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Armchair gunslingers
Computer gaming tournaments offer fame (sort of) and fortune (more than you think). There may be an elite 'athlete' in the cube next to you.

By Jessika Bella Mura
Special to digitalMASS

Chances are, you're headed to another holiday party this weekend. But a talented few are forsaking the buffet dinners and drunk coworkers for a weekend of adrenaline-wracked fragging in Dallas. The Babbage's/Cyberathlete Professional League Tournament began there yesterday and runs through Sunday, drawing 512 of the world's top gamers, including a handful from Massachusetts.

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Grigori Jevdokimov, soft-spoken sophomore from Endicott College, will be there, even though he should be studying for finals. Dana "Indio" Shetterly of North Adams is taking a couple of days off his job at BFI to see if he can be one of the top 64 Quake 3 fanatics to share in $122,000 in prize money. And 14th seed Paul "CZM" Nelson of Framingham thinks he might have a shot at first place in the one-on-one competition, even though the field includes teammate Jonathan "Fatality" Wendel, champ of the recent CPL Europe tourney and winner of more than $100,000 in prize money this year.

"We are at an embryonic stage, but we think that we are growing at an exponential rate that is unheard of in sports," says CPL founder Angel Munoz. After a quiet start in mid 1997, the CPL is making a big splash this year with a high-profile slate of tournaments, picking up where the dormant Professional Gamers League left off. The CPL has lined up sponsors eager to showcase their hardware under the extreme conditions of competitive gaming: for the Dallas event, Gateway is coughing up 160 1.4 gigahertz Pentium 4 computers, NetGear is providing $30,000 worth of switching equipment, and the whole shebang is being strung together with 4 miles of Monster Cable .

As the heaps of equipment might suggest, the participants are predominantly and predictably male. But the sisters of Lara Croft will be there too. Female first-person shooters are encouraged to play in the general competition, but haven't yet cracked the top 10 percent of players. So, Munoz says, "We had to manage the demographics." While Munoz says he feels uneasy about offering a separate women's category, he also admits that the female-only events are the most watched. "There is an entertainment quality to watching two women basically duke it out ."

Ahem. But as with the much-maligned sweet science, people have been asking if competitive gaming indeed constitutes a sport. With sponsorships, prize money, and stars that trot the globe a la Tiger Woods and Pete Sampras, the trappings are there, but gaming maintains its image as the geeky pastime of a bunch of armchair gunslingers. "There's a lot of stigma to it still," says Munoz.

Could it be the lack of overt athleticism required? Then again, think archery, or maybe curling. Give humans any task, and someone will take it to an absurd level of achievement. Remove any practical application, and it becomes sport (either that, or one of Martha Stewart's many pursuits).

Munoz's favorite analogy is to auto racing, which he calls "another technology-based sport." While absent the risk to life and limb, gaming capitalizes on the same sharp reflexes and pinpoint control. Besides, says Munoz, "what's missing in reality we present virtually" -- large projection screens at this weekend's event will emphasize what the gamer is seeing, much like a camera positioned on a racer's helmet.

Paul Nelson likens computer gaming to chess, for its strategic nature and for the "killing" that takes place. Nelson, a 16-year-old high school junior, had to have his parents sign a release allowing him to squeak under the age restriction for mature-rated games. However, he dismisses any negative impact the grislier games might have on his youthful psyche. "If you have a firm enough grasp on reality you don't have to be worried too much about being affected by these games," he says briskly.

Of greater concern to Nelson is how he'll adjust to LAN-based play, which lacks the delay inherent in the Internet-based arena. Grigori Jevdokimov might have an even bigger adjustment to make. He says his connection at school is so bad that sometimes he gets up at 5 a.m. to play and even then is sometimes disappointed.

Gamers don't necessarily have to go far to overcome technological hurdles. Check out your local LAN party . David "Rooster [3D]" Crowell, founder of 3Demons CyberArena, says that at party number 5 , to be held this February in Framingham, earlier bandwidth bottlenecks will be eliminated with a fully switched network. LAN parties are a growing phenomenon, and while the competition is still pretty healthy, Crowell says that "people from all walks of life are involved in this stuff because it's just a lot of fun."

Even in the upper echelons, money hasn't poisoned the atmosphere as it arguably has in more established sports. Some gamers I spoke to said they'd be happy simply to recoup expenses at this weekend's tournament. Paul Nelson says that, if anything, he's playing for the recognition. "I don't even think about the money, to be honest, when I'm playing. I'm just playing for the title."

Jessika Bella Mura is the digitalMASS Culture Columnist, writing about the local cyber-culture. Jessika can be reached at [email protected].

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