By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
ngel Munoz meets only one of the demographics of the gamers in his Cyberathlete Professional League. He's male. He's not Anglo, and, at 40 years old, he's old enough to have fathered many of the 17- to 25-year-olds who flock to his tournaments to play Quake and compete for cash prizes.
Yet, like these other players, he's fanatical about computer gaming, which is what drove him to start first Adrenaline Vault, an online gaming magazine, and later CPL, which he hopes will make gaming recognized as a sport like football or baseball. "I won't rest until I turn on the TV and watch the sports and they mention gaming tournaments like CPL, and it's accepted in the homes of all Americans and by other sports fans as a sport," Munoz says.
A sport? Pale, twitchy game players are jocks? Why not? Munoz asks. If ESPN can cover bass fishing, then certainly guiding your space Marine through mazes while wasting laser-pistol-toting aliens can qualify, he reasons.
After all, golf is considered a sport.
Munoz's gamers, like other athletes, have to practice, possess good reflexes and a sense of strategy, and be conscious of their abilities and the game's rules while competing. "Contrary to what people believe, it's not just people moving a mouse around," he says. "That's like saying race-car drivers just steer a car. People don't realize they need all these specialized skills. Without a question I consider this a sport. It is absolutely a sport."
Of course, it's hard to see "sport" in an event in which the players can, theoretically, also munch Cheetos while practicing, but Munoz's argument strikes a chord with some players, like Main Street Internet's gaming technician Bryan England. The Deep Ellum cyber café and bar hosted a qualifier for the Dallas competition that brought 35 players from as far away as Arizona to compete for seats at the CPL event.
"Angel believes these players are the same as athletes because of the skills they use and their hand and eye coordination," England says. "Some people don't think bowling is a sport, or golf, because the players aren't in top physical condition. But if you say a sport involves having enormous skill and the top players make a lot of money, then, yes, gaming is a sport."
Days before the tournament, the members of the Australian, Korean, New Zealand, and South African teams are practicing at Main Street Internet, where 20 of the cyber bar's computers and two of its rooms are devoted to gaming. Local players who practice there regularly join them. They know one another by handle (their gaming names) or from past events. This is the first time they've had a public place to meet and practice together. As at the CPL competition, the players bring their own mice, keyboards, and mouse pads -- their own set of clubs, as it were.
"They've even discussed bringing their own chairs," England says. "It's all a matter of maximum comfort." However, they all use the same computers in competition. Gateway Computers, one of the league sponsors, provides 100 terminals for CPL and connects them on a network.
More than 500 players begin; the last man -- they're almost all male -- standing wins. CPL tournaments are really just large versions of the game parties players have been throwing at their houses for years. Munoz's league created a set of rules, nabbed sponsorships to provide hardware and prizes, and convinced the gamers who visited the avault.com Web site to compete. "We haven't invented anything, we've just formalized the process," Munoz says. "The only thing we can take credit for is making it professional."
If attracting top gamers and sponsors was the first step, the next step may be harder. He has to get people who know little or nothing about computer games to accept that playing them can be as exciting and competitive as other professional sports. There's also the question about whether violent video games can cause violence in teenagers. Quake, a popular "first-person shooter" game, has been blamed for teaching teens involved in recent school shootings how to aim, fire, and repeat for mass killing.
This is where Munoz has to act his age and play a father's role. Quake is rated by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board as mature, which means that players must be 17 years old to purchase it. Because of the rating, Munoz doesn't allow anyone under 15 years old into the arena. Participants who are 16 and 17 year old must bring a signed permission slip from their parents.
Players still come from across the world to compete. The next competition, which takes place Thursday through Sunday at the Hyatt Regency near Reunion Arena, will bring 374 players from Texas and about a hundred from outside the United States, including 21 from the United Kingdom and 12 from Sweden. Several countries send teams to the CPL competitions. Sponsors pay for the trip; some even pay players to practice online eight to 10 hours a day. The winner of the Dallas CPL tournament will receive $40,000 cash, with another $60,000 going to the other top players. And in a move that is sure to horrify parents who think little Billy is just wasting his time wasting mutants, next year, Munoz plans to double the cash prizes. It's now possible for top players to live off of earnings from competitions and sponsorships.