Top of the frag heap

Top of the frag heap: By Janelle Brown. Can the pixel-pounding success of one Quake player named Thresh turn gaming into a true professional sport?

By Janelle Brown

Published November 17, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Woody wants to be a professional computer gamer when he grows up. It's difficult to cajole an articulate reason out of him for this ambition -- he's just a 10-year-old boy -- but he says he thinks it's "exciting" and you can "make money" doing it. He's here in a San Francisco cybercafe at the third-season finals of the AMD Professional Gamers' League with his father, who let him take the day off school to watch the Quake gamer legends fight it out on a virtual battlefield. And at the moment one of those heroes is signing a PGL pennant for him: "Woody -- Keep practicing, and keep your faith. Thanks, Immortal."

"Immortal" isn't all that much older that Woody: He's only a 15-year-old kid from Pleasanton, Calif., real name Kurt Shimada. But Immortal is the hero of the day; last night, he had the rare glory of beating champion "Thresh" at Quake II -- only the second person in the recorded history of the bloody game who has had that privilege. Immortal is here, along with 31 other finalists from across the country, in hopes of becoming the next Thresh: a legitimately professional gamer who is making more than $100,000 a year for his ability to "frag" -- blow virtual warriors into pixelated bits at incredible speeds.

Of course, they have to beat Thresh first.

Gaming is, by most measures, one of the most popular pastimes for pubescent males; the gaming industry as a whole, according to the Interactive Digital Software Association, brought in a whopping $5.1 billion in sales in 1997, not including hardware and peripheral sales. Online gaming is only a fraction of that market, but it boasts the most hardcore fans and fiercest competition.

The year-old Professional Gamer's League, conceived and launched by online gaming site Total Entertainment Network and chip manufacturer AMD, was created to take advantage of that market. The idea: Create a kind of NFL for the gaming community, in which the best gamers can win huge prizes, the big gaming companies can promote their goods and the industry can encourage young boys to play (and spend) even more in their pursuit of becoming "professional gamers." The gambit seems to be working: The PGL drew in 1,700 contestants for the last biannual season, as well as $100,000 in prize money offered up by sponsors like Diamond Multimedia, Logitech, GTE and 3Com.

The organizers boast they'll eventually turn fragging into a legitimate Olympic sport, broadcast gaming on ESPN and transform the best players into paid professionals on par with Michael Jordan. The only problem, so far, is that there's only one person who's really doing well: Thresh, aka Dennis Fong, a 21-year-old from Berkeley, Calif.

As Garth Chouteau, spokesman for the PGL, puts it: "It remains to be seen how quickly the trappings of success come to other players -- the appearances, the columns, the endorsements. But we're on the cusp here. There will always be a pioneer like Thresh. The question is how fast the rest of the world catches up."Thresh is legendary in the gaming world: He rocketed to fame in 1997 when he won a tournament at E3 and took a Ferrari off the hands of John Carmack, the designer of Quake. A year and a half later, he has written two books of gaming tips and a regular column in PC Gamer magazine and received endorsement deals from Microsoft and Diamond Multimedia; he recently launched his own gaming-tips Web site, Firing Squad. He won the individual play competition at the first PGL tournament in 1997; in the second tournament he chose the team-play event, a two-season competition. His profits last year were more than $100,000. Quiet and bespectacled, Fong is possibly the best spokesman gaming could have: He's articulate, modest, thoughtful and gracious. It's difficult to begrudge him his strange fame. As he explains it with a shrug, "One day I'm just playing games for fun with my friends, and the next day people are coming up to me and asking for autographs and offering me sponsorships. It just happened overnight."Thresh's success has probably single-handedly planted the notion of professional gaming in the heads of thousands of fledgling teenage gamers, who would gladly dump geometry in hopes of making money with their mice. Fong is uncomfortable with that idea and says that he is mostly hoping to leverage his gaming success to get into Stanford (he did two years at community college before quitting to be a full-time gamer). "I get mothers e-mailing me and telling me that their son in junior high is thinking about quitting school to become a professional gamer, and asking me for advice," Fong says soberly. "My main advice is to stay in school."Thresh is having a hard time of it at this season's PGL. He's not only competing in the Quake II tournament but in the Quake team competition; he has to keep jockeying back between Quake and Quake II, and as he explains, "It's like playing tennis and the very next game you're playing badminton." Last night he lost to Immortal in round one of the individual play, but he is working his way back up through the losers' bracket -- it's a double elimination system -- and still has a good shot at both titles.This season, the Diamond Multimedia Championships of the AMD PGL are being held over three days at a cramped Internet cafe in San Francisco called club-i. There are three gaming categories: Quake II (action), Starcraft (strategy) and Quake team play. As I walk in on Day 2, a chunky teen called "a|revelation," the poor sap, is getting his butt royally kicked by Thresh in a 20-minute Quake II death match.
The two boys are sitting back in their chairs, calmly tapping patterns across their keyboards, barely moving their mouses, while explosions light up their screens and a peroxided young man with a microphone burbles running commentary behind them. "Rockets! Rockets! Oh, and it's a rocket that gets him!" the commentator shouts, while his more sober partner plays straight man with canned patter like, "Revelation is really looking for a kill here. He needs to make something happen. If you get too far behind in this game you can't catch up."The room is packed with young men, from fresh-faced to pimply faced to bearded but most still in their teens, craning their necks at the overhead screens where the match is being shown and murmuring observations -- "Nice shot," "He should have used the grenade there" -- to each other. (There is a handful of women in the room; most are publicists.) The finalists mill about, each carrying his own keyboard, mouse and mouse pad from home; a sticky cybercafe keyboard, after all, could screw up your frag count. Immortal is currently basking in his glory from last night's win over Thresh, signing pennants and getting high-fives from the onlookers. "It's every gamer's dream to beat The Man -- that's what we call him," gushes Shimada. "It was like, 'Ohmigod, did I beat him, is this real?' My heart was beating so fast, I was shaking."Shimada is a smooth-faced boy, winsome and only slightly cocky. He's on his best behavior because he's trying to win admission into Thresh's famed Death Row clan; Thresh has told him he needs to clean up his "trash talk" before he'll get in. ("I used to talk a lot of smack," confesses Shimada, "but I was only 14 then; I wasn't mature yet.") He's already won $3,000 this year, placing third in the Cyberathlete's Professional League, a lower-profile competitor to the PGL; if he wins the PGL, he says, he'll buy himself an Acura Integra just as soon as he gets his driver's license.Shimada, as closest challenger to the Quake II throne, is hopeful about the notion of professional gaming. "I want to concentrate on school -- I'm not doing too good right now," he says. "But if this gets huge, I might think about doing it professionally. Though so far only Dennis is actually making a living at it."Some of those who have lost so far are more disillusioned. Eighteen-year-old Miguel Bombach, aka KGOR, just lost in Starcraft; he had been favored to win but instead is walking away with eighth place and a mere $300. "I don't expect to be able to do this professionally if I just get $300 each time," he says bitterly.The real money, most agree, is not in the tournament wins: Other than Thresh, there haven't been many multiple winners -- and even he took home less than $25,000 in actual prize money this year. The Starcraft gamers have an even harder time of it; while Quake is always the game for the "action" category, the "strategy" category game changes every season. The big money is in endorsements and book deals; the latter are going to be tough to nab for teenagers who are still novices at expository prose.Still, the PGL spokesman believes that the big money is just around the corner. Chouteau is optimistic that within the year, at least a dozen players will be bringing home endorsements of at least $30,000. He's working the press in hopes of mainstream attention: Rolling Stone, Wired, Good Morning America, Men's Fitness, People and most local newspapers and network affiliates' TV stations are here -- though odds are they're more interested in the spectacle's novelty than in the players' standings.The PGL is currently drawing 30,000 to 50,000 viewers via Webcast, and several hundred at the live venues, and the PGL creators truly believe that millions of people will eventually want to watch competitive gaming. As Atari founder Nolan Bushnell, inventor of the ur-game Pong and commissioner of the PGL, blithely puts it, "This kind of thing in 10 years will be in Madison Square Garden." They also think gaming will be in the Olympics in coming years -- as Chouteau puts it, "If skeet shooting is an Olympic sport, why not gaming?"But after a few hours of straining my neck to watch the games on-screen, I'm not convinced. I've spent some time huddled over Quake, but the game doesn't lend itself to passive viewing. The players move so fast it's hard for the non-hardcore gamer to follow what's happening -- the screen becomes a blur of flying body parts and pillowing explosions."The games we currently have right now are not mass media viewable," admits Bushnell. "In order for something to be viewable there has to be a sense of context and space; in a 3-D world it can be confusing even for the player." In order for the PGL to be as big as it envisions, he says, it may have to expand into more mainstream computer games like soccer, or even fishing.The violence of the games is also a big issue. The PGL may have no problem drawing gaming industry sponsors, but mass market companies -- Pepsi, Levi's, MTV -- are less likely to affiliate themselves with a pastime that's been condemned on the floor of Congress as corrupting the morals of our youth. At the end of the event on Sunday, an ebullient Thresh again sweeps up in Quake, winning the team play and coming back from behind to obliterate Immortal, 43-0. He'll take home $12,000 in cash and more in prizes. A skinny 21-year-old called "Gadianton" takes home $8,500 for the Starcraft win. Disappointed, but still $4,500 richer, Immortal will head back to school to beef up his grades.Still, there are more tournaments ahead: The next PGL season, in the spring, will likely have even bigger purses, and the Cyberathlete Professional League is promising four events next year. Most finalists say that they'll try to compete again, as long as there's prize money, even if the odds are good that they'll get thrashed by Thresh yet again. It's a rare opportunity, after all, for these teenagers to make thousands of dollars at something that comes naturally.As PGL attendee Augy St. Clair, a 13-year-old in skate gear and a chewed-up "Hanson Sucks" baseball hat, shrugs, "Everyone wants to make a living at what they like to do. Why not gaming?"

Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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