Have Gun, Will Travel

How far can a video-game champ go? Ask Matt Leto.

On August 3, 2003, Sepso and DiGiovanni took a limo to a Halo tournament in Saddle Brook, New Jersey. Zyos was there. He'd finished seventh in the individual tournament, and his team, The Dream Team, the team no one could beat, the team that made a video of itself playing and watched as the tape was downloaded more than 80,000 times on the Web--this team was once more in the championship game.

But it lost that day to Shoot to Kill, a team formed for the express purpose of defeating The Dream Team. Undeterred, Sepso and DiGiovanni ushered the four teenagers--two from Texas, two from Kansas--into the limo and took them to a steak house in Times Square, where the pitch was made: We've formed a professional gaming league, and we want you four as our first signed players.

And so a new industry began.

The legions of Matt Leto's fans across the world are never more than a message board away.
Mark Graham
The legions of Matt Leto's fans across the world are never more than a message board away.
Above: Leto at work (or is it play?) alone in his room. Below: the tools with which he makes his money.
Mark Graham
Above: Leto at work (or is it play?) alone in his room. Below: the tools with which he makes his money.

Which is not to say professional gaming leagues didn't already exist. South Korea has three. It has a governing body for the leagues, the Korean e-Sports Association, which ranks the standings for the 218 professional gamers in the country. Here in the States, there's the Cyberathlete Professional League, a league started in 1997 by a 37-year-old Dallasite named Angel Munoz. But there's a major difference between Munoz's league and MLG: the system through which games are played.

CPL is a personal computer-based league, meaning its athletes--and Munoz argues they are athletes--play their games on computers. MLG is a console-based league, meaning its athletes--MLG makes the same argument--play their games on a console system, such as a PlayStation or Xbox. Both are successful: MLG will hold tournaments for three game titles this year, for a total purse of $250,000; CPL has a $1.2 million 10-city worldwide tour in 2005 for its seven-game roster. But the leagues attract different sorts of gamers. Simply put, PC players tend on average to be more--how to put this?--computer-literate than their console counterparts.

Their sponsors reflect that. CPL is endorsed by CompUSA, Hitachi and Intel. Last year, MLG had Converse as a title sponsor.

"Each is a different culture," says Daiquiri Jackson, promotions manager for GameStop, a video-game retailer that's endorsed both leagues.

Yet both leagues are not without their critics. Doug Gentile is the director of research at the National Institute on Media and the Family. "We have an obesity epidemic in this country. That's not my word. That's the National Institutes of Health's," he says. "And one of the reasons is likely to be screen time...And now we're giving kids more incentive to play more."

Mary Story, one of the nation's foremost obesity researchers at the University of Minnesota, agrees that the leagues could lead to more kids sitting around but argues ours is a sedentary culture regardless of age or interest. To single out MLG over, say, corporate America, which asks its employees to sit in a cubicle for eight hours a day, is hypocritical, she says.

Gentile won't let MLG or any other league off that easily. He points to the work of Dr. Paul Lynch at the University of Oklahoma. Lynch has studied the physiological effects of video games on teenagers for 15 years. In 1999, he published a study suggesting violent video games might cause heart problems later in life.

Violent games, like Halo, raise one's adrenaline level. And adrenaline, the study says, is nothing more than fatty acids that are used as an energy source. Yet these fatty acids released into the bloodstream are not acted upon by the gamer's muscles, because the gamer is sitting and playing, not running or jumping or fighting. Since no muscle will use them, the fatty acids in the end make their way through the liver, where they are converted to cholesterol. "This could be a precursor for heart disease," Gentile writes via e-mail.

Could be, but the scientific community needs to further parse the data. In the interim, MLG is willing to respond to a more general question: Is paying people to play video games bad for the health of the nation?

"My initial knee-jerk reaction is 'Give me a break,'" says DiGiovanni, two years after his epiphany the executive vice president of MLG. "We're encouraging kids to do what they already love. And a small amount of those kids can make a living at it." MLG has signed 17 people to be pro gamers. Yet DiGiovanni says none of the 17 signed, nor the thousands more who attend MLG events, is a pasty-white, obese basement dweller.

"These guys are competitive. These are guys who compete in other sports," he says. And then, almost with an air of resignation, "Just come to one of our events."

Zyos has the rocket launcher. Mathieu Hebbada, from France, runs the halls of this abandoned, darkened warehouse with a shotgun. The game is tied at 14, and if Zyos scores one more kill, he's crowned World Cyber Games Halo Champion 2003 and awarded $20,000. Zyos settles under a ramp, points his weapon toward a second-floor window and waits.

Tournament Halo is played in one of two ways. What Zyos is playing now is single-player Halo. Before him is a television screen of his position in the warehouse, and in the screen's bottom right corner, Mathieu Hebbada's position. In single-player, the first gamer to score 15 kills wins. Then there's multiplayer Halo. The difference between multiplayer and single-player is you're on a team in multiplayer. A two-man team or a four-man team. Together, you seek and kill the other team. The first one to score 50 kills wins. Zyos, in a couple of weeks, will play for The Dream Team in a tournament in New York, but it's this sort of tournament in Seoul, the single-player one, where he excels.

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