SINGAPORE – Will the next world-famous athlete on a box of Wheaties be carrying a joystick instead of a basketball, football or tennis racquet?
From the way the United States national team basked in the glory as overall global champion in the World Cyber Games on Nov. 20 in Singapore, it’s beginning to look entirely possible.
From its humble beginnings as a crude, block toy for young children to the sole obsession of lonely technophiles and gawky teenage boys, the video game has undergone nothing short of a full-scale evolution, challenging movies as the world’s mass entertainment medium of choice.
And now, some of the video game’s biggest supporters are making the case that it’ll be the next big thing in competitive sports.
Actually, that’s already a foregone conclusion for Hank Jeong, president and CEO of International Cyber Marketing, the South Korean company that puts on the WCG — one of the world’s three major video game competitions.
“Korea has two game cable channels — television channels that showcase people playing video games all day long — and they’re top-ranked,” he explained.
And the WCG, which bills itself as the Olympics of the video game world, gives video games all the pomp and circumstance they’re due.
The five-day event begins with formal, five-hour opening ceremonies in a cavernous convention hall in the Lion City that includes a two-team cheerleading pyramid, a procession of flags from the 67 participating nations, speeches from officials like Singapore’s trade and industry minister, a laser-light show, a solemn torch-lighting ceremony, an “Oath of Fair Play” by representatives for the players and referees and something billed as “The Big Star Show” (which takes place far too late for jetlagged Western journalists to attend).
Throughout the week, some 55,000 people dropped by in person to watch the games, ask top-ranked players for autographs and snap photos of favorite gamers (some male players were treated something like minor rock stars by giggling local women, who cooed over experts in video games like “Counter-Strike” or “Worlds of Warcraft”).
Nearly 10 times that number watched the game from live feeds online. And watching them all were 377 journalists from 44 countries.
“It really is best compared with the Olympics,” said Paul Hulsebosch, who lives in Rotterdam, Netherlands, but served as team liaison for the Belgian team.
“It’s got all the ceremonial stuff, and it can be a little bit hokey — it’s to laugh about but to take seriously at the same time. We have gamers who are 16 years old, and you put them on a stage and they’re like [he made an adolescent grimace]."
“We were all like that once. But then they get into it.”
But that juvenile aspect that for so long has been associated with video games — and those people with the time and manual dexterity to master them — may soon be the kind of dogma to store away with such hoary ideas as “people will never pay money for bottled water.”
Take Team 3D, for example. Put together in 2002 by New York University freshman Craig Levine, the team is like a Justice League of North America of video gaming talent, a collection of professional players who take games like "Halo" as seriously as a cardiac surgeon takes a quintuple bypass (Team 3D stands for “Desire, Discipline, Dedication.")
After a start in which Team 3D as a whole seemed to be less than the sum of its very impressive parts, the group coalesced and now dominates events like the WCGs.
Indeed, as Team USA waited to the side of the main stage to collect its two gold medals and one silver medal and become the world medal leader, the players joked that the American national team ought to be renamed “Team 3D.”
And Team 3D is used to the limelight. Though the Canadian team’s “Counter-Strike” team captain was Robert Tyndale, a college student from Edmonton, Alberta, it was Torontoan Griffin Benger, a Team 3D member, who fielded reporters' questions with a clarity, quickness and smooth affability that demonstrated long experience with the media.
Almost immediately after the WCG in Singapore, another video game milestone was passed in New York City, when MTV covered a showdown for the “Painkiller” grand finals between American Johnathan “Fatal1ty” Wendel and Dutchman Sander “Vo0” Kaasjager on Nov. 22
— part of the Dallas-based Cyberathlete Professional League, the oldest of the big tournaments.
Wendel is the closest that video games have to a superstar right now, and he made a big splash when he easily defeated Kaasjager for the title of world champion — an even more noteworthy event because Kaasjager had previously been global top dog for that specific game.
While it wasn’t two television channels of “people playing video games all day long,” a CPL spokeswoman said the partnership with MTV “went well.”
In other words, when it comes to video games entering the big leagues of competitive "sports" in the U.S., it's a matter of when, not if, according to insiders.
“It’s like rock ‘n’ roll in the ‘50s, TV in the ‘60s, sexual liberation in the ‘70s, hip-hop and techno in the ‘90s,” said Matthieu Dallon, president and CEO of the Paris-based Electronic Sports World Cup, the third of the big tournaments.
“Video games are emblematic of our new digital leisure society, so they are the perfect targets to catalyze our fear of future, and more precisely, our fear of ourselves.”