The transition from amateur to professional is a dramatic, harrowing, and ultimately triumphal passage. The recipe for such a passage – blood, sweat, tears – is an unfamiliar one when cooked up in the kitchen of professional videogames. But it becomes altogether familiar once again when the players’ personal dramas are uncovered.
Author Michael Kane observes with wit and generosity the incubation, the aspiration, the resistance, and birth of professional videogaming’s debut on national television. Kane, a journalist from the New York Post, embeds himself with two of America’s top “e-sports” teams, Team 3D and CompLexity, circa 2006. He studies their origins, their growth, and their regressions inside and outside the world’s number one competitive first-person shooter, Counter-Strike.
Throughout Game Boys are comparisons and contrasts to professional sports like football, basketball, and hockey. To a group like Team 3D or CompLexity, the team leader is their “quarterback.” The “shoutcasters” at official videogaming events are “the wannabe John Madden and Al Michaels of e-sports.” At the end of a match, the teams pass by each other and slap hands “like two Little League baseball teams.”
Kane lays the sports analogies on thick, but that’s because there’s a mountain of preconceived notions to scale. Notions carried even by gamers like myself; I didn’t consider videogames to be sports. I felt the term “e-sports” in itself was oxymoronic. I thought manipulating a mouse and keyboard could never equate to the skills required to reach the Georgia Dome or Fenway Park. Heck, I didn’t even think those skills could get you through a backyard game of two-hand touch.
The truth, even to a wary-eyed skeptic such as myself, is that Counter-Strike can very much be elevated to that of a sport. Counter-Strike occupies a virtual space as opposed to a physical one, but the mentality that drives professional videogaming is immediately recognizable when abutted against sports like soccer and baseball. Practice is paramount, strategy is key, teamwork is a must, and execution is the proof. At first, Kane’s waxing over endless sports analogies is not affective. He compares Team 3D and CompLexity to the rivalry between Ohio State and Michigan, or Duke and North Carolina. To be fair, these aren’t his own hyperboles at work here: Team 3D had already been referred to as the New York Yankees of Counter-Strike.
The players’ drama doesn’t start or stop on a computer screen. Danny “fRoD” Montaner, the number one Counter-Strike player on the planet, can’t earn his own father’s respect when it comes to his professional gaming pursuits. On the flip side, Tyler “Storm” Wood has a mom that watches his matches online, and a father that feels pro gaming is “comparable to any job.” When it comes to public relations, Dave “Moto” Geffen is a good-looking guy, and one that doesn’t choke when the TV cameras need a quote. Matt “Warden” Dickens, however, is overweight and suffers the full brunt of fat jokes that internet pranksters crop up.
Were Game Boys merely about recounting wins and losses on Counter-Strike maps, then any chance to emotionally invest in the players would be tragically lost. But Kane brings so many rich, desperate, humorous, and brave details to the page. Those are the details that don’t make it onto TV cameras, don’t come up in the post-game interviews, and don’t translate onto the focused-yet-zombified players’ expressions locked onto 1024x768 monitor resolutions.
Something else the interviewers never ask is how much money these players are making. From the out-of-pocket expenses burying CompLexity’s manager, to the tens of thousands fattening Team 3D’s pockets, the rivalry isn’t just personal, it’s monetary. It isn’t just “frags” and bragging rights, it’s travel expenses and free hardware. It isn’t just spawn points, it’s sponsorships. Seeing the dollar figures grow from tournament winnings also plays a significant role in mainstream and corporate acceptance. And mainstream acceptance is hard-won when the world hears the word “videogames” and pictures acne-ridden nerds slacking off and living in mom’s basement.
That stereotype is another roadblock that Kane attempts to overcome. While Game Boys is a validation of all things Counter-Strike, including the removal of labels affixed to the players themselves, he keeps other e-sports marginalized. He refers to Guitar Hero as nothing more than a “kiddie game,” and he slights World of Warcraft players by calling them “junkies,” and accusing them of playing a game that “doesn’t resolve a damn thing.” Kane’s apparent argument is that succinct, timed rounds of Counter-Strike trump the open-ended format of an MMORPG. His comparison is imperfect, of course, since player-versus-player combat in World of Warcraft arenas likewise adhere to clocked rounds and body-count resolutions. He may be splitting hairs.
But Kane isn’t here to endorse all gaming as legitimate e-sports. That isn’t the plan. He’s here to champion Counter-Strike and its X and O stratagems, its pixel by pixel hand-eye coordination, and its make-or-break need for camaraderie. Anything else – from Stephen Baldwin making an unsolicited tournament appearance, to a Miss World Series of Video Games beauty pageant – is fair game to take shots at.
During his Game Boys research, Kane himself transitions from ignorance to skepticism to unwavering belief. Once videogaming emerges from basement LAN parties to fully-sponsored, center-staged, televised events, Kane feels his journey is complete. He is unmistakably proud as Team 3D and CompLexity transition into the still-burgeoning arena of going pro in the videogame world.
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