November 2004 • Vol.4 Issue 11
Page(s) 103-104 in print issue
An Interview With Angel Munoz, President Of The Cyberathlete Professional League
if you could make your gaming passion into a profession. The idea may
not be as far-fetched as you think. Angel Munoz was bit by the gaming
bug and went on to found the CPL (Cyberathlete Professional League; www.thecpl.com),
the industry’s first bona fide organization dedicated to making
computer gaming into a legitimate sport. Not only is Munoz’s journey an
intriguing one, but his organization extends to everyone who has ever
wielded a BFG weapon with the dream of gaining fortune and glory.|
by William Van Winkle
CPU: A decade ago you were an investment banker. How on earth did you get into gaming?
Munoz: Well, back in the early ’90s, there were some rumors in investment banking circles that there was a small company out of Mesquite, Texas, looking for financing. That company was id Software, which at the time was designing a game called Doom. While the rumor proved to be wrong, a friend of mine bought a copy of the game and told me, ‘You just really have to try this and play it.’ So I popped it in one of those early laptops with only 256-colors and no sound. For the first time, I found myself transported to another reality and being able to play a game that was, in my opinion at that time, so realistic and so immersing. I knew then that I had to be part of the industry somehow. So in ’94 and ’95, I launched a sort of a hobby Web site for gaming called The Adrenaline Vault. I figured there had to be a few people out there like me. I just never realized how big the industry was.
CPU: Did you miss the whole 1980s arcade scene?
Munoz: I played a lot of those games, but it was more like, OK, when I have time. But [PC gaming] was really something I wanted to do all the time. I spent a lot of time trying to understand the gamerís mentality, seeing them in action and following their competitions. At some point I realized that they were very serious about these competitions, but they were not organized. People would meet online and compete with each other, and people were just trying to figure out who was the best. Reputations were made and destroyed. One day, it just clicked. A light turned on. This was so much like a sport, so I came up with the term cyberathlete, which is now a registered trademark of our company. Thatís when I launched the league back in June of 1997 to the laughter of the corporate world and even some gamers. No one thought that I was serious or as stubbornly determined to make it happen.
CPU: Obtaining legitimacy and credibility must be one of the CPLís biggest hurdles?
Munoz: In the beginning there were just a handful of people that thought there was some reality behind the concept of computer game competitions as a professional sport. That circle of people became wider and wider, and, interestingly enough, it now includes a lot of athletes. I actually work out at a gym with a lot of the Dallas Cowboys and other pro-athletes, and theyíre always asking me what the latest game is and how to compete themselves. They come to the events and totally get it. Competition is competition. Where I find the most resistance is from spectators of sports and the media. Those are the last two bastions that we have to overcome.
CPU: Describe the average pro gamer.
Munoz: Male. Seventeen to 24. Way higher than average tech knowledge. You would be surprised. Theyíre not the kids with myopia and adiposity. Itís normally a kid that comes from an athletic background. That right there shatters everything that people are expecting. Right now, because gaming on computers is expensive, if you want to be at the top end of gaming, you have to have the latest and greatest technology. So they tend to come from affluent families, have fantastic communication skills and are not afraid to tell anyone what they think. Obviously, they also have to have incredible hand-eye coordination, lightening fast reflexes, incredible power of concentration. Our events are populated by television cameras, photographers, reporters and a live audience just like any other sport. Playing at a CPL event is definitely not like playing at home.
CPU: How much can the top-tier cyberathletes make a year from gaming?
Munoz: Thatís a number that has not been openly discussed because almost every top professional gamer is sponsored, and no one is releasing those numbers. But to give you one example, next year weíre launching a world tour. At the world tour, weíre giving away a $1 million in cash prizes. The world tour is a one vs. one format, which means a person is competing against another person. Itís not a team of people, which also means that the single winner of that tour is going to get the top prize. There are several stops around the world, and the winners of those get just $15,000. The winner of the finals, which are all selected from the winners of the stops, gets $150,000. Then second place gets $100,000 and so forth. I think that those numbers are impressive, and that shows how vast computer gaming has become.
CPU: When someone wants to get involved in this competition, what happens? Do I bring my box, and is there a set regime of games?
Munoz: We announce the games weíre using ahead of time. We normally keep some games consistent. For example, Counter-Strike is a consistent game weíve used for the last four years. You play on computers that are provided by us, and theyíre identical. We were the first organization in the world that came up with the concept of doing that, and people were upset. They wanted to play on their own computers. "Thatís the way things are done. Who are you guys to tell us that we canít use our own computers?" is what we were told. It took a lot of explaining for gamers to understand that we wanted to eliminate those incidental variances. How is it fair for somebody to be competing with a more powerful computer? Letís make them all powerful.
CPU: No steroids.
Munoz: Exactly. If a person like yourself wants to play, youíre going to play on our computers with our rules on our schedule and the way we want you to play. Just like a sport. We determine everything, and obviously weíre doing well when our latest competition had well over 4,000 gamers showing up from 52 different countries. Iím pleased to see that people think now that having such strict standards is actually good for the sport, and itís made the sport grow.
CPU: Does it cost anything to be a league member?
Munoz: Weíre an open league, so we donít have membership. One of the few left in the world, actually. All we charge is admission, which is $80 per event. Our business model is not really to make money off the participants. Not that $80 is not a lot of money, but thatís for a five-day event. Thatís a lot of entertainment, plus we have so much at our events. Itís not just the competition. Our last event had a rock band, and we took people to the movies for free. We do a lot to provide value. Itís a very important demographic, and the companies that support the CPL understand that and are willing to go the extra mile to make sure that they make a good impression with this crowd.
CPU: Do you foresee multiple professional gaming leagues playing against one another?
Munoz: Yes. Absolutely. When you examine the history of all sports, they take a long time to establish. I think our growth pattern is very similar to the X Games, which were sports that everybody did as a hobby and no one thought about as Ďrealí sports. They just started pushing it a little more extreme, and now it has become this incredible, powerful franchise. But how many years did it take people to get to that level? A long time. That is the way sports develop. Our growth is there, and itís going fast ≠maybe faster than any other sport≠ but thereís still a lot more to do as far as television and recognition. After all, there arenít that many nongamers left in the world.
CPU: If thatís the case, then Ďgamersí has to include more than just first-person shooter gamers. Are you planning on keeping a line in the sand with FPS titles, or will you encompass more genres of gaming, such as strategy and adventure?
Munoz: Itís been discussed, but thatís like trying to put the cart in front of the horse. We really need to establish ourselves for what we are rather than diversify the league and dilute it. Our focus has been the biggest asset that we have and what works for us the best. To answer your question, yes, eventually there will be other forms of games. Itís unavoidable. A lot of people will say, ĎWait a second, I play this other thing,í or a sponsor will come over and go, ĎHey, weíd like to sponsor this.í But, right now, we want to keep the focus where itís at.
CPU: In comparing that first incredible experience of yours with Doom against todayís Doom 3, do you ever think to yourself, ĎMan, my standards back then were so much lower?í
Munoz: Actually, I donít. The elements that I found compelling about Doom werenít necessarily visual. It was the absolute sense of immersion that the game gave you. I donít really think that a game has been able to do that to me since Doom. Doom 3, with all its graphical wonders, is compelling for other reasons. Itís like asking somebody, ĎWell, now that youíve been married for 30 years, donít you think that first love you had in high school was kind of silly?í Well, no because it gave me the experience of love. From a graphical perspective, sure, you look at a game like Doom 3, and itís like, my God. But does that really add to the game? Hmm. Thatís a better question. Game play isnít necessarily all graphics. Hereís the ultimate example: Counter-Strike. a game that is almost Doom 1-like, and itís still by far the No. 1 online action game in the world. Right now, as you and I are speaking, GameSpy shows that there are 64,868 people playing Counter-Strike and only 429 people playing Doom 3.
CPU: In August you posted a poll on the CPL site asking gamers if they were more inclined to buy from companies that sponsor the league. That takes guts. What would happen to your finance base if this group of headstrong, independent-minded gamers said, ĎNo, do I look like some kind of marketing sponge?í
Munoz:You know what? That was one of the most frightful things Iíve ever done. Seven years weíve been in this business and weíve never really asked the gamers, are you being influenced by sponsorships? We debated it at the CPL, should we even go out there and ask that question? I felt like I was part of the military [philosophy] ≠ you know "donít ask, donít tell." Fortunately and surprisingly, 74% of the people answered yes. That is very surprising. Have you ever heard of a drink called BAWLS?
CPU: Heard of it but havenít tried it.
Munoz: If youíve even heard of it, itís largely because of us. Thatís a typical example. We brought that drink to one of our early events, then they came to about maybe two years of events, and now itís ingrained in the gaming community. Itís the primary drink of hardcore gamers now.
CPU: We thought that was Mountain Dew.
Munoz: Mountain Dew is one of the companies weíre talking to now. [Laughing] Their budgets are just slightly larger.
CPU: Youíre a few years older than the average gamer, and youíre an experienced parent. Given that, whatís your stance on violence in computer games?
Munoz: I am probably the worst person to ask that question because, to the despair and reluctance of my wife, I had my son, Alexander, playing first person shooters with me when he was barely two and a half to three years old. My daughter also followed in the footsteps of that because I really believe that the entire controversy is insane. It echoes the controversy that took place in the í50s when comic books were being unfairly sanctioned. Every new expression of media encounters an opposite reaction, an inverse reaction to its growth, and gaming has not been immune to that.
Based on my own experience with my son and daughter and by being exposed to literally tens of thousands of gamers worldwide, I am totally convinced that there is absolutely no truth to that association. Does that mean that we just hand these games to young people without parental supervision and without involvement? No. The role of a parent is still absolutely necessary in the process of understanding the difference between virtual violence and real violence, and both need to be discussed. But is gaming an automatic pathway to higher levels of violence? I havenít seen that at all. On the contrary, my son is probably one of the gentlest children. I know itís something that any parent would say, but I pride myself in being a very dispassionate parent when it comes to criticism of my own children. I donít need them to be more than what they are, but violence is the last thing on their minds.
CPU: Gaming is not without power to teach lessons. Do you see gaming in general becoming more conscious of doing this?
Munoz: What youíre really asking is, is it a form of entertainment or is it an educational forum or is it both combined? I think that there are games that some people are going to be attracted to that cater a little bit more to the sensitivity of learning. There are a lot of games geared in the direction of teaching children. Either they learn lessons or they actually interact. They have to solve puzzles and things of that nature. There are very few games that you can really say all you have to do is blow things up. Those games are of no interest to me. But just to give you an example, Doom 3 (singleplayer) is your ultimate blow-it-up game. But what I found when I was playing and replaying it is that itís really about being able to control your fears. The game puts you in a very dark environment with monsters that come from any angle, including those that crawl on walls. Youíre there to save the planet. Iím going, OK, itís better not to get scared because the game is designed to scare you. I play better when Iím calm, but the first time I played it, it really scared me. I think that you can distill valuable lessons from this and other virtual environments.