December 10, 2006 10:20 AM PST

Take me out to the 'Counter-Strike'

NEW YORK--There's no doubt about it: This is a sport.

There are leagues, coaches, pep talks, uniforms, corporate sponsors, loyal fans and spectators perched in stadium-style seating. There's coverage on the CBS-owned College Sports Television network (CSTV).

But there are no balls tossed or races run. The events in which the 95 international "athletes" participated in were not traditional sports, but rather Halo 2, Counter-Strike, Project Gotham, Ghost Recon, Quake 4 and Warcraft III. This was day one of a different kind of championship: The finals of the 2006 World Series of Video Games.

The event took place Saturday at Manhattan's Chelsea Piers Sports and Entertainment Complex, a set of piers that were originally used as berths for luxury liners. After a total renovation in the 1990s, the former piers are now home to such sites as roller and ice rinks, indoor playing fields, bowling lanes, a rock-climbing wall, a health club and spa, a golf driving range and the Law and Order studio.

The WSVG was hosted in two of CSTV's studios on Pier 60. And I was crammed into a row of bleacher-like seating in one of those studios, a spectator to what would be a very exciting Counter-Strike match.

When I arrived, the two teams participating in the match were warming up on the "playing field," which consisted of two rows of five Samsung monitors attached to sleek black Dell XPS gaming laptops. On one side was Pentagram G-Shock, a Polish team that derived its name from its top two sponsors, Polish electronics manufacturer Pentagram and sports watch maker G-Shock.

Custom keyboards and buzzcuts
The players, all men clad in blue-and-white T-shirts, ranged in age from 18 to 22 and looked pretty much what I'd expect from a team of Eastern Europeans: pale, studious-looking and mostly with buzzed haircuts. At the WSVG, players provide their own keyboards and mice as though they were lucky bats at a baseball game, and several of the Pentagram players had customized their mice with their "gamer nicknames."

On the other side of the studio was Pentagram's opponent, a Chinese team called Wisdom Nerve Victory, or WNV. The WNV players were only slightly older than their opponents, with the youngest player 20 and the oldest 23. All men, again. (Indeed, throughout the whole day, I didn't see a single female competitor--though I'd heard there were a few--or any contender who looked clearly older than 30.)

The WNV players were wearing jackets that evoked Nascar: white windbreakers covered with colorful sponsor logos from Intel, graphics chip manufacturer ATI (a recent Advanced Micro Devices acquisition), sportswear company Kappa, and a whole host of Chinese brands. I was seated across the studio from WNV, so I couldn't see if any of them had personalized mice, but one of them had placed a stuffed toy Dalmatian atop his monitor.

During the prematch warm-up, neither team seemed to be anything more than just boys playing video games: laughing, joking and punching one another in the shoulder. I couldn't figure out much more about their practice tactics because none of them was speaking English. But whispers from audience members who followed competitive gaming painted a much more serious picture.

Money to be won
Teams like WNV and Pentagram had wound up at the WSVG Finals in New York City by proving themselves worthy in competitions all over the world, like RAGE (Really Awesome Gaming Expo) in Johannesburg, South Africa, or the World Cyber Games (WCG), held this year in Monza, Italy.

Pentagram had won the grand prize in the Counter-Strike division of the 2006 WCG, besting teams from Sweden and Finland to take home the equivalent of $60,000. They'd also won the $12,500 prize at the UK Gaming Championship, a direct qualifier for the WSVG finals. Through sponsorship and prize money, competitive video gaming can be a lucrative hobby. According to a few spectators sitting near me, a sizable portion of the players use the money as a means to pay for college.

I could tell that the match was about to begin when both teams stood up for a stretch. The Pentagram gamers passed around a bottle of caffeinated soda. Across the studio, what appeared to be the mother of one of the WMV team members turned on a handheld camcorder. The teams' coaches, who stood behind the rows of monitors as though on the sidelines of a basketball game, passed on a few quick words. Then the clock started.

CONTINUED: Let the games begin…
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