Dallas Morning News
The Gamers' Guru
August 31, 2002

By TERESA GUBBINS / The Dallas Morning News / Texas Living

Angel Munoz is the prophet for a cult that many folks over 30 hardly know exists.

His flock: cybergamers – young people whose passion is video games. His mission is to gain them respect as athletes.

Basically, he aims to bring together a splintered community – mostly young males, locked before their computer screens. In broader terms, he wants to take something that is underground and bring it into the mainstream.

It's not what you might expect of a 42-year-old former investment banker and father of two young children. He's puzzled by his obsession.

"But I have a natural affinity with gamers – I really do," he says. "I like gaming, I like gamers, I like the whole environment. Honestly, I'm very surprised that I have built a business around something I have loved so much."

Angel Munoz is founder and president of the Cyberathlete Professional League. Its showpiece event, the Cyberathlete Professional League (CPL) championship, hints at what the future of gaming will be.

The summer championship took place in July at the Hyatt Regency Hotel. In a convention room on the basement floor, more than 2,000 players from around the world came to play a game called Counterstrike.

For five days, the teams competed, with each scrimmage knocking one team out. In the end, it came down to a white-knuckle round between two teams from Sweden. A team called the Shroet Kommando won first prize: $25,000.

The turnout was the biggest since the tournaments began in 1997. The event had corporate sponsorship from the likes of microprocessor giant Intel. It was being filmed for two documentaries in the making, and for the first time was covered by CNN.

All of this is a tip-off to how big the gaming industry is becoming, with sales of video games and related gear predicted to top $31 billion in sales this year – an increase of 12 percent.

One reason it has grown is the competitive spirit. Games that allow people to play against each other expand their appeal beyond the stereotypical loner in his room, growing plump on delivered pizza. At the CPL championship, the teams were staffed by lean, driven young men with metabolisms set on high. Mr. Munoz's point is well taken: Performing well at this game requires physical prowess.

"Back in '97, it occurred to me that computer gaming could be considered a sport," Mr. Munoz says. "This was at a time when the least I got was a snicker. People were almost unfriendly about the concept. But if you look at the championship – the tension and the celebration and the cameras and the whole thing – you see that it's easy for someone to experience the elation you get in a competitive event."

The CPL championships are neither the first of their kind, nor the only. QuakeCon takes place every summer in Mesquite; its attendance has grown from 150 in its first year (1996) to more than a thousand this year. But QuakeCon is intrinsically linked with one company, id Software; the games – Quake and Return to Castle Wolfenstein – are manufactured by id. The games played at CPL are not manufactured by CPL, which gives it more of an impartial flavor.

And while the other events are often more about having a communal experience, Mr. Munoz has an agenda to form a professional league.

"You can talk about computer games and virtual reality becoming a sport, but it's hard to comprehend unless you're there and can experience it," he says. "It's not about killing monsters or solving puzzles. The arena or the playing ground may be a virtual environment, but otherwise you're really competing against another team."

In developing his vision, he had to break down what it is that constitutes a sport. He resolved certain things: that sports require formal rules and procedures, tactics and strategies, training and competition.

"Without competition, it's not a sport," he says. "Sports require specialized neuromuscular skills that can be taught and learned. And obviously a degree of physical and emotional risk."

His faith in cybergaming as a sport dovetailed with changes in his personal life, when he and his wife, Karin, a former stockbroker, decided to have children.

He'd been working at NewWorld, his small investment banking firm, when he launched a Web site in 1995 called The Adrenaline Vault (www.avault .com). It became one of the Web's most popular gaming sites. He found himself getting hooked.

"It's almost like I experienced a reincarnation," he says.

A CPL event is really just a big "LAN party" (LAN stands for "local area network") in which gamers bring their computers and plug into a central network system. Organizing a LAN party isn't so hard on a small scale. Gamers do it all the time, at each other's houses, sometimes at public places.

But building one the size of an event like CPL is big-time, says Andrew Prell, 35, of Louisville, Ky. Mr. Prell, a lifelong gamer who owns a string of "cyber cafes" in Louisville, attended the recent CPL championship event.

"What Angel has put together is phenomenal – it's something that so many people have attempted," Mr. Prell says. "I've seen a lot of people try to do LAN parties and grow them big. The average ones have about 20 to 100 people. You don't see any with 500 to 1,000 people – there are very few around the world that have had that many attend. Most of them pale compared to what he's doing. Angel is pulling in gamers from all around the world."

For one thing, you need the technological expertise.

"The bigger party, the more power you have to have, and the more potential network problems," Mr. Prell says. "Kids out of high school can't do this. With more than a thousand people running games, it's the most demanding network you're going to have. A Fortune-500 company doesn't do the network traffic that 500 gamers do."

But you also need to be able to attract gamers. You need to be part of the culture. That's the cool thing about Mr. Munoz – he is both a corporate guy and one of the kids. Young gamers such as David LaFrenier, 19, of San Antonio, see that he's for real.

"He walks around the floor and talks to everybody," Mr. LaFrenier says. "It's not like 'I'm the owner, I run it.' But he's there, he's a gamer himself. He knows. Every event I've been to, I've talked to him. He wants to cater to the gamers. He knows we're there to have fun and he provides an environment."

Mr. LaFrenier has gone to four CPL championships and plans to continue attending. "The first event that I went to, it was maybe a third of the size it is now," he says. "Every year, it gets bigger and bigger. More companies are kicking in, giving money, looking at it like it's getting big. It's exciting for gamers that we're getting to share with everybody what we enjoy. But it's also what we take seriously."

That serious aspect is where Mr. Munoz's idea of a league comes in. Probably the most common comparison of the cyberathlete movement is extreme sports, says Mr. Prell.

"People started it in empty swimming pools – doing backflips and what-not," he says. "Cybergaming is an attraction. People love doing it, people love watching it. Why did baseball become a mainline thing? It was what that generation, and tens of subsequent generations, started enjoying. The better the person got, the better they got paid. It's the same thing that's going to happen in cybergames. It is the new playing field."

In Mr. Munoz's view of the future, cybergamers will be on professional teams, with sponsors and maybe even uniforms.

He recognizes that there may be some resistance, even from some of the most grass-roots components of the game community itself. But he believes in the power of his idea.

"This is a Dallas sport – a city better known for football and hockey, and that really is what is amazing to me," he says. "It's a sport that started here in Dallas, that's spread all over the world. When I have a friend calling me from Japan and saying, 'I'm watching you at your event on CNN. I'm watching you here on television,' that is unbelievable. As simple and silly as doing something in gaming. How do I explain this? I really think I was sort of chosen for it."

Copyright 2002 The Dallas Morning News