For most of society, video gaming conjures up images of lonely 30-ish geeks or pimply teenagers staring at violent screens in dark rooms instead of participating in real life. For a the growing ranks of amateur and elite competitive players, taking it to the next level means playing in front of millions of fans in live auditoriums with stage lighting resembling a rock concert. Prize money for a single season now tops well over 7 digits. Parents, take note – this is just as legitimate a career as any other.
This weekend, I am attending my first event of the Major League Gaming 2007 campaign kicks off in Concorde, NC as a gopher for team Best Yet (BY). Our team has traveled from Vancouver, Canada and Utah to compete against the world’s finest in the Halo 2 bracket, a game from Microsoft played by millions of players every day. I decided to travel to the event myself to experience what it has to offer. I had preconceived notions that the video game crowd are shy, anti-social types. This is the farthest from the truth I could have suspected. The event itself was like a constant raging nightclub (minus the alcohol, fights, drugs etc.) where friends met, played, conversed and just had a great time. This report is about exposing this world of gaming as it starts to explode from a fringe activity to a mainstream test of intelligence, agility, coordination and strategy.
Before continuing, I have a personal confession to make. I used to be in a chess club. I used to follow Karpov and Kasparov as they met new challengers including IBM’s Big Blue, a super computer that was claimed impossible to beat by humans given it could calculate far beyond the capabilities of the mere human brain. If anyone knows geeks, it is me. The chess matches used to draw out for hours and the boredom could be best described as a mass communal sedative.
Coming from Argyle High School in North Vancouver, BC, Christopher Nickull (a.k.a. “Conker”) and I set out with two of his team mates at 06:00 Thursday to catch a flight to the event. Players often use pseudonyms representing their alternate personalities. Conker, is well known amongst many in the Halo 2 competitive landscape. Adam, aka "Nutraways", is also a student an North Vancouver’s Argyle School however the twosome met their third and fourth team mates online. Halo 2 is played via the internet so players from multiple countries can compete and even talk to each other during their games. Niko, aka “Blakout” hails from Whiterock, British Columbia while their fourth team member from Utah is somewhat of an international halo 2 rock star. His handle, “Toxic Euphoria” or often just “toxic”, scares competitors and intrigues spectators alike. He has the elitist distinction of finding an “exploit”, a loophole in the Halo 2 code base that allows a player to manipulate the game to their advantage. He also has a very unique style of playing. Together, the foursome is known as the team Best Yet or BY for short. In Halo 2, when a player is shot, the screen says “you have been shot by
I’ve forgot what it is like to be on a road trip with a group of teeneagers but the fun starts with the hotel room which resembles a war zone within minutes. Shown below is the AM shot with Toxic and Blakout ready to get some breakfast while Nutraways can’t be coaxed out of the sofa bed, despite the danger imposed by a potential avalanche of hotel room furniture poised just above his head, ready to fall at the slightest tremor.
While some consider video games antisocial, the competition aspect is anything but. It is a very social event and has hints of all aspects of society. Some teams appear like tough street gangs out of some cheesy Hollywood movie, the only difference is that they are engaged in a high-stress competition and test of strategy and intelligence rather than fighting each other on the streets with chains and knives. Gender, race, religion, age, social status, career and nationality are completely meaningless here. Everyone is equal and has no advantage. I watch Friday night as a twelve year old kid destroys his opponents in one heat which include a twenty something girl wearing a party dress, some motley teenagers, a 30 year old computer nerd type and some guy who looks like an African American football linebacker, weighing in at al least 280 pounds of muscle. It turns out he actually was a football player. There are also a lot of female players who seem to hold their own against the guys. The girl poised below is one of many who ruined the evening for the young men in the crowd by outscoring them.
The weekend unfolds in three separate days for each of the MLG events. This is the first of the year so there are a few bugs in the system but generally everything flows on schedule with plenty of referees and officials on hand to keep the crowds and players in hand (yes – there are actually many who come just to watch). MLG is a top notch event provider and has left nothing to chance.
Early Friday night, players huddle in small groups, often representing their own teams plus a few friends. Each team for the MLG Halo 2 tournament is comprised of four members. Tonight’s action is a free for all though where team members may actually face each other during the contests. The team aspects of Halo 2 is an important component of the competition. The names taken by some of the players are noteworthy. Players take on names such as “Toxic”, “Bag of Sand”, “deathstar” and any other variation you can conjure up in your mind. It is truly funny to meet a player with a name like “Steel Robot Killer” to find a meek mannered 16 year with a 89 pound frame. Nevertheless, for his sake and societies in general, all of these kids are taking part in a kick-ass and very cool competition. Given the alternatives, this is a very cool scene. Imagination plays a big part too. Some of the players names on the brackets are noteworthy.
As I write this article, I’m sitting beside Joel Brill (aka PBJB), a contestant in the Halo 2 competition. He traveled from Boynton Beach, Florida with teammate Dark 99 to meet Chipmonk and Unger, completing the foursome of the team. PBJB and Dark99 met at school while the other members of their team were met online. Rather than being an antisocial aspect of video gaming, this competition is actually forming new friendships that would never have existed had it not been for the Major League Gaming. The members of the team are not overweight, chess club types. In fact, both PBJB and Dark 99 are more your typical skateboarder, snowboarder teenagers who take part in competition partially for the comradery but also for the challenge and social bonding. This story is far from typical with team members traveling from Europe and Asia to compete in what has become the Olympics of video gaming.
Friday night arrives and the first portion is the free for all (FFA). There are no teams in the FFA section and players gather in stations of 8 for 15-20 minute heats with the top four advancing to the next bracket until there are only 16 left. The final 16 play for the pro money on Sunday.
Prior to the start, the euphoria in the hall is unbelievable and approaches the energy apex of a rock concert just before an encore. This is the absolute opposite of anti-social. Friends who have met on line are meeting in person for the first time. New friendships are being formed and teams are working towards a common goal – a major portion of the $1,000,000 in prize money put up by a multitude of sponsors.
Vancouver based Team BY has mixed results in the FFA event. Only Conker gets into the top 64 seed (out of 1,200 contestants). Along the way he has to face countless others and keep reaching top four in each heat of 8. The concentration is astounding and unrelenting. A moment’s lapse in concentration can result in a loss of points and slipping several positions down. Conker has a medium following and each time he plays a group of fans compete for the best view behind him to watch his technique and strategy. Below, a younger player in a white t-Shirt leans on the back of Conker’s (in black t-Shirt) chair while he narrates to his friend what he witnesses. Sharing of techniques is part of the social aspect of the game. Noteworthy is the fact that the 12 year old with huge spectacles is still in the top 16 that will face off on Sunday for the pro money.
Below, North Vancouver’s Adam (aka “Nutraways”) takes a breather to smile for the camera on his way to first round victory in the FFA portion on Friday night.
Another rather unique aspect I find of this environment is the knowledge of health and vitamins possessed by many of the players. Most of them know about the effects of vitamin B complexes, with A and D to help absorption. I would wager that most of the kids here know more about taking the right combination of vitamins to heighten mental alertness than the average college major. Of course, Adam's is sponsored by Nutraway's, a Vancouver vitamin company that has a lot of influence in this area.
Friday was good, but tomorrow is their main event - the Halo 2 4X4 compeition.