alone, said Trevor Schmidt of GotFrag, an independent Web site that covers the world of professional gaming. Among the major competitions is the CPL, which runs championships twice a year and will participate in the World Series of Video Games this summer.
“It has the largest cash prices, the best teams, and a long history,” said Michael Miller, an avid Counter-Strike player for five years. Counter-Strike, released in 1999, is an online tactical shooter made up of teams of five playing against one another. Players’ success depends on their skill and experience in deploying team-based tactics, including an understanding of a range of maps and weapons.
Other major competitions include the World Cyber Games, which has an Olympic-style format, with teams from different countries, including the United States, competing against one another. Team 3D took home first place in Counter-Strike at the WCG at the end of last year. The Electronic Sports World Cup runs a format similar to the World Cup, holding preliminary tournaments across the globe before hosting a world championship.
According to Miller, who plays Counter-Strike 1.6 as part of a team on the Cyberathlete Amateur League, a subsidiary of the CPL, it is very hard to get the experience necessary to elevate one’s game to the highest level. In the CAL, clans play five-on-five matches against one another. However, clans can play at five levels, and teams must perform well enough at each one before CAL organizers invite them to the top level—CAL-Invite (CAL-I), where the pros play.
Craig Levin, the founder of Team 3D, said that teams must work their way up in the CAL before being invited to CAL-I. However, he estimates only four or so teams each year actually move up to the Invite level in the CAL, out of 20 in all. (The bottom four in CAL-I are not invited back.)
“You have to get in from the ground up,” Miller said. Those who are still at the top were the ones there when the CAL first opened, according to Miller. He noted that the pros have no reason to play those who have not made it to the top, because practicing against clans who aren’t as good won’t help them stay on top. David Chin was able to do make it to the top without having gotten in from the beginning. He started playing three and half years ago, forming a team with his friends and eventually working himself up to the top levels in CAL. He became part of Jax Money Crew, a team that placed third last year at the CPL winter championships. Since then he has joined United 5.
As the competitive gaming world has grown, so has the celebrity of the gamers. In Korea, professional gamers are worshiped like rock stars. Craig Levine, who founded Team 3D in 2002 as a freshman business student at New York University, expects the team to be treated like superstars when they go to China this week to compete in a series of boot camps against the top teams from that country. Although Levine no longer plays, he has managed the team since its inception, working to make Team 3D one of the most recognizable professional gaming teams in the world.
Chin still aspires to reach those heights. Chin has already sacrificed a week of school to compete, and he doesn’t expect much to let up when he begins college later in the year. “I’m probably going to be focusing more on Counter-Strike,” said Chin.