Imagine the best athletes in the United States coming together to play under one roof.

It’s like that, except with guys who often appear as if they’re barely out of puberty sitting in front of hundreds of computer monitors, wearing black T-shirts and backward Intel baseball caps, playing video games.

Billed as the computer gaming world’s ultimate challenge, the World Cyber Games (search) took over the dark, cavernous Hammerstein Ballroom/Manhattan Center in the heart of New York City this weekend in a three-day competition to determine which 16 of the nearly 200 best computer gamers in the United States would go on to represent their country at the international championships in Singapore.

“It’s the Olympics of gaming,” 21-year-old Matt Leto, considered to be perhaps the world’s greatest “Halo 2” (search) player, said.

Leto, who quit college to become a professional video game player, made $80,000 last year in prizes and endorsements.

And the competition to get to this penultimate stage was, by all accounts, fierce.

“Since May, we’ve gone to 120 game centers around the country and held a competition online. Then there were the regional playoffs,” World Cyber Games spokesman Christian Averill said on Saturday, the final day of the U.S. final. “The best 184 come here and battle it out. At the end of the day, there will be 16 left behind, and they will be the representatives of Team USA.”

It’s not explicit, but the WCG, which began in South Korea in 2000, is painstaking about presenting itself as a serious counterpart to the Olympics.

Whereas the widely known Olympic symbol is five intertwined differently colored rings — symbolizing world unity — on a white background, the WCG logo features four overlapping circles of red, green, yellow and blue — symbolizing the “WCG Global World” and the progress of human harmony through digital entertainment — on a black background, representing the “infinite possibility” of the cyber world.

The WCG Mascot, GamOn, resembles a 21st-century mishmash of several past Olympic mascots, with a generic cuteness cobbled together from what appears to be several older-model computer mice.

Winners of the world finals (there will be participants from 70 countries, some with government funding) are awarded gold, silver and bronze medals, and the strategies and language used reflect the same kinds of cultural differences that play into Olympian thinking — no one expects soccer-averse America to win "FIFA Soccer" (search) any more than Japan is expected to get a gold in basketball, Zambia a silver in curling or the United States any medal in table tennis.

“In Singapore, we won’t medal at ‘FIFA’ or ‘Starcraft: Broodwar’ — the Koreans are the specialists in ‘Starcraft.’ We’ll get in the top 10. The Europeans will do well in ‘Need for Speed’ — they have Formula One, after all,” Averill said with the same kind of enthusiastic, half-serious demeanor of a professional sports analyst.

“But we will medal in ‘Half-Life: Counter-Strike,’ ‘Dead or Alive Ultimate’ and ‘Halo 2.’ I mean, come on: ‘Halo 2’ is our game; it’d be embarrassing if we didn’t medal in ‘Halo.’”

The eight games at the WCG run the gamut of popular computer games. There are first-person shooters (an American strength) like ‘Half-Life: Counterstrike’ and ‘Halo 2’; strategy games (America’s Achilles heel) like ‘StarCraft: Brood War’ and ‘Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War’; a one-on-one fighting game, ‘Dead or Alive Ultimate’; a racing game, ‘Need for Speed: Underground 2’; and a sports game, ‘FIFA Soccer 2005’.

Prizes at the U.S. finals range from $2,000 to $5,000 for first place, from a total $34,000 prize pool. At the world finals in 2004, the prize pool was over $420,000.

“This is a lot of these guys’ dreams come true,” Darren Webber, a video game commentator, said. “Getting cash prizes for playing video games.”

The games have major corporate sponsors, including Samsung and Intel, and the finals even feature live commentators, whose play-by-plays can be heard in the auditorium and by a huge online community slavering over tournament results the same way the water-cracker-and-Chardonnay set follows the U.S. Open.

Mostly young men who are gamers themselves, the commentators can be heard remarking — sometimes with reedy voices cracking — on five-man ‘Counter-Strike’ teams’ “money strategies” and the statistical history of one team’s problems overcoming “the Inferno map” in major competitions.

One team, Complexity, was assembled and funded by a George Steinbrenner-like figure who collects top players to rack up victories.

The defeat of what was supposed to the best ‘Counter-Strike’ team in the world at the hands of Team 3D, which has dominated WCG USA for years and is sponsored by some of the biggest names in the computer industry, may cause a serious shake-up in the team’s roster, methods and core philosophy, the commentators note gravely.

And it won’t be long before the rest of the world takes the WCG just as seriously as the commentators and gamers, some say.

“Maybe it’ll be a generation from now, but I started playing video games when I was 8, and kids today are playing from when they’re very little children,” Alison “Trillian” Suttles, a Seattle-based video game commentator and one of the few women at the tournament, said. “By the time they’re 15, they’ve learned complex strategies.”

But most agree that the WCG has not yet reached the Olympic caliber of mainstream respect, profitability and discipline.

Chatting outside after their battle for third place in the Counter-Strike tournament, opponents from opposing teams readily acknowledged that there’s no comparison between video gamers spending a few years of their late teens playing a single computer game and the physically and mentally grueling regimen that a not untypical Olympian will begin as early as age 3.

“We’re playing with a different kind of stress,” Philip Pilson, of Atlanta, Ga., said.

And as long as the prevailing and surprisingly dogged stereotype of the video game player exists, tournaments like the WCG will have trouble catching on, many say.

“We’re not all 400-lb. trolls who never see the sun,” 20-year-old Chris “Enigma” Coward, also from Atlanta, said. “We have social lives, we have lots of friends, we hang out.”

Leto, who was defeated by a pair of twins from Ohio in a upset, said another issue is the fact that video games are intended to become obsolete within a few years, meaning that the time he put into mastering ‘Halo 2’ — he spends three or four hours a day on the game, 10 to 12 hours a day before a tournament (and drinks seven or eight Red Bulls during a tournament match) — won’t be much good once ‘Halo 2’ is in the dustbin with ‘Galaga,’ ‘Duke Nuke ‘Em’ and ‘Monster Rancher 4.’

He plans on switching over to similar first-person games or to try to specialize in newer versions of ‘Halo.’

But the planned obsolescence of the games isn’t the only thing that comes with an expiration date in the WCG world, Suttles said.

The gamers themselves, overwhelmingly middle-class white or Asian males in their early 20s or late teens, almost always come to a career-ending point in their lives where they can no longer dedicate the long hours necessary to achieve video game stardom.

“It’s called college,” Suttles said.


'Halo 2': Dan Ryan and Tom Ryan for Team 3D

'Starcraft': Sean Plott and Sherwin Mahbod with rS Gaming

'Warcraft III': Dannis Chan for Mouse Sports; Jeff Bliss for TGS; Matthew Anderson for CKeck6

'Counter Strike': Michael So, Kyle Miller, Ronald Kim, Salvatore Garozzo and Josh Sievers, all for Team 3D

'FIFA Soccer 2005': Matija Biljeskovic for Dignitas

'Need for Speed Underground 2': Kamran Siddiqui

'Warhammer 40,000': Matthew Proctor for Pro Gaming

'Dead or Alive Ultimate': James Clifford