December 10, 2006 10:20 AM PST

Take me out to the 'Counter-Strike'

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At first, the match didn't look like it would be close at all. Counter-Strike, a first-person shooter PC game in which a team of "terrorists" faces off against a team of "counter-terrorists," is played in timed rounds of a determined length. In the WSVG, the winner would be the first team to emerge victorious in 16 rounds. So, when Pentagram proceeded to defeat WNV in the first eight rounds straight, it looked like the match might not exactly be a nail-biter. But then WNV won two rounds in a row, and the previously subdued Chinese squad began to look more enthusiastic.

Throughout it all, the audience was noticeably quiet, which made me wonder if they were remaining silent out of respect for the game play or because it just wasn't all that easy to follow. Through the walls, however, we could hear that the Halo 2 tournament in the next studio was generating a fair amount of applause--was the Halo audience perhaps more game-savvy, or is Halo just a more spectator-friendly game?

This year, the WSVG organizers had hyped up the fact that the finals at Chelsea Piers would be both broadcast on CSTV's Web site and televised in an edited form on CBS, CSTV, and the Gameplay HD channel. The competition had also received some coverage on MTV.

But the Counter-Strike match wasn't easy viewing for a live audience. If competitive gaming is going to gain more footing as a sport, at the very least there's going to have to be a scoreboard of sorts. That way, spectators won't have to watch the players' individual games--a few of which were displayed on TV screens suspended from the ceiling--to catch a glimpse of the overall tally.

The WNV players cheered again. They'd pulled the score even tighter and were now trailing by only five rounds. The normally boisterous Polish team member grew more quietly intense as they saw that their opponents eating into their early lead, and it became increasingly noticeable as WNV crept closer: 9-7, 9-8, and then finally a 9-9 tie. Then WNV pulled ahead, gaining an 11-9 lead.

Competitive gaming as sport
That's when I realized I was actually getting wrapped up in the match as though it were a Duke-UNC basketball game.

I've never owned a game console in my life (though the Wii may change that), let alone played a single round of Counter-Strike. Yet I was not only willing accept that competitive gaming, as outlandish as it may seem, is a sport, but that it is pretty darned exciting.

Back to the playing field. Pentagram would have none of WMV's lead. They re-tied the game at 11-11, and then pulled it all the way to 14-11, two rounds away from a win. WNV tried to make more headway, bringing the score to 14-12, but then Pentagram hammered out the last two rounds for a 16-12 victory. The players cheered quickly, congratulated each other in Polish, and immediately walked to the other side of the studio to shake their opponents' hands.

They then retrieved their keyboards and mice and shuffled outside without much fanfare. After all, it was only the second round of the competition. The next two teams, an American team called CompLexity and another Nascar-style jacket-clad Chinese team by the name of Hacker Gaming, took their seats at the monitors.

The games went on. Later that day, Pentagram would fall to a Swedish team called Fnatic, losing their chance at the $50,000 first prize. As I read in a forum on the Amped eSports Web site, the Swedes are known for fielding formidable Counter-Strike teams--although the country's much-hyped "Ninjas in Pyjamas" team managed to lose in the first round at the WSVG. Then there's Halo 2, which is completely U.S.-dominated. In Warcraft III, there are apparently a few Korean players to watch out for.

Yes, competitive video gaming is a full-out sport, as much as many of us don't want to admit it. Once international rivalries and reputations start building up, that's a telltale sign for sure.

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