Next month, prominent computer gamers from around the world will be gathering to match their wits and first-person shooting skills in Germany. The Cologne Open is the first major event to be held by the new European division of the Cyberathlete Professional League, or CPL. Cologne marks just the latest stop in a burgeoning international pro gaming tour, involving young people from America, Asia, and Europe, in serious, high-stakes play. Coming three years to the day after the first major cash tournament, the CPL’s Foremost Roundup of Advanced Gamers (FRAG), in November of 1997, the young sport has already seen its share of ups and downs, heroes and villains, and no end of controversy.
1. First Steps
Of one thing there is no doubt: the story of online power gaming begins with Quake. True, its precursor Doom had served the John-the-Baptist role of establishing a broad player base for first-person shooters. But competitively, until mid 1996 competitive gaming had never progressed to more than a scattering of LAN-based first person shooter tournaments (notably the 1995 Judgement Day in Seattle, marking the launch of Microsoft’s games division, and won by an otherwise unremarkable 18 year-old named Dennis Fong). Real pro play would have to wait until Doom’s successor game, Quake, appeared in mid-1996.
It took off when it did largely because Quake itself seemed tailor-made for promoting online play. The client-server architecture of Id Software’s new first-person shooter encouraged the creation of dedicated Quake servers. As well, the twitch reflexes needed for good play, combined with a general lack of high-speed connectivity, served to encourage players to challenge other players clustered around their local server, where the “ping” was low, rather than ranging farther abroad on the internet. Add to that the capability for 16-player-at-once deathmatches, where no teamless player could survive for long, and the creation of a network of Quake “clans” – generally regional groupings clustered around a particular server or servers, where players could find teammates to watch their back, or play against in a lower ping environment -- seems now to have been almost inevitable.
By August of 1996, the Quake clans themselves were already self-organizing into something larger, as players looked for other teams to challenge for bragging rights. Id, recognizing a good thing, did their part to promote interclan play, but the key figure was Will Bryant, creator of the Quake Clanring.
“The early clan vs. clan matches were pretty anarchic,” Bryant told one reporter later. “Well, that the dawn of all of this; there wasn't really any organization... but that wasn't a problem because people were just having a lot of fun.” Without any clanmatch-dedicated servers, these early clan vs. clan games would often see individual players on the server joining in the play. The only prize for winning was the ability to boast about it on one’s own clan website (connected to others via Bryant’s Clanring, or Id’s own clan pages).
It was through the Clanring that the first major team Quake online tournament, known only as T1, was organized that fall, with the Impulse 9 clan being declared the winners. This was followed in December by T2. By now, the competitive advantage that a high-speed internet connection gave a clan was too large to ignore: this much larger tournament was divided into low-ping and high-ping divisions: Ruthless Bastards, the Michigan-based pioneers in actual teamplay tactics, would take the low-ping contest. But the real buzz was about one newcomer to Quake in the high-ping group, who brought his clan (the unfortunately named International House of Spork) into the finals with some remarkable solo rampages: it would not be the last time gamers would be hearing about Dennis “Thresh” Fong.
2. Quaking Things Up
If FPS competition had remained the preserve of oddly-named, anonymous clans, pro competition might never have taken off. What the game needed now was star quality, and it would be the “Ferrari tournament” in June of 1997 that would provide it.
Backed by the Clanring and Mplayer.com, the Red Annihilation tournament departed from previous online tourneys in two respects: it was one-on-one play, and the finals would be face-to-face, on a LAN during the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Atlanta. To make things more interesting, Quake co-creator John Carmack promised his own red Ferrari 328GTS convertible to the winner. Criticized by clan members who preferred the beauty of teamplay, the tournament proved a hit with the press. Thresh, the winner, became something of a media darling. "Quiet and bespectacled, Fong is possibly the best spokesman gaming could have," writes Salon magazine. "He's articulate, modest, thoughtful and gracious."
Thresh would go on to appear as a representative of the community in articles in Rolling Stone, Playboy, the L.A. Times, Good Morning America, and the Wall Street Journal. He also becomes the first player to attract major sponsorships, from Microsoft and Diamond Multimedia.
The Quake scene now had fans, players, excitement, and potentially big prizes. All it seemed to need now was organization. The first American entrepreneur to step in to provide it was Texas businessman (and Adrenaline Vault owner) Angel Munoz.
Munoz started putting together his Cyberathlete Professional League (CPL) shortly after the Ferrari tournament. “The Red Annihilation tournament, more than any other event,,” he says, “captured my imagination and was the spark that I needed to take immediate action and launch the CPL concept.”
To get around the high-ping/low-ping and cheating problems that were already cropping up, and to give gaming tournaments more of the feel of an actual sporting event, Munoz proposed a series of massive cash-prize LAN tournaments. Similar to the gaming at QuakeCon 97, which had just wrapped up in Dallas, the contests would be held over several days in one location. (The downside of the idea would be spotty attendance at early tournaments, as young gamers struggled to make it to Munoz’s hometown of Dallas.)
Munoz’s plans have not wavered since. “We [at the CPL] strongly believe that LAN-based competitions are the only true professional way to hold tournaments,” he says. “To call an online competition ‘professional’ is either marketing hype or just plain ignorant.”
Even before the Ferrari tournament, Munoz had been interested both in running a league, and representing “cyberathletes” (a term he coined) in getting sponsorships from corporations. But after only a few months, he says, “I realized that the league had to choose one or the other because we did not want the league competing with its gamers to seek sponsorship. We chose to run the league.”
By November, Munoz was ready to hold the first major CPL-affiliated event, the Foremost Roundup of Advanced Gamers (FRAG), in Dallas. Tom "Gollum" Dawson of Illinois became the first-ever CPL Quake champion, winning $1,000.
Munoz was also an early supporter of the women’s competitive gaming scene, which really took off with the Queen of the Hill one-on-one Quake online tournament that October. The winners of that competition (in the low-ping and high-ping divisions respectfully) would become almost as well known as the star male players: Kornelia Takacs, and Stevie “Killcreek” Case. Both would be early backers of the CPL.
3. The PGL: Success, and Failure
October also saw the emergence of what would be the CPL’s strongest early competitor: the Professional Gaming League, or PGL. Founded by Joe Perez and backed by the pay-for-play Total Entertainment Network (TEN) gaming service and the computer maker AMD, the PGL held its first championships in Seattle in January of 1998.
Unlike the CPL, Perez and TEN tried to repeat the successful formula of the Ferrari tournament, by combining online play in the early rounds (played at first exclusively via TEN) with a face-to-face final. Based on the West Coast, PGL also differed in offering multiple game competitions: both single-player and team Quake, and a real-time strategy contest as well (first Command & Conquer, later Starcraft).
The approach left the PGL open to all sorts of potential problems with cheating and low-ping in the early rounds: at one point, eight would-be competitors were disqualified for early-round cheating. Officiating in the face-to-face competitions was also criticized for being lax. Despite having gained some credibility by naming Pong inventor Nolan Bushnell as their commissioner, organizers seemed to have no problem in the first final with a company Thresh was involved with helping to administer the contest he would go on to win. Similar problems arose with the second season final in May, when a 15 year-old Canadian, Boniface “Kuin” Danan, made it to the finals with the help of a hacked client… and the full knowledge of officials.
But in the end it was the PGL’s close association with TEN that would prove its greatest weakness. When TEN’s owners renamed the organization Pogo.com and withdrew from the action gaming market altogether in September of 1999, the PGL was left to fold. Ironically, the defunct league would be sold to the gamer who had taken the lion’s share of their prize money: Thresh himself. The victor in their first and third championships (and by far the richest pro-gamer in the world to that point) has since retired from the pro scene to pursue other endeavours: he continues to make noises about restarting the PGL, in some form or other.
The rival CPL, which at this point seemed almost unchallenged, had grown considerably in the intervening two years, holding three major events to the PGL’s four. This fledgling pro tour allowed a small group of dedicated players to spring up, travelling from PGL to CPL events and back in search of ever larger purses. While Thresh played only in two PGL tourneys, his two California colleagues Kurt “Immortal” Shimada and Victor “Makaveli” Cuadra would become well-known to the playing community: so would Iowa’s Dan “Rix” Hammans, his former clanmate. While Immortal’s aim was legendary, it would be Rix who would enter the Quake lexicon: “to rix” meaning to play cautiously when ahead on points: a sin nearly every major player would be accused of at one point or another.
Tournaments were a mixture of Quake and its successor Quake 2. That changed that fall, however, as the CPL confirmed its dominance with two nearly back-to-back Quake 3 tournaments, beginning with Ground Zero (its first outside of Dallas, and the first to include a women’s tourney) in September of 1999. A new generation of gamers took advantage of the change in games to rise to dominance: gamers such as Mark “Wombat” Larsen, 15, of Illinois (Ground Zero, $10,000), and Amir “Hakeem” Haleem of Sweden (October’s FRAG 3, $10,000, the first non-North American to win a major event).
Those events would pale, however, before the Razer-CPL tournament in Dallas the next spring: undisputedly the greatest Quake tournament yet to be held. Not only were the prizes ($100,000 in total) by far the largest ever offered in a computer gaming tournament, but the event itself was a remarkable testament to the growing international support for the CPL, with gamers from 16 countries represented.
4. Enter the Koreans
America, Canada, Sweden, Britain: the gaming pro tour in early 1999 still drew from very few countries, and remained almost exclusively about Quake. But on the other side of the world, a very different gaming scene had emerged, developing almost in isolation: the Starcraft mania of South Korea.
Like many countries, South Korea had first started offering internet access on a broad scale in 1994. But the strong hand of government censorship, particularly of computer games, had clamped down almost immediately: many games were effectively banned in the country until early 1998, when a new more democratic government came to power and relaxed the restrictions.
In one of the more curious developments of the Internet age, South Koreans, suddenly released to play computer games online, fell in love en masse with one game: Blizzard’s Starcraft, released that March. In the next two years, the 46-million strong nation would buy 1 million copies of the game and its Brood War sequel, a third of the game’s sales worldwide. Thousands of the Korean equivalent of the internet café, the “PC Bang,” sprung up almost overnight to meet the demand for access. It’s no exaggeration to say that Koreans’ adoption of the internet was largely driven by kids paying to play Starcraft. There are nearly 20,000 PC Bang in the country now, up from 2,000 two years ago: in 1999 alone, the Bang brought in $4 billion in computer rental revenue to their owners.
While the Korean and American gaming scenes are in many ways similar (such as government concerns about game violence, leading to Starcraft being rather ineffectually rated an aged “20-and-older” game in that country), they differ in the way they adopted pro gaming. Korean companies already invested heavily in company baseball and soccer teams as marketing vehicles… when the craze took off, it seemed only appropriate to create company Starcraft teams to play the game professionally, as well. The first teams appeared in early 1999, with more coming on board every month. Players receive a wage (around $20,000 a year) to practice for the frequent game tournaments 10 hours a day. While claims that there are 1,000 pro gamers in Korea seem excessive, there’s no doubt the scene is lucrative: so much so the wireless phone company U2U4 could lure leading Canadian players Guillaume Patry and Jerome Rioux to the country to play for them. Star player Lee “Ssamzang” Ki-Seok has appeared in TV commercials.
(That commercial was pulled, by the way, when Ki-Seok caused a minor scandal in mid 1999. He admitted he had tweaked his standings in the preliminary internet-only rounds of a major tournament by arranging to play against himself sometimes. He would go on to win other major tournaments fairly.)
By early 2000, the Korean gaming scene was ready to expand abroad. Financed largely by Bang chain owner Haansoft, the internet game ranking company Battle Top announced it would run the World Cyber Games, a sort of international Olympiad of computer gaming, in October. The event would be preceded by a series of qualifying rounds for the 14 competing national teams, with major prizes for winners of the qualifiers. Winners of one of the four (later increased to six) “events” at the games would receive a $25,000 purse.
Even as Battle Top was attempting to expand in to the United States, the CPL had been looking to expand its tour outwards to the rest of the world, founding CPL Asia and CPL Europe earlier this year. With the PGL out of the running, organization of the gaming pro tour in the year 2000 has largely been shared by the CPL and this new competitor.
Incidentally, it's Britain and Europe, where national and linguistic boundaries have prevented pro leagues from coming together as quickly, where some of the more unusual one-shot tourneys have been attempted. The 1999 British PC Gamer championship had eight games in four genres, with the same teams competing against each other -- in all eight games. This year, the Barry's World Quake 3 European Championship was the first major tournament to have teams identified by nationality, rather than clan or club affiliation: the Russian team edged out the Swedes and Germans for the 10,000 Euro first prize.
Battletop's first European efforts were less than totally successful, however. The UK qualifier was particularly controversial, with officials telling one team in the Quake final (British pro Sujoy Roy's Clan 9) that the final match's length would be arbitrarily shortened, but apparently not informing their opponents. Many Unreal Tournament players were told to show up on the wrong day, while few players of Starcraft and FIFA Soccer events appeared at all.
While Battle Top spreads its efforts between games of several genres, the CPL continues to refine the first-person shooter experience through 2000. It was helped by the emergence of perhaps the most exciting player since Thresh, Johnathan “Fatality” Wendell. Fatality -- who admits to moving out of his mother’s house to pursue his dreams of a pro gaming career -- had been a force back at FRAG 3 in 1999. But it was his victories over Wombat and Makaveli at the Razer XS Invitational in Sweden in January of 2000 that really marked him as the new player to watch. So far this year, he has won $59,670 in solo-play cash prizes alone in five different tournaments: including the $40,000 first prize for the Razer-CPL championships in Dallas in April, beating out Makaveli again along with Korean hopeful Min-Woo “PowerK” Kim.
The only American gamer with a comparable record has been John “Zero4” Hill, who has won $21,750 so far in seven tournaments, mostly Battle Top-sponsored: he has always finished behind Fatality in tournaments they appeared in together, however. The only player to beat Fatality this year was Sweden’s Henrik “Blue” Bjork, who squeaked past him in the CPL Asia final in Singapore in June.
Interestingly, CPL tournaments this year have also taken a turn to where it all began, with the resuscitation of the teamplay event. Quake 3 4-on-4s were the focus of FRAG 4 in Dallas in September. (Fatality’s own Clan Kapitol took the prize in that tournament, beating out leading clans from America, Canada, and Europe). The $25,000 first prize is the largest ever offered in a team-on-team competition. FRAG 4 was unique in many ways: the same four days saw the first-ever straight cash prize ($5,000) for the women’s circuit, offered at the All-Female Tournament 2000 – won by Cary “Succubus” Szeto -- and in a somewhat nostalgic throwback, the first serious Doom 2 tournament in over two years. How far we’ve come, it seems.
5. Today and Tomorrow
The year 2000 is ending with a bang for pro gaming, with three major tournaments still to come. Battle Top’s World Cyber Games runs this week, with competition in Starcraft, Age of Kings, Quake 3 (solo and team), Unreal Tournament and FIFA Soccer. After that, gamewatchers’ eyes turn again to the CPL and the shooter circuit (While Quake 3 will remain the league’s dominant cybersport, Half-Life:Counterstrike and Unreal Tournament events will be added to some tournaments, as well, Munoz announced recently.) The CPL Europe’s first major event, the Cologne Open, runs in late November, and then the second ever tournament to offer $100,000 in total prizes, the Babbage’s $100,000, starts in Dallas on Dec. 14. The new year promises even more events, and an ever-increasing tempo for players on this growing pro tour. Even assuming Fatality becomes the first game player ever to win $100,000 in one year between now and Christmas, someone else almost certainly will the year after.
People in the pro gaming industry are confident the past is just a prologue for what’s to come. “In just a few years,” predicts Munoz, “It will be bigger than any existing ‘extreme-sport’ and eventually it will rival some traditional sports.”
There are still big question marks: will Battle Top be able to sustain itself into a second year, or are the World Cyber Games a one-hit wonder? What will receive the greater attention: teamplay events or one-on-one? Will gamers start to outgrow Quake? While some players and organizations have passed the torch, the pro gaming scene continues to outstrip predictions as to its growth and popularity. Where once, victory was about nothing more than clan bragging rights, it’s now about making a living, for organizers and players both. Currently, only a few players outside South Korea’s Starcraft leagues make sufficient money to prosper as pro gamers, but that, too, may change. A testament to the overriding power of human competitiveness, pro gaming leagues, whatever final form they take, are only going up from here.