“How much farther?” I panted. I could feel the sweat beginning to pool on my neck beneath my ponytail and trickle down my back. Ahead of me, my cousin Karissa pressed on with determination.
“It’s right up there,” she said as we hiked. The large white dome loomed before us in the distance.
Karissa and I trudged the rest of the way to the Anaheim Convention Center, sighing with relief as we reached air-conditioned safety. We flashed our orange wristbands at the security guard who nodded us in, the gatekeeper at the entrance of a new world: the world of pro gaming.
Karissa’s friend Jordan was competing in the Star Craft tournament being held that weekend. Curious, we decided we wanted to observe firsthand what pro gaming is all about.
“Does it smell in here?” Karissa asked, scrunching her nose a little as we took in our surroundings.
“Like what?” I asked.
I sniffed inconspicuously as we walked past mostly teenagers and young adults sporting all the telltale signs: expensive over-sized headphones, prodigious digital SLR cameras, the latest-and-greatest HD video recorders and t-shirts with slogans like “OMG THE LAG” (translation: “Oh my god, the slow, lagging Internet connection is killing me” ).
The Major League Gaming association has been around since its inception in 2002, and touts itself as “the largest professional video game league in the world.” Despite its under-the-radar status, the MLG bears a startling resemblance to most other professional sports and continues to grow in popularity and cultural acceptance.
Currently, the best professional, full-time gamers can make upwards of $100,000 from the $1 million in tournament prize money up for grabs each year. These cyber-athletes-who, just like WWE wrestlers, are known almost entirely by their player id’s and nicknames-command a worldwide fan base.
Online streaming, television broadcasts, Twitter and Facebook allow them to reach millions of video game enthusiasts; legendary South Korean gamer BoxeR of Team SlayerS has over 1 million members in his fan club and has his own DVD of epic battles. Their flourishing celebrity and growing consumer reach makes these pro gamers lucrative investments for brand sponsorships and media endorsements.
This reality was clear as we walked around the convention center. As one of six stops on the MLG’s national pro-circuit tour, the three-day Anaheim Star Craft 2 tournament drew 20,000 spectators and 35 million stream views from 171 countries, according to John Gaudiosi’s Forbes.com piece.
The tournament itself was sponsored by major brands like Dr. Pepper, Red Bull, Hot Pocket, Stride Gum, and Sony-products, we assumed, are widely consumed by gamers. From interactive booths to product demonstrations and freebie giveaways, the convention seemed to us a gamer’s paradise.
After grabbing free sodas and drawstring rucksacks emblazoned with the MLG and Dr. Pepper logos from the giant soda-can booth, Karissa and I moseyed over to the Sony booth, where we played a couple button-mashing rounds of Mortal Kombat 3 before being intimidated by a jock-type who actually knew attacks and combos.
We found ourselves strangely embarrassed at our lack of nerdiness and video game prowess. Instead of being mere observers, we had subconsciously and inexplicably started trying to fit in with the crowd. Was it just the cool free gear, clever marketing and electrifying atmosphere pulling us into this fascinating world?
We were drawn magnetically to where the biggest crowd had gathered-in front of a massive main screen that spanned a third of the entire convention wall. Gingerly picking our way through the throng of onlookers, we stood behind the countless rows of audience seating. I slipped apologetically in front of a lanky Star Craft fan, stretching on tiptoe to gain a peek at the screen.
As it turned out, Karissa and I had made it just in time to catch the semi-final match between IMMvp (Jeong Jong Hyeon) of Team Incredible Miracle and DongRaeGu (Park Soo Ho) of Team coL.MVP, both rising twenty-year-old pro gamers from South Korea who each emerged undefeated during pool play.
“DRG is supposed to be really good,” Karissa said in a whisper. We looked at each other and shrugged in sync.
We joined the thousand or so fans watching the match, with MVP in a black booth on the left side of the screen and DRG on the right, each booth enclosed with glass to prevent the competition from gaining any unfair advantage but fitted with cameras to allow onlookers an insider’s perspective. On stage sat two officials in their bright blue officials’ uniforms, watching vigilantly from a couch below the screen.
I listened curiously as professional commentators, also called “casters,” gave the play-by-play of the action-their voices rising with gusto and falling into awed hushed tones, as if they were narrating an NFL or NBA game on TV. Every so often, something on screen would elicit waves of cheering. Fans recorded the screen with their cameras and ooh’d and ahh’d as the match progressed.
Star Craft is a game of strategy, like a computerized version of Risk on steroids. The best players make rapid, well-planned decisions, keeping in mind the field of battle, available resources, and the personality of their opponent. DRG, for instance, is meticulous, a consummate perfectionist, while MVP exhibits no finesse, taking his opponents out in one massive blow.
Just like in professional sports, playing Star Craft requires a thorough understanding of game strategy, strengths and weaknesses, timing, anticipation, creativity and foresight: Overreach with your marines, you could end up in a precarious situation. Fail to protect your workers, you could lose valuable factories. Spend too much time on the defensive, you may get worn down before you have a chance to attack. If you careen haphazardly into the fray, you could fall victim to your opponent’s feint.
And just like professional sports, Star Craft is as much a mental game as it is a physical game. Yes, I said physical. The top Star Craft players can rack up to two and three hundred APM’s (actions per minute) with their keyboard and mouse, meaning not only are these players making tough decisions on the battlefield, they are making them at lightning speed.
We decided we needed a closer look and headed all the way around the back of the audience, creeping up unhindered to the front near MVP’s booth. I’m not sure whether I was expecting a heavy-set, gawky gamer with thick prescription glasses or a super-intense gamer showing off his wrist guards, head band and competitive bravado, but as it turned out, he was neither. Peering into the booth, I could see just the face of a young Asian kid whose imperceptible movements and slightly gaping mouth revealed incredible concentration.
At the end of three rounds, MVP came out the clear winner against DRG, surprising and delighting loyal fans who raised their voices, fists and handmade signs. As he exited the booth, MVP emerged a smooth-faced, clean-cut Korean kid in khaki pants, black Googims baseball cap and black Googims polo shirt with sponsor patches on each arm. Not the stereotypical gamer image. On second thought, maybe it is now.
I found out the next day that MVP won the entire Star Craft 2 tournament in his MLG pro-circuit debut, beating the gamer who inspired him to go pro, BoxeR, and his fellow Slayer teammate MMA to clinch first prize.
Following the blinding flashes of MVP’s press interview and photo op, Karissa and I continued to stroll around the convention grounds until we were interrupted by a booming voice over the sound system.
“Please choose between an autograph or a photograph, folks. There are just too many of you in line.”
A line of people had suddenly formed behind a table, snaking its way past several other booths and funneling out into the corner between the Star Craft main screen and the Modern Warfare screen on the far right side of the convention center.
“Um…can you tell me who that is?” I asked the person next to me.
“That’s Day,” he said, a little surprised.
“Can you spell that for me?”
“You know, like the day of the week?”
We watched wordlessly as people waited patiently for their turn to ask Day, whose real name is Sean Plott, to sign their Star Craft 2 boxes and t-shirts or pose for a thumbs-up photograph together. One swooning female fan with quivering hands even gave handed him a specially engraved mug.
“So why is everyone so excited to meet him?” I ventured.
“He’s a caster. He narrates the games,” my neighbor, who identified himself as Ivan, explained. “He used to be a pro gamer but now he comments on matches.”
“Oh, okay. Thanks!” I said, grateful for not being judged.
Karissa and I went home that night, our head full of video games and our stomachs full of Dr. Pepper. I don’t think I’ll ever really be tempted to pick up Star Craft as a hobby, but I left with a new respect for the culture of Major League Gaming and the cyber-athletes who make it such a vibrant and exhilarating world.