Real news from the virtual world:

— THE WEIRD TURN PRO: Video gamers have been competing against each other since the days of "Donkey Kong," but the competition has gotten more intense as the popularity of online multiplayer games has exploded.

Some players are even making money off their "Halo" or "Gears of War" expertise, collecting checks at tournaments all over the world.

The competition between pro gaming leagues is just as intense, with about half a dozen organizations sponsoring competitions.

One of the more prestigious outfits is Major League Gaming, whose CEO, Matthew Bromberg, says it could be "the next major North American sport."

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MLG hosts tournaments across the United States, broadcasting the events on its own Web site as well as ESPN.com.

Bromberg says more than 270,000 people watched parts of the most recent competition, earlier this month in San Diego, with 98 percent of those viewers coming from the elusive 12- to 34-year-old male demographic.

More people are watching, he says, because "watchers play the same game as the pros on the same field, with the same rules."

The ESPN connection is "a great signpost toward mainstream mass acceptance," says Bromberg.

Other leagues are also looking to broaden their audiences: World Cyber Games has aired competitions on Spike TV, while Championship Gaming Series will have four events on G4 this year alongside its DirecTV tournaments.

All of them are hoping that some pro gamers will someday be as famous — and well-paid — as Tiger Woods or Kobe Bryant.

— WONDER BOYS: For further insight into competitive play, check out "Game Boys: Professional Videogaming's Rise from the Basement to the Big Time," a new book from New York Post reporter Michael Kane.

The title's a little misleading — the circuit has a long way to go before it's big-time — but Kane does a terrific job capturing a fledgling sport that's on the brink of becoming either the next X Games or the next XFL.

"Game Boys" focuses on the two top-ranked U.S. teams in the five-vs.-five game "Counter-Strike."

Team 3D leader Craig Levine has the money to lure top players to his squad, thanks to an endorsement deal with chip maker Nvidia.

The underdog CompLexity is barely hanging together as manager Jason Lake drains his life savings.

As both teams battle through the 2006 season, their leaders try to hang on for the promise of bigger jackpots in the future.

Kane doesn't spend as much time on individual players as I'd like, but Levine and Lake are both worth rooting for.

And the author is very good at explaining what actually happens during a "Counter-Strike" match — so good that even non-gamers should be able to follow the action.

It's an intriguing look into an idiosyncratic subculture.

— SPORE CENTER: Admirers of "The Sims" creator Will Wright are desperately counting down the days until Sept. 7, when his new game, the universe simulator "Spore," finally arrives.

Publisher Electronic Arts gave fans a taste of the game last week, and if the response is any indication, "Spore" is going to be a blockbuster.

The appetizer, called "Spore Creature Creator," lets you design and animate bizarre critters that you'll be able to import into the full "Spore" game.

In the first 24 hours that "SCC" was available, EA reported, players created and uploaded more than 250,000 alien life forms — nearly three per second.

You can download "SCC" for $9.95 at www.spore.com; a free demo, with about 25 percent of the content, is available too.

— NEW IN STORES: For those about to rock, we salute Activision's "Guitar Hero: On Tour" (DS) and MTV's long-awaited Wii version of "Rock Band." ... Atari tries to revive the "Alone in the Dark" horror series (Xbox 360, PlayStation 2), while Electronic Arts injects some black humor into "Battlefield: Bad Company" (360, PS3). ... 2K Sports returns to the tennis court with "Top Spin 3" (360, PS3, Wii, DS). ... Square Enix revisits the world of Ivalice in "Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift" (DS). ... Animals fight to be king of the jungle in Gamecock's "Hail to the Chimp" (360, PS3). ... This week's movie tie-ins are THQ's "Wall-E" (most systems) and Konami's "Hellboy: Science of Evil" (360, PS3, PSP). ... After playing Ubisoft's "Gourmet Chef" and Majesco's "Cake Mania 2," you may need some tips from Ubisoft's "My Weight Loss Coach" (all DS).